Want a real adventure? Off-roading in New Zealand shows a side of the country most never see. Rugged trails, water crossings and sheer cliffs await.
Queenstown, New Zealand is surrounded by some of the most beautiful natural scenery imaginable. From Milford Sound to the jagged Remarkables mountains to Lake Wakatipu or even Lake Pukaki, there is so much to see and so many ways to experience it. What is the best way? Read on to find out!
Off-Roading in New Zealand
If you want to really explore New Zealand, especially the South Island, you are going to need to either get up in the air or go off-road in a proper 4-wheel drive! Going off-roading in New Zealand was on our list of must-do activities, and Queenstown was the best spot to do it.
The mountain ridges are so steep and rugged it’s unbelievable that the area around Queenstown was even discovered. Once you see it, you’ll understand why explorers and Maori pushed on and climbed the impossible. The views are stunning. They motivate you to keep going to see what’s over the next mountain or around the next bend.
Land Rover Defender
Land Rover Defenders are the ultimate off-road vehicle, and they have earned their legendary reputation through decades of exploring in the toughest conditions across the globe. We have a 1984 Land Rover Defender back in the States that we love driving off-road as a family. We haven’t been able to take it out as much as we would like since we moved to Japan, but nearly every night, the kids ask Matt to tell a bedtime story featuring the Defender.
Defenders are the perfect vehicle to explore New Zealand. They have short overhangs, plenty of ground clearance, and are built to take a beating.
There are several companies that offer off-roading tours, but Nomad Safaris has the highest reviews – and they also happened to offer exactly what we wanted, an extreme adventure in a Defender.
Our guide, Nathan, was great! He was knowledgeable and what he didn’t know, he made up so well we were thoroughly entertained and none the wiser. Most importantly, he was an excellent driver and super attentive with the kids. Despite the rough track, we felt safe the entire time.
Midway through our drive, Jeannie asked, “Why isn’t it red?” She has a red toy Defender and was hoping it would be the same color. The first thing Royce noticed was, “This is faster than our Defender!” So true, Royce! Our Defender is quite slow.
Nomad Safaris offer a number of different trails. We originally thought we would want a Lord of the Rings tour (check out our time at Hobbiton – we do love Lord of the Rings!). Those tours offer more views from movie scenes and less “let’s test the limits of this Defender.” When we were told that Macetown was the toughest 4×4 excursion they offered, we knew it was the one for us!
Off-roading the Macetown Trail
Nathan, our guide from Nomad Safaris, asked us what we wanted from our tour. Matt told him we wanted an awesome off-road adventure. Nathan let us know that it wasn’t for the faint of heart and that he couldn’t remember the last time kids went on this particular tour, but we assured him we were ready for the challenge. He dropped it into low-range, and we were off!
He was right! This was one of the bumpiest most thrilling rides I have ever been on. We crossed through the rocky river dozens and dozens of times going up and down, twisty, windy trail. It was a riot!
The kids had a great time. The bumps didn’t bother them at all, and they asked Nathan to keep driving through the river, which of course he did with dramatic splashes.
The Defender we were in, named (with matching license plate) “FRODOS,” has driven over 460,000 km, and most of that was flogging it off-road. Nathan said that it isn’t until around 600,000 km that they start to tire out, but it absorbed all the abuse that the trail threw at it without a single issue. Nomad Safaris doesn’t send their Toyota Land Cruisers on the Macetown track because they get high-centered.
It was hard to believe that the early gold miners took this “road” up to Macetown. They would have hiked along the river for most of the trip, but they would have waded numerous times through the ice-cold water!
When we got to Macetown we had a brief tour of the area. We saw a stamper battery, used to crush the quartz, that’s in excellent condition.
The tour included hot cocoa and banana cake while we looked around. We were all grateful for the hot chocolate as it was a chilly morning up in the mountains, and Defenders are not well-insulated!
On our way back out we stopped after one of the river crossings to try our hand at gold panning. We did not strike it rich, but we had a lot of fun trying.
This adventure was wildly entertaining, a thrilling ride through beautiful country, and was the highlight of our entire trip to New Zealand. If you are ever in Queenstown, book a trip with Nomad Safaris and prepare yourself for an amazing time off-roading in New Zealand!