Home to just one million people, New Zealand’s rugged South Islands is the perfect place to escape crowds and get some adventure. From epic walks to beautiful beaches, mountains and lakes, this is prime wilderness.

New Zealand’s South Island has hiking trails that cover the most stunning scenery in the country, with an extra pinch of adrenaline and adventure.

NZ lighthouse at Seperation point Abel Tasman National Park

The lighthouse at Separation point, Abel Tasman coastal walk,
South Island

The Abel Tasman coastal walk

The Abel Tasman coastal walk is perfect for those who want to match ocean views with lush bushland. Extending from Marahau in the south to Wainui in the north, the 60km trail takes most hikers between 3-5 days to complete. Hikers can choose between four huts (Anchorage, Bark Bay and Awaroa) and 18 campsites along the Abel Tasman Coast Track to set up camp. However, every night’s accommodation must be booked in advance (all year round). If you arrive at a campsite or hut without a valid booking — or try to stay at a different site to the one you’ve booked, you can be charged a penalty fee, or even be asked to leave the park.

While making your way along the trail, you can picnic on the golden sandy beaches of Abel Tasman and rest tired legs at the Cleopatra's Pool — a natural rockpool with a moss-lined waterslide that’s a welcome landmark on the trail.

There’s one tidal crossing to navigate — the Torrent Bay estuary, which can be crossed within two hours of low tide. It’s worth consulting a tidal timetable to make sure your trip isn’t delayed. Don’t worry if you get your times wrong, as there is a separate track you can take if you get caught by the tide. However, it takes two hours to walk compared with the 25-minute estuary crossing.

Look out for the walk across the 47m suspension bridge at the Falls River inlet, where you can see playful fur seals sunbathing on the shores.

NZ Fox Glacier Alex Knobviewpoint SBJ

View of Franz Josef Glacier on the hike to Alex Knob viewpoint, South Island

Fox and Franz glaciers

For icier adventures, head south-west to the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, which are 25 minutes’ drive apart. Set over 13km, Fox glacier starts more than 2,600m high in the Southern Alps before plummeting down to the ocean. The ice is some 300m thick in places, melting into the freezing waters that feed the Tasman Sea. Fox is the more challenging glacier to trek on, with Franz Josef offering shorter walks.

You can set foot on the glaciers through a guided ice walk or on a heli-hike experience, where you’ll be dropped (and later picked up) by helicopter to explore the white landscapes of the glaciers.

After a safety briefing on land, your glacier exploration starts at the helicopter landing site — as the glacier is constantly moving and changing, the site can be different every few months but is always remote and exceptionally beautiful at about 800m above sea level.

At this stage, it’s time to don your crampons that are specially designed for icy conditions — don’t worry if you feel like Bambi on ice skates, you’ll soon start to get accustomed to the extra weight on your feet and you’ll confidently start to explore the glacial terrain.

From here, you’ll hike across the icy glacier. Your guides will examine and cut away new routes each day, so expect each hike to be different but you’ll see ice arches, crevasses, caves and moulins (sinkholes formed by surface water) over the two-hour hike. Before jumping aboard the helicopter for your return journey, take in the sights of Victoria Falls — the river formed from meltwater at the hidden Victoria Glacier. You can even fill your water bottle from the purest water source in the country.

Neighbouring Franz Josef Glacier offers a similar experience, with the option to take on a Glacier Valley Walk (a low-effort way to take in the glacier views) which will take you to the Waiho River bed, and you can follow the glacier's receding path along the incredible landscape. You'll also be able to take in the glacier's history (which sadly sees it decrease in size, year on year) and learn of the Maori legend of Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere — the Maori name for the Franz Josef glacier and a tragic story of lost love.

NZ Glenorchy wharf wooden pier and lamp after sunrise

Glenorchy wharf wooden pier, South Island

Horse-riding at Glenorchy

The area of Glenorchy, just an hours’ drive south from adventure capital Queenstown is a horse riders’ dream location. No previous experience is necessary and beginner rides take you along the stunning Dart Valley. Along the way, riders take in the scenery at the head of Lake Whakatipu, the epic gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park and Te Wahipounamu, one of New Zealand’s three World Heritage sites.

Beginners are paired with gentle giants and take on a meandering trail along the Dart River and some slightly more tricky river crossing.

If you have riding experience, a day-long or overnight horse riding experience in Glenorchy can be arranged. With the Queenstown Basin as a backyard, you can explore over 100,000 acres of pristine New Zealand backcountry. From crossing glacial-fed rivers, slow-climbing the side of a mountain range to galloping through bush trails and ancient beech forests, a horse-riding tour allows you to see a different side of New Zealand.

NZ Lake Wakatipu view from Queenstown towards Glenorchy

View of Lake Wakatipu from Queenstown towards Glenorchy,
South Island

Adventure Base Camp: Queenstown

Queenstown is known as the adventure capital of the world, so if you’re setting up base camp in the South Island, get ready to experience all the adrenaline-pumped activities Queenstown has to offer.
  • Nevis Bungee 134m high with 8.5 seconds of freefall, it’s New Zealand's highest bungee jump
  • Skydive from 15,000ft (60 seconds of freefall at 200mph) over Queenstown with New Zealand’s first tandem skydive operation
  • Jet boating on Skippers Canyon through the narrowest canyons on the Shotover River
  • Arrow River 4x4 off-road adventure taking on the old miners wagon trail and exploring the historic gold mining town of Macetown
  • Queenstown Bike Park with 450m of vertical descent, incredible views and 27 trails of varied terrain

By Nicole Canning

Nicole Canning is a freelance travel writer and co-founder of the adventure travel blog, TheTwoTravelled.com. Follow her on @nikkitravelled where she shares her latest travel plans and country guides for the time-restricted traveller.

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