5 Things to Do On New Zealand's South Island
In February 2018 I was lucky enough to explore the South Island of New Zealand with my fiancé and a few friends on a production for GoPro’s Experience Different Spring Travel campaign. You can watch the final video here. I’d not yet had the opportunity to visit the Oceania and was thrilled to have the opportunity to go and with so many friends. It was an absolute whirlwind of a trip and we covered a lot of ground on New Zealand’s South Island. Here are my recommendations for must-see and do adventures while you’re on the South Island.
Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments below.
Take a trip to Milford Sound.
The English writer Rudyard Kipling famously described Milford Sound as the eighth wonder of the world. It won’t take long after you’ve set eyes on it to understand why.
Milford is known for the ever-imposing Mitre Peak (pictured above), in addition to lush rainforests and waterfalls. Home to fur seal colonies, penguins and dolphins, there is much to see in the sound, making it an excellent place to stop off for a boat tour or to go sea kayaking. We went with Rosco’s Milford Kayaks and I can’t recommend them enough. Rosco and his team were incredibly knowledgable, friendly, and fun. But most importantly, they kept us safe and taught us about the natural history and the sea life within the sound. You might also want to head over to Milford’s Discovery Center and Underwater Observatory which provide its visitors the chance to see rare black coral and other marine life.
The sound itself sits within Fiordland National Park (which is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Area — Te Wahipounamu) and is a fiord that cuts into the south-western coast of the South Island. We visited in New Zealand’s last summer month, February, and while the weather wasn’t ideal, it was far from awful. Rain fell on us intermittently throughout the day and clouds filtered in and out of the sound, but thankfully, you don’t need perfect weather to appreciate the astounding beauty of Milford.
It was just as impressive of a sight as I’d imagine it would have been on a sunny, blue-bird day. See photos above if you don’t believe me.
Left: Audrey, Erin, and myself walk through a field on our way to Milford. Center: Milford Sound. Right: Me taking in the view on our way to the sound.
Visit Fiordland National Park.
I don’t even know where to begin with Fiordland National Park — it was just that breathtaking — so I guess I will start with some history and statistics.
Fiordland National Park sits in the southwest corner of New Zealand’s South Island. At an impressive 4,868 square miles, the park is by far the largest of the 14 national parks in New Zealand. Fiordland National Park also encompasses a huge part of the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage site and is administered to by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation.
In 1986, Fiordland National Park was individually recognized as a World Heritage Site and the park’s protected land includes each and every island along its coast as well as the more remote Solander Islands. It is an incredibly beautiful, awe-inspiring destinations. It is certainly one of the most beautiful natural places I have ever been to in my life.
When we visited Fiordland National Park, we camped along Lake Te Anau at the Henry Creek Campsite. It was a bit chilly, but gorgeous, and after we’d set up camp we all sat on the rocky beach to watch the sun drop in the sky and its colors dance along the top of distant mountains. Once the sun had set, we gathered close together and watched the stars for hours and hours, marveling at the constellations so different than our sky in North America. I am really beginning to despise this word with its overuse in today’s travel blogs and captions, but it was truly otherworldly. Spiritual, really. I don’t think I would be alone if I said that I could have stayed there camped along the lake for days. But then, I had no idea that the next day I would get to do something that remains one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever done in my life — flying in a helicopter over this immense and stunning park.
I know that it is expensive and that I was lucky to have the opportunity to do this, but if you are going to visit the South Island and you will be around Fiordland National Park, you should really consider investing in this experience. I wish I could explain how magical it was, but I honestly cannot. Flying in a helicopter in and of itself is an incredible experience, but to fly through a landscape such as that in Fiordland National Park, there really are no words to explain it. We saw things very few people ever do, and I am forever grateful for all that I witnessed up in the sky that day.
If you do plan to do a heli tour over Fiordland National Park, I can’t recommend the Fiordland Helicopter Tours enough. They saw you’ll “become part of the scenery” and they’re not kidding. We went on an hour-long flight above the park and I wish we could have gone all day. There are different packages to suit your interests and price range, so be sure to do your research and book in advance. You will NOT be disappointed.
Left: Enjoying the sunset view from my tent on the shore of Lake Te Anau. Center: Scene from our flight over Fiordland National Park. Right: Close up to a ridge line high in the mountains of Fiordland National Park.
Take a high speed cruise over the river with Shotover Jet.
I had never seen or heard of anything like Shotover Jet until I arrived in New Zealand. I mean, what in the world is a Shotover Jet? Well, now that I know and have done it let me tell you. First, skip this section now if you have any kind of motion sickness, hate roller coasters, boats, or driving super, super fast. For those of you who aren’t bothered by those things and want to do something to get the adrenaline pumping but haven’t quite worked your way up to bungee jumping or skydiving, this just might be your best bet.
Once you’ve booked your trip, drive a short distance from Queenstown (there is also a complimentary shuttle service, simply inquire about it at time of booking) and you will find yourself at the Shotover Jet company. Arrive 30 minutes prior to your scheduled time to ensure you get fitted with a life vest and are able to review safety information with your driver. The experience itself lasts about 25 minutes and it is a blast — no pun intended — but it isn’t for the faint of heart. You will be whipping around huge boulders and through narrow canyons at high speed and it will often seem as though you’re going to run right into them. Hence the adrenaline. Your driver will also do a series of 360 degree turns at very high speed, so for those with neck or back trouble I wouldn’t recommend.
But as I mentioned before, if you don’t get motion sick and aren’t scared of getting whipped around this and that way, you will thoroughly enjoy it. I was laughing hysterically the entire time. It is a unique and exciting experience.
Hike (or fly) to the top of Roy’s Peak.
If you’ve seen a ton of images of New Zealand on social media (like I have) odds are you’ve seen a photo or two or one hundred of a person on top of Roy’s Peak on the South Island. And its no wonder you see so many folks visiting this scenic spot, what with beautiful Wanaka as the backdrop and the surrounding mountainous landscape, it is a treat for the eyes. But if you are planning to make the hike, be forewarned, it is no small feat. The trailhead begins from lake level and ascends to the summit at a whopping 5178 feet. The trail itself is nearly 10 miles roundtrip in length and there is a 4028 foot change in elevation. In layman’s terms, that is one strenuous trail.
If you are short on time as we were, you might opt to fly to the top instead. If you choose to fly, know that your time on top will be limited so make the most of it while you are up there. We flew with Wanaka Helicopters. Also, it was cold on top when we visited in February. Know the weather before you fly so that you are prepared. If it will be chilly, be sure to wear layers, gloves, a hat, and some thick socks and warm shoes. It would be a bummer to pay the money to fly up there and be miserable the whole time because you weren’t prepared for the weather!
See if you can spot some clips of myself and the team at the top of Roy’s peak from GoPro’s Experience Different video. Hint: There are three.
Camp (and pretty much anywhere you are allowed because it is breathtaking everywhere you go.)
My last recommendation for those planning a visit to New Zealand’s South Island is to CAMP. Of course, be sure you abide by camping rules and regulations on the island and that you aren’t camping in any restricted areas, but the island is chalk full of absolutely stunning campgrounds and you’d be doing yourself a great disservice, in my personal opinion, if you didn’t camp at least once. It is such a great way to engage with the environment of the island and inspire you to set out and explore a little more than if you might if you were to stay in hotels and hostels the whole time.
We camped at the Henry Creek Campsite, as well as at the Cascade Creek Campground — a scenic, though busy campground located a 45-minute drive from Milford Sound. Both were beautiful in different ways. Henry Creek, as mentioned before, was located along the shore of Lake Te Anau which was lovely for swimming and simple, lakeside camping. Cascade Creek was great because of its proximity to Milford Sound as well as the towering mountains and waterfalls that flanked the campground.
I recommend these two camps, but I hope that when you visit you are able to explore many others. Like I said, beauty meets you at every corner. I can’t imagine you would find a bad camp site on the island.