Aoraki Mount Cook and its surrounding park is a striking area of Aotearoa. It’s the tallest peak so you won’t be climbing it unless your next stop is Everest, but the views from the bottom are beautiful.
The glaciers and snow melting off the Southern Alps form white waterfalls and tumultuous rivers rolling away down the valleys.
We took the day to do the Hooker Valley Track, which is about 3 hours of walking to get there and back and you’ll want to stop a bit for the views.
There are 3 big swing bridges along the way, which I love.
The whole track is very well laid out and easy going.
And at the top, you arrive at this stunning glacial lake, with occasional icebergs.
Rather than staying the night at Aoraki, we drove on to Lake Tekapo, and camped at a gorgeous little campsite just over the hill. It came with its own lake and everything!
We spent the morning walking around the little church on the banks of Lake Tekapo and wading in the cool water.
We decided to cut back over to the west coast via Arthur’s Pass, another classic kiwi drive.
If you stop for nothing else, stop for the kea. They are one of my favourite animals in New Zealand. Curious, destructive, and playful.
We stopped near the Otira Viaduct lookout where there were loads of them, and the view was lovely too.
Of course, this bridge thing is also pretty cool.
The pass meanders through chunks of lush green forest and can be quite slow going along the narrow roads.
As any traveller will tell you, you come across some of the most unexpected things in unexpected places. Who’d have thought we’d find a gourmet doughnut shop in a tiny town called Motueka? Even more surprisingly… it’s disguised as a pub and called The Smoking Barrel.
We had decided pretty early on that we wanted to get to the bottom of mainland Aotearoa and the top of the South Island. Having done Slope point a few days earlier, we set off for Farewell Spit, an area only accessible by specialised offroad tour buses.
We were initially sceptical, but the guides at Farewell Spit Eco Tours added such amazing knowledge of the local area and animals that it really made a wonderful half day trip. Note that the tours can only run at low tide, so check in advance what times you’d be able to go.
The spit is phenomenally shallow, becoming almost completely covered during high tide. Just a few centimetres of height in rising water can translates to meters of horizontal distance. Huge muddy beaches are exposed as the water goes out, and everywhere you’ll see birds taking advantage of them.
Aside from the wildlife, there are also human footprints on the spit. Through remarkable engineering, a lighthouse was placed on the end of the spit to warn ships off the incredibly shallow waters. There are several buildings around the lighthouse, from the days of lighthouse keepers.
If you’re lucky enough to have your trip coincide with sunset you might be treated to some of these –
Another unexpected small town food find was a delightful hippie market in Takaka, selling fresh local produce, yummy baking, and a collection of trinkets.
If you have time up your sleeve while travelling, be sure to Google maps “attractions” to find a collection of things along your way that have been tagged as such. We found some of our most surprising places this way, including Te Waikoropupu Springs.
We didn’t know they existed, but the information area is impressively comprehensive so now we know a bit more. The springs are a culturally significant area and are one of the cleanest water springs in the world.
The water is almost unbelievably clear.
Our final stop before taking the ferry back to Wellington was the Able Tasman National Park. We just skimmed through it as we were tight on time, and the park is less easy to travel by car than some of the others.
We decided to do the Harwoods Hole walk. Apparently, there are a couple of hazards to be aware of. They primarily boil down to “don’t jump down the giant hole, or any of the smaller holes”.
Most of the area is limestone, which has been interestingly eroded over time by the water in the area.
The hole itself is hard to get a good view of without being in a somewhat precarious position, but the surrounding cliffs are striking in their own right.
There is a little side walk called Gorge Creek lookout where you can scramble up the backside of one of the cliffs. But don’t get your hopes up – you can’t see into the hole from there either, just stunning views of the Takaka Valley. It does, however, have some really cool sharp, wavy limestone rocks at the top.
From there we grabbed a few last minute supplies for dinner from the Picton supermarket to avoid the packaging and cost of on-ferry food and made our way back to Wellington.
It was a gorgeous trip, and I would absolutely recommend taking the time to see Te Waipounamu, the South Island. If you only have a week or two in New Zealand, spend most of it down there in nature to get your wild space fix.
I think that doing it in less than 10 days barely does it justice, and about 12-14 days is about right to do it properly with some time for exploring and doing longer walking trails.
See you somewhere.