Canterbury/Otago, New Zealand
750km, 10hrs driving
A stunning drive through the heart of the South Island
The South Island has some of the most incredible variations in landscape considering how small it is. In a land essentially forged from the collision of tectonic plates, the consequences leave behind a dramatic landscape full of mountain ranges and pristine glacial-fed lakes. This drive aims to give a taste of both.
Click on thumbnails for enlarged image:
State Highway 1 – (Rangitata Highway)
State Highway 79 – (Rangitata-Orari Bridge Highway, Geraldine-Fairlie Highway)
State Highway 8 – (Fairlie-Tekapo Rd, Tekapo-Twizel Rd, Lindis Pass-Tarras Rd)
State Highway 80 – (Mt. Cook Rd)
Cadrona Valley Rd, Crown Range Rd
▐ Day 1 – Christchurch to Lake Ohau (~325km, ~4.5hrs)
Depending on the amount of time you have available in Christchurch , there are a few worthy sites to drive to in the city – most notably the Botanical Gardens . A peaceful walk in itself, but conveniently located to the cardboard cathedral, and other sites in the city.
When you are ready, make your way down south along . The route is rather flexible, but ultimately you want to end up on to begin the trip inland.
Once you pass the town of Fairlie, the drive really starts to get spectacular as the mountains of the South Island come into sight. The first major lake you pass is Lake Tekapo . Now is a nice time to get out a stretch the legs, and admire the pristine glacial blue of the lake. Not much further down the road is Lake Pukaki , , an even bigger lake but still just as beautiful. On a clear day, Mt. Cook to the north really stands out. Although I do not usually recommend individual accommodations on these itineraries, the Lake Ohau Lodge is in such a secluded, spectacular setting, and in a very convenient place for the next days route. If you miss out here, there are several options in the town of Twizel .
▐ Day 2 – Lake Ohau to Mt. Cook return (~220km, ~3hrs)
Today is a return trip to the magnificent Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park. An optional activity is the Lord of the Rings tour out of Twizel . The tour is a short minivan ride out of town into some of the beautiful surroundings used as the backdrop of the Minas Tirith area in the movie. It is a lot of fun and well worth doing.
Once you are ready to drive to Mt. Cook, start by backtracking a little until you hit the south western shore of Lake Pukaki where you make a left onto . The drive along the shore of Lake Pukaki is stunning, with many photo opportunities such as Peter’s Lookout . If you are feeling brave, check out the helicopter tour options ran by INFLITE . There are a few options available, but the landing on the Nun’s Veil mountain is well worth the extra cost. The Hermitage Hotel is a decent enough place to have a lunch, before making your way to the foot of Mt. Cook at the Tasman Glacier Viewpoint . There is a short but challenging walk to a great overlook of Tasman Lake fed from Tasman Glacier (also the source of Lake Pukaki).
If you have the time on the way back to Lake Ohau Lodge/Twizel , spend time admiring the surrounds of this beautiful area. It is an easy yet spectacular drive.
▐ Day 3 – Lake Ohau to Queenstown (~225km, ~3hrs)
The third and final day of this itinerary takes you through some serious terrain. Leave Lake Ohau as early as possible to spend as much time in Wanaka as possible. It is a relatively easy but scenic drive through a valley to get to Lake Wanaka. I suggest making the first stop one of the visitor centres or in the heart of town. There are plenty of activities to be considered while you are here including renting a canoe/kayak, boat tours, rafting tours, or just a walk around the beautiful Lake Wanaka . The Wanaka Tree is also a beautiful sight to see especially if you can rent a canoe/kayak for a few hours and paddle around the lake.
Once you have finished exploring Lake Wanaka, continue along the magnificent Crown Range Rd. This section is a stunning drive, especially the final descent into Queenstown where there are numerous lookouts to stop at , . Be careful and watch your brakes on the way down, especially in summer. Continue on to Queenstown , where should consider spending at least a few nights!