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Road Trip New Zealand: Go Canterbury (Waitaki & Mackenzie)

Is there a more diverse region of New Zealand than Waitaki and Mackenzie? We are not sure there is. Where else can you see Penny farthings passing on a historic precinct by day and be in the world’s largest dark sky reserve by night?

Is there a more diverse region of New Zealand than Waitaki and Mackenzie? We are not sure there is. Where else can you see Penny farthings passing on a historic precinct by day and be in the world’s largest dark sky reserve by night?

We’ve packed our top road trip tips to maximise adventure, fun, and outdoor thrills in the Waitaki and Mackenzie areas. Come join us.

4-Day, 528 km: Go Canterbury: The Ultimate Waitaki and Mackenzie Road Trip

After flying into Christchurch, kick off your road trip adventure in Ōamaru, three hours away. Ōamaru does heritage like the Queen does hats, whizzing you all the way back to the 1900s, thanks to the Victorian Precinct and Steampunk HQ. Did you know that Ōamaru is the steampunk capital of the world? The world!

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Steampunk HQ, Ōamaru

End day one with a visit to the town’s most adorable residents at the Ōamaru Blue Penguin Colony. Witness the world’s smallest (and possibly cutest) penguins as they make their way back from a day spent fishing.

The next day, rise early for sunrise at the magical Moeraki Boulders. If you thought Ōamaru’s Victorian precincts were old, wait until you reach these 65-million-year-old spherical boulders!

From here, witness elephants in the Waitaki Whitestone Aspiring Global Geopark. Okay, not actual roaming elephants, but weathered limestone rocks that look remarkably like a herd of elephants, aptly named Elephant Rocks. Follow this with a soak at the glorious wooden hot tubs at the eco-friendly Hot Tubs Omarama.

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Hot Tubs Omarama

Day three, feel like you’re on another planet as you explore the striking Paritea Clay Cliffs before continuing on to the glacial waters of Twizel. In Twizel, there are opportunities for fishing, biking, hiking, and the thrills of kayaking and swimming glacial lakes. If budgets allow, a scenic flight gets you onto the glaciers.

Next, make the pilgrimage to Aoraki/Mt Cook. We recommend hiking the Hooker Valley, or Governor’s Bush tracks through the lush native forest.

The Mackenzie region is home to the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. The observatory, farm tours, astrophotography workshops, and night-sky hot tub soaks offer various ways to experience it all.

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Church of the Good Shepherd

Lake Tekapo’s pristine turquoise waters are impressive, but there’s an equally impressive list of activities to enjoy around here. Like horse riding, summiting Mt John, cycling or walking the Lake Tekapo Regional Park. Plus, the family friendly Tekapo Springs hot pools.

Make your way back to Christchurch via the historic small villages of Burkes Pass and Kimbell and rural Fairlie. Stop for lunch at the Farn Barn Café and give the animals a pet from us!

Top Five Things to Do

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Mount Cook Ski Planes & Helicopters Image credit: Cindy Mottelet

It was a tough call to choose only five best attractions, but we did it!

  • It’s pretty hard to miss New Zealand’s highest mountain – Aoraki/Mt Cook –, but you’ll want some time exploring the area, up close, too. Boat or kayak the glacial lakes, soar on a scenic flight, tramp the trails, or, in winter, you can even ski here!
  • Stargazing at the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve is incredible because it’s far away from light pollution, has clear night skies, and a raft of ways to experience it all. Our pick? The Mount John Observatory or a Stargazing tour.
  • The Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail is a stunning 9-section bike route linking the Southern Alps to the Pacific Ocean. Bike fans traverse all 300-km+; bike dabblers/newbies pick a shorter section. Like the trail base around majestic Aoraki or the Lake Ōhau shoreline. Or switch gears to reach the impressive views across the Mackenzie Basin.
  • A spot of awwwww with your Ōamaru? Then visit the Ōamaru’s Blue Penguin Colony, only five minutes out of town. Expert commentary accompanies viewings, which coincide with the penguins nightly return to shore.
  • Whizz back a century in a time machine to experience Ōamaru’s Victorian Precinct. Of course, not an actual time machine, but the pristine Victorian Precinct is the next best thing. Explore the hub’s museums, steam train, stores, cafes, bars and brewery.

Get Inspired

When you connect to the simpler things in life, there’s more room for joy, curiosity, and expansion. Take a look at this Waitaki tourism video and tell us that it doesn’t check all those boxes!

Have you been guilty of overusing the word legendary on things not fully deserving? What’s actually legendary is Mackenzie, and this 90-second video teases with exactly why.  

Driving in Waitaki and Mackenzie 

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Driving Waitaki Valley along state highway 83 is a quiet drive. So sleepy, in fact, you’re more likely to run into the quintessential Kiwi ‘sheep crossing’ than any traffic!  

You’d think driving around Aoraki and the Mackenzie region would be windy, but it’s surprisingly flat. What won’t be flat are your feels as it’s eye-bogglingly stunning the entire way.  

Visiting in winter? Add snow chains to your rental car booking as a precaution and check the Metservice website. It’s best to pay attention to gas stations, too, and fuel up often. Check here for the closest petrol stations to Aoraki (Mt Cook).  

Get the Road Trip Playlist 

The Waitaki community is so strong they all banded together to come up with this killer playlist. Yep, this is no 10-track playlist; this is a compilation of 100 songs match the Waitaki spirit.  

If you’re exploring exhilarating Mackenzie country, you’ll want some top tunes to accompany your road trip. It’s a vibe.  

Travel Advisor? Gain Access to the Marketing Hub Toolkit Here 

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Join Tourism New Zealand’s Australian Trade Team on a virtual road trip through Waitaki and Mackenzie. For one informative hour, you’ll learn everything about this sweet-as pocket of New Zealand.

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