Thinking about taking the Kiwi Experience bus tour? Here’s all you need to know about the stops and itinerary of the West Coast of the South Island in New Zealand from Abel Tasman to Wanaka.
It’s fair to say that the South Island is considerably more stunning than the north (sorry northerners!). It seems that the south is all about the outdoors, nature, and extreme sports while the north is more about history, culture and a more urban life. It’s all personal preference really, but I can see why it’s recommended to spend longer in the South Island.
Kiwi Experience West Coast Itinerary – 6 Days
As we took the Interislander ferry from the North Island to the South Island I could suddenly understand why NZ was used to represent a legendary world in LOTR, you float past impressive islands feeling otherworldly and you can’t help but curiously think what’s on the other side of those rocks… From the ferry port we spent a long day travelling as we made our way through Picton and Nelson towards the Abel Tasman National Park to start our Kiwi Experience West Coast itinerary. A total of around 12 hours travel that day meant we were glad to finally reach the golden, sunny beach of Kaiteriteri.
Day 1 – Abel Tasman National Park
A day spent exploring Kaiteriteri, beaches, climbing onto rocks and finding the look out over into the other incredible bays was well spent, we found a great little spot in the quieter Little Kaiteriteri beach where we chilled out in the sun and soaked up this beautiful place. In the evening we cooked a dinner with fellow travellers before eventually sitting for hours with some locals playing the game Heads Up (kind of like charades and articulate mixed together). We laughed a lot, and I think felt satisfied with a good day.
The morning we left Abel Tasman we went on the aqua taxi for a morning walk along the Pithead Track to Te Pukatea which provides yet more stunning views of the golden bay and the national park. On the way back we were also lucky enough to stop over at Adele Island to spot some fur seals lazily sunbathing!
Morning walk through Anchorage
Day 2 – Westport
From there we made our way via Lake Nelson where we jumped off jetties into clear, beautiful water (just try to ignore the eels!), and then into Westport where we spent the late evening at the beach with a few drinks and marshmallows for a huge bonfire. It’s quite weird not being able to see anything except the glowing faces of people around you, even though you can hear the sea you have no idea how far away it is! We all took a moment to look up at the thousands of stars visible to us, it’s pretty amazing to see and even more amazing to think what views are hidden from us due to light pollution in our towns and cities. I’d highly recommend anyone to get a look at the sky in such a remote place!
Day 3 – Mahinapua
The roads of the West Coast are long and winding, so most the Kiwi Experience West Coast itinerary was spent driving for this portion of our trip. Next was the journey to Greymouth, with multiple stops for walks and snacks. The first walk was along Cape Foulwind for a great (but deceptively long) coastal walk. The next stop was at Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki, without really knowing what to expect it was pretty cool to see how nature works and creates things that look somehow manmade! Another nap on the bus as we arrived in Greymouth (an arty looking town) in preparation for the evening of fancy dress. Our theme was anything but clothes for the night, so Alex and I decided to dress as bumblebees in bin bags… Sounds mad but it was actually so much fun getting everything ready and a decent bonding experience with our new bus-mates.
We got into Lake Mahinapua late afternoon where we took the opportunity to make our own Jade jewellery by choosing a design, carving, sanding and engraving it all ourselves (well maybe not ALL ourselves but close enough). I was pretty chuffed with mine, having gone for a Fern leaf design for a bracelet. The Fern leaf represents a number of things in NZ and I couldn’t think of a better way to have a memento of the trip. After that we had a huge, delicious dinner before our mad fancy dress party kicked off!
Day 4 – Franz Josef
A fragile morning for most meant an easy Drive to Franz Josef. Although it was a little cloudy when we reached Franz, the scenery was still absolutely unlike anything else. The snow capped mountains looming over the tiny village was so imposing, every time I went outside I couldn’t help catching another look at the marvel that nature has provided us with yet again.
In the afternoon myself and a friend went kayaking on lake Mapourika to view the glaciers from an alternative angle, then around the kiwi sanctuary island (the bird not the fruit!), through Echo Bay where we saw white herons, then along the creek in the calmest, darkest waters I’ve ever seen. It was pretty magical and we had an amazing time doing it, the highlight definitely being the view of the glaciers as they peek through the clouds from the waters. Bliss.
Day 5 – Franz Josef
The next day, while most people prayed for good weather to allow them to get a helicopter ride to the glacier (an expense I wasn’t able to afford at this time, but it’s on the Wanderlist!), we got up late before taking a stroll to the Glacier Hot Pools to relax in a range of hot baths. It was all very relaxing, and well-needed after a day of hard work paddling! From there we grabbed a free dinner at the hostel and headed to the bar again to catch up with bus friends. The main rule of backpacking – socialising is everything!
Day 6 – Skydive Franz Josef
The following morning saw probably one of my most interesting days travelling so far, so let me walk you through it:
So we left Franz to head through Fox Glacier and then onto a stop at Lake Matheson (a beautiful mirror lake known for being the most photographed lake in NZ), but at this point our driver mentions that a few people are going skydiving and if anyone else is interested to come and have a chat.
Now, I always knew I wanted to do a sky dive, particularly in the South Island for the scenery and view, and the opportunity had come up in previous places but I’d always avoided it thinking the next place would be the one and being an expensive activity it was easy to put it off. So when it was suggested to go for it, I really didn’t take much convincing. Before we knew it we were off the bus and signing our names down for one of the craziest moments ever with Skydive Franz Josef. It all felt pretty unreal to me, so I didn’t really get a chance to feel nervous. I think we were able to distract from the nerves of others that by deciding the details like how high to jump from (we went for 13,000ft), if we wanted photos, what to do in our photos, and so on. I, being the loving daughter I am, chose to write ‘happy birthday Mum’ on my hands, as a day later would be my dear mum’s birthday and I felt so bad I couldn’t wish it to her properly (plus I really wanted to find out how she’d react muahaha).
Back to the story. So then we were off. In the plane, after our all-too-short safety briefing I was suddenly more worried about not being in the right position to jump than doing the actual jumping. I was first out the plane, with those behind me singing ‘Ain’t No Mountain’ behind me, the door opened, I swung my legs out and boom. I was falling. They told us if you feel like you can’t breathe, scream. Instead I started laughing like a maniac, it was somewhere between amazement and shock at actually, finally experiencing it. To be able to see the sea on one side and then the glaciers with Mount Cook and Mount Tasman behind was just unreal. It felt like being in space, just floating there (but really falling for about 10,000ft). Words can’t really describe it, but I would tell everyone to do it. You won’t regret it.
So then the parachute is out, we’re spinning around and I can talk normally. To be honest I was super proud of myself at this point. I ACTUALLY jumped out a plane?! What! Suddenly I feel like one of the cool kids, in on the secret of what it’s like to do it. Yay me! And then it’s all over. We land with a little skid along the grass, then me and my friend are reunited, alive and well on solid ground, and all I can think about it how MY EARS NEED TO POP SO BAD. No one tells you about that bit, I know it’s common sense that your ears will be messed up from the free fall, but it genuinely didn’t occur to me. So while I’m all pumped up on adrenaline I’m also thinking that I’m about to go deaf. It was a weird mix of emotions I have to say. And then we were back on the bus like nothing had happened, off to the next stops, beaches, lakes and mountains. We were still reeling from the jump, but obviously no one else was so we just got on with it, occasionally looking at each other and saying “did that actually happen?!”. It did, and I have about 100 ugly photos to prove it!
That evening we spent chilling out in Wanaka, watching the sun set at the lake and watching movies. It was a good day.
Using the Kiwi Experience West Coast itinerary was a blast, and entirely unique compared to the rest of our time in New Zealand. It’s own little world far away from anywhere else in the country, you have the benefits of the rugged coastline juxtaposed with the glorious mountains close by. We had the chance to enjoy remote parts of the West Coast that no one else pays a visit, but also made sure to see the best and most popular spots too – it’s a win-win!
Have you taken a tour around New Zealand? Or have you ever done a spontaneous sky dive?! Share your best adrenaline fuelled stories!