• Ambika Dhir

South Island Travel Guide

Seven ladies, two camper-vans and fifteen days of touring the South Island of New Zealand during the beginning of winter: an experience to say at the least.

It's been a few weeks since I returned from New Zealand and I'm sat at home, looking out of my room in London, listening to the continuous drone of planes flying over my head. I'm a million miles away from the beautiful mountain ranges and freezing cold that the South Island provided, and I'm aching to go back.

If you're pushed for time, there's a lot of debate over which island to visit: North or South? I think the answer to this lies in personal preference. If you're the outdoor-sy type, make that trip to the South, if you prefer towns, try out the North. It's the same decision our group had to make, and I'm so glad we settled with the South Island. Even despite the cold, I had the trip of a lifetime: I've never seen such breathtaking scenery in my life. Even during our longer drives, we were amazed by how beautiful our surroundings were.

Whilst I normally focus on fashion, I'm afraid I can't introduce fashion into this post in any way, mainly because it's hard to be fashionable living out of 7kg backpack in a camper van for 15 days: let's just say my OOTD's involved a lot of layering and a LOT of baggy jumpers.

So for those of you who are thinking about a trip to New Zealand, and quite like the sound of the South Island, I've broken down our 16 day itinerary for you to either take inspiration from if you've already decided you want to go, or hopefully convince you to take that trip if you're still undecided.


We only stopped off here very briefly as we got out of the airport and camper van pick-up site fairly late. Wandering around the city, you'll still get reminders that the earthquake hit the city in 2011. In need of a coffee, we made a stop at C2: a unique coffee joint that delivers its food via tubes above your head: it semi reminded me of that scene in Willy Wonka where Augustus Gloop got stuck in the pipes, so that was cool. Later on, we had dinner at this really cool food court that supports local family-run eateries called 'Little High Eatery'.


Tekapo is famous for its serene blue lake and the 'Church of the Good Shepherd', which overlooks the beautiful blue lake. As the first lake that we stopped off at in NZ, we were pretty amazed, but little did we know that this was just the beginning. Don't get me wrong, Lake Tekapo was gorgeous but it was nothing compared to Lake Pukaki.

My friend Sophie sat in front of Lake Pukaki's mirrored surface at sunset

Wow. Lake Pukaki, both at sunset and sunrise (as you can camp overnight right at the lake for free) is unbelievable. It was by far my favourite place from the whole trip, and I'm still in awe of the insane scenery that surrounded us there. If there is ONE place you NEED to visit in the South Island, it's there.


The prospect of seeing a glacier at Mount Cook excited us all massively. Tip: don't worry with going to see the 'Blue Lakes'... you'll get a good view from the top of Cook, and they're very green for 'blue' lakes. Mount Cook is a lovely walk, and I'd highly recommend the Kea Point walk to see the lake and a beautiful view of Mount Cook. There are other walks, but it's harder when it's the depths of winter and there's ice.

The glacier serves to show the true effects of global warming. It's retreated A LOT, and so it's hard to get much but a glimpse of the glacier and a few icebergs in the lake.


Queenstown is a really cool town: there's loads to do. Unfortunately for us, it was raining non-stop and not wanting to get soggy and be unable to dry our clothes, this slightly hindered our plans there. Nonetheless, there's a lot of streets to explore, and it reminds me of an alpine ski village. You can't freedom camp in Queenstown and with campgrounds being the same price as a hostel, we decided to check into a hostel: we had the luxury of beds for a night and we were BUZZING.

Another friend, Honor, stood in front of Queenstown's dock

Later in the day, we decided to check out the much anticipated fergburger. Now, I'm not much of a burger person but these did not disappoint. There's a plethora of choice for both veggies, pescatarians and meat-eaters alike, as well as vegan and gluten-free options available. Do not make the mistake of ordering chips (fries) like I did: although good, the size of the burger is practically the size of your face, so as you can imagine chips are 100% NOT needed. Eyes bigger than my stomach was one lesson I took from here.


Unfortunately, it rained in Queenstown during the next day too. Due to the low visibility, we skipped the cable car but I can imagine it gives you great views of the place on a clear day. Instead we scouted out ALL of the art galleries, and by the best was the Tim Wilson gallery on Beach Street. Tim uses paint pigments that change their colour dependent on light, and this meant that his pieces came to life in the most magical way.


Drip. Drop. Drip. Drop. Yet again, we woke up to the sound rain (torrential downpour) on the van of the roof. Nonetheless, we carried on to Milford Sound, carrying out a couple off stop-offs on the way. In total, there are around 14 stop off we could've done, however with the weather, we decided it may be better to head straight there. We did attempt to see the mirror lakes but unsurprisingly, the rain disturbed the surface of the water so no mirror lakes for us to see!

Luckily, rain in Milford Sound doesn't have to be a bad thing. Whilst the scenery may not be as picturesque as some of the photos you may have seen, it does mean you get to see the full strength of the many waterfalls that lie in the fjord, and they are spectacular. I'd highly recommend a boat cruise: you'd wouldn't be experiencing Milford Sound without it.


We woke up to a break in the rain: we were in luck! We had booked a skydive for that morning and we were beyond LUCKY to be able to carry it out. If you haven't skydived before, go book one right now. No really, open a new tab and book one. It's the most thrilling experience, and the rush of adrenaline after is insane. As first time skydivers, we went with a 12,000ft skydive, which gave us 45 seconds of free-fall. Tip: go for the option that gives you as long a freewill, that's within your budget as possible, after all it's the freewill, and not the parachuting, that you're paying for! Skydive Wanaka is an amazing company, and I'd highly recommend them for expert skydivers, great prices, and an overall incredible experience.

Image courtesy of Jolie Hamilton Warford (@joliehw)

When in Wanaka, you have to visit #thatwanakatree. When we went it was high tide so a fair amount of the tree was submerged, but it was still pretty cool. There are also a lot of smaller gift shops to visit in Wanaka, so if you fancy mooching around the town, it's worth it.


We were out of luck and the rain was back, but it didn't matter too much because our first stop in Franz Josef were the hot pools. These were the perfect place to soak and enjoy some luxury, and they were definitely needed.

Once we dried off, we started our journey to the Franz Josef glacier. Unlike Mount Cook, the glacier was a lot closer to us, but it was still alarming to see how much it has retreated and at such a fast rate. If you're up for a further adventure, there are loads of glacial flights and treks that you can do with a paid company! If it's summer beware: you are deep into sandfly territory, so lather up that sandfly oil. There were still a fair amount during the winter, so I can't imagine what it would be like during summer.


Hokitika has both the Gorge and the beachfront to explore. It's a fairly sleepy town but it has a few gems, including Fat Pipi's Pizza joint which we JUST about missed as it closed just as we arrived at its doors. The gorge itself is quite a leisurely walk, and if you get there when it hasn't rained for a few days, the water will be a beautiful blue shade. Unfortunately for us, it had been raining non-stop, so we arrived to fairly grey waters. Nonetheless, the walk is leisurely and the winter chill kept the majority of sandflies at bay, so there was no complaining on my end.

Hokitika is known for its driftwood sculptures along the beach


If it's a sunny day, you should make a stop at Pancake Rocks. There's a cool cafe that does amazing pancakes but more importantly, there are some amazing blowholes that create rainbows in front of your very eyes. It's a magical sight and you could stand there for hours, mesmerised by the constant creation of rainbows. To get the full effect of the rainbows, go at high tide: it's a lot more spectacular.

The blowholes at Pancake Rocks

DAY 11 & 12 & 13: ABLE TASMAN & NELSON

Blessed with some sun, we strolled around the lush forest of Able Tasman: as it's so big, it's hard to say we did anything but scratch the surface with this national park and the walks we could've done. It has a gorgeous beach that surrounds the park and it's lovely to be able to head down winding paths within the forest till you end up on a remote part of a secluded beach.

We didn't stop in Nelson for long as we wanted to get halfway before we carried on to Kaikoura. We made a stop at the Suter Art Gallery and the Queens Garden before carrying on. I'd recommend the Suter Art Gallery if it's a rainy day and you're looking get a dose of culture in: it shows the work of some amazing local artists, and it's got a nice contemporary feel to it. 


SEALS! Kaikoura is known for it's number of cute shops and more importantly its seal colony! Amazingly, you can get fairly close to these amazing animals too, as long as you don't disturb them. There are a few spots to see them, including on the way at Ohau Point, where you can stop and glimpse at HUNDREDS of seal pups frolicking around in the water and on the rocks on the drive to Kaikoura. The best time to go to see pups is apparently (from what a quick google search revealed) the beginning of winter, so definitely keep an eye out!

Rocks or seals? How many can you spot?

When you get to the actual peninsula, you're able to park up and walk across the landscape, to get a better look at the colonies. It's important to keep a distant of at least 10m, and never get between a seal and its route to the ocean: they're docile until they feel threatened. It's also important to keep an eye on the tide when roaming around. We did not. A grave mistake. We ended up having to de-sock and shoe, roll our trousers up to our thighs and wade through knee high FREEZING COLD WINTER OCEAN to get back to the cars, all while seals were in the water with us, watching and most probably wondering what we were doing. Our feet were numb by the time we made it back to the vans: 1/10 recommend.  

We also made a stop at Ko Take, one of the only Maori villages in the South Island that visitors are allowed to enter. Learning about the culture of a place you're visiting is, in my own opinion, very important, and we were very fortunate to have found such an amazing village to visit! We were welcomed with a huge KIA ORA! and we had the chance to be taught about many different aspects of traditional Maori life at various stations before we were welcomed into the main stage hut to be shown different dances and songs that have been a part of Maori culture for centuries. It was inspiring to see how differently Maori culture was treated in New Zealand in comparison to Indigenous culture in Australia, and NZ really does set an example that Australia should be following.


We had a day left to revisit all the parts we had originally missed in Christchurch, and I was keen to have a look around. Tired and ready for a nice shower, we wandered around, and grabbed a drink at Coffee Culture (the best) before getting ready to drop off our much loved Jucy vans, and head to the airport.An amazing trip, but boy were we glad to be sleeping in our own beds that night! 

The original church from the main square

Some final thoughts to the trip...

  1. Fifteen days is a great amount of time. I felt like we got to see the majority of the highlights of the South Island without feeling like we had too much time in one place. With that said, if you're going over the summer and have a larger budget, you may want to spend longer doing all the crazy activities that the South Island offers, and so you may want more time.

  2. The camper-van was a really convenient way of getting around. By using the app 'Campermate', we always knew where we could stay overnight, fill up on petrol and water and it also meant we could adapt our itinerary if we wanted to stay longer in a place or shuffle things around.

  3. I'm beyond grateful for the free camping that some areas of the South Island offers: it makes it easier for a student to travel. However, expect to 'rough' it a bit: these areas rarely have showers, and some do not have toilets! Make sure your camper van has a portable toilet you can use!

  4. Head to PaknSave for shopping (it's the ALDI of NZ) and New World for wifi if you haven't purchased a simcard.