This incredible journey has been ranked one of the top 10 drives of the world, and for good reason. It is just over 600km of spectacular natural and cultural attractions and exciting activities, such as wildlife viewing, short walks, mountain biking, surfing, fishing, boating, and tramping. Picturesque coastlines, remote beaches, lush native rainforests, pristine lakes and stunning mountain vistas are just some of the highlights along this epic route. It is an ideal drive for those who want to explore everything southern New Zealand has to offer.
Beginning your journey in Queenstown, you drive down into Southland and traverse the edge of Fiordland, a rugged and remote region of awe-inspiring scenic beauty. It’s a world-class sightseeing stop; home to the vast and majestic Fiordland National Park, one of the world’s finest walking destinations and an excellent place for a leisurely boat cruise on a fiord (or sound, as they’re called locally).
Travelling into Western Southland, you’ll find the tranquil town of Tuatapere, where the Southern Scenic Route was originally conceived. This town is the launch pad to accessing the variety of wilderness environments and adventure activities in the district. Hike the Hump Ridge Track, a spectacular walk from the ocean to the mountains via native forest and old viaducts. Or jet boat across New Zealand’s deepest lake, Lake Hauroko, and down New Zealand’s steepest boatable river, the thrilling Wairaurahiri River.
From Tuatapere, follow the once mighty Waiau River to the coast. Several stunning natural attractions await you; Monkey Island, Cosy Nook, and Gemstone Beach to name a few – and don’t miss the commanding views and photo opportunities at McCracken’s Rest. Look carefully from Te Waewae Bay and you may just catch a glimpse of New Zealand’s largest pod of Hector’s Dolphins. Colac Bay is one of New Zealand’s top surfing spots, and Riverton/Aparima, the “Riviera of the South”, is a fantastic family destination. The popular seaside town is one of the earliest European settlements in New Zealand and subsequently the site of many European and Maori cross-cultural interactions, the stories of which can be explored at the excellent Te Hikoi Southern Journey Heritage Museum.
The next stop on the journey is the halfway point: Invercargill – home of classic motoring, tuatara, historic architecture and grand gardens. Fondly dubbed the “City of Water and Light”, referring to the long summer daylight hours and the city’s position beside the Waihopai River estuary, Invercargill has plenty of character and a friendly, laid-back atmosphere. It boasts a wide variety of attractions and has a packed events calendar, making it an exciting place to visit. Highlights include the world-class vintage motor vehicle displays at Bill Richardson Transport World and Classic Motorcycle Mecca, the tuatara and historical and cultural exhibitions at the Southland Museum and Art Gallery, and the magnificent Queens Park.
The short detour to the port town of Bluff is a must-do. Take a photo at the famous Stirling Point signpost, the starting point of New Zealand’s State Highway 1, and enjoy some world renowned Bluff Oysters – the oyster season begins on the 1st of March.
When entering into The Catlins’ section of the journey, it is highly recommended to travel the coastal Scenic Side Trip instead of the inland route to truly experience all of the wonders this area has to offer. The Catlins boasts a rugged beauty and untouched quality that is magnetic. Here you’ll find a world of native forests, high cliffs, deserted sandy beaches, sparkling bays, cascading waterfalls, hidden lakes, blowholes, caves, and even a petrified forest. These environments are home to an array of fauna, from native birds, to seals, sea lions, dolphins, and penguins.
Visit Slope Point, the southernmost point of New Zealand’s South Island. Stop at Waipapa Point and photograph the historic lighthouse and New Zealand Sea Lions. At Curio Bay watch the outgoing tide reveal a 180 million year old petrified forest and discover rare, endangered wildlife such as the Yellow-Eyed Penguin/Hoiho. The town also boasts the Tumu Toka Curioscape a world-class interpretive centre intended to educate and share the special stories of the area.
Travel inland to view the stunning Purakaunui Falls, McLean Falls, and Matai Falls, some of the most photographed waterfalls in the world. And make sure to visit Nugget Point, with its lighthouse perched on a spur of land that provides a breathtaking viewing platform.
The route then travels up through Balclutha and finishes in Dunedin. The whole drive is well signposted and mostly follows sealed country roads and highways – although some gravel roads may be involved, particularly while detouring to visit special sites or partake in activities. The route is also just as good travelled in the opposite direction as described, from Dunedin to Queenstown, depending on where you want to start.
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