The South Island, known as “SouthI” (South-eye) to nobody, is a beautiful, majestic place on this planet. I recently took a two week holiday to travel the island, first by bike, then by foot and car.
A week of biking down the West Coast on a mix of specialized bike trails and the “Glacier Highway” eventually landed me in Queenstown. After a brief, obligatory trip to Milford Sound, I headed back up to Christchurch via car, stopping for terrific hikes in Wanaka and Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park. Here are some thoughts about biking, hiking, and shooting photography on the SouthI.
- Left and rights are backward in New Zealand. Due to the Coriolis Effect, everyone in New Zealand bikes and drives on the left side of the road. This also means that the brakes are reversed, so try to only fall head over heels with the scenery and not because you pressed the wrong brake.
- The color of your shirt matters, since you want to be seen by drivers while biking on the road. Many bikers have reflective vests on, but this is risky since you may be confused for someone trying to escape a construction zone and asked to put your bike down and pick up a shovel. I wore tie-dye so that I could be seen by drivers with any version of color-blindness. One thing to avoid (I actually saw a biker wearing this) is camouflage.
- If you’re on the West Coast, assume it can rain within a few minutes’ notice, so be waterproof. While this sounds like a disaster for a cyclist, the rain actually helps by keeping you cool, knocking the flies off of you, and lubricating your chain (?). It also powers the many beautiful rivers and waterfalls you pass.
- If you’ve disassembled your bike to fit into a bus or some other transportation, make sure you have disembarked with all the pieces before that vehicle leaves. I didn’t leave any wheels on the bus or anything, but I realized it would have been terrible if I had.
- Wear the same outfit every day. This helps people recognize you on the various days of your trip. It’s fun to be at rest stops and have the car-travelers comment that they passed you two days previous at such and such place.
- Don’t transport dead fish for more than a day. This one’s kind of a no-brainer and probably doesn’t need to be included here, but I followed this rule and everything turned out fine.
- Wave at all the bikers. Some people have fun horns they honk at you, some have catchphrases, and some just wave. It’s nice to be friendly.
- Plan your route, but be ready to improvise. Planning your route is helpful so you can stay on track and don’t have to plan day by day. There isn’t always cell phone reception so it’s nice to have printed the route before you go. You should also give the plan to a relative so that when (if) you don’t return they know where to search. It’s also important to be okay with improvising: My first two nights were off schedule. The first night I got a flat tire just ten minutes after I started, so I opted to find a closer campsite. The second night was off-plan because I got to my destination much earlier than I expected, so I decided to cover some more distance.
- Avoid picking up hitchhikers. It can be tempting to pick up people who have the same destination as you, but usually, they are expecting a car and not to be tied down on top of your pack and pedaled about the same speed they could walk. If you do pick up hitchhikers (again, I don’t recommend this) don’t expect to be paid since you are providing far from luxury transportation.
- Hiking in New Zealand is pretty much the same as hiking anywhere else, except there are more New Zealand-specific features. You wouldn’t find these features in the United States, for example. As I said, they are New Zealand-specific.
- Take advantage of the huts. Visit the Department of Conservation website for a listing of all huts and to make a booking. It is truly amazing to take in the sunset and sunrise from the top of a mountain. I stayed at Mueller Hut across from Aoraki/Mt. Cook and it was phenomenal. Just book in advance as these fill up quickly, so I’m told.
- The sun is intense. Some say it is because there is a hole in the ozone layer, but arguably it is because New Zealand has two suns that are close enough together they appear as one.
- Be prepared to climb mountains. All the hikes I did ended up taking me up mountains. This is probably because there are so many mountains in the area that it is difficult to plan a route that does not go up one.
Here are some things you can take pictures of on the South Island. I’m not an expert but my cousin/travel partner is, so I feel qualified by association to provide the following recommendations.
- The mountains. New Zealand has plenty of tectonic activity to create its majestic mountain landscapes. These mountains are beautiful to look at, however can be frustrating if you are trying to look at what’s behind them. For instance, you usually just see one side of a mountain until you get to the other side. In rare circumstances, such as when you’re standing on a ridge, you can see both sides. Consider yourself lucky to get this opportunity.
- The glaciers. On the West Coast, the mountains are tropical but can also have glaciers coming down them! Glaciers are seemingly everywhere, however they are receding faster than usual due to climate change, which is very sad.
- The birds. New Zealand has a lot of flightless birds, probably because the ones that could fly were able to escape to prettier habitats, like Louisiana. It’s fun to see these birds and laugh at them for not being able to fly. Just remember that neither can you. There would have been a picture of a Kiwi here, HAD I SEEN ONE! I was lucky to see Wekas and Keas, but those birds aren’t nearly as characteristic of New Zealand as the Kiwi.
- The lakes. There are many blue lakes near the glaciers. The informational signs say that they are blue because of the sediment brought down by the glaciers, but most people who live there know it is because they are filled with Gatorade. I would have filled up my bottle at Lake Tekapo but I saw someone swimming in it.
- The waterfalls. Especially when it rains, the mountains become full of waterfalls. If you’re crossing Arthur’s Pass, prepare yourself for a waterfall that goes over the road!
- The plants. The lush West Coast is full of beautiful, tropical plants such as ferns and palm trees. As you move east over the Southern Alps the weather changes dramatically, and so do the plants. Here you’ll find grassy plains with small bushes, as well as some sub-alpine plants like mountain neinei.
- #ThatWanakaTree. Just because everyone else has photographed it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t!
- Kiwi fruit available in the supermarket are probably not grown in New Zealand. So even though it might be fun to have a kiwi while visiting, just know that they are probably imported. If you want some local flavor, try the many more variations of Tim Tams they have. I think the US would enter fewer wars if we could stock our shelves with the chocolate hazelnut and caramel Tim Tam Slam.
All in all, I recommend SouthI to anyone who likes beautiful landscapes, driving on the left, or searching for the elusive Kiwi.