Did you know that over 71% of the wildlife in New Zealand is not found anywhere else on Earth?
From extinct three metre tall 'Moa' and man-eating Haast Eagle; to reptiles with three eyes and creatures that glow in the dark, New Zealand's wildlife could easily have been ripped from the fantasy pages of the Lord of the Rings.
And just like the creatures of Tolkien's Middle Earth, the animals of New Zealand's South Island never fail to inspire awe and wonder. If you are planning a wild camping road trip to the South Island, we have a list of great locations to spot some of New Zealand's most unique and exciting animals.
The New Zealand's largest bird – the Moa – now extinct. Image: theanimal.pics
1. Sperm Whales – Kaikoura
The largest toothed predator in the world, the Sperm Whale can grow to over 20 metres in length and largely feasts off a diet of giant squid and shellfish that congregate off the coast of New Zealand's South Island. In early Maori society, Sperm Whale teeth were considered rare talismans and were worn around the necks of important village members. The Maori called them 'rei puta'.
One of the best places to see these behemoths of the ocean is in the waters off the coastal town of Kaikoura. Located about a two hour drive north of Christchurch, Kaikoura has some of the best whale watching tours in the world. One particular company, Whale Watch Kaikoura, is an award winning, tourism company owned and run by the indigenous Ngati Kuri people. The Ngati Kuri people believe their ancestor, Paikea, had journeyed to a new life in New Zealand on the back of the whale Tohora, and their tours come with a holistic experience complete with cultural references and history of the region. They run daily tours to whale and dolphin hotspots in the region allowing you spot these huge beasts from either boat or helicopter.
2. Kea – Arthurs Pass
The Kea is a large flightless parrot that lives in burrows in New Zealand's South Island. Known to be the world's only alpine parrot, the Kea is famous for its intelligence. In fact, a David Attenborough documentary called the Kea 'the cleverest bird in the world'. They have been recorded using tools, working in teams and solving puzzles that have flummoxed both chimps and small children.
If you are seeking an encounter with these intelligent birds in the wild, take the camper out to Arthur's Pass (about two hours west of Christchurch along the West Coast Road or three and a half hours from Kaikoura). However, hold onto your windscreen wipers as the Kea loves to vandalise anything they can get their claws into! There is only one powered site in the region at Jacksons Retreat, so make sure you book ahead.
3. Hector's Dolphin - Akaroa
Many travellers to New Zealand considered their encounter with a wild dolphin to be one the best experiences they have ever had in the Land of the Long White Cloud. The South Island is home to a number of species of dolphins including the Dusky Dolphins off Kaikoura and the world's smallest and rarest dolphin - Hector's Dolphin. These playful mammals are always excited to see people frolicking in the water with them and the only place you can interact with the Hector's Dolphin is at Akaroa Harbour (about half an hour from Christchurch or 3 hours from Arthurs Pass National Park).
The likelihood of you seeing or swimming with the dolphins is so high that some tours leaving from the Harbour, such as Black Cat, offer a 'dolphin guarantee'. It is important to book early as the tour groups only allow a maximum of 12 swimmers per tour.
4. Yellow-eyed Penguins – Curio Bay
Known to the Maori as Hoiho, the yellow-eyed penguin are one of the rarest penguins in the world found only on the Otago Peninsula of Dunedin and the Catlins region at the bottom corner of New Zealand's South Island. Named after their yellow eyes and prominent yellow band of feathers wrapping around their head, the Yellow-eyed Penguin is a shy bird that will stay well away from you if you are in plain sight.
If you are hoping to catch one in the wild, it is recommended that you view them from one of the many public hides that stretch from Bushy Beach, Oamaru (famous for its Blue Penguin sightings) right down the coast to Curio Bay and Nugget Point (about 30km east of Owaka). If you are leaving from Christchurch or Akaroa, the road trip to Dunedin is about a five hour journey, while Curio Bay is an additional two hours travel south.
Despite the long haul drive, spotting these little guys in the wild is definitely worth it. Curio Bay Holiday Park is one of the closest camp sites to the Yellow-eyed Penguin colony and rates vary from $15NZD - $25NZD depending on the season. The best time to catch the penguins is from 3pm to sunset when they come in from the ocean after a day's hunt to roost on the shore.
5. Kiwi - Queenstown
No trip to the land of the Long White Cloud would be complete without snagging a peak at New Zealand's national bird – the Kiwi. Spotting this shy flightless bird is, however, easier said than done. They are nocturnal, tiny and extremely fast runners. They are also on the verge of extinction, largely thanks to the introduced weasel and rat, which have displaced many Kiwis from their natural habitats.
Now, you could make camp and set out through the ferns after dark to try and spot one, but it is a lot easier to visit one of the many 'kiwi houses' on the South Island. Some of the more respected venues include the Kiwi Birdlife Park in Queenstown (three and a half hours from Curio Bay) and the Orana Wildlife Park in Christchurch.