Not one but two itineraries for touring New Zealand's South Island destinations on the ULTIMATE backpacking trail!
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Just skip North Island and go to South Island.

That’s the advice that I received before landing in New Zealand and, after round-tripping the country twice, I can see the legitimacy of that claim. That’s not to say North Island isn’t super pretty because it is (it is New Zealand, after all); it still has many of New Zealand’s must-go destinations. But it is fair to say that South Island is next-level New Zealand.

Once you board the ferry at Wellington and cross the strait into the sounds in the northern area of New Zealand’s South Island, it all makes sense. Oh, that’s why skip North Island… It’s New Zealand Level 2.

A sunset in Wanaka - a must go destination in New Zealand
Now entering level 2. | Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar

So, you’re backpacking  New Zealand? Well, I hope you have time because that’s something that you’re going to want a lot of in order to see all of South Island’s breathtaking attractions. Of course, time is a difficult commodity to balance in New Zealand given the high cost of everything.

So let’s try and negotiate with that New Zealand backpacking cost, hey? Try and get it to reign in its nastiness with an appropriate New Zealand South Island itinerary: a budget-friendly travel guide! One that doesn’t leave any of New Zealand’s hidden gems hidden beneath the muck.

Oh, who am I kidding? It’s New Zealand, there is no muck.

A pretty vista from one of South Island's points of interest
What fucking muck?

Best Time to Visit the South Island of New Zealand

This is the one thing North Island is truly able to laud over the south: it’s got the better sun. The weather in New Zealand’s South Island is rougher and just a bit more challenging (as the ‘coasters’ on the Wild West Coast love to remind you). It’s not that South Island doesn’t still receive the blessed New Zealand temperate days, just… fewer of them. 

It’s unpredictable too (though that may be due to the effects of climate change more than New Zealand itself). I was catching some pretty damn chilly nights and days in early Autumn. Hell, I got a sub 10°C week with powder-capped mountains in February in Wanaka! Though, that was an especially freak cold snap (global warming is a lie perpetuated by the reptilian mole-people).

The weather in New Zealand's South Island is varied
The right time to visit New Zealand is anytime!

All-in-all, if you’re an experienced all-seasons traveller, South Island has offerings for you: misty mountains, damp forests, and the West Coast (yeah, we’ll get to that). Just be prepared for a few unexpected surprises from the weather in New Zealand’s South Island. A few more frosty mornings, surprise downpours, and sandflies… a metric shitton of sandflies!

Have a look at the table for some average weather conditions and plan your New Zealand South Island itinerary accordingly. Take note though, due to New Zealand’s diverse landscape, weather conditions vary greatly from one region of South Island to the next in as short a distance as 200km:

 Average TemperaturesChances of RainCrowdsOverall Grade
January22°C/72°FDepends whereBusy🙂
February21°C/70°FDepends whereBusy🙂
March19°C/66°FDepends whereMedium😀
April17°C/63°FDepends whereMedium (entering shoulder season)😀
May14°C/57°FDepends whereMedium-Low🙂
June11°C/52°FDepends whereLow (except ski destinations)🙂
July9°C/48°FDepends whereLow (except ski destinations)🙂
August10°C/50°FDepends whereLow (except ski destinations)🙂
September13°C/55°FDepends whereLow🙂
October15°C/59°FDepends wherePicking up😀
November17°C/63°FDepends wherePicking up (shoulder season)😀
December19°C/66°FDepends wherePeak season beginning🙂

Where to Stay in the South Island of New Zealand

Where you’re staying in New Zealnd will heavily depend on what you wan to see. There’s no one best place amongst the accommodation in New Zealand’s South Island. Similarly, there’s no central base of operations in South Island: it ain’t a big place but it’ll take you more than a day to cross.

Taking into consideration that you’ll be moving around South Island’s destinations to see everything, I’ve listed some of my favourite hostel options (you’re welcome). Down below, I’ve given you somewhere to stay for several places in New Zealand; major New Zealand highlights that you’ll almost definitely be checking out or, at the very least, passing through.

Trying to mitigate the hostel prices in New Zealand
Kiwis have a wonderful tendency to put you up. | Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar

However, in regards to accommodation, you’ve always got an option. The travel economy is strong in New Zealand and South Island’s backpackers continue the trend of providing a good stay for the vagabonds kicking around.

There is nearly always a budget backpacker accommodation available in South Island if you’re sticking to the towns along New Zealand’s backpacker trails. Camping is super viable too but if not-paying is the goal, you will usually need to get a bit sneaky with your pitches.

And, as you’ll quickly come to realise, touring the South Island of New Zealand with a self-driven campervan is a pretty standard affair for backpackers. In fact, it’s one of the best ways to explore and get off the beaten track in New Zealand. The van life game is strong with this one.

Best Hostel in Christchurch, New Zealand – Kiwi Basecamp

Kiwi Basecamp is the best hostel in Christchurch

One of the best hostels in Christchurch with a primo location: right near the park and tucked in the city centre is Kiwi Basecamp. Oh, and they bake fresh bread every morning. Easy choice.

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Best Hostel in Queenstown, New Zealand – The Flaming Kiwi Backpackers

Flaming Kiwi is the best hostel in QueenstownThere are lots of hostels in Queenstown but the Flaming Kiwi has both a mega-rad name and three kitchens! That means if someone is using the spaghetti strainer you can just go get another one! It’s also just a dope backpackers.

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Best Hostel in Wanaka, New Zealand – Wanaka Bakpaka

Wanaka Bakpaka is the best hostel in WanakaTaking the prize for the best view out of the many hostels in Wanaka; how does a panorama of the lake and mountains sound? It’s also a 5-minute walk from town so the vibe is a bit quieter than the other backpackers in Wanaka.

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Best Hostel in Nelson, New Zealand – Tasman Bay Backpackers

Tasman Bay is the best hostel in Nelson

There are plenty of options for Nelson hostels but here you can enjoy a bonus all-you-can-eat winter breakfast (Tasman Bay is the spot to bunker down for the winter). They also have off-street parking and free bike usage which is good because parking in Nelson can be a real shit fight.

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Best Hostel in Picton, New Zealand – Juggler’s Rest

Juggler's Rest is the Best Hostel in PictonThere’s not actually a whole lot in Picton besides the ferry and a good starting point for entry into the sounds but I wanted to mention these guys because they’re quirky and different and I like the vibe. The theme is circus. Anyone who likes a bit of poi, fire-dancing, juggling, and all that good jazz will find their people here.

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It's adventure time
It’s adventure time!

South Island of New Zealand 7-Day Itinerary – Itinerary #1: The Northern South Island

That’s right, you’re getting two itineraries – two for the price of one! And the price is free! Man, aren’t you so blessed?

The layout and difficulties with public transport is the reason many people commit to a road trip around South Island. There is a semi-decent intercity bus service but it’s considerably less versatile than the same service on the more populous North Island.

There’s also a train, but it’s more for tourism purposes than actual utility (I’d still recommend checking it out if you’re a train nerd though because it runs a beautiful route). Simply put, however, the public transport is, by far and large, not a good way to explore South Island and not suited to the kinds of in-depth exploration that it deserves.

Hitchhiking is one of the best methods for following a New Zealand South Island itinerary
May I instead interest you in some hitchhiking? | Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar

Of course, there is hitchhiking and it’s the best! New Zealand is kinda boss for it and it’s a perfect place for anyone new to the game to get their stripes. There’ll be difficult days, especially in the more sparsely populated ‘Deep South’, but you’ll always get a ride. I know hitching may not be everyone’s cup of tea but once you start trying to navigate around South Island’s destinations sans car, you may reconsider.

There is always option three though and I like option three: the great South Island of New Zealand road trip! South Island is perfectly suited to a campervan itinerary and I would recommend it to anyone willing to wear the soul-crushingly expensive petrol prices: $2.30 NZD per litre – what is this shit!

So, without further ado, the first New Zealand South Island itinerary. I’ve started it from Picton (as if you’d crossed the ferry from Wellington on North Island) and one day represents one place. Is that enough to explore all the spectacular points of interest in South Island? Hell no, but it’s a start!

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The Wellington to Picton ferry is a common beginning for many South Island itineraries
The journey begins. | Image source: Sid Mosdell (Flickr)

Day 1 Itinerary in South Island of New Zealand – Picton

The Queen Charlotte Track | Kaipupu Wildlife Sanctuary | Wine Country

Ahh, Picton, the gateway to South Island… the semi-boring gateway to South Island. The township itself is admittedly a bit dull but there are definitely things to do, especially in the area surrounding the town. Besides, if you’re catching the ferry, you’ll have to come here one way or another.

Picton is a definite for anyone touring the South Island of New Zealand starting with the ferry
Picton: pretty and quaint | Image source: Markus Koljonen (Wikicommons)
  • Why it’s awesome: It’s the gateway to the majestic Malborough Sounds. Fun fact: the Marlborough Sounds aren’t actually sounds (fiords); they’re rias (submerged river valleys).
  • Where to Stay in Picton: You’ve got a few options for backpackers but the Juggler’s Rest is super cool for one of the more unique places to stay in the South Island of New Zealand.
  • Food Recommendation: Crow Tavern is smack-bang in the middle of the town square with a proper pub feed and a roasting fire to sit in front of and brood longingly.

Things to Do in Picton – The Queen Charlotte Track

  • Cost: $12 single-day pass/$25 multi-day pass + water transport costs

Easily the best way to experience the sounds and one of the highlights of New Zealand’s northern South Island area. Tramping the full track will take 5 days (camping and accommodation available) and it’s an amazing walk: lengthy (clocking in at 70 km) but not steep. Biking the track is also doable but the kicker is that you’ll need to organise some (pricey) water transport from Picton’s waterfront to Ship’s Cove to begin the track.

If the full tramp isn’t for you, you can catch transport out for a day hike or just to stay in one of the beautiful homestays scattered around the sounds.

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The Queen Charlotte Track is the main thing to do in Picton
Bay of Many Coves, Queen Charlotte Track | Image source: Phillip Capper (Flickr)

Things to Do in Picton – Kaipupu Wildlife Sanctuary

  • Cost: Free + water transport costs

Featuring walking of the ‘done in a day’ variety, the Kaipupu Sanctuary features a lot of native New Zealand forest and wildlife. There’s no entrance fee but this is another situation where you’ll have to suss out some transport. Water taxis with different services are available along Picton’s waterfront.

Expect a lot of furry friends while you're backpacking the South Island of New Zealand
Making friends with the locals. | Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar

Things to Do in Picton – Wine Country

Once you start heading out of Picton south (more towards Blenheim but I have no clue why anyone would ever want to stay in Blenheim), you’re in Marlborough wine country. Wine country equals wine and wine equals fun, therefore, wine country equals fun. It’s simple math!

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Touring wine country in the Malborough, New Zealand
White people in their natural habitat.

Picton hostel

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Juggler’s Rest
There’s not actually a whole lot in Picton besides the ferry and a good starting point for entry into the sounds but I wanted to mention these guys because they’re quirky and different and I like the vibe. The theme is circus. Anyone who likes a bit of poi, fire-dancing, juggling and all that good jazz will find their people here.
  • $$
  • Toys to play with
  • Eclectic vibe

Day 2: Itinerary in South Island of New Zealand – Kaikoura

Whale Watching | Seal Watching | Mt Fyffe

Kaikoura lies on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. If Kaikoura sounds familiar, that’s because in 2016 an earthquake struck the area causing significant damage. It was both New Zealand’s second-largest earthquake by magnitude and has been described as “the most complex earthquake ever studied”.

That being said, the damage somehow makes it more beautiful, believe it or not. A fractured coastline with roads and infrastructure still heavily damaged and being repaired. Maybe it’s not the standard New Zealand backpacking trip in South Island but it certainly has that whole ‘nature could squish us anytime’ thing going. The wildlife is pretty damn dope too.

Kaikoura's beaches are home to much of South Island's wildlife
The Kaikoura Coast | Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar
  • Why it’s awesome: It’s the true feeling of the mountains meeting the sea: mountain ranges turn to rolling foothills, in turn, merging with the rugged coastline. And it’s all east-facing (wink-wink).
  • Where to Stay in Kaikoura: There are several hostels in Kaikoura and there was a free campground too just a little bit north outside town along Kiwa Road and the beach. It may or may not still be there (New Zealand is cracking down on the practice) but it is a long beach…
  • Food Recommendation: Kaikoura Seafood and BBQ Kiosk serves up freshly grilled seafood and is close to the headland. Kaikoura is famous for the abundance of seafood in the area (especially cray). Grab a snack and then walk on up to Point Kean Viewpoint. Nin’s Bin outta town at Halfmoon Bay is another good ol’ seaside takeaway shop for the road trippers.

Things to Do in Kaikoura – Whale Watching

  • Cost: Free or $145 for a tour

So, I said the wildlife was good and it’s true; the marine life in Kaikoura is stunning (and around every corner). It’s considered one of the best and most beautiful places in the South Island of New Zealand, – and the world – for whale watching; you’re almost guaranteed to see something. Sperm whales are pretty much a definite and there’s a good chance of having an encounter with orcas, dolphins, and even albatrosses!

You can even book a tour to go meet the whales up close in a boat! Or just watch from shore with a pair of binoculars for the no-extra-charge option.

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Orcas on a whale watching tour in Kaikoura

Things to Do in Kaikoura – Seals!

  • Cost: Free!

See, you don’t need to drop 150 bucks to see some whimsical cuties: NZ on a budget still packs a punch! Head out to the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway’s vantage points for seal watching. It’s considered New Zealand’s must-go destination for seeing the little buggers.

The peninsula also makes for a chill day hike – long enough to feel away from everyone but you’ll still make it home in time for more BBQ seafood. You’ll find heaps of bird colonies along the way too.

A seal in Kaikoura having a splash

Things to Do in Kaikoura – A Proper Panorama

  • Cost: Free

Hiking up Mt Fyffe is the real challenge for the trampers though. It’s an 8-hour return walk (there is a hut to crash at) with the summit sitting at 1602m high. And, yeah, as you may have guessed, your reward is some pretty remarkable views of Kaikoura and the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island.

The Kaikoura Range is a gorgeous spectacle for a South Island road trip
Looking towards Mt Fyffe and the Kaikoura Range | Image source: Junatom (Wikipedia)

Day 3: Itinerary in South Island of New Zealand – Hanmer Springs

Hot Springs | Penguin Watching | Mt Lyford Ski Fields

It’s fair to call Hanmer Springs a miniature Queenstown. It doesn’t quite have the year-long intensity but that also kind of makes it a perfect place to visit in South Island for a New Zealand adventure holiday with less binge alcoholism. You’ll find some of South Island’s adventure activities here like rapid rafting, quad biking, ski fields, and bungy jumps! 

You’ll also find more chill options like hot springs and penguin watching. Yup! This is a great location where you get to see penguins on the South Island of New Zealand (more towards the coast rather than in Hanmer Springs itself).

Hanmer Springs is a low-key alternative to Queenstown for those backpacking New Zealand's South Island
For the bungy enthusiasts.
  • Why it’s awesome: Environmentally, the town is pretty spectacular nestled amongst the mountains and forest; it’s like a tranquil alpine getaway. It may not quite have the jaw-dropping backdrop of the Queenstown area but Hanmer Springs certainly still makes it hard to leave. Plus, I have a not-so-secret love affair with hot springs.
  • Where to Stay in Hanmer Springs: Check out the YHA Kakapo Lodge for a good place to stay in Hanmer Spring.
  • Food Recommendation: PJ’s Chalet does tasty burgers, fish, and chips at tasty burgers, fish, and chips prices. Can’t really go wrong with that.

Things to Do in Hanmer Springs – Umm… the springs…?

  • Cost: $25 entry

Yeah, as if you didn’t see that coming. Like, there are thermal pools and I’m not going to tell you to go? As if.

The entry cost is $25 (you can book here) and your reward is a variety of different pools to melt in: sulphur, rainbow, aqua therapy, etc. There’s even the option to book a private pool making Hanmer Springs a true New Zealand gem for couples looking for a romantic destination to celebrate their loving bond… or to salvage a dying one in shambles.

The hot springs in Hanmer Springs are the number one thing to do
‘Problems’….? What are those again…?

Things to Do in Hanmer Springs – Penguins!

  • Cost: Free

Dude, there’s so much cool wildlife on South Island’s east coast. On the way through to the township of Hanmer Springs take a detour down Motunau Beach Road to the beach. From here you can see Motunau Island, home to a penguin colony of over 5000 cuties. That’s a big fucking waddle of penguins.

Things to Do in Hanmer Springs
Yellow-Eyed Penguins: Exclusive to New Zealand. Gotta catch ’em all!

Things to Do in Hanmer Springs – Skiing at Mt Lyford

  • Cost: $80 for the full-day ski pass

All year round Mt Lyford offers the opportunity for snowboarding and skiing in the South Island and is one of New Zealand’s more ‘off the beaten path’ ski fields. It’s not totally remote or anything but it does fly under the radar in comparison to the other more famous South Island ski fields like Wanaka and Queenstown.

Mt. Lyford has a range of good terrain for all skill levels and the real lack of crowds makes it one of New Zealand’s South Island’s hidden gems. But, if you’re after the usual party nightlife that comes with a ski town, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Day 4: Itinerary in South Island of New Zealand – West Coast (North)

Pancake Rocks | Charleston Caving | Oparara Basin Arches

Ahh, the West Coast, let’s talk about you because it’s without a doubt one of the things you have to do in New Zealand. Untamed, wilderness, and wild are just some words people use for the West Coast of South Island but I like ‘prehistoric’. The place just feels so ancient and is so sparsely populated that you truly feel like your catching a glimpse of the proper Aotearoa.

Also, the weather sucks farts. Like, you may think that’s a crude and ineloquent way to put it but trust me – once you get to the West Coast your first thought will also be ‘the weather sucks farts’. It’s cold and windy (even in summer); it’s the wettest area in New Zealand, raining for half the year (even in summer); and the sandflies are always around and willing to screw over your day (even in summer).

Of course, that’s part of the charm! They don’t call it the Wild West Coast for nothing. You go for the untouched landscape; if you want joints and sun you go to Golden Bay (spoilers).

West Coast
The Wild West Coast

I’d honestly say that the West Coast is one of the best places to drive through in the South Island of New Zealand and easily one of my favourites. Luckily, this New Zealand South Island itinerary splits the West Coast in two. If you’re coming in from Hanmer Springs, you can cut into the centre of the West Coast at Greymouth and follow the coast.

  • Why it’s awesome: The feeling of stepping into one of those old 3D IMAX dinosaur films from when I was a kid (sans the dinosaurs, unfortunately).
  • Where to Stay on the West Coast: I’d honestly say that the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island’s is more of a place to visit rather than stay but if you base yourself in Westport at the top end of the coast, it’s a good jumping-off point for the northern West Coast. It’s got a relaxed vibe and leads to the area of the West Coast north of Westport (up to Karamea) which is another of the more unexplored places in New Zealand.
  • Food Recommendation: It’s a little bit pricey but Denniston Dog in Westport is popular with the locals for a good reason. Stone-grilled carnivorous delights and also stone-grilled herbivorous delights – something for everyone!

Things to Do in the Northern West Coast, New Zealand – The Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki

  • Cost: Free

Punakaiki is a small community along the coast with one of the South Island West Coast’s major attractions – the Pancake Rocks. Bizarre limestone formations that have the extra added bonus feature of ejecting seawater at you if they get over-excited. That is to say, they’re blowholes… natural blowholes.

Punakaiki is also on the edge of the Paparoa National Park which is a good option to get away from the extremely tourist-friendly Pancake Rocks.

Pancake Rocks is the super famous thing to do on the West Coast
So many off-colour ‘blowhole’ jokes, so little time. | Image source: Ruth Hartnup (Flickr)

Things to Do in the Northern West Coast, New Zealand – Caving at Charleston

  • Cost:  Glowworm tour – $120 | Rafting tour – $185 | Caving tour – $350

Charleston, another village along the coast before Westport, offers some seriously rad adventure tours for those backpacking around New Zealand. An intricate system of caves below the area in the Paparoa National Park creates a labyrinth of limestone worthy of a spelunking adventure.

Tourist tours operate from Charleston giving the choice of walking tours, glowworm caves, or some proper rafting and caving for anyone looking for a proper Wild West Coast adventure. And before you ask, yeah, I checked. No unguided caving for anyone without their certifications… lame…

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Intricate caves make for some of New Zealand's uneplored places
Champs. | image source: Simon KB (Wikimedia Commons)

Things to Do in the Northern West Coast, New Zealand – The Oparara Basin Arches at Karamea

  • Cost: Free / $95-$150 for a tour

Heading up to Karamea takes you off the beaten track of most backpacking trails in New Zealand. Situated right beside the Kahurangi (New Zealand’s second-largest national park), exploring the area means seeing some truly ancient landscape.

An easy walk into the park takes you to the Oparara Basin Arches, magnificent and expansive limestone structures hidden amongst the sprawling forest. There are also tours available to take you to the otherwise inaccessible Honeycomb Caves. These caves are home to a large collection of fossilised bird bones of the now-extinct giant birds, the moa (I told you it was like Jurassic Park).

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More gorgeous nature for those doing NZ on a budget
West Coast Jurassic feels at Oparara. | image source: Pseudopanax (Wikimmedia Commons)

Day 5: Itinerary in South Island of New Zealand – Nelson

Markets | Art Galleries | National WOW Museum

I’d call Nelson the most Australian east coast-y feeling place on South Island. Although, East Coast Australia vibes is gonna be the reoccurring theme for the next few stops on the South Island of New Zealand itinerary… except they’re better!

Perched right on Tasman Bay, the city is no stranger to blue skies and ridiculously blue water. Like, I’m talking twinkling ‘oh sorry, I got lost in your eyes’ blue. If you’ve been to any Australian east coast tourist spot, you’ll know what to expect from Nelson.

Nelson's main road is a common sight in most New Zealand backpacking trails
Oh sorry, was just busy getting lost in my eyes. | Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar

Swimming, restaurants, cafes, shopping, festivals, markets… you get the idea. It’s like a busy slow-life; alternative living at a premium price. Honestly, it doesn’t attract me as much as the other South Island points of interest further up the bay (and the next bay over) but it’s still well worth checking out. Especially for anyone that enjoys that beachside-city style of living.

Tasman Bay is also a good spot for backpacking jobs in New Zealand. Between the hostels, the huge amount of agriculture around the Tasman Bay area, and the general reliance on the tourism industry, it’s a good place for anyone who’s hoping to turn their backpacking trip in New Zealand’s South Island into a backpacking stay. It’s also the gateway to my favourite parts of New Zealand and where we’re heading next (I’m getting excited)!

  • Why it’s awesome: It’s a pretty city in a gorgeous location… and it’s warm a lot!
  • Where to Stay in Nelson: Nelson has lots of choices for backpacker accommodation but I’d head to the Tasman Bay Backpackers because they’re dope. They also have a more lenient system in place for freedom camping than many other places in New Zealand but only for those doing a South Island road trip in a self-contained vehicle.
  • Food Recommendation: Did someone say Indian? I did because Indian is goddamn delicious! Check out The Indian Cafe when you decide you’d like a little more ‘Asia’ in your ‘Australasian Adventure’. Or the frozen yoghurt place; it’s a totally conventional frozen yoghurt chain but when has frozen yoghurt ever not been the best thing ever?

Things to Do in Nelson – Saturday Markets

  • Cost: Free (contingent on your willpower)

This is a pretty damn serious market! The entire Tasman and Golden Bay area is a hotspot for agriculture, arts, and alternative living so you’ll find tonnes of dope shit. This is even where I got my magic hat! That hat gets me hitchhiking rides anywhere, anytime!

The markets run in Montgomery Square, Saturday, 8 A.M. to 1 P.M. On top of all the handmade goodies, delicious treaties, and magic hats you’ll also find heaps of second-hand stuff too! Oh yeah, check out the farmer’s markets on Wednesday as well.

A busking artist at the markets in Nelson
Nelson Markets feat. Evolving Rhythms… with his own magic hat! | Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar

Things to Do in Nelson – Art Galleries

  • Cost: Usually free

As I said, Nelson is an arts hub so there are heaps of galleries around. It’s not just Nelson either; in the surrounding towns of Richmond and Brightwater, you’ll find even more galleries and then more again as you head further up the bay.

The Suter Art Gallery in Nelson is the place to start for art fiends; it’s where all the local art in the region congregates. It’s also free! For something a little different, the Hoglund Glass Gallery in Appleby features a lot of handmade exhibitions and live glassblowing demonstrations too.

There's lots of good art and galleries in Nelson
Hmm, yes… I can really feel the art.

Things to Do in Nelson – National WOW Museum (World of WearableArt) Museum

  • Cost: $24

I could have stuck this in art galleries but it feels deserving of a special mention since it’s just so damn wonderful! What if I told you there was a building in Nelson that housed more than 60 avant-garde artistic costumes and more than 140 vintage cars? Yeah, it is both dumb and a weirdly gratifying experience.

Although, I’m not sure I’m quite doing it justice with ‘avant-garde’. Perhaps Zoolander meets Marvel Extended Universe supervillains is a little bit more appropriate…

The WOW museum in Nelson makes for a depature from South Island's natural highlights
The Slug Queen is a nice touch… | image source: Tony Hisgett (Flickr)

Nelson hostel

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Tasman Bay Backpackers
There are plenty of options for Nelson hostels but here you can enjoy a bonus all-you-can-eat winter breakfast (Tasman Bay is the spot to bunker down for the winter). They also have off-street parking and free bike usage which is good because parking in Nelson can be a real shit fight.
  • $$
  • Off-street biking
  • Free bike rental

Day 6: Itinerary in South Island of New Zealand – Motueka

Abel Tasman National Park | The Beach! | Organic Yummies

Oh boy, we’re hereee! If I get a little bit gushy and start talking about joints too much, I apologise, but we’re here! Motueka! And then north, just over Takaka Hill… well, we’ll get to that.

Remember how I said this place feels like east coast Australia… yeah, well, welcome to Byron. It’s surrounded by spectacular natural beauty (home of the Abel Tasman National Park) and scattered around the whole region you’ll find permaculture, alternative community living, and hippies. And, as we all know, when you want to find some dank bud, you find a hippy.

The Tasman Bay area is a must go in New Zealand for any on the hippy trail
This dude wasn’t even selling crystals; he just laid them out for people to hold and enjoy. What a legend. | Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar

I personally would consider the Tasman/Golden Bay region to be one of the best places to backpack in New Zealand. Between the darling weather, the cheaper options for living, and the general amicability of locals towards travellers, it’s hard not to feel settled in this area. I honestly consider it one of the most beautiful places in the South Island of New Zealand, at least in terms of openness to the wayward drifter.

  • Why it’s awesome: It’s ridiculously pretty, there are a lot of good people around (good music and dancing too), and the vibes are super chill!
  • Where to Stay in Motueka: There are lots off accommodation options but there are heaps of cheap (and free) options for camping around too. Kina Beach has an excellent campsite: $5 a night and all the best dirtbags stay there. There’s also a free site by Motueka River on the way to Ngatimoti.
  • Food Recommendation: Arcadia Organics Shop and Cafe is Hare Krishna owned and run and, as you probably already know (if you don’t, you’ll learn quickly), that means ridiculously good food in ridiculously good portions at ridiculously good prices. The Happy Chips next door also does a mean fish and chips kai.

Things to Do in Motueka – The Abel Tasman National Park

  • Cost: Varying camp and hut booking costs

This incredibly famous park makes the must-go list for nearly everybody touring the South Island of New Zealand. It’s easily one of the most famous Great Walks in New Zealand second only maybe to Tongariro Circuit (of Mount Doom ‘I don’t think there will be a return journey, Mr Frodo’ fame).

If a multi-day tramp ain’t your cup of tea though, there are heaps of kayaking tours to take (and the Abel Tasman is one of the most gorgeous places for it) and lots of day hikes too. The only real thing I can say against the Abel Tasman is that it is busy. Like, almost too busy. I’d strongly consider visiting in shoulder season and avoiding the peak times.

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The Abel Tasman National Park is a must go for New Zealand's great walks
Split Apple Rock, Abel Tasman National Park | image source: Tristan Schmurr (Flickr)

Things to Do in Motueka – Hit the Beach

  • Cost: Free

There are fewer sandflies than the West Coast beaches and fewer people than the Nelson beaches. Sunny and warm, Mot is prime for beach-going and the northern coast has some of South Island’s best beaches overall.

The aforementioned Kina Beach, named after the shells found there (fun fact), is a much more chill counterpart to the famous but more crowded Kaiteriteri Beach. Alternatively, you can see if you can hunt down something more secluded in the Abel Tasman.

Kaiteriteri Beach is one of the best beaches in New Zealand
Kaiteriteri Beach: Water so blue it’s hard to believe that countless children have peed in it. | image source: Oren Rozen (Wikicommons)

Things to Do in Motueka – Organic Fruits and Veg

  • Cost: Cheap

Mot and the whole Tasman Region is an epicentre for sustainable living, permaculture, and self-sustained (sometimes communal) properties. The area even has a cute relevant nickname that I’ve now forgotten which is a shame because it made me giggle.

The point is, if you drive inland (toward Ngatimoti), you’ll start seeing those roadside unmanned kiosks with bags of plums, apples, marrows, and whatever else is in stock. They’re cheap and they’re better than anything you’ll get from New World (psst, the best stall ever is down Greenhill Road). There are also the town markets on Sundays with a lot of produce and everything else you could possibly want.

Oh, and if long-term stay through volunteering and WWOOFing is the goal, you’ve come to the right location.

Tasman bay is one of the most beautiful places in the South Island of New Zealand
Self-sustainable right down to the water-wheel supplying power: welcome to Tasman Bay. | Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar

Day 7: Itinerary in South Island of New Zealand – Takaka

Rock Climbing | Boogie Down | Explore the Bay

We made it! There’s no feeling quite the same as summiting Takaka Hill and seeing the spread of Golden Bay beneath you. Welcome to another of my backpacking meccas. Why? Because here time doesn’t matter: welcome to Stuckaka!

Here you’ll find weirdos, ferals, travellers, drifters, normies, (honourable) thieves, and honest folk all mixed together in a beautiful melting pot. The joints are always being passed, there’s always good music around, and a friend to talk too is only ever a stroll through town away. That’s why I put Takaka last on the New Zealand South Island itinerary: because you might just want to get stuck for a while.

A couple of New Zealand gems
<3 | Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar

If the slow life isn’t your cup of tea, then there’s still lots to draw you in: surfing, rock climbing, and the immense Kahurangi to disappear in for at weeks at a time. One way or another, be warned: Takaka is one of those destinations you might accidentally forget to leave.

Welcome to the bubble.

  • Why it’s awesome: There’s one road in and one road out over a mountain… the result? Golden Bay is in a world all of its own; a snow globe without the snow.
  • Where to Stay in Takaka: There are backpackers in town and freedom camping too. I won’t tell you where though. Finding it is part of the fun of Takaka; it ain’t hard though.
  • Food Recommendation: There’s a little cafe/laundromat/video shop/library/internet spot (the owner is quite resourceful) called FrontSeat. Make friends there and consider it a starting point. The Curry Leaf across the road does the best chips in town and up the other end of town is an ice-cream shop that I’ve forgotten the name of and will blow your mind into the realms of the dairy gods where unicorns poop new ice-cream flavours every day.

Things to Do in Takaka – Rock Climbing

  • Cost: Free + gear rental

Just outta town is another place to stay called Camp Hangdog – it’s a climber’s camp! It’s pretty cheap and there’s gear to hire and people to partner up with you’re lacking in those things.

Heaps of sports climbing routes and a (sadly) tiny amount of bouldering too. And the river is just there so you can finish up your days with a dip!

Rock climbing in Golden Bay New Zealand
My feet are getting tingly. | image source: Stefanos Nikologianis (Flickr)

Things to Do in Takaka – Boogies!

  • Cost: Depends on the gig

I mentioned music, right? It’s not just Golden Bay though. From Nelson, all the way through Tasman you’re going to be finding incredible music.

Lots of live music, amazing local talent (and international stuff too), and parties up the wazoo – especially in the festival season. Golden Bay, especially, has good offerings on the electric music front: drum ‘n’ bass, techno, psy… If you’re chasing the doof scene, it’s where you’re heading.

In Golden Bay itself, check out the Roots Bar for music pretty much every day of the week and the Mussel Inn for something with a more (alternative) pub vibe.

Alt girl having a solid doof boogie at a New Zealand festival
You know the scene I’m talking about… it’s where the best boogiez are. | image source: Richard Elzey (Flickr)

Things to Do in Takaka – Don’t get stuck!

  • Cost: Free

Don’t get too Stuckaka’d! Keep heading north up the bay because there are some gorgeous sights in the northernmost area of South Island:

  • Te Waikoropupu Springs – Close to town is this sacred Maori spot with some of the clearest crystal-like water you will ever see anywhere. It’s a chill walk to a truly special place.
  • Farewell Spit – Look at a map of the South Island of New Zealand and you’ll see that Golden Bay kinda looks like a claw. That long part that extends is the spit (beach material) running about 35km to the lighthouse at the end. If you want to reach the very end, you’ll need to book a tour because walking access is restricted.
  • Wharariki Beach – The beach at the very top of South Island. You’re definitely off New Zealand’s beaten path; not many people come up this far. It’s a secluded beach with beautiful dunes and wildlife and there’s a chill cafe nearby too.

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Takaka is one of the best places to backpack in New Zealand
Sometimes getting stuck ain’t so bad. | Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar
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South Island of New Zealand 10-Day Itinerary – Itinerary #2: The Southern South Island

Ok, we’re heading further south; it’s the South Island of New Zealand itinerary number two! If you know much about New Zealand at all, you know that there are some glaring omissions on the first itinerary. It’s time to go visit the other famous attractions of South Island!

This time we’re starting the New Zealand South Island itinerary from Christchurch. It’s where the only sizable (though not very sizable) international airport is on the South Island of New Zealand. It’s also a major thoroughfare for flights coming from North Island.

A New Zealand South Island itinerary means a lot of good skies
A typical morning poop on South Island. | Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar

Alright, so let’s get a move one. We’ve only got 10 days and still lots of things to do on New Zealand’s South Island. I told ya you’d want more time!

Day 1: Itinerary in South Island of New Zealand – Christchurch

Markets | Banks Peninsula Day Trip | Fire Night Fridays

Christchurch, the largest city on South Island. It also has a history of getting kinda wrecked on, both by nature and by sentient wastes-of-oxygen.

Despite those things, Christchurch remains standing strong, albeit with a crumbling cathedral at the city’s centre and a lot of cracks and faults in the road’s infrastructure. It’s a city and I’m not much a fan of cities but it is a pretty city. Taking a short trip south outside the city limits to the Banks Peninsula offers some real delights too.

Christchurch Cathedral before the 2011 earthquake
The Christchurch Cathedral Pre-Quake | image source: Mr. Tickle (Wikicommons)

All things said, considering some of the shitbox cities we get stuck in catching flights (Sydney, Delhi, L.A….), Christchurch ain’t so bad. It’s far from overpopulated, it’s far from overpolluted, and it’s still New Zealand.

  • Why it’s awesome: It has all the perks of a city without being overwhelmingly huge.
  • Where to Stay in Christchurch: Kiwi Basecamp is sweet for something right in town and JUCY Snooze is in a perfect location near the airport for anyone catching flights. Alternatively, if you’re following the New Zealand South Island itinerary with a campervan, there are lots of options (including free ones) down on the peninsula close to Akaroa.
  • Food Recommendation: The Friday Street Food Market runs from 11 A.M. to 8 P.M. (on Fridays… duh). The food is good and the dumpster diving is even better!

Things to Do in Christchurch – Markets

  • Cost: Free (contingent on your willpower)

Christchurch is no stranger to markets: there are heaps of them. The food is good, the busking is good, and the dumpster diving is excellent! And if you’ve got the cash, there are some pretty sweet local artisanries too.

The biggest markets are the Sunday markets in Riccarton (9 A.M.  the 2 P.M.). Otherwise, here’s a list of all the options scattered around the city.

The Cathedral crumbled after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake
The Cathedral Post-Quake feat. a wandering musician. | Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar

Things to Do in Christchurch – Take a Day Trip to the Peninsula

  • Cost: Free

It’s not a big city but it is a city and if the bustle of Christchurch is taking its toll, you can make a quick escape to the Banks Peninsula to the south. En route, make a stopover at Governor’s Bay for a quick dip (against an absolutely dazzling backdrop) before skirting Lake Ellesmere to the south and out towards Akaroa on the peninsula.

In the area, you’ll find lots of camping, mountains to climb, and the kind of wildlife you can’t find in the ‘burbs.

The Banks Peninsula is an easy day trip from Christchurch
I love signs like this. So many adventures! | Photo: Sandra Vallaure (Flickr)

Things to Do in Christchurch – Fire Nights Friday

  • Cost: Free but chip in for fuel if it’s still communal, please!

Every Friday night (currently hosted at the Bridge of Remembrance) there’s fire-dancing – open to everyone! If you’ve never spun or been to a jam, it’s a great place to learn. The community is chill and always super happy to show a newcomer a couple of tricks.

You can find them on The Book and if you find yourself getting into flow, the Home of Poi HQ is in Christchurch with a lot of fun toys you can buy. It’s a good travelling hobby too!

Poi is a common thing to do in New Zealand's South Island
Yo! Guess where poi started? Yah-hah, your old boy Aotearoa with the Maori people. | source: Deacon MacMillan (Flickr)

Christchurch hostel

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Kiwi Basecamp
One of the best hostels in Christchurch with a primo location: right near the park and tucked in the city centre is Kiwi Basecamp. Oh, and they bake fresh bread every morning. Easy choice.
  • $$
  • Central location
  • Freshly baked bread!

Day 2: Itinerary in South Island of New Zealand – Arthur’s Pass

Hiking | Bouldering | Temple Basin Ski Fields

How do you detox a city? With untamed wilderness of gargantuan scope, of course. Welcome to the Pass.

Cutting through the middle of South Island to the West Coast, Arthur’s Pass is a truly special place that sometimes doesn’t make the cut for peoples’ New Zealand backpacking trip. The first time we passed through here we didn’t stop; the weather was misty and the rain was pouring causing the mountains and walls of the pass to cascade waterfalls through the ferns into the rivers below.

The magic of the place floored me and I made a not-so-silent promise to my friend that we needed to return with more time. So we did.

A couple of Kea - native New Zealand birds - in Arthur's Pass
Don’t trust them! They may look cute and innocent but once they have the taste for your snacks, it’s game over – you lose. | Source: David Barnes (Wikicommons)

You won’t find much in the way of inhabitants here. A small settlement at Castle Hill and then a tourist centre in the middle of the pass and that’s about it. This is somewhere you visit in New Zealand’s South Island to shush your face, shush the ambient noise, and be gobsmacked by the sheer magnitude of nature for a bit.

The land feels old and more like it tolerates the existence of people there rather than openly accepts them.

  • Why it’s awesome: You know that nature that makes you kinda shrink into yourself in wonder. Yeah, that’s Arthur’s Pass.
  • Where to Stay in Arthur’s Pass: Hostels are a no-go here. You’re looking at either one of the lodges or homestays in the area or – for the cash-cognizant – one of the campsites. There are lots of cheap DOC sites and some free ones too.
  • Food Recommendation: I mean, there’s a cafe in town. I feel a bit insincere recommending it when it’s, like, one of two options. This is the kinda place you bring your own supplies.

Things to Do in Arthur’s Pass – Hiking

  • Cost: Free

Short walks, day walk, multi-day tramps: Arthur’s Pass has it all. There’s even some serious high-grade hiking for the experienced trampers with risks of avalanches… so cool! And, yup, people have died here!

Don’t take any chances here. Go to the information centre, stock up on knowledge and maps, before you walk. The Bealey Spur Track is a dope done-in-a-day hike. Just don’t get stuck crashing overnight at the hut without shoes like I did!

Going off the beaten track in Arthur's Pass, New Zealand
I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t considering sampling them… | Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar

Things to Do in Arthur’s Pass – The Boulder Playground

Outside the pass on the Christchurch side is Castle Hill and the Basin and it’s a more-or-less requirement to visit for any climbing enthusiasts backpacking the South Island of New Zealand. I’m talking bouldering structures, limestone, and well over 3000 routes! Oh, and there’s a little bit of sport climbing too but let’s be honest, you’re here for the bouldering.

If you’ve got the means to hang around for a while I’d recommend it. You’ll find some damn good climbing and some damn good peeps too.

Castle Hill is the ultimate destination for any climbers on a holiday in New Zealand's South Island
How do you like your boulders? Innumerable, majestic, and covered with finger holes. | image source: Jocelyn Kinghorn (Flickr)

Things to Do in Arthur’s Pass – Skiing in the Basin

Not Castle Hill Basin but the other basin: Temple Basin. Come wintertime the Temple Basin is a place for some serious snow-fun and is one of South Islands more rugged ski fields. 

The terrain is challenging and it ain’t for the faint of heart. There’s nothing there other than what Mother Nature herself provides and it brings in only the people ready for the challenge. Not the best choice for beginners, but a damn good choice for anyone else that likes their adrenaline hot and coursing in the cold snow.

Skiing at the ski fields in Temple Basin
Casual walk home.

Day 3: Itinerary in South Island of New Zealand – West Coast (South)

The Glaciers | Pounamu Fossicking | The Blue Pools

The other half of the West Coast – no less gorgeous and no less harsh (and still with all your sandfly homies). Much the same vibes as the northern West Coast except with a few more areas with that prehistoric rainforest feel and the extremely atypical New Zealand ferns and moss.

The journey through here to Wanaka is enchanting and I still consider the whole West Coast drive (top to bottom) one of the best places to drive in the South Island of New Zealand.

The southern West Coast completes the West Coast entry on the South Island itinerary
It’s pretty much a 6-hour drive with views like this.
  • Why it’s awesome: More of that West Coast Jurassic Park goodness.
  • Where to Stay on the West Coast: The West Coast still isn’t really a place for long stays but if you’re taking your time or crashing overnight, there are some good hostels in both Hokitika and Franz Josef Glacier (though Franz Josef is a pretty major tourist trap).
  • Food Recommendation: There are some damn fine choices for cheap places to eat in Hokitika. The Hokitika Sandwich Company makes sandwiches that show Subway what it truly means to be a sandwich artist! Ramble + Ritual is a good followup for coffee and cake and a takeaway of their famous cheese scones.

Things to Do in West Coast (South) – The Glaciers

  • Cost: Free

There are two of them: Fox and Franz Josef Glacier with Franz Josef being the more frequented one. My thoughts on the matter are that they’re honestly a kind of dumb tourist traps (for the record I only visited Franz Josef). The walk up to the viewing is super gorgeous – with some perfect spots for stone fossicking along the way – but then you get to the end of the track and it’s kind of like ‘Oh, that’s it?’.

You’re not supposed to walk up further onto the glacier, but, also, there’s nothing around to necessarily prevent you. Alternatively, the best way to see the glaciers is with a helicopter tour that takes you over and on top but that’s only if you’ve got the spare cash. Let’s just call this area super pretty but not necessarily a thing you have to do in New Zealand… in my earnest opinion.

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The West Coast glaciers are considered a must go for anyone backpacking that region of New Zealand
‘On’ the glacier is far more interesting than ‘near’ the glacier. | image source: Flying Kiwi Tours (Flickr)

Things to Do in West Coast (South) – Fossicking for Pounamu

  • Cost: Free

Pounamu, jade, greenstone… you know it. You see it hanging around the neck of every Kiwi and backpacker in Kiwiland. It’s of great spiritual significance to the Maori people and has been adopted as the spiritual emblem of Aotearoa by everyone else. As a proud Kiwi in Nepal told me:

“Sure, it may just be jade but it’s not just jade. It’s pounamu! That’s different; it’s our jade! It’s pounamu!”

So, why would you want to buy just some souvenir pounamu as a trinket rather than find your own? You don’t choose your pounamu; your pounamu chooses you.

The West Coast region is famous for its abundant stores of pounamu and you can hunt it down for yourself. Along the rocky beaches from Greymouth and the river mouth at Hokitika are great places to search. Just stay out of the Arahura River (it’s an off-limits sacred Maori location) and once you find one pounamu, stop. You’ve been chosen, one is enough.

Carved New Zealand greenstone in Hokitika
After you find ONE pounamu you can get it carved. | source: Szilas (Wikicommons)

Things to Do in West Coast (South) – The Blue Pools

  • Cost: Free

Down in Haast Pass is the Blue Pools; one of the famous West Coast things to do in New Zealand’s South Island. The walk through the native beech forest is gorgeous (with some fluffy moss if you like taking your shoes off) and the eponymous Blue Pools are spectacular. It’s also a dope place to practise your stone-skipping!

If you’ve got the time, the whole of Aspiring National Park in that area is worth exploring combining some of the best of both the Westland and Otago regions.

The Blue Pools are another famous thing to do on the West Coast
I suppose the ‘Aquamarine’ Pools didn’t have quite as nice a ring to it. | Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar

Day 4: Itinerary in South Island of New Zealand – Wanaka

Waterfall Climbing | Lake Adventures | Puzzling World

Sweet, darling Wanaka; my busker’s paradise. It’s hard to recommend Queenstown to people when Wanaka is only an hour away. It’s still touristy and busy but it also feels like a town where you can escape all that. A lot of people from a lot of different walks are drawn to Wanaka and you can see why – it’s a hard place not to fall in love with.

Perched on the shore of the absolutely drop-dead sparklingly gorgeous Wanaka lake, it’s a tourist town in the warmer months and a ski town in the colder months. Much like Queenstown, it’s an all-year-round destination in the South Island of New Zealand. Would I live there? Fuck yeah, I would!

Wanaka is my premier busking destination in New Zealand's South Island
The view from my office 🙂 | Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar

The locals are good, there’s nightlife around, and it offers a similar idea to Queenstown without the messy execution.

  • Why it’s awesome: I may be biased. Most of my memories of Wanaka involve busking in front of New World, dumpster diving some bangin’ treats, and then a joint, feed, and swim at the lake. After that, it was back to New World for round two!
  • Where to Stay in Wanaka: For a good hostel in Wanaka, Wanaka Bakpaka may just have the best view in town – what a panorama! Otherwise, Albert Town Campground outside Wanaka is a little bit pricey but worth the cost or, if you’re willing to make the half-an-hour drive, there’s a free campsite near Cromwell.
  • Food Recommendation: Not Subway… pretty sure that gave me food poisoning (or it was the dumpster diving). The Doughbin (opposite the lake) has got some smashing pies and Red Star Burger up the road does well-priced feeds… and kumara chips!

Things to Do in Wanaka – Wild Wire Waterfall Climbing

  • Cost: $295

It’s not quite rock climbing (though there are heaps of good routes in Wanaka) but it’s something similar. There’s approximately 300m of climbing in this tour up some gorgeous structures. There’s no previous experience needed – though something resembling upper-body strength in some form is recommended – as the route is all preset with suspension bridges and metal rungs bolted in the walls.

That’s their intermediate climb. Check out their site for the easy or expert levels. The expert climb is appropriately called ‘The Lord of the Rungs’ (genius) and culminates with a descent by chopper!

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Wanaka is no stranger to adventure tourism in New Zealand
For when swimming at a waterfall just won’t cut it.

Things to Do in Wanaka – Get out on the lake

  • Cost: $176 / $58

It’s a damn big lake so get out there and explore. Take a kayak tour and explore the scenery at your own pace (it’s a very still lake too – easy paddling). Alternatively, if dropping a stack of cash to do all the work doesn’t sound appealing, take a short cruise to see the water at twilight.

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Wanaka Lake is still one of my favourite places to visit on a New Zealand backpacking trip
The Wanaka Tree of Instagram hashtag fame…

Things to Do in Wanaka – Puzzling World

  • Cost: $22.50

Here’s something to do if you’re sick of New Zealand’s life-changing vistas and the adrenaline-soaked fun is growing a bit tiresome – puzzles!  A whole museum playground of optical illusions, puzzles, mazes, and WTF moments. That’s not to say there isn’t heaps of adventure shit around Wanaka: there’s climbing, skiing, trekking, and all the usual New Zealand contenders. But this is just something a little different!

Puzzling World is a more unique thing to do in Wanaka
Release your inner child! Oh, who am I kidding? I’m never growing up. | Image source: chee.hong (Flickr)

Wanaka Hostel

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Wanaka Bakpaka
Taking the prize for the best view out of the many hostels in Wanaka; how does a panorama of the lake and mountains sound? It’s also a 5-minute walk from town so the vibe is a bit quieter than the other backpackers around Wanaka.
  • $$
  • Amazing view
  • Chill

Day 5: Itinerary in South Island of New Zealand – Queenstown

Bungy Jumping | Skydiving | Rapid Rafting

So, I may not have been subtle about my distaste for Queenstown. It’s the rum and raisin to my blessed hokey pokey Wanaka. But it is still gorgeous (because it’s New Zealand) and there’s tonnes of cool shit to do. Just about everyone on a backpacking tour of New Zealand will end up in Queenstown at some point.

It has everything you’d pretty much expect from the premier holiday destination of the South Island of New Zealand: shopping in droves, adventure activities, budget to luxury accommodation, and more food, booze, and drugs then you’ll ever need to consume! The downside is that it’s not chill… ever. There’s really no off or shoulder season; it’s peak season all year round.

Some dumb hippy dude posing at the Queenstown waterfront
Suffice to say, I was pretty stoked on my second-hand shop score. | Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar

In the summer, the lakes sparkle just as much as Lake Wanaka and the waterfront markets crowd with people and then, come snow season, the town floods with snowbums and it becomes a proper ski town with everything that entails: powder snow, dope routes, and lots of drunk Australians.

It’s also worth mentioning that Queenstown is another top spot for backpacking jobs in New Zealand. There’s so many bars, clubs, and hostels around plus the seasonal work on the slopes that you can make yourself a buck to recover some of the cost of backpacking New Zealand.

  • Why it’s awesome: People are very ‘sharing is caring’ with their joints.
  • Where to Stay in Queenstown: The Flaming Kiwi is my pick for a top hostel in Queenstown. Freedom camping of any description is cracked down on hardcore (even more so than any sort of substance use) and you’re taking quite a risk if you partake. The free campsite at Cromwell is again a good spot because it’s pretty much halfway between Wanaka and Queenstown.
  • Food Recommendation: Slice Pizza over on Shotover Street does $2 slices all day long. There are some good reasons to visit Queenstown.

Things to Do in Queenstown – Bungy Jumping

  • Cost: $150

Home of the world’s first commercial bungy jump, bungy jumping in Queenstown is a pretty classic thing to do. It’s kinda the titular Queenstown experience. Kawarau Bridge is the OG spot for the jump and now there are a few other locations around the Queenstown area including some sky swings.

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Bungy jumping is the classic thing to do in Queenstown
Quintessential Queenstown | image source: Bengt Nyman (Flickr)

Things to Do in Queenstown – Skydiving

  • Cost: $452

It’s like bungy jumping except you have no rope and the death rate statistics are higher. On the plus side, you don’t have to take the plunge alone! Skydiving is another classic hit in the Queenstown adventure activities LP with the follow-up secret hidden track of ‘Oh god, my parachute isn’t working’. You can do a tandem skydive from 15,000 feet… you can also go from lower but if you’re committing to jumping out of an aeroplane, I don’t think you should half-ass it.

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Things to Do in Queenstown – White Water Rafting

  • Cost: $245

Shotover River is famous in Queenstown for its grade III to V rapids so get out there in an inflatable raft and start cruising down them. Hah, obeying the limits of the human body – what is this nonsense? We’re in Queenstown!

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White Water Rafting
Check the dude’s face in the middle. He looks like he’s pooping his pants.

Queenstown Hostel

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The Flaming Kiwi Backpackers
There are lots of hostels in Queenstown but the Flaming Kiwi has both a mega-rad name and three kitchens! That means if someone is using the spaghetti strainer you can just go get another one! It’s also just a dope backpackers.
  • $$
  • Three kitchens
  • Crackin’ vibe

Day 6: Itinerary in South Island of New Zealand – Te Anau and Milford Sound

Milford Sound | Hiking | Diving

Te Anau is the gateway to Fiordland, one of the most still unexplored places in New Zealand. Fiordland is marked by incredibly wet weather and often inaccessible terrain so it’s true to say that this landscape still remains untouched and authentic to New Zealand’s roots.

The town itself doesn’t have much to offer, but it is the entry point to Fiordland as well as the Milford Sound. What’s Milford Sound? Oh boy, you’re in for a treat. 

The Milford Sound is one of the things you have to do in New Zealand
  • Why it’s awesome: Proper damn untouched nature of the kick your ass into submission variety.
  • Where to Stay in Te Anau: You’re not exactly drowning in options this far south but the Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers will put you up nicely for your Fiordland adventures.
  • Food Recommendation: The Habit Foods truck is cheap and they do bao buns… with chips! It’s the best of both worlds!

Things to Do in Te Anau – Milford Sound

  • Cost: Depends on your tour choice

Right, so, the Milford Sound is kind of ridiculous in its scope and truly impossible to capture the magnificence of it in words (so lucky there’s a picture below). Rudyard Kipling described it as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’ and Rudyard Kipling was a pretty alright dude so I trust him. It’s hard to believe that two hours before you were perched on the rocky valley lakes of the Queenstown/Otago area and suddenly you’re in Scandinavia on steroids… that’s New Zealand!

The waterfalls and steep cliffs surround the tranquil waters of the sound in a way that makes it hard to believe you’re truly there. Chances are you’ll get rained on but that only makes the waterfalls even more exciting!

There are a few ways to see the Milford Sound: a boat cruise is the classic, kayaking is for the adventurous, and a helicopter is for the premium payers. Or, there’s the real challenging option…

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Visting Milford Sound is a thing you have to do in New Zealand
No matter what mood it’s in, Milford Sound is still strikingly beautiful.

Things to Do in Te Anau – The Hikes

  • Cost: Varying camp and hut booking costs

You can walk the Milford Track (and you’ll almost definitely need to book because spaces are limited). It’s easily one of the best and most authentic ways to experience the majesty of the sounds. It’s a four-day tramp but if you’ve got the time, it’s well worth it.

Alternatively, the Kepler Track starting from Te Anau is another behemoth tramp that will take you to experience some of the less-seen wonders of the Fiordlands. There’s plenty of day hikes in the area too. At least do one walk, c’mon!

Taking a rest on the Kepler Track over Fiordland
The Kepler Track is one of New Zealand’s only multi-day hikes built solely for tramping purposes (fun fact).

Things to Do in Te Anau – Diving

  • Cost: $345

Or there’s one last way to see the Milford Sound – see underneath the sound with a diving tour. There’s a whole other world down there to explore!

Check Tour Price

Diving in Milford Sound will reward with some of New Zealands hidden gems
A silent world beneath the sound.

When you’re ready to travel to Milford Sound, forgo buying tickets at the station and book them online instead! You can now book transport in advance for most of New Zealand using 12Go and doing so can really save you some stress (and maybe money, too).

Powered by 12Go Asia system

Day 7: Itinerary in South Island of New Zealand – Bluff to Stewart Island

Hiking | Stargazing | Kiwi Watching

Bluff is the southernmost town on South Island (though, not the southernmost point) and I’d be lying if I said there was much going on there: it’s a bit of a dead-end seaport town. The humongous seaweed growing on the rocks is pretty damn cool though.

So why come to Bluff? It’s where you catch the ferry to Stewart Island and Stewart Island is about as far from the conventional New Zealand backpacking trail as you can possibly get. It consists of one small settlement where the ferry lands and then it’s just nothing: nothing but trees and animals. No roads, no people, no fish and chips; only nature.

Bluff and the Deep South are off the conventional New Zealand backpacking trail
Bluff: You’re not quite at the bottom of the world but you’re getting close.

That’s why Stewart Island is such an enchanting attraction in New Zealand’s South Island. Tell a kiwi you went and did the great walk on Stewart Island, and they’ll be impressed. Tell them you saw an actual kiwi, and you’ll definitely have their respect.

  • Why it’s awesome: No damn traces of civilisation.
  • Where to Stay on Stewart Island: If you’re not camping or walking, your only option is to stay in Oban. There’s a hostel and a bunch of lodges and bed and breakfasts and that’s it.
  • Food Recommendation: Kai Kart has you covered for fish and chips before you head out into the wilderness and then when you’re craving it on your return.

Things to Do in Stewart Island – The Hikes

  • Cost: Varying camp and hut booking costs

The Rakiura Track great walk clocks in at a measly 32km – paltry! Of course, that’s far from the only walk… the North West Circuit takes 9 to 11 days so if your goal is to eject from known civilisation for a spell, Stewart Island is the place to go. There’s also plenty of day hikes for those who aren’t all that keen on that whole masochism thing.

Stewart Island is one of New Zealand's still unexplored places
The Rakiura Track, Stewart Island | Image source: Christoph Strässler (Flickr)

Things to Do in Stewart Island – Stargazing

  • Cost: Free

Remember when the stars weren’t hidden behind a wall of ambient lighting from sports fields and street lamps? Stewart Island does. Stargazing from Stewart Island means long pensive moments, thoughts about life elsewhere in the universe, and, if you’re lucky, the Southern Lights.

source: IntoTheWorld (Shutterstock)

Things to Do in Stewart Island – Find a goddamn kiwi!

  • Cost: Free

No, not of the two-legged ‘churr, bro’ variety! The actual kiwi in all of its elusive, rotund, flightless glory. If you see one, I’m damn jealous. (Side note: if you’ve seen a platypus in the wild I officially hate you.)

The kiwis are actually phenomenally rare in Kiwiland so much so that most kiwis haven’t actually seen a wild kiwi. Oh dear, that was the sentence from hell. Stewart Island remains the best place in New Zealand to see kiwis (of the feathered variety).

Nighttime or the early hours of the morning is the best time to go and there are a few places to look but Ulva Island is undoubtedly your best shot. Or, you can take a tour but we all know that doesn’t count.

Stewart Island is the best place to see kiwis in New Zealand
Hah, did you think I’d post a picture of a kiwi? Nope, spoilers! Go and find one yourself! | image source: Michal Klajban (Wikimedia Commons)

Day 8: Itinerary in South Island of New Zealand – Southern Scenic Route Bluff to Dunedin

Curio Bay | Waterfalls in the Caitlins | Cathedral Caves

Oh boy, the Southern Scenic Route – it’s so good I hitched it twice! Once from the Bluff side to meet my friend in Dunedin who promptly told me we were now going to hitch to Bluff via the Southern Scenic Route. The second time around I even got to hitch it in the rain!

So, yeah, it is really pretty to be fair. Is it worth ‘4 hours hitching in the rain’ pretty? Na, probably not. Oh, actually, yeah alright it is.

The Southern Scenic Route is way off most New Zealand South Island backpacking itineraries
A little easter egg from my Southern Scenic Route shoe-less hikoi… Still makes me laugh every time. | Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar
  • Why it’s awesome: It’s more New Zealand nature with some more of South Island’s unique attractions. Quieter, fewer people (you’re in New Zealand’s Deep South now), and a nice drive for anyone on a campervan itinerary.
  • Where to Stay on the Southern Scenic Route: Yeah, like I said, you’re way in Southland now; there are fewer people around and they talk with a funny accent. You can camp or you can find a homestay bed and breakfast along the way.
  • Food Recommendation: When you pass through Owaka there are a couple of cafes. Lumber Jack is chill.

Things to Do in the Southern Scenic Route – Curio Bay

  • Cost: Free

Down at Curio Bay, you can see some pretty rare wildlife. As well as being another place where you can see penguins on the South Island of New Zealand, you’ll also catch fur seals and Hector’s dolphins if you’re lucky (think, like, a miniature-sized kiwi-brand dolphin).

Also, you can see a petrified ‘forest’. Now, I want to clarify something because ‘forest’ feels like a misnomer. This isn’t so much a forest as petrified fossils of trees that are visible when the tide goes out. Still pretty awesome in its own right but I certainly may have built up some slightly different images in my head from the words ‘petrified forest’

Hector's dolphins are a rare New Zealand native best found in Curio Bay
Only the Kiwis could take dolphins and make them cuter. | Image source: Stefan Wagener (Flickr)

Things to Do in the Southern Scenic Route – Waterfalls in the Catlins

  • Cost: Free

There’s a lot of these around the Catlins Forest Park and most involve a tranquil walk through some damp ancient NZ forests (with the gooey soft moss)! McLean Falls is the tallest in the area (and it’s a fun climb to the top) but Matai Falls is also a cool one to swing by. There are lots more tracks leading deeper into the forest too.

There is lots of walking and waterfalls in the Caitlins
Featuring more of my favourite moss in the world. | Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar

Things to Do in the Southern Scenic Route – Cathedral Caves

  • Cost: Free

You’ll need to plan this out slightly (lucky you have an itinerary) because you’ll only be able to access them at low tide. They’re pretty damn impressive in scope and the acoustics are even better. 

Cathedral Caves
Cooooooeeeeeee!!! | source: Greg Brave (Shutterstock)

Day 9: Itinerary in South Island of New Zealand – Dunedin

Street Art | The Beaches | Otago Peninsula

Dunedin is perhaps a little bit overlooked when it comes to the great New Zealand South Island road trip adventure. That’s a shame because Dunedin actually has a really good vibe… mostly. Nowhere is perfect, but it’s still my second favourite city in New Zealand (Wanaka is a town, suck eggs).

Architecturally, it’s a bit of a beautiful disaster. Some dickhead had the genius idea of copying the construction plan verbatim from Edinburgh which resulted in an Edwardian style architecture mixed with some really poor city planning. And, yeah, that does kinda make it charming.

Dunedin is a personal entry on the New Zealand South Island itinerary for me
The Dunedin Railway Station as designed by ‘Gingerbread George’.

Crowd-wise there’s an interesting mix in Dunedin. The oldest uni in New Zealand is there making it a student town. That brings both the positives of student life (i.e. banging parties) and the negatives (i.e. the students) but, depending on your type of crowd, you may slot in nicely; there are a number of lovable strange ones floating around the city too.

  • Why it’s awesome: It’s a sweet lesser-explored city with a cool vibe and the surrounding spectacular nature of the Otago Peninsula.
  • Where to Stay in Dunedin: Dude, I dunno, I stayed at a wizard’s house. There’s a bunch of backpackers in the city and I’d expect a more relaxed hostel life than Queenstown.
  • Food Recommendation: Opposite the university in the OUSA (Otago University Student Association) Building are the Hare Krishnas serving up a $3 lunch, 12-2 P.M., every weekday. Is it only for students? I dunno, maybe… they never kicked me out and I wasn’t even wearing shoes! It’s the Krishnas putting it on, anyway; they’re hardly a crowd to turn away a hungry vagrant.

Things to Do in Dunedin – Street Art

  • Cost: Free

It’s always good to see a city embrace graffiti art… Of course, it’s also always good to see street art that doesn’t amount to a 3 letter tag of an acronym some 15-year-old boy came up with about his penis.

Here’s a map of all the works to see in Dunedin’s street art trail. It’s free art for everyone, the way it should be!

A bit of street art in Dunedin
My favourite piece of street art that I found in Dunedin. | Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar

Things to Do in Dunedin – The Beaches

  • Cost: Free

There are some good beaches scattered around Dunedin. On a warm sunny day the beaches are magnificent and when Dunedin is having one of it’s classic Dunedin days – dreary grey skies and harsh winds – the beaches are a bit more like the harsh, misty maidens of the south. It’s actually a famous spot in New Zealand for big wave surfing.

My favourite beach is Long Beach about 30 minutes out of town. It’s a long beach (hah) guarded by stalwart cliffs and a beachside forest terminating with a set of caves at the sand’s end. The place felt magical. That mighta been the acid talking though.

Long Beach is a famous beach in Dunedin
Na, probably not actually. | Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar

Things to Do in Dunedin – The Peninsula

  • Cost: Free

A day trip from Dunedin out to the Otago Peninsula means both an escape from the city and a chance to see more rare wildlife. There are lots of walking trails, some cool villages, and even a “Scottish” castle against the backdrop of the wind-weathered coast.

Otago Peninsula is an awesome day trip from Dunedin
Not quite sober yet here either… or well-rested… but definitely loving it. | Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar

Day 10: Itinerary in South Island of New Zealand – Mount Cook

Hiking | Helicopter Tour | Lake Tekapo

The last stop of your New Zealand South Island itinerary and there’s nowhere more appropriate to finish than Aoraki (Mount Cook): the highest mountain in New Zealand. The drive towards Mount Cook and the Aoraki National Park still remains one of the best in New Zealand’s South Island and it’s a perfect way to tie this itinerary up.

A photo of one of the best places to drive in the South Island of New Zealand
Thar she blows!

Can you climb it? Sure, if you’re an experienced mountaineer with the right gear. For everyone else, hiking around the behemoth and the surrounding Southern Alps will have to suffice.

  • Why it’s awesome: It’s the tallest mountain in New Zealand… kinda self-explanatory.
  • Where to Stay in Mount Cook: There are several lodges in Mount Cook Village or a few options for backpackers in Lake Tekapo about an hour-and-a-half away.
  • Food Recommendation: There are a couple of cafes in the village but nothing overly special. It’ll keep you fed though.

Things to Do in Mount Cook – The Hikes

  • Cost: Free

I feel like if you didn’t take a stroll around the Southern Alps, you’d probably regret that. Pretty much anywhere with ‘alps’ in its name is somewhere you want to walk around.

The Hooker Valley Track is one of the most popular; it’s an easy walk with the backdrop of the Mount Cook range terminating at the Hooker Glacial Lake with all the stunning views it offers. The Tasman Glacier View Track is another goodie with views of glaciers way more exciting than the Franz Josef and Fox choices.

Walking in Mount Cook Aoraki National Park
And tharrr again!

Things to Do in Mount Cook – Heli Hike on Tasman Glacier

  • Cost: $576

Take a helicopter flight over the Tasman Glacier Lake before landing for a hike on the glacier. It’s the best way to get a feel for the unapologetically raw beauty of the icy alps (short of actually climbing them) and you get the added bonus of wearing spiky shoes!

Check Tour Price

A helicopter tour is an amazing way to see Mount Cook National Park
I think they’re trying to camouflage the helicopter…

Things to Do in Mount Cook – Lake Tekapo

  • Cost: Free

It’s on the return to Christchurch from Mount Cook and it’s another big-ass lake (look, at this point I’m running out of adjectives; it’s a lake in New Zealand – you get the idea). There are hot springs, an ice-skating rink, and a super old minimalistic church that makes for a great postcard shot.

The church of the good shepard at Lake Tekapo is a famous South Island highlight
Dear Mum. New Zealand is great. I keep accidentally crying at the sunsets. Probably won’t come home ever but you should visit sometime. Lots of love xx | Image source: Steve Collis (Flickr)
The Best Travel Backpack?!

Pssssst! Not picked the perfect travel backpack yet? The Broke Backpacker team has tried out over thirty backpacks this year! Our favourite carry on backpack is the Nomatic Travel Backpack.

Check out this post to read our full review!

Staying Safe on South Island

New Zealand is fine. Totally and absolutely fine. Things can happen the same as anywhere else but it is a ridiculously safe country.

Normal rules apply for travellers, especially if you’re hitchhiking, sleeping in parks, or getting a bit messy. However, that’s just standard fare; there’s nothing extraordinary to mention.

Do take care of your stuff though, especially in touristy areas like Queenstown. I had my phone in Raglan (North Island) nicked letting my guard down like a dope. A travel money belt is the best method to keeping your shit safe – you strap it on and then you never take it off.

The only real danger you face doesn’t so much come from New Zealanders as New Zealand itself: mother nature is a fickle bitch. Always respect her power.

Aftermath of the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch
Beast-mode activate.

Talk to locals to get the lay of the land. Don’t go hiking unprepared. Don’t climb a mountain without knowing the weather forecast and don’t dive headfirst into a river or lake.

It’s standard staying safe in nature stuff – pretty straightforward. Even the nature is lowkey though. There’s, like, one poisonous spider in the whole of New Zealand and no snakes. There are wild pigs but I never actually saw one.

That’s the best part about New Zealand: it’s baby’s first backpacking journey!

You should always have emergency cash hidden on you - pick up this awesome security belt with its hidden pocket before you travel, it's perfect for hiding money, a passport photocopy.


Get Insured Before Embarking on Your New Zealand South Island itinerary

Even if you are only going on a short trip to the South Island, you should always travel with insurance.

Shoutout from Will – The OG Broke Backpacker: Have fun on your backpacking adventure, but please do get insurance – take it from someone who has racked up tens of thousands of bucks on an insurance claim before, you need it.

Don’t forget to sort your travel insurance! We’ve put together a roundup of the best travel insurance for backpackers, or if you’re low on time, get a quote from World Nomads now, our favourite travel insurance provider.

Getting an estimate from World Nomads is simple – just click the button or image below, fill out the necessary info, and you’re on your way!

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The Super Bonus Section of Your New Zealand South Island Travel Guide – My Favourite Second-Hand Shops

This is a bonus section because I wasn’t really sure where to fit it in the New Zealand South Island itinerary. The second-hand shops in New Zealand are mean! Absolutely, splendiferously choice. If you’re buying shit new while on South Island, you’re a dummy.

I made it a ritual of mine to check out the second-hand shops in any new place I rocked up in. Like, fair, I’m a bit of a nerd for op-shops but even in regards to getting your hands on trekking gear, the second-hand shops have the goods:

  • Nelson – There’s nowhere unique in Nelson that I know of; it’s just the usual contenders (Salvos, Vinnies, etc.) but there are heaps of the usual contenders and they’re all close together. A pretty large stock too.
  • Motueka – It’s the same deal as Nelson but, again, a bunch of shops with good stock.
  • Takaka – There’s a couple in Takaka and you’re looking for Trash Palace… because it’s dope! Imagine all the cool shit that ferals, hippies, and weirdos leave behind.
  • Wanaka – The second-hand shops in Wanaka may be my other reason for a secret love affair with this town. There’s a few in the town itself and then just outside a little bit (at the waste management plant) is WasteBusters which still remains as one of the best second-hand shops I’ve ever been too.
  • Queenstown – Queenstown has a bunch of good ones and the other added bonus is, given that it’s the adventure capital of New Zealand, you’ll get heaps of cheap outdoors gear. Especially clothes: lots of woollens, merinos and trekking stuff.
Second-hand shopping in New Zealand's South Island is a definite itinerary activity
The Wastebuster Guardians in Wanaka | Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar

Final Thoughts on Your Itinerary for Backpacking the South Island of New Zealand

Yeah, so, there’s a helluva lot to see. And, as you may have already noticed, a lot of it involves getting lost in nature. That’s why I say slow down.

A 7-day itinerary is rough. A 10-day itinerary for the South Island is better, but New Zealand deserves more time. It deserves to get lost in.

The more you slow down, the more friends you will make (I guarantee you will make friendships amongst the locals) and the more of the hidden gems on New Zealand’s South Island you will see. I’ve met people from the north that have never even set foot on South Island, much less ventured all the way down to Southland. 

Budget backpacking New Zealand's South Island means meeting many good folk
You’ll find your people. | Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar

Despite the ease of travelling and closeness of things, it still feels like somehow you’ve accidentally ended up far from where any human has ventured before. Like if you just pulled right over here, got out of the car, and crossed that hill over yonder, you’d find some glorious secret that hadn’t been seen since the days of the Maori.

New Zealand is a land that accepts people if you travel with respect in your heart. Both the land itself and the people – settlers and indigenous – welcome you, proud to show you their home. There’s a general unspoken consensus that no matter where you come from – from the ferals in the north to the rough coasters in the west right down to the farmers in the south with the funny accents – there is a place for you in Aotearoa.

Plus, it’s the most no-shoes friendly country I’ve ever been in.

The last good sky of the South Island itinerary
Good sky. | Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar

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