Road trip: Discover the South Island, New Zealand’s wild west

Travelling Well | Michael Gebicki | Photos: Getty, Alamy | Posted on 27 March 2020

An exhilarating rail and road trip across the wild west of New Zealand’s South Island.

The cherry trees flanking Christchurch’s Hagley Park have erupted. In candy-floss pink, they’re glowing in the morning sunshine, competing with the daffodils poking through the grass at their feet. Even my taxi driver is impressed, still marvelling when he drops me at Christchurch Railway Station where my train awaits. 

It’s the beginning of my road trip along the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. What road trip begins with a train ride, you might ask? But the trip aboard the TranzAlpine is one of the supreme journeys of the train world – crossing the South Island from east to west, charging into the frosty, forested majesty of the Southern Alps and down the other side – and I don’t want to miss a minute of it with a steering wheel in my hands. (More: Australia's most beautiful drives)


Dramatic scenes from New Zealand's stunning South Island.



I’m cossetted in a warm and comfy seat when the train pulls out at 8.15am. Panoramic windows frame the view, the dining car is dishing out espresso coffee and hearty meals, and my headphones have a running commentary on New Zealand history, geology, Maori culture, wildlife, sheep numbers and descriptions of what I’m seeing out the window. It’s like having Sir David Attenborough in the next seat. 

For the first hour the TranzAlpine idles across the sheep-strewn pastures of the Canterbury Plains before ramping up into the Southern Alps. For the next three hours the scenery meter goes off the dial as the train rides high alongside the glacier-stoked Waimakariri River into beech forests and snowy peaks. There’s gorse too, imported to make fences for stock, but it’s run riot, yellowing the high-country hillsides.

Not only is this an epic journey for the nuggety scenery but also for the transition from the trim, prim pastures of Canterbury to the wet and shaggy wilderness of Westland. Even the weather is different. While Christchurch gets an average of 600 millimetres of rain per year, at the heights of Otira Station the figure is 5100 millimetres. As if to demonstrate, the skies send down a deluge as we pull into Greymouth, 230 kilometres from Christchurch, bang on time at 2.05pm, where my hire car awaits.

At Hokitika, on the coast a 40-minute drive south, the sun is shining and I stop off for a stroll. Hokitika is greenstone central, the main source for the semi-precious stone that the Maori know as pounamu and most of the world calls jade. It was pounamu that brought the Maori to the west coast, defying rain, cold and sandflies to mine the lustrous stone from the rivers to be shaped into ornaments and sharp-edged weapons and tools. The nearby rivers are still important sources of pounamu, and Hokitika has at least half a dozen greenstone galleries where a finely worked piece will set you back $1000 or more. 

Not only is this an epic journey for the nuggety scenery but also for the transition from the trim, prim pastures of Canterbury to the wet and shaggy wilderness of Westland.


Another 25 minutes behind the wheel takes me south to Ross, where home for the night is a repurposed shipping container close to the beach. While a night in a metal box might sound about as appealing as a hairy blanket in a monk’s cell, room number 6 is delightful in every way, with a swish bathroom, a well-equipped kitchen and comfy bedroom with glass all along one side. Toasty warm, I curl up on the couch and watch the wild wind ruffling the vegetation. 

Ross lies close to some of New Zealand’s richest alluvial goldfields. It was near here that New Zealand’s largest gold nugget was discovered in 1909. Weighing more than three kilograms, the nugget was bought by the licensee of the City Hotel, who christened it The Honourable Roddy – after then minister for mines Roderick McKenzie – and used it as the pub’s doorstop. 

Sue Stile, who runs the Top 10 Holiday Park with her husband Andy, has a ready answer when I ask about dinner: the only option is Ross’ Historic Empire Hotel. 

It’s a solid choice. The Empire has character you could carve. There’s a pair of handcuffs on the bar where several blokes in big boots are propped and it strikes me I could quieten the room were I to ask for a well-chilled chardonnay, but the local stout goes perfectly with my creamy fish chowder. Decor consists of photos of blokes with big fish, a dusty piano and odd bits of metalwork, but there’s something missing. No poker machines and no blaring TV. Just the Doors playing quietly in the background and a general hum of good-natured chatter punctuated by the clack of billiard balls. It’s extraordinarily pleasing. 

New Zealand South Island
Woman standing beside icy glacier


After a refreshing night in my cosy container, next stop is the town of Franz Josef Glacier, 107 kilometres and two hours’ drive further south. Being barely further south than Hobart, glaciers have no business being here, close to sea level. The reason for them is the Southern Alps, which rise to 3500 metres close to the coast, and the enormous snowfalls, up to 30 metres per year, that blanket these mountains. On the peaks, the snow crystals are compressed until they fuse into a solid mass of clear ice, gravity takes over and the ice river slides down the mountain.

Between them, Franz Josef and Fox are two of the most accessible glaciers on the planet. Being New Zealand glaciers, there is much to do besides admire them. You can fly over them, land on them, climb on them and even make a chilly white-water rafting descent of the Waiho River after it emerges from the base of Franz Josef Glacier. Glacier country deserves two nights at the very least, but stay an extra night – the weather has violent mood changes and a sour day can scupper your plans. Franz Josef is more appealing than Fox for overnight stays.

Another 90-minute drive takes me 111 kilometres south from Franz Josef to Lake Moeraki, home to one of the icons of New Zealand’s environmental movement. Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki is the creation of Dr Gerry McSweeney and partner Anne Saunders. Back in the 1980s, the couple were campaigning to have a 300,000-hectare chunk of South Westland placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Opposition from the local timber industry was fierce, so they bought a rundown motel and set out to prove that wilderness tourism created more employment than forestry.

Set where the Moeraki River begins its final dash to the sea, the lodge has been a roaring success: a window on the rivers, forests and lakes of this sensational wilderness, with plush accommodation, a menu that works wonders with the South Island’s outstanding produce, and guided walks with naturalists. Anything less than two nights here would be criminal. 

It’s a 30-minute drive along the coast to Haast, where the highway turns inland along the Haast River and begins the long climb into the snow-capped peaks of Mount Aspiring National Park. If this day was set to music, it would be an opera. It’s 140 kilometres to Wanaka and you could do it in two hours – but don’t. Every turn in the road brings a fresh and even more provocative view, bruise-coloured storm clouds darkening the mountains one moment, snowy peaks bathed in sunshine the next. Several times I stop and sigh and set off on forest trails to waterfalls or blue pools, where at one point a giant trout flicks its tail in the water below a suspension bridge.

Golden fields in New Zealand South Island
Bird standing on branch in snow
Blue water of glacial lake


After a winding journey skirting lakes Wanaka and Hawea the highway cruises into charming Wanaka, a feisty ski town with multimillion-dollar real estate clustered along its lakeside and an adventure repertoire to rival Queenstown’s, minus the crowds. 

Rather than the main highway to Queenstown I take the Crown Range Road, signposted ‘Cardrona’. It’s 70 kilometres to Queenstown via the highest paved road in the country, ducking and weaving as it jets up into tussock-grass hillsides. At the hamlet of Cardona they’ve resuscitated the bra fence that first appeared 20 years ago, when bras started materialising mysteriously on a stretch of fence beside the road. More and more bras appeared and, while the fence has been periodically cleared, they’re now back at full strength – all shapes, sizes and colours fluttering in the breeze. 

Beyond Cardrona the snow-covered hills press closer. Then I’m at the pass, where the parking lot is packed with people taking selfies and firing snowballs at one another, and doing all the other wanton things that snow makes people do, and I have to say I joined in. 

From here the road snakes down into green pastures lined with poplars. Shining in the distance is Queenstown. It’s the end of the road but not the end of my journey. Set on the edge of its glacier-carved lake with the saw-toothed peaks of The Remarkables on the far side, Queenstown is home to some of the world’s most extreme sports, and there’s plenty more action awaiting. 

I feel like yodelling, but it’s probably better I don’t, so I hum a few bars from The Sound of Music. You know, the bit where Julie Andrews sings ‘The Hills are Alive’, and it feels just right.

 

Road trip essentials

THE PLAYLIST 

Crowded House, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, kd lang, and Flower Duet by Leo Delibes.

THE CAR 

Toyota Corolla rental car.  

THE DISTANCE 

Christchurch to Greymouth (train) 230 kilometres 
Greymouth to Queenstown (road) 525 kilometres

THE FUEL

  • Whitebait is a West Coast specialty, best when it’s fresh between August and November.
  • Kitchen is a glowing cafe in Hokitika with an open fire, delicious food and a sinful assembly of cakes, made for appetites sharpened by wilderness. 
  • Burgers from Fergburger in Queenstown. You’ll queue but it’s worth the wait. 
  • The Mediterranean-inspired menu at Amisfield Bistro beside Lake Hayes near Queenstown, perfect for a sunny-day lunch. 

DON’T MISS... 

Sunrise at Lake Matheson near Fox Glacier, when the still water mirrors the peaks of Aoraki/Mount Cook and Mount Tasman, the country’s highest mountains. The spongy, one-hour walking trail that circles the lake through ferns and kamahi trees is a treat.

SIDE TRIP

Take a paddling trip on Okarito Lagoon, set between Southern Alps and Tasman Sea, to search for the majestic white heron, or kotuku, a sacred bird to the Maori.