Road Tripping New Zealand’s South Island

Highlighting the best routes for the ultimate roadside views.


Why Road Trip?

It’s just fun. Plus, New Zealand’s tourism industry is modeled around the assumption that most tourists are getting around via car rental. Most attractions are pretty far apart, and buses don’t run very frequently. The country is too small (only 5 million people!) to invest in an extensive and inexpensive transportation system to connect two islands with insanely varying terrain. As such, car rentals are the most reasonable and reliable method of transport. 

New Zealand is world renowned for its breath-taking landscapes and plentiful outdoor recreation opportunities. So we brought camping gear and bookmarked tons of secret spots for camping. (They’re not actually very secret. There’s a great app called CamperMate that shows you all the local camping options on a map.) Having a car just makes it easier for us to explore some of the more remote treasures. Plus, camping helps us save money on accommodation. which in turn helps fund the cost of the car! Full circle!

The Department of Conservation, mainly referred to as DOC (as in, waddup doc!), is absolutely phenomenal here in New Zealand. Most areas have an i-Site and/or DOC visitor centre dedicated to helping tourists plan their visit around the local area. So many pamphlets. So many maps. So much support. 


Renting a Car

There are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to rental cars and campervans. JUCY is the most popular - and iconic - choice here in New Zealand. They make a whole line of vehicle options, including the infamous purple and green campercan. A lot of people opt for campervans because they’re well equipped and easy to maintain here in NZ, but being that we already have an outstanding backpacking tent and two mediocre sleeping bags, we chose to downsize to the “el cheapo” option. For 40 days, this little cherry red hyundai would be home.

Unfortunately, you can’t get around the fact that you constantly need to buy gas. It takes 91 unleaded, which isn’t cheap compared to prices in the States, but luckily el cheapo’s are relatively fuel efficient. Much more efficient than a campervan would be.

Also it’s weird, but you pay for gas after you pump it. We learned that the awkward way our first time at the pump. Apparently they “trust people” here. Also it’s called petrol, not gas.


Driving on the Other Side of the Road

It’s not actually that weird. It really only takes a day or two to get used to. As always, never drive distracted, and it’s totally fine. At first, turning is the trickiest part. Roundabouts, too. While they’re super efficient for traffic control and emission reduction, they’re definitely less straightforward than a 4-way intersection.

Only complaint: windshield wipers. Every time we go for the blinkers, our wipers start wiping. RIGHT HAND for indicating, not the left. 


Our Route

After a quick two weeks in the North Island, we hopped on the Interislander Ferry in Wellington for the beautiful cruise to Picton. It’s a very enjoyable cruise, with lots of available snacks on board and lots of opportunities to see stunning landscapes and maybe even some wildlife - especially going through the Marlborough Sounds when you get closer to Picton. If you’re planning a double-island road trip, make sure you look into prices and timetables for the ferry! It’s always easier to book in advance, especially during the busier months.

Once we landed in Picton, we headed dead south to Blenheim for a weekend of well-deserved wine tasting. Next we darted over to Nelson Lakes National Park for a few days of hiking and camping. After that, we zipped to Kaikoura for a day of whale-watching, and then up into Arthur's Pass for a night. Then we headed down to Tekapo for a night, and onwards to Wanaka for a few days. We ended up doubling back north to spend a night in Mount Cook National Park, and then looped south again to Queenstown. We spent the last week based out of Queenstown, venturing out to Glenorchy for a day, and to the Fiordlands a few times too.




Unfortunately, we drove this route at night and can’t provide any proof of the pretty views. BUT I’ve driven it before, and if you like winding through mountains and across river valleys, make sure to take SH 76 to Kaikoura. (Depending on when you visit, you might not have a choice… both main access roads to Kaikoura were heavily damaged in a recent earthquake…). Make sure to check road closings before you head out!


Arthur’s Pass


Depending on whether or not you plan on going to the west coast, you can choose to go through Arthur’s Pass, or just into the village and back out. Both are great options, as there are plenty of viewpoints along the way. Just north of the main village, there’s a cool part of the road with a rock slide shelter and aqueduct that’s well worth a quick visit before leaving even if you’re not headed to the west coast!


Road to Wanaka


Another beautiful pass through farmland and rolling hills. We went on a moody day, bringing out the exceptional rustic colors around us.


Road to Blue Pools (Haas Pass)


Haast Pass is aa exceptional drive along the isthmus between Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. There are plenty of lookouts to stretch your legs and snap a picture, or for the more adventurous, stop along the way for a day hike up to Isthmus Peak for even more incredible views. Continuing towards the west coast, you enter Mount Aspiring National Park with recreational pull-offs every few minutes. Plenty of things to do!


Road into Mount Cook National Park


There’s only one way in, and one way out. The entire approach to the National Park will be one big tease of Mount Cook staring right at you, waiting for you.


Paradise Road


The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy will put you in a trance, slowly meandering along the east side of long Lake Wakatipu. But, even better, if you continue north after Glenorchy you will find a secret backroad called Paradise


Queenstown to Fiordlands


The first time we followed this road was on a big bus on our way to a Doubtful Sound Cruise. For the first part of the drive, you follow parallel to the Remarkables - which frankly, are quite Remarkable. Once you get into the Fiordlands, it’s all open spaces and distant peaks. Quite peaceful. 


Bonus road: Up to the Remarkables


On the way back from hiking the Key Summit Track, just a few minutes outside of Queenstown, we found a very steep drive up to the Remarkables ski area. Do not do this drive in the winter. If the roads are clear, and you’re confident driving twisty, windy, switchbacks at high elevations - you will be rewarded with absolutely stunning views of the Remarkables and greater Queenstown area. 


Interested in the North Island? Check out our other road trip post!

Wai-O-Tapu: New Zealand's "Sacred Waters"

Wai-O-Tapu: New Zealand's "Sacred Waters"

Maori for “sacred waters,” this beautiful tourist hotspot is a geothermal area at the southern end of the Okataina Volcanic Centre. The area has a number of hot springs that are known for their dramatic colors (and seriously disgusting smell…mmmm sulphur). 

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Driving Creek Railway in Coromandel, New Zealand

Upon the suggestion of my dear friend and director of EcoQuest, Kim and I decided to take the long way back from Whatianga. Instead of coming back the way we came, we looped around the peninsula to the town of its namesake, Coromandel. 


Driving Creek Railway is a bit north of the town of Coromandel, but well worth the drive. DCR is not only a scenic railway, but also an art gallery and creativity garden. Barry Brickell, DCR’s founder, originally purchased the land for its reserves of yellow plastic clay. Once he got his workshop and kiln up and running, Barry began to draw sculptors from all over the country to come to his co-op - being that it was the only pottery workshop in New Zealand. Soon, Barry was hosting artists from all over the world to come be a part of his homegrown pottery haven.


While Barry was first and foremost an artist, he quickly became an engineer and builder when the next available clay reserves were moving up and up the mountain. Again, being an artist, Barry didn’t have much money to dedicate to building a railway. So, he reused old tracks and carts from abandoned gold mines (reduce, reuse, recycle)!


As if Barry’s bohemian heaven wasn’t already amazing, it turns out that he was also a naturalist and conservationist. Before his ownership, most of the land was poor quality farmland and cleared pastures. So instead, Barry used this opportunity to revegetate his land with native bush species such as Kauri, Totara, and Rimu trees. He even built a fenced in, predator proof sanctuary on the grounds for native wildlife.

Art? Trees? Conservation? This place is the most wholesome endeavor you will find anywhere, ever. Barry Brickell didn’t even set out to build a tourist attraction - it only opened recently to the public. Now, it’s protected under a Queen Elizabeth II National Trust covenant - all 23ha. 


I sat on the creaky rail car as it carried us all the way up the mountain, through 5 switchbacks, 3 tunnels, and 2 bridges. I was overwhelmed with admiration for the craftsmanship of this railway. Each tunnel was lined with beautifully crafted bricks and glass accents. Little clay creatures hid amongst the ferns. Expressive faces peacefully waited for you around every turn. The entire track was adorned with sculptures, making it one big creative, engineering masterpiece.


At the very top awaits the Eyeful Tower (ha ha, very nice Barry). If not for the sculptures along the way, the railway is worth the ride even just for the view at the top. We climbed up the pagoda-esque structure and out onto its balcony for an awe-inspiring view of the Coromandel Peninsula and the Hauraki Gulf. Again, we were blessed with another blue sky day.


On the way back down, the ride is both comforting and inspiring. Being surrounded by so many pieces of creative beauty right alongside such expansive natural beauty is really quite magical. Driving Creek Railway is, through and through, the definition of a hidden gem.