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12 Days South Island Itinerary

Our New Zealand’s South Island October 2020 road trip started with a plan.

Days 1-2 -3- Wanaka

My wife and I arrived in Queenstown, picked up a rental car and immediately drove to Wanaka via the winding Crown Range and Cardrona (hotel – break) with ski fields in background. The weather was not great on this leg of the journey.

At Cardrona, the ski fields had just closed for the season with little snow remaining. We stopped for a break in this iconic hotel before moving on to Wanaka. The valley road, mostly farming, is hemmed between mountains and parallel to Cardrona River. At Wanaka, we headed to our delightful accommodation, with stunning views of Roy’s Peak, Lake Wanaka and the snow covered mountains, in Albert Town, just 15 minutes for Lake Wanaka.

Wanaka – a resort town which sits on the shores of Lake Wanaka with the Southern Alps as the backdrop. Both summer and winter is the main season here. A relaxed township with several day and multi-days hike including the magnificent Mount Aspiring National Park – wilderness area with native forests, towering snow peaked mountains, glaciers, glacial lakes and numerous river valleys. All provide stunning scenery with a variety of landscapes. A hiker’s paradise. Besides exploring the beautiful Lake Wanaka, nearby is equally stunning Lake Hawea.

One of the interesting sites in Wanaka is “that Wanaka Tree”. A solitary structural willow trees resting in the lake’s edge with the Southern Alps in the background. The image is dictated by the seasons and the mood of the lake. Sunrise and sunset views from Bremner and Roys Bay will set you into a soothing mood.

The first day track we embarked on is Hiking Isthmus Peak Track and continue to Blue Pools. The start is along the road from Wanaka to Makarora. The drive to the starting is quite exhilarating. The main road hugged Lake Hawea for most of the way until “the Neck”. At this point, both Hawea and Wanaka Lakes appear next to each other. The single road continues until we reach the starting point, Isthmus car park.

The following day, I decided to hike Roys Peak. However, it was closed for lambing season (Oct-Nov). Alternatively, I headed out towards Matukituki Valley and hiked The Rocky Mountain Summit Track. Wanaka is a hiker’s paradise with many day and multi-day hikes to suit an individual’s fitness and preparedness.

Day 4-5 – Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park

We left beautiful Wanaka and onto Highway 6 south towards Tarras, a one-cafe-gas pump-village, along the Clutha River. The views of mountains and vast farm lands of Central Otago is quite picturesque.

Continuing on Highway 8, took us through stunning Lindis Valley along the Lindis River. Treeless mountains rose above this lonely highway. With more twist and turns, always gaining elevation we entered the dramatic saddle – Lindis Pass that linked Central Otago with Mackenzie Basin. At an altitude of 970m, the landscape is dominated by golden tussocks grasses. The mountain tops were dusted with powdery snow as the road snaked between them. There is a great spot to stop and view this uplifting alpine landscape.

Still on the Highway, we broke our journey in Omarama. I had no information and any idea what is available around here. At a cafe, I read a magazine about Clay Cliffs in this region. After an enquiry with the staff, it seems there are quite a few things to do around here. We continued on the highway for another 10km and turned left into Quailburn Rd and discover Omarama and the Clay Cliffs.

We passed salmon farms and Twizel an eventually, veered off into Highway 80 towards Lake Pukaki and Aoraki Mt Cook National Park. This is my first time in this national park. I was quite excited about the prospects of hikes and tracks to discover and enjoy this unique alpine environment with the highest peak in New Zealand,Mt Cook. There are not many places where one can just drive up to the highest peak in the country. We hiked the Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier Lake, Hooker Valley Track and Red Tarn Track. One of the causes of Covid 19 is lack of tourist in many part of the country. Prices of accommodation and excursions were reduced. The idea of passive travel on a glacial lake –Tasman Glacier Lake boat excursion – encircled by snow peaked mountains, looked rewarding.

Days 6-7 – Twizel

We retraced our drive back to Twizel, the largest town in Mackenzie District. Surrounded by mountains, a small airport, stunning picturesque blue lakes and a laid back atmosphere, Twizel is a great place to stay and explore this region. After all the hikes at Mt Cook, we opted for Cycling in Twizel. Only two months ago, fire damage many part of this region. We decided to understand the extent of the Fire damage at Ohau and perhaps contribute by visiting the village.

It is interesting to note that Lakes Tekapo, Ohau, Pukaki and Ruataniwha are all connected and by 58km of canals linking Tekapo, Ohau, and Pukaki. They provide controlled water to the hydro power stations. Besides that, they provide an excellent environment salmon and trout. Hence, fishing.

Day 8 – Tekapo

After a couple of restful days by the Pukaki Airport accommodation, in rather wet weather we headed to Lake Tekapo on that familiar Highway 80. We stayed at the centrally located YHA Lake Tekapo.

Days 9-10 – Methvan

The weather today, well cloudy. Our road journey continued out of Tekapo on Highway 8 towards Burkes Pass – a small historic village. It was the last post before crossing over the tussock covered mountains into the Mackenzie Basin. it still looks and feels like a frontier town. We had to check out the Three Creeks antique store. It is choker with memorabilia from its illustrious past.

This is all farming country. An amazing sight greeted us along the way – a sea of yellow. These are mustard fields in Farlie. It was a contrast to the gray mountains and green rolling pasture fields. Further on, as we gained elevation, the expansive rural views are revealed. Past Farlie, we diverted into Highway 79 towards Geraldine.

Geraldine is a quaint little town. Due to consistent drizzle, we continued on. Past Orari Bridge, we detoured onto the Inland scenic highway 72 toward Mt Somers passing the mighty Rangitata River, and South and North Branch Asburton River /Hakatare. We briefly stopped at Mt Sommers General Store and the Holiday Park (camper vans). We finally arrived at Methvan late afternoon. Like many small towns and villages, eateries close early. Fortunately, one was just closing but served us lunch.

Methvan is not on the tourist map! I was looking for a stop between Tekapo and Christchurch. I stumbled upon Hakatere Conservation Park managed by DoC with private partnership. It is a two hours drive from Christchurch. We decided to stay at Methvan as accommodation, both in Mt Sommers and especially Hakatare Conservation Area, is limited. Our accommodation was Ski Time. It was quite empty as the main season is winter ski season. We decided to walk around Methvan as there was nothing to else to do. For dinner, there is a lovely Japanese eatery on the main road.

The following day, we headed back to Mt Somers and onward to Hakatere Conservation Area and explored the Hakatere/Ashburton Lakes Wilderness, hiked a glacial remnant – Mt Sunday and to Lake Emma Historic Hut. It was a long day but with the sun shining, blue skies and stunning landscapes – it is worth it. Perhaps, it would be great to explore this magical area in winter.

Days 11- 12 – Christchurch

From Methvan, we continued on on Highway 77 via Peel Forest (the are several walking trails in this area) and Mt Hutt towards Christchurch. deer farming is pretty big in these parts. Mt Hutt ski fields were closed and the views were obscured by dense low clouds.

The drive along route 77 is quite scenic. We approached Rakaia Gorge, with the wide but shallow Rakaia River meandering through. There are several walks including a walkway along he river.

However, we continued on. At Coalgate, I noticed a yard sale. I have not witnessed one before and we in to investigate. Sheep and cattle is sold by kilos or herd blocks. The farmers and stockist were welcoming as long as you don’t get in their at auction.

Christchurch – is a city recovering from the carnage of 2011 earthquake. Our accommodation in city central is ideal for exploring on foot. Evidence of this damage is all still there, after 10 years. Rebuilding had been slow. The centre of this damage is the iconic late 1800 Cathedral Church. Construction is on-going but painstakingly slow. A transitional one had been erected and simply called ‘Cardboard Church’. Yes, it is made mostly from cardboard.

Containers had been placed to support the facade of damaged buildings. Some quite unsightly. Why has it taken so long, no one seemed to know. Bureaucracy is the answer. Another icon of Christchurch is the Tramways. Fortunately, it is still running within the CBD. Walking along the tracks through in inner CBD is quite fascinating – shops, museums, quaint craft’s shops and eateries.

We enjoyed the CBD with it’s thriving coffee culture , eateries including the popular Riverside Market with multitude of food to tickle anyone’s palate. My favourite for breakfast is on New Regent Street. Try to get one on the upper floor with a view of the tram passing by. One of the enjoyable walk in the CBD is along the pleasant Avon River (and boat ride on a gondola) and Botanical Garden in Hagley Park. Riccarton’s Saturday Farmers market is a great place to sample artisan food and enjoy a pleasant atmosphere.

Another interesting observation is the streetscape – street art and mural that dot all over the city. Is it an expression of desperation, solace, anger or hope. To each his or her own. There is a unique memorial – 185 Chairs. A poignant tribute to the 185 whom lost the life in the 2011 tragic earthquake. A simple arrangement of white chairs (sitting objects ranging from dining, bassinets to bean bags) on a vacant lot – perhaps a message of impermanence.

Our wonderful 12 days road journey through stunning and exhilarating South Island ended here in beautiful Christchurch.