The South Island has a huge diversity of opportunities for trailer-boaties who are prepared to explore. With some difficulty, Tom Fraser whittles down his favourite locations to just five spots you might also consider visiting.

I’ve been fortunate to use a trailer boat throughout the South Island, from Lake Te Anau in the south to Golden Bay in the north. The boating opportunities are as diverse as the locations – from mountainbacked alpine lakes right through to golden beaches and warm saltwater bays.

Listing my ‘favourite’ five boating destinations has proven challenging because every place I visit is unique and memorable in its own way. But, for the sake of this article I’ve tried to include a bit of diversity and I’ve also taken into account the ability to undertake activities for the entire family.

It’s hard to leave Lakes Te Anau and Brunner off this list, I purse my lips as I omit Golden Bay, and I know my mate Craig will shun me for ignoring the waters near Kaiteriteri. In fact, some readers may find some of these locations unusual, but I think that sums up the fact that boating experiences mean different things to different people.

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Glenorchy, Lake Wakatipu

GLENORCHY, about 45 minutes’ drive from Queenstown, is a stunning spot from which to explore the top half of majestic Lake Wakatipu. It’s a big lake to explore. With a length of 80km it is New Zealand’s longest lake and at 291km2, our third-largest. The lake is also very deep, with a maximum depth of 380m. Its floor is below sea level.

The boat harbour at Glenorchy has very good facilities for such a small location; an easily-used slipway [boat ramp], wharf and shelter. It’s a very popular destination for jet-boaters wanting access to not only the lake but also the Rees and Dart Rivers.

Glenorchy also provides access to the Von, Greenstone and Caples Rivers for those wanting to chase wily rainbow and brown trout in a truly wilderness setting. The fishing in the lake itself is often underrated: trolling from a boat is popular and so too is working the shallow areas of the lake by casting from the shore or from the boat. Rainbow and brown trout are present, as well as landlocked salmon.

If you’ve watched the Lord of the Rings movies, you’ll be aware the scenery of the area is nothing short of spectacular. Beech forest merges into tussock basins while snow-capped peaks rise steeply from the lake shore in every direction.

As with all inland South Island lakes, the nor’west wind dictates boating opportunities. And here it can fair punch down the valley, creating a nasty chop on the lake as well as lifting a fair bit of dust off the Dart riverbed.

The village itself offers plenty for those not wanting to boat and there’s a range of accommodation options available, from houses to camp sites and even the luxurious Blanket Bay Lodge.

WRITER’S TIP: Boat early, before the nor’wester gets up.

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Kaikōura

How many places in the world offer the opportunity to pilot your trailer boat just a few minutes off a beach with snow-capped mountain peaks rising skyward from the coastline and be surrounded by dolphins, whales, seals and some of the most special seabirds on the planet? Kaikōura is such a place.

It’s not a spot to water-ski or pull up on a beach to picnic, but if you want to observe and be a part of some of the most exhilarating scenery and wildlife – not to mention fishing – then you simply must tow your boat to Kaikōura for at least a weekend.

There are numerous boat launching options: you could utilise one of many natural gaps in the rocks that some boaties braver than me use in calm conditions, or you could join the Kaikōura Boating Club and use one of its private ramps. But most boaties will use the public ramp at South Bay. It’s busy but it’s sheltered and wide, with a gradient suitable for any vehicle – and there are washdown facilities.

Within five minutes of departing the marina you can find yourself surrounded by large pods of dusky and Hector’s dolphins. If you’re lucky you could even see a sperm whale, humpback whale, southern right whale or other cetacean species that frequent these waters. Seals adorn the rocky shore while Hutton’s shearwaters, Westland petrels, wandering albatross and other seabirds watch quietly as you steam by.

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The reason for the presence of all that wildlife is simple; there’s an abundance of food for the bird and marine life due to the close proximity of the deep submarine Kaikōura Canyon. It’s located around 800m off the coast, stretches for over 60km and reaches depths of more than 1200m. The Canyon is part of the Kermandec Trench system which extends far out into the Pacific Ocean. The canyon’s biodiversity hotspot and the currents that rise from the depths provide rich feeding grounds.

Kaikōura Peninsula itself juts into the Pacific Ocean and is often very exposed to wind and swell. The rocky coast both north and south of the peninsula are just the same. it can be very rough in northerly, easterly and southerly conditions and many people have been caught out. The problems is that if the weather – or – wind turns nasty there are literally no places you can run to for shelter except the marina.

The fishing’s not as good as it used to be, but for those prepared to observe, learn and spend time on the water there are still many wonderful opportunities. Perch and blue cod are the staple species throughout the area, but there’s plenty of bluenose, hapuka, tarakihi, gurnard and moki to be found. Kina, paua and crayfish are easily harvested beside State Highway 1, which twists its way for 100km along the coastline. Free-diving and scuba diving are highly popular along the coast, but it’s important to note the boundaries of Hikurangi Marine Reserve.

WRITER’S TIP: There are lots of crayfish pots marked by bouys, so keep an eye out when you’re boating because you don’t want to become entangled in one!

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Marlborough Sounds

YES, WITH 1500KM of coastline, the Marlborough Sounds is a huge area to cover in just a few hundred words! There are three main bodies of water – Queen Charlotte, Kenepuru and Pelorus Sounds – and each is worthy of visiting in its own right. Perhaps the greatest attribute of this area is that there’s always somewhere sheltered to boat in or visit no matter what the weather conditions are.

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The three main marinas – Havelock, Picton and Waikawa – all have firstclass facilities for boaties exploring the area, including slipways, wash-down facilities and cafes. Numerous smaller slipways and facilities are scattered throughout the sounds.

Havelock is the logical base from which to explore Pelorus Sound, the largest of the sounds, snaking south from Cook Strait for about 55km. Pelorus has several major arms, notably Tennyson Inlet, Tawhitinui Reach and Keneperu Sound. The head of Pelorus is very shallow and great care should be taken boating there as the tidal range in this area is up to four and a half metres during spring tides. This makes it important to stay in the marked channels, particularly as you transit in and out of Havelock Marina.

Picton and Waikawa are the logical bases from which most people explore Queen Charlotte Sound. In some places, Queen Charlotte runs parallel to Keneperu and is only separated by a couple of hundred metres of steep, forested hills. The entire Marlborough Sounds has a rich history and there are plenty of places and opportunities to experience it. These include Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound, the site where Captain James Cook spent significant time during his voyages to New Zealand. In Tory Channel you can go ashore and wander through the remains of whaling stations, while at Blumine Island old military relics can be explored.

Given the enormity of this area, it’s only fair to expect that each part has its own idiosyncrasies – wind, currents, tides and so forth, so if you’re considering spending time here – or in any of the sounds – the online Marlborough Cruise Guide is a superb resource to engage. There are plenty of areas designated for water sports and many private and DOCadministered campgrounds from which to further explore these areas.

The Marlborough Sounds is a playground for many people every year, and for very good reason.

WRITER’S TIP: Make the effort to explore different waterways. For example, if you’re staying in Picton, tow the boat across to Havelock and explore Pelorus Sound.

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Piopiotahi, Milford Sound

FRANKLY, MILFORD SOUND should be on every reader’s boating bucket list.

Yes, being in Fiordland, it’s exposed to extremes of weather, so it pays to pick your weather ‘window’ as it can be very unpleasant when the weather cuts up. Boating here requires a fair bit of planning and a modicum of good luck, but strike it right, and it’s an experience you won’t ever forget.

The drive from Te Anau with a trailer in tow takes about two hours but the spectacular scenery along State Highway 94 is a key part of the overall experience. The highway is very well maintained and towing your boat is no great issue, although the going can be a little slow on some of the narrower and steeper sections. You’ll often see jetboats being towed through to the Hollyford River.

The slipway at Deepwater Basin in Milford Sound is in good condition, although at low tide large trailers have been known to fall off the end of the concrete ramp. It does surprise me just how popular and busy this slipway can get – at Waitangi Weekend last year there were well over a dozen trailers of varying sizes parked in the carpark, giving a good idea of just how popular and accessible the area has become for recreational boaties.

Many people use the slipway to then explore further afield than Milford Sound itself; I’ve spoken to a number of people who have boated down to Poison Bay, Sutherland Sound and even Doubtful Sound. Undertaking anything like this clearly requires a great deal of additional experience, planning and preparation. But, such journeys are regularly undertaken and you just need to watch YouTube to see how popular it is.

Departing Deepwater Basin, all vessels follow the south side of the sound as they head towards the open sea, returning via the northern side. Exploring the sound in your own boat offers a very different perspective to being a passenger in one of the many tourist vessels that travel the sound. The sheer enormity of the mountains rising immediately out of the ocean is quite breathtaking and the sea and bird life, including orca and dusky dolphins, is remarkable.

Fishing’s the main reason many boaties use Milford Sound, but there are key considerations to consider.

A Marine Reserve covers roughly half the area inside the sound, including the northern coastline from Dale Point to Freshwater Basin. No fishing is allowed within the marine reserve and there are also restrictions on which fish can be caught elsewhere in the sound. For example, taking blue cod from waters within the sound is not allowed, but you may catch them outside in the open sea.

However, there’s plenty of tarakihi and even groper available in the sound and, once you venture into the open sea itself, the options really open up. Plenty’s been written about the fishing opportunities in this part of the country.

If you strike the area on a calm, bluebird day you do truly feel blessed. But even on a calm day an onshore sea breeze often whistles up the fiord in the afternoon, and when you have an outgoing tide as well, the conditions can become very choppy.

The last couple of years have provided a wonderful opportunity to visit Milford because so few tourists have been able to visit due to Covid restrictions. The drop in traffic, people and aircraft has been quite remarkable.

If you’re considering taking your boat into Milford Sound, I’d strongly suggest checking out the Fiordland Marine Guardians website, which has a raft of resources available. The work that this group does to help manage and protect Fiordland is phenomenal.

WRITER’S TIP: There’s no Coastguard unit near Milford. Make sure your equipment is in good working condition!

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Lake Ohau, Mackenzie Basin

IT’S A GEM but seldom associated with serious trailer boating. This is perhaps because this 54km2 lake about 30 minutes from Twizel in the Mackenzie Basin is highly exposed to the predominant nor’west wind, which can thunder down the valley to create large rolling swells that pound the exposed beaches!

Admittedly, Ohau’s always been very popular with jetboaters because of easy access to the spectacular Dobson and Hopkins Rivers, but only in recent years has the lake become more popular with other boaties. That’s probably because of the huge growth in boating across all the lakes, including Ruataniwha and Benmore.

Lake Ohau is just that little bit more isolated than its neighbours, with limited and very basic facilities and just a few simple slipways serving this deep, cold stretch of water. All of them can be exposed to wind. The nor’wester can spring up suddenly, changing the water from flat-calm to rough in a matter of minutes.

I grew up enjoying summer camping on the shores of Lake Ohau and have vivid memories of nor’west storms battering the campsite, my father outside the tents at night banging in more pegs and fixing ropes while us kids pulled our sleeping bags higher around our ears, veering between excitement and pure terror.

Like so many of the lakes in this breathtaking part of the world, Ohau is a great spot to find a beach and spend the day picnicking, fishing and skiing.

The lake is home to good numbers of rainbow and brown trout, as well as landlocked salmon, that can be targeted from the shore or a boat. The top part of the lake is usually more productive for fishing but heavy rain can see the flooded Hopkins and Dobson Rivers discolour the lake for several weeks, adversely affecting the fishing.

WRITER’S TIP: Take insect repellent, especially if you’re launching from Round Bush.