Spending a week and a half on a New Zealand South Island road trip we found the best places of the remote island. This post lets you join our spectacular drive across this long island in the Pacific Ocean, close to Antarktis.
To make the trip, we bought flights to Christchurch and rented a campervan right at the airport. Leaving the city we took the Arthur’s Pass road to the West Coast.
Further south at Haast, we turned inland towards Wanaka and Queenstown and then took the inland road back, via Mount Cook and Lake Tekapo.
You will see our South Island road trip map and our driving itinerary below.
On a New Zealand South Island road trip across mountain ranges
This is one of the many mountain roads we got to know, the road from Queenstown to Wanaka.
New Zealand roads are like this one, good to drive and wide enough for campervans. Yet bridges tend to be old, narrow and wooden. Sounds bad but not a thing to worry about. As they are wide enough for local trucks and buses, they will be wide enough for you as well.
What is the New Zealand South Island like?
On the top of New Zealand: Mount Cook and the Tasman Glacier
With its huge concentration of nature wonders, the New Zealand South Island is a gem in the ocean. In New Zealand ads they talk about pure nature which is true. As a rural country, New Zealand is a very clean place to visit.
You will notice you’re almost alone on the road, and that it’s always a long drive to the next village – that probably only has one or two houses.
The South Island has a high mountain range in the middle, splitting the island in two from south to north. That makes the South Island a mountain island where many peaks are snow-capped.
There are hundreds of glaciers and the same number of icy mountain lakes. What makes the island even more special are the subtropical rainforests covering the same slopes almost next to the ice.
See the Island by Campervan
Traveling the New Zealand South Island in a campervan
I strongly recommend you touring the New Zealand South Island in a campervan.
A campervan makes you independent and you will skip all worries about meals, accommodation and packing and unpacking. In a rural area hotels don’t exist in every corner, nor do places where to get a meal.
Hiring a campervan you don’t have to plan too much, you just drive. Driving in New Zealand is easy, just remember to keep left at all times.
But now about our trip: where did we go? You will see it on the map:
New Zealand South Island Road Trip: the Map
Our New Zealand South Island road trip itinerary on the map
So this is our 11 day South Island driving itinerary, 1600 km according to Google, plus a large number of short side trips. In all maybe 2000 km or something. That all makes 180 km per day which is not bad, or what do you think?
The map first shows the Arthur’s Pass road we took west from Christchurch. On the remote West Coast we followed the main road down to Haast where we turned inland to Queenstown (between Cromwell and Kingston on the map). We then took the inland road to Mount Cook and Lake Tekapo, and on to Christchurch.
The map says you can drive it in 20 hours which is a joke. We used 11 days on it, and 180 km always took us most of the day after all stops. We hiked to the most scenic places, short two hour or half-day hikes, cooked a lunch or coffee afterwards and continued driving.
The nights we stayed at holiday parks or campsites that there are plenty of, you just have to know where they exist. For information on New Zealand holiday parks check out the post New Zealand in Campervan: Christchurch to Greymouth.
As these 11 days offered so much to see, I divided our South Island road trip in 9 sections and wrote separate a blog post on each. Here you will see what each section contains, to read more in the separate posts.
So this is how it began, from Christchurch to Greymouth and down the West Coast:
1. Christchurch to Greymouth
How to make a New Zealand South Island trip by campervan
The first post will tell you how to prepare for a New Zealand road trip and how to rent a campervan. After that we will cross the mountains from east to west.
The drive from Christchurch to Greymouth is 250 km and the road climbs up to 920 m. See the South Island road trip map above for exact locations and driving route.
This is how the New Zealand South Island road trip begins
2. South Island West Coast
Lake Matheson on the New Zealand West Coast
On the West Coast we first turned north to see an exceptional nature wonder, the Punakaiki Pancake rocks. Like the name says they look like piles of pancakes. After examining the pancakes and walking in a lush rainforest we returned south and took the west coast road all the way down to Haast.
As we were travelling in autumn it was cloudy, rainy and windy at times. Until lower down on the coast the skies were clear again and we had beautiful sunny days.
Our West Coast drive was 370 km which we did in two days, including a hiking day to the fantastic Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers.
Roadside photos from the New Zealand West Coast
3. Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers
The Fox Glacier hike on the West Coast of New Zealand
Once on the West Coast, we couldn’t miss the two glaciers. To see them, we stayed overnight at a rainforest camp site nearby, and getting up early in the morning we hiked to both glaciers on the next day. So that was a real hiking day.
The two glaciers are located in the same region and to reach them, you only have to walk a few kilometres from the car parks.
We stayed the night in a rainforest campsite in the village of Franz Josef and went to see more attractions like a kiwi house and New Zealand hot pools. Nothing was better than soaking in the pools after a glacier hike!
Pleasures of New Zealand: hiking from rainforest to glaciers
4. West Coast to Queenstown
Drive from the West Coast to Queenstown: The Blue Pools
The next night we stayed at Haast from where we turned inland and climbed uphill along the Haast river valley. While the coast was a green, warm rainforest zone, in the mountains it changed into autumn colours and cold winds. In the mountain regions it was mostly below zero at nights and only 7 to 10 C at daytime.
Being from Finland, the cold weather didn’t scare us. We went outdoors and hiked, and in our heated campervan we had warm and cozy evenings and nights.
The central mountain region has many turquoise mountain lakes like the lakes Hawea and Wanaka, and we stayed a night at a lakeside location close to Wanaka. To get to Queenstown there were two optional roads, from which we chose the Cromwell road on the way south, taking the other road on the way back.
New Zealand autumn foliage between Wanaka and Queenstown
The distance from Haast to Queenstown is 260 km. It’s through a lakeland, wind and fruit growing areas and mountains. Then, closer to Queenstown it gets more touristic.
In the Kawarau gorge you can try activities like gold mining, river boating or bungy jumping – which we didn’t try, but this girl did:
Kawarau Gorge bungy jumping
- Read the post New Zealand Drive: West Coast to Queenstown
5. Queenstown Autumn Walk
Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown, New Zealand
After leaving Christchurch, Queenstown was the first city on our itinerary, and also the last. So we took a moment to breathe some city air, go to restaurants, shops and cafes and walk along Lake Wakatipu shores.
We stayed two nights in Queenstown but could have stayed longer. Two days was not enough to try all activities there were: lake cruising, cable car and helicopter rides, river boating, Milford Sound…
Autumn days in the stunning mountain city of Queenstown
- Read about Queenstown on the post Queenstown Autumn Walk Photos
6. Queenstown Day Trips by Car
Arrowtown, an old mining town north of Queenstown
Then there were two fantastic day trips out from Queenstown, first north to Arrowtown and then south to Kingston.
Arrowtown is an old mining town with many historic buildings, a very pretty place. Kingston is a tiny community at the southern edge of Lake Wakatipu. We didn’t go to Kingston for the village itself, but wanted to see the whole Wakatipu lakeshore and the little village was where the lake ended.
From there the road continued to Milford Sound which would have meant hours of driving. Milford Sound is really far away, too far away for us to drive. Hope to be able to do that if we ever return.
New Zealand South Island road trip: around Queenstown
- Read about day trips from Queenstown: Queenstown Day Trips by Car
7. Queenstown to Mount Cook
Lake Pukaki with Mount Cook at the distance
At this stage it was the time to turn back and start driving towards Christchurch. We took the road to Mount Cook National Park where the highest peaks of the South Island are. For even more peaks and snow, we first took the Crown Range mountain road to Wanaka.
In Wanaka we went back to the same campsite at Glendhu Bay. It was a great place on the lakeshore and close to many good hiking trails.
Now there was a long drive across the plains of Central Otago. A dry mountain region, exactly what you expect New Zealand to be like. The drive from Queenstown to Mount Cook was 300 km in all.
Back to the mountains: Crown Range summit, 1076 m
- Read the post Queenstown to Mount Cook via the Cardrona Road
8. Short Walks in Mount Cook National Park
Photographing a New Zealand wonder: Aoraki Mount Cook
Now we were right on the top of New Zealand, without even climbing Mount Cook, 3754 m. We only took two short hikes, one to the Tasman Glacier and the other to the Mueller Glacial Lake.
Aoraki Mount Cook National Park can’t look any better than in this clear autumn weather. In general, autumn is the best time to visit New Zealand when the weather is clear and autumn colors show their best.
We stayed a night in a camping centre south of Aoraki Village. Being independent at all other times, here we got some problems with the gas bottle and cooked our dinner in the campsite kitchen, together with German climbers and Chinese families.
The Tasman Glacier and Mueller Glacial Lake hikes in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park
- Read about Aoraki Mount Cook National Park: Short Walks in Mount Cook National Park
9. Mount Cook to Christchurch
Lake Tekapo autumn
And then, last but not least, there was the long 370 km drive to Christchurch, through the green hills of Canterbury.
However, before the green hills we were still in the Otago highlands and there were the two magic lakes Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo. These two lakes deserve hundreds of photos – which we really took, from all angles. Here is a sample of our photos and the separate post about this drive contains another sample.
Lake Tekapo has the famous Church of the Good Shepherd on the lake’s edge and there are also hot springs located next to the local holiday park.
Another great thing to see before Christchurch is the deep Rakaia Gorge with turquoise water.
Drive from Mount Cook to Christchurch
And then, suddenly, we were back in Christchurch, a city recovering from a severe earthquake. In Christchurch we took a tram ride through the city and the cable car to the top of Banks Peninsula. On the top we hiked. It was our last hike in New Zealand before taking the flight back to Sydney and on to Europe.
- Read about this drive here: New Zealand Drive: Mount Cook to Christchurch.
Christchurch, the beginning and end of our South Island road trip
So that was it, our New Zealand South Island trip in a campervan. If you have been on the South Island, where did you go, and what would you recommend?