Deep South

Exploring New Zealand’s rugged southern coastline takes clients beyond the ordinary

By: Roger Allnutt

It took awhile for my eyes to adjust to spot the many birds darting through the thick green foliage of the native forest. The different bird calls were clearly audible and soon I became more adept at spotting the green of the bellbird, the flashy tail feathers of the fantail and the slightly ponderous flight of the wood pigeon.

I was taking a guided walk on Ulva Island, a nature sanctuary just off of Stewart Island, off the southern end of the South Island of New Zealand. Stewart Island was once called Rakiura (“The Land of Glowing Skies”) by the Maoris, which probably refers as much to the nighttime displays of the aurora australis, the Southern Lights, as to the incredible sunsets here.

These days, most of Stewart Island has been turned into Rakiura National Park. The island is reached either by ferry across Foveaux Strait from Bluff or by small plane from Invercargill, one of the largest cities on this part of the South Island.

My guide was Furhana Ahmad, who runs Ruggedy Range Wilderness Experience. This outfit offers a number of different eco-tours and guided hikes on Stewart Island, and Ahmad’s knowledge and enthusiasm turned a leisurely walk into a fascinating wildlife experience.

For many years, the South Island of New Zealand has been a popular destination for travelers from all parts of the world. The grandeur of the mountains, which form a spine down the middle of the island, is well known, with Mt. Cook at over 12,300 feet the highest point. The Tasman and Fox Glaciers provide dramatic scenery, while the spectacular mountains and lakes around Queenstown, popular in both summer and winter seasons, are a must for all visitors. The west coast is dominated by fiords (hence the name Fiordland for this region), and a cruise on mighty Milford Sound is not to be missed.

In recent years, however, more travelers are recognizing the delights of the far south of the South Island the Southland region an area that is perhaps best experienced by a road trip along the Southern Scenic Route.

An Emerging Destination
New Zealand’s Southern Scenic Route runs roughly from Dunedin, on the southeastern side of the South Island, to Te Anau, the jumping-off point for popular Fiordland National Park, on the western side of the island. The route takes in approximately 275 miles and includes the entire south coast. This area as a whole is known as the Southland. It is a region of dramatic coastline, rugged forests, lush green pastures and magnificent walking and hiking trails.

Not traditionally known as one of New Zealand’s major tourism centers, visitors to the Southland have been increasing in recent years many from the United States. In 2003, the United States was the third largest source of international visitors to New Zealand, with 192,883 visitors, an increase of over 6 percent over the previous year. Of these, 35,597 visited Dunedin and nearby Southland, an increase of 26 percent.

That number is expected to increase dramatically due to added airlift to the South Island, including a new nonstop flight from Los Angeles to Christchurch that’s generating some buzz in the travel industry (see sidebar, page 14). In addition, in the Dunedin region, about one third of U.S. visitors last year used a rental car, making a driving trip along New Zealand’s Southern Scenic Route a natural fit for those clients who want to get away from the crowds and experience the unspoiled beauty of the true New Zealand.

Begin in Dunedin
For visitors flying into Christchurch and renting a car, Dunedin is about a five-hour drive away. Dunedin, however, also has its own airport, with domestic flights arriving from all over the country, as well as train and bus service. The city even sees a fair amount of cruise ship traffic at its nearby port.

Dunedin provides a good base from which to explore the Southland, but it is a fascinating city in its own right. It is often referred to as the “Edinburgh of the South,” and there are many fine old buildings in the city. Down toward the harbor is the impressive railway station dominated by a huge copper-capped tower with heraldic lions at each corner. It is Dunedin’s most photographed site.

A glimpse of life in Dunedin in the early years of this century can be found at Olveston, a Jacobean-style home built between 1904 and 1906 for businessman David Theomin. Standing on an acre of garden, the inside is a treasure trove of antiques, paintings and items collected by the owner on extensive world travels.

No visit to Dunedin would be complete without visiting the nearby Otago Peninsula. At the end of the peninsula, at Taiaroa Head, is the world-renowned albatross colony, as well as a nearby beach where yellow-eyed penguins roam. The winds often howl around Taiaroa Head and clients may be fortunate to see some albatross wheel in and out from their nesting grounds. A tour of the Royal Albatross Colony (November to September), including Historic Fort Taiaroa, is not to be missed as well.

Hit the Road
Driving south from Dunedin, the highway splits after the town of Balclutha, with one route heading inland northwest and the main highway becoming the Southern Scenic Route. Soon after this split, motorists will come to perhaps the most beautiful spot along the route, Nugget Point. There’s a lighthouse here built in 1869, and it overlooks a dozen or so rocky islets grouped together in the turbulent water below the sheer cliffs. Fur seals, southern elephant seals, sea lions, penguins and more can be seen here frolicking in rocky pools or sunning on the shore. Nearby, at Cannibal Bay named because human bones were found in the dunes sea lions often relax on the beach unconcerned by the few passing humans.

This part of the Southland is often generally referred to as the Catlins, and it is an eco-adventurer’s paradise full of rivers, lakes, beaches, forests, caves and more. It is also a good stopping point along the route. The towns of Owaka (73 miles from Dunedin) or Papatowai (89 miles), while small, both offer tourist services, including motels and campgrounds.

Just outside of Papatowai are lovely forest walks to Purakaunui Falls, which tumble over a series of ledges to the valley floor. There’s also a trail to the boardwalk at Tautuku Bay where many birds nest and breed.

Continuing on, at low tide at Curio Bay visitors can see one of the world’s finest fossilized forests. And if your clients visit on a Sunday afternoon, a free cup of tea or coffee can be had at the local community hall. Next on the route are two dramatic headlands that jut out into the Southern Ocean. Slope Point, the most southerly tip of the South Island, and Waipapa Point, with its lighthouse, are great spots for the view. Waipapa was the scene of New Zealand’s worst shipping disaster, in 1881 when the Tararua foundered there and 131 lives were lost. Finally, visitors will reach Invercargill, the main town of the region, about 170 miles from Dunedin. One of the first towns established in New Zealand, Invercargill’s prosperity was based on meat and wool exports and direct shipping communication with Australia. Its wide streets are still lined with fine commercial buildings and churches. Invercargill has an airport, and is served by motorcoach and rail service. It has many accommodations as well, and is a good stopping point along the Southern Scenic Route. The Southland Museum and Art Gallery located here has an excellent collection, including a display on the sub-Antarctic islands south of the South Island and a section containing rare Tuatara lizards that are only found on the South Island. Outside of Invercargill, the nearby town of Bluff where visitors can catch the ferry to Stewart Island lives up to its name. It is perched at the foot of a 1,000-foot bluff, from the top of which are panoramic views along the coast and across Foveaux Strait. The Bluff Paua Shell House is a well-known attraction in Bluff and the Maritime Museum is worth a look. Bluff is also famous for its oysters a prized delicacy in season (there’s even a Bluff oyster festival held in April).

Try the Track
If your clients want to test their hiking skills then they should hop in the rental car and get back on the Southern Scenic Route heading west to the newly opened Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track. The track is New Zealand’s newest walk, with two backcountry huts and about 13½ miles of trails. Along the way, clients will enjoy commanding views of the South Coast, Lake Poteriteri, Lake Hauroko and mountain ranges deep in Fiordland National Park.

It is a moderate walk requiring a good level of fitness, but in time it is hoped that the track will rival the more famous Milford Sound and Routeburn trails. Already the three-day, 33-mile walk is attracting increasing numbers of hikers.

Starting from west of the town of Tuatapere, about 50 miles west of Invercargill, the trail climbs from the coast at Rarakau Farm up to Okaka Hut on the Hump Ridge at nearly 3,300 feet, where spectacular views can be enjoyed.

The second day the trail descends, sometimes on boardwalks, to the remnants of an old milling railway. At 400 feet long and 120 feet high, the wooden Percy Burn viaduct must have been a major engineering feat when built in 1923. The trail, boggy in places, follows the line to the huts at Port Craig.

The third day the trail follows the coast with some beach walking back to the starting point. From Tuatapere it’s another 50 miles or so to the charming resort town of Te Anau, and 75 miles farther on to Milford Sound and Fiordland and the end of New Zealand’s Southland.

No worries, however, there are more adventures to be had just down the road.


Tourism New Zealand runs a free specialist program that uses online modules to teach travel professionals everything they need to know about Australia’s eastern neighbor. Click onto, a dedicated Web site for North American travel trade professionals, for details. The Web site also offers information on everything from destination data to marketing tools.

Program participants are invited to an annual Kiwi Specialist Convention run by New Zealand suppliers who fly to the U.S. just for the event (the next one is May 12 in Los Angeles). Specialists also receive a bimonthly e-newsletter, get substantial discounts off transport, accommodation and activities in New Zealand and are listed on the country’s consumer Web site (

On the trade site, there’s an order form for brochures and postcards that are perfect to use as invitations for a New Zealand wine tasting, for example, in the agency conference room that you’ve decorated with posters and images from

Is your clientele more wilderness than wine? Follow the tasting with a screening of “The Lord of the Rings” DVD. Just make sure you do it after you’ve studied your Kiwi 101 and can point out the real places all those regions in Middle Earth actually correspond to.

Should you have trouble fielding a tough question, just call Tourism New Zealand’s hotline (866-639-9325).

Andréa R. Vaucher


The Catlins


Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track


Ruggedy Range Wilderness Experience

Southern Scenic Route

Tourism Southland


Avis (in Dunedin, etc.)

Hertz (in Dunedin, etc.)