Photo by Donaldytong, Wikimedia Creative Commons

New Zealand's Wild West

Abel Tasman National Park - Photo by Steffen Hillebrand, Wikimedia Creative CommonsAbel Tasman National Park - Photo by Steffen Hillebrand, Wikimedia Creative Commons

This road trip from stunning Queenstown to sunny Nelson takes in the wild and remote west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, with some charming pockets of civilisation along the way. The scenery you will see along the route is some of the best the country has to offer. The drive is around 10 hours, so is best spread over two or even three days.

The journey starts in Queenstown, the adventure capital of New Zealand and possibly even the world! The city is a year-round resort, sitting between Lake Wakatipu and the base of the Southern Alps, across the lake from the ragged Remarkables mountain range. For winter visitors, there are several skifields near the city, and in the summer, popular activities include boating and jetboating on the lake and rivers, riding the gondola up and the luge down anearby hill, bungy jumping, horse trekking, parasailing and much more. The city itself is a lovely place to eat, shop and watch the world go by.


by Peter Harrison Flickr Creative Commons


Whilst leaving Queenstown take a detour to Arrowtown, an historic gold mining town about 15 kilometres out of the city. The original buildings are well preserved and Arrowtown is very quaint, with plenty of opportunity to learn about the gold rush and try your hand at panning for gold. Then take the Cardrona Valley Road to Wanaka. This road zigzags steeply up to a high point from which there are great views. It then crosses a farmland plateau and enters the Cardrona Valley, then follows the Cardrona River before reaching Wanaka. A landmark along the way is the historic and iconic Cardrona Hotel, a lonely outpost along the road which stands testament to the glory of the gold rush in the late 1800s.


by edwin. 11 Flickr Creative Commons


Cardrona Hotel

by Tzuhsun Hsu Flickr Creative Commons


Wanaka is another lakeside town, pretty and compact on the shores of Lake Wanaka. There is a Warbirds Museum showcasing New Zealand fighter pilots, and an attraction called Puzzle World which houses a giant maze and dozens of optical illusions and puzzles.

Leaving Wanaka, get on State Highway 6 towards Haast, past Lake Hawea and the upper reaches of Lake Wanaka. The road follows beside the beautiful braided Makarora River and into Mount Aspiring National Park. This Park is a wonderful 355,000 hectares of mountains, valleys, glaciers and rivers. The Park is home to 45 native bird species, a lot of beech forest and alpine greenery, and many walking tracks including the famous 3-day Routeburn Track. The road will take you over the Haast Pass, one of three passes over the Southern Alps which span almost the length of the South Island.

River at Haast Pass

by Merav Benaia Flickr Creative Commons


After leaving the park, State Highway takes a turn westward to follow the Haast River to the town of Haast on the coast. This small town is a collection of the three communities of Haast Beach, Haast Township and Haast Junction. The shoreline here is rugged and beautiful, and there are plenty of hikes to do in the area. There are also several holiday parks where you can spend the night and take some time to explore and meet the friendly locals!

Windswept West Coast Beach

by Tomas Sobek Flickr Creative Commons


After leaving Haast, the road follows the wild west coast before turning inland to pass Lake Moeraki and Lake Paringa. There are windswept beaches along the coast, and ancient Kahikatea swamp forest at Ship Creek. The coastline reappears at Bruce Bay, a tiny village on a bay backed by magnificent Rimu forests. The road then heads inland again to the country’s two most famous glaciers.

Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier are easily accessible, terminating in rainforest just 250m above sea level. There are tours available to visit them both, by helicopter or by foot. This makes for a stunning day trip, and you can also view the glaciers from afar- climbing on them is to be done with the assistance of professionals only. There are small tourism-based towns at each glacier, and they are within the huge Westland National Park. The Park is home to many scenic walking tracks including the popular Copland Track.

Franz Josef Glacier

by edwin. 11 Flickr Creative Commons


State Highway 6 eventually makes its way back towards the coast, past many mountains and several more lakes. Hokitika is the next major point of civilisation along the coast, a city at the mouth of the Hokitika River. This laid-back centre was formed with the gold-rush but now relies on greenstone, forestry, coal and tourism for its economy. Greenstone is also known as Jade, and is popular in jewellery making. A stop in Hokitika is a good chance to buy some artisan pieces made with local greenstone. There are several holiday parks where you can park up your campervan for the night.

Not too far up the coast is another city at the mouth of the Grey River. Following the West Coast’s imaginative naming tradition, it is called Greymouth. This town also has a history of goldmining, and is home to the well known New Zealand Monteith’s brewery. A tour of Monteiths is a popular activity amongst visitors to the town!


by Phillip Capper Flickr Creative Commons


Up the coast in the Paparoa National Park is Punakaiki, a small community which is the service centre for the park. Nearby is one of the West Coasts most amazing natural features, the Pancake Rocks. These limestone formations on the coast look like stacked pancakes, and there are also blowholes dotted around. A spectacular sight to see!

Pancake Rocks

by Eli Duke Flickr Creative Commons


Continue on State Highway 6 towards Nelson, following the Buller River. Interestingly, this city is the second-oldest settlement in the country, and also the one which receives the most sunshine. Nelson has many holiday parks for accommodation, several beaches for swimming and plenty of restaurants and bars so you can soak up the civilisation after the wild west! The gem of the region around Nelson is the Abel Tasman National Park, about 60 kilometres out of the city. Here there is another famous walking track, the Abel Tasman Coast Track, and also a number of beautiful and unspoilt golden sand beaches.

Abel Tasman National Park

by brewbooks Flickr Creative Commons


The best place to hire a campervan for this trip would be Queenstown, or Nelson if you want to do it in reverse! Have a look here for great deals on New Zealand campervan hire.







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