This New Zealand road trip should be on your bucket list

Travelling Well | Tim Nicholson | Posted on 05 August 2019

A rugged road trip across New Zealand’s alpine South Island.

Melburnians like to think they can handle a cold winter, but the chill we encounter upon arriving at Christchurch Airport is something else. It’s just as well New Zealand’s South Island has some spectacular eye candy to ease the initial shock.

We are here to zig-zag our way across the South Island in the comfort of a top-spec Holden Equinox LTZ-V mid-size SUV, driving from the east to the west coast via the Southern Alps. 

Our group of Melburnites and Sydneysiders – some more prepared for the cold than your correspondent – jump into a fleet of Equinoxes for a drive through Christchurch to seaside Sumner where we’re staying the night. Tree-lined streets flanked with beautiful houses belie the devastation wrought on this city by the devastating 2011 earthquake, but as we swoop around the bayside road to Sumner, abandoned clifftop houses and roadside retaining walls tell of a city still rebuilding. 

Slideshow images: The Otira Gorge Viaduct that leads from Arthurs Pass to the West Coast; snow-capped mountains; beautiful South Island scenery.

On the following (three-degree) morning we wander to Cave Rock on Sumner Beach to watch the sun rise, before hitting the road for mountain territory. With three people’s luggage on board, we’re not even close to filling the Equinox’s cavernous 846-litre boot. We head north to Culverden, then begin the slow steady climb into the Alps, and start to understand why New Zealand was chosen to double for Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

The hills and the road start to turn icy, but the Equinox’s all-wheel drive traction keeps us firmly planted. Eventually we stop at Maruia Hot Springs in the Lewis Pass National Reserve, a Japanese onsen and hotel coated in ice and snow. There’s steam rising temptingly from the outdoor hot springs, but our schedule dictates lunch over a dip. 

The Equinox’s heated seats and steering wheel are welcome luxuries on this particularly chilly leg. The ice begins to melt after lunch and the scenery ups the ante spectacularly. My driving partner and I lose count of our ‘’oh wows” as we round bend after bend to yet another spectacular view.

After a quick stop at Kilkenny Lookout on a bend in the Buller River, we press on via single-lane bridges and twisted mountain roads, eventually arriving at the famed Great Coast Road.

Car driving over a bridge in New Zealand

The Equinox’s heated seats and steering wheel are welcome luxuries.

Pancake Rocks Paparoa National Park

Pancake Rocks, Paparoa National Park

Winding 100 kilometres down from Westport south to Greymouth, this is regarded as one of New Zealand’s and the world’s great drives. Towering mountains and cliffs line one side, spectacular surf beaches on the other. There’s not a soul on the beaches, but we’re told the West Coast is incredibly busy in summer.

Despite its family focus the Equinox handles the curves of the coast road well, and still manages respectable fuel economy of about nine litres per 100 kilometres.

Our accommodation for the night is the Punakaiki Resort, smack bang on the beach, and watching the sun set while skimming perfectly flat stones into the Tasman Sea is a trip highlight. 

At sunrise we head back up the road to the Pancake Rocks, a formation of rocks that look like, well,  stacks of pancakes. They surround a series of blowholes and the fact geologists are unclear on how they were formed makes them even more fascinating. This is a must-see on the coast road, and there are pancakes for breakfast at the Punakaiki Rocks Cafe just over the road.

Rear of car driving through forest

With three people’s luggage on board, we’re not even close to filling the Equinox’s cavernous 846-litre boot.

A morning drive under overcast skies takes us through the town of Greymouth and back inland, heading south-east into mountains to eventually stop at the Viaduct Lookout – also know as Death’s Corner. The Otira Viaduct is an impressive piece of road infrastructure wedged between two mountains. The lookout and surrounding area is home to a local parrot called the kea, known to pick the rubber seals and windscreen wipers off cars and damage boots and backpacks, but there are no sightings this time.

After a final stop at Arthur’s Pass for a quick bite it’s back to the road through the flat patchwork paddocks of the Canterbury Plains and on to Christchurch Airport.

In two-and-a-half days criss-crossing the South Island, it feels like we’ve driven through a series of different countries, from Christchurch’s wintry beauty to the drama of the Southern Alps, and icy hot springs to the wild beaches of the Great Coast Road.

I flick through the photos in my phone while waiting for the plane home. 

Oh… wow.