The Central South Island is one of the most varied and visually stunning areas in New Zealand, with expansive pasturelands, dense native forests and a history rich in tales of human endeavour, tinged with the toughness and idiosyncrasies of the area’s settlers. The region’s defining feature is the icy, white sawtooth ridge of the Southern Alps that forms the South Island’s central north–south spine and peaks at New Zealand’s loftiest summit, 3754m Aoraki/Mount Cook. Summers are generally hot and dry with long days that sear the grasslands a tinder-dry yellow-brown. In winter, snow supplies numerous ski-fields. These alpine conditions foster unique plants and wildlife, including the Mount Cook lily, the largest white mountain daisy in the world, and the mischievous kea – the world’s only alpine parrot.
From Christchurch to Westport, the forested Lewis Pass road provides access to the tranquil spa town of Hanmer Springs before passing the more rustic hot pools at Maruia Springs. Further south, both road and rail head through the spectacular Arthur’s Pass National Park, with its abundance of day-walks and longer trails.
South of Christchurch, roads lead across the Canterbury Plains towards the small foothill settlement of Methven, the base for Mount Hutt-bound skiers and summertime walkers exploring Mount Somers – often dry when Arthur’s Pass is wet and enveloped in cloud.
The southern half of the region leaves behind the rolling hills for the sun-scorched grasslands of the Mackenzie Country, an area renowned for massive sheep runs and the unearthly blues of its glacier-fed lakes, Tekapo and Pukaki. The mightiest of the Southern Alps form an imperious backdrop. Aoraki/Mount Cook Village, huddled at the foot of the mountain, is the starting point of numerous walks, glacial lake trips and heli-trekking and heli-skiing. An alternative base for forays to Aoraki/Mount Cook is the former hydro construction town of Twizel, less than an hour’s drive south, surrounded by dams, control gates and water channels.
Yet further south, the road toward Wanaka and Queenstown passes through New Zealand’s gliding capital, Omarama, before heading over the dramatic Lindis Pass.