Things to Know Before Backpacking the South Island of New Zealand
Is a trip to New Zealand on the horizon? One of our featured travel writers Charles Tomlinson visited last year and he has written about his experience which might give you some ideas for places you would like to visit or see in New Zealand's South Island.
I was really interested in spending part of my gap year in New Zealand backpacking through the country, and the South island turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip.
The weather in New Zealand can change completely from one day to the next and if I enjoyed a beautiful blue sky during my time at Doubtful Sound, the following Monday was all mist and rain falls. The drive to Milford is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful drives in the world, but on a clear day and I could not see much then unfortunately. Yet, I do not regret the pouring as the result was heaps of waterfalls dripping everywhere at Milford Sound later on. And the next day being again a clear sunny one, I did get to see the fiord in both situations and could at last enjoy the scenery from my bus windows during the drive back to Te Anau.
Doing an overnight cruise at Milford implied that I had to wait four hours each day, first while waiting for the boat on Monday afternoon, then while waiting for the first bus leaving Milford on Tuesday. If on rainy Monday, the weather did not allow me to do much except count the hours in the village's only cafe and use my NZ Dollar coins at the only one working coin-operated Internet station, the next day was a completely different story. I did some extremely pretty little walks in and around Milford and consequently can only recommend any future visitor of this touristy place to spend some time in the village before or after doing the cruise.
The boat I did my cruise in, the Milford Mariner, is a beautiful ship and I enjoyed the most peaceful night of my South Island trip in the ensuite cabin I had for my own single use. And I can also praise the food too, top quality! All that for less than the quarter of the normal price! Traveling on your own during the low tourist season really has some advantages! After one more evening and night in Te Anau during which I enjoyed the beautiful and impressive movie Fiordland at the appropriately named Fiordland cinema (a must do in Te Anau if you spend some time there), I took the bus straight to Dunedin.
Dunedin is possibly the prettiest city of New Zealand as well as being the country's main university town. I stayed three nights there from Wednesday 28th until Saturday 31st July at my Australian distant cousin Guy's place (thanks mate!). As I planned everything at the last minute, I unfortunately did not get to encounter Guy in person (even though I learned later on that we had both been in Queenstown at the same time), but he very kindly offered me to take his room… As well as ordering his housemates to take good care of me! And so they did; I truly had a lovely time there and relaxed a little, walking around the city at a leisure pace, going out a bit at night and getting back in touch with all my Kiwi mates back in Auckland.
The bus drive to Christchurch was quite long and I unfortunately arrived too late to do anything in the city, having to leave very early the next day in order to catch the Tranzcoastal train to Picton. I love traveling by train and if New Zealand has only three train lines they all go through very scenic itineraries, different from the routes used by buses, and even better the three of them all offer attractive special Winter rates. If not traveling by car, I really think that train is the best option of crossing the country especially while they still have open-deck cars, quite a great and unusual feature for us Western Europeans.
From Picton, I caught a bus to Nelson which is supposedly the sunniest city of New Zealand, yet up until a few minutes after my arrival there on the 1st August, I was caught in the worst rainy storm I had to deal with during my South Island trip. My umbrella did not survive! But by the end of the day, the city took a nicer aspect and by the next day I had dropped the rain coat and the jumper and was walking around in a t-shirt!
Nelson is not really a pretty place in itself, but it is nonetheless a feel-good city where I would have not minded staying a bit more. It is normally from there that one goes and explores Tasman Bay and Golden Bay. My time over there being quite short, I decided to keep the discovery of these two places for another trip someday and opted to explore the town instead.
I was quite surprised to find out that Nelson was a special place in New Zealand not only for its sun factor, but also for being the city where the country's first union rugby game was played in the nineteenth century and even more interestingly, for being the "Centre" of the country! The point from which all the surveys and all the maps of the country used to be done (and not the actual geographical centre which is in a much more remote place) is at the top of a hill on the edge of the city, coincidentally right next to the stadium where the first rugby game was played. It is a pleasant walk that I can only recommend and a great place for photo opportunities!
The South island really is an amazing destination, if you aren't keen to go solo, I would recommend searching New Zealand group tours.