Southern Scenic Route: On the road

Described as one of the world’s most spectacular drives, New Zealand’s Southern Scenic Route connects Dunedin and Queenstown and can be driven from either end. The road stretches for 610km, winding along the country’s southern coast and across to Milford Sound in the west. Along the way are historic villages, mysterious fjords, snow-capped mountains and clear lakes. Here’s our road trip tips you need to know before embarking on this epic journey.

Search flights to Dunedin

Sally, Arthur’s Pass area via Flickr CC BY 2.0

On the road…

If you start in Dunedin, New Zealand’s oldest city and one packed with Scottish heritage, you can follow this scenic route, taking you through some of the most enchanting places.

Dunedin boasts a unique combination of culture, fine architecture and family activities. The nearby Otago Peninsula is some 25 minutes drive away from Dunedin, and has a world-renowned wildlife reserve, home to penguin colonies and rare royal albatross. There’s good surfing to be had north and south of the city, and plenty of safe swimming beaches. Otega Peninsula is great for freedom camping, which means you can truly connect with nature. For more info on freedom camping in and around Otega Peninsula & Dunedin, visit Dunedin’s official website.

Sarah Stewart, Parakanui-Dunedin via Flickr CC BY 2.0

Rugged coast country

From Dunedin it is a pleasurable southerly ride to the unspoiled region of Catlins. With its magnificent coastal cliffs and headlands, rugged beaches, extensive temperate rainforests, waterfalls and rolling pastures, the Catlins is a must-visit area.

Check out one of the world’s most extensive, untouched examples of fossilised forest at Curio Bay. The petrified forest is best viewed at low tide, though the area is impressive at any time of day. The area is very remote, so bear in mind you might struggle to find any mobile phone coverage at all, also check in advance the locations of petrol stations, in case you run low on petrol. Catlins area has a wealth of places to stay overnight, highly recommended and popular are the Farmstays as well as eco-cottages. For more info on accommodation in and around the area, visit the Catlins official website.

amaderson2, sheep stampede via Flickr CC BY 2.0

Architecture and seafood

South of Dunedin lies Invercargill – Southland’s largest city. Life is relaxed here and there’s something for everyone, whatever your age or ability. Heritage buildings are dotted around the city and a highlight is St Mary’s Basilica, a Catholic church that opened in 1905.

Rugged beaches and bush trails ripe for exploring and are literally on Invercargill’s doorstep. You can base yourself here in Invercargill for a few days, as it’s a great area for exploring and all directions from the town lead to great sights and places ripe for exploring. It’s also home to a great nightlife and shopping, so staying here, you will be close to nature and civilization. Mere 30 minutes further south, leads you to Bluff, perched on the southern tip of the South Island. Bluff is home to world-famous oysters, and the international signpost at Slope Point, a popular photo spot.

Herald Selke, Slope Point via Flickr CC BY 2.0

The riviera of the South

Riverton, described as the riviera of the south, lies on the highway between Invercargill and Te Anau. The coastal town boasts great fishing, swimming and kayaking, plenty of easy walks and diverse wildlife. The area has some great beaches and you can stay in one of the many camp sites around the area or simply embrace freedom camping. Here’s a complete map of freedom camping sites in Southland District.

Sally, Riverton via Flickr CC BY 2.0

Town with a heart

The enterprising residents of this charming town midway along the Southern Scenic Route, came up with the idea of marketing the highway in 1985 to showcase the delights of Southland. Tuatapere is also the gateway to the Hump Ridge Track, an epic hiker’s paradise. The track meanders through the forests, rugged beaches and alpine territory of Fiordland National Park and takes three days to complete on foot. It is run and maintained by a trust comprising those same locals. For more info visit the Hump Ridge Track official website.

Silly sausages – Tuatapere. Photo by Hickey/Scott.

Majestic fjords

The drive from Tuatapere to Milford Sounds takes you through perhaps the most scenic and beautiful route and the very heart of Fiordland National Park. Think of majestic mountains, waterfalls, primeval forests, green meadows and crystal clear lakes. A cruise on Milford Sound is a must do when you’re in Fiordland. Day and overnight trips leave from Te Anau and will take you past tumbling waterfalls and vertical rock faces; if you’re lucky, you might even spot a seal or two. Keep an eye out for the Mirror Lakes, too, which offer stunning reflective views on a clear day.

When driving through this area, be extra careful, as the scenery might be overwhelming, so always pay attention. With almost every turn, the views are astonishing, so don’t just stop your car anywhere to soak up the views, although the roads might be quiet, there are still drivers on the road.

Jocelyn Kinghorn, Road to Milford via Flickr CC BY 2.0

Adventure capital

Last major town on this epic road trip is Queenstown, nestled on the shore of Lake Wakatipu, set against the dramatic Southern Alps. The surrounding region is famed for its quality wines, and there’s a huge range of activities guaranteed to satisfy your inner adrenalin junkie. AJ Hackett founded bungy jumping here and sparked an adventure tourism industry that has earned Queenstown its adventure capital title. It is recommended to stay for a few days in the surrounding area and explore many faces of this town as well as the surrounding nature.

You can also start your road trip in Queenstown, following exactly the same route all the way to Dunedin.

Serious Fun River Surfing Queenstown. Photo by Nomads Hostels.

And some tips:

  • always check weather, weather on South Island is unpredictable
  • due to the remoteness always top up on your food levels and other necessities, when you’re in a bigger town
  • have a printed map with marked locations for petrol stations, banks and cash machines
  • don’t rely on your mobile phone, some of the areas won’t have any coverage at all
  • choose right vehicle and check what are the restrictions for that vehicle in certain areas or camp sites
  • check local official websites for more information on camping & freedom camping
  • be a responsible driver and camper, never litter or leave litter behind
  • some roads might be congested with cattle and sheep, so be patient
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