A visit to New Zealand isn’t complete without taking a trip to the beautiful South Island, which enjoys year-round tourism. In this article, I will outline an incredible backpacking New Zealand itinerary for the South Island, with stunning scenery that will astound you.

Getting to the South Island

I woke up to the buzzing of my phone. After a bleary-eyed second, wondering who on earth would want to call me at 7.30 in the morning, it dawned on me. Yep, it was the ferry company in Wellington asking if I was ready to arrive for boarding, as the boat was about to leave. I was still in Auckland. And I had booked the ferry for the wrong day. Whoops.

A new phrase I have picked up in New Zealand is ‘cruisy’. Meaning easy, relaxed, no worries. While my inaugural trip to the South Island was not getting off to the cruisy-est of starts, I was confident that things would work out. When travelling, there’s always an element of keeping the faith and hoping everything will fall into place somehow.

Thankfully, this time my optimism was well placed. The lovely people at Bluebridge ferries responded quickly to my pleading email and generously transferred my booking to the next day. Now all I needed to do was catch my flight to Wellington and all would be sorted. I’m not going to tell you about how I almost left my coat behind on the check-in counter at the airport. That would just be embarrassing. And absolutely nothing to do with my fuzzy head from drinking lashings of ginger beer with kumara (sweet potato) vodka at a party the night before. Oh no.

So, I made it to a very soggy Wellington which – sadly for all the Sevens rugby fancy-dress revellers – insisted on raining all day. With my own hastily put together outfit, I hit the town with my friend Chloe and we got amongst the action. There were some odd people about and, along with the weather, the general mood remained a little dampened, so we were relatively sensible. Meaning I made it in plenty of time the next day to catch my rebooked ferry. Excellent.

The cruise across the Cook Strait was a little choppy, but I comfortably read and slept through the four hours. Then it was time to disembark. As the huge ferry door slowly opened, my fellow passengers – some of whom were still happily drunk and glitter-speckled from the Sevens celebrations – blinked into the sunlight. We weren’t in Wellington any more.

A top tip from Chloe led me a short walk from the ferry terminal – along Gravesend Place, past Picton cemetery and up the hill to the brilliantly named Tombstone Backpackers hostel. Here, they invite you to ‘rest in peace’. Entrance is through a heavy wooden coffin-shaped door, but there’s no need to fear: waiting on the other side is a warm welcome from the cheery and helpful host, Lynne, who showed me around. On the day I arrived she was a little frustrated because her computer had ‘given up the ghost’; while I don’t think the pun was intended, I enjoyed it.

As well as great staff, this bright and clean accommodation boasts free breakfast, free wifi, granite-tiled bathrooms and plenty of indoor and outdoor spaces to rest your weary traveller bones, including a blissful hot spa pool overlooking the harbour.

My next error was not pre-booking my bus to Nelson in time, so I had to overcome my nerves and hitchhike all the way to the Paradiso hostel in Nelson. Luckily, everyone was friendly and kind, and I didn’t run into any problems. Arriving at the Paradiso hostel, I realised it is aptly named, with its 12 metre swimming pool, volleyball court, en-suite dorm rooms and lots of freebies for guests, including the all-important WiFi. 

The next morning, the eye-catching big orange Stray bus picked me up from outside the hostel. It was a hot sunny Tuesday afternoon and I was excited about the travels that lay ahead – I had heard so much about the places we were about to visit.

Abel Tasman

Our first stop on our backpacking New Zealand itinerary was somewhere special: Abel Tasman National Park. Here it is so remote you can’t even pick up a signal on your mobile phone, but so beautiful that many of my Stray traveller friends have named it their favourite stop on the South Island. Here, we enjoyed a group BBQ and an evening walk along the beach, followed by a day sunning ourselves on a catamaran cruise. Afterwards, we hiked back to our camp through the jungle, complete with waterfalls and spectacular beach views along the way.

backpacking new zealand itinerary

Franz Josef

My next highlight was Franz Josef, a small town resembling a ski resort, where tourists come to check out the famous glacier – one of only four in the world which sits alongside a temperate rainforest.  We were very lucky with the weather as it allowed the helicopters to fly us up to the glacier for our hike.

With the sun shining, we followed our enthusiastic guide as he used his pick to forge steps in the ice for us to climb. We filled our water bottles with the clear water trickling through the blue ice and explored the caves we found.

Our icy expedition was followed by a complimentary dip in the local (very) hot spa pools. Later I enjoyed a kayaking trip and visited the kiwi centre, where you can see three of these shy nocturnal birds up close. I spent Valentine’s Day here and certainly felt the love for this place.

backpacking new zealand itinerary

Wanaka

Wanaka was one of my favourite stops. The Stray bus stays overnight at this beautiful lakeside town surrounded by mountains.

The great thing is, you are always invited to hop off and back on the tour as you wish, as another bus will be on its way in a day or so. So hop off is what we did. Here, we visited Puzzling World, with its mind-boggling exhibitions and walk-through maze; climbed to the summit of Mount Iron to admire the views and spot the frolicking wild rabbits; sampled some excellent local wine at the Rippon winery; and played a very competitive game of Frisbee golf.

Queenstown

Queenstown is possibly the most famous tourist town in New Zealand. It’s known for being the home of extreme sports, from bungee jumps, to sky dives, canyoning, snowboarding and much more. There are also a lot of bars. I didn’t opt for launching myself from a cliff or aeroplane this time, but instead we took a leisurely trip on the cable car to the top of the mountain to take in the panorama and have a race around the high altitude go-kart track.

For me, the best thing about Queenstown was not the town itself, but the surrounding countryside which was simply breathtaking. When you’re travelling around on the Stray bus between destinations it’s tempting to take a nap, but I couldn’t take my eyes away from the majestic, sunlit views out of the windows. I was captivated.

There are often stops en route for photo opportunities and one of them saw us taking a picnic by a mountainside lake so blue you can hardly believe it.

My other highlight of Queenstown? The legendarily juicy, meaty Fergburger. Definitely a contender for the best burger I’ve ever tasted.

Milford Sound

Milford Sound is another well-known stop on the South Island, famed for its cruises. 

Here we embarked on a short trip around the sounds, weaving through the mountains and up into the gushing waterfalls, saying hi to some seals showing off along the way.

Stewart Island

At the far south of New Zealand lays the country’s third largest land mass: Stewart Island. This is an optional, but unique trip on the Stray tour and a few of us braved the choppy waters of the ferry crossing to check out this picturesque place.

With just one supermarket and one restaurant in the harbour-side town, it’s a quaintly un-touristy isle, but there are opportunities to spot kiwis and penguins (sadly we saw neither) and take some hikes through the pretty countryside.

Mount Cook

One of the most magnificent places we visited during the tour was Mount Cook. Our hostel in the village was overlooked by enormous snow-capped mountains. A very peaceful area, we took some hikes to explore the local scenery.

Rangitata

At Rangitata I faced my fear and decided to try white-water rafting again, after my first not-so-amazing attempt. I needn’t have worried. At Rangitata Rafts we received a thorough briefing from the friendly instructors and the three-hour trip through the increasingly energetic rapids  was much more how I’d imagined whitewater rafting to be. It was a lot of fun and we were laughing and smiling the whole way, though, as always for this pursuit, it’s not without its risks. Luckily we paddled well and – with a little luck too – we sailed over the highest grade rapids without any incident. We even took a stop to climb some nearby rocks and jump into the water, with varying degrees of confidence and grace.

Kaikoura

Our final stop before we returned to Picton was Kaikoura. This tiny town offers some incredible experiences of whale watching and swimming with wild dolphins.

New Zealand South Island backpacking: an epic adventure

They say that it’s good to leave somewhere with things that you’d like to have done, so it gives you the perfect excuse to go back. Maybe now I’ve jumped off the rock at Rangitata I could pluck up the courage to come back and do a sky dive. Either way, my tour of the South Island has certainly been one to remember and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it all over again.

Now, read about my North Island adventures in New Zealand here.