Home to some of the most beautiful and diverse scenery on the planet, New Zealand is a wonderful place to get out into the Great Outdoors. In particular, the South Island is a visual paradise that mixes snow-capped mountains with lakes, rivers, glaciers, cliffs, waterfalls, wild coastlines and beaches. Throw in the welcoming people, great culture and an endless list of adventure activities, and the South Island quickly becomes a must-see destination.
We were short on time and desperate to squeeze in as much scenery as possible, so we opted for a New Zealand South Island adventure tour with a small group, covering all of the main highlights in 10 days. This turned out to be a perfect mixture of cycling, hiking, camping and waking up in beautiful remote locations by lakes, oceans and mountains. We loved every moment.
I was very lucky to win two Premium Economy flights to Auckland with Air New Zealand, so I took a friend along to explore the South Island. The flights were amazing and I can see why they have been awarded ‘Best Premium Economy in the World’ for the past few years. The seats are very comfortable and spacious with a good recliner and foot rest, the on-demand entertainment is excellent, the food and drinks are great and the personalised service is a real added bonus.
I would highly recommend upgrading from Economy to Premium Economy with Air New Zealand. It made the 24 hours pass more quickly and I managed to get far more sleep than I expected. On the return leg, we managed to access the Star Alliance Lounge in Los Angeles airport, which is one of the best in the world. It was a great place to freshen up with a shower between flights, have a couple of drinks, grab a bite and enjoy the outdoor terrace overlooking the runways. Those travelling in Business class will get to enjoy this great experience.
We started the trip in Nelson and set off to explore Abel Tasman, the most visited National Park in NZ. The day trip we booked involved a transfer from Nelson, a boat ride and a couple of hours kayaking. It was great to get a little taste of this beautiful area with rainforest, stunning bays, beaches and islands. If you have time, I would recommend spending 2-3 days here, walking some of the Abel Tasman track.
Starting from Nelson, we picked up our 10-day Flying Kiwi Southern Light trip. Flying Kiwi is a locally and family-owned adventure company that has been operating tours since 1988. It’s now rated by National Geographic amongst the ‘Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth’.
Flying Kiwi trips are camping experiences with all kinds of hiking, cycling and rafting excursions. Perfect for active travellers, they are a great way to get to know New Zealand away from the towns and cities. In every destination, there are numerous optional activities from rafting and kayaking to dolphin swims and canyon swings.
If camping isn't your cup of tea, don't fret! With Flying Kiwi, it's possible to upgrade to cabin accommodation for a spot of rural luxury in New Zealand.
The big loop of both islands is called the Ultimate Explorer and 80% of Flying Kiwi’s clients opt for this route, which takes 28 days. However, if you don’t have a month available, you can do shorter sections. This is exactly what we did from Nelson to Queenstown. Being a small company, Flying Kiwi is very flexible and you can start your tour almost anywhere along the route. I have always loved the look of these tours, so I was very excited to try one myself.
Our first day involved a long drive, picking up the rest of the group along the way and ended with a fantastic walk along the Kaikoura Peninsula in perfect weather, with snow-capped mountains as the backdrop. A few members of the group opted for a kayaking trip around the bay to watch seals swimming in their natural habitat, but we had rented bikes, so we decided to cycle the easy 6 miles back to camp on an off-road track. After getting lost, this ended up being a 15-mile ride, but we loved it anyway and we managed to get our tent up before a storm set in.
Unfortunately, the storm meant that our 5am dolphin-swimming trip had to be cancelled, which was disappointing because Kaikoura is one of the best places in the world to do it. I’ll just have to go back one day! Moving on, we had lunch in Christchurch before heading to the best camp of the trip in Rangitata, set by the Peel Forest in the Southern Alps. We enjoyed a 12-mile undulating cycle ride into camp on quiet backroads.
We were the only people camping on this real working farm, so we were lucky enough to have full use of the inside cooking and dining area, BBQ, lounge and even a pool table. We shared a few drinks playing pool and cards and enjoyed some incredible stargazing from our remote location by the river.
Today, we awoke before sunrise for a rafting trip on the Grade 5 rapids of the Rangitata Gorge. This was one of my highlights of the trip, as we were surrounded by stunning scenery, crystal clear waters and fresh morning mountain sunshine whilst battling the huge rapids.
Picking up the rest of the group after they had done some hiking and horse-riding in the Peel Forest, we set off for Lake Tekapo. We took another beautiful road cycle into camp at the end of the day, which led us past the most-photographed church in New Zealand, set on the shore of the glacial fed turquoise waters by the lake. Our campsite had amazing lake views and, after dinner, we made the 30-minute trek up the hill to see a spectacular sunset over the lake.
This morning, we explored the snow-capped mountainous scenery of New Zealand’s highest mountain, Mt Cook. On the way, we passed beautiful Lake Pukaki, took a two-hour hike through the Hooker Valley, and celebrated our efforts with a freezing dip surrounded by icebergs.
Moving onwards, we set off on a spectacular 10-mile cycle ride on the Alps2Ocean trail. In total, the whole length of the trail is 300km and runs from Mt Cook all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Back on the bus, we drove the last section to Moeraki, where we camped for the night.
Setting off early in the morning, we took a walk along the beach at low tide to the Moeraki Boulders. These bizarre boulders are natural formations of perfectly-round rocks set on the beach. They weigh up to 4 tonnes and they are believed to be millions of years old. It was a great start to the day.
Next, a short bus ride took us to the Scottish city of Dunedin, which was my favourite city of the trip. Home to a large student population, Dunedin has a good mix of lively cafes, restaurants and bars. I spent the afternoon on a 20-mile cycle around the Otago peninsula and up to Larnach Castle, the only castle in New Zealand. There were definitely a few punishing hills, and it’s no wonder that the steepest residential street in the world is located here! We camped near stunning St. Clair Beach and spent the night hopping between the bars of Dunedin.
Today was a long travel day, as we made the journey from Dunedin into Fiordland, New Zealand’s largest national park. The scenery was spell-binding throughout the drive. We camped at the remote Gunn’s camp, established in the 1930s in the heart of the Hollyford Valley. After the long bus journey, we stretched our legs on an easy 5 mile downhill cycle that followed a river into the camp.
Today, we headed out on a boat trip around Milford Sound, a fjord carved by glaciers during the ice ages. Unfortunately, the misty weather limited our views but we still saw the huge waterfalls cascading 1000 metres down the dramatic cliffs and the fog added a magical atmosphere to it all.
After a short drive, we were dropped off at the start of the 32km Routeburn trek. This is a 3-day walk that twists and turns through two national parks. It’s officially one of New Zealand’s ‘Great Walks’ and there are all kinds of birdlife to see along the way, including the world’s only alpine parrot, the Kea.
On the first afternoon, our hike to camp took us through lush green temperate rainforest. We stayed the night at the Lake Mackenzie lodge in a packed 50-person dorm. If you do plan to book a popular great walk, be sure to do it in advance, as the lodges and campsites can book out very quickly.
Setting off through the cloud, getting glimpses of views of Lake Mackenzie as we climbed quickly above it. The clouds stayed with us until we trekked past the highest point at Harris Saddle at 1300m altitude, where we were amazed to find the clouds clearing, giving us an incredible afternoon of views down the valley, complete with lakes and waterfalls and sunshine. After the 12 mile walk, we arrived at camp early and spent the afternoon relaxing in the sunshine.
After hiking through temperate rainforest to the end point of the trek, we took a shuttle into Queenstown, skirting along the shores of beautiful Lake Wakatipu from Glenorchy. Here, we caught up with the rest of the group at the campsite before throwing ourselves off a cliff at Fox Canyon. It’s been a long time since I last did a bungee jump and there’s nothing like the adrenalin of a quick freefall before swinging across a deep canyon. Afterwards, we were all buzzing and we had a farewell meal with the group in town before hitting the many bars in Queenstown.
We had one last day in Queenstown before heading home, so we set off on a fantastic trip with Funyaks. First, we took a bus trip along the lake to Glenorchy before beginning an exhilarating jet boat trip on the Dart River, doing 360s spins and trying to avoid running aground in the shallow water.
Next, we spent an hour travelling deep into the heart of Mt Aspiring National Park, to jump into an inflatable ‘funyak’ kayak and paddle downriver surrounded by stunning scenery. As we floated along, we explored hidden side streams with amazing rock pools and dramatic chasms. We topped off our time in Queenstown with a trip up the gondola for views over the town before saying goodbye to the beautiful South Island.
It was amazing to be back in New Zealand after 14 years and it is just as stunning as I remember. The people are very welcoming and there are so many sights and activities – it truly is an outdoor playground.
Flying Kiwi was amazing and it’s a company that I can’t recommend highly enough. The idea is to explore the beauty of New Zealand and spend most of the time away from the towns and cities, which is exactly what New Zealand is about.
While it’s easy to get between cities in New Zealand by bus or car, Flying Kiwi offers a unique chance to get beyond the tourist trail and explore stunning gems that many visitors miss. The convenience of a tour also meant much more time to spend on enjoying rather than planning and booking – a true holiday!
Most breakfast and dinners are included as well as some lunches, so we only really needed to buy a few beers or local wine in the evenings. Although camping is a big part of the trip, cheap upgrades are available on most nights if you do want a little more comfort. You do need to be fairly active, but you can do as much or as little as you want. I highly recommend hiring a bike.
Our days were pretty busy and we were always on the go, but, if you do the month-long trip with Flying Kiwi the pace is slower and you’ll have excellent breaks for 2-3 nights in key locations along the way. At the same time, having two guides on each trip makes it feel more personalised.
On my specific tour, the average age was around the mid-thirties, but we also had couples in their sixties and a handful of twenty-somethings too, so it was a great mix. The group was made up for people from all over the world and really did highlight how these trips can be for everyone - it is more about your mindset than your age.
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Simply give us a call on +44 1273320580 or send us a request by email and we'll get back to you. If you prefer, you can contact Chris directly and find out how to book a similar trip.