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The Top 10 Things to See and Do on New Zealand's South Island

By Edited May 21, 2016 1 1

I spent an entire month traveling around New Zealand’s South Island and still didn’t see everything I would have liked too.  But what I did see was amazing.  As a country New Zealand has such a variety, in people and geography, in such a small area which makes it easy to see a lot of differnt sights.  I fell in love with the country pretty much upon stepping off the plane.

Queen Charlotte Track: There is one ferry route between the North and South Island. It goes from Wellington to Picton, and as the Queen Charlotte Track is in Picton, it’s very easy to access.

The Track is a four day, three night hike through the Marlborough Sounds that is absolutely breath-taking.  The views are filled with gorgeous islets, hidden waterfalls, and spectacular panoramic

Queen Charlotte Track
views.  There are lodges to stay at if you don’t want to camp in tents, and lodges can ship your luggage to your next one so you don’t have to worry about carrying heavy packs around while hiking.

Hiking the track (or tramping as the Kiwi’s say) is really easy; it’s well maintained and not very strenuous, just long in some parts.  Guidebooks estimate an 8 hour hike each for that last two days, but I did it in four; I’m only of average fitness and had two sprain ankles. There were elderly folk on the track, proof of it’s accessibility, and you don’t have to do the entire track.  It’s easy to customize a tramping trip.

Jet Boat Ride: I took my jet boat ride just north of Westport, but there are plenty of options in Queenstown too.  Regardless of where you are when you strap in, do it.  It’s not just a ride down a river in a fast boat, it’s a tour of the area.  And then on your way back it’s a ride.  The G-force from spins sends you careening into the sides of the boat and the other passengers, the wind is so strong your hair stings as it hits your face and your tied on hood is ripped off, and despite all the water proof gear you are given to wear before you get in you are wet when it’s all done. 

Mirror Lakes: A lot of lakes in NZ were created by glaciers, and due to their structure are mirror lakes.  That is, water is stills periodically during the days and you can see a perfect reflection of the scenery in them.  There are lots of mirror lakes littered throughout the west coast of the South Island that you can pull over to see, the most famous being Lake Matheson.  But I’d recommend doing a sunset kayak tour of the one in Franz Josef.  Seeing the lake up close, being among the rainforest in the small streams on the lake’s other side, things are so peaceful you can’t help but feel the stress leave your body with each paddle.

Franz Josef Glacier: The Franz Josef Glacier is in the town of Franz Josef and is a rarity among glaciers for two reasons: a) it moves really fast for a glacier and b) it’s surrounded by rainforest. The general public can walk up to the base of the glacier, but to go any further you have to sign up for a guided tour.  There are ½ day and full day walking tours, 4 and 8 hours respectively, and I’d

Glacier Cave
recommend the later.  It takes almost 40 mins to walk from the park’s entrance to the glacier’s base, and another hour to get to the blue ice – ice that is not dirty from rocks or has turned white due to too much exposure with air.  The full day hike gives you a lot more time to explore it.

And what an exploration it is!  You climb through caves (I almost had to scoot along on my butt, the ceiling was so low in one), narrow crevices (where you have to shuffle through because it’s impossible to place one foot in front of another), and climb up and down steep ice walls (so steep that the guide have to cut out steps with their chisel and anchor a rope for the group to use to climb every time a tour is on the ice).

You’ll also discover lots of small pockets of glacier water that you’re welcome to stick your hand in to collect some to drink from.  It’s pure melted ice, and I have never tasted water so good.  And you’ll want water on this hike.  It’s decent work, your steps have to have more force that usual to them to allow the crampons to hook into the ice and the metal gear is heavy on your feet to begin with.  The sun reflects off all the ice too, making you feel really warm.

Queenstown:  The town to visit in the South Island, and one of NZ largest cities in the country.  It’s also called the Adventure Capital of the world, as it’s where commercial bungy-jumping started (you can still jump from the same spot today) and it’s success brought with it a lot of other adventure possibilities, such as jet boats, luge rides, and canyon swinging.

It’s also simply a nice city to be in.  It’s surrounded by mountains and sits on the coast of Lake Wanaka, so the scenery is awesome and there are numerous day hikes that aim to provide the best view of the area.  About 60% of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed in the region and there are plenty of tours exploring film locations if you’re interested.  Queenstown also has a great nightlife; head to the World Bar for the novelty of cocktails served in teapots.

Canyoning: My favorite adventure thing to do in Queenstown was canyoning. It’s pretty much what it sounds like, travelling down a canyon.  A wet canyon, I may add.  I was dropped down waterfalls, zip lined across the canyon, rappelled down cliffs, lowered myself down (and the rope was short, so I had to drop the last meter) into the water from mid-air, and had to jump superman style over rapids.  But the scariest thing was jumping off a 3-meter cliff in to a pool of water.  I remember getting ready to jump, looking for a spot to land, and then water rushing under my helmet and through my hair.  The actual jump, not so much. But that’s what made it awesome!

Milford Sound: Anyone will tell you this is something you have to do if you’re in New Zealand, and I totally agree. It’s actually a fjord, but that’s doesn’t matter. The bus ride into the Sound steals the show. Each corner reveals a new incredible sight, be they mountain views or rushing

Milford Sound
waterfalls,  so by the time you actually get to the Sound to hop on your boat tour you’ll be a little desensitized to the beauty of the Sounds.  But they are still stunning and worth taking a peek at. On nice days you can catch mirror reflections, and there’s always a chance of seeing dolphins or seals.

There are a number of tour companies that take busloads of people to, through, and back from Milford Sound, but I’d recommend Kiwi Experience.  From talking to other people who were there, the company offers the best deal.  $159 NZD covered transportation to and from the Sound, the boat tour, an all you can eat buffet on the boat (with good food like local mussels and ribs), and access to an underwater view of the Sound.

Lake Pukaki: There’s not much to do at Lake Pukaki, it’s really just a parking lot, toilets, and a small convenience store. But this lake between Queenstown and Christchurch is an image that I’ll never be able to get out of my mind.  The lake is this weird blue color, kinda smokey, kinda plasticy, that will not leave my head.  And at the far side of the lake you can see Mt. Cook (which really lies on the other side of the island), the tallest mountain in New Zealand.  Of all the amazing scenery of New Zealand I have seen, this is one of my favorites.

Orana Wildlife Park: Christchurch is an okay city, I had it fully explored in a few hours and found a lack of things to do. (I was there before the second earthquake, but the first did only heavily damaged a few blocks that weren’t in the heart of the city). But the Wildlife Park was awesome!

As a zoo, I’ve seen better, but Orana is a non-profit park and as such has to be a little more creative to gain funds.  Like, you can pay to pet a cheetah.  No joke! Every morning a small group of people have the opportunity to get up and personal with the spotted cats and actually pet them.

I got there a little late, but did mange to do the lion experience, or as the zoo keeper called it, “Meals on Wheels.”  All those who paid (about $30 NZD) were led into a metal cage on a trailer pulled by a truck, and then said truck drove into the lion pen. The zoo keepers in the cage with us then started

Lion Experience

feeding time.  It was quite incredible, watching the lions circle the cage waiting for meat to drop through the slot on the trailer's back or to be hand feed.  A lioness had jumped up on top of the cage, growling and snarling while pacing over our heads and one of the zoo keepers would just offer her a piece of meat on this flat hand.  And when we stopped, other lions would rear up to place their forepaws on the cage and growl for food. Which sometimes pissed off the lioness up on top, because she would bash them across the face and quick fight would start that we in the cage had front seats to.  It was kinda scary, but very thrilling. It’s not an opportunity you get every day.

Swimming with Dolphins: Kaikoura is a small town on the east coast of the South Island that has an unique ocean geography.  It has a rather large shallow self extends a bit from the coast, attracting a lot of fish, which in turns attracts a lot of dolphins, whales and exotic birds.  Who hang out year round so you can see them all the time!  But the best to creature to see are the dolphins, because you can actually swim with them in their natural habitat.

The thing about swimming with dolphins is that they really are like children.  You have to keep them entertained, or they’ll swim away.  So you make noises through your snorkel, spin in circles with them (you on the inside, so prepared to get dizzy), dive with them, and swim along side them until they want to go faster and your human limitations catch up.  But they get so close to you that you can feel their wake when they swim in front of you!

These are wild dolphins that you swim with, so each experience is different depending on the pods you find to swim with.  And you get to do a lot of swimming – when I went we found three different pods to swim with and they were all delightful.  The ocean is murky, so the dolphins come at you out of nowhere: the side, in front, and underneath so close to your belly you’re surprised a fluke doesn’t hit you in the chin as they swim ahead. 


Keep in mind these are just some of the things that make the South Island incredible, and New Zealand as a country has a lot more incredible things to offer.  There’s a whole additional island!



May 14, 2011 6:27pm
I would like to go kayaking in New Zealand
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