A Guide to Travelling New Zealand's South Island in 3 Weeks
If you are after an expensive relaxing holiday in New Zealand stop reading now.
This is a guide for people who want an adventurous time, avoiding the tourist traps and typical attractions. I’ve spent over three months in New Zealand on four different trips, living off a budget. So, I have some useful tips. Before I get into the Itinerary there are some basics to make your trip better.
I have also attached a file at the bottom of the page that you can print off and take on your trip.
Here’s how to do it:
Land in Christchurch, grab a SIM card at the airport, pick up your camper-van and shop for groceries, drive to Lake Tekapo, view Church of the Good Sheppard late at night to see the stars. The Mackenzie Region is an International Dark Sky Reserve.
Walk up the Sealy Tarns to Mueller Hut either stay the night or do a long return day walk (4 hours or less each way). You’ll need to book if you’re staying the night at Mueller, over Summer it’s packed. I’ve only been to the region in Spring and Autumn. Put an intentions form in at the Department of Conservation (DOC) Centre.
Drive to Lake Pukaki for a free campsite or stay another night at Whitehorse Hill campground if not at Mueller Hut.
Catch the sunrise at Lake Pukaki or Tasman Lake depending on where you stayed. Drive to Wanaka and stop along the way at Lindi’s Pass and hike to the Peak, it’s short and steep and there’s no obvious track, follow the fence. Catch the sunset at Lake Wanaka. Camp out toward West Wanaka there are both holiday parks and freedom camping areas. All options are nice. Glendhu Bay Motor Camp is nice or you can stay at Diamond Lake Carpark for free.
Do the Rob Roy Track in Mt Aspiring National Park it’s 3-4 hours return, the whole area is beautiful, don’t rush here. You can enjoy parts of the Matukituki River and have a picnic or swim. Stay in Glendhu Bay or closer to Wanaka. We use freedom camping zones a majority of the time unless they were in an inconvenient place. Again, use the Camper-mate App everywhere.
Check out Glenorchy and Kinloch, the drive is great but there isn’t a heap to do. Call it a rest day, I’m sure you’ll be tired from all the walking and early starts. Beware of the sand-flies in Kinloch though. Shop in Queenstown and drive to Fiordland stay at one of the last DOC campsites e.g. Cascade Creek. Keep in mind Milford Sound has no shops, there’s very little there other than a petrol pump, accommodation, cruise terminal and an Airport. Shop in Te Anau or Queenstown.
Walk to Key Summit for Sunrise (leave ninety minutes prior to sunrise), then continue to Earland Falls and Return to the Divide or for a really long day, walk to Lake Mackenzie and back to the Divide carpark. Keep in mind it’s more than twenty-five kilometres return trip to Lake Mackenzie via Key Summit back to the Divide Carpark. Catch the sunset at Milford Sound and stay at the Milford Lodge. Milford lodge is great, beautiful facilities and a great spot to wash all your clothes etc.
View the lookouts around Milford, head to the Chasm, cruise Milford Sound, enjoy another sunset in Milford and then sleep at a DOC site or Milford Lodge again. We managed to get a cruise through Jucy Rentals for super cheap as the driver goes free. You definitely need to see Milford from the air or on a boat to enjoy it all. You only see a small amount of it from the ‘township’.
Walk to Lake Marian, it’s 20 minutes to Marian Falls and 3 hours return to Lake Marian, it’s easily one of the best short walks I’ve done! Catch the Sunset in Te Anau and stay a few kilometres out of Kingston on Kingston Rd.
Catch the sunrise over Lake Wakatipu, park at the Remarkables Ski Area and walk up past Lake Alta to Single Cone Peak for incredible views. Keep in mind it is difficult walking from Lake Alta to Single Cone, I wouldn’t recommend it in snowy/ icy conditions. Stay at one of two sites near the Lower Shot Over River Bridge. Queenstown has many good places to eat, my favourites based on value for money are Pub on Wharf, Atlas Beer Cafe, Devilburger and Fergburger.
Enjoy Queenstown or head over to Wanaka and hang out. This was a nothing day for us as the weather was quite wet. Allow a couple of days to spare for weather. Typically New Zealand will get a fair bit of rain. Aotearoa is commonly given as the Māori name for New Zealand, which can be translated as Land of the Long White Cloud. Stay near Glendhu Bay again or head out past Lake Hawea for freedom camping.
Relax out off West Wanaka Road, there’s a nice secluded bay. However, it’s private farmland, so respect the land, don’t give them a reason to prevent public access. Hike up to the top of Mt Roy via the popular Roys Peak Trail. Enjoy the sunset and camp the night if you want to see the sunrise too. For sunrise, we woke to fog and mist, definitely mist the views. The weather is definitely isn’t going to be perfect, NZ rains a lot, just work around it. Remember to leave no trace and respect the land.
Enjoy one of the most spectacular sunrises the island has to offer. Chill out in Wanaka for the remainder of the day. Stay near Glendhu Bay again or head out past Lake Hawea for freedom camping. There’s a bunch of DOC operated sites between Haast Pass and Lake Hawea.
Head to the West Coast via Haast Pass, stop at all the beautiful waterfalls along the way, Blue Pools are the main tourist hotspot as they are so easy to access. However, there are many hidden gems along Haast Pass. If you’re brave enough you can jump in from the bridge or top right of the image below, I can tell you personally; it’s cold. Camp at Lake Paringa DOC Site.
Sunrise at Lake Matheson, it’s the best time of day for this location as the sun rises behind the mountains and the winds are generally most calm at dawn. Check out Fox Glacier. Then head to Franz Joseph village, there’s a glow worm tunnel that is a bit of fun. It’s nothing amazing but a mini-adventure. Stay at one of the Caravan Parks. No camping seems free around this region.
Check out the Franz Joseph Glacier and Peters Pool Walk, I don’t rate Fox and Franz Joseph walks too highly due to my Mountaineering experience. Possibly book a Glacier Heli-Hike if you can afford to. Always fill the chopper seats to save money. That way you get a real taste of the glaciers. All New Zealand’s Glaciers are retreating significantly due to Global Warming so visit them while you can. Drive to Hokitika for the sunset and visit the Glow Worm Dell. When around Glow Worms keep your torchlight off them and be quiet, when disturbed, their lights will fade. Infrared lights (red) don’t affect them.
Drive to Hokitika Gorge, the countryside is beautiful and the Gorge is great. Then head to Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowhole for sunset. There’s a free campsite under a bridge next to the river on the way into town.
Do the Fox River Cave Walk, check out the Upper Cave if it’s open, the Lower Caves are deemed unsafe there’s also a walk to Ballroom Overhang that may be nice, I didn’t do it. Truman Walk is a nice walk to the beach near Punakaiki. Stay the night in the same spot as the night before.
Do the Poorari River Walk as far as you want to, then drive to Greymouth, swim at the beach, do some grocery shopping as there’s no shops until Christchurch. Drive to Arthurs Pass. Camp at one of the free sites. Be careful of Mice! We had to bail to the DOC site the second night as mice ran around the frames of the Van.
Day Twenty ONE
Do the Temple Basin Walk and Bealy River Chasm walk. Avalanche Peak is another option but it requires quite a bit of fitness, skill and knowledge to stay safe up there. Temple Basin was good enough for us and I was able to continue up higher whilst Amy waited at the Ski Huts.
Go to the Devil’s Punchbowl Waterfall, it’s stunning, then stop at Castle Hill and pack for your flight home or squeeze in the Cave Stream walk, unfortunately we didn’t to avoid wet gear for the flight home and we were short on time!
It wouldn’t hurt to add in a couple of extra days to ensure you get to do everything and you’d also have much more time to sleep than we did. We did a lot of late night driving and early rises. But hey, all part of the adventure.
P.S. The North of the South Island is supposed to be incredible so if you can add another week to the trip head up to Nelson etc.