Around 4000 sheep are ambling towards the minibus on SH94. I know this because, in a quick competition among its occupants to guess the total, I won. The sun sets trees ablaze with colour behind the sheep, creating a pastoral scene straight from a fairytale.
It's just one of the many memorable sights along the Southern Scenic Route, which connects Dunedin and Queenstown and can be driven from either end. Residents of Tuatapere, midway along the route, came up with the idea in 1985 as a way to showcase the delights of Southland and it has since wowed domestic and international visitors.
The road stretches for 610km, winding through the Catlins to Invercargill and Bluff, along the southwestern coast and inland to Te Anau and Queenstown. Along the way are historic villages, mysterious fiords, snow-capped mountains and clear lakes.
My trip starts in Dunedin. Heavy snow dumps have prompted a last-minute change of plans, so I avoid the Catlins and stay on SH1 bound for Mandeville, 15 minutes northwest of Gore. Here, the famous Southern hospitality makes itself known in Maeva Smith as she bustles me into the warmth of her pleasantly cluttered office. Maeva and her husband run the Mandeville Aero Company, which restores old aeroplanes sent to them by owners around the world.
Back in Gore, a whistle-stop tour of the Hokonui Whisky Distillery includes samples made according to illicit recipes from moonshine days.
Invercargill is 66km away and I've barely arrived before I'm hustled off to see Southland play Waikato at Rugby Park Stadium. I'm standing on the terraces in the rain, my toes are growing increasingly numb inside the pink flowery gumboots my hosts insisted I wear to save my "real" shoes. I'm the sole Waikato fan in the crowd but that's okay, my team wins.
Back in the warmth of the hotel bar, a drink is pressed into my slowly defrosting hand. I've been on the road 16 hours and am tired and grubby, but who am I to refuse? I've rarely met a more hospitable bunch.
The rest of my brief Invercargill sojourn is just as pleasant. Southland's largest city is packed with heritage buildings, and a highlight is St Mary's Basilica, a Catholic church that opened in 1905. I hold a tuatara at Invercargill's Southland Museum and Art Gallery, home to New Zealand's largest live collection of the creatures. Henry, the grandaddy of them all and the star of the show, made headlines in 2009 for finally breeding at 111.
Down in Bluff, there are no oysters to be had but Louie's Cafe and Tapas Bar in Invercargill compensates, serving delicacies such as muttonbird pate.
Next morning I'm up with the sparrows for the drive to Te Anau. Riverton, the Riviera of the south according to locals, is my first stop. Established as a whaling station around 1837, the coastal town boasts great fishing, swimming and kayaking, plenty of easy walks and diverse wildlife. History buffs will love Te Hikoi Cultural Heritage Museum, a popular attraction on the main street that brings the area's legends to life. More amazing attractions beckon. Next on the route is Colac Bay, worth a stop to photograph the statue of a surfer riding a wave. Following local advice, I detour briefly to Cosy Nook, a tiny settlement 5km off the highway just past Colac Bay. Originally named Cozy Neuk by early settler Captain George Thomson, after his homeland Scottish village, Cosy Nook is a historic Maori site with a rocky cove harbouring fishing boats and salt-spattered holiday cribs.
The road leads inland from here, to the enterprising town of Tuatapere. Its locals are responsible for the Hump Ridge Track, which opened in 2001. Built entirely by volunteers, the track meanders through some of the forests, rugged beaches and alpine territory of Fiordland National Park over three days. It is run and maintained by a trust comprising those same locals.
Distant mountains shimmer in a hazy sky and a hawk soars above green fields as I continue to Te Anau, gateway to Milford Sound. Milford Rd - SH94 - was closed for 10 days before I got here and is still icy. So for this leg I join a small group tour, complete with a driver who knows the road and doubles as a postman for rural residents. The 120km trip from Te Anau to Milford Sound takes four hours; the scenery is so stunning we stop every five minutes to take photos and let the aforementioned sheep pass.
Milford Sound is magical, just as it looks in pictures. Back in Te Anau, the modern cinema is screening Ata Whenua, a 32-minute snapshot of the wilderness that is Fiordland. That finished, I trudge through the incoming fog to Ristorante Pizzeria Da' Toni for a pasta dish that surpasses other dinners I've had on this trip.
It's foggy and cold again the next morning as I begin the 170km final leg to Queenstown.
The car's temperature gauge reads minus 4C but the fog soon lifts to reveal sculptural trees and rugged mountains stretching as far as the eye can see.
Hardy Southern types tend their sheep around Athol and Garston and picturesque Kingston, perched at the southern tip of Lake Wakatipu, boasts quirky homes such as King Wheel Cottage.
From here, the road weaves around one side of the lake, with snowy mountains visible across its glassy surface most of the way to Queenstown.
The scenery is so spectacular it's hard to concentrate on the road.
Photographs just don't do the Southern Scenic Route justice.
The Southern Scenic Route is 610km long. It's well signposted and roads are fully sealed, but detours may take you on to gravel roads.
Where to eat:
The Moth: It's worth going off the beaten track to dine in this cafe/restaurant, open for lunch and dinner. 1558A Waimea Highway, Mandeville. Phone (03) 208 9662
Louie's Cafe and Tapas Bar: Louie's offers fine wines and an ever-changing menu featuring game dishes and delicious desserts. Dee St, Invercargill Phone (03) 214 2913
The Pavilion: The Pavilion is a waterfront restaurant, cafe and bar specialising in local produce and seafood. It's open daily from 10am till late. 188 Colac Foreshore Rd, olac
Bay. Phone (03) 234 8445
Ristorante Pizzeria Da' Toni: Wood-fired pizzas and pasta in a cheery atmosphere. Dine in or take away. 1 Milford Cres, Te Anau. Phone (03) 249 4305
Where to stay:
Justine McLeary was a guest of Venture Southland, Destination Fiordland and Air New Zealand.