Driving the South Island clockwise or anticlockwise

Learn whether and why it is best to drive the South Island of New Zealand in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction if you are planning a self-drive tour.

If you are wondering whether you should drive clockwise or anticlockwise around the South Island, I would say, “It depends.”

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Let’s assume for a minute that you just caught a ferry from Wellington to Picton and have arrived at the top of the South Island. You pick up your rental car and now want to do a South Island tour.

If I were traveling alone – which I almost always do – I would choose to drive clockwise down the South Island, and here’s why...

Driving clockwise to get the best coastal views

Because New Zealanders drive on the left side of the road, you would get unobstructed views from those sections of the road that skirt the coast.

Sections of the highway between Picton and Kaikoura, between Timaru and Dunedin, and between Haast and Westport, all follow the coast (see the South Island map).

So if you are on the left side of the road doing a clockwise tour of the South Island, you would enjoy the best views from the road.

Note that the section of State Highway 1 between Picton and Kaikoura is currently closed due to damage caused by recent earthquakes, so driving in a clockwise direction is not really an option right now until probably the end of 2017. You can read more about road closures here.

Driving anticlockwise to see nature first

On the other hand, if you are someone who wants to see nature first and then cities last, an anticlockwise driving tour around the South Island would be best if you start in Picton.

Kaikoura Range and rough seas during a winter storm on the South Island of New Zealand

Because there are less large cities on the western side of the South Island than there are on the eastern side, there is more bush and nature than people on the West Coast.

So by driving in an anticlockwise direction around the South Island, you would first enjoy nature and then people and culture.

When driving anticlockwise on the South Island and after going down the West Coast, you will eventually arrive in towns such as Queenstown and Wanaka where things tend to get busy because they are popular with tourists, even though there aren’t many people living there. But there is still more nature than people in and around such towns.

It is not until you reach cities like Dunedin and Christchurch where you will see more people than nature around you. But even so you could drive to many places around such busy cities to find nature and solitude.

By the way, I drove counterclockwise around the South Island on my first 3-week solo trip during which I spent about two weeks on the South Island.

East coast near Hinds on the South Island of New Zealand

Conclusion

Whether you choose to drive the South Island of New Zealand in a clockwise or anticlockwise direction depends on what exactly you prefer to see and experience – nature and solitude first or not – and whether you will be driving most of the time and not getting out of the car often.

In the latter case, I would definitely recommend driving clockwise for the best views from the road.

 

Note: This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm all details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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