5 days to explore the top of the South Island of New Zealand

A road trip around the South Island of New Zealand wouldn’t be complete without exploring its northernmost part. This region might seem less attractive compared to the incredible landscapes of the mountains further South but it features many gorgeous places worth a visit, including the famous Abel Tasman National Park. Even if it could take a very long time to explore the whole area, don’t worry if your schedule is a bit tight as it’s still possible to see the highlights in a short time. This is the best of the top of South Island in only 5 days, including some free campsites!

📷 Don’t forget to visit the galleries related to this article: Picton & French Pass / Abel Tasman & the North-West.

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Day 1: Picton and Queen Charlotte track

If you’re sailing from the North Island, Picton will be the terminus of the Wellington ferry; if you’re driving from Christchurch via Kaikoura it’s also a good place to stay for one night before beginning your road trip on the North of South Island.

In the morning, start with the Tirohanga Track (about one and a half hour return) leading to Hilltop View with a great lookout over the harbour.

Picton

Then head West in the direction of Havelock via the Queen Charlotte drive: it’s a beautiful road with many lookouts along the way as well as access to a few beaches, but it’s also narrow and very winding so be careful if you’re driving a long or heavy vehicle.

Shortly before Linkwater, turn right towards Anakiwa and park at the beginning of the Queen Charlotte track. It’s apparently one of the nicest long hikes to do in this part of New Zealand but if like me you don’t have enough time (it’s a 4 or 5 day-track), a good alternative is to walk only until the first lookout (about 3-4 hours return). It’s a really nice track following the bay and slowly climbing up in the forest with a gorgeous view at the end.

Camping tip: there’s a free campsite with toilets (no showers) next to Brown River at the crossing between the Picton-Nelson highway (State Highway 6) and Opouri Road in the direction of French Pass, a good place to stay before day 2.

Day 2: French Pass

Maybe the best hidden treasure of the South Island? One sure thing, you won’t see many tourists over there! It’s a very scenic drive to get to French Pass, at the North-East extremity of the South Island, through green fields with many many sheep and countless lookouts over the gorgeous fjords and sounds all around. It’s only 60kms from the previously mentioned camp site to French Pass but count at least one and a half hour to get there, as it’s a particularly winding road with a gravel surface on the last 30kms (but in a good condition).

Spend some time on the lovely little beach at the end of the road, admire the scenery and who knows, maybe you’ll be lucky enough to find a Paua shell on the sand…

It’s a dead-end so you’ll have to drive all the way back before heading to Nelson. It’s a good city to spend a couple of relaxing hours, with a lot of hostels or cheap accommodation for backpackers.

Day 3: Nelson to Farewell Spit

The first part of the day will be driving all the way up to the top end of the South Island: the sand dunes of Farewell Spit. Check the road conditions first: I went there in early March 2018, shortly after cyclone Gita hit this part of New Zealand. It provoked landslips damaging the road between Motueka and Takaka, the only access to the region. By that time, the road over the Takaka Hill was only open during one hour in the morning, and another hour in the evening with a slightly increased travel time.

If you look carefully at a map of the South Island, you’ll notice what looks like a giant claw on the northernmost point: this is Farewell Spit. The combined actions of wind, oceanic current and the proximity to the North Island created this unique feature. After a short walk on the beach, it will feel like you just reached the Sahara desert: huge sand dunes everywhere around, as far as 26kms into the ocean! It’s also a great place for birdwatching.

Camping tip: there’s an extremely basic free camp site close to Farewell Spit, directly next to the ocean, but despite this great location I wouldn’t recommend it: it’s muddy, small and packed. Prefer the free camp site next to Waitapu River, much bigger and nicer even if it’s also very basic (dry toilets – no showers).

Day 4: around Takaka

The other advantage of the previously mentioned campsite is that it’s very central. From there you’re only 3kms away from Takaka, the main town of the area. It’s also a short drive (5 minutes) to Te Waikoropupu Springs, one of the highlights of the region. These springs are sacred in the Maori culture and it’s forbidden to swim there or even just to touch the water; but you’re welcome to admire its unique blue colour.

After the Springs, drive to the East towards Tarakohoe to the Wainui Falls. This part of the coast is truly stunning and leads to the Northern entrance of Abel Tasman National Park, but I didn’t go that far and stopped at the waterfall car park. From there it’s a 1h to 1h30 return walk to get to the fall.

wainui-falls

On your way back, stop at Tata Beach, that has been described to me as the most beautiful beach of the region. It’s the only one I’ve been to so I can’t really compare to be honest! But I can tell you that it’s a gorgeous place and swimming there on a warm sunny day was very pleasant.

Have an early night that day because what comes on day 5 is the main reason to visit this part of New Zealand: Abel Tasman National Park.

Day 5: Abel Tasman National Park

Abel Tasman (named after the Dutch explorer who was the first European to sail around New Zealand in 1642) is the smallest National Park of New Zealand but not the least beautiful. For those who’ve been to Australia, I found it very similar to Noosa to give you an idea. It’s a popular tramping area with gorgeous camp sites almost directly on the beach, but it’s also possible to enjoy it in just one day. For that you can rent a kayak or the option I chose, take a water taxi.

Split Apple rock, Abel Tasman

From Marahau, the boats from Abel Tasman Aquataxi can drop you on several points of the coast after sailing around Split Apple Rock (picture on the left). You can choose to walk all the way back to Marahau or get picked up from another point, giving you more time to enjoy the pristine beaches. Find all the details and prices on the Abel Tasman Aquataxi website.

I decided to sail until Bark Bay and walk back from there, which is probably the longest hike you can do in one day as it’s 24kms long. The section between Bark Bay and Torrent Bay is supposed to be the most beautiful of the Park, but it’s still really nice as well after Torrent Bay and there are also less people on the path. It was a long and quite exhausting walk but definitely a really good choice and a great day!

This is how this short but intense trip to the North of the South Island ends. Let me know in the comments what was your favourite part!

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