Places to visit in the Top of the South Island of New Zealand

Visiting the South Island? The top of the South Island has a lot to offer! Heard of Golden Bay? Considered hiking or kayaking in the Abel Tasman National Park? Looking to enjoy spectacular landscapes and potentially spot dolphins in the Marlborough Sounds? You just gotta visit…

Farewell Spit

Farewell Spit is at the northwestern tip of the South Island of New Zealand. It is the longest sandspit in New Zealand, extending 26 kilometres, and it began to form at the end of the last ice age around 14,000 years ago. The northern beach on Farewell Spit is named Ocean Beach, and the southern beach is named Inner Beach. A map of the area provided by the Department of Conservation is shown below.

Walking trail map of Farewell Spit

To reach and explore Farewell Spit, drive to Port Puponga and continue onwards to the Triangle Flat car park. From the car park, walk across Triangle Flat to Ocean Beach through open farmland and coastal bush and turn left along the beach to reach Fossil Point. Fossilised shells can be found in blocks of mudstone fallen from the cliffs. After seeing the fossils and watching out for seals lazing on the sand (mind your step), continue along Ocean Beach to the east. Note that Ocean Beach is very exposed to the wind, be prepared for some sand-whipping on windy days. Windproof clothing is recommended.

Only the first 2.5 kilometres of the spit is open to the public by foot. To see further along the spit you can book a bus tour with one of two local tour operators. To return to the car park, take the 4WD Spit Track across to the Inner Beach, and then walk southwards. The cafe here is a good spot to get a bite to eat and drink before continuing to Wharariki Beach.

Wharariki Beach

After exploring Farewell Spit, return to Port Puponga and head along Wharariki Road to the western end, where there is the Wharariki Beach car park. Wharariki Beach is the most spectacular beach in this region and deserves a decent amount of time set aside for a visit. From the car park, head west along the Puponga Farm Park Track/Green Hills Route and then turn north to take the track down to the “Stone Bridge Beach”. Note that high tide may restrict you from getting around the rocks on the beach here so check the tide times and plan accordingly.

Once you reach the ocean, head east along Wharariki Beach. You will be amazed by the rugged beauty of this place, with dramatic Archway Islands and intricate patterns windswept into the sand dunes.

Exposed to the winds and with rough surf this place is not a good spot for swimming. Enjoy the unique views instead, and look out for seals playing in the water as you walk along the beach. This place is a photographer’s dream, especially at sunset – don’t forget your tripod and warm, windproof clothing. From the northern end of the beach follow the path back to the car park.

Abel Tasman National Park

The wild, rugged beauty of Wharariki Beach is a stark contrast to the vibrant, golden sands and calm, crystal clear blue waters of Abel Tasman National Park. This park is named after the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman who arrived in the area in 1640.

Very popular in the summer, and for a good reason – it is stunning. There is only one road that goes into this park – to Totaranui Beach (Golden Bay side). Apart from that, this park is only accessible by foot or from the water. There is a walking track that follows the coastline from Marahau in the south to Wainui Bay in the northwest. Along the way there are basic campsites to stay in. There are many companies in Marahau (Nelson side) offering kayak hire or guided kayak tours to see the park from the water – this is highly recommended and the method we chose to see the park. You can also combine walking with kayaking, or use one of the many water taxi companies (based in Marahau or Kaiteriteri) to visit the area. If you want a more luxurious visit, there is a lodge tucked away in the bush at Awaroa Bay that you can reach via water taxi.

We embarked on our kayaking trip from Marahau. The companies only rent out double kayaks, so make sure you have a travel buddy sorted. Don’t be afraid to fill up your kayak with all of your camping gear, photography gear, and as much food and drink as you can carry. The kayak space gives you a definite advantage over walking but do keep in mind that it is “pack in, pack out”, so everything will be returning with you. The kayak companies give a detailed safety briefing and provide you with all the information you need regarding places to stay in the park. They also conveniently take your kayak on a trailer right down to the water’s edge (especially handy at low tide since Marahau is very tidal).

There are many campsites spread out along the coastline with varying facilities but in summer these sites need to be booked in advance. We chose to stay at Bark Bay for our first night, and Tonga Quarry for our second night. Getting to Bark Bay on our first day involved about 5 hours of kayaking (meandering into various bays and beaches along the way).

The second day to Tonga Quarry only involved about 1 hour (or less) of kayaking. We loved the idyllic Tonga Quarry Beach, a gorgeous spot with rock arches and a quiet campsite, but limited facilities. This beach is conveniently located inland from Tonga Island, which is inhabited by many fur seals. Note that the fur seals are more active and therefore more easily observed at high tide.

Next up the coastline is Onetahuti Beach, a beautiful long stretch of golden sand that is very popular. We could not believe the vivid colours of the water here, and almost felt like we had arrived at a tropical island. The campsite here is large and is the furthest north that you are able to reach by rental kayak. The kayak limit is set by the kayak rental companies, who do not allow going further north than Shag Harbour for safety reasons. Shag Harbour is a recommended kayaking destination (just don’t continue north from there), which is a hidden inlet well-known to be teeming with sealife (at certain times of the year baby seals), and is just a bit further north from Onetahuti. We ended our kayaking journey at Onetahuti Beach, getting the water taxi back to Marahau.

Although Shag Harbour it is the northern limit to see the park by kayak, the walking track continues to weave its way around the coastline north to Separation Point, and then west to Wainui Bay. The full walk from Marahau to Wainui Bay is 60 km and takes about 5 days depending on your pace. Onetahuti Beach is approximately in the middle of the walk.

Day Hike – North Abel Tasman National Park

Feeling as though we hadn’t quite finished our experience in the Abel Tasman we decided to visit the northern end of the park as well. We drove to the Wainui carpark (via Takaka, and Pohara), which is at Wainui Bay, and is located just on the edge of the park. From here we walked north on the western edge of the Abel Tasman to Taupo Point. This walk is not part of the 5 day coastal walking track, and is only 40 minutes one-way. It makes for a nice day trip, so make sure you take a picnic. The walk is best done at low to mid tide, so check the tide times before starting out. From the carpark head toward the sandy coast and when you reach it, turn right to walk north along the sand and rocks. Look out for a sign saying “Taupo Point. High Tide Route” and this will take you up over the hill and to the other side. You will be at another beach on the other side and continue along the coast to Taupo Point. Around the point is a lovely spot to enjoy the day, and the walk has varied scenery along the way. This section of the park felt much quieter, perhaps with more locals than tourists. The golden white sand, blue skies and turquoise water really make you feel like you’ve found a tropical island paradise.

Te Waikoropupū Springs (known as Pupū Springs)

Commonly referred to as Pupu Springs, these are the largest freshwater springs in New Zealand and contain some of the clearest water in the world. In 1993 NIWA scientists measured the visibility in the water to be 63 metres – close to the theoretical visibility of distilled water (83 metres).

The Pupu Springs are located in the Takaka Valley about six kilometres west of the Takaka Township. From the car park there is a track that will take you for a short stroll through native bush to reach two main lookout points over the springs. Sorry, no swimming allowed.

Marlborough Sounds – French Pass

The Marlborough Sounds is a labyrinth of coves, inlets, islands and waterways at the eastern side of the top of the South Island. We set out from Nelson to explore the French Pass. The drive took much longer than google predicted – perhaps because we kept having photo stops along the way. We were astounded by the magnificent views on this drive, and can’t wait to get a chance to explore the rest of the Marlborough Sounds on our next trip to the South Island. Watch this space!