I can safely say that the South Island of New Zealand was on my bucket list even before the days of The Lord of the Rings movies.
Every time I came across a photo or story about the Land of the Long White Cloud I was captivated by how incredible the landscape looked. Seeing photos of people standing on jagged peaks above the clouds looked so surreal. I knew I had to experience it for myself one day.
It was only a matter of time before I ventured across the ditch to the South Island of New Zealand. And sweet baby Jesus! The first impressions did not disappoint. I was blown away by the sheer beauty of the place.
Of course, after my first visit, I had to come back for a second trip. Now I’ve visited the South Island on two occasions. Once in the summer and the other during winter. Both trips were action-packed, full of adventure and exploration. You wouldn’t believe the amount of kilometres I covered!
The Awesome Culture of New Zealand
I love the Kiwi culture. I think there has always been a lot of similarities and great connections between Kiwis and Australians. They are a passionate tribe about many things. We see this through their respect of Maori culture and their passion for tourism, adventure and the great outdoors.
But I do have this feeling from my travels that while tourism continues to be New Zealand’s biggest industry, locals are getting a bit fed up with the way their beautiful land is being treated. I honestly can’t stress enough how important it is to be environmentally conscious.
To leave every place as it was when you found it, to clean up wholeheartedly after yourself, to pick up rubbish (who cares if it’s not yours) and to be completely respectful of the locals and their land. That’s what all travellers to New Zealand (and anywhere in the world) should keep in mind.
The South Island of New Zealand in particular is home to pristine landscapes that need to be protected. It’s also home to some quaint towns full of quirky locals. I stopped for a couple of nights in a place called Twizel. There are some incredible places to shoot the mountain ranges here.
The local pub in Twizel serves amazing food and like most pubs in small town NZ, they always produce the quirkiest of characters. The barman here was no different. He was an odd fella, a great storyteller and to top it off he had a transient tic where he’d finish every sentence with a wink.
Well, I’m pretty sure it was tic. Either that or maybe my hair looked good that evening!
My Favourite Place in the South Island of New Zealand – The Southern Alps
Deciding on my favourite place in the South Island (where unparalleled beauty is everywhere) is kind of like asking a sugar addict to choose their favourite chocolate bar! There’s just too many great options to mention.
The Mount Cook region has never-ending places to photograph, as does Milford Sound. They are both stunning destinations that I loved.
But I think my favourite place in the South Island of New Zealand was at the location where I captured my most acknowledged photo: an image from an incredible backcountry flight over the Southern Alps.
I envisioned an image using the river that winds through the Mount Cook valley as my leading line, right up until it feeds into the Tasman Glacier, bordered by the giants that make up the Aoraki mountains.
That snap was used on multiple social media platforms by companies like @earth and @earthoutdoors who collectively have over 4 million followers.
It was also similar to a photo that Chris Burkard took who (in my opinion) is one of the greatest and most hard working photographers of modern times. I actually woke up the other day after doing a comparison of both photos and had a message from Chris himself saying he preferred mine.
That was super cool. Even though he was probably blowing smoke up my tailpipe haha. But I’ll take it.
Top 10 Attractions of the South Island, New Zealand
The best way to experience the highlights of the South Island of New Zealand is to hire a campervan. With so many things to see in such vast landscapes, plus the added bonus of “Freedom Camping”, you’d be mad to travel the South Island of New Zealand any other way.
One popular itinerary is to fly into Christchurch (cheapest option), pick up your wheels and hit the open road. You can navigate the island in a loop itinerary and see some incredible attractions on your route. So without further ado, let’s get started with the top 10 attractions!
1. Road Trip to Lake Tekapo and the Lakes Region
Pick up your campervan in Christchurch and head south towards Lake Tekapo and the lakes region. The drive takes about 3 hours but the journey will be extended as you stop off at beautiful destinations along the way. Make sure to stop at Lake Pukaki and the Church of the Good Shepherd.
2. Drive to the Spectacular Mount Cook
The trip to Mount Cook and its surroundings is simply breathtaking. With so much beauty around you it’s almost impossible to keep your eyes on the road. Once you’ve arrived, the Hooker Valley Track is a highlight. The track follows the Hooker River and ends at the beautiful glacier lake.
3. Visit the Quaint Town of Wanaka
The quaint Kiwi town of Wanaka boasts great vibes, delicious food and a famous tree in the water. If there is one thrilling experience to do in this town it’s a sunrise hike to the top of Roys Peak. Push through your alarm in the early hours of the morning! It’s definitely worth the effort.
4. Get your Adrenaline Kick in Queenstown
Queenstown has natural beauty everywhere you look. Not only is it a picturesque town but the activities here are just awesome. Ski slopes, thermal hot pools, white water rafting and bungee jumping. The list goes on! You can also find the greatest burger in the world at Fergburger.
5. Discover Te Anau, the Gateway to the Fiords
The drive from Queenstown to Te Anau takes no more than 2 hours and is a must-do in the South Island of New Zealand. This beautiful little town sits as the gateway to the Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound. Pull up a spot at the jetty in Te Anau and enjoy a picnic and swim with friends.
6. Explore the Serene Milford Sound
Prepare yourself for the incredible Milford Sound. The drive itself is amazing but the highlight is taking a flight above Milford’s mighty peaks and/or a boat ride across the lake to the base of the mountains. You can even get close to waterfalls that spray you. It’s just an awesome place!
7. See more of Fiordland National Park
There is so much more to Fiordland National Park than just Milford Sound. For example, Doubtful Sound is the deepest of New Zealand’s fiords and is a beautiful place for spotting dolphins. You can also find plenty of waterfalls and walks through Fiordland, with Lake Marion being the best.
8. Check out Nugget Point Lighthouse
Nugget Point is a panoramic platform in the Catlins which is home to one of the most famous lighthouses (the Tokata lighthouse) in New Zealand. It’s a short walk to the lighthouse which offers stunning views. Captain Cook named it “Nugget Point” because they rocks look like pieces of gold.
9. Walk the Beautiful Blue Pools Track
Nestled in the heart of Mount Aspiring National Park is the beautiful Blue Pools Track. This is, hands down, one of the best short walks in the South Island of New Zealand. Wander through native forests, walk over a swing bridge and discover the beautiful blue waters of the Makarora River.
10. Experience the Incredible Franz Josef Glacier
Franz Josef Glacier is a sight to behold. The glacier is located five kilometres from the town of Franz Josef and is only 1 ½ hours walk to the glacier’s terminal face. Guided ice walks, aerial sightseeing and helicopter hikes are the best way to experience this wonder of the natural world.
The Best Photography Spots in the South Island of New Zealand
As a photographer in a landscape like the South Island you really are spoilt for choice. First timers should look around the Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook region. Simply stunning natural landscapes for photography.
Tremendous waterfalls and gorges await you at Arthur’s Pass and the Hokitika area. The drives through the Crown Range and Lindis Pass are incredible. Not to mention the expansive postcard views when you’re standing atop of the world after hiking Roys Peak.
But then there’s Milford Sound. The drive alone has you screaming with overwhelming excitement, to the point where not even a 12mm lens can fit these mountains in. Yep – I’m looking at you, Mitre Peak.
As for secret photography spots, there’s a gazillion! They all come from research and a little help from Google. The DOC (Department of Conservation) is an even better place to start. They can provide you with off the beaten tracks, GPS maps and also current weather conditions.
For landscape photography, Nugget Point Lighthouse offers mind blowing views as far as the eye can see. The higher you can shoot from, respectfully, the crazier the view. Sunrise on a clear morning will leave a smile on your dial for days. So will the stargazing opportunities.
Photographers and adventurers alike will love Gertrude Saddle found deep in the Fiordland of Milford Sound. It’s labelled as one of the great short hikes in the world in regards to effort versus the reward.
This 7km return hike has elements of thrill about it. There’s an incline section where you scale a smooth, granite rock face using chains and poles to assist you. It leads you up and over the highest ledge to reveal a classic and quintessential view of New Zealand.
All of a sudden you’ll find yourself standing on top of one of the highest peaks of the Alps. However, I must warn that this hike is not recommended when it’s raining. The section of granite rock can become dangerously slippery. Nevertheless, it’s a wonderful place to hike and for photography.
Cherished Memories in the South Island of New Zealand
Collectively, all the locations, the hikes, the people and the incredible landscapes of New Zealand are what make the experiences in this country so unforgettable. That and the freedom in which you can experience it all.
That’s not something I’m used to as an owner of a restaurant called “Lucky Penny”, one of the busiest in Melbourne. However, one experience that will stay with me forever was the first time I flew over the backcountry of New Zealand and the highest peaks of the Southern Alps.
I went from the Mount Cook region all the way south over the mighty peaks of Milford Sound, making two mind-blowing alpine landings which are almost unreachable by tramping or on foot.
We landed on the precipice of Lake Erskine some 1400 metres above sea level. The lake is nestled within some of the craziest mountains I’ve ever seen. I spent an hour or so taking photos with this dumbfounded look on my face, completely blown away by my surroundings.
Imagine mountain peaks with an emerald blue lake that has unparalleled, azure blue water clarity. Then picture a waterfall cascading hundreds of meters down off to the side whilst you aimlessly hit golf balls off the precipice into the great unknown.
When I think about that experience, I often remember the calm and clearness I felt in my mind. It was as if all the world stood still for an hour.
Equally as impressive is the jaw dropping Earnslaw Burn, the second landing of the flight. It was actually used as a backdrop for The Lord of the Rings and is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
A huge valley, with jagged peaks that creates somewhat of a stadium atmosphere. Earnslaw Burn is crowned by a huge glacier that filters down into cascading waterfalls, sometimes as many as twelve at any one time. All of which run into an azure blue river that passes back out the valley.
The sheer magnitude of this place, in both size and beauty, can never be forgotten. Not even when I’m old and grey (which won’t be far away)!
Tips for your Visit to the South Island of New Zealand
My number one piece of advice is to hire a campervan and “freedom camp” your way around the South Island of New Zealand. There are apps that show you the locations all around the island of free camping spots – complete with photos, amenities lists, reviews, petrol station locations, etc.
So grab a map, make a rough plan (or not) and off you go with excitable shrieks of joy! This is hands down the best way to experience the real New Zealand. With such an incredible landscape consisting of breathtaking views at every turn, the ability to be mobile is worth its weight in gold.
I would recommend two to three weeks to truly experience the South Island. There are some gems up north like the Marlborough wine region and Abel Tasman National Park that I haven’t gotten to explore yet.
So that’s it! If you have made it to this point, thank you so much. I truly appreciate it. If you’d like to follow me and my photography journey find me at @tavishhhphoto and I’ll sign out with one last hot tip.
With one of the most stunning landscapes in the world, where your jaw drops at every turn… if your GPS says the journey to your next destination is going to take an hour, allow four! Peace x