10 South Island Secrets

Caroline Hickman

By Caroline Hickman

7 minute read

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What is it about New Zealand? It’s been described as a scenic fairytale, a challenge on the senses and a place of magic. Indeed, it seems to evoke feelings of excitement, mystery and wonder to all that visit. There’s certainly a reason why the country draws so many visitors day-after-day. In fact, they say a trip to New Zealand gives you a feeling that never leaves you… although it seems impossible to describe exactly what that feeling is. Some say it’s a lightness, others describe it simply as an unforgettable sensation that makes you smile. Whatever it is, we believe the South Island will leave you with memories that will last a lifetime.

So, what exactly is it you can expect? The spectacular South Island is so very different from the North Island. With the majestic Southern Alps mountain range, the wildness and rainforests of the West Coast and the Fiords of the South, you’ll get to experience a land like no other. To show you what we mean, we’ve selected 10 secrets of the south you may not yet know about but will hopefully inspire you to come and see for yourself. But what could they be? And what secrets of your own will you discover when you make your trip to New Zealand?

1. The Stars

You might not know it yet, but you’ll soon become fascinated with astrology when you discover one of our best kept secrets. The skies over Lake Tekapo near Mount Cook are an internationally recognised Dark Sky Reserve. The night sky over Tekapo is so powerfully and beautifully clear that it has been protected from light pollution, making it one of the most incredible places in the world to go star gazing. It’s a place where you can see the Milky Way in all its glory, and all the constellations shine out clearly in the sky.

Stars over Martins Bay

Prepare to be amazed by the night sky in New Zealand.

2. The Lakes

While New Zealand might be famous for its mountains and steaming geysers, the lakes are perhaps another surprise. There are over 775 lakes in New Zealand covering 1.3% of the land area, varying in colour from ocean blue to bright vivid turquoise. The most famous turquoise lake is Tekapo, so turquoise in colour as it’s full of tiny suspended particles (called rock flour) that have been ground off the underlying rock by the glaciers as they have moved and shifted. Another secret of the lakes is their hidden depths – the deepest is Lake Hauroko, in western Southland, which reaches down 462 metres (the Sky Tower in Auckland is only 328m!).

Aqua waters of Lake Tekapo

The aqua waters of Lake Tekapo.

3. The Mountains

OK, so the mountains might be no big secret. I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures. But what secrets they hold! Firstly, mountains cover 60% of the South Island with 23 of the peaks being over 3000m high. This means we don’t have many straight highways down here – in fact, there is no fast way to get from A to B.

The Southern Alps are the highest and largest mountain range, covering the whole South Island from north to south over 500kms. The most fascinating secret being that they are the among the fastest rising mountains in the world! They have an uplift of around 10-20mm per year!

Mountains of Mount Cook National Park

Walk among the mountains in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park.

4. Sir Edmund Hillary (1919-2008)

He’s possibly New Zealand’s most famous person, but you may not know everything about this famous adventurer. You may know that in 1953, Edmund Hillary and the Tibetan climber Tenzing Norgay were the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest. What you may not know is that he did much of his training in the Southern Alps. In fact, it was his summiting of Mount Cook in the warm summer of 1948 that gave him the credentials to join the 1951 British Expedition to Everest. Although that one failed, he went again in 1953 and of course was successful. 

So ultimately it was thanks to his training in and around Mount Cook and Mount Aspiring that he gained the skills, strength and character he needed to take on the world’s highest mountain. You can discover more about this legendary figure at the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre when you visit Mount Cook National Park.

One of the national parks in New Zealand, Mount Cook National Park

Statue of a young Sir Edmund Hilary gazing up at the mountains in the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park.

5. Siberia Valley

A certain secret and a joy to discover, the Siberia Valley is a beautiful area deep in the heart of the South Island. Located in the Mount Aspiring National Park, the tricky-to-access valley is part of Te Wahipounamu UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s only one way to truly experience this remote area and that’s on a unique adventure dreamed up by the locals at Southern Alps Air, Wanaka’s only locally owned and operated fixed wing scenic flight company. For over 40 years they’ve been flying people over and around this area and their knowledge and experience is insatiable.

In short, you’ll depart from Wanaka in a scenic bush plane, taking in spectacular scenery before landing on an airstrip in the valley. Then you’ll travel by foot to a remote back country hut for a spot of Kiwi tucker (food) before heading to the river where your chariot awaits. In this case, your chariot is a Kiwi invention – the humble jetboat – built to perform on New Zealand’s shallow riverbeds. You’ll enjoy a wild and exciting ride out of the Valley and back to civilisation.

View of Siberia Valley from bushplane

The view of Siberia Valley from a bushplane.

6. The Hump Ridge Track

It’s no secret that New Zealand has a network of amazing walks and trails. You’ve probably heard of the famous and very popular Milford and Routeburn Tracks for starters. The secret is, that they are not the be all and end all. New Zealand has many more amazing trails of equal beauty, with less crowds and more views, wildlife and experiences than you can imagine. One of these is a big favourite here at New Zealand Trails. The Hump Ridge Track – a three day, 61km loop walk taking trampers along the south coast of New Zealand with incredible views of south-west Fiordland, the Southern Ocean and Stewart Island. You can hike part of the Hump Ridge Track on our World Heritage trip. 

Hump Ridge Track

Explore the wilderness of Fiordland on the Hump Ridge Track.

7. The Mountain Huts

The South Island of New Zealand has a network of mountain huts, which most travellers miss out on experiencing due to a lack of knowledge, experience and equipment. To us, this is a great shame – these gems of New Zealand provide a once in a lifetime experience to sleep out in some of the most amazing wilderness locations in the world. Our favourite hut is located in the heart of the Nelson Lakes National Park. The cosy Angelus Hut is perched on a lakeside with gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains. The hut provides a memorable night for anyone that stays here and is a welcome reward after a good day’s hike in. 

Angelus Circuit

Spend the night off the grid in Angelus Hut.

8. The Legends

You’re bound to hear many a story when you visit New Zealand. We are well known for our enjoyment of storytelling. One famous story (or what we would call a Famous South Island Yarn) is that there are still moose, loose in the wilderness of the South Island. Sightings have happened over the years after a handful were released into the wild back in the 1900s, having been shipped over from Canada. The odd grainy photograph has appeared more recently, but nothing concrete has come to light. Every year there is an annual moose hunt to try and track down these shy creatures that are thought to still wander the wilderness of Fiordland. If you see a moose on your travels, be sure to send us a photo!

9. Lochmara Lodge

New Zealand is well-known to be home to a number of stunning, beautifully located lodges. One secret of ours that our guests always enjoy is a treasure of a lodge called Lochmara Lodge, with its million-dollar view over the calm waters of the Marlborough Sounds. The Sounds are a network of ancient sea-drowned valleys, created by subsiding land and the rising sea levels of the Pacific Ocean. The waterways have an abundance of wildlife and a coastline of 1500kms. At the lodge you can enjoy your morning coffee while gazing out over the Sounds after waking to one of the most beautiful dawn choruses in New Zealand (thanks to the lodge’s local wildlife conservation efforts). You can explore the art sculpture trails and learn about the wildlife recovery programmes that are part their commitment to the community.

Lochmara Lodge

Relax in the peace and serenity of Lochmara Lodge.

10. The Gold

The gold rush may be over but is there still gold in them hills? The Otago Gold Rush put New Zealand on the map back in the 1860s and led to a huge influx of foreigners arriving to mine for gold. Many of them had already been prospecting in the famous California and Australian gold rushes. The conditions were rough, but for the lucky few, fortunes were made. If you visit Arrowtown, you’ll be transported back to the exciting gold rush days of the mid 1800s. You can wander the historic streets and visit the simple village settlements made by the Chinese gold miners, who were there right up until 1928. Rumour has it that there are still traces of gold in the waterways. Search for yourself by hiring a gold pan and while away a happy hour searching for your fortune in the sun. You might have just found it anyway. Who knows?


Try your luck at gold-panning in the Arrow River, Arrowtown.

If you’d like to discover these and many, many more secrets of New Zealand, then join New Zealand Trails for a trip of a lifetime. Request a brochure or give us a call.

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  • Michelle, Australia December 2020

    Thanks for a great blog

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