The Deep South

This should probably go on my photography blog, but there is a bit more explaining to do than on the usual photography post so I’ll wheel out the words blog for this one. It’s been a while, Sandysview was getting dusty, plus now you can see the new look blog as you probably hadn’t visited here much lately either. I was looking back at recent posts and it seems I’m leaning towards the travel theme a lot more these days. So this can be a travel blog thing. There will be a lot of photos.

One of my favourite things to do is a road trip. Which is fortunate because I’m lucky enough to live in arguably the best country in the world for road trips, apart from the other drivers on the road of course. But if we ignore them and look at the scenery outside the vehicle, it’s pretty amazing here in New Zealand.

I’ve driven most of the country at one time or another but the only place I have never been is South of Queenstown, or the Mackenzie Country. Well that’s two places but they are both in the same general part of New Zealand. The Deep South, the lower part of the South Island.

A campervan seemed the best way to do this trip, well it was a good idea at the time but the bed was too hard and I now know that I like my luxuries too much to really appreciate the camper van experience. The very least any future campervan holidays will have are an awning and a toilet inside the vehicle.

We also didn’t just set off by road from home, which is currently in Wellington, but flew to Christchurch to rent the campervan. We had plenty of time but the roads south from Picton where the Cook Strait ferry arrives in the South Island are all a bit ‘challenged’. The main road South, State Highway One, has a number of mountain sides all over it between Blenheim and Kaikoura and the inland route is not really designed for the trucks and tourist traffic now forced inland so it’s full of road works. Hence the flight past all that, direct to Christchurch.

The great thing about the small size of New Zealand is that you can leave Wellington by plane at 7am and be in Christchurch in a vehicle, and on your way to the scenery in time for breakfast.

Rakaia FIsherman

Fisherman at Rakaia Gorge

We set off straightaway, heading inland via the Rakaia Gorge towards Fairlie and the Mackenzie Country. The Mackenzie country is famous because James Mackenzie, a Scottish sheep thief, mustered his stolen flocks through this huge natural basin back in the 1850’s. What it’s famous for now is being incredibly beautiful with amazing blue lakes all featuring a snow covered mountain backdrop. Just like on a postcard.

Lake Benmore

Lake Benmore

We actually got much further than we expected and spent the first night in Twizel after deciding not to stay in Tekapo because it’s heaving with people having their stargazing and famous Church of the Good Shepherd moment. The stargazing is famous here because it’s one of the clearest skies on earth given the almost total lack of light pollution. I didn’t photograph either of these things.


A pond near Twizel

I was more interested in Lake Pukaki, which up until now was the most beautiful lake I’ve ever seen.

Lake Pukaki

Lake Pukaki, it really is that blue.

Mackenzie Road Trip

The Road South

Onwards though; the South beckoned. We made for Wanaka and Arrowtown giving the tourist Mecca of Queenstown a wide birth. We stopped at Wanaka for supplies and because I wanted to see ‘That Wanaka Tree’. Every one photographs that tree so I was convinced I would be different and not photograph it. I failed, here is the tree.

Wanaka Tree

That Wanaka Tree

There is only one good way to go from Wanaka to Arrowtown, which is over the Crown Range. When you’ve driven both options you’ll see why the Crown Range is the only good way. Queenstown is down there by the lake.

Crown Range

The Crown Range Road, the highest sealed pass in New Zealand

Arrowtown is a bit more peaceful, a day trip for the Queenstown visitors. The town has a rustic colonial look to it and, best visited in autumn probably.

I wanted to get on though, I’ve been to Wanaka and Arrowtown before and I wanted to go south to where we hadn’t been. So the morning meant the drive to Te Anau.

You have to skirt round Queenstown to get to Te Anau and follow the banks of Lake Wakatipu until you arrive first at the poor cousin of the Queenstown Lakes towns, Kingston. It seems nobody has thought to head south and stop at Kingston. It’s hard to believe it’s just the other side of the lake from Queenstown, the difference is marked. Kingston is small and sleepy; the old Kingston Flyer depot is closed and derelict. We felt little need to linger here. Te Anau beckoned.


Fairlight Station, no trains here.

It’s always wonderful to drive roads you’ve never driven before and we really had no idea what to expect from Te Anau. I would say that within 5 minutes of arriving we had agreed that Te Anau is better than Queenstown. Queenstown has the more dramatic setting but it’s a complete tourist trap now. Overwhelmed with people looking for expensive things to do and buy, Te Anau is what Queenstown probably used to be. Te Anau is nearer Milford Sound as well but it seems most of those day trips still set off from Queenstown. To use a local colloquialism; bugger that. The coach journey from Queenstown to Milford Sound and back could best be described as epic. Certainly in the length of the trip, it must take over 12 hours including the boat ride?

We drove out to Milford Sound from Te Anau as neither of us had ever taken that road. I’d flown in there in 2005 and had the Milford Sound boat trip.

Deer Flat

Deer Flat on the road to Milford Sound.

I would recommend to anyone that they drive the Milford Sound road. By any standard the trip is simply immense; certainly one of the all time World travel experiences. It was raining heavily for much of our trip but that just added drama to the setting. It’s almost impossible to describe. The scenery is visceral wilderness.

Eglington Valley

Eglington Valley

Fiordland is a total sensory feast. In your own vehicle is the way to do this trip so you can stop frequently and soak up the sights and sounds. When you get to Milford Sound you can marvel briefly at the sheer quantity of tourists who came by coach and the surprising number of big tour boats ferrying people up and down the once serene fiord, which is Milford Sound. Now echoing to the sound of chatter and diesel engines. We left quickly. (Not before spotting an incredibly rare White Heron at Milford Sound though. There are only 30 breeding pairs in New Zealand)

White Heron 2

Back in Te Anau, the lakefront is quiet. I decided to get up early to watch the sun rise. That proved to be a good idea photographically speaking.

Te Anau Autumn Dawn

Te Anau at sunrise.

Te Anau jetty

Lake Te Anau.

The Fiord visit we wanted to undertake was Doubtful Sound. I’d heard it was better than Milford Sound. More remote nature with much less impact from tourism largely because you can’t drive yourself to Doubtful Sound, you have to be taken there by on a guided party. The only way in is by sea or across Lake Manapouri and over the Wilmot Pass.

Wilmot Pass

Doubtful Sound from Wilmot Pass Summit

I’m not usually a fan of guided tours but I made the exception because I really wanted to see Doubtful Sound.

Waiau River Mouth

Waiau River at Lake Manapouri

I don’t think there is even any point trying to explain it. I know I don’t have the superlatives to describe the trip. Even photography can’t convey the incredible sights along the way. I mentioned previously that Lake Pukaki was the most beautiful lake I had seen up until then. I made that point because that was until I had seen Lake Manapouri, which is now my new favourite lake.

Lake Manapouri

Lake Manapouri.

Doubtful Sound, which is actually a Fiord must have about 1/1000th of the tourists of Milford Sound. We need the tourism in New Zealand of course, but they do get in the way of you enjoying your own New Zealand moment.

Doubtful Sound

Doubtful Sound.

As well as Landscapes, I also photograph birds and it was a real treat to have the spectacular Bullers Mollymawk also known as the Pacific Albatross fly quite close to the boat.

Bullers Mollymawk

Bullers Mollymawk

We slept soundly that night having been privileged to be witness to some of the worlds most pristine and incredible land and seascapes.

Doubtful Sound Fisherman

Fishing Boat returning into Doubtful Sound

Tasman Sea

At the entrance to Doubtful Sound, looking out to the Tasman Sea

South though, we wanted some Oysters! It’s Bluff Oyster season in New Zealand and we wanted to try some in Bluff. Bluff is the southernmost settlement in the South Island. A fishing port and the end of most people’s southerly road trip. Cape Reinga to Bluff being the New Zealand version of top to bottom. There is still quite a bit of New Zealand territory on Islands beyond those two signposts, but they are the key landmarks as far as the main road from North to South goes.


Derelict fishermans shed at Bluff

The news and weather forecasts had been telling us that Cyclone Cook was coming. The biggest storm in a generation was going to clip the East Coast of the South Island which was where we were heading next. So we hunkered down in Invercargill for the night. I liked Invercargill more than I expected. We couldn’t stay though, the Catlins were calling.

I’d love to tell you about the Catlins but I can’t because we were in a rented campervan and you aren’t allowed to drive a rented campervan on a gravel road. In the Catlins, pretty much everything worth seeing is on or at the end of a gravel road because about 80% of the roads in the Catlins are gravel. We’ll have to go back and see all the stuff we didn’t see in our own car. Shame, it looks amazing round these parts on the map. So much to see and do. So we went to the excellent little museum in Owaka and moved on to the Otago Peninsula because we had a date with the Northern Royal Albatross colony. We had a couple of stops along the way at places I have never heard of, like Lake Waihola which is very reflective on a calm day and and Taieri Mouth which is a moody little fishing port at the mouth of the Taieri River near Dunedin.

Lake Waihola

Lake Waihola.

Taieri Mouth

Taieri Mouth

Of course we had to take a quick self-tour of Dunedin. I really liked Dunedin, amazing architecture, beautiful harbour. No photos though, well not of the city. We were heading for Portobello on the Otago Peninsula, which I can happily describe as one of the most beautiful places I’ve been in New Zealand.


Sunset at Portobello. Otago Peninsula.

That’s beautiful instead of epic or immense like Fiordland National Park, and Doubtful Sound.

Boat House

Otago Peninsula

The Cyclone hadn’t arrived and the weather was clear for a much-anticipated visit to the world’s only mainland Royal Albatross colony at Taiaroa Head.

Taiaroa Head

Taiaroa Head

These birds are incredible and while I’ve been lucky to see them at sea, I’ve never been up close to the biggest one, the Royal Northern Albatross with a wingspan of over 3 metres.

Royal Albatross

Northern Royal Albatross

You have to watch them through glass so you don’t disturb the chicks but we were thrilled to have a couple of adult birds fly very close to our viewpoint. Bucket list moment ticked. We had to go home.

Albatross Chick

Albatross Chick

Just north of Dunedin is the beach village of Karitane. The name most well known for the nurses specializing in childcare in New Zealand. I now know this also a place I’d like to have a holiday. But we were heading for a lunch, a special lunch at Fleur’s Place in Moeraki. Another must do that had been on our list of must do’s but this one was really important. Everyone talks about Fleur’s Place, so went there for lunch. Certainly up there with the best lunch I’ve had. A mixed fish tasting platter in the extraordinary setting that is Fleur’s Place. Go there, have lunch. We didn’t bother with the Moeraki Boulders, I’ve seen a lot of boulders. The White Cliffs Boulders in the Rangitikei are better.



The issue with getting home from the Deep South if you are flying out of Christchurch is crossing the Canterbury plains to get there. A quick visit to Oamaru in the morning was actually quite surprising for me. I’d also never been to Oamaru and the old town is really amazing. The architecture is very cool. I’d heard Oamaru was nice, but wasn’t expecting anything quite like what I saw. Totally going back to Oamaru.

No trip down this was is complete without a visit to Richie McCaw country though. Well it probably is but we wanted to have a look at Kurow anyway. You could follow that road all the way back through to the Mackenzie Country. We didn’t.


Near Kurow.

Waitaki River

Hamilton Jet boat on the Waitaki River, at Kurow

Finally a last night in Rakaia near the longest river bridge in New Zealand and a long straight drive to Christchurch airport to drop off our uncomfortable accommodation.

Epic Roadie, I’ll be doing it again in my own car and staying in motels though.

Otematata Road

Road Trip. The Deep South.

23 replies »

  1. Sandy, you are a fantastic ambassador for your beautiful country. Your fantastic words and photos really create a dream to go deep, deep south.

    Erik S

  2. Nothing short of F. ing brilliant. The photography is fantastic, the wording is just enough.

    Sandy you must get your work published (I’ve been telling you this for years).

    Keep up the good work.

  3. Ah sandman what a special delight to read your wonderful writings again. You are way too scarce in the blogosphere.

  4. Thanks Sandy….heading south on Thursday.. pick up campervan (with toilet) in Christchurch… have some more ideas to cram into a short time.

  5. Totally agree with Dennis Dickinson. Thanks Sandy. I was reading parts to my husband and I think he was getting quite buzzed that you thought so highly of his ‘patch’. He’s actually from Middlemarch – ok, nothing much to rock your world there, but attended boarding schools in Oamaru, worked in Invercargill, Dunedin, (Corrections) and apparently took borstal boys in the day by seaplane to Doubtless Sound to cut tracks from Loch Marie to the Tukituki River, 10 days at a time. Anyway, I smiled when you mentioned Waihola. That was where my mother-in-law was born and which their Polish community called home, I guess, after leaving Poland as refugees in the mid-1800s. Enough of my chatter. Besides, “The Missing” has started. LOL! Thanks again, Sandy. Mā te wā.

  6. This is a brilliant story full of popping photographs of a place I have always dreamed of visiting. For the time it took me to read your blog and be engrossed in your brilliant photos, my mind was quiet and my morning perfect.

  7. Sand. Can you not get this published? It is brilliant. I know I’m your mother but I do know a thing or two. XXXXX

  8. Excellent missive – took me right back to somewhere I haven’t been for 20 years…..!

    Philip Evans 35 Chichester Place, Brighton BN2 1FF Lieu Dit MontPlaisir, Lézignan Corbieres 11200 France (Tel: 0468 279029)

  9. A great read and stunning photos Sandy. The Catlins are the most stunning place i have ever visited in NZ but then i have not been to Fiordland, yet.

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