This seven day self-drive itinerary explores the wild side of South Island, discovering New Zealand's greatest natural wonders, from primal forests to wild mountains and rugged coastlines.
It gives you world-class wildlife watching opportunities, including the chance to spot birds and wildlife found nowhere else in the world. Our round-trip route starts and finishes in Christchurch, so you have the option of following the itinerary in either direction. If you need a car rental, check out our Car Rental Quotes service where we can get you the best deal on your South Island rental.
Day 1 and 2: Christchurch to Kaikoura
Depart Christchurch for the wildlife-watching mecca of Kaikoura, around three hours drive to the north, on a stunning scenic drive sandwiched between the soaring peaks of the Seaward Kaikoura mountain range and the rugged coastline.
Kaikoura comes from the Maori "kai" meaning food, and "koura" meaning crayfish, showing just how important the marine environment was in this region. In late 2016 the settlement was close to the epicentre of a devastating earthquake that dramatically changed the profile of the shoreline, pushing the seabed upward as much as six metres in places. After some initial disturbance, much of the wildlife has returned and Kaikoura is still one of the best locations in New Zealand for spotting marine life, and we recommend the following wildlife experiences in the area.
Whale watching: Kaikoura lies at the head of a vast underwater canyon, which allows deep diving creatures like sperm whales to feed relatively close to shore. A short scenic flight over the bay or a boat trip are both worthwhile options, with a good chance of spotting whales. At the right time of the year, humpback whales can also be seen as they migrate from feeding grounds in Antarctica to their breeding waters around Fiji and Tonga. Orcas, fur seals, albatrosses and sharks are often spotted from the tour boats.
Dolphin watching: Super-schools of several hundred dusky dolphins gather in the waters off Kaikoura, an amazing spectacle as the water seems to fill with fins as far as the eye can see, as they leap and flip from the water. Some tour operators allow snorkelling with dolphins at certain times of the year.
Fur seal colony: The tip of the Kaikoura Peninsula is home to a colony of fur seals which have become used to humans, giving unparalleled views of the animals. Males hang out close to the car park, while females and pups stay on rocky ledges by the shore. An easy hike around the peninsula, around 3km from town, gives excellent views back to the mountains and an insight into the history of the settlement.
Day 3: Kaikoura to Tekapo
After a relaxing couple of days in Kaikoura, it's time to hit the road. Today will be a long drive, around six hours to reach your final destination of Lake Tekapo, but the stunning landscapes that make a backdrop for your journey will more than make up for it. Take the inland route from Kaikoura to Culverden, along the foot of the Kaikoura Ranges, and head towards Mount Hutt.
In Mount Hutt village you might spot the fantastic kea, the world's only alpine parrot. These birds have a reputation for intelligence and curiosity, and close encounters with these cheeky birds are a highlight of the high country.
At the heart of the Mackenzie basin, below the dramatic peaks of the Southern Alps, Lake Tekapo is a striking turquoise colour from the glacial rock-flour suspended in the water. On its shores you'll find the picturesque Church of the Good Shepherd and the sheepdog monument, memorials to the European settlement of the area. A hike to the top of Mt John reveals the rolling landscape.
The real secret of Lake Tekapo is revealed once it gets dark. The clear skies and lack of light pollution make this one of the best locations in New Zealand for stargazing; you should be able to make out the Southern Cross, Milky Way and Magellanic Clouds among the myriad of stars. On the right occasion you may even be lucky enough to see the aurora australis, the Southern Lights.
Day 4: Tekapo to Dunedin
Another day of long driving lies ahead today, as you leave beautiful Lake Tekapo to head to the charming city Dunedin, the Edinburgh of the south. We'd recommend that you take the high road, through the Canterbury plains town of Twizel and the dramatic Lindis Pass, into Central Otago. It will take between five and six hours to reach Dunedin.
The road through the Lindis Pass reaches a height of 971 metres above sea level, and its tussock covered hillsides are home to many native birds, including rifleman (titipounamou), grey warblers (riroriro) and falcons (karearea).
Relax and stretch your legs once you reach Dunedin, with a stroll through the Chinese Garden, or walk along the beach at St. Clair. Or if you're feeling brave, take the tour through the Gothic Northern Cemetery, a testament to the riches of the Otago gold rush, and reputedly one of the most haunted resting places in the world!
Day 5: Day in Dunedin
Drive the rugged Otago Peninsula road from Dunedin to Taiaroa Head, and visit the Royal Albatross Centre. The magnificent northern royal albatross has a three metre wingspan and spends most of its life at sea, coming to the cliffs only to mate and breed. The observatory is also a great location to see gulls, terns and shags, and oceanic seabirds, like petrels, shearwaters and albatrosses, can be viewed offshore. Hiking on nearby beaches and cliffs is an opportunity to spot fur seals, sea lions and even occasional orcas and rare southern right whales.
The sheltered bays and beaches of the Otago peninsula are home to yellow-eyed penguins, one of the world's rarest penguins. Unusually, they like to roost in areas of woodland, and can walk up to one kilometre from the shore to find suitable spots. A tour of the nature reserve at Penguin Place helps to support habitat restoration and rehabilitation of injured birds. Go in the late afternoon, to watch the penguins come ashore at sunset, before returning to Dunedin for the night.
Day 6: Dunedin to Akaroa
Enjoy the scenic drive from Dunedin to Akaroa, which takes around five and a half hours. Possible stops along the route include: Orokonui ecosanctuary, with its Haast tokoeka kiwi crèche; the Moeraki boulders; and the beautiful public gardens in Oamaru.
Keen birdwatchers will want to make a stop by Te Waihora/Ellesmere Lake, near Birdling's Flat, a coastal lagoon with a reputation as an outstanding wildlife habitat. Around 160 species of birds have been recorded here, including 133 indigenous to New Zealand, plus many other rare plants and animals.
After arriving in Akaroa, you can join an evening tour to Pohatu, the largest little penguin colony on the mainland of New Zealand, just a short drive away. You'll see the little blue penguins come ashore at dusk, and could help with monitoring nesting birds as part of conservation efforts.
Day 7: Akaroa to Christchurch
Tucked away at the tip of the volcanic Bank's Peninsula, the laid-back settlement of Akaroa is true to its French roots, with an great selection of gourmet cafes and bakeries to enjoy a continental breakfast of freshly-baked bread and pastries, and excellent coffee to set you up for the rest of the day.
The picturesque harbour is the best location in New Zealand to spot rare Hector's dolphins, one of the smallest marine dolphins, reaching no more than 1.5m in length, along with fur seals, penguins and the occasional albatross. There are several options for wildlife-watching boat tours from Akaroa, including the award-winning Black Cat Cruises, or sailing on the traditional gaff-rigged ketch, Fox II.
Return to Christchurch for the end of the day, approximately one and a half hours drive.
If you need help planning your own New Zealand itinerary, get in touch with us through our free Travel Planning Service and we can help you plan your New Zealand adventure.
Get help creating the perfect self-drive itinerary, finding the best deal on a car or campervan rental or booking the perfect tour. We offer personalized support prior to your trip. Contact us or fill out our FREE Travel Planning Service form below.
A First Timers Guide To The South Island
The Best Maori Cultural Experiences in New Zealand
Planit NZ Snapshots
When to Come
Planning a Ski Holiday in New Zealand
Self Drive New Zealand Tours
Guide to Finding Accommodation in New Zealand
New Zealand Itineraries
Planning A Campervan Trip to New Zealand
New Zealand for Lord of the Rings Fans
Still need help? Email our travel desk: firstname.lastname@example.org
© Planit Travel Group, Middle Earth