Hostel hopping in the South Island

He assured me that all I had to do was relax and enjoy the ride. That he’d do the driving. We took no guidebooks. No maps.

My partner Colin knew all the highways and byways so well that we rarely travelled the same road twice on our two week South Island driving tour. Because I work at YHA New Zealand in the finance department, I looked forward to stopping and staying at YHA hostels along the way.

Forty odd years ago I’d frequented the small towns and winding roads from Mount Cook to Te Anau as a trainee in hotel management. My 2011 trip was a step into the past and a jolt into the present. I saw change everywhere. Wanaka had grown. The landscape around Te Anau had transformed from scrub to pasture. Some areas had deteriorated. The smaller towns of Ross, Hari Hari and Whataroa – which years ago were abuzz with large timber mills–now lay idle and in disrepair.

Paved roads

The most obvious changes were the roads that took us from Christchurch to Arthur’s Pass, Franz Josef to Wanaka, the Southern Lakes, Dunedin, Gore, Invercargill into Fiordland and Te Anau, then back through Queenstown, Mackenzie country and home to Christchurch. In the late 60s and early 70s, many of those roads were shingle. When I told a Japanese traveller at YHA Franz Josef Glacier that it had taken me forty years to make my way there again, she asked, “Why? Why? Everything in New Zealand is so close!”

How true. Now that the roads have been paved, everything seems that much closer.

Living like a hosteller

Before we set out from Christchurch in Colin’s Nissan Terrano, I convinced him that if we were staying at hostels, we would have to live like hostellers! That meant embracing a sense of community and, in a hostel, the kitchen was the most communal. With gas hobs flaming and pots of pasta on the boil, I chatted with the younger hostellers as they prepared their meals.

Travel tales

Colin commented, “You only need to be around people to start talking!”

That’s how you hear great travel stories. Like a Welsh traveller in his 30s who we first saw at YHA Franz Josef Glacier and then again at YHA Wanaka, YHA Queenstown Lakefront and then in YHA Dunedin! He’d been travelling Australia, Europe and the South Island via YHAs with a Brazilian who had been to New Zealand three times. He understood why hostelling can be so great. It’s inexpensive. Convenient. And has kitchens where you can share a meal with interesting folk.

True, a lot of those folk are younger, but that keeps things interesting!

New experiences on the doorstep

I became firm in a conviction on my South Island tour:  I don’t need to travel beyond my home shores for unseen landscapes or for creating new memories. It’s all in New Zealand. There is so much beauty. So much kindness. There is so much here that it could take a lifetime to explore it all.

- Nan McDonald

Nan and Colin booked their South Island hostel accommodation through YHA New Zealand. If you’d like more information on services and deals, visit, call 0800 278 299 or email

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