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Free Things to Do on
New Zealand's South Island

10 June 2016 | Mri Grout - A Lifelong Vagabond

The Lord of the Rings trilogy might have cost around $300 million to film in the breathtaking mountains and lolling hills of New Zealand, but a holiday to this pacific island doesn't have to cost you nearly as much. Or even close to that much. Rather, you can travel cheaply cheaply around New Zealand's south island by going yellow-eyed penguin spotting in the Caitlins, hiking to the majestic glaciers of the Southern Alps range, and relaxing under the glowworms of Clifden Cave! How, you might ask? Why, because it's all free!

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Free things to do in Canterbury, New Zealand:

Free Attractions Near Arthur's Pass:

  1. Broken River Cave (aka: Cave Stream) - Broken River Cave is 594 metres long and located only a few minutes drive north of the famous Castle Hill landscape, making it very accessible to travelers. However, only experienced cavers should attempt this route as the stream is fairly cold and a 3 metre waterfall awaits inside. For though there is a ladder and the water normally doesn't reach the ceiling, this is definitely not a cave that should be recommended to complete beginners, especially since there have already been a few documented cases of accidental deaths. But if you're able to go spelunking in Broken River Cave, then the only gear needed are proper footwear and clothes, two waterproof headtorches per person (one as backup), and of course, a caving buddy. Also, this cave must ALWAYS be entered via the downstream opening and NEVER after or right before a rain!
  2. Castle Hill - Located an hour and a half from Christchurch on one's way to Arthur's Pass, there is a good-sized area covered in limestone boulders known as Castle Hill. These rocks got their unique structures after the waters of the Oligocene era dried up, an event that took place around 35 million years ago. The area is an island-wide, and some claim worldwide, hotspot for sport climbing and bouldering, but if you've never climbed limestone before then you might struggle to do so as all of the rocks are really freaking smooth. And if you're looking at the picture above and thinking, "Hey, that place looks sort of familiar..." it's because Castle Hill was used as the final battle scene of Narnia's: The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe. Reenactment, anyone?
  3. Devil's Punchbowl Falls – The funneled water from the surrounding mountains takes a 131 metre plunge as it cascades over the cliffsides of Arthur's Pass. The top of this natural beauty can easily be seen from the road, but if you want to get close to the sheer power of Devil's Punchbowl Falls, then you'll have to hike the short, though strenous trail up to the platform. Its position is a work of art and well worth it, however, as you get to see its path both above and below you.
  4. Otira Viaduct Lookout - When traveling from Christchurch to Arthur's Pass, the Otira Viaduct Lookout is up a small hill right before the giant bridge. It offers amazing views of the valley below and the strength and impact of human intelligence has never been so unmistakable than when seen in the design of this viaduct. However, the real hidden treasure here isn't the stunning scenery, but rather the dozens or so keas that call this place home. Used to humans oowing and awwing over them, the mountain parrots will get quite close to photographers, locals, and backpackers alike. Just make sure you keep an eye on your car while you're here as they'll bite giant chunks out of your rubber tires, windshield wipers, and other tidbits - a lesson we learned the hard way!

Free Attractions in Christchurch:

  1. Banks Peninsula Chasm & Lovers Leap - These are two natural rock structures situated on the coast only a few hours south of Christchurch on the Bank Peninsula. The peninsula is worth visiting for its beautiful fells alone, but its natural bridges, chasms, and imposing cliffs turn it into the perfect postcard holiday that everyone deserves to experience at least once in their life. And unlike most of New Zealand's stunning wilderness, the Banks are easily accessible, making them a wonderful spot for vacation with family and less-fit hikers.
  2. Godley Head - Found on the coast of Christchurch, this hike is already well worth taking for its amazing views of the ocean. But when you throw in the many fortified structures left over from WWII, the mountains of Banks Peninsula sitting off in the distance, and a bright sky full of sunshine, then you have the perfect free thing to do in Christchurch, New Zealand.
  3. Taylor's Mistake - Flown in a NE wind, Taylor's Mistake is a local paragliding hotspot located on the coast of Christchurch. It has a relatively large lauching area where top-landing is possible as well as a designated bottom landing and though busy, isn't overly crowded in the air. The local group here is really open to travelers from abroad and there isn't a requirement to join a club before flying (or rather, there wasn't in 2014 when we flew here). However, even if you don't fly, Taylor's Mistake is a great spot to have a picnic with the gorgeous views of the ocean below and the paragliders above. For another paragliding site in Christchurch check out nearby Barnett Park.
  4. Twin Towers Lookout - Flown in a SW wind, this is an advanced paraglider site and thus, much less used than Taylor's Mistake. For the most accurate location and information, talk to a local. We only flew here once and though we're pretty sure this information is correct, we're not 100% certain. However, as far as we remember it's located at the top of Mount Pleasant near the gondola (GPS: -43.588435, 172.727087), but what we definitely remember is that it doesn't have a designated bottom landing field nor even a bomb out field, so if you paraglide at Twin Towers then you need to know how to top land. And as always, for those that don't fly: it offers the best view of Banks Peninsula as you can clearly see in the photo above. Sunset picnic anyone?

Free Attractions in Kaikora:

seal pups by the hundreds on Kaikora's coastline
Ohau Waterfall

  1. Ohau Waterfall - Located 27 kilometres north of Kaikora is a large carpark right on the coast. Across from it is a hidden waterfall with very little signage about it until you're parked, but make no mistake - this place is freaking amazing and well worth the stop, especially during the winter months when hundreds of seals and their pups call the Ohau Waterfall home. The best time to view these sea dogs is between the months of May to October, when they cover the coastline and the water of the falls. However, please note that getting too close to these wild pups may kill them as their parents will momentarily abandon them - a survival instinct that when combined with a horde this big could be a death sentence for their litter as there's a good possibility that they'll never find them again.

Free Attractions Near Mount Cook:

  1. Hooker Valley Hike - The Hooker Valley trail is a gorgeous, jaw-dropping 5km wind through the magnificent mountains of the Southern Alps. Despite the intimidating terrain, however, the trail is relatively easy with an elevation gain of only 80m. The trail also passes many amazing stops that all make great excuses for a break, such as the Alpine Memorial, Freda's Rock, Muller Glacier, three swing bridges, and a glacier lake with stunning views of Mount Cook (aka: Aoraki in the native language). This is a return hike that officially ends at the lake, totaling a sum of 10km.

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Free things to do in Southland, New Zealand:

Free Attractions in the Caitlins:

  1. Cannibal Bay - Despite its scary name, Cannibal Bay has never been home to any recorded acts of cannibalism. Rather, it was given its name due to some remains uncovered here a long time ago. However, that is not to say that Cannibal Bay has no dangers. For it is home to ferocious Hooker's sea lions and elephant seals, both of which will have no qualm with picking a fight with tourists that get too close. So make sure to stay a good distance away from these large, big-teethed mammals and whatever you do, don't run at them because you're curious to see how fast they can go! Just google it.
  2. Curio Bay - Curio Bay is home to a 180myo fossilised forest forever frozen in time by the sea. It's also home, however, to a nesting colony of yellow eyed penguins, which you can watch hop across the rocks to their nests in the shrubs - a trek you wouldn't expect a wee little, no legged species to make. Given the rarity of these nests, there is a ranger always on guard to make sure you don't get too close (so make sure to bring binoculars!) and the beach is restricted after dusk.
  3. Nugget Point - Not only is this a picturisque view of a lighthouse by the sea, but Nugget Point is also home to a number of wildlife, including the much loved fur seals and rare yellow-eyed penguins. And as with most wildlife, sunset and sunrise are the best times to spot these amazing creatures as this is when they venture in and out of the sea.

Free Attractions in Clifden:

  1. Clifden Cave - This limestone cave is a true hidden gem of New Zealand's south island. It's completely free to enter and open to cavers of all levels. The markers are easy to follow and the floor relatively even for a cave. However, there is a deep pool of very cold water at one end of it (recommended to be the end of the hike for obvious reasons) so waterproof headtorches are a must. Never attempt to go caving alone and always make sure a third party knows where you are and when to expect your return (or call). What makes the Clifden Cave a hidden gem, however, isn't its marvelous shapes of centuries old limestone (of which there are many), but rather its homeage to the insanely cool glow worms. So don't forget to turn off your torches when you get further inside.

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Free things to do on the West Coast of New Zealand:

Free Attractions Near Whataroa:

  1. Franz Josef Glacier - Also known as Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere in the Maori language, this 12km long glacier is a magnificent site as it lies frozen amongst the mountains of the Southern Alps. Ever since its birth it's been going through a cycle of quick advancement and slow recession as the temperatures changed naturally. Now, however, it's been receding at a concerning since 2008 due to human influenced global warming, with scientists estimating that it will retreat a further 5km while also decreasing in mass by 38% by 2100 - a statement easily believed in 2014 given how far it had already fallen back. The boardwalk no longer gets close enough to Franz Josef Glacier for visitors to marvel at this glacier without the want of binoculars.
  2. Fox Glacier / Te Moeka o Tuawe - Fox Glacier is the other well known free natural attraction nearby Whataroa. Located only 23.3km from Franz Josef Glacier, it makes for an easy addition to an already amazing day out in the stunning wilderness of New Zealand.

Free Attractions in Hokitika:

  1. Hokitika Glow Worm Dell - A short walk from the road on a paved trail will lead you to Hokitika's Glow Worm Dell. It's here where you'll see dozens of glowworms called arachnocampa luminosa hanging out in the trees as they wait patiently for their prey to get attracted to their glowing tail and then entangled in their 'web.' They can only be seen in the dark, so be careful walking up if you decide not to use a light.
  2. Hokitika Gorge - This place truly looks as if its been grabbed right out of a magazine. It's one of the very few places we've visited that doesn't require multiple timelapse photos to be stitched together in order to make the photo pop like a firecracker. Its waters really are just that turquoise blue of perfection due to being the runoff water of glaciers - which means when people say it's 'surprisingly warm' they mean it is for a glacier! We visited this paradise on a hot summer day and could only brave it up to our knees before we started to shake so much we had to rush back to land. Nevertheless, it's definitely one of the most stunning places on New Zealand's south island - and giving all of the runner ups, that's not a title granted lightly!

Free Attractions in Punakaiki:

  1. Pancake Rocks & Blowhole - Formed over thousands of millneium, these crazy-looking limestone formations are a must see for anyone looking for a unique and free thing to do on New Zealand's south island. A short 20 minute, 1.1 kilometre hike will give you ample opportunity to marvel at these odd structures as well as the main blowhole attraction. The loop is wheelchair accessible and the best time to see the blowhole in action is at high tide (times written outside the information shop across the street) and during a westerly swell.

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Now that you know of # free things to do on New Zealand's south island, why not check out this awesome blogpost by The Rainbow Route on How to Travel New Zealand Cheaply? It tells you all about the budget secrets to be found in transportation, accommodation, and dining, and of course, more free attractions!

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