South by Southwest - Your Starter Itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
by guest blogger, Fergus Blakiston
Hello, and welcome to the South Island of New Zealand. With beaches, plains, jagged mountain ranges, rolling farmland, rainforests, glaciers and rugged coastlines all within easy reach, our small island, located on the edge of the world, resembles a continent in miniature.
Let my local knowledge be your guide. I will direct you along back roads, suggest cool places where you can hike, tell you about sights only locals know about, introduce to great food and coffee options, and give you different route/sightseeing options in case weather or time constraints require you to keep moving.
On the South Island of New Zealand you will find adventure, solitude, scenery, friendly people, and space…lots and lots of space.
Start your South Island Adventure here
So, here you are in Christchurch at the beginning of your South Island adventure. Let’s assume that you plan to head south today as far as Lake Tekapo. Here are some route tips to guide you.
Take SH1 south from Christchurch to Rakaia. There are toilets at the Big Salmon if you need. From Rakaia, take Thompsons Track ( -43.7361 172.0224 ) south-west. Follow the signposts to Mayfield then on to Geraldine on SH72. This route will get you off the main road and the long straight stretches are good for getting the feel of your camper and the feel of our often narrow roads.
Drive time from Christchurch to Geraldine is approximately two hours without stops.
When you reach Geraldine, my hometown, drive into town along Main North Road which becomes McKenzie Street, then over the Waihi River bridge and on round to the main street. Turn right onto Peel Street (just past the Z gas station) and park along the street somewhere around the supermarket which is on your left.
If you're feeling the need for caffeine, drop into The Running Duck Café for a coffee.
The Fullar Family, from California, at The Running Duck, Geraldine.
From Geraldine, take SH79 to Fairlie and on to Lake Tekapo. The route takes you through rolling farmland, some of which I used to work on when I was a shepherd years ago. There is a lookout at the top of Mount Michael with a great view of the Fairlie Basin. Be very careful with traffic here if you do stop.
Continue on down to Fairlie on SH79 then turn right onto SH8 to Lake Tekapo. As you crest the summit of Burke’s Pass you will be greeted with the spectacular sight of the Southern Alps and the vast, open space of the Mackenzie Country.
The drive from Geraldine to Lake Tekapo takes one hour without stops.
A possible alternate route for you to take begins at the Farm Barn Café beside the lookout on Mount Michael.
Take the Mount Michael Road west down to Lake Opuha where you will have a lovely view of the Two Thumb Range reflected in this man-made irrigation storage lake. There is a good place to stop where the road bends around the southern edge of the lake ( -44.0857 170.8586 ).
Lake Opuha and the Two Thumb Range.
Continue on for another 800 metres until you reach The Monument and the Clayton Road. Cross the Clayton Road onto Monument Road and follow it until its junction with Stoneleigh Road. (N.B. Monument Road is a gravel road so drive carefully.)
Turn left and follow Stonleigh Road over the Opuha River and on to its junction with SH8, the Fairlie-Tekapo Road. Turn right onto SH8 and continue on over Burke’s Pass into the Mackenzie Basin.
I worked as a High Country shepherd up here for several years and the merino sheep I used to work with are still the backbone of agriculture in the Mackenzie.
As you drive from Burke’s Pass to Lake Tekapo (about 15 minutes) be on the lookout for cars stopping suddenly and vehicles parked on the edge of the road. Many tourists behave unpredictably along this stretch of road so be wary.
There is a superb camping ground in Lake Tekapo right down by the lake. This is a perfect place to spend your first night in the South Island. The Tekapo Springs Hot Pools is a great place for a relaxing evening soak, spa or massage.
The Mackenzie Basin is a Dark Sky Reserve and I thoroughly recommend taking a tour with Earth and Sky to the Mount John Observatory. Alternatively, you can just go outside, lie on the ground and stare up at the stars!
Mount John at Lake Tekapo: the best place in the world to take a selfie!
There are plenty of food options in Lake Tekapo, but to be honest, many of them are pretty horrid. One exception is the Kohan Japanese Restaurant. You can get a good coffee at the Run 76 Café.
There are plenty of other route options that you can take on your first day in the South Island. With your Affordable Motor Homes vehicle you are free to go wherever you like. But don’t just take my word for it. Hit the road and find out for yourself!Fergus Blakiston is an award-winning travel writer and photographer based in Geraldine. He specializes in designing unique, self-drive itineraries for people visiting the South Island. Check out visitsouthisland.nz for more information.