1st-Timer New Zealand South Island Self-Drive Road Trip


Welcome to my “1st-Timer New Zealand South Island Self-Drive Road Trip” travelogue. To many who have yet to visit New Zealand, the impression of the country invariably conjures up imagery of numerous sheep, rolling vista of mountain ranges with wispy white clouds, the famed All Blacks Rugby team and tattooed wide-eyed Maori warriors sticking their tongues out in a Haka dance. Yes, New Zealand has all this but much much more. As a travel photographer, I can say with conviction that this is one immensely beautiful country that will have you yearning to come back for more.

1st-Timer New Zealand South Island Self-Drive Road Trip

South Island carries the reputation of being the prettier of the country’s two main islands, so I guess if you have limited time, South Island would be a better pick. This island has glaciers, Mt. Cook and the renowned Milford Sound. North Island has the famous Tongariro National Park, Rotorua for the famous Hobbiton set and the Waitomo glowworm caves. Although logging about 1800km over the 7D6N autumn road trip in May, I feel I am barely scratching the surface.

A Brief Insight into New Zealand

The country comprises two main landmasses geographically—the North Island and South Island and around 600 smaller islands. The capital city is Wellington while its most populous city is Auckland.  The population is about 4.7 mil (2016 census). It’s situated about 1,500 kilometres east of Australia across the Tasman Sea. Sometime between 1250 and 1300, Polynesians settled on the islands that later were named New Zealand and developed a distinctive Māori culture. The country has a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary democracy, although its constitution is not codified. Elizabeth II is the Queen of New Zealand and the head of state.

South Island Road Trip travel route and tips

New Zealand’s weather is renowned for being unpredictable and locals say you can get 4 seasons in one day. The good news is that any time is the “best time” to visit – whether you want to go surfing in summer or skiing in the winter, there’s plenty to see and do any time of year. My adventure commenced in Dunedin, which I reached after a 1-hour domestic flight from Christchurch, the gateway to the South Island. The direct flight from Singapore to Christchurch via Singapore Airlines took about 9.45 hours.

  • Tip #01 – Food restriction, even for personal consumption, is very stringent at immigration checkpoints. When arriving in New Zealand, you must declare on your Passenger Arrival Card ANY food you’re bringing in. You may also need to show the food to biosecurity quarantine inspectors. Even if it is allowed, if you don’t declare the item you’re bringing to New Zealand you will be fined and have the food confiscated. If you are unsure, declare.
  • Tip #02 – Driving on New Zealand roads are generally safe as most drivers are law-abiding. New Zealand traffic rules are similar to Singapore and they drive on the left side of the road.
  • Tip #03 – Singaporean passport holders don’t need a visa to visit New Zealand and can travel around the country for up to 3 months per entry. But our passports can be used on their eGate (as of Feb 2019).

Day 1: Dunedin – Gateway City to South Island Adventures

After the overnight flight from Singapore, a rest stop at this lovely city to better prepare for the adventures ahead. Dunedin is the 2nd largest city in the South Island and has a very young population as it’s an education hub with many local and international students. Modelled on Edinburgh in Scotland, it is one of the best-preserved Victorian and Edwardian cities in the Southern Hemisphere. The city has plenty of dining options along the vibrant George Street which carries a wide range of cuisines.

We woke up early, picked up our rental car from Hertz and started our trip by visiting Baldwin Street, which is the world’s steepest residential street, according to Guinness World Records.

A short straight street a little under 350 metres. The 161.2-metre-long top section climbs 47.2 metres vertically, with an average gradient of 1: 3.4. At its maximum, about 70 metres (230 ft) from the top, the slope of Baldwin Street is about 1:2.86 (19° or 35%). That is, for every 2.86 metres travelled horizontally, the elevation changes by 1 metre. (excerpts from Wikipedia) I would recommend staying no more than 10min here as there are more exciting attractions ahead.

Artisan Cheese @ Evansdale Cheese Factory

Our 1st stop of the day was at Evansdale Cheese Factory, just about 30min drive from Dunedin. Evansdale Cheese was the first small cheese-making factory in New Zealand, beginning in 1978 and growing from harvesting 150 litres of milk each day, up to 1,500 litres daily. It’s one of the last few artisan cheese makers in the country.

The cheeses are made naturally free of preservatives and calf rennet. The farm now sells and produces 20-30 different varieties of cheese, sold throughout New Zealand to supermarkets, boutique eateries and restaurants.

The farm cheesemaker showed us a newly prepared tub of cheese for a 3-4 month curing process.

Moeraki Boulders @ Koekohe Beach

With just another 30min drive, we arrived at the Moeraki Rocks. This location is jokingly known for its “dinosaur eggs”. But these spherical boulders scattered across the beach weighs several tonnes each and are up to two metres high. Scientists explain the boulders as calcite concretions formed about 65 million years ago.

You will love the location for its surreal photographic opportunity as such natural geographic occurrences are rare.

The use of a tripod and neutral density filters is necessary to produce this dreamy seascape.  Be prepared to spend about an hour photographing as well as toilet break at the venue.

Elephant Rocks @ Duntroon

The Elephant Rocks near Duntroon in North Otago is a collection of large weathered limestone rocks. The rock formations of the Elephant Rocks vary from 1–10 metres (3–33 ft) across and are naturally scattered around a grass paddock on a gentle hillside over an area of about 200 metres (660 ft) across. The weathered rocks themselves are rounded and eroded but it will take a creative mind to make out elephant shapes. The venue is located on a private farm and sheep may be present. Access is complimentary via a few minutes’ stroll across the farmland from opposite a roadside parking bay on the Island Cliff-Duntroon Road.

This beautiful site was used as a filming location for the first Chronicles of Narnia movie in 2005 when it was transformed into Aslan’s camp.

An aerial drone shot of the location. Are you able to pick us out among the rock?

Church of Good Shepherd @ Lake Tekapo

This one venue where a man-made structure has gained as much fame as the nature around it. Opened in 1935 the Church of the Good Shepherd is the sole church in Lake Tekapo, a lake which is both beautiful as well as being useful as the waters of the lake are harnessed for electricity through the Tekapo Canal, flowing 27km to the Lake Pukaki powerhouse then onwards through the impressive Waitaki Valley hydro system.

I like to think this church is one of the most photographed in the world. With fame, come hordes of tourists. The venue is perpetually fringed by picture-hungry tourists, so it’s wise to avoid the peak hours. Early at dawn and late at night would be better choices to be there. We were doubly blessed with a slight show of Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) during our session.

Lake Tekapo is part of a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserves, as such, the night skies around Lake Tekapo are perfect for stargazing and astrophotography due to the low density of light pollution. And one of the best spots for Southern Lights. Just pray the clouds’ cover does not get excessive.

Lake Tekapo at dawn offers some of the most beautiful sunrise views anywhere in New Zealand. You just need to pull yourself out of the comfort of your hotel bed.

Peppers Bluewater Resort

Our choice of accommodation at Lake Tekapo was the Pepper Bluewater Resort. The resort is set among the pristine natural landscapes and just a few minute’s drive to the lake (but you can walk to the lake if you like). The cosy room and furnishings ensure excellent sleep quality and the service level is superb.

A picture of the resort at dawn. Peaceful and inviting ambience. Convenient amenities like external restaurants and convenience shops are just a short walk away.

A scene you can enjoy while you await your turn at the breakfast table. The resort food and beverage option are diverse as it is of high quality.

Day 2 – Movement from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook National Park

Day 2 saw us check out early to start our journey to Mt.Cook National Park, about 1.15hrs drive away.

Peter’s Lookout Point (Lake Pukaki)

Along the way, you will definitely enjoy a photo session (as well as a toilet break) at the gorgeous Peter’s Lookout Point overlooking Lake Pukaki, about a 40min drive from Lake Tekapo.

Tasman Glacier Hiking with Mount Cook Ski Planes & Helicopters by Mt Cook Glacier Guiding

This glacier hiking event is guaranteed to be one of South Island road trip highlights. You can either opt for the helicopter or ski plane package. The experience comes at a premium but the memories will last a lifetime. But do be mindful that this activity is subject to the whims of weather at the glacier. We were told by the guide that the bookings for next-day activities are unlikely to be conducted as heavy fog was forecasted.

Our glacier guide conducts a safety briefing on the event ahead. Safety is paramount and the tour operator is very strict about that. Gears like crampons and thermal wear (even socks) are provided as part of the package. The Mt. Cook Glacier Guiding partnership with Fox Glacier Guiding brings over 40 years of accumulated knowledge and experience.

Our ride for the glacier hike, the Eurocopter (now Airbus Helicopters) Squirrel helicopter, is a trusted aircraft with an excellent track record.

An adventure ahead. Nothing quite prepares you for the immense beauty of the mountain ranges. Remember to have sufficient batteries and memory cards before you start your journey.

1st-Timer New Zealand South Island Self-Drive Road Trip

One of the gorgeous aerial scenes of Mt.Cook National Park as seen during the flight.

View from within the helicopter as the pilot hovers to land at the glacier surface. Due to the undulating surface and crevasses, it takes an experienced pilot and glacier guide to work closely together to ensure a safe outing at the icy location.

The powerful downwash from the helicopter’s spinning rotors is one of the highlights of the event. It’s the closest experience to a military training exercise for those who do not have the opportunity in real life and an exciting one indeed.

Our glacier guide shoveling the landing site to even out the icy surface to prepare for the landing when the helicopter returns about 1 hour later to retrieve us.

The guide regularly chats along the way to impart nuggets of knowledge as well as to let us catch our breath. It can be a rigorous hike as you need to use strength in each step at the glacier.

Another highlight of the event was trekking into a gigantic ice cave that was naturally formed. A section of the ice overhead was removed by the guide in view of safety.

Old Mountaineers’ Cafe, Bar and Restaurant @ Mt. Cook Village

Prior to checking in at our hotel of the day, we had a great early pizza dinner at the gorgeous eco-conscious Old Mountaineer Cafe & Restaurant, which comes with a vantage view of the  Aoraki Mt.Cook. This is the only business within the Aoraki Mount Cook Village officially opened by the late Sir Edmund Hillary.

The Hermitage Hotel, Mt.Cook

Situated within the spectacular Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, you will love this hotel as it’s the perfect base for adventures within the vast park. Recognised as part of the Te Wahipounamu UNESCO World Heritage Area, the National Park is a breathtaking environment of glaciers, terminal lakes, turbulent rivers and mighty Aoraki Mt Cook soaring above at 3,724 metres.

The rooms at the resort have a superb view of the Mt.Cook mountain range. There’s even a mini binocular provided in the room for a closer look.

The resort’s main wing is amidst the stunning mountainscape. The Hermitage also owns and operates the two other accommodation wings within 600-800m away – the Mt Cook Lodge and Motels and also Chalet style. Truly an inclusive resort that caters to all travellers.

A statue of Sir Edmund Hillary just outside the resort restaurant,  a tribute to the renowned personality who is a humanitarian, ambassador and one of the world’s greatest explorers. The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre at the resort showcases the Aoraki Mount Cook region, its people and its place in the universe.

Day 3 – Tasman Lake Cruise with Glacial Explorers

Day 3 saw us waking up bright and early to go on the Glacier Explorer tour on Tasman Glacier, New Zealand’s largest glacier.  This is the one and only tour of its kind in New Zealand and one of the only accessible glacial lakes containing icebergs in the world.

Our custom-built MAC Boats with experienced guides getting ready for the cruise ahead. MAC boats are virtually indestructible and almost unsinkable. Icebergs of various shapes and sizes periodically break away from the face of the glacier into the rapidly growing lake. Lateral moraines rear up almost 200m to remind us of the scale and greatness that the glacier has reached in previous times.

A chance to come up close and personal with a gigantic piece of the iceberg, which is about 300-500 years in the making.

Amazing natural “ice art”. Almost like an artist’s abstract painting.

Our glacier guide conducting an information-sharing session – “the lake scene is not quite the same from day to day, the water is stained a milky colour from rock “flour” created as glacier rocks rub against each other as they make their way down the lake. And yes, animal life is not sustainable in the lake “.

The effects of global warming and other climatic processes are taking their toll on the glaciers. Currently, it’s approximately 27km long and 600m deep, the Tasman Glacier is melting and calving at an exponentially increasing rate. In recent years the Tasman Glacier has changed from a ‘melting’ to a ‘calving and melting’ situation, resulting in a terminal lake that is rapidly increasing in size.

Our guide fished out a 300-500 year old piece of ice floating on the lake for us to taste. Tasted just like a piece of ice but the experience is surreal.

Picture Perfect Moment @ Twizel

This postcard-perfect location was a “chance” discovery as we drove along State Highway 80, about an hour’s drive from Tasman Lake, to look for our next stop at High Country Salmon. Like many other drivers, you simply cannot resist stopping here for a photo session.

The town of Twizel was purpose-built in the 1960s to provide a home ground for workers involved with the Upper Waitaki Power Scheme. Today it has developed into a base for mountain climbing, kayaking, mountain biking, skiing, horse trekking and hiking. But to most of us who drive along this gorgeous section of Wairepo Arm, it’s simply a page out of an impossibly beautiful calendar page.

The amazing colours of autumn have an indescribable and magical charm on everything around. The colours will be different come another season.

Fresh Salmon @ High Country Salmon

Established in 2000, this is one of three salmon farms on the hydro canals surrounding Twizel. This farm employs a dedicated team of close to 20 experts in salmon processing, production and cooking and this number is bolstered during summer when they attract up to 1000 visitors daily.

A place all salmon sashimi lovers must stop to try their fresh off-the-pond salmon. This is New Zealand Salmon at its best., with the fish feeding on the pristine glacial waters of Wairepo Arm.

You can enjoy freshly brewed coffee and salmon-seafood based menu (but there is 1 meat pie on the menu for non-fish eaters) in the cafe, as well as a chance to feed the fish (subject to timing) or take away some fresh salmon, wrapped in ice.

Salmon sashimi, clam chowder and a beef pie and we are done for lunch. Guests have regularly praised the salmon for its nice firm texture. Certainly, a great place to load up on Omega-3!

There is a perpetual queue for the farm’s fresh salmon and pies. So service may be slower at peak periods. Relax and adjust to the cosy environment, there’s enough salmon to go around.

That Wanaka Tree @ Lake Wanaka

From the High Country Salmon, after an almost 2 hours drive, we arrive at Lake Wanaka where the iconic Wanaka Tree is located. You might have seen this simply beautiful solitary tree posted in many Instagram or travel picture postings. I believe this is the world’s most photographed tree.

The story is that it the famous tree started out as a fence post about 80 years ago and sprouted into a crooked tree. Depending on the lake level can be walked out to or is surrounded by water. With a backdrop of Mt. Aspiring National Park and the clear blue waters of the lake in the foreground, it’s a natural magnetic focal point for any visitors, be they photographers or not.

You can also rent a stand-up paddle boat and paddle out to the tree to get up close during higher water level. Truly a surreal pixels moment.

A drone video screen grab for a vantage view of the lake showing the tree and its surrounding. There is always a group of visitors close by admiring this one-of-a-kind tree.

The Rees Luxury Hotel and Luxury Apartment @ Queenstown

Day 3 saw us checking into the best hotel of the trip – The Rees Hotel and Luxury Apartments in Queenstown, just beside the beautiful Lake Wakatipu.  The premium rates reflect the superlative quality you enjoy at this magnificent hotel.

After a long drive on the scenic roads, pulling up beside the exquisite hotel entrance certainly warms up the expectation of a promising night ahead.

This is one cosy hotel lobby you could just sit for a long time, reading volumes of books or enjoying the lovely lake view.

No one can say no to this view of Lake Wakatipu. For the record, this pic was not enhanced with photographic software. It was a perfect morning with perfect lighting.

A spacious living room with high-end furnishings and a fully equipped kitchenette ensure a comfortable stay.

Plush sleep quality and the room cooled by chilly autumn “natural aircon”. The bath amenities were simply superb with excellent toiletries.

Sunrise at Lake Wakatipu clothes the ambience with a sense of surreal tranquillity. In the distance, you can see the backlighted layer of mist rising from the lake’s surface (see pic below). It is a natural phenomenon when the air warmed by the rising sun, hits the lake chilled surface. 

See the mist rising from the lake, “smouldering” as the cold and warm air meet. By the lakeside, are residential houses. I really envy the people staying there.

Day 4 pre-dawn saw me waking at 5am to shoot the stars from the room balcony. During a solar storm, guests can actually see the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) right here. But I am satisfied already, shooting the Milky Way as it is, from the comfort of the balcony, with warmth from the living room fireplace balancing the 1ºC autumn chill.

Day 4 – Adrenaline moment with Iconic Shotover Jet @ Queenstown

It seems that New Zealand attractions have plenty of No.1s- the most photographed church at Lake Tekapo, the most photographed tree at Lake Wanaka, and at Shotover Jet, this is certainly the world’s most exciting Jetboat Ride. This is definitely no idle claim. Shotover Jet started operations on the upper Shotover River in 1965 and was one of Queenstown’s pioneering adventure activities over the years, it’s one of the activities that have helped to cement New Zealand on the global tourism map.

The home ground of jetboat ride. It’s not for the faint-hearted and you must be strong and be ready for THE 30min ride of your life.

Shotover Jet operates on an exclusive area of the Shotover River and is the only company permitted within its spectacular canyons. Since its opening, it has thrilled more than 3 million people. You will feel your adrenaline coursing through your veins as the boat jets spin and speed around the tight turns and over water as shallow as 10cm deep at the river.

Historic Gold-mining town @ Arrowtown

Be charmed by this quaint little town with just a 25min drive from Queenstown. The town is a remnant from a bygone gold-rush era in the 18th century. Today Arrowtown has around 70 buildings and features inherited from the gold rush era. The heart of the town is Buckingham Street where a roll of small-town heritage buildings stretched into a tree-lined avenue of tiny miners’ cottages. The buildings house shops, galleries, bars, and restaurants – many classy and mostly individual and not one from an international chain.

Imagine a bygone era of horse-drawn carriages and gold miners trudging through this road. The heritage houses on both sides of the road are little pockets of treasures waiting to be discovered.

One of our fave discoveries was this cosy little Italian Trattoria named Terra Mia, where we felt like being “teleported” to Italy.

The unpretentious and cosy ambience set you at ease and the staff chatting in Italian gave that added European vibe. Godere! La Vita è Bella!

This Parma Ham and cheese pizza are simply to die for! Prosciutto e Arugula 13″ NZD$12.95 – 16″ $15.95, with cherry tomatoes, homemade mozzarella, shaved Parmigiano, prosciutto crudo & arugula. Worth a detour just for this pizza. The mushroom soup was supremely delicious too.

The colour of Fall whispering beautifully in the town wrapped up the lovely outing at the town, you will want to be back here again when you visit Queenstown again in the future.

Stargazing @ Bob’s Hill, Skyline Queenstown

New Zealand is stargazing heaven, especially when you are in the national parks. But the low light pollution in the city of Queenstown means you can also enjoy a night out to learn more about the galaxies and constellations. Skyline Queenstown is the perfect venue for this astronomical quest while it is also the hub of fun activities like luge and gondola rides.

Held at Bob’s Hill, a short stroll from the main activity centre, the knowledgeable stargazing guide will let you get better acquainted with the universal. A couple of high-tech telescopes costing NZD14,000 each is also set up to see the stars and planets in fuller detail.

The Milky Way, impossible to be seen in cities with light pollution, can be seen here with just your naked eyes, right above the stargazing venue.

Day 5 – Exploring Milford Sound

Day 5 saw us heading out early in the direction of the Fjordland National Park where the renowned Milford Sound (almost 4 hours drive) is located. I would safely say that no visitors coming to the South Island would skip this spectacular venue which has been touted as the “8th wonder of the world’. For the best experience, you should stay at the beautiful lakeside township of Lake Te Anau as it is the perfect base to explore the area.

Milford Sound was carved by glaciers during the Ice Ages. When it rains, which it often does, waterfalls from as high as 1000ft cascade down the cliffs with a magnified effect.

The fjords are frequently enveloped with low-lying clouds creating a surreal painting effect.

The immense scale of the fjords dwarfs a cruise ferry at the base. You will marvel at the power of nature in crafting such natural works of art.

Our ferry gets as close as safely possible to the towering waterfall so that the guests can be “blessed with enhanced longevity”.

One important note is that the scheduled ferries depart punctually. This meant you have to be disciplined and time conscious when driving deep into the valley to the ferry departure terminal. To avoid missing your ferry, it is crucial to factor in a generous time allowance as there might be traffic bottlenecks at some stretches of the winding roads and at Homer Tunnel.

Fjordland National Park

This stunningly beautiful national park was established in 1952 and is now over 1.2 million hectares in size and encompasses mountain, lake, fiord and rainforest environments. Fiordland has achieved World Heritage Status and of the fourteen fiords in the Fiordland National ParkMilford Sound is the most famous and accessible. We stayed two nights at Te Anau from day 5 and 6 to better explore the expansive park. The following are some pictures captured within the two days.

An amazing moment that is possible only if you are on self-drive. The scenery along Te Anau-Milford Highway around Knob Flats yielded this surreal moment when the sun rays broke momentarily through the late morning clouds above flocks of sheep grazing on the grassland.

The morning was foggy but it cleared when we stopped by a deer farm. Personally, sheep are more “friendly” and photogenic compared to deer.

A line of trees along a farm boundary presented a photogenic moment, one of many photo opportunities along the road.

At the Milford Sound access tunnel linking Te Anau named Homer Tunnel, we saw a few tourists milling around a burly animal. I thought it was the NZ Kiwi bird initially but come to realise this is the Kea, an alpine parrot of the fjordland.

This pair of parrots was going through a courting ritual. Kea parrots are on the red alert endangered list, with only an estimated 6000 left in the national park.

An hour from Te Anau, along the Te Anau- Milford Sound highway, we chanced on this flock of sheep on a farm. The country has the highest density of sheep per unit area in the world. For 130 years, sheep farming was the country’s most important agricultural industry. The ratio of sheep to people in New Zealand is about 6: 1 in 2017.

At Knobs Flat, a popular area for a photo session. The day before, we drove past the spot en route to Milford Sound when the mood was misty and foggy.  But the following day, it’s bright n chirpy. In nature, we accept what we are given.

A New Zealand fantail bird is a small insectivorous bird and the only species of fantail in New Zealand. In Maori, it’s called Piwakwaka.

A common bird, the Brown-Capped Rosy Finch provided us with 30min of bird photography sessions as we trailed it around a rest stop.

The Falls Creek waterfall stream is simply a stunning location for long-exposure photography. This is where a Neutral Density (ND) filter comes in handy.

Fall Creek Waterfall, adjacent to the river, provided a must-shoot situation. It was drizzling that day but the ambience is still lovely.

At Mirror Lake, you will certainly love the reflection at the lake. But do avoid the peak hours when hordes of tourists unload from their tour buses en route to Queenstown after their cruise on the Milford Sound.

The Gorgeous Town of  Te Anau

The serenely beautiful town of Te Anau revolves around its beautiful lake, with a spectacular backdrop of Mt. Luxmore and the Murchison mountains. It is also the gateway to Fjordland and is the closest town to Milford Sound, just a scenic 2.5 hours drive away. The proximity of 3 of New Zealand’s 9 Great Walks affirms Te Anau as The Walking Capital of the World. Fiordland is home to The Milford TrackKepler Track and Routeburn Track.

We reached Te Anau and were blessed to see this gorgeous scene of a sight-seeing seaplane on the lake. Felt so fortunate as I was able to capture it before the pilot moved the plane to a secured buoy in the middle of the lake.

Dusk comes beautifully to Lake Te Anau, clothing the lake with a sense of magic.

The stillness of the air around the lake makes it mirror-like, a perfect opportunity for a reflection shot.

Just a short 8-10 mins drive out of Te Anau, we chanced upon this beautiful photo opportunity of morning mist backlighted by the rising sun.

Distinction Te Anau Hotels and Villas

Our choice of accommodation was the lakefront Distinction Te Anau Hotels and Villas. Conveniently located near the town centre with many amenities, this beautiful resort is ideal for couples or families alike. The complimentary and easy access car park, great service and cosy ambience make this hotel the natural choice for anyone staying in Te Anau.

I particularly love the hotel’s The Explorer Bar and Lakefront Terrace, which is a great spot for relaxing and enjoying the uninterrupted views of Lake Te Anau with a wide range of drinks.

The hotel’s main dining hall, where we had our breakfast the next day. The restaurant was set up for a season-ending celebration for one of New Zealand’s biggest tour operators.

Cosy well-appointed room with unlimited WiFi. Some hotels come only with limited daily data.

Glow-worm Spotting @ Cavern House

This activity to observe glow worms is located in Cavern House, an impressive young cave structure estimated at 12,000 years old. The ferry ride takes about 40min each way from the operator’s lakeside office. Other than the glow-worm, which is unique to New Zealand, you will be amazed by the network of limestone passages filled with sculpted rock, whirlpools and a roaring underground waterfall. Deep inside the darkness of the caves, visitors will be transported on small boats into a silent hidden grotto inhabited by thousands of glowworms on the cave ceiling. In total darkness, it’s like looking at a “starry night sky”.

All pictures taken in the caves are provided by the tour operator as photography is disallowed. Flash will affect the progress of the glow worm and only in pitch dark ambience can you truly appreciate the beauty of the phenomenon.

Glow-worm larvae catch their food on lines of sticky threads. When tiny insects get caught on the lines the glow-worm pulls up the thread with its mouth until the prey is close enough to eat.

The glow-worms emit a pale light which attracts insects toward the sticky threads of their snare. The blue/green light is a product of a chemical reaction between luciferin (a waste product), the enzyme luciferase, adenosine triphosphate (ATP – the energy molecule) and oxygen.

The picture shows a prey being trapped by the larvae. The glow-worm’s entire cycle takes 10-11 months to complete, most of which is spent in the larval stage. Although glowworms can be found at all stages of the cycle at any time, more eggs are hatched into larvae during winter than at any other time. The eggs are laid by the adult and hatch into larvae about three weeks later.

After the trip, a resident entomologist conducts a sharing session to ensure visitors have a better understanding of this unique “national treasure”.

Day 7 – Movement back to Queenstown

Day 7 marked the last leg of the trip as we check out of the hotel at Te Anau and drove slightly over 2 hours back to Queenstown Airport to catch our domestic flight to Auckland and from thereon, back to Singapore. The late afternoon flight via New Zealand Airlines frees up some valuable time to enjoy our final hours in the beautiful city of Queenstown.

Bracken Hall – a “Hidden Gem”

A must pit-stop on the Mossburn-Lumsden Highway en route to Queenstown. The famed Bracken Hall was once the “Social Centre” of the district, this building was largely used for a variety of community activities. Erected in 1908, through the sale of 250 £1 shares to members of the community, it has since been replaced by a community centre which was opened in January 1982. 

The old hall lay idle until October 1993 when it was reborn as “Bracken Hall Gift Shop” through the entrepreneurial spirit and passion of 5 ladies of the area. Many features of the original hall are still intact as evident in the flooring, stage and fittings still being used throughout. 

This cafe is renowned for its signature venison pies, the meat which they obtain daily from a hunter who hunts on a licensed hunting trip.

The cafe interior sells a wide range of snacks as well as loads of souvenirs, winter clothing, books, etc and is managed by a few very nice ladies.

The hot chocolate was superb and the muffin (caramel with chocolate) was to die for! The best I have eaten in a long time.

Some retail therapy at the cafe curios section, loads of one-off cute stuff to buy, like this moody kiwi bird table edge decor.

Travel mate Cindy with one of the cafe ladies who proudly exclaimed herself to be a “pure Southerner” – born, bred and grew up here.

Looking at the White Hill Wind Farm, just a short few minutes’ drive from Bracken Hall. The wind farm has 29 two-megawatt turbines with a combined capacity of 58 megawatts and generates electricity annually for 30,000 homes.  A lovely sight and also a great place to fly a drone.

Coffee Bomb

Just about 30min drive away from Bracken Hall, you will have arrived at the Coffee Bomb. It serves some pretty awesome coffee as well as burgers. Certainly a boon for self-drive vacationers.

Interesting artwork on the coffee trailer. If feeling hungry, do try their true Southland food like pork belly burgers, bacon and egg pies. cheese rolls and home-baked cakes and muffin squares.

Sojourn @ Queenstown

Queenstown is widely known as a 4-seasons lake and alpine resort. You will be stunned by the spectacular scenery and spoiled by the wide range of activities. Surrounded by majestic mountains and situated on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, the natural beauty of the region creates the perfect backdrop for a rejuvenating and adventure-filled vacation.

Wish I could just stay here for a long time, maybe forever.

In the lakeside area at Lake Esplanade, the gorgeous vibe is palpable.

Some of the residential units on the hill at Melbourne Street.

Locals enjoying the serenity of Lake Wakatipu and the feathered residents mingle freely.

One of the more exciting activity, Seabreacher Jet boat,  you can dive in short depth and break the surface. Just like a dolphin indeed.

Cruise going out to Lake Wakatipu. Not quite like Milford Sound but still lovely ambience.

Fergburger – World’s Best Burgers

When in Queenstown, you just have to try the Fergburger- The World’s Best Burger. Even non-burger lovers will be converted. It’s quite renowned internationally despite not being a chain and only having one location. Established in February 2001, operating out of a garage off Cow Lane, its obscure location making it hard to find but conversely giving it something of a novelty status.

Was it an empty claim? definitely not, a look at the constant queue will convince anyone. It’s the epicentre of activity in this part of the town.

You will be so lucky just to get a seat in the bustling diner.

It’s a  mini united nation at this venue, people from all over the world in Queenstown descend here for a taste of the gourmet burgers.

Their queuing system is fast and efficient with the staff handing out menu along the queue line. Once at the counter, you are issued a queue number and wait for your order. Our order took just about 20min to be called in spite of the peak hour crowd. The burger is about NZD15-18 each and can feed 2 person. And the taste? Out of this world indeed! Must eat again if in Queenstown.

We ate our burger in our car as we could not get a seat. No picture can sufficiently convey how delicious the burgers are.


Vacation is something highly valued and anticipated, especially to city folk like us from densely build-up Singapore. I like to describe a vacation to New Zealand as more like an adventure, where the spectacular sceneries and immense natural beauty are not quite similar to most places you have been to. Adrenaline junkies will find themselves at home with the multitude of sporty offerings while families, singles and couples, both young and old, will be amply catered for. There is something for everyone and anyone at any time in New Zealand. One visit is never enough.

Thanks for coming along the pixels journey. For other self-drive adventures, do check out my other travelogues here.

P.S – All pictures used in this blog are all rights reserved and copyrighted to Jensen Chua Photography. 


  1. Brenda says:

    Hi Jensen, may I know if your this NZ southland trip is all planned and booked by Jetabout? Do they charge a fee for the planning/booking? Thanks!

    1. Jensen says:

      Hi Brenda, the NZ is fully planned and booked by Jetabout. There is no charges as long as you book their packages (trust me, u dun save by DIY). If you decide to get only the detailed travel plan from Jetabout and do your own booking, it’s $200 for the plan. I recommend letting Jetabout do the A-Z for you… peace of mind.

      1. Brenda says:

        Thanks Jensen for your reply! So for your this trip is from Queenstown round trip back to queenstown rite? And you started driving from queenstown airport to dunedin for day 1?

        1. Jensen says:

          Hi Brenda, no worries. I landed at Christchurch, then took a transit flight to Dunedin. Rest overnight and then start fresh the next day… Amazing roadtrip in South Island… simply spectacular. 🙂

  2. Eunice says:

    Hi Jensen. Do Singapore driving licence holder need to buy IDP?

    1. Jensen says:

      Hi Eunice, Sgp license no need IDL in NZ. “if you have an overseas driver license written in English, then you do not need to carry an IDP in New Zealand – you can just use your overseas driver license].”

  3. jess says:


    I love your trip. Which day and month did you go for your trip?

    1. Jensen says:

      Hi, May, Autumn season.

  4. Ashley M says:

    hi! Can you tell me what kind of camera equipment you use? I am mainly wondering about the lens you used for your beautiful photo of Queenstown town with the mountains in the background!

    1. Jensen says:

      Hi Ashley, thanks for your message, Hope u like the article. I am using Canon DSLR system – with EOS5DmkIV body with assorted Canon L lenses. The pic of Queenstown with the mountains in the background was shot with a Canon EF70-200mm f4L IS lens at 200mm focal length. Hope my info helps. Plse feel free if u need more info. Kia Ora 😉

  5. Jon says:

    Hi Jensen, may I know which month did you travel in?


    1. Jensen says:

      Hi Jon, I traveled in May. Nice weather.

  6. Calista says:

    Hey, may I know which month did you go?
    I’m planning to travel in early march. And it seems like I have to pack for different weathers? (i.e winter wear for glacier even in march?)

    1. Jensen says:

      yes, be prepared for all 4 seasons. Wear layers, and respond to the varied condition.

  7. Andrew says:

    Hi Jenson,

    I’m new to Jetabout Holidays tour. I wish to do a free and easy self drive in the South Island, NZ for 10 days. I have roughly in mind the places I wish to visit but I’m concerned about booking of accommodation and how I should go about planning the trip (for eg, which place to visit first, etc).

    Will Jetabout Holidays be able to help me with the exact itinerary and booking?

    Thank you for your kind advice!


    1. Jensen says:

      hi Andrew, thank you for your message. You make the right choice for NZ vacay (it’s amazing place) and Jetabout (cause they are top agent in Sgp for NZ and Australia, etc) . You may email Cindy – cloo@holidaytours.net
      Jetabout will assist in itinerary and resort booking, and also air tickets and car rental etc , A-Z of things.
      Basically, taking the guesswork out of NZ planning as it can be pretty confusing if you are not familiar with the flow.
      Plse feel free to contact me again should you need further assist.

  8. Rayden says:

    Hello Jensen! Was wondering how’s the road condition like traveling from Te Anau to Milford Sound? Heard that it’s a very challenging road to travel, any advise?

    1. Jensen says:

      Hi Rayden, The road condition was pretty good. The only danger I feel is that the sceneries were so lovely, it may distract the driver. The only stretch of road I find challenging was the winding road from Queenstown to Lake Wanaka. I drove both night and day.. the night can be scary if you are not prepared for it.

  9. Jas says:

    Can I ask, what’s the estimated cost for this whole trip? I would really love to go NZ after seeing your post

    1. Jensen says:

      hi Jaslyn, thank u for your msg. The air tkt is about $1.2-1.3k (SQ), and the land activities about $2.6k. I would sincerely recommend that u contact Jetabout Holidays for planning. https://jetabout.com.sg/new-zealand-tour-package. If you can get better rates by booking on your own, not forgetting the tremendous bookings and coordination needed, then plse go ahead. You won’t get much saving (or any) by doing all the work yourself. And risky too, should something slipped ur mind. Jetabout is the specialist in NZ, Australia n Maldives… trust me.
      And yes, NZ South Island is the most spectacular by far, of all the places I visited. The season was during Autumn… Have a great trip. Kia Ora 🙂

      1. Calista says:

        Hi, may i know if your air ticket 1.2k is a 1 way trip from singapore to Christ church? What about the flight back from queentown to Singapore?

        1. Jensen says:

          Hi – $1200 = Singapore – Christchurch – Dunedin / drive to Queenstown/ – Auckland – Singapore

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