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The best self-driving trips in the South Island

From the towering Southern Alps to the lush rainforests of Fiordland, expansive plains of Canterbury, stunning Southern coastline and gem-coloured lakes of Central Otago, there’s no shortage of places to experience.
By · February 9, 2024
The best self-driving trips in the South Island

One of the best ways to see New Zealand is with a road trip. Not only are the roads safe to drive on and well maintained, but the country has some amazing scenery best seen by private car.

The South Island is particularly picturesque. From the towering Southern Alps to the lush rainforests of Fiordland, expansive plains of Canterbury, stunning Southern coastline and gem-coloured lakes of Central Otago, there’s no shortage of places to experience.

What to know before road-tripping in the South Island

Before embarking on a road trip in New Zealand, the first thing to know is that the country drives on the left-hand side of the road. Some of the most popular stretches of road are marked with arrows to help foreigners keep to the left. However, you’ll find a lot of roads in New Zealand are single-carriageways with no dividing strip between opposing flows of traffic. It’s important to be aware of your surroundings while you drive and always keep to the left.

Give yourself as much time to explore as possible. The beauty of New Zealand is often found in unexpected places and you’ll want to make as many stops as you can along the way. Rather than embarking on a six-hour drive, consider staying somewhere a few hours into your trip. Staying overnight and giving yourself more time to explore nature a long the way will make for a better trip.

Another thing worth noting is that the South Island is colder than the North Island because it’s further away from the equator. This is opposite to the Northern Hemisphere, where the further south you travel, the warmer it gets.

The South Island can experience many different types of weather. The west coast is the wettest place in New Zealand due to rainfall on the west side of the Southern Alps. Canterbury to the east is warmer and drier than the west coast, while Southland and Fiordland can be wet and colder than the rest of the country.

What to pack for a road trip around the South Island

There are a few things you should pack before you embark on a South Island road trip.

Bug spray

If you are travelling to the West Coast or Fiordland, make sure you pack insect repellant. Sandflies, which are smaller than mosquitos but no less irritating, are rife, especially in remote bush areas. This is a must-take item for campers or hikers.

Hiking boots

To get the most out of a South Island road trip, pack a pair of hiking boots. While many tracks are easy to navigate and don’t require anything more than a pair of sneakers, hiking boots will keep your feet warm and dry and support your ankles in wet weather or on slippery terrain.

Rain jacket/windbreaker

If you are visiting the South Island in summer, a lightweight, waterproof windbreaker is ideal. The South Island can be windy in places, and a lightweight jacket is perfect for hiking as it will keep you warm while also allowing your body to breathe. Get one that you can stuff easily into a bag or backpack.

Insulated jacket

Visiting in winter? You’ll need a jacket that’s thermally insulated to protect you against the cool temperatures. If you are visiting Central Otago, a down jacket will keep you warm against the freezing temperatures and snow. In other parts of the country where it gets down to but not below zero, a wool coat will do the job.

Swimming togs

You don’t have to travel far to find a beautiful swimming spot on the South Island. From lakes to beaches to waterfalls, cities to towns, make sure you always have a pair of swimming togs close to hand.

The best self-driving trips in the South Island

Now that you know what to pack, here are some of the best self-driving trips on the South Island.

The West Coast from Queenstown or Wanaka

This drive is one of the longest in New Zealand and can take you from Queenstown or Wanaka right up the west coast to Westport. The drive non-stop would take around 8 hours 45 minutes and is best sectioned into at least three days. Here are the highlights along the way:

Queenstown to Haast is a three-hour, fifteen-minute drive through some of the most stunning countryside in New Zealand, including picturesque Lake Hawea and Mount Aspiring National Park, where you can explore Blue Pools and Thunder Creek Falls.

From Haast, the drive to Franz Josef is a two-hour drive away. Here you can explore Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier. A 40-minute scenic helicopter flight can take you right over Tasman Glacier, Franz Josef Glacier and Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. Stop by Lake Matheson on your way, a lake known for its highly reflective surface mirroring the surrounding mountains.

2 hours away from Franz Josef is the small town of Hokitika. There are many places to stop on the way, including Ross, a small town with a history of goldfields. The Ruatapu zipline and canopy walks just east of the township are worth exploring. There are also many bushwalks and bird-spotting opportunities in between. Hokitika is known for its artistic charm. Don’t miss visiting the Hokitika Glass Studio and West Coast Treetop Walk & Café.

From Hokitika, head to Greymouth and explore Shantytown, a realistic portrayal of a gold mining-era town. Further north, you’ll drive along the Great Coast Road, one of the top 10 coastal drives in the world, according to Lonely Planet. Here, the landscape is more lush and semi-tropical compared to the wild weather and dense bush of the lower west coast. Make sure you check out the iconic Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki to finish off your trip.

Invercargill to Dunedin, via the Catlins

The Southern Scenic route will take you from Invercargill to Dunedin via the Catlins. Despite the drive inland being only 2.5 hours, it’s well worth taking two full days to make the drive via the coast. Outside of January when the locals holiday on the coast, you’ll find the area largely quiet and in winter, tourists are few and far between.

From Invercargill, you’ll drive just over an hour to Curio Bay, a very small settlement famed for its cliffs, porpoises, penguins and a petrified forest. Staying overnight near Curio Bay or in the local camping ground offers you the opportunity to watch the penguins return from the sea each evening just before sunset.

From here, head past Niagara and Koropuku Falls (the former is named because it does not resemble the better-known Niagara Falls), McLean Falls and the beautiful Cathedral Caves. These are accessible at low tide for a small fee at the gate. The small town of Owaka is a great place to stop off for a bite to eat in between exploring. Jack’s Blowhole, just south of the township on the coast, is worth checking out, even in the rain.

Continue on to Nugget Point to check out the lighthouse and the Roaring Bay penguins and seals observatory. If you like wildlife, this southern stretch of coastline is one of the best places to see penguins, seals and porpoises. Just remember to take care while exploring the rocks, as seals can often be hard to spot.

Te Anau to Milford Sound

The drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound takes one hour forty minutes. However, it’s worth noting that many people drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound, a journey of six hours. We recommend breaking this trip up into a more manageable journey, especially as the roads are windy and there’s plenty to see and do on the way.

This trip will take you through the heart of Fiordland National Park, from the small town of Te Anau to breathtaking Milford Sound. Lake Te Anau is the largest lake in the South Island. Drive along state highway 94 to Te Anau Downs, on the eastern shore of the lake. Here, you can take in panoramic views of the lake and the surrounding mountains. Further along, the Mirror Lakes reflect the Earl Mountains and are well worth a stop and a photo opportunity.

Continuing on, the drive takes you through the Eglinton Valley and Lake Gunn. Further along the Milford Road is The Chasm, sculpted naturally by the force of the Cleddau River. Short walks will take you to powerful waterfalls and intricate rock formations that are well worth checking out.

To get to Milford Sound, you’ll take the Homer Tunnel, an engineering marvel built through solid rock and providing access to the Sound. On the other side, the scenery changes dramatically. Expect to emerge at the bottom of towering dark cliffs with waterfalls rippling down into the waters below. Milford Sound is famed for Mitre Peak and the reflective surfaces of the crystal-clear waters surround it. Take a scenic cruise to get you closer to the most beautiful parts of the surrounding landscapes.

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