Road Trip in South Island, NZ: The Best Unplanned Halts

Any road trip in New Zealand is incomplete if you haven’t suddenly stopped beside the road to admire the country’s breath-taking vistas. If you’re driving around on your own in South Island, do not miss visiting these picturesque sites.

Aylesbury Station, Canterbury

It was one of the biggest storms in the region that blew away the iconic Aylesbury station in the storms that hit the Otago and Canterbury regions in New Zealand in 1976. All that remains today of the station is a raised platform sitting beside the Midland railway line.

However, as I stood on the raised platform of the former Aylesbury station, all I could see was a fantastic panorama of the great, wild mountainous region of South Island. The slate-grey road we were travelling on seemed to disappear in the depths of the Canterbury summer foliage. As I looked towards the brown and green jagged peaks which stretched across the entire landscape, I glimpsed snow-capped peaks on one end and dark green verdure on the other. I snapped picture after picture, and read with much interest about all the peaks and summits on the information board, which details the history and geography of the region.

For those tourists who are driving down on their own, I advise them to not miss visiting Aylesbury station, which tells the story of the historic region and offers fantastic views of the great mountainous heartland. While going from Christchurch to Greymouth/Franz Josef, you need to take the SH73/West Coast Road (now christened the Great Alpine Highway) to Kirwee. After coming upon a big junction, you need to continue on the West Coast Road. The spot for the former Aylesbury station lies just 450m ahead on the left.

Cardrona Pass Lookout, Otago

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The shades of buff, russet and tan stood strikingly against the piercing dodger blue shade of the cloudless summer sky. The white flowers swayed in the cool summer evening breeze. We were at the Cardrona Pass, somewhere in the Crown Range Mountains in Otago, New Zealand.

It was around 4 p.m. on a sunny New Zealand summer evening when we crossed over from the verdant vistas of Mt. Aspiring National Park to the russet landscapes of the Cardrona Valley, Otago. The valley is said to have housed one of the largest gold mines during the famous Otago gold rush of the early 1860s. Today, the only shades of gold you’ll find is the swathes of tussock in the valley. If you get the time, visit the historical establishment of Cardrona town which is around 14km from the monument via the Crown Range road. You can stop at the now-famous Cardrona Hotel which, apart from a good meal and a drink, also has some fascinating tales about having been actually built by Chinese labourers back in the 1860s.

The present-day well-known Cardrona lookout point is located on the Crown Range Summit Road, around 29km before one hits Queenstown. The area is well-marked by signboards and offers tourists a lovely, bird’s eye view of the Cardrona Valley and the Otago landscape beyond. Don’t miss this one!

Fantail Falls, Haast Pass

If you’ve ever fantasized about filling up water from a spring in the countryside, then Fantail falls is the place for you. Located around 5km from the Gates of the Haast River in Mount Aspiring National Park, Fantail falls is a beautiful attraction that is a confluence of Maori culture and modern tourism in New Zealand. After disembarking in the car park, walk towards a smaller shoreline of the Haast River where the water merrily bobs by. Fill up water in your bottles or simply sit with your feet dipped in the water.

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After you’ve had your fill, walk towards Fantail falls which lie at the end of the concrete path. As you come upon the falls, you’ll see beautifully eerie rock cairns built by tourists all over the place. Some of them were so artfully constructed that I couldn’t help but admire the handiwork up close. Across the small stream, the 23m-high falls were in full glory since it was mid-summer. A word of caution: if you do want to wade across the water to get to the waterfalls, then do so with your shoes on because the riverbed is full of sharp stones.

A small information board chronicles the long history of the place including information about the Mt. Brewster track on the other side. The 6-8 hour return track takes tourists to 12-bunk alpine Brewster hut. You can read about it here.

Lake Pukaki, Aoraki National Park

On State Highway 8 around 11km from the town of Twizel lies a shimmering blue-coloured ribbon of a lake that pictures don’t do justice to. Nestled against the gorgeous backdrop of Mt. Aoraki, the halcyon glacier-fed Lake Pukaki almost feels like a confluence of the natural and the supernatural worlds, which is what the Maori god Aoraki represents.

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It is this ancient, glacier-carved valley which inspired the setting for Lake Town in the epic movie ‘Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’. The piercing, almost blinding cyan-blue of Lake Pukaki clashes beautifully with the gamboge-coloured foliage of the Mackenzie basin and the snow-covered alpine peaks of Mount Cook National Park.

If you’re travelling from Queenstown to Mount Cook, you can snap some great pictures with the Pukaki and Aoraki mountains in the background. If you’re travelling in summer, you’ll see some beautiful purple-coloured Canterbury flowers that add to the bucolic setting. If you’re really, really lucky and you visit Lake Pukaki on less cloudy day, you’ll be able to see the Lake change shades of blue as the clouds pass over – that’s just how clear the waters are.

Haast Highway, Bruce Bay, West Coast

If you’re a traveller who loves leaving behind little pieces of your existence during your travels, then one of the best places to do so is by writing your names on the Bruce Bay piles of white rocks.

The stunning Bruce Bay region of the Haast highway is the only place the road hits the sea at ground level on the drive from Franz Josef to Queenstown. Driving alongside the Tasman Sea gives you a hell of a rush, especially at high tide when the water hits the beach in full force, creating snow white foam as it does so. At a distance of every few metres, you’ll see little piles of snow-white rocks where tourists have written down lovely messages – anything that comes to their mind.

Look around for an empty white rock, which is difficult considering the increasing number of tourists and the dwindling number of white rocks, and leave a message. You’ll feel really good, as if you’ve left a little piece of you in New Zealand.

Other gorgeous places to stop at in South Island include the mirror pools on the way to Milford Sound, Lake Tekapo, Greymouth, Knight’s Point Lookout in Bruce Bay, Arrowtown in Otago and Jackson bay in Otago. Read about them in my next post.

Have you taken this road trip too? If you have and have stopped at a place that I haven’t, leave a line in the comments. I would love to know about what I missed out on!

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