"The driest, hottest, wettest and coldest places" Top 5 Page for this destination South Island by Kakapo2

South Island Travel Guide: 6,032 reviews and 16,243 photos

The Island of Contrasts

For every season you would find a different perfect spot for living on the South Island. Perhaps you would want to spend the hot, dry summers in the region of Alexandra in Central Otago - but not the winters. Central Otago is the place where they have measured the hottest summer and coldest winter days. And nowhere it rains as little as in Alexandra, with just 272 millimetres in 2007.

You would want to go skiing in the Southern Lakes region around Queenstown and Wanaka but - if you are not really super enthusiastic - not get stuck in high snow. You would want to live in Nelson for the mild climate but perhaps miss the amenities of a bigger city. You would love the city of Christchurch because you can get everything there and the mountains and beaches are so close, but you would not enjoy the smog in winter. Dunedin and Otago Peninsula are spectacular at most time of the year but in winter in can get soooo ice-cold... Or the magic rainforests of the West Coast, as if directly taken from a fairy-tale or the movies of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or the miracle-like sounds of far-away Fiordland - but you would definitely not want to live with the millions of sandflies and the amount of rain that is measured in metres and not in millimetres. (The West Coast town of Ross holds the record with an average of 10.6 metres per year. In the mountains you find places with 12 metres per year.)

But this is the real magic: Every region has its own magic, and its own people who live and cope with the landscapes and the weather. People who enjoy the beauty of the spots they live in and have learnt to accept the rest.

The South Island is about 800 kilometres long, and is divided for almost its entire length by the diagonal Alpine Fault which rises abruptly from the West Coast to the heights of the Southern Alps. They are a chain of mountains that rise up to 3760 metres. They were created by massive glaciers whose remnants still are more or less present in the ranges, and the two most spectacular ones, Franz Josef and Fox, still reach down to the rainforest although the have retreated from the ocean, but actually are in a state of growth. Strangely this is caused by the global warming. This brings more rain to the West Coast, and in higher altitudes the precipitation falls as snow which compacts and makes the glaciers get bigger.

To the east of the main divide huge rivers have washed debris from the mountain chain into the area that has become the Canterbury Plains. This debris and the lava flows of the volcanic eruptions of the now Banks Peninsula have connected this former island and the mainland.

The fiords in the south-west of which Milford Sound is the most famous one have been created by departed glaciers. The similar landscape in the Marlborough Sounds however have not been created by glaciers but are a kind of a sunken world: Large river systems have collapsed and been invaded by the sea.

The huge tussock grasslans of Central Otago, and also the MacKenzie Country around the turquoise blue waters of Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki have been covered in native bush before the arrival of the first humans. Forest burn-downs at large scale changed the landscape forever. And now, much feared by conservationists and people who love the rough, nearly hostile landscape, the risk is big that it will be changed again - by humans (see Chapter 2).

The climate not only changes from the wet west to the dry east but also from the antarctic south to the temperate north. Norwesterlies bring hot dry air and strong winds, especially in spring. Southwesterlies bring chilly blasts from the Antarctic.

All this applies to years not as crazy as the summer of 2006 where people from dry Canterbury fled to the wet West Coast in their Christmas holidays because the Canterbury summer was winterly and the west had the best weather. This completes the picture of our island of contrasts.

A Unique Landscape under Threat

The most threatened landscape of the South Island is the MacKenzie Country. Landscape architects, conservationists and nature lovers are warning that more dairy farming could change the face of the tussock grasslands forever.

It has already started. Just drive on the main road from Lake Tekapo to Lindis Pass, and you will notice artificially green paddocks in the ochre tussock grass landscape, huge silvery-shining irrigation plants on wheels in front of the desert-like hills, and cows grazing. It looks weird.

Dairy farming has already transformed the Canterbury Plains into a green haven for cows, and now a deal with Meridian Energy for water supply in the MacKenzie Basin has been struck. This means that the region around Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki which in parts looks as dry and strange as a lunar landscape is facing, as landscape architect Anne Steven from Wanaka wrote in a letter to The Press on 4 January 2007, "an unprecedented threat from huge-scale irrigated-pasture development". It has started and will not stop.

I share her view that "green horizons dotted with dairy cows are not high country". And she continues: "The inherent qualities - desolate wind-swept expanses - are literally buried through such development, never to be seen again. If development is not curbed, basin-floor tussock land will be limited to road verges, just like the Canterbury Plains, and the experience of vast, open, lonely spaces will be forever gone."

Until recently, the other threat was the government's process of tenure review but this has been stopped. Until then farmers could have sold their land around the most beautiful lakes of the country to developers. Those could, for example, have spoilt the uninterrupted views of Lake Tekapo by dotting the shore with housing developments.

Farmers have been paid compensation for leaving higher areas of their only LEASED land to the Department of Conservation, which means the state has effectively paid for land that it already owned!!!

Formerly farmers had paid low rents for the right to graze the rough land, live on it and fence it to keep other people out. But the state could control in detail how the land could be used. In the late 90s the so called tenure review started. Farmers gave up their rights to graze the highest parts of their lease-hold, and in return they got freehold title to the rest of the land, which means, they could develop and sell the land if it complied with the district rules. Around Lake Wakatipu you can see the results. Some farmers offered up to 20 sections for about 2 million dollar each. The magazine "North & South" called this process "High-country Hijack". Only now the government has woken up.

But it made another very bad decision. Although they knew that some farmers have to work in additional jobs to keep their farms running the government raised the rents by up to 1700 per cent, I was told by a farmer. They would happily only have their merino sheep which are so typical for the high country, he said, but by charging them such astronomic rates the farmers would be forced into the lucrative dairy farming and irrigate their land. He also told me of farmers becoming depressive at such prospects.

Dairy-farming has its risks, and this vision is not very far-fetched. The way lakes like Lake Ellesmere and Lake Forsyth near Christchurch and many lakes on the North Island have been killed by extensive dairy-farming, with cattle effluents and fertilizers, the waters of the MacKenzie country which are the most pristine waters in NZ could be poisened as well. The first green pastures have already appeared along the Lake Tekapo canal, leaving salmon farmers alarmed or even horrified by the prospect that there could be more to come. Where a profit beckons loftier ideals are often left behind, intentionally or just because those people have no other choice.

The point is: NZ needs its farmers - but it also needs tourism, and who would dream to travel to a country with dead lakes and rivers and green pastures with millions of farting cows along every road?

The Fun, Adventure and Activity Island

There is nearly no adventure you cannot try on the South Island. Queenstown where AJ Hackett invented Bungy Jumping has started the trend and is called the fun capital of New Zealand.

Other places also offer adventure sports and fun. But Queenstown just has it all, from the classic bungy jump from the Kawarau Bridge to even more breathtaking jumps at Skippers Canyon, jetboating on the Shotover River, canyoning in the Matukituki Valley, whitewater rafting, a gondola and luge ride, canyon swinging, river surfing and whitewater sledging, rock climbing, paragliding, -sailing und -chuting, horse and quadbike riding, tramping and skiing, 4WD tours and kayaking, river safaris and lake cruises, or mountainbiking. You name it.

In other places you can swim with dolphins or walk on glaciers, do hotair-ballooning or go diving. Not to forget whale watching in Kaikoura, a place I love for its magic coastline, mountains, dolphins, albatrosses and petrels, and the NZ fur seals lying along the highway. And sure - always the whales.

They are part of NZ's booming adventure industry. Such activities are nice in certain doses, and as long as they do not get a big rip-off. Actually it is a walk on the line. I am pleased that still many people come to NZ only for the beautiful scenery, and because it is NOT as crowded as Queenstown.


On the Canterbury page you find Arthur's Pass, Castle Hill, Lake Lyndon, Hanmer Springs, the wallaby country of Waimate, the Waitaki Valley, Lake Taylor, and the Lord of the Rings location Edoras.

I have also described fantastic road trips like the tour from Christchurch to Arthur's Pass via Castle Hill, or through the hinterland from Rakaia Gorge, and Scenic Road 72 from Christchurch to Geraldine. Finally you will find stories about lupins, the problems of dairy farming, and info about alpine plants.

Destinations in Canterbury:
Lyttelton (where I live)
Christchurch (the city behind the Port Hills; in fact Christchurch and Lyttelton have amalgamated in 2006)
Mount Cook National Park
Lake Tekapo
Lake Ohau
Timaru, Temuka
Methven/Mt. Somers (including skiing info)

In Otago you find destinations like Dunedin, Otago Peninsula, Oamaru, the Moeraki Boulders, Lindis Pass, Wanaka & Mt. Aspiring National Park, the lonely roads of Central Otago, the Otago Rail Trail, Arrowtown, Glenorchy, Lake Hayes, Lake Dunstan, Cromwell.
Otago is the best place for penguin watching and the only possibility to visit a mainland albatross colony. And it is home of Shrek the sheep.
For Queenstown I have made an extra page.

On the West Coast page you find everything about the glaciers, the Pancake Rocks, up to Karamea and the start of the Heaphy Track.

The page Nelson/Tasman includes the Nelson Lakes National Park, the Abel Tasman National Park and the most spectacular beaches and birdwatching at the Farewell Spit - just to name some of the great things to do.

On the South Island page you find tips about the Marlborough wine region and Blenheim, everything you can do in the far south, with Bluff, Slope Point and the Petrified Forest in the Catlins. And sure, not to forget Milford Sound - the start of my love story with New Zealand.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Spectacular Scenery
  • Cons:In winter a little colder than the North Island ;-)
  • In a nutshell:A Symphony of Colours and Unique Landscapes
  • Intro Updated Aug 2, 2008
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Reviews (17)

Comments (7)

  • alza's Profile Photo
    Mar 12, 2012 at 8:38 PM

    Me again, had to check your "south of South Island"... I know so little about New Zealand. Only read Intro for now, more congratulations are in order: what a gift for us readers! Well done Sissi! Btw, I replied in comments as email never worked yesterday & I really want my reply to reach you tonight. Cheers and all the best with house fixing! Chin up, the only way to go! :)

  • junecorlett's Profile Photo
    Jul 23, 2009 at 8:01 AM

    A fantastic page Sissi. Well written and excellent information, a high 5 to you.

  • tiabunna's Profile Photo
    Mar 4, 2009 at 4:34 AM

    Excellent and detailed information here, Sissi. We really must do a proper visit to NZ some time soon. We saw only little (then the airport) on returning from the Ice.

  • lynnehamman's Profile Photo
    Feb 19, 2009 at 1:38 PM

    Wow Sissi- so many reasons to visit South Island. Great tips and info. The penguin encounter is amazing. And do you know the reason for the pinkness of that lake? Is it the salt? Your warning tips are excellent. Good photos.

  • jumpingnorman's Profile Photo
    Nov 30, 2008 at 9:12 AM

    Wow, a pink lake --- my daughter will love this! Amazing pics of Queensland and I want to that shotover (?) rafrt ride..you make excellent tips! :) Norman

  • Jun 10, 2008 at 9:31 PM

    Excellent pictures and information

  • kokoryko's Profile Photo
    Jul 2, 2007 at 6:53 PM

    Thanks for remembering me my 1995 trip there Sissi! I liked a lot the South Island, Milford Sound, the glaciers, Mount Cook, the big lakes, but I missed Kaikoura, and know now even more what I missed! Your tips are very informative, well written! Bravo!


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