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South Island Splendour

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New Zealand photographer Rachel Stewart recently travelled the lower South Island with two of her besties in a maui motorhome. Their 8-day adventure covered a lot of ground. From Queenstown to Milford Sound, Lake Matheson, Mount Cook, Tekapo and so many glorious places in between, it's no wonder they were able to capture all of these incredible shots! Have a read of her story and you'll be itching for your next South Island motorhome adventure!

Travel

8 days


Route

Queenstown to Christchurch

2289km


Best Time of the Year

Anytime!

Highlights

  • Key Summit Trail
  • Mount Cook Heli Experience
  • Southern Lights/Aurora
  • Lake Matheson
  • Lake Wanaka
  • Lake Hawea
  • Glenorchy

The Journey

Days

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Day 1
Queenstown to Milford Sound

Distance 280km - Driving Time 4 hours

After a delayed flight due to ice and snow, we finally made it into Queenstown from Auckland via Wellington 6 hours late! But boy were we excited to be there. We greeted our camper with open arms and it felt good to meet our house on wheels for the next 8 days. First things first, food essentials, coffee essentials, a quick dinner, then a long drive to get to Fiordland for sunrise.

Day 2
Milford Sound

Day 2 and we arrived at Lake Gunn for a moody but beautiful sunrise. Temperatures were -5 and it was quite an effort to leave to warmth of our little home and step outside, but having made this struggle many times before, I have talked myself into dragging the body out into the cold to get the photos that count! This spot really is a beautiful place, tucked in amongst native forest and mountains.

We spent the rest of the day driving the road into Milford Sound, with many stop-the-car moments, talking to kea, and taking in the incredible scenery that surrounded us.

Sunset was at Piopiotahi and no matter how many times I visit, I am always left in awe of this place.

Day 3
Milford Sound to Mt Cook via Key Summit and Queenstown

Distance 584km - Driving Time 8 hours

Day 3 started off very cold after we stepped outside at 5am. Our goal, to hike the Key Summit trail and catch the sunrise from the top. I had seen many brilliant photos of mountains reflecting into an alpine tarn near the top of this hike, so I of course wanted to see the place for myself. After a relatively easy 1.5 hour hike through incredible native bush we found ourselves near the summit and wow … what an absolutely mind-blowing view. One slight problem, however, the tarn was frozen. Nevertheless, well worth the early start and -11 temperatures. It was cold ... very cold. When the sun finally broke above the mountains we started to warm up and thoughts of hot porridge and coffee started entering the forefront of our minds. Time to ditch the mountains and head back to the camper!

We started making our way back to Queenstown and this time got to enjoy the road to Milford going the opposite way. You just cannot beat the scenery on a NZ South Island roady. It really is incredible.

A beautiful Queenstown sunset in the snowy surrounds at Moke Lake finished off the day and we were pretty happy to be experiencing such incredible scenery.

Day 4
Mount Cook

Day 4 saw us spending the day in Mount Cook starting off with an amazing doors-off heli experience with Mount Cook Ski Planes and Heli. Wow, wow, wow! That’s pretty much every second word that came out of our mouths. I went up with my business partners and good friends Dan and Lee, and we just couldn’t have imagined how incredible Aoraki Mt Cook National Park looked from above with a huge fresh dumping of snow. It was going to be very hard to top this kind of scenery that’s for sure!

Nearing sunset we decided to hike the Hooker Valley track to hopefully catch the last of the sun lighting up Mount Cook. Crampons on, we started this relatively easy hike in the snow full of excitement. I quickly realised I would never make it to the lake in time, trudging through the snow, so settled for the Hooker River and was not disappointed. Absolute winter wonderland and Sir Cook standing centre stage in all his glory ... a scene I won't be forgetting any time soon.

Day 5
Mount Cook to Twizel via Tekapo

Distance 165km - Driving Time 2.5 hours

Day 5 saw us absolutely scrambling to make sunrise. We had woken early with the plan of shooting Lake Pukaki (reflecting, showing Mount Cook, incredible colours … of course). However, nature had other plans. It was snowing, low cloud, and no mountain at all! We decided we would still drive to the end of Lake Pukaki and perhaps try make it to Tekapo for sunrise. Whilst driving, we notice the sky was starting to clear and show tell tale signs of an amazing sunrise. Ahhhhhh! Not prepared! We still couldn’t see Mount Cook and now the pressure was on to find new compositions and work with what we were being given. It ended up with us pulling over on the side of the road, running down to the lake, pointing the camera somewhere and capturing the incredible sky. Nothing like a bit of pressure!

The rest of the day was spent exploring the Twizel area and then making our way to Tekapo for sunset. I have to say, Tekapo looked absolutely magical covered in snow and it was truly a treat to see it like this.

The day was not yet finished, however. After sunset we decided to make our way back to Twizel, and lo and behold the southern lights / aurora Australis decided to show and treat us to an absolutely incredible scene across the whole sky. Hands down the best display of nature I have ever seen.

Day 6
Twizel to Lake Matheson

Distance 400km - Driving Time 5 hours

Day 6 greeted us with pretty grey and bleak conditions. It was snowing, freezing cold, and we decided it was time to leave the Mackenzie area and find some sunshine. West Coast was our best bet so that is where we headed.

The drive to the west coast is stunning and an absolute must do for incredible scenery including New Zealand’s native bush and towering mountains.

We arrived at Lake Matheson with the view of Mount Tasman and Cook covered in cloud, a few spots of rain, but some quite stunning rainbows drifting in and out of the scene. We decided we would still walk to the lake in the hope of catching something beautiful, and that turned out to be the best decision we could have made. Not only did the mountains appear, that rainbow decided to arc full circle with a reflection, and we experienced some of the best photography conditions we’ve ever come across. Lesson: never give up on nature.

Day 7
West Coast to Queenstown via Wanaka

Distance 380km - Driving Time 5 hours

Day 7 saw us with an early drive to Peter’s Pool near Franz Joseph Glacier for a very chilly sunrise, and then much needed coffee back in Fox Glacier to warm our frozen bones!

We then started our journey back to Wanaka for sunset with a lot of photo stops along the way. If you haven’t seen out the back of Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, then I urge you to go explore this area. Both lakes are surrounded by incredible mountains, and it's such a great way to finish the journey from the west coast and enter Wanaka.

We had a beautiful sunset down by the lake in Wanaka and the mountains looked particularly special in a fresh dusting of snow.

Day 8
Queenstown to Christchurch

Distance 480km - Driving Time 6 hours

The last day – the last sunrise – our final goodbye to the South Island before flying back home to the North Island. I can't go past visiting Glenorchy when I stop in Queenstown; it's something I have done ever since first visiting the place, and something I will probably do when I return each time.

We decided to try sunrise at the famous jetty, and it didn’t disappoint. Some beautiful pink clouds lit the scene and the jetty light was still on, which made for quite a cool photo.

From then on we slowly made our way back to Christchurch; the Lindis Pass looked incredible with fresh snow, Lake Pukaki glistened in the sun, and all was well for our final goodbye.

We had such an epic journey in our maui motorhome. I can't stress enough, if you want to see NZ the right way, then do it by camper, in particular a maui!