There are two main options for traversing the South Island. I could have driven along the East Coast through relatively flat Marlborough wine country and stopped by Christchurch on the way to Queenstown. Or I could opt for the more adventurous West Coast drive, partly lined by the Southern Alps mountain range. I chose the latter.
There was a lot of driving ahead of me with this route, including twisty mountain roads but the reward was some of the most striking landscapes I would see on this trip. The main event for this drive would be the Franz Josef Glacier, one of the largest glaciers in New Zealand.
I began this West Coast drive from the northwest tip of the South Island after wrapping up my Nelson Lakes and Wharariki Beach stay.
After a 6 hour drive, I made it to Greymouth where I had booked a no-frills hotel for the night. After checking in and relaxing a few moments, I went back out and drove up the highway to see the area.
I had originally wanted to see these Motukiekie Rocks at low tide—where you can apparently see a ton of bright orange starfish among the rocks—but the timing didn't work out. Low tide on this day would have been after sunset on this day.
Punakaiki Pancake Rocks
After strolling along the beach for a while, I got back in my car and drove further north to the Paparoa National Park. Known for the Punakaiki pancake rocks and blowholes, this park is surrounded with a myriad of limestone rock formations that look like a stack of pancakes due to the way they were sculpted by water over the years.
It was dark by the time I wrapped up shooting a timelapse. After a 40 minute drive back to Greymouth, I found a pub for a plate of tasty fish and chips along with a pint of local lager before calling it a night.
I began the rainy 2.5 hour drive to Franz Josef Glacier in the morning. Along the way I saw a sign for Hokitika Gorge and decided to take the slight detour; anything to save me from the relatively boring rainy drive thus far. I parked and hiked 30 minutes to check it out.
The water was a vibrant milky turquoise due to "glacial flour", fine-grained rock particles formed from glacial erosion. I would later spot more lakes like this along my South Island journey.
Franz Josef Glacier
I made it to Franz Josef Glacier about 2 hours later. I checked into my hotel then walked around and found a bite at nearby SnakeBite Brewery. It wasn't a great time to actually see the glacier so I just took it easy and planned to do it the next morning.
I had inquired about a helicopter tour and glacier hike for the morning but bad weather was expected and everything had been canceled.
In the morning I had a snack from a grocery store run and then made my way down the street to the Franz Josef Glacier carpark. There was a small hike from there to get to a point where I could see the glacier.
The morning started out rainy with lots of fog and low clouds but fortunately the sun started to come out during the return hike.
Road to Queenstown
I wrapped up this trek just after noon and began the 5 hour drive to Queenstown. Or I should say, it should have just been a 5 hour drive but it was so scenic I must have added another hour or more with all my photo stops.
While I probably should put these photos in the Queenstown photoset, I have way too many shots to share for that one so I'll wrap up this photoset with some photos from the lovely Franz Josef Glacier to Queenstown drive.
This drive really epitomized the spectrum of weather on the South Island. In one drive I went from seeing a glacier to driving through a rainforest and then emerging to heavenly panoramas with flawless sunny weather.
Lake Wanaka & Lake Hawea
After about 3 hours of driving in the rain I took a break at a local restaurant somewhere along the West Coast to grab a coffee and a snack. The next few hours of the drive involved a completely drastic change in the weather—stunningly electric lakes, dramatic landscapes, sunny weather and bright clouds.
I drove past Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea along the way, stopping at various points at least five or six times to capture shots. There's a popular hike in the Wanaka area called Roys Peak that I had considered doing but didn't plan well; it was already late afternoon and I would have had to wait until the next day to do the 6 hour hike and I already had plans in Queenstown.
The Crown Range
The last hour of the drive was by far the most stunning, especially as I approached it during golden hour. The winding Crown Range Road traverses between Wanaka and Queenstown and is the highest main road in New Zealand.
I arrived in Queenstown—exhausted and in dire need of a drink—later that evening ready to begin exploring the resort town I had heard so much about.