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5 Best Action-Packed Adventures in New Zealand's South Island

Updated on June 22, 2013

Why New Zealand's South Island?

South Island New Zealand is probably the best place on earth for outdoor enthusiasts. It is largely uninhabited with rolling hills and vast open spaces. The island became better known after the “Lord of the Rings” showcased a fraction of its landscapes and scenery on a big screen around the world. The cities are small and cozy; in the English tradition pubs are abundant. Outside the cities cars are rarely seen and if you are camping you can set up your tent pretty much anywhere. Life happens outdoors; its beauty surrounds you in its silence. It is pure and simple; it is nature at its best.

However, as quiet as it is, it is a bombshell when it comes to adventure opportunities. Adventure explodes everywhere! From jet boating, flying an aircraft suspended on a wire across a canyon, glacier hiking, black water rafting, rock climbing, rappelling, bungee jumping and don’t forget the best skiing terrain in the planet! From above and to an outsider this island seems peaceful and tranquil but at a closer look it is almost impossible to get bored here.

Fox Glacier up close and personal
Fox Glacier up close and personal | Source
Hiking on the trail next to the glacier has its warnings
Hiking on the trail next to the glacier has its warnings | Source

1. Hike a glacier

There are two major glaciers in the southern island: Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier, they are both located on the west coast. Both glaciers offer a short trail where you can hike along the glacier-carved riverbanks all the way until you stand face to face with this ice Goliath. It is a sight in itself, but the big adventure is actually putting on a set of spiked boots, tightening ropes around your waist and hooking yourself to an exploring party, as you hike on top of the retreating glacier.

They are retreating glaciers, meaning they are continuously melting. As you walk up to the glaciers you will see signs with dates posted on them, the signs are placed to show the visitor a timeline of the movement of the glaciers. Scientists are not sure if there will be any glaciers left to hike on in the near future, so definitively do not miss the opportunity to climb on one. Safety first though, like any adventure worth doing, hiking does come with some degree of peril, the crevasses and fissures along the glacier can swallow you in an instant so follow your guide’s instruction closely.

When you are trekking on or near the glacier you are only able to see a tiny bit of the massive ice sheet, as a side trip a great option is to take a helicopter ride around the area to see the full extent of the glaciers from above(weather permitting).

A markerFranz Joseph Glacier, New Zealand -
Franz Josef Glacier, Westland National Park, West Coast 7886, New Zealand
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Franz Josef Glacier & Fox Glaciers are neighbors at the Westland National Park.

View from the mountain at Treble Cone Ski Resort.
View from the mountain at Treble Cone Ski Resort. | Source
View of lake Wanaka from the ski hill.
View of lake Wanaka from the ski hill. | Source

2. Ski the best terrain in the planet

New Zealand has the best skiing terrain in the planet. With over 15 excellent resorts within driving distance, it provides the best array of locations to pick from every day. The runs are a combination of green, blue, and black; with some resorts boasting about 50% pure black runs. Kiwi’s are not fanatics of grooming so in any back hill there will be plenty of powder to crash in.

Most of the resorts are located well above the tree line, but the difficulty of the terrain is the natural valleys and chutes, excellent steep hills and plenty of hiking possibilities for a real snow adventure. The quality of skiing that is possible here is comparable to Salt Lake City,Utah (USA) however the view from the top of the mountains is unsurpassed.

After a full day in the snow you can head to Queenstown, it is the self-proclaimed adventure capital of New Zealand with a plethora of bars to satisfy all your drinking needs. Another option is staying in Wanaka, it is a lower key ski town next to a gorgeous lake with spectacular views. The temperature at the cities is considerably higher, so you will be hanging out with lighter and more comfortable clothing around the cities, perfect weather for strolling and shopping in Queestown or having an outside meal at a restaurant in Wanaka.

A markerqueenstown, new zealand -
Queenstown, New Zealand
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Rafting undergroundWaitomo Glowworm Caves- a relaxing tour
Rafting underground
Rafting underground | Source
Waitomo Glowworm Caves- a relaxing tour
Waitomo Glowworm Caves- a relaxing tour | Source

3. Go black water rafting with glowworms

Near Greymouth on the West coast of the island, there is a unique tour that takes you deep underground on a black water rafting adventure. Put on your swimsuit or wetsuit depending on the season and a guide will take you inside a cave. They will fit you with a headlamp and a hard hat so you can carefully watch your step as you climb further into the cave without worrying about hitting your head.

During the tour there are some side detours that are not for the light hearted and claustrophobic. You will be nudged to climb through tunnels as wide as your shoulders where you will find yourself squirming and wiggling to push through to the opening. However, the guide will reassure you that there is an end to the tunnel and in no way you would be in danger of being stuck. This is an activity suited for everyone, if testing your limits is not your thing, you can keep walking down the massive main caverns- the difficult stretches are optional. The walking ends at the underground river where you will float or “raft” along the river on a neoprene tube, all lights are turned off and the cave is magically lit by thousands of glowworms. This is the really cool part- the glowworms on the cave ceiling appear like a starred night, as you float down the river it is hard to remember that you are still underground.

Glowworms are tiny creatures that light up in the dark. They attract prey much like a light bulb placed outdoors, flying insects are attracted to its luminance; the hungrier they are the brighter they shine.

If you prefer to stay dry there are other tours that will walk you through limestone caves and relaxing boat tours so you can enjoy the glowworms at a slower pace.

A markerGraymouth, New Zealand -
Greymouth, New Zealand
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4. Go Bungee Jumping where it was invented!

Bungee Jumping in New Zealand is a must. It was invented here!

Who would have thought that jumping off a building with a cord tied around your waist was a good idea? - Only the Kiwis! As it turned out, apparently it is- today there are bungee jumping fanatics worldwide, the sport spread like wild fire. There are a few choices for bungee jumping in south island. You can bungee jump from the original bridge where it all started or from a platform high above the City of Queenstown.

The Kawarau Bridge is where bungee founders AJ Hackett and Henry van Ash started the world’s first commercial bungee jump. The bridge has a drop of 141 feet (43meters) to the river below. At the Kawarau Bridge you can jump alone or strap to a buddy and go for a tandem bungee, you can also choose if you want to get dunked in the river.

At the Queenstown’s bungee jump you cannot dunk your head underwater, but you can jump much further, day or night off a platform over the city with of-course the best view in town. From this platform you can jump 440 feet, that is an 8.5 second free fall! the next logical step would be base jumping!

A markerState Highway 6, Gibbston Valley New Zealand -
State Highway 6, Gibbston 9371, New Zealand
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Milford Sound, New Zealand
Milford Sound, New Zealand | Source

5. Kayak under waterfalls at Milford Sound

Milford Sound is probably my favorite place on the island. I traveled here in the middle of winter and what I found was majestic. A tranquil boat ride will take you along the peaks of the mountains that rise straight up from the sea. Fog and snow tipped mountains appear magically before you.

Milford Sound is located within the Fiordland national park, this is glacier country and the fiords were created when the glaciers melted and inundated this mountainous region, as a result there are lengthy passageways of mountains peaks rising from ocean. The best way to explore the fiords in their full beauty is by boat or kayak.

In the winter I do recommend you pay passage on the big boats, but in the summer or spring, the best way to see the area is on a kayak. In the spring, raging waterfalls will give you spectacular photo opportunities; bring your waterproof camera you will get that close to them. In addition, wildlife here is abundant, seals rest among the rock cliffs.

Doubtful Sound rivals Milford Sound in gorgeous scenic landscape. Most people choose Doubtful sound to visit instead of Milford because Milford Sound is furthest away. However Milford Sound is accessible via a spectacular scenic drive that is well worth the drive. You will encounter fewer visitors here, and well, that in itself is a great reason to get here.

A markermilford sound, new zealand -
Milford Sound 9679, New Zealand
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I always recommend, when traveling to a new country, to purchase the Lonely Planet Guide before you go. It has everything you need to know about the history, the locals, the activities and much much more. I have traveled all around the world and these books are the only guide I take. They have saved me numerous times from being duped by unscrupulous tour guides and cons in third world countries. They guide you along the unbeaten path for real finds of food and entertainment.

I could not be happier with the author's recommendations. I have tried other books and none can compete with the value for money of the Lonely Planet. They are so popular that their resale value stays high, everyone wants them. It is even easier today, you can buy the book online and download the chapters right to your phone/computer so you do not have to carry a heavy book with you. I would not recommend going anywhere without it!

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    • profile image

      DK 5 years ago

      Great post, I have been to some of those and I can verify that they are awesome adventures.

    • brenda12lynette profile image

      brenda12lynette 5 years ago from Utah

      I've never been to New Zealand, but I will sure keep all this in mind when I finally make it! The pictures are beautiful!