5 unique animal experiences that will complete your South Island road trip

Here’s a piece of trivia you may not be aware of; over 71% of New Zealand’s wildlife in not found anywhere else on Earth!

That’s right, this includes extinct species such as the three metre tall 'Moa' and the carnivorous, man-eating ‘Haast Eagle’. Even three-eyed reptiles and majestic creatures that glow in the dark.

New Zealand's South Island wildlife never fails to inspire awe and wonder. So if you’re planning to get up close and personal with nature, here’s a list of amazing, must-see locations to visit, whether you’re camping or setting off on a campervan road trip.

New Zealand's largest species of bird, the Moa (now extinct).


1. Sperm Whales

Location: Kaikoura

The Sperm Whale holds the title for the largest toothed predator on Earth. Growing to over 20 metres in length, this majestic creature feeds off a diet of shellfish and squid, which can be found in abundance off the cost of New Zealand’s South Island.

The Maori word ‘Rei Puta’ was given to the teeth of the Sperm Whale and considered a rare talisman worn around the necks of senior tribal elders.

Kaikoura is long known as New Zealand’s whale watching hotspot. Located two hours north of Christchurch by car, Kaikoura boasts some of the best whale watching tours in the world.

If you’re keen on a whale watching tour in Kaikoura, then check out Whale Watch Kaikoura, an award winning company owned and operated by the indigenous Ngati Kuri people.

The Ngati Kuri believe their ancestor, Paikea, had journeyed the Pacific Ocean in search of a new life on the back of a whale named Tohora. All tours include a holistic experience seasoned with cultural references and history of this wondrous region.


2. Kea

Location: Arthurs Pass

The Kea is a large flightless parrot that lives in burrows in New Zealand's South Island. Known to be the world's only alpine parrot, the Kea is famous for its intelligence.

Known as the world’s only alpine parrot, the Kea is most famous for its intelligence and cheeky behaviour. The Kea is a large flightless parrot found nesting within burrows in the South Island of New Zealand.

World renowned English broadcaster and naturalist, David Attenborough, referred to the Kea as 'the cleverest bird in the world' – check out this documentary link (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ak6omNRd6-g) that films the Kea utilising tools, working in teams and solving complex puzzles!

If you’d like to get up and personal with these incredible creatures, and travelling by campervan, visit Arthur's Pass which is located roughly two hours west of Christchurch along the rugged West Coast Road or a three and a half hour drive from Kaikoura.

Just a note to keep an eye on your windscreen wipers! One of the Kea’s favourite pastimes is vandalising anything they can get their claws and beaks into. Also, you’ll find only one powered site in the region located at Jacksons Retreat, so make sure you book/plan in advance.

3. Hector's Dolphin

Location: Akaroa

Wild dolphin encounters have long been considered one of the most extraordinary experiences from travellers all over the world in New Zealand.

New Zealand’s South Island is home to a myriad of dolphin species including the Dusky Dolphin off the coast of Kaikoura and the Hector’s Dolphin, the world's smallest and rarest dolphin.

These friendly and very playful mammals always seem excited to see people frolicking in the water with them, and the likelihood of viewing and swimming with the dolphins is so high that select tour operators offer a ‘dolphin guarantee’.

If you want to see the rare Hector’s Dolphin, visit Akaroa Harbour, located about 30 minutes from Christchurch or a 3 hour journey from Arthurs Pass National Park.

Don’t forget to book early as tour operators only allow a maximum of 12 swimmers per tour group.

4. Yellow-eyed Penguins

Location: Curio Bay

The yellow-eyed penguin is one of the rarest penguins on Earth and can only be found on the Otago Peninsula of Dunedin and the Catlins region of New Zealand's South Island.

Known to the Maori as Hoiho, the yellow-eyed penguin gets its name from their distinctive yellow eyes and prominent band of yellow feathers wrapping around their heads. They are very shy and will keep their distance if you’re spotted.

If you’d like to catch a glimpse of one in the wild, you can spot them from one of the many public hides that stretch from Bushy Beach in Oamaru right down the coast to Curio Bay and Nugget Point, located about 30km east of Owaka.

If you’re departing from Christchurch or Akaroa, the drive to Dunedin is roughly five hours (an additional two hours’ drive south to Curio Bay). Although quite a distance on the road, the experience of spotting the Yellow-eyed Penguin in the wild is definitely well worth it.

If you’re looking for the closest campsite to the Yellow-eyed Penguin colony, park up at Curio Bay Holiday Park - rates vary from $15NZD - $25NZD depending on the season.

Also keep in mind that the best time of day to catch a glimpse of the Yellow-eyed Penguin is from 3pm to sunset after a day's hunt to roost on the shore.

5. Kiwi

Location: Queenstown

If you’re visiting New Zealand, no experience is complete without seeing the national bird – the Kiwi. However, catching a glimpse of this unique, flightless, nocturnal bird is easier said that done!

Unfortunately the Kiwi is on the verge of extinction, mostly as a result of introduced species such as the weasel and rat, which, consequently, have displaced many Kiwis from their natural habitats.

The easiest way to get up and personal with these little creatures is to visit one of the many 'Kiwi houses' across the South Island.

One of the most popular venues include the Kiwi Birdlife Park in Queenstown and the Orana Wildlife Park in Christchurch.