This post presents a drive across New Zealand South Island, from Mount Cook to Christchurch. Highlights of the Mount Cook to Christchurch itinerary are the two glacier lakes Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo, the snow-capped mountain chains and the turquoise Rakaia Gorge.
This is the last (number 9) of my New Zealand South Island posts that all together make a South Island round trip: from Christchurch to West Coast, down to the Central Lakes and Queenstown and back to Christchurch via Crown Range and Mount Cook.
Mount Cook to Christchurch, Lake Tekapo
We have been touring New Zealand in a campervan which is the perfect way to explore vast rural areas and mountain districts.
A campervan gives you more flexibility: you can stop, dine and sleep where you want. Holiday parks and campsites exist all around New Zealand and at most times of the year you won’t need to book your nights in advance.
But let’s see what the last 366 km of our great South Island drive were like:
Mount Cook to Christchurch Drive on the Map
The map shows our Mount Cook to Christchurch driving itinerary. As you can see we didn’t take the shortest Ashburton road but the upper Canterbury Highlands route through a region of rolling hills backed by snow-capped mountains.
So we started the last section of our New Zealand campervan trip from the top of the South Island, Aoraki Mount Cook.
Aoraki Mount Cook
This is the majestic Aoraki Mount Cook that with its 3754 m is the highest peak in New Zealand. It is the centre of a national park with the same name, The Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. This national park really surprised us. Can you believe that 140 of its mountain peaks reach over 2000 m? And there’s more than that, Aoraki Mount Cook National Park has 75 glaciers between its mountain tops.
We spent some time hiking in this great National Park which is included in my other blog post New Zealand: Short Walks in Mount Cook National Park.
Above you can see views of Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. They are from our short hike to Tasman Glacier Lake.
So we left the Aoraki Mount Cook mountain village towards Christchurch. First there was a 60 km lakeside drive along Lake Pukaki, to the small village of Pukaki at the lake’s south end. This was a very scenic alpine driving route. We enjoyed the splendid views of Lake Pukaki on our left hand side, all the way down to the main road from Queenstown to Christchurch.
There were hardly any people living in this area but 18 km south of Mount Cook is the Glentanner Park Centre which became our base for exploring the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. It is a sports activity centre and the closest serviced campground to Mount Cook.
Glentanner Park Centre has everything you need as a campervan traveller for an overnight stay or two. And the park is in a beautiful alpine landscape, surrounded by meadows and sheep!
If you are travelling to the area this is their website: Glentanner Park Centre
New Zealand South Island: Lake Pukaki
Lake Pukaki is a glacier lake and it’s fed by Tasman River with melt water and glacier rock particles from Tasman Glacier higher up in the mountains. This explains the beautiful turquoise colour of Lake Pukaki.
Mount Cook reflection in Lake Pukaki
In calm weather you can see Aoraki Mount Cook and other white mountain peaks beautifully reflected in Lake Pukaki water.
Lake Pukaki from a picnic area
The shores of Lake Pukaki have picnic areas and lookouts where you can stop for views.
If you like these views you can find more photos on Lake Pukaki in my previous post Queenstown to Mount Cook via the Cardrona Road.
Lake Tekapo, New Zealand South Island
And there’s another pretty lake, after about 40 km’s drive from Lake Pukaki. It too has a nice name, Lake Tekapo. I guess Lake Tekapo is the more famous of the two. We saw so many Asian tour groups stopping at the Lake Tekapo village…
The rocky shore of Lake Tekapo
This is Mackenzie Country and we are half way from Queenstown to Christchurch, about 3,5 hours from both cities.
Lake Tekapo and the whole Mackenzie District are famous for their starry skies. They say the region has the clearest skies in all southern hemisphere. Why? Since there’s so little light pollution, almost none. It’s really dark at nights so you can very well observe the stars.
Lake Tekapo village centre and Church of the Good Shepherd
Getting married on Lake Tekapo shore
Piled stones on Lake Tekapo lakefront
Church of the Good Shepherd
What tourists also come here for is the Church of the Good Shepherd. It’s a historic chapel right on the lake’s edge, with direct views of the lake from the altar.
Go inside and see the lake view framed by the large front window. No wonder so many couples want to arrange their weddings in this place.
Tekapo Hot Springs
And then, it was getting dark and we so much wanted to see the stars. So we parked our campervan in the beachfront Lake Tekapo Motels & Holiday Park and soaked in the hot pools of Tekapo Springs right next door – and as it was not cloudy we could see the clear skies!
Tekapo Springs has three outdoor pools named after three local lakes: Tekapo, Oahu and Pukaki. But since the pools are not natural geothermal springs they are heated to the right temperature. Yet a wonderful place to relax in the darkness after a long drive!
We really got a nice evening bath in the cold weather, with the stars above us and mountains across the lake. For more information on the pools, this is the Tekapo Springs website.
Lake Tekapo to Christchurch
Burkes Pass, New Zealand South Island
The next stop on our Mount Cook to Christchurch drive was Burkes Pass, only a short drive from Lake Tekapo. As you can see we once more crossed a mountain chain, before descending to the rolling Canterbury highlands – and from there on towards Christchurch.
Burkes Pass makes a good spot for a coffee break.
After Burkes Pass small roadside towns are following each other: Fairilie, Geraldine, and further away Methwen.
Fairlie and Geraldine are typical small farming towns, and Geraldine is the bigger of them. Geraldine has a wide main street with historic houses like an old post office building and it also has a Vintage Car and Machinery Museum.
And between the small country towns, it is all the way winding roads and rolling hills – and here and there isolate farm houses. New Zealand only has 5 million inhabitants and most of them live in the cities.
Driving on Canterbury country roads is very easy and you are almost alone on the road. So you don’t have to worry about other drivers.
Southern Mountains from the Mount Cook to Christchurch road
The next town is Methwen, a holiday resort that serves the ski fields of Mount Hutt 11 km away. That means Methwen has a good choice of hotels and dining. The nearby Mount Hutt has one of the best ski fields in New Zealand, and only 100 km from Christchurch!
But we didn’t go skiing, we can do that at home. Instead we took a short hike in the deep Rakaia Gorge.
Rakaia Gorge comes when you don’t expect it, after some sharp turns behind the Mount Hutt road crossing. The main highway suddenly goes down in a deep gorge with a turquoise river and a steep forested riverbanks. This is Rakaia River with crystal clear mountain water!
There is s a forest walkway along the gorge, starting from where the bridge ends. It was a bit difficult to find, there were no signs. You can walk along Rakaia River in the riverbank forest for magic river views.
After Rakaia there’s maybe not so much to stop for. You are driving through a beautiful green landscape with small rural villages. As you approach Christchurch the road gets wider and straighter – and before you notice you have reached your destination, Christchurch!
Christchurch tram, New Zealand
Our New Zealand road trip ends at Christchurch, South Island’s largest city. This beautiful city has suffered from recent earthquakes and its central part is still under heavy construction work.
We spent our last New Zealand day driving around Christchurch, without having any problems driving in a city with a campervan. Parking a big vehicle was as easy as it can be, the city was still full of empty spaces after the earthquake. But we also had to try the famous Christchurch tourist tram.
To end our New Zealand road trip, a photo gallery on the most important Christchurch sights:
City Tour Tram winding its way through shopping malls
New Regent Street, Central Christchurch
Old townhouses in Christchurch
Botanic Gardens and North Hagley Park on Avon River
Banks Peninsula: taking the cable car to the top
Canterbury Museum and Peacock Fountain
More on New Zealand Travel
This was the last section (number 9) of our New Zealand South Island round trip. You will find the other sections on my New Zealand category page: