It’s going to be a while before some of us can enjoy a South Island road trip again. New Zealand’s border is closed to foreign travelers, a fact that doesn’t look poised to change until at least early 2022.
Whether you’re a Kiwi (or foreign resident), or an overseas tourist dreaming of your next holiday, there are few drives in New Zealand that offer such a succinct cross section of it than the “Mother Road” of the South Island. I’m talking about the drive between Christchurch and Queenstown, and various detours from it.
Some of you (again, Kiwis) are departing imminently, while others seek distraction from your sportsbook review and are planning travel in the distant future. No matter which group you fall into, I hope what you’re about to read informs and inspires you.
Where New Zealand Truly Begins
By the time I began my Christchurch to Queenstown road trip, I had already been in New Zealand for over a week. Specifically, after having spent a few days in Auckland and nearby Waiheke island, I rented a car and made a clockwise loop around the North Island, stopping in Lake Taupo to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, before continuing on to Rotorua, Tauranga and the Coromandel Peninsula.
All of these places were gorgeous, but it wasn’t until I picked up my car at Christchurch Airport and began driving southwestward that New Zealand really came alive for me. Seeing the Southern Alps in the distance ignite a sense of urgency in me—I sped forward, even though a country like New Zealand epitomizes the primacy of the journey over the destination.
My Favorite South Island Destinations
The first “destination” I was bound for? Lake Tekapo, whose fluorescent waters were matched, in beauty, only by the pink and purple lupines covering the hilltop observatory above them. I also visited the famous Church of the Good Shepherd right along the lakefront, although I found it slightly disappointing due to its small size and the massive crowds around it.
The second part of my Christchurch to Queenstown took me westward toward Lake Pukaki, and then northward along its shore toward Mt. Cook, which is also known as Aoraki. While I didn’t take a helicopter to or anywhere near the top of Mt. Cook, I did enjoy several hikes in the area, most notably the scenic and beautiful Hooker Valley Track.
From Aoraki I headed southward toward Wanaka, which is famous for the bizarre tree that’s seemingly growing out of its namesake lake. I didn’t spend a night here, but I did return a few days later in order to skydive, which is an experience I certainly won’t forget. Suffice it to say, the waters of the lake look slightly different from thousands of feet above than they do when you’re walking in them!
Queenstown and the Milford Sound
My road trip from Christchurch to Queenstown didn’t end in New Zealand’s adventure capital, not exactly. After I took a day trip from Queenstown to the famous Milford Sound, I headed back north, making my way (indirectly) to Franz Josef Glacier before heading northward along New Zealand’s underrated west coast to Hokitika and Punakaiki, aka the Pancake Rocks.
Following my coastal drive, I headed east through the heart of the South Island via Arthur’s Pass back to Christchurch. Although New Zealand’s second city still bore a surprising amount of damage from the 2011 earthquake that struck it, it impressed me a great deal. In the unlikely event that I ever decide to call New Zealand home, this is the city I would choose.
South Island Road Trip: Practical Matters
The purpose of this post, so far, has primarily been to inspire you, but I also want to inform you. Here are some key facts to keep in mind about your South Island road trip:
- Getting around: Rent a car in Christchurch; drop it off in Queenstown or loop back around to Christchurch via the West Coast (Franz Josef, Hokitika, Punakaiki, etc.)
- Where to stay: I slept in Tekapo, Aoraki and Queenstown. Some people also stay a night in Wanaka, or do Milford Sound as an overnight trip from Queenstown, rather than a day trip.
- How long to spend: I landed in Christchurch on a Saturday and departed Queenstown on a Thursday. You will need to tailor this on how fast or slow you prefer to travel, and how deeply you want to explore.
- When to visit: I traveled New Zealand’s South Island in late January, when temperatures were still hot and the lupines were (barely) still in bloom. If I go back, it will probably be in the autumn months of March and April.
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Other FAQ About Driving from Christchurch to Queenstown
What is there to see between Christchurch and Queenstown?
You’ll mind many of New Zealand’s most beautiful attractions between Christchurch and Queenstown. These include Lakes Tekapo and Wanaka, Mt. Cook (which is also known as Aoraki) and the cities of Christchurch and Queenstown themselves. Moreover, many popular adventure activities such as skydiving, bungee and jet boating take place along this road.
How long does it take from Christchurch to Tekapo?
Although you can technically drive the 225 km road from Christchurch to Tekapo in under three hours, it often takes four or even longer. This is because most drivers get out to enjoy the scenery along the way, particular as you exit Christchurch city and speed toward the Southern Alps along more rural roads.
How do I get from Lake Tekapo to Mt. Cook?
Driving from Tekapo to Mt. Cook (also known by its Maori name Aoraki) is simple. Just drive along Highway 8 to Pukaki, then hang a right at Highway 80 and follow it to its end. Pleasantly, you’ll be driving along the shores of Lake Pukaki, which makes for a particularly beautiful lower-right-side frame to Mt. Cook as you approach it.
The Bottom Line
No matter when you end up taking your next South Island road trip, I have a feeling you’re thoroughly informed—and inspired—now. New Zealand will eventually welcome all of us back, as far away as that day seems right now. The best thing you can do now is start dreaming (and, ideally, planning), whether you’re a wanderlusting Kiwi with flights to Christchurch booked, or a foreigner for whom travel to New Zealand is a more distant prospect. Whenever you end up hitting New Zealand’s mother road, I hope it’s a trip you never forget—and I’m sure it will be.