A couple of years back a survey of international travellers asked what destination they would like to see before they died. Pretty grim way of putting the question, but the results were interesting. In order of preference they were, the Grand Canyon, Queensland’s Coral Reef and the South Island of New Zealand.

That puts us in pretty exalted company and ahead of things like the Great Wall of China, the pyramids of Egypt and Machu Picchu in Peru.

Are you surprised? South Islanders won’t be because we are well aware of the incredible beauty of this place – a land mass about the size of England but with a population of only one million compared to 56 million! That leaves an awful lot of the South Island for the mountains, lakes, rivers, forest and remote beauty for which we are famous.

Each year, I get about 60 to 80 enquiries from people saying “I’m coming to the South Island for 14 days later this year, do you have any suggestions as to what I should see?”

Aoraki / Mount Cook (the Cloud Piercer), New Zealand’s tallest mountain. Breathtaking

Well, there is so much – from the grandeur of the Marlborough Sounds, to the West Coast, to the Catlins, to Stewart Island and everything in between – but there is really no show of experiencing it all in just 14 days. Unless you drive like a speed racer.

I’ve thought about this for a long time and have had a route (or a loop) in mind for quite a while. In late autumn I set aside six days to do it.

The loop, with a couple of side trips, encompasses everything that the South Island is famous for – from the soaring heights of the Southern alps, the breathtaking beauty of our native bush, remote and mysterious fiords (or sounds), the harsh starkness and energy of Central Otago, the lakes, rivers and streams, and the gothic charm of Dunedin and Ōamaru.

While this loop could start at any point of the journey, for this exercise I opted to begin (and end) in Queenstown – it is, after all, our most famous tourist attraction. The loop goes from Queenstown back to Queenstown, via Alexandra, Dunedin, Ōamaru, the Waitaki Valley, the Lindis Pass, Wanaka and Arrowtown, with side trips to Aoraki/Mount Cook out of Ōmarama and either Milford or Doubtful Sound out of Queenstown.

Think Queenstown and one of the first things to come to mind is the grand old ‘Lady of the Lake’, the Earnslaw. She began life as a working ship but now is very much a gracious work of art

I set out on this trip at midday on a Monday and completed it at 6.00pm on the following Saturday having covered 2106 kilometres and seen a bit of everything that makes the South Island so special.

Is this ‘The South Island’s Greatest Road Trip’? I think it is. In fact, I think it is New Zealand’s Greatest Road Trip.

Leaving Queenstown

My advice is to get out of Queenstown after a couple of days because the place is so captivating and such a trap that there is the danger of spending all of your time – and money – there. Instead, save a bit of both for the end of your trip.

Many older New Zealanders don’t like the modern Queenstown – too big, too flashy, too commercial they say. They preferred it when you could arrive in town without a traffic jam all the way from Frankton, drive over the humpback bridge into what is now the mall, and find easy parking down by the waterfront.

In those days one of the most popular attractions was free – watching the fleet of enormous and almost-tame trout off the wharf. Back then the Lady of the Lake, the TSS Earnslaw, was a grubby working-class ship, carrying sheep, bales of wool and sacks of fertiliser to all points of the lake only accessible by water. Captain Frank, immaculate in crisply ironed white shirt and shorts with matching long socks, tennis shoes and skipper’s hat, drove the futuristic Meteor; the picture theatre had a roof that opened up to the night skies to keep patrons cool; and Buckhams made the local fizzy drinks. A meal out consisted of steak, eggs, onions and chips at a local hash foundry.

The new bridge across the outlet of Lake Wakatipu has ended years of traffic jams, while the old bridge – which was also part dam – has been retained for walkers and cyclists

That was several yesterdays ago. Today’s Queenstown is vast by comparison. Its growth is breathtaking and there seems to be no end to it. In many ways, Queenstown has become the engine room of the South Island economy.

I decided to do the side trip to Te Anau first, hitting the road to cross the sweeping new bridge at Frankton and down the side of Lake Wakatipu to Kingston where the overflow from Queenstown are creating their own mini boom. Here though, I was saddened to see that little progress has been made on getting the historic steam train, the Kingston Flier, back on the tracks.

The drive from Kingston to Te Anau is lonely with only a few towns along the way – like Garston, Athol and Mossburn – but you get the ‘big sky’ feeling for which most of the South Island is famous. Sweeping mountains to both sides with farmland in between. And few people.

Te Anau remains unspoiled even though it is basically a tourist town. It’s still pretty much what Queenstown used to be when Captain Frank was at the helm of the Meteor.

Milford Sound is spectacular – whether it’s raining or the sun is shining. Rain creates waterfalls – millions of them

From Te Anau, you can look west across the lake and see the dark, mysterious and brooding bulk of the mountains of Fiordland National Park. This is the edge of civilisation – beyond here there is nobody, except a few hardy hunters and trampers. Maybe the legendary Lost Tribe and maybe strange beasts such as moose?

In Te Anau you can make a decision – Milford Sound, or Doubtful Sound. A fisherman based in the sounds once said to me, “Dusky Sound is the best, but you cannot get into it. But if Dusky is a 10, Doubtful is an eight and Milford is a six.”

Doubtful is accessed from Manapouri, 20 minutes further along the road, via a boat ride across the lake and a bus ride over Wilmot Pass to the head of the sound where the good ship Wanganella was based during the construction of the tailrace tunnel for the Manapouri power station. There are day cruises on Doubtful Sound but I took an overnight one instead, and it remains one of my most memorable experiences.

On this trip I was using a two-berth camper van on a Ford Transit chassis and I opted to drive to Milford Sound (without a boat cruise) simply because this is one of the really great drives in the world.

Rain creates the waterfalls for which Milford Sound is famous. To get a scale of this you need to look at the bus in the lower right hand corner

Milford Sound has become as busy and as commercial as Queenstown. The last time I was there I was so stressed by the crowds, with road rage over parking, that I turned around and departed straight away. But that’s not to detract from the breathtaking drive.

There is no way I would recommend staying in Queenstown if you want to ‘do’ Milford Sound. Each day a veritable non-stop procession of tour buses departs Queenstown jammed with passengers who, I am sure, aren’t really aware of what they are in for – a 20-hour day! Staying in Te Anau makes so much more sense – only two hours to Milford Sound – but the tourist industry seems hell-bent on maintaining Queenstown as its major jump-off point for non-self-drive holidaymakers.

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