Put misty mountains, volcanic craters, glacial rainforests and a healthy dose of Lord of the Rings in a blender, and you’d finish up with New Zealand’s South Island.
A mecca for hikers and intrepid travellers internationally, it’s hard to find a part of the South Island’s 150,000sq/km that does not contain a scenic trail or jaw-dropping vista. It’s even budget friendly. Sound too good to be true? Read on sceptic, and prepare to be amazed...
1. Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman National Park is like a choose-your-own-adventure with only good endings. Located at the top of the South Island, the park offers hikers two main options – the coastal track, and the inland track. Most take the coastal track, which takes travellers from beech forests to actual beaches. Gape at the unlikely rock formations, or go for a snorkel in the temperate turquoise waters. The park is open all year round but book ahead for the huts and campsites if you’re planning to sleep over.
A number of Kiwi Experience hop-on/hop-off bus trips contain an overnight stop at Kaiteriteri, the gateway town to Abel Tasman National Park. These include: Southern Round Up, South and Sound and Bottoms Up.
2. The Heaphy Track
The Heaphy Track is not for the faint of heart. Taking 4 to 6 days to complete, this 78km track somehow combines stony beaches, dense tropical mountainsides, and a primeval palm-fringed coastline. Located in Kahunragi National Park, the track also winds through Gouland Downs, offering a rare chance to enter the habitat of the Great Spotted Kiwi.
While there are no Kiwi Experience buses that stop directly at this track, your best bet is to hop off at Kaiteriteri and make you way to the town of Collingwood on Golden Bay (about 80km north). From there it’s a 33km hike to the starting point at Brown Hut.
3. Mt John Walkway, Tekapo
If the Heaphy Track sounds a little too intimidating, stop off at Tekapo for an 8km loop which takes 3hrs of your afternoon. A faithful dirt trial guides you up to the mountain’s summit, which has an impressive elevation of 1,031 metres. A panoramic inspection yields views of Lake Tekapo, the Southern Alps, and the Mackenzie Basin flats. The walk later takes you along the shores of the beautiful lake, which believe it or not is actually the colour pictured below.
Lake Tekapo is one of Kiwi Experience’s most popular stops for many of the South Island routes. These routes include the Southern Round Up, Bottoms Up, South and Sound as well as the cross-island routes such as Whole Kit & Caboodle and Chilly Bin.
4. Mt Fyffe and the Kaikoura Ranges
On the island’s east coast sits the domineering landmark of Mount Fyffe and the Kaikoura Range. This 8hr track offers views of impressive Alps, followed by very impressive Alps, and then more Alps. Book a hut, stay the night and watch a stunning sunrise from a height of 1,100 metres.
Your jump off point to the Mount Fyffe and Kaikoura Range is the picturesque town of Kaikoura. Known for its spectacular whale watching and fantastic seafood, take the Kiwi Experience Southern Round Up, Bottoms Up and South and Sound passes and hop off to being the trek.
5. Alex Knob Track
If you are a veteran hiker, you will enjoy the 17.2km track leading up to Alex Knob, where you will be amply rewarded with an amazing view of the Franz Josef glacier. An ecological pastiche typical of the South Island, this 8-hour hike features dramatic environmental changes – from the Rimu, Rata and Kamahi Forests of the lowland, up to the snow tussocks, alpine meadows and herb fields near the summit. Snow is a likely occurrence, so ensure you are well equipped to deal with the alpine conditions.
To get to this spectacular track, walk south from the Franz Josef Waiau township across the Waiho River Bridge and turn left onto the Glacier Access Road. The Alex Knob track is signposted and begins about 2 km up this road. Top tip, start your walk early to reach the summit before the afternoon clouds obscure the fantastic view.
6. Milford Track
The Milford Track is the most famous trek in New Zealand, and has been described as one of the world’s best walks.
The walk takes you through a geographic region of New Zeland known as the fjordlands, and showcases some of the most amazing scenery carved out by millions of years of glacical movement. Hiking season is open from October to late April, and NZ Department of Conservation only allow 40 people on the track at any one time. This means you need to book ahead to secure your place.
Hop-off the Kiwi Experience Milford Explorer tour at Te Anau and take the regular transport services that run to and from the track.
7. Dunedin Heritage Walks
New Zealand’s walks are not just about exploring ‘Middle Earth’. There are also a number of interesting city walks in the South Island and wandering the charming wonders of the historic town of Dunedin is one such example.
Once New Zealand’s largest and wealthiest city, this unassuming town features quaint architecture dating back to the 1870s. Take the afternoon to stroll the 2km past St Joseph’s Cathedral and the historical Railways Station.
8. Mueller Hut Route, Mt Cook
Mt Cook, known locally by the more apt name of Aoraki (Cloud Piercer), isn’t hard to spot. A hulking 3,724 metres high, it is New Zealand’s tallest peak, and is visible from miles around. The Mueller Hut Route will take you under the shadow of the mountain, with incredible views both above and below. The walk is 5.2km long, but be warned, the incline is rather…impressive. Visit from November to March, but be sure to check snow conditions, as avalanches can occur edge of season.
Both the Southern Round Up and South and South bus passes take you to Lake Pukaki where you can view Mt Cook from a distance. Jump off at Lake Tekapo to begin the hike.
9. Mount Sunday
If you like the Lord of the Rings, you’ll like New Zealand – and you’ll love Mount Sunday. An easy 2km hike, the mountain was made famous by the dramatic establishing shot of Eowyn (elf-lady) staring soulfully over the city and surrounding planes. Enjoy the view of the glacially carved valley, and surrounding mountain peaks – and laugh at the countless people trying to recreate the movie.
Kiwi Experience does not have a bus pass that goes to Mt Sunday, your best bet is to make your way from Lake Tekapo or even ask your driver guide on the best way to get to this spectacular location.
10. Kepler Track
Another trek through the Fjordlands, the Kepler Track is a 3 to 4 day commitment, winding 60km through forest, tussock, and mountain. Highlights include cascading waterfalls and abstract limestone foundations. This one is for serious hikers – leave plenty of time, and most importantly, be well prepared.
The Deep South bus pass finishes at Te Anau. Once you have finished touring the southern parts of New Zealand, use the town of Te Anau as the perfect base for disembarking for the Kepler Track.