Road Trip Itineraries #6 - Main Divide

True escapism awaits! Cross the magnificent Southern Alps not once but twice, explore the Southern Lakes region and the rugged and remote west coast!

Christchurch to Greymouth


The mighty west coast beakons as we depart Christchurch, but you have a spectacular drive ahead of you as you climb more than 900 metres through the Aurthurs Pass National Park. The Park was named for surveyor Arthur Dobson who was tasked with finding a pass from Canterbury to the Westcoast in 1864.

Now we may be strong proponents for travelling by car, but consider picking up your hire car in Greymouth and making the journey across the main divide by train on one of the world’s great train journeys, the TransAlpine express.

Arriving in Arthurs Pass you may well have your first experience of the infamous Kea. You'll be so captivated by the scenery that you’ll likely loose both your lunch and your shoelaces to this ingenious, yet incredibly devious mountain parrot, found only in the South Island of New Zealand. Having navigated the Otira Viaduct, an engineering feat that’s more a rollercoaster than a road, you'll quickly notice the change to dense and somewhat errie rainforest vegetation typical of the west coast. Sample a true Westcoast brew at the Montieths Brewery or step back in time at iconic Shantytown Heritage Park, a replica 1880s gold town in full working order.

Hokitika to Whataroa


From Greymouth we head south towards Hokitika, famous for its jade carving, with the milky blue waters of the Hokitika Gorge making for a worthwhile detour, before setting your sites on glacier country. As you cruise down remote state highway 6 you'd be forgiven for thinking yours is the only vehicle on the road, bar the odd tractor, with just 32,000 "Coasters" living on this 600km stretch of coastline. 87% of the West Coast is conservation land and the countryside is unique from anything else in New Zealand with the spectacular Southern Alps catching your eye at every turn. Aim to make it to Whataroa in time for lunch as they serve one heck of a good Whitebait sandwich here, with good thick white bread and plenty of butter.

Franz Josef Glacier to Haast


Stop in at Lake Mapourika, just 10 minutes north of Franz Josef Glacier for a refreshing swim, before laying over in Franz Josef Glacier for the night. Descending to just 250m above sea level, the Franz Josef Glacier is one of only three glaciers in the world that descends into a temperate rainforest environment, making it extremely accessible to the general public.

Franz Josef Glacier Guides offer a range of guided experiences from interpretive valley walks to heli hikes which get you right up on to the ice itself. You’ll also enjoy free entry to the Glacier Hot Pools with some tours…you can’t argue with that! Kayaking on the Okarito Lagoon is another experience not to be missed, just half an hour from Franz Josef Okarito offers the best vantage point for viewing the spectacular Southern Alps in all their glory.

Just south of Franz Josef is Fox Glacier, which is also well worth a look with the glacier valley being somewhat unique to that of Franz. Be sure to top up with fuel here, as there’s little by way of civilisation for the next wee while as you continue south to Haast. If you have time, be sure to check out Mount Cook and Mt Tasman, the highest peaks in the Southern Alps, reflected in the still waters of Lake Matheson. Or if you’re keen to get right off the beaten path, consider an overnight hike into Welcome Flats, weather permitting. It’s a fair hike in, at 7 hours one way, but the natural hot springs at the hut will make it all worth while.

Activities to try:

  • Glacier Hote Pools and Glacier Walk, Franz Josef Glaciers

Haast to Wanaka


The rugged Haast Pass is next and what a drive you have ahead of you. It was an important trade route for Maori, who named the pass Tioripatea, meaning “the way is clear”, and today the breathtaking Haast Pass Highway, opened in the early 1960s, provides a vital link between the West Coast and Central Otago. Once through the Gates of Haast, Fantail Falls and The Blue Pools on the Haast/Makaroa Highway, provide excellent opportunities to stretch the legs and soak up your pristine surroundings.

Say goodbye to the sandflies and hello to Wanaka. This resort town sits snuggly beneath the mountains at the southern end of Lake Wanaka and is the gateway to the awe inspiring Mt Aspiring National Park. The surrounding mountains offer excellent mountain biking and support two of New Zealands premier ski-fields, including Treble Cone and Cardrona. The drive to the Matukituki Valley and hike up to the Rob Roy Glacier make for a great day out amidst spectacular alpine scenery complete with an Indiana Jones style swing bridge. After expelling all that energy, why not cruise about the countryside sampling the local wines, but as we don’t condone drinking and driving, try the lovely folks at Funny French Cars for a unique Central Otago wine and food experience.

Wanaka to Queenstown

From Wanaka head over the crown range, enjoying the views at the top before decending into Queenstown. Settle in for a couple of nights at the sumptuous Heritage, Queenstown, with amazing views of the Remarkables mountain range rising from the rippling waters of Lake Wakatipu. You might not tick off everything that New Zealand’s adventure capital has to offer in one sitting, but Shotover Jet, the only jet boat company allowed to operate in the stunning Shotover Canyon, is a quintessential Queenstown experience not to be missed. There’s also bungy jumping, zip-lining and paragliding on offer, but for a truly rewarding experience, consider exploring the pristine environment of the Fiordland National Park on a three day guided walk from the mountains to the sea on the dramatic Hollyford Track.

Tear yourself away from Queenstown and drive through the Gibson Valley, following the milky blue Kawarau River towards Cromwell, stopping to taste some of the award winning local wines enroute. If you're the adventurous type, book a River Surfing trip before you leave Queenstown and spend the afternoon getting all churned up in by the mighty Kawarau River – trips start at the Roaring Meg power station.

Activites to try:

  • Funny French Cars, Wanaka Wine Tours
  • Shotover Jet, Queenstown
  • Guided walk, Fiordland National Park, Hollyford Track

Cromwell to Mt Cook


Continue on through to Cromwell, the fruit bowl of New Zealand, famed for its delicious stone fruit, and take one last look at the beautiful Southern Lakes region from up high with a helicopter flight with Heliview Flights, offering a range of scenic flights as well as heli-biking experiences.

Departing the Central Otago region, we find ourselves back in Canterbury, but the highlights just keep coming. At the southern end of Mackenzie Basin sits Omarama. Renowned as a gliding mecca, pilots make the most of the clear, empty skies and the nearby Clay Cliffs, and the Ahuriri Conservation Park offer numerous walking options.

An hour further on and and you'll soon find yourself gazing upon New Zealand’s highest peak Aoraki/Mt Cook, standing 3,754 metres high. According to Māori legend, Aoraki was a young man who, along with his three brothers, were the sons of Rakinui, the Sky Father. On their voyage around the Papatuanuku, the Earth Mother, their canoe was overturned with Aoraki and his brothers climbing onto the top side of their canoe, where they were frozen by the south wind and turned them to stone. Their canoe became the Te Waka o Aoraki, the South Island, and their prows, the Marlborough Sounds. Aoraki, the tallest, became the highest peak, and his brothers formed Kā Tiritiri o te Moana, the Southern Alps.

The alpine village of Aoraki/Mount Cook, located in Aoraki /Mount Cook National Park and situated beside scenic Lake Pukaki, provides a comfortable base for alpine activities. A night at Mueller Hut, at an altitude of 1800 metres, will reward you with spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and glaciers – the less hardy can turn back at Sealy Tarns and opt to spend the night in more civilised surrounds. Before sure to check out the Sir Edmund Hilary Alpine Centre at The Hermitage.

Tekapo to Christchurch


Lake Tekapo township sits on the remarkable turquoise-coloured Lake Tekapo. Visit the Church of Good Shepard on the shores of Lake Tekapo, and do some stargazing at the world’s largest International Dark Sky Reserve.

From Tekapo, it's a 3hr drive back to Christchurch taking the more direct route through Geraldine and Ashburton. With more time, you might want to take slightly the longer way home via Methvan, sitting at the foot of the Mt Hutt Ski area. Methvans famous for its hot air ballooning, which would be a great way to say one final farewell to the Southern Alps, that you will have fallen so in love with over the past 10 or so days.

Say goodbye to the sandflies and hello to Lake Wanaka.

For more road trip ideas, read the next article in the Avis Big Break series, "Heritage trail". 

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