New Zealand Road trip – Queenstown to Glenorchy

When I think about New Zealand, the first thing that comes to mind is the magnificent scenery portrayed in The Lord of the Rings movies. So not surprisingly, a week-long road trip through parts of the South Island felt like a journey into the Middle-earth. This was not a wildlife-watching trip, as I was travelling with friends but New Zealand’s spectacular scenery more than compensated for the lack of wildlife spotting focus. Not that I saw all that much wildlife on my independent trip to Rotorua on New Zealand’s North Island.

We travelled as a group of 4, all of us with different interests and different fitness levels. So we decided to rent a car and explore the South Island independently, staying overnight in towns that we visited. An alternative would be to explore New Zealand in a campervan.


We started the trip in Queenstown – a cute little town perched on the edge of Wakatipu glacial lake and fringed by the mountains of the Southern Alps. It has a buzzing atmosphere of an alpine village and a population of 1900 people – which is 100 people less than the occupancy of the World Square complex where I work in Sydney.

Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown, New Zealand
Lake Wakatipu

The first order of business for me was to check out Wakatipu lake and to see what water birds were around. As expected, there were some New Zealand scaups and Pacific Black Ducks around, as well as some Bkack-billed gulls and Pied Cormorants.

New Zealand scaup in Queenstown
New Zealand scaup
Little pied cormorant in Queenstown
Little pied cormorant

And then out of the water came a Great Crested grebe! I’ve been chasing these birds from Russia to Australia but could never get close enough to them. And here they were – practically in suburbia, two adults and two young. These birds have some amazing courtship dancing moves that they synchronize with each other while running on the surface of the water. Though I was a bit late for that.

Great Crested grebe in Queenstown
Great Crested grebe
Great Crested grebe with young in Queenstown
Great Crested grebe with young

We ended the day in the frozen interior of Below Zero Ice Bar, where everything is made of ice and the temperature is kept at a snippy -8°C. For more ideas about inexpensive things to do in town, check out this post about what you can do for $10 in Queenstown.

Warming up the ice bear at Below Zero Ice Bar in Queenstown
Warming up the ice bear


The following morning we headed to Glenorchy, one of the easy day trips from Queenstown. It’s a small town set against a background of lush beech forest and rugged mountain ranges, 45 km from Queenstown. Glenorchy’s impressive scenery is quite popular with Hollywood filmmakers. Most notably, the area was used as a  location for Isengard, Lothlorien and Amon Hen in the Lord of the Rings movies.

New Zealand Road trip - Queenstown & Glenorchy
Typical New Zealand scene

The road from Queenstown to Glenorchy is considered to be one of the most scenic drives in New Zealand, however, we were there on an overcast and rainy day and most of its spectacular scenery was hidden behind low-hanging clouds.

Female Paradise Duck in Glenorchy
Female Paradise Duck


The road from Glenorchy to Paradise is supposed to be even more spectacular than the road from Queenstown, but the weather remained all doom and gloom. And it was a rather washed-out doom and gloom that didn’t add drama to the landscape but blended all the colours instead. We did, however, find some Paradise ducks, that could have given the town its name.

Snowy mountains in the rain
Snowy mountains in the rain

One thing I wanted to see in New Zealand, apart from the obvious landmarks, was the red beech forest – a cool and wet temperate rainforest with trees covered in a thick coat of moss. The Glenorchy to Paradise road travels through at least three patches of red beech forest. These beautiful areas were used as filming locations for Lothlorien in the Lord of the Rings.

Moss-covered log in red beech forest near Glenorchy
Moss-covered log in red beech forest
Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown to Glenorchy
Lake Wakatipu

Next stop: Milford Sound 

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Sign up for our Newsletter and Receive

Tips on the Best Spots to See Wildlife Up Close

We respect your privacy.