South Island Roadtrip / by Andrew Tat

Beautiful. Stunning. Captivating. Enchanting. Magical. No one word can fully capture the beauty that is the South Island of New Zealand. From the luscious greens of the wide-open farmlands, to the bright, silky whites of the snow-capped mountaintops, to the deep, rich blues of the vast, encompassing lakes -- every turn brought another Lord of the Rings scene to focus.

For the first two weeks of April, I toured the South Island of New Zealand, hitting most of the big-ticket places:

  1. Caught an overnight bus from Auckland to Wellington

  2. Ferried across Cook Strait to our first South Island destination: Picton/Nelson

  3. Drove halfway down South Island from Nelson to Franz Josef

  4. Drove further down South Island from Franz Josef to Queenstown

  5. Journeyed towards Milford Sound from Queenstown, stopping in Te Anau

  6. Hopped on a cruise around Milford Sound

  7. Reached the southern most point of continental New Zealand in Invercargill

Here's a quick map overview:

There were so many things between each destination, so I'll let the photos speak for themselves.

Day 1 - Wellington

After catching an overnight bus, many of us were pretty beat. Before any exploration happened, breakfast was needed.

Poached eggs and streaky bacon served on toast at Floriditas in Wellington.

Wellington from the Kelburn Lookout, the final, topmost destination of the Wellington Cable Car.

Day 2 & 3 - Nelson

With a true night's rest, we set sail for South Island, crossing the Cook Strait to Picton.

Once in Picton, it didn't take us long to start moving through South Island, driving immediately to Nelson. In Nelson, we hiked to the Centre of New Zealand, aka the middle of Middle Earth.

The next day, we explored around Nelson. The sun was shining brightly as we drove towards Abel Tasman, stopping by the Te Waikoropupu Springs and Kaiteriteri Beach.

Day 4 - Franz Josef

The fourth day brought our longest drive of the trip: Nelson to Franz Josef, which was halfway down South Island. The drive was long but well worth it, especially with a dip in the glacial hot pools at the end of it.

Day 5 to 7 - Queenstown

The next day, before driving the second longest drive to Queenstown, we hiked out to see the Franz Josef Glacier. 

There were many stops between Franz Josef and Queenstown, but I can't really complain about the drive with sights like these:

Once in Queenstown, we settled down for awhile, spending three nights in the small, quaint town.

Devil Burger's Devil Burger in Queenstown.

Day 8 - Te Anau

With our stay in Queenstown finished, we started heading towards Te Anau and Milford Sound, stopping by the Autumn Festival in Arrowtown.

Te Anau was mostly a rest stop between Queenstown and Milford Sound. We didn't have much time to explore, but we did manage to get onto one of New Zealand's Great Walks and hike a little bit of the Kepler Track. 

Day 9 - Milford Sound

The next day brought us through the Homer Tunnel and to Milford Sound, a gorgeous corner of the vaunted Fiordlands. 

Day 10 - Invercargill

With Milford Sound behind us, we began driving down to the southern most point of continental New Zealand: Invercargill. Along the way, we realized yesterday's weather had also DUMPED snow over the Fiordland area.

Sterling Point, Invercargill, the southernmost point of continental New Zealand.

Sterling Point, Invercargill, the southernmost point of continental New Zealand.

Day 11 - Snowy Queenstown

Brian and I broke off from the main group in Invercargill and headed back to Queenstown to prep for our backpacking trip through the Routeburn Track. Visiting Queenstown a second time was quite a treat as it had snowed there as well.

In Queenstown, we caught up with some other friends who were also roadtrippin' through South Island. We stopped by Fergburger, one of the most renowned burger joints in Queenstown. It was quite good. I would later return for a second burger.

Chief Wiggum from Fergburger in Queenstown.

Chief Wiggum from Fergburger in Queenstown.

Day 12 - Roy's Peak, Wanaka

We had a day to kill before starting the Routeburn Track, so, on a recommendation from my boss, we hiked Mount Roy by Lake Wanaka. It was a brutal 1300m (~4300 feet) straight uphill climb to the top, but damn was it worth it.

Sheep were abundant on the track. Unfortunately, sheep shit, too.

I drove on the left side of the road for the first time that day on the way to Roy's Peak. It was rather scary.

On the plus side, driving meant I got to stop whenever to take photos.

Day 13-15 - Routeburn Track

After hitting the hay early, Brian and I got up early to catch our shuttle to the Routeburn Shelter, our start point on the Routeburn Track. We shuttled up the other side of Lake Wakatipu towards Glenorchy. Quite a beautiful drive.

Our plan was to spend three days on the track.

  1. Day 1 - Hike 8.8km (~5.5 miles) and up 500m (~1600 feet) from the Routeburn Shelter to Routeburn Falls Hut

  2. Day 2 - Traverse 11.3km over to the Lack Mackenzie Hut

  3. Day 3 - Climb down 12km (~7.5 miles) to The Divide by 3:15pm to catch our shuttle to Queenstown. Side hike Key Summit if possible

Here's a map of the track we followed:

Once we arrived at the shelter, we didn't waste much time getting a move on towards Routeburn Falls Hut. We were surprised in two ways when we reached the hut. First, we reached the hut in almost no time at all, beating the estimated 4ish hours by about an hour-and-a-half. Second, the "hut" was a fully serviced and well-kept lodge. The Department of Conservation (DOC) of New Zealand partnered with Heliworks to bring in all sorts of supplies.

There was even a fully functional kitchen, armed with gas-powered stoves and running water. The bunk rooms and bathroom were similar, offering the comfort of flushing toilets and mattresses.

There was another "Guided Walks" lodge uphill of our hut. Upon a quick glance, I noticed even more amenities such as cushioned chairs and bean bags. Holy smokes...

Luxury aside, the area around the lodges was gorgeous, offering a sweeping view of the valley we had hiked up along.

I tried astrophotography once again.

Sunrises and sunsets in the Otago and Fiordland regions were insane, boasting vivid oranges and purples.

After a very restful night, Brian and I had a dilemma to sort out: to walk the second part of the Routeburn track or not. The track between the Routeburn Falls Hut and the Lake Mackenzie Hut had been closed due to ice and would reopen on the third day. Later we would find out from the Lake Mackenzie ranger that, apparently, it wasn't ice but avalanche danger. In either case, we were on a strict schedule as our shuttle back to Queenstown left at 3:15pm the third day. Furthermore, we couldn't afford to miss that shuttle because our flight back to Auckland was in the morning the day after our trip. 

So, after some consideration, we decided to just go anyway, figuring that...

  1. The DOC overestimates many things related its tracks to err on the safe side as their Great Walks were designed to accommodate both experienced hikers, but also elderly and children.

  2. We would at least hike to the furthest safe point -- Lake Harris -- of the second part. This was also the highest elevation of the track. If the tramp up to the lake was too hard, we'd call it and head back. But, if it was all right, we figured that hike would be a rough representation of the conditions we could expect towards the Lake Mackenzie side.

  3. We had the gear for an emergency stop, and we both had backpacked in the snow and ice before should the worst come around.

After reaching Lake Harris and a quick gut check, we decided to press on after having no trouble on the hike up. The traverse to Lake Mackenzie was basically ice-free and the snow coverage was minimal, both reaffirmations of our decision. 

The trek to the second hut had an eerie but amazingly grand feel. The weather poured rain on us, but we were high up in the clouds. Quite a cheesy comparison, but it felt like Frodo and Sam on their way to Mordor.

The main bummer of being surrounding by fog was that we didn't get to see the vast valleys on the second day's traverse.

On the last mile to Lake Mackenzie, we ran into the 23-year veteran ranger from the Lake Mackenzie side. Let's just say he wasn't all too thrilled to see us...

With the second part of the track behind us, we had more time the third day. The sun was shining, the skies were clear, and the trek to The Divide was leisurely and beautiful.

Since we had more time the third day, we hiked a small side track to Key Summit. We didn't get big, wide views the second day, but boy did we get one on the third day at Key Summit.

After Key Summit and a short downhill hike, we were at The Divide and headed back towards Queenstown.

South Island, you had me feeling like I was on top of the world. Until next time...