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Get in[edit]


Stay safe[edit]

Go next[edit]

This itinerary to South Island Circuit is an outline and needs more content. It has a template, but there is not enough information present. Please plunge forward and help it grow!

Obviously this South Island Circuit can be started at any point on the loop and you can choose to travel anti-clockwise or in the opposite direction.

However, traditionally because of the Rail and Road connections from the North Island capital of Wellington, the South Island Circuit starts at Picton and then proceeds via Nelson and the West Coast in an anti-clockwise direction.

A modern alternative (at least before the recent earthquakes) is to fly into Christchurch International Airport and then travel clockwise round the circuit via Mount Cook and Oamaru to Dunedin. This way, you save the best to last!


Because of the rugged terrain and many national parks, allowing two weeks to "do" the South Island is like allowing only two weeks to tour England - a country of similar area to the "Mainland" of New Zealand.

Typically two driving times are quoted below. The first, shorter time is if the roads are clear and dry, visibility is good and you are late for your plane. The second time recognises that you are on holiday, fuel is expensive and you'd rather savour the journey and see some of the sights en route.


Get in[edit]

The Interislander[1] and the Bluebridge [2] ferries ply between Wellington and Picton across Cook Strait and then through a spectacularly scenic portion of the Marlborough Sounds. These ferries take bikes, cars, buses and and cargo-only trains and are substantial ships designed for the sometimes rough conditions. The journey takes a bit more than three hours depending on weather conditions.

Picton to Nelson (2-6 hr drive)[edit]

When you drive out from the Wellington ferry terminal, rather than following State Highway 1 (SH1) with heavy truck traffic, take Queen Charlotte Drive from Picton to Havelock: turn right at the sign immediately after coming off the ferry from Wellington at the very first little roundabout.

This is a wonderfully scenic (and winding!) road best done at about 30 kph (20 mph) when you can listen to the birdsong and nip in to the galleries and potteries before you screech past them.

It should take you more than 50 minutes (unless you're burning rubber) to get to Havelock, which is famous for the green shell mussels grown in abundance in the clear, clean waters of the adjoing Marlborough sounds.

Havelock is named after Sir Henry Havelock, known from the Siege of Lucknow (in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India).

At Havelock you re-join State Highway 6 (SH6) which then has another 55 km to run before it reaches Nelson.

But, before you reach Nelson, make a stop at Pelorus Bridge[3] too:

Toilet stop and nature ramble[edit]

Pelorus Bridge has some well-marked nature rambles through some magnificent old-growth native forest.

This sort of podocarp hardwood forest used to be found at low altitude throughout New Zealand, except in the drier eastern parts of the South Island ("Mainland").

From the car park on the North side (right hand side coming from Havelock) of the road one can access a circular gravelled walking path. What makes this Totara Walk especially pleasant is that the well formed path is usually well-drained, despite affording tantalising glimpses of the clear and sweet running Pelorus River with its deep (and cold!) swimming holes, and loops back to the car park while keeping substantially to the level.

The path used to have some helpful signs pointing out the various plant varieties and their uses but these had been removed in Nov 2012. It's free of charge, of course.

In their undisturbed state these lowland forests are luxuriant and often present a distinctly tropical character, with their dense undergrowth of shrubs, ferns, tree-ferns, lianas and epiphytes. Hardwood species such as Tawa and Kamahi form the canopy, while the tall podocarps soar high above it. The presence and distribution of the various species of podocarp trees depends on a variety of factors including local conditions of soil and climate and past volcanic activity. These trees, especially Rimu, Totara and Kahikatea, can live to be very old and reach huge dimensions. (One of the largest living Totara, near Pureora Forest Park, has a diameter of 3.63 m (11.9 ft), and is estimated to be one and a half thousand years old.) Broadleaf forest occupies the moist and fertile river flats here, with black and hard beech more common on the steeper slopes above the Pelorus River gorge.

On the South side of the highway is a larger car park (with spaces large enough for buses) and a cafe and the Department of Conservation (DoC) office.

Just to the west of the cafe is a 500 m long gravelled road leading to the Kahikatea Flat camp site. Even if you are not camping, you might want to stroll down the road for 5 min until it ends and then head off on your right towards the stand of soaring Kahikatea (White Pine) trees.

The size of these trees is pretty unique in this region and the story goes that they were spared because of the rivalry of two saw mill owners:

The proprietor to the North of the stand, believed that the land was the concession of the proprietor to the South and the proprietor to the South believed that it was the territory of the saw mill proprietor to the North and the trees were spared by this confusion!

Over 400 million feet of Kahikatea was taken in the latter years of Queen Victoria's reign from the Pelorus district - much of it going to make butter boxes for export. (The timber is non-durable and especially subject to damage by house borer (Anobium). Nevertheless, it has many excellent properties including the absence of odour. That is what caused it to be in great demand for butter boxes, cheese crates, and tallow casks in the days before fibre-board containers. Consequently there was then a sizeable export trade in the timber to Australia and Europe.)

The river is great here - one can often seen kingfishers (kotare) - and there is some river sand for kids to play in.

But be careful and vigilant as the river is deep and currents can be powerful and swift.

As well as the short circular Tawa Walk adjacent to the car park entry on the left, there are also longer walks here to waterfalls and, on these less frequented paths, you will see (or hear) several species of native bird including the large native pigeon (kereru), bellbirds (korimako), tui and fantails.

The Pelorus valley was the site of a massacre of the Ngati Kuia and Ngati Apa tribes by the Māori chief Te Rauparaha, who came from the North Island coast, west of Wellington.

The first Europeans to arrive in 1843 found a few remaining Māori people producing flax for Te Rauparaha.

The original route to Nelson went through the site of this reserve and over the Maungatapu Saddle. Later, the path that SH6 follows today was discovered, and a bridge was built across the Pelorus River around 1860.

The Pelorus Bridge location was set aside for a future township, but in the early 1900s this was changed to try and preserve the area's natural beauty. The present bridge was built in the 1950s.

On the South side of the highway is a larger car park (with spaces large enough for buses) and a cafe and the Department of Conservation (DoC) office.

There are toilets by both car parks.

All this will mean you'll arrive some little bit later in Nelson but full of the joys of nature rather than stressed by some manic kiwi truck driver having been 6 ft from your rear bumper for 2 hours...

Sidetrip: Nelson to Abel Tasman National Park[edit]

Sidetrip: Nelson to Takaka[edit]

Sidetrip: Nelson to Nelson Lakes National Park[edit]

Sidetrip from Nelson to Gold Medal winning wineries[edit]

Sidetrip from Nelson: ride the Dun Mountain trail[edit]

The Dun Mountain Trail is one of the 18 "Great Rides" that compose Nga Haerenga, The New Zealand Cycle Trail [4]. This is a national project to build a network of world class cycle trails.

The newly upgraded Dun Mountain Trail was opened on 12 Nov 2011 and is the third great ride to be finished in New Zealand. It's based on the line of New Zealand´s very first railway - used to transport a variety of minerals from the eastern slopes of the beech forest shrouded 1129 m (3704 ft) peak down to the waiting ships in Nelson's haven.

The 38&nbspkm Dun Mountain Trail loops between Brook Valley and the Maitai Valley and is a grade 3 mountain bike ride.

If you're not feeling energetic, the other Nelson/Tasman part of Nga Haerenga also begins just a short safe ride from the Nelson i-SITE: Tasman's Great Taste Trail[5]

Sidetrip: Nelson to Kahurangi National Park[edit]

Sidetrip from Nelson: explore the Maitai River[edit]

Sidetrip from Nelson to craft breweries[edit]

Almost all of the hops used in craft beers in Australasia are grown in Nelson so it is hardly surprising that it is the "Craft Brewing Capital"[6].

Perhaps not coincidentally, Nelson's Sprig and Fern Tavern in Milton Street was awarded New Zealand's 'Best Bar' in the 2012 Hospitality New Zealand Awards.

Sidetrip from Nelson: hike the Heaphy Track[edit]

New Zealand has 9 official Great Walks and Nelson is lucky to have two of them. The Heaphy Track, has un-demanding gradients over 80 km (50 mi) but most walkers take 4-5 days. The track is accessible year round, but winter snows can make the higher sections chilly. A new innovation is to open the Heaphy Track to Mountain Bikers outside of the peak season. Walkers especially enjoy reaching the Nikau Palm-lined beach at its western end after traversing red tussock downs, lush southern beech forests and fields of alpine flowers and mega herbs.

Nelson to Westport (3-9 hr drive)[edit]

Take SH6 and bypass some of Richmond by following signs to Westport at all roundabouts

Watch for the Rutherford Birthplace about 20 kilometres after Richmond on the right hand side of the road. Ernest Rutherford was born at this site on 30 Aug 1871. He died on 19 October 1937 and is New Zealand's most famous scientist - one of the world's most illustrious scientists and the first New Zealander to have been awarded the Nobel Prize (in Chemistry). His image is on NZ$100 bank notes.

Steps give access to fourteen display panels and six sound stations outlining Rutherford's life and career. The area is sheltered from the south by an ivy-covered brick wall.

The gardens are attractively planted and three trees represent areas where Rutherford worked during his lifetime - a New Zealand totara, a Canadian maple and an English oak.

There is seriously good steak and kidney pies in the hamlet of Wakefield which has the prettiest police station in New Zealand on the "Village Green"

There are then some serious hills to climb to get over the Spooner Range.

Take a stop at the old railway tunnel (torch recommended but not essential) and station at the later SH63 fork to Blenheim which has a large parking area and toilets.

The Kawatiri Historic Walk here follows a short section of the line of the former railway track that ran from Nelson towards Murchison. The walk commences from a car park with information panels detailing the rich history of the area. After some 200 metres the track crosses an old rail bridge before passing through a train tunnel built in 1923. The track returns via beech forest above the Hope River closing the loop at the entrance to the tunnel.

Despite more than 80 years of drive and determination on the part of Nelsonians to work towards a railway that would end their isolation from the rest of the South Island, the resulting line was destined to be the railway to nowhere.

Nelsonians had dreamed of a railway that would link them to the rest of the South Island from as early as the 1860s.

Permission was finally given in 1871 to start work on a line intended to meet up with the main trunk line. Construction of the first 30.4 km stage, from the city to Foxhill, began in 1873 and it opened in 1876 through Stoke, Richmond, Brightwater and Wakefield, to Wai-iti, just short of Foxhill.

An economic recession forced the suspension of further construction until 1879-1880, when an extension to Belgrove was built.

Work began on the Belgrove to Motupiko (Kohatu) section in 1890. A work camp was established and a 303m tunnel built through the Spooner Range. This section opened in 1897, and in 1901 a start was made on the 16 km stretch to Tadmor, via Tapawera. A rail and road bridge across the Motueka River was completed in 1906

Frustrations grew over the time taken to build the railway. It had taken 33 years to build just 66 km of track. The line had been extended from Tadmor, through Kiwi, Tui and Kaka to Glenhope by 1912. Construction was again suspended, however, and the outbreak of war in 1914 brought a further halt.

A 6 km extension to Kawatiri began in 1920 and the Pikomanu railway camp was established the following year. A tunnel of 185 m was cut, two bridges built across the Hope River and the section opened in June 1926.

Services were reduced in the 1920s, with passenger numbers and freight volumes having decreased due to the rapid development of road freight and passenger transport. The Nelson Progress League was established in 1924 to campaign for the line to be extended to join the main trunk. It launched a pamphlet in 1925 calling on the Government to “Fill the Gap”

Between 1924 and 1929 a 6 km section was built to Gowan Bridge, but this was only ever used for freight. With the country reeling from the Depression, all work on the railway was suspended from January 1931, terminating the employment of 300 men.

The gap between the completed section of line and Inangahua Junction, where it could connect with the main trunk line, was less than 70 km (42 mi).

From 1931 the line was under constant threat of closure and people were urged to “use it or lose it”. It was announced in 1952 that the Nelson line would remain open only until major highways were completed. Rail services were suspended in 1954.

The last timetabled train arrived in Nelson on Friday, 2 Sep 1955 and there was a last-ditch public meeting on the Church Steps. Ruth Page called her own women’s protest meeting, on hearing that work would start on pulling up the railway lines at Kiwi on 20 Sep 1955. A group of women held a week-long sit-in on the line at Kiwi, with nine of them being arrested and convicted when they refused to move. It was to no avail, and the railway line, so desperately wanted and so long under construction, was gradually dismantled.

The dream was over.

After leaving Kawatiri Junction the road follows the mighty Buller River valley in sweeping curves through glorious, old-growth native forest (with few overtaking opportunities) before reaching the flat pasture land around Murchison.

Murchison has scoop ice cream and you might want to re-fuel here or visit the antiques shops.

10.5 km after Murchison, SH6 turns sharp right over the Buller River Bridge for the West Coast (SH65 continues straight on to Christchurch over the Lewis Pass). Immediately after you cross the bridge, you might want to park on the left and then go back on foot over the bridge to see if there are any rafters or kayakers coming down this famous white-water river.

Sidetrip: Westport to Karamea[edit]

Westport to Hokitika[edit]

Hokitika to Fox Glacier[edit]

via the West Coast and Franz Joseph Glacier (take heli trip/ ice caving etc)

Fox Glacier to Wanaka[edit]

via Haast and the "Gates of Haast" pass

Wanaka to Queenstown (2-3 hr drive)[edit]

Go jetboating or bungee jumping - best place in New Zealand for both

Queenstown to Te Anau (3-6 hr drive)[edit]

leave Queenstown and travel along the shores of Lake Wakatipu with the Remarkables mountain range on the right.

From Te Anau

  • Walk the Milford Track. If you only have a day to spend you can take the first (earlier) boat to the start of the track do an hour or so of the track then walk back and catch the later boat back. Otherwise take the 4 day (3 nights) trek –it is really worth it (but make sure you book as far in advance as possible to avoid dissapointment).

Te Anau to Milford Sound (3-9 hr drive)[edit]

This road is one of the most beautifully majestic in all the world. Make sure you pull off the road at the many parking laybys to admire the splendour safely. Most tourists take a cruise when they reach the end of the road at Milford.

Milford Sound to Dunedin[edit]

via Gore and Balclutha

Dunedin to Oamaru[edit]

via the Moeraki boulders

Oamaru to Geraldine[edit]

via Twizel, Lake Tekapo (with views of Mt Cook) and Fairlie

Geraldine to Kaikoura[edit]

via Christchurch International Airport. Whale Watching (make sure you book 3-4 weeks in advance...). Fish and chips on the beach. 1 Day

Sidetrip: to Akaroa (1.5hrs drive)[edit]

Sidetrip: to Hanmer Springs and Waipara Valley (2hrs drive)[edit]

On all of these if you have time a stay overnight would be good too. 1 Day

  • Leave earlish in the morning and drive to

Kaikoura to Picton[edit]

via Blenheim and its many vineyards on the way.

Stay safe[edit]

Go next[edit]

This itinerary to South Island Circuit is a usable article. It explains how to get there and touches on all the major points along the way. An adventurous person could use this article, but please feel free to improve it by editing the page.