New Zealand’s South Island: Picture Perfect Adventures

Photo by: Martyn Williams

New Zealand needs no introduction as ‘Middle Earth’, a land of stunning diverse natural scenery with its jagged mountains, rolling pastures, steep fjords, raging rivers and pristine lakes. While the North Island is the hub of Maori culture, the South Island is known for its outdoor activities, thanks to its sparsely-inhabited land-scape that’s dominated by rugged mountains.

Located in the southern hemisphere, New Zealand experiences autumn from March to May, and winter from June to August.

Photo by: Gareth Eyres

SOUTH ISLAND

Most would agree that the best way to explore New Zealand is on a self-drive. Christchurch, New Zealand’s third-largest city and the international gateway to the South Island, is the best starting point. Nestled between the Canterbury Plains and the Pacifi c Ocean, it’s also an ideal place to go whale watching, rafting and visiting internationally-acclaimed wineries.

Tekapo

About 3-4 hours’ drive south from Christchurch is Lake Tekapo, situated in the Mackenzie Basin of the Southern Alps. With a backdrop of snowy mountains, the lake is famous for its intense milky-turquoise colour. On the lakeshore is the famous Church of the Good Shepherd, built in 1935 and features an altar window that frames the stunning views.

By night, Tekapo is part of a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, an ideal spot for star-gazing and astronomy tours.

Autumn is the best time to visit the Mackenzie district for photographers, when the lakes are dotted with an explosion of yellow trees and the mountains have a dusting of snow.

Come winter, you can ski at Roundhill, just a 20-30 minute drive from Tekapo Village. The wide, gentle slopes are ideal for beginners, but for those who can shred, the ski resort has the largest vertical drop in Australasia (783m). 

Aoraki Mt. Cook

The dramatic landscape of Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park is made up of massive glaciers and jagged mountains dotted with lakes and rivers. The snowcapped range is home to New Zealand’s tallest mountain – Aoraki/Mt. Cook (3,724m) – along with 27 other mountains.

The alpine village of Aoraki is a great base for a host of activities, including horse treks, 4WD safaris, glacier lake boating, as well as numerous hikes, including the popular 4-hour Hooker Valley Track. The hike leads up to the Hooker Valley towards Mt. Cook, passing the viewpoint at Alpine Memorial. The trail traverses a number of swing bridges, and ends at a glacier lake with amazing views of Mt. Cook, the Hooker Glacier and the Southern Alps.

In winter, there are guided ski trips on the Tasman (NZ’s longest glacier), which is popular for heli-weddings.

Wanaka

Surrounded by mountains, the town of Wanaka is situated at the southern end of Lake Wanaka. As a gateway to Mt Aspiring National Park, it is a popular tourist resort that’s generally less crowded than Queenstown.

In autumn, golden hues accentuate the picturesque landscape – you can go horse trekking in Cardrona Valley, kayak on a tree-lined waterway, or tackle any of the walking trails. Photographers can appreciate the early morning light and mist on Lake Wanaka.

In winter, Wanaka is the ideal base to access a number of premier ski resorts, including Treble Cone (known for its good snow), Cardrona Alpine Resort (popular with beginners), and Snow Park (known for its terrain park); Wanaka gets busy in high season (July to September). 

Mt. Aspiring National Park

A hiker’s paradise, Mt. Aspiring National Park – with its mountains, glaciers, lakes, river valleys and rock formations – offers a large number of short walks and long-distance treks.

From Wanaka, the Matukituki Valley (a photographer’s delight) offers a number of easy walks with alpine views from the valley floor, including the Aspiring Hut walk and the Rob Roy track (both 1.5 hours).

Popular long treks include the 3-day Routeburn Track (between Lake Wakatipu and the Te Anau-Milford Road) and the 5-day Rees-Dart track (following the Rees River and Dart River), both of which are best tackled in summer. 

Due to the high elevations, the majority of the walks are best undertaken between November and March; only trails in the Matukituki Valley can be safely walked at any time of the year. In winter, ice climbing and mountaineering trips can be arranged.

Milford Sound

Nestled within the Fjordland National Park, Milford Sound is a waterway dotted with cliffs that rise precariously from the dark waters. 

Lush forests cling to these cliffs, some of which cascade with waterfalls as high as 1,000m. 

The most common way to explore this fjord is by a boat cruise, although kayaking gets you closer to the seals, penguins, dolphins and the occasional whale. 

Hiking in the area is also popular, with trails ranging from 3-6 hours. While most trails are accessible year-round, the Gertrude Valley Walk (with views of Milford Sound and the Darran Mountains) and the Grave Talbot Walk (which follows the thundering Fjorland River) are only open in summer and autumn.

Queenstown

Billed as an adventure town, Queenstown is known for is outdoor activities such as bungy jumping, canyon swinging, river rafting and jet boating year round (with skiing in winter).

Located along the shore of crystal clear Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is a re-nowned biking destination, providing everything from easy scenic backcountry trails to heli-biking and gondola-accessed downhill mountain biking. While summer is a popular season, cycling in autumn has the added advantage of stunning foliage.

Just 20 minutes away is Arrowtown, a living historic settlement with tree-lined streets dotted with restored cottages. Once a gold mining town, attractions include the Chinese settlement which dates from 1868. In April and May, the entire area comes alive with autumn foliage, and a winter festival is held in the last week of April to celebrate the town’s beauty and history.

Also along Lake Wakatipu and the Dart River is Glenorchy, which is popular for jet boating and kayaking. Some of NZ’s most famous hiking trails (like Routeburn) are accessible here. In addition, its spectacular landscape has been the backdrops of movies like The Lord of the Rings and Narnia.

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