After working as a waitress for 4 months in Wellington, I bought myself a station wagon and took the ferry down to the South Island. George (a flatmate and great friend of mine from Wellington) and I took a month-long road trip around the South Island, using nothing but a road atlas to guide our way.
The best part about the South Island of New Zealand is that there are no wrong turns. No matter where you go, it’s going to be unbelievably beautiful. Even so, there are a handful of places that I really, deeply loved. These are some of my favorites:
Takaka / The River Tribe
In the beautiful Golden Bay, Takaka is home to the River Tribe, a makeshift community that I lived in for over two months. A free “campsite” – more a long, dirt road – is well-known by travelers, yet when you keep walking past the campsite into the trees you’ll find yourself in an entirely new world. People have built treehouses, bamboo huts, and cob ovens. Elaborate campsites are set up with kitchens, living rooms, and plenty of bright, elaborate fabrics that make them feel like home. In the summer, this place is filled with people from all walks of life. A community of no rules, this place runs on trust and respect.
A little-known cave near Takaka, you drive down a long, dirt road to find the beginning of the hike. Short, yet steep, it takes you to the entrance of Rawhiti Cave. The sheer immensity of the cave alone is worth the half-day trip.
Most photographs you see of Hokitika Gorge show unbelievably crystal-clear blue water. Well, we arrived on a gray day, so the water was almost silver. Even so, the area is incredibly beautiful and worth the quick stop!
Franz Josef Glacier
Although touristy, the walk to Franz Josef Glacier is astonishing. The glacier itself is 12km long, and the simple walk leads you to a viewpoint 50m from the main face of the glacier. If you’re feeling adventurous, an optional 8 hour hike up Alex Knob gives you an incredible overlook of the glacier and surrounding valley, or you can choose to take a helicopter tour.
The Brewster Hut is one of the backcountry huts in the South Island. This hike, to this day, is the most rewarding hike I have ever accomplished. The hike takes about 4 hours one way, but the trail itself is extremely steep – so much that for many parts of it we were using tree roots to pull ourselves up. My legs didn’t work for about a week after making the descent, but it was definitely worth it! We managed to get to the hut on a clear night, and the view of the milky way was unbelievable.
Down a Dirt Road Near Lake Tekapo
I can’t even tell you where this is, because I don’t know myself! We hopped into my car and drove for over an hour down a dirt road past Lake Tekapo, and found ourselves in one of the most beautiful, remote places I have ever been. We spent all night drinking rum and watching the stars. When in doubt, always take the dirt road.
Gillespies Beach Campsite
Although there are a lot of beautiful campsites around the South Island, Gillespies Beach Campsite was exceptional. It’s not too far from Fox Glacier township, so it’s the perfect place to spend the night if you’re doing a multi-day tour of the glaciers. On one side, you have a stunning view of Mount Cook. On the other, the ocean. The combination of both mountain and sea makes it an ideal place to spend the night.
Mount Cook is another part of the South Island that is unfortunately filled with tourists all day, every day, year round. Even so, it’s a spot that shouldn’t be missed. The easy Hooker Valley Track (10km return, flat) gives you incredible views of Mount Cook, Mueller Lake and the surrounding Hooker Valley.
The Road to Milford Sound
While Milford Sound is a wonderful sight in itself, the road leading up to it is just as magical. Many people make the 240km drive straight to Milford Sound, but there are plenty hidden gems along the way that are worth a look. There are many campsites as well, so consider making it a multi-day trip!
The Routeburn Track
The Routeburn Track is one of the most popular Great Walks in New Zealand. It is a three day, two night, 32km track that weaves through alpine meadows, crystal-clear lakes and incredible views of the surrounding mountain ranges. The track itself is well maintained and fairly easy, and the landscapes are straight out of a fairytale.