The Southern Explore road trip through New Zealand’s Central Otago region is a life-changing experience.
Covering an area spanning 10,000 square kilometres, the middle of the South Island truly is the landscape of ‘Middle Earth’. On the Southern Explore road trip you will see towering and rugged mountain ranges, pristine lakes, untamed glaciers and sweeping valleys, not to mention historic gold mining towns and award-winning wineries.
With the major highways from Queenstown and Wanaka in the west, Christchurch and Dunedin in the east, and Invercargill in the south, taking the Southern Explore road trip won’t pose too much of a challenge. The roads, for the most part, are well sealed, clearly marked and don’t present a high degree of difficulty.
If you are looking to explore the region at your own pace, hiring a campervan could be a good choice. This will allow you to discover delightful little towns and cultural experiences, while still giving you access to some of Central Otago’s more remote destinations. That said, some of the smaller towns in Central Otago do not have petrol stations, so be sure to fill up before straying too far off the main roads.
Check out our 5-Day Southern Explore road trip itinerary.
Queenstown to Queenstown
Best Time of the Year
All year round
- Lake Wanaka
- Milford Sound
Queenstown to Wanaka
Distance 67.2km - Driving Time 1 hour
Start off your five-day itinerary by collecting your Britz Campervan at Queenstown airport, then head north-east along SH6. Before long you’ll see the turnoff for Arrowtown, a gold mining town with its origins in the 1860’s. Although the gold rush is well and truly over, Arrowtown’s collection of heritage buildings along the tree-lined Buckingham Street are a charming reminder of another era and well worth a stop for some lunch. Return to SH6 and head towards Cromwell – famous for the giant fruit landmark so be sure to get a picture, continue past Lake Dunstan and into Wanaka. No trip to this area is worthy of sharing unless you visit the Cadrona Pub which was made famous by a well-known Speight's Brewery ad. It’s got a great outdoor garden and is the perfect spot to end a day off the mountain or just to visit to cool off after a day spent exploring. Set against the backdrop of Mount Aspiring National Park, Wanaka is known as an adventure destination, with adrenaline-pumping activities including heli-skiing, canyoning, climbing and skydiving. Also check out Stuart Landsborough’s Puzzling World, where 1.5 kilometres of passages will keep you entertained for hours. Stay in Wanaka overnight. There are a couple of good caravan parks – Aspiring Holiday Park and Lake Outlet Holiday Park. Both are close to town and offer some easy access views of Lake Wanaka.
Wanaka to Gore
Distance 223km - Driving Time 2 hours 15 mins
After an early morning cuppa to watch the sunrise over the mountains, start your second day’s drive south on SH6 to Cromwell, situated on the shores of the beautiful Lake Dunstan. Cromwell is known for its abundance of orchards and vineyards, where stone fruits are the highlight. During the summer months, don’t miss the farmers market at Cromwell Heritage Precinct every Sunday. After Cromwell, take SH8 to the picturesque township of Clyde, nestled beside the mighty Clutha River. Spend a couple of hours sampling the award-winning drops from the local wineries such as Clyde Village Wines or Three Miners Vineyards. If you are in town over Easter, don’t miss the Clyde Wine and Food Festival on Easter Sunday. Continue on to the commercial hub of Alexandra, and marvel at one of the world’s most unusual clocks, the Clock on the Hill. Seen from over 8 kilometres away and located on a rock face high above the town, the huge clock was built in 1996 and measures 11 metres in width. Travel further south on SH8 through Roxburgh and on to Gore – New Zealand’s official country music capital and a great fly fishing destination. For an overnight stay in Gore, consider Gore Motor Camp.
Gore to Te Anau
Distance 139km - Driving Time 1 hour 30 mins
Depart Gore and head north-west on SH94 towards Te Anau. Passing through beautiful rolling farmland and rivers brimming with trout, after 40 minutes you will reach Lumsden – a good place to stop for lunch. Just under an hour from Lumsden is the busy tourist hub of Te Anau, sitting on the edge of Lake Te Anau. Interestingly, Lake Te Anau is the largest lake in the South Island and with depths of over 400m, is also the largest in the country by water volume. If you have time, visit the Te Anau Wildlife Centre and see the Takahe – a flightless alpine bird. Te Anau is also the jumping off point for the Fiordland National Park and awe-inspiring landscapes such as Milford Sound and the Fox Glacier – stop here for the night at the Te Anau Kiwi Holiday Park.
Te Anau to Milford Sound
Distance 117km - Driving Time 1 hours 30 mins
The two-hour drive north along the Te Anau-Milford Hwy will be one of the highlights of the road-trip. Travel through some of New Zealand’s most striking scenery, including temperature tropical forests, flat open valley plains and along the shores of Lake Te Anau. It’s an easy self-drive and you can take your time to absorb one of the most spectacular road trips in the world. Upon arrival, Milford Sound is a grand spectacle – with sheer cliffs dropping into deep blue waters. Have a spot of lunch at the Blue Duck Café and Bar in Milford Sound before embarking on a Milford Sound Red Boat Cruise to see the magnificent Mitre Peak and Stirling Falls. An alternative and shorter trip from Te Anau is to take the road south 20 minutes to the picturesque Lake Manapouri, where you can jump onto a Doubtful Sound excursion. Return to Te Anau for the night.
Te Anau to Queenstown
Distance 171km - Driving Time 2 hours 30 mins
The final day of your itinerary sees you taking the two-hour trip back to your starting point, Queenstown. Head east on SH94 before joining up with SH6 north, and before long the crystal clear waters of Lake Wakatipu will beckon as you descend into Queenstown for lunch. Fergburger is a popular Queenstown eating institution and their burgers are not to be missed. Likewise, the Cow Restaurant has some of the most delicious pizza’s you will ever try. After lunch, it’s time to test your nerve by bungy jumping from a cable car above a gorge with AJ Hackett Bungy; or try out the Shotover Jet, which twists and turns its way through the towering, rocky canyons of the Shotover River.