New Zealand’s Wilderness World – South Island (02.02.15)

I distinctly remember the first time I stood out on deck gazing towards South Island. It was thirty years ago, and I was travelling on the inter-island ferry from Wellington to Picton across the busy Cook Strait which links the Tasman Sea with the Pacific Ocean. That first sight of South Island took my breath away.


I was struck by the imposing, yet distant, oncoming mountain scenery. The Maoris, who call the Island Te Waipounamu, have always revered the local landscape, and as we sailed through the stunning Queen Charlotte Sound towards Picton, I too was spellbound.

These first views made me as excited by the thought of discovering this famous island’s legendary scenery, as the first gold prospectors must have been when making the same journey in 1860.

Since my first visit, we have arranged many a trip for Nomadic Thoughts’ clients throughout the length and breadth of South Island. As well as being one of the adventure tourism capitals of the world – you can unleash energy in all manner of outdoor pursuits, including hiking, climbing, kayaking, canoeing, canyoning, diving, bungee-jumping, sailing, jet-boating and skiing – the grandeur of the landscape never ceases to impress. Think wilderness coastland, fiordland sounds, Southern Alps, rivers and glaciers and you begin to get the picture.


With enough time (ideally a couple of weeks or more) you can enjoy a Nomadic Thoughts’ pre-planned self-drive tour to include not only the world famous Lord of the Rings and Narnia film-set scenery of the south west, but also the dramatic Southern Alps, Canterbury Plains and maze of wilderness landscapes. These include rivers, lakes, forests, tropical jungles, sea level glaciers and eighteen mountain peaks rising above 3,000 metres.

The island’s temperate climate allows for considerable extremes, from the inland semi-arid Canterbury Mackenzie Basin to the almost constantly wet wild-west Milford Sound coastal region. Beautiful, impressive and intimidating, it is an endless lush green landscape that appears to swirl between snow-capped mountains, pumping rivers, mirror-glass lakes and a generous supply of drop-dead gorgeous National Parks.


The statistics are no less impressive: of the 3,000 glaciers 500 cover more than 10 hectares. Glacial valleys roll away on both sides of the Southern Alps, which in turn run like a fish spine straight down the middle of the South Island.

Eight of the country’s largest lakes are in the South Island, with another 3,812 on standby for the most enthusiastic of water explorers. Four extinct volcanoes dominate areas on the east coast. Fifteen maritime fiords cut through the south western fiordland coastal areas.


The six forest parks and ten national parks are home to an extensive and unique range of land and marine based species of flora and fauna, developing as they have largely in isolation since the island’s formation 80 million years ago. With no natural predators the island’s native birdlife became flightless, among their number the kiwi, takhahe and kakapo parrot as well as the now extinct moa, for instance. You will also soon become familiar with the fabulous evergreen native forests including rimu totara, guant kauri as well as countless native ferns, lichens and mosses.

It truly is a wonderful wilderness. Remote, raw and ever-impressive. South Island stands the test of time; you can lose yourself in all its glory today as much as you ever could.

Nature prevails at every turn, giving you a wonderful feeling of insignificance. With the traditional Maori proverb ‘Whatungarongaro te tangata toitū te whenua’ -‘As man disappears from sight, the land remains’.


Mountain Sheep Dog races.

Mountain Sheep Dog races.