The road to adventure in Christchurch
Join us as we journey to our nearest neighbour on a road tripping adventure from Christchurch to Queenstown
New Zealand has a way of leading even the most sedentary travellers astray on wilder adventures than they might ever have imagined. All those sparkling alpine peaks and dramatic Fiordland gorges are surely to blame, luring us onto trails and into kayaks and intoxicating us with pure oxygen and a spike of adrenalin.
This is precisely how people suddenly find themselves standing on a bridge with a bungy wrapped around their ankles, or strapping on crampons to traipse across a glacier. And it’s how I find myself climbing 1000 metres above my campsite, for front-row mountain views of the Southern Alps’ unearthly world of bare rock and ice. Adventure is addictive, and New Zealand’s South Island does it well.
We walk off the plane in Christchurch, where all fly-in South Island adventures begin, with a loose plan to dive into van life and drive from Christchurch to Queenstown. The compact South Island squeezes a substantial amount of scenery into its tiny landmass, and with its best sights closely spaced, it’s custom-built for road tripping.
Any wheels will do, but having beds on board pulls the pin on the pressure to map out an itinerary and stick to it. The sense of freedom is real, and when you’re driving your own hotel room, nothing separates you from the sunrise. We discover so many places, wild and untrammelled, where only campers are granted the privilege of staying for the night. It’s not a luxurious way to travel by any stretch of the imagination, but the money we save by sleeping cheap flows over to other parts of the travel budget reserved for sipping sauvignon blanc and shopping in Queenstown, and lots of unexpected thrills.
The Cloud Piercer
Out of Christchurch the road leads southwest across the rolling Canterbury Plains. Past Rakaia Gorge we reach Lake Pukaki where glassy, bright blue waters reflect Aoraki in all its snowy splendour. Proud and towering, Aoraki/Mount Cook is even more so when you spend a night at its feet, sipping chilled beers in the summertime twilight as avalanches boom off walls of cold, black rock and crumpled, blue ice.
While the best adventures are reserved for summiteers, Aoraki crowns a surprisingly accessible national park with walking trails and lookouts for all kinds of ambitions. We spend sunset strolling beside the Hooker River, daring ourselves onto swinging bridges to reach the lake that pools at the foot of the Hooker Glacier. When the sun rises again we are back on the trail, climbing to silvery tarns that gather in verdant tussock meadows still shaking off their snow. Higher still our views expand to take in the Mueller Glacier as it snakes down the valley, melting into a moraine pool large enough to kayak on. Hidden glaciers come into view, cradled high and hanging out into the void, dazzling despite their alarming retreat back into the mountains.
Aoraki, the Cloud Piercer, stands head and shoulders above it all, a sacred peak whose magic and power is legendary. The Māori Ngāi Tahu people tell of a boy named Aoraki who left his Sky Father Rakinui in heaven to paddle with his brothers the southern oceans of Papatūānuku (Mother Earth). The oceans were vast and there was much to explore, but when their fishing attempts failed, Aoraki began reciting the karakia that would return the hungry, tired explorers to the heavens.
The brothers began to bicker and Aoraki’s magic failed, releasing the canoe mid-flight and sending it smashing back into the sea. They climbed to the tip of the floundering boat, but with no escape were frozen and transformed: the canoe into the South Island, and the boys into its highest and most powerful peaks. Today, the South Island is known as Te Waka o Aoraki (the canoe of Aoraki), and standing on the Aoraki’s 3754 metre-high summit is so frowned upon that the best mountain climbers stop just short of it.
Unexpectedly good things can happen in these mountains. You might stand at the foot of the country’s longest glacier (one hour return), swim in the green-hued Blue Lakes, spot the world’s most endangered wading bird, the kakī or black stilt, or catch the world’s largest buttercup, the Mount Cook lily, in gorgeous late-November bloom. Arrive with energy and no plans to rush elsewhere.
Eventually the ocean calls us to Oamaru to thaw out. We reach the beach with a foraged feast of wild plums and tiny apples, and sit watching Hector’s dolphins riding the breakers. That these are the world’s smallest and most rare dolphins only amplifies their display as they put our best surfing efforts to shame. This coastline, chilled by icy Antarctic winds, is a wilderness all of its own, inhabited by a companionable cohort of New Zealand sea lions, southern elephant seals and New Zealand fur seals too.
At nearby Kakanui we join wild-loving Kiwi locals at a “freedom camping” area, right by the sea. There are around 500 roadside, mountain and forest camps located right across New Zealand, most offering little more than great views. We take on the Tiaki Promise, a Kiwi commitment to tread lightly on the landscape, and set out to travel as self-sufficiently and mindfully as possible. For lovers of the simple life who happily swap hot showers for unfettered access to nature, the right to freedom camp on public land is fiercely guarded.
Past the famed Moeraki Boulders rolling photogenically into the sea, we encounter our first seals and sea lions at Nugget Point. Known as Tokatā in Māori, the Nuggets lure travellers to ogle the sea mammals that haul out and bake in the sun. We walk away from the crowds and find an elephant seal of our own, barely visible in the dunes and patiently ignoring our silent fawning. For a gal from the tropics, sitting mere metres from an elephant seal is some kind of wonder, but there’s more to come.
Just 500 metres away at Roaring Bay we settle in to watch rare yellow-eye penguins shoot out of the sea and stumble ashore at dusk. We sit and wait, silent and still, until the penguins waddle right on past us to feed their noisy, peeping chicks. The day’s wild encounters feed a new kind of euphoria that spills out in beaming smiles and gushing storytelling about this one truly perfect day at the beach.
Following the dart
In Catlins Forest Park we hit the trail again, leaping over tannin-stained streams to stand beneath towering, pummelling waterfalls. In Invercargill, the hometown of “the world’s fastest Indian”, we cycle the streets with the intention of getting lost. Hours later when we finally wind our way back, we’re armed with an enormous paper-wrapped package of fresh fish and hand-cut chips, our bicycle baskets filled with an assortment of Kiwi lagers and pale ales that amount to one truly memorable feast.
In Fiordland National Park we paddle on Lake Manapouri (of Lord of the Rings fame), which New Zealanders will tell you is their most beautiful lake. Close to Queenstown we squeeze in one last wild wander, tramping to the head of the Dart Glacier over five incredible days. Wading the Rees Valley’s boggy grasslands and beech forests, we climb to an alpine saddle of clear, sapphire-hued tarns. And at Dart Hut we sleep in shifts to ward off attacks from stealthy keas. These protected and mischievous mountain parrots have an appetite for rubber that makes hikers shiver in their rubber-soled boots.
Our sleeplessness pays off and our tent survives the night, bar one slightly gnawed door flap, so we pack up and push on up the glacier to find ourselves in a dramatic moonscape of rock and ice. Rockhopping across milky cascades, dwarfed by a cirque of 2000 metre-high peaks, we finally stand before the great black snout of the Dart Glacier. Climbing higher still onto Cascade Saddle, we stare into the abyss of the Matukituki River Valley and the distinctive, Matterhorn-like summit of Mount Aspiring rising above it. After this high point, it’s literally all downhill.
If ever there was a place to clean up and slow down, Queenstown is it. Here we limit our wanders to gastronomic tours of cafés and craft breweries, and gather daily picnics and bottles of chilled Marlborough wines to sit and sip on the edge of Lake Wakatipu. Bathed in sunshine, this became our favourite place to warm up each day, surrounded by silver beech forests and snowy peaks hung with glaciers glinting in the sunshine. Lake Wakatipu’s scenery is what gets a lot of people onto New Zealand-bound planes, and Queenstown provides a hundred ways to tap into the kind of holiday each of us needs.
There’s an art trail, hot pools and canyoning adventures, e-foiling, ziplining, yoga and massage therapy and organic fare to sample at solar-powered, upcycled Sherwood restaurant. No one leaves the South Island with everything ticked off their bucket lists. There’s simply far too much to see and experience. But the freedom this blissfully pristine neighbour of ours offers is palpable when you crave a natural, indulgent, thrilling escape.
Australian citizens need a valid passport but no visa to enter New Zealand, and there is no time limit on your stay. Fly direct to Christchurch or Queenstown with Qantas, Air New Zealand, Virgin, Emirates or Jetstar.
Summer is the best season for outdoor exploring and you can expect more sunshine and less rain from December to February. It’s also peak season and price tags can be steep. Budget-conscious travellers who arrive in the shoulder season, especially in autumn, can expect highly discounted hotel stays and vehicle rentals too.
Dozens of rental companies offer two, four and six-berth motorhomes, the best offering simple, all-inclusive rates with windscreen insurance, airport pickups, GPS, linen and child car seats all included. Try local company Kiwi Motorhomes or connect with private campervan renters through camplify.co.nz.
In downtown Christchurch, Eliza’s Manor rolls out five-star luxury with a tiny ecological footprint (two nights from $850/couple, elizas.co.nz). North of Christchurch, summertime stays in the Strawbale House at Kanuka Terrace cost from $546/couple/night (kanukaterrace.nz). A day’s walk outside of Queenstown in Mount Aspiring National Park, a night in Dart Hut’s communal bunkroom costs $25/person (half-price for kids, BYO sleeping bags). There are many free camps on the South Island’s conservation land; visit doc.govt.nz and search for “freedom camping”.
Hiking shoes, weatherproof clothing and your Australian Medicare card for free emergency hospital treatment.
In Christchurch, gather fresh local produce at Lyttelton Farmers Markets (Saturdays 10am–1pm) or Riverside Markets (open daily). To forage, harvest and cook your own feast under the guidance of Master Chef Fiona Read, head to Hapuku Kitchen in Kaikoura.
Rhythm and Alps (December, Wanaka), Coast to Coast Multisport Challenge (February, Kumara Beach to Christchurch), Waitangi Day (countrywide, February), Dunedin Fringe Festival (March), North Canterbury Wind and Food Festival (March).
Find inspiration, accommodation and plot your itinerary at newzealand.com. For national park information, hut bookings and downloadable maps, head to doc.govt.nz.
Take on the Tiaki Promise
It’s the commitment to care for country that every visitor should make, whether you stay in New Zealand for a few days or a lifetime. To tread gently on the landscape and leave a tiny footprint in your wake, aim to support environmentally responsible accommodation, activities and eateries, and consider booking an electric car to get around (Eliza’s Manor offers free vehicle charging).
Photography by David Bristow