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  • Writer's pictureTom

NZ South Island: (Tourist) Things to do

Updated: Mar 31

Mirror Lakes, Fjordland
Mirror Lakes, Fjordland

I spent most of February in a campervan, touring the NZ South Island with my daughter Ellen. We split our time between the opportunities and challenges of hiking the mountains and wilderness, and enjoying 'touristy things to do'.

By this I mean an attraction or experience which is possible with less than one hours walk from a car park. All attractions listed are recommended. At the end we also mention a few which we do not recommend (and why). It is hoped that the list helps those planning to visit the South Island.

Milford Sound

Milford Sound, shrouded in mist
Milford Sound, shrouded in mist

The south island has an area known as 'Fjordland', which is something of a misnomer. The area has many glaciated valleys but most are filled with lakes. A fjord is a glaciated valley open to the sea. In fact, Fjordland has only one fjord which is accessible by car, Milford Sound. It is now a very popular tourist destination with circa 500,000 visitors annually.

The visitors do not come for the weather. Milford Sound is wet. Even if the brochures are filled with photos taken on sunny days, expect rain! Annual rainfall can exceed two metres, with an average of 285 rainy days. Surprisingly, this does not detract from the experience.

Most visitors come to take a cruise along the fjord. When it is wet all the waterfalls become even more spectacular and the steep sides, shrouded in mist, give the place an eerie charm.

Waterfall on Milford Sound
Waterfall on Milford Sound

The skipper usually takes his boat in close to the waterfall. There is one waterfall where, if you are covered in its spray, it is said that it will make you feel ten years younger.

There is also the opportunity to see fur seals and, at the right time of year, penguins.

Doubtful Sound is the next fjord along but access is altogether more difficult. If you wish to cruise this fjord, allow a full day as you need to take a boat trip across a lake, a four wheel drive up and over a small mountain, before being able to board your ship for the cruise of Doubtful Sound. The difficulty and expense make this a far less commonly visited fjord and some say that this makes it even more magical than Milford Sound (we did not do it).

Wet and bedraggled, but feeling 10 years younger
Wet and bedraggled, but feeling 10 years younger

I made comparisons to our Norway trip in 2019 but the two are not comparable. Although both are glaciated valleys the geology is very different. The volcanic rock and obvious fault lines seen along Milford Sound are not replicated in Norway. Neither will you find the typically norwegian copper red coloured houses along this fjord. Milford Sound only has buildings near the ferry terminal. The only similarities are the steep sided valleys, carved by glaciers, which plunge into the sea.

Christchurch 'Cardboard Cathedral'

There are many things to do in Christchurch but my favourite was the 'Cardboard Cathedral'. The earrthquake of 2015 devastated the main cathedral here and the repairs are not scheduled to be completed until 2027. The church wanted to quickly erect a temporary structure which could be used until the renovation works were complete.

Cardboard Cathedral, Christchurch
Cardboard Cathedral, Christchurch

They turrned to a Japanese architect, Shigeru Ban, who specialised in temporary structures, built entirely from recycled materials. Look carefully and you see the walls are made of shipping containers. The roof is supported by cardboard pillars made from recycled paper. The roof, therefore, has to be light and is made of perspex made from recycled plastic bottles. The whole project, from planning to completion, only took forty four weeks.

We found the space light, airy and welcoming, in stark contrast to some more traditional places of worship. For me, the architecture was inspired. After 2027 it's future is uncertain. It would be a shame if it disappeared.

Other attractions in Christchurch include the Earthquake Museum, the Botanical Gardens, taking the tram and exploring the coastline nearby (e.g. explore Port Hills or Godley Head).

Royal Albatros Sanctuary, Dunedin

The albatros has the longest wingspan (up to 3.7m) of any extant bird and is quite a sight. Their numbers are diminished, and their preference is for areas further south than the classic round-the-world route, so it is unlikely sailors will ever encounter one at sea. The best opportunity to see one therefore, is on land, during the breeding season.

Researcher weighing an albatros  chick (out of shot)
Researcher interacting with mum (or dad) whilst weighing a chick (out of shot)

Of the twenty something species, seventeen are native to New Zealand. Yet there is only one colony (anywhere in the world) which nests on a main island, accessible without spending tens of thousands to visit islands many miles offshore.

The sanctuary for the Royal Albatros in Dunedin is, therefore, a little bit special.

The sanctuary puts great efforts into trapping rats and other predator mammals which might otherwise attack the eggs or chicks. This helps all nesting birds. Consequently, the peninsula is teeming with all sorts of seabirds with various types of shags, spoonbills and gulls nesting on the peninsular. There is even a colony of penguins, although you have to stay until dusk to see them (they fish during the day).

The albatros colony is currently doing well with over 250 birds. This year, 35 chicks have hatched and are developing under the watchful eye of parents. Although not necessarily the parents to the chick! The sanctuary removes all fertilised eggs to ensure successful incubation and then returns the hatched chicks to the parents. The parents alternate staying with the chick or flying out to sea in search of food before returning, to regurgitate the catch for the chick. However some juvenile parents turn out to not be up to the task. In this case, the chick is placed with a more experienced couple who then rear the chick as their own. They do not seem to mind that it is not their own.

The tour takes an hour and we found our guide extremely knowledgable.

Cave stream

We mentioned the Cave Stream in our last post. Situated just off the H73, between Castle Hill and Arthurs Pass, it is a great, if wet experience.

Entrance to Cave Stream
Entrance to Cave stream

You enter from the downstream end. It is never deeper than the first pool you encounter, which is about waist deep, unless you miss the ladder at the exit and head off towards the 3m waterfall (he said, speaking from experience!).

Lake Marian and Mirror Lakes (between Te Anua and Milford Sound) The drive from Te Anua to Milford Sound is delightful with several places to stop along the way. Mirror Lakes do what the name suggest (see top photo)

Slightly further along there is the opportunity to hike to Lake Marian. This is a lake in a hanging valley, a short hike from the road. The sign suggests a 3 hour round trip but we include it here as we did it in two hours. The path to the lake is easy to follow but definitely not 'engineered'. Expect to be using your hands in places. Once you reach the lake, it seemed to be five degrees warmer than en route. It is well sheltered from the wind and the water was surprisingly warm (bring your swimming things). The views are stunning with Mount Talbot in the background.

Lake Marian
Lake Marian

Bungy jumping Queenstown is the undisputed outdoor activity capital of the South Island. This brings disadvantages. It is the only place we have found in NZ where you cannot avoid paying for parking, and the traffic is terrrible. Allow twenty minutes for the last kilometer into town.

Bungy jumping was 'invented' in Queenstown and there is someone jumping every few minutes.

bungy jumping,Queenstown
The Skipper bungy jumping,Queenstown

The organisation is slick and the number of checks and double checks by multiple people instills a sense of confidence so you can enjoy the jump without worrrying when the bungy was last tested or if the carabiner was closed properly. Other adventurous activities available in Queenstown include white water rafting, kayaking, rock climbing and zip line.

Ferg burger Queeenstown is also home to the Fergburger. Although slightly more expensive than a Big Mac, it is x4 the size, made from prime NZ beef and delicious. The queue to buy one was literally 'round the block' with a 40 minute wait. Well worth it though. (Actually, we discovered you can circumvent the queue by calling in an order and waiting for your number to appear. This reduces wait time to 15 minutes)

Feerg Burgerr
Ferg Burger

Wanaka tree

If Queenstown is the outdoor activity capital of the south island then Lake Wanaka probably comes in second. The most climbed peak in NZ, Roys Peak, is nearby. Yet, although there are many tourists and many shops/ restaurants catering for the tourists, it somehow feels much more relaxed than Queenstown.

Wanaka tree
Wanaka tree

There is a park by the lake and, not far from the shore, is the 'Wanaka tree'. This willow tree has chosen to grow out of the water rather than on land. It has become an instagram sensation (hashtag #thatwanakatree).

Drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy (and beyond)

The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy, along the eastern shore of Lake Wakatipu, is one of the loveliest we found. A motivation to venture slightly further is that several scenes from the Lord of The Rings were shot there. In particular, several Lothlorien locations can be visited, although you need to be a true affficionado to recognise them without a crib sheet.

Isengard Lookout, (LOTR), north of Glenorchy
Isengard Lookout, (LOTR), north of Glenorchy

Mount Cook National Park

From the moment you get close, Mount Cook absolutely dominates the landscape from almost everywhere in Mount Cook National Park. The highest mountain in NZ, it towers above the nearby Mount Tasman (the second highest). It was climbed by Sir Edmund Hilary in 1947 as part of his preparation to attempt Everest. This park is the NZ 'high country'. We came to do some serious hiking (staying in mountain huts,etc) but there are low level trails for everyone to enjoy the inspiring scenery.

Mount Cook from lake at the foot of Hooker Glacier
Mount Cook from lake at the foot of Hooker Glacier

There are many viewpoints to photograph the mountain along the approach road to Mount Cook Village but this shot is taken from the Lake at the bottom of the Hooker Glacier. The viewpoint is no more than thirty minutes easy walking from the car park at the White Horse camp site.

Swimming with dolphins, Akaroa After swimming with seals, sharks, manta rays and whales in 2023, there was little attraction for the skipper to take part in a 'swimming with dolphins' experience. But Ellen was not ot be deterred. Trips are organised from Kaikoura or Akaroa to see Hector's dolphin, the smallest dolphin in the world. The animals are wild and the experience relies on the dolphins being in a playful mood.

Personally, I was blown away by Akaroa. It was one of the nicest anchorages we visited (by car) on the south island. The village was pretty with a 'french connection' which translated to being slightly more up-market with restaurants serving a better standard of food. Ellen enjoyed her four or five 'encounters' where dolphins turned up to 'check her out' in the water, in addition to many encounters from the boat with the dolphins playing next to the boat.

Swimming with dolphins, Akaroa
Swimming with dolphins, Akaroa

Sky diving, Frans Joseph

I was not sure whether to include Sky Diving as it was easily our most expensive 'experience'. However, I am told it is cheaper than doing the same thing in Europe and, jumping from 16,500 ft, we had a twenty minute flight climbing to altitude, close to Mount Cook and Mount Tasman, with stunning views across Glacierland.

Jumping with an instructor (who makes sure you know to imitate a sack of potatoes during the descent and not to get in the way), the free fall was longer than expected. Time to get use to the chilling cold air blasting past you as your speed approaches terminal velocity, face down with the earth rushing up to meet you. Personally, I preferred the part with the parachute open. Not least because of the relief, but you could then relax and enjoy the views around you.

Ellen, on the other hand, felt that the adrenelin rush as you free-fall was the best bit.

There was a 'media package' option but, at $399 each, we chose to pass. We were not allowed to take our own GoPro so no photos unfortunately.

Seal colony north of Kaikoura

Kaikoura, three hours north of Christchurch is known as a centre to experience wildlife. You can take boat trips or helicopter rides to see sperm whales, try swimming with dolphins (although Ellen did this in Akoroa), or visit the seal colonies on the penninsula south of the town. It is also a surf centre.

Unfortunately, when we walked around the penninsula there was not a seal to be found. probably because there is nothing to stop humans walking over the same rocks where the seals like to sunbathe.

However, about twenty minutes north of Kaikoura, next to the highway is a large rocky area teaming with fur seals. The difference is that the road is probably 15m higher than the shore and there is no way to get down to it with barriers to keep the humans away. Given that the seals have had time to get used to the road and the humans watching from behind the barrier, they come relatively close, allowing a perfect opportunity to study their antics.

Seal colony, north of Kaikoura
Seal colony, north of Kaikoura

Hot tubs, Omarama (close to Lake Tekapo)

During our south island road trip, I believe Ellen put such pretty big challenges on our schedule. But the biggest challenge was not the hikes with 1500m of ascent. Or bungy jumping. Or Skydiving. For me, the hardest thing we did was to spend 90 minutes in a hot tub together, without smart phones and social media, forced to spend the time conversing. We survived - just. Was this the ultimate father/daughter bonding experience?

Seriously though, after many days of minimum six hours hiking per day, it was nice to luxuriate in a hot tub. Afterwards, we both felt renewed.

Skipper enjoying a hot tub, Omarama
Skipper enjoying a hot tub, Omarama

Star Gazing in the 'Dark Sky area', Lake Tekapu

Mount John, close to Lake Tekapu is home to the 'Dark Sky Project' and an Observatory run by the University of Canterbury. The star gazing experience is enhanced because, within a relatively large area, inhabitants follow strict rules to minimise light pollution.

Of course, for a RTW sailor, the ultimate dark sky is found in the middle of an ocean and nothing can really compare with the spectacle we can experience on a clear night. However, the explanations from our Mauori guide made it all worthwhile. I am not sure I can identify more constellations after the tour (who can see the two 'direction stars' and the southern cross in the photo?), but it was fascinating to learn how the Maouris used the constellations to identify seasons and plan their year.

Star gazing near Lake Tekapo
Star gazing near Lake Tekapo

For instance, there is a constellation (using part of Orion, which forms a canoe). It is in the part of the sky which appears and re-appears through the month. Through the year, the incline of the canoe changes. When it appears as a horizontal canoe (in June), it is ready to transport the dead to a 'better place' and, at the next full moon, the Maouri 'festival' of Matariki is held.

Traditionally, this was a time when families (whanau) came together to remember their ancestors and their past while also celebrating the new lives of the present.  It is meant as a celebration of the past, the present and the future. Today, festivals are held nationwide. And the best part is that they welcome participation from everyone. Not just the non-Maouri Kiwis (Pakeha), but also visitors from all around the world.

For me, this summarises New Zealand. A nation with so many assets and things to enjoy, and a people willing and proud to share it with us visitors.

Activities not on our recommended list include (and why)

a) Wine tasting and tours in Marlborough: Marlborough is close to the ferry terminal in Picton and is the main NZ wine growing area. Ideal for a final activity before taking the ferry back north? Maybe not. In Europe wine can be purchased at a vineyard much cheaper than from supermarkets. As an example, every champagne bottle has a serial number indicating it's source. With the internet it is not hard to trace the location. One year, taking Harrods house champagne as a good example, we traced the source and purchased the same product at one quarter of the Harrods price. However, in our experience, in NZ, wine on offer at vineyards is significantly more expensive than the same product in superrmarkets.

b) White water rafting: the best white water rafting in NZ is on the north island where you can do Cat 4 rivers. That IS recommended.

c) Blue pools, Mount aspiring National Park (near Wanaka): there is a footbridge you need to cross to reach the pools. This is now closed as it is 'at the end of its useful life'. To reach the pools, you currently need to wade almost waist deep through a relatively fast flowing river.

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