Advice and information - An introduction to the South Island
New Zealand’s south island is substantially larger than the North but is home to only about 25% of the country’s entire population. A slower pace and more relaxed approach to life in general pervades the entire island, which is possessed of some incredibly remote and beautiful areas. Towering snowy mountains, imposing and ancient glaciers, dense forests, deep and unknowable fjords, wild coastlines and beautiful, pristine beaches provide a wide contrast of natural scenery for the visitor. When people picture New Zealand in their imaginations, it's the South Island they think of.
Some of the world’s best walking tracks can be found on the island and it is also home to some beautiful native wildlife including whales, Hector’s dolphins, penguins, seals, the iconic kiwis and many more species besides.
Christchurch at the southern end of the island is New Zealand’s most ‘English’ city. It is centred around Cathedral Square and the River Avon and has a vibrant gallery, theatre and arts scene. Dunedin further south is more Scottish in nature while Marlborough, Nelson and Canterbury offer up the perfect conditions for producing some spectacular wines.
The South Island can experience extremes of weather so it is advisable to go well prepared. The Southern Alps are permanently covered in snow. Rainfall is high to the west of the Alps but substantially lower to the east, whilst both the Nelson and Marlborough regions are blessed with the highest number of sunshine hours.
The Southern Alps take up two-thirds of the island stretching most of the island’s length and rising to over 3,000m. The highest peak is Mount Cook [Aoraki] at 3,754m.
The indigenous Maori have two names for the south island. One is Te Waka a Maui – ‘the canoe of Maui’ based around a legend involving the demigod Maui; the second name is Te Wahipounamu or ‘place of greenstone’. The island’s west coast is a highly prized source of the valuable greenstone [nephrite jade] and local artisans can create some truly beautiful items from the substance.
The first European arrival was Dutch navigator Abel Tasman in 1642. Next came Captain James Cook who anchored at Ship Cove in 1770, then sailed through Cook Strait and down the south island’s east coast.
European seal hunters arrived late in the 18th century and by 1850 British settlements had been established in Nelson, Otago and Canterbury but the interior remained mostly uncharted until the 1860s when gold was discovered. Dunedin then became the country’s largest and wealthiest settlement.
Wool and gold first made the South Island prosperous and shipping frozen meat to the United Kingdom was first developed in the 19th century. Today sheep and dairy farming, wine production, hydro electric power, fishing, film & television and tourism are all vital industries in the modern New Zealand.
Keep a lookout when you're riding the twisting roads on the South Island, the sheep outnumber the people and they don't have a great deal of road-sense. A helmetful of mutton isn't the best way of getting up close and personal with the wildlife!
You could choose to explore the South Island using your own imagination and navigation skills by simply renting a motorcycle; or if you'd like some help and guidance with your route, accommodation and places to visit you could consider one of our South Island self-guided tours. We can guarantee that you won't fall foul of any Orcs during one of our self-guided tours, unless perhaps you end up partaking in a Lord of the Rings experience.