New Zealand is a dream destination for so many holidaymakers and travellers alike. So even though we were short on money and time, while down in Oz, we had to make the trip across the Tasman to visit New Zealand and see as much as possible. We only gave ourselves 10 days in New Zealand’s South Island so we made sure they were jam-packed.
We opted to hire a car and plan our own 10-day self-drive itinerary. Christchurch was our start and finish point and from there we drove over 2000km to see as many highlights as we could fit in! Here’s how we spent those 10 days plus other tips and must-see stops.
When to visit
The peak season to visit New Zealand is in their summer when everything is green and sunny. However, this doesn’t mean the rest of the year should be avoided. New Zealand offers something all year round. We visited mid-May and loved it. The weather was cold but wasn’t quite at the mid-winter levels yet. The leaves were turning orange leaving a gorgeous autumnal landscape and best of all, there were far fewer tourists than you can expect in the summer months.
The temperatures in NZ vary and it gets cooler as you head further south. According to the official New Zealand website the averages are…
|North 19˚C |
|North 25˚C |
|North 21˚C |
|North 16˚C |
As we were quite far south at points (and in mountainous and rural areas) we had varying temperatures from 3˚C to 12˚C in the day and -5˚C – 2˚C at night. Quite far off those average temperatures for May!
If you aren’t a fan of the cold, don’t mind the odd crowd and can handle the raised prices, the summer months are for you. Winter sports enthusiast? Winter months will provide you with snowy mountains. Or if you love the golden Autumn months, we would recommend May. We did get a fair bit of rain at the beginning of the trip but the rest was crisp with blue skies and it gave us a nice change from the humid heat we’d had during our last few months in Queensland, Aus!
How to get around the South Island
As with any country geared up for a huge amount of tourists, there are a few ways to get around. The most popular choices are to rent a campervan/car or travel as part of a tour group. We’re not the biggest fan of tour groups as we generally like to get up and out early. We find as part of a tour you’re often on a set agenda reducing your flexibility. Plus, as we’d already spent a year on/off in a campervan we decided that renting a car (and staying in hostels/hotels with heating instead of a van) was the winner for us.
While there’s less distance to cover in New Zealand than Australia, we found ourselves stopping every five minutes to take another photo. If you’re not on a time limit, it’s worth slowing down and enjoying every lookout you can.
Though we’d always prefer the freedom of renting, if you prefer the stress-free, itinerary-all-sorted vibe or a tour group, there are heaps of bus tours to choose from.
There’s a very good reason we only had 10 days to explore the South Island of New Zealand. Even in this ‘low season’, accommodation prices were quite steep. For low budget choices, we were paying between $60-100 (£31 – £52) per night. Main meals cost between $15-35 (£8 – £18) and a pint of beer around $12 (£6.50). This may seem low budget to some but long term travelling is all about stretching the pennies, rather than splashing the cash on short term holidays.
We did manage to find very cheap car hire through Hitch Rentals. It cost us $15 a day and that included all the extras – the only negative was that our car sat-nav and radio was in Japanese and we couldn’t change it. Apart from that – fab company and cheaper than any other we found.
Our Driving Route
Day 1 – Exploring Christchurch
Weary from the late flight the night before, we dragged ourselves out of our warm bed and headed out to explore a new country. It didn’t take long to wake up as the crisp autumnal air was a stark difference to Cairns!
Christchurch instantly reminded us of home, specifically Cambridge. The punting on the river, the nice bridges and green parks, it was all very homely. We spent the morning following the river up towards the botanic gardens before cutting in towards the cathedral.
This is where we really started to notice the damage from the big earthquake of 2011. There’s a lot of building works going on around Christchurch. We spotted a few with external reinforcements surrounding them and then we saw what was left of the cathedral.
Before you walk into the centre, make sure you spend some time at the memorial along the river, it’s a powerful reminder of how forceful nature can be. Take a moment to remember the 185 lost in the earthquake.
There’s also the Quake City museum ($20pp) which explains the science and the phenomenon of liquefaction – where shaking liquefied the ground, bubbling up burying streets and sinking buildings. It acknowledges the heroism of the emergency services and all the volunteers who helped with the aftermath.
Though the scars of the quake are always there, Christchurch has lovely areas and buildings to admire. Make sure you head to New Regent Street and have a coffee from one of the many cafes. While you’re there, keep your eyes open for the traditional Christchurch tram coming down the street.
The museum quarter near the botanic garden is worth a visit too. The architecture is amazing and, again, had similarities to those back home.
After a full morning of walking around the city centre, we found the 28 bus and rode out of the city to the Christchurch Gondola ($30pp). The ticket includes a return ride up to the top, access to the walking routes and a free ride on the Time Tunnel Experience. There’s also the Red Rock Cafe and a gift/souvenir shop at the top.
Day 2 – Christchurch to Fox Glacier via Arthur’s Pass
Departing Christchurch nice and early, we headed west towards Arthur’s Pass and the famous glaciers. Taking a trip to New Zealand’s South Island in mid-May was always going to be running a chance of bad weather. Unfortunately, Arthur’s Pass day was a bad weather day. We left the beautiful sunshine of Christchurch behind and drove into thick, low cloud and heavy rain. We hear it’s an amazing drive though, hop in your camper/car and enjoy the winding roads and amazing scenery.
Coming through the other side brought high winds and a lot more rain. We drove through nice coastal towns and past a couple of well-recommended attractions. The vivid blue-green waters of Hokitika Gorge were just one example of a must-see stop we had to bypass due to the weather.
We arrived in Fox Glacier late afternoon. After dropping off our bags at the hostel, we headed straight out to the nearby Lake Matheson. This lake is known for its impressive reflections of the mountain ranges but as our bad fortune with the weather continued, that evening’s sunset was awash with cloud. Even without the impressive mountains overshadowing the lake, the colours were stunning and the loop walk is the perfect way to end the day.
Day 3 – Lake Matheson & Glacier Walks
As Dan had just bought his new camera he was desperate to go and see the sunrise over the reflection lake. We had a chilly and very early start and headed down to Lake Matheson. We were there from about 7 am – 10 am and realistically we could have rocked up an hour or two later as the lighting is better over the reflection lake later in the morning.
Fox and Franz Josef Glacier
A month before we arrived there were floods and landslides which meant a lot of the roads were closed. Sadly for us, the roads to both glaciers were being repaired (what are the odds?!). We were also, as per, on a major budget – so a helicopter and glacier walk were out of the question for us. If you have more ($400pp more) disposable income we highly recommend this, it looks amazing! Maybe next time we will do New Zealand as a holiday, not part of long term travels…
Still high spirited and excited to spot some glaciers, we took the less glam option and went to free viewing points. For Franz Joseph we recommend Canavans Knob Walk – this takes about 30 mins up and 15 mins down. It’s worth mentioning that the walk is quite steep up to the platform but the view at the top is worth it.
Near Lake Matheson is the Fox Glacier lookout – again it’s not as impressive as the walks to the glacier, so if they’re open for your visit we’d recommend going. The lookout is a nice picnic spot though, so if you’re at Lake Matheson, grab your sandwiches and enjoy the view!
Minnehaha Glowworm Walk at Fox Glacier
Carrying on the budget activities, we found a recommendation on Trip Advisor to do the Minnehaha Glowworm Walk at Fox Glacier. This is located at the end of the township on the left, you can almost miss it so look out for the bus parking opposite! You can park anywhere on the street before the walk itself.
It’s only worth doing when it’s fully dark so you can see the glow worms properly. Our tip is to try to go as late as possible to avoid other people and make sure you don’t use your phone torch. The bright light makes it difficult for your eyes to adjust and you’ll miss the little glowing dots. Turn your screen brightness right down and only shine it on the path – make sure you look out for little bridges and rivers as you edge your way through! It’s also near to impossible to photograph the glow worms, so just enjoy the moment.
Day 4 – Drive to Queenstown via Blue Pool Walk and Wanaka
We had read and heard lots about the drive from Fox Glacier to Queenstown being a cracker so we were excited to start it. Again, unluckily for us, the first half of the drive was covered in low cloud and heavy rain. Still, we had already missed one blue waters lake, we weren’t going to miss another.
Covered head to toe in sexy waterproofs, we marched on to see the blue waters of the ‘Blue Pools’ (creative name). Following the Blue Pools Track takes you across a couple of swing bridges, the second is where you really notice the colour of the water.
As we came through to the other side of the Haast Pass valley, we were greeted with clear skies and warm sun. The first impressive lake you come across is Lake Wanaka.
There’s a couple of nice lookouts to stop off at but if you’re in a rush, don’t worry too much as it only gets better! After driving through “the neck” you suddenly find yourself driving alongside another lake, Lake Hawea.
Half an hour later you will be in Wanaka, the home of #ThatWanakaTree. It was an interesting experience pulling up to a packed car park for a tree, but still, here we were, off to take a picture with the masses. The crowds for this surprisingly tiny tree were crazy and looking around, it was all quite funny.
Apart from the tree, Wanaka is home to another incredibly famous insta-shot location. Roy’s Peak Track starts at its car park just a six-minute drive from the Wanaka Tree. The trek takes between five-seven hours, but as we had come a long way and still had a long way to go, we skipped this photo op and headed off towards Queenstown.
When driving from Wanaka to Queenstown, make sure you take the Cardrona Valley Road instead of the main road the GPS is likely to take you. There are some absolutely stunning views from up high looking over Queenstown in the distance. Take your time at the lookout and keep your eyes peeled for the planes coming in from the left between the mountains making their way to Queenstown Airport. It’s an amazing sight and gives you a real perspective of the grandeur of the mountains when you see how small the planes look in the valley.
As we were staying a fair way outside of Queenstown, we kept driving and eventually arrived at The Red Shed in Garston. This was, without a doubt, our favourite accommodation. It’s the best place to stay after long days exploring, driving and hiking – it’s incredibly cosy and comfortable and we can’t recommend it enough!
Day 5 – Climbing Ben Lomond
NZ is known for its lofty peaks and incredible mountain-top views. Ben Lomond seriously did not disappoint – although it was a steep and slippery trek up to the top, the views were worth it.
The official website for all treks and climbs recommends leaving six-eight hours to climb to the summit and back down again. Or if you fancy something a little easier, you can climb to the Ben Lomond Saddle – which still offers incredible views – in three-four hours. The website is super helpful and even has an educational video of what to expect, so make sure you check it out.
Ben Lomond – What to expect/how it went for us
The climb to the summit isn’t the hardest climb we’ve done – then again it’s not exactly a walk in the park either. The hills are quite steep and it’s over a variety of terrain; mud, woodland even snow and ice in the autumn and winter months. We were there towards the end of May, so just before the real snow set in, it was warm in the sun but cold out. Everything here is based on our weather conditions but please note if you go in the winter months the summit can be unclimbable. The snow and ice can make it dangerous and only those with experience in using crampons and ice picks should attempt it. Please see the official website for more info.
We started at 8:30 am and were back down for 3:30 pm. We parked at the bottom of the less busy route on Lomond Crescent road – this isn’t near the gondola and goes through two sections of woodland area. It also intersects with the mountain biking paths. It was 45 minutes until we reached the meeting point where our trail joined the Tiki Trail (the track which starts at the Queenstown Skyline gondola). If you fancy an easier journey, buy a gondola ticket and cut out an hour of climbing time!
On the trail we took – the first section is steep road, which then merges into woodland and then a designated path up to the saddle. When we went up the track was frozen mud however after midday when we were coming down the mud had thawed and the volume of people on the path had definitely grown. It was slippery coming down so make sure you have decent shoes on (and maybe not a pair you don’t mind getting muddy!).
OK grand, you’ve made it to the saddle! You’re thinking ‘fab, great views and only an hour to the top!’ – the last portion of the climb is very different from the first. If you need a solid, well-defined path to comfortably climb, we suggest to stay and enjoy the surroundings from the saddle and then head back down. It’s a lot of climbing up and over rocky terrain to the summit. The ‘path’ is narrow so you also have you be ready to move out of the way of people coming up and down.
As we reached the last half hour the ice and snow started creeping in. We were lucky that we managed to make it to the top as we don’t have experience climbing in full-blown winter environments. The path became very slippery and thank god we had our walking boots on – we would recommend boots rather than trainers if possible! After a few slips and slides up (and back down), we reached the top and it was worth the achy legs and bruised bums! Fair play to all the people we saw walking on the ice like it was velcro.
Though we definitely aren’t as fit as before we left the UK, we still managed this climb but we ached hard after (for two painful days). We also saw a range of people tackling the hike from teens to people in their 70s. If you have the fitness level or if you take your time – as we did – you’ll be able to at least reach the saddle.
Ben Lomond – What to wear/pack
Layers, layers, layers! It was chilly in the shadows of the forest and sweltering (even in June) for the most part of the climb in the sun. As we said before, we really appreciated our walking boots on the day. We also have these amazing socks (nerd alert) that keep you cool, warm and dry as needed – even after a year’s use! It’s windy at the top and even with a thermal beanie Gab could really notice the cold – if you’re susceptible to chills, make sure you have hats and gloves at the ready.
We recommend packing at least three litres of water, even though we drink a lot of water, it’s best to stay hydrated for your walk. It’s a 1438m climb to the top so even in winter you’ll be sweating. That said, we saw a couple of people marching their way up in jeans, trainers and without a backpack or water, don’t do this. Consider packing extra for the summer, hotter months. We also packed heaps of snacks and a decent lunch to have at the saddle, make sure you have a sugar boost like fruit/chocolate for the way down.
Day 6 – Glenorchy + Queenstown
We had the best sleep ever at the Red Shed in Garston after our climb the day before. Waking up feeling achy yet refreshed, we packed up and set out for Glenorchy. There are lots of tours to Glenorchy from Queenstown as some of the areas surrounding featured in the Lord of the Rings films. However, we decided to make our own way and explore the small town.
As with every drive in New Zealand, this one was another corker. It’s worth taking your time and stopping off a few times along the way to take in the scenery. Once we arrived at Glenorchy, it was a similar story. It’s a nice, picturesque little town on a large lake with a mountainous backdrop. It reminded us of small European towns with chalet-like buildings.
After a potter around the main street having a look at the local souvenirs, we headed to the famous red Glenorchy shed by the lake for a quick picture. With the touristy spots all covered, we headed on our way to Te Anau via Queenstown.
Queenstown is locally known as the adrenaline capital of the world. Anything daring you could want to do can be found in Queenstown. There are the obvious like skydiving to the more obscure like canyon swinging while sitting on a bike. As well as having a whole range of activities, the town itself is definitely worth wandering around. It’s set on a picturesque lake with the Remarkables ski area in the background, with cute shopping streets and restaurants to be found. After souvenir shopping and tasting some amazing food, hop on the TSS Earnslaw Steamship for a less daring activity of cruising around the lake.
Day 7 – Milford Sound
If you’re staying in Te Anau, we strongly recommend booking a tour with Fiordland Tours to go and see Milford Sound. It is very possible to drive the Milford Road and get a boat tour when you’re there but you would miss so much on the way. Take the stress out of driving (especially on cold days with black ice around, and heaps of tourist coaches) and let Jono do it for you! Check out Fiordland Tours for your amazing, stress-free experience.
Our Milford Sound day was such a great day we’ve dedicated a whole post to it. But to summarise…
We were picked up from our accommodation by the friendly Jono and departed on the epic trip to Milford Sound. It didn’t take long until the first stop to learn more about the history of Te Anau and the geology of the landscape.
There was informative and funny commentary the whole way to Milford Sound with plenty of stops at interesting places and stunning photo locations. It was really nice to break up the drive with short walks to waterfalls and other places of interest (and homemade date scones).
As you come out the other side of the Homer Tunnel, the views you’re greeted with start to give you a taste of how grand the landscapes in the Fiordland really are. From here it was only another 20-minutes of driving to go until we hopped on our small cruise boat.
The next two hours were full of unlimited tea, coffee and cookies, unbelievable mountains, waterfalls and calm waters and the best packed lunch ever. Fair to say, it was a great cruise.
The journey home was broken up with a few more scenic stops and interesting stories before arriving back at our accommodation at 5pm. A good day all round!
Day 8 – Te Anau to Lake Tekapo
The mid-lakes of the South Islands provide one last amazing stop before heading back to Christchurch and the flight out of New Zealand. Lake Pukaki has the backdrop of the highest mountain in New Zealand, Mount Cook, and Lake Tekapo has the insta-famous ‘Church of the Good Shepherd’.
Staying just the other side of the Lindis Pass gave us a good base to explore and after checking in to our accommodation, we started by spending the late afternoon and evening at Lake Tekapo. There are a couple of main things to do here, the Tekapo Springs and seeing the Church of the Good Shepherd.
After coming all the way from Te Anau, we only had time to have a wander around, grab some food and try and get a good shot on the church. If you’re there for longer, Tekapo Springs overlooks snowy mountains and the icy lake below (in winter). There’s an ice rink, a cosy lodge cafe and water park for kids too.
The church is another popular tourist spot, so expect a few busloads to join you, even in low season. You need a bit of luck and a lot of patience to get some good shots of this photogenic church but with those, you’ll come away with some good pics and memories. The number of times someone would shine a torch or car headlights would ruin the exposure was unbelievable.
I (Dan) am very new to the budding (terrible) photographer scene and know very little. But what I do know is you’ll need at least a tripod and a camera capable of shooting long exposures to capture some night scenes here (and a patient partner). I read a lot of tips before going to New Zealand and most people say you need a good tripod, not any old rubbish. I took any old rubbish and attached it to a fence and I think it did very well! So if you’re not a professional and don’t have the baggage space or weight limit, don’t stress too much about all the right gear.
After reading all the tips and giving it a go myself, my main takeaway was to use trial and error. Use your screen to manual focus and try and focus to infinity, start with 20s exposure and a wide open aperture, add a bit of ISO and click the shutter via a remote or your smartphone. If you fiddle around with the settings from here, eventually you’ll get something half decent! If you’re a professional photographer, any tips and corrections will be greatly received.
Day 9 – Visiting Mount Cook
Like most of our trip, we were up early to get out and explore. Today took us to the highest mountain in New Zealand (3724m high!). The drive up Mount Cook Road is full of photo taking opportunities. Most tourists, however, choose to take the option of standing in the middle of the road with Mount Cook in the background. As stupid as this is on the busy tourist road, the backdrop and road angle is perfect so we can see why you would…
Our first stop when we arrived at the end of the road was to the Tasman Lake to spot a few icebergs and the Tasman Glacier. Even though this is New Zealand’s largest glacier at 23.5km, since the 1990s it has been retreating at an average of 180m a year. It used to remain at 28km in length but now we can see the effects of global warming first hand.
After taking a few hours to do various walking tracks we finished up at the information centre. If you’ve got a spare half hour, drop by and learn more about the mountain and glaciers. The staff are helpful and can tell you which track and viewing spot is right for your abilities, so maybe make it your first destination for the day.
Day 10 – Back to Christchurch
With the highest peak in New Zealand now ticked off the list, the time had come to head back to Christchurch for our flight out. There was a big change of pace for our last day, we had a lie in, got ready slowly then ambled our way towards Christchurch. After squeezing all the sights into 10 days, it was a welcome relaxing drive back.
We stopped off one last time at both Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo and took in the views before heading off. We had an AirBnb booked for that evening and an early flight in the morning. One word of warning when flying out of New Zealand at this time of year (specifically Christchurch) – keep the flights simple.
As the next stop for us was Hong Kong, we had flights with Jetstar to Bangkok via Melbourne and then we had booked (on a different booking) Bangkok to Hong Kong the next morning. So when the heavy, thick fog delayed our flight for eight hours, not only did we miss our connecting flight in Melbourne, we missed the next days’ flight to Hong Kong. If we would have been less optimistic and just booked to Bangkok, Jetstar would have sorted it all out for us. But as we had a flight with AirAsia the next day to Hong Kong, we had to go through travel insurance and buy another flight ourselves. Hassle (62 hours of travelling, a lot of wasted money and two nights in transit) we did not want!
If our itinerary has tempted you to get on a plane and visit the amazing country of New Zealand, use the search box below to find the cheapest and best flights!