Road Trip through New Zealand 2018

I just completed a very pleasant three week self-drive holiday in New Zealand, from Auckland in the North Island to Queenstown in the South, approximately 900 miles, spread over 15 days, with no single journey exceeding 200 miles and the cars used mainly for inter-city travel outside Auckland.

Typically, a rental car is picked up at Auckland and dropped off at Wellington, the southernmost point on North Island, with a 50 mile/3 hour ferry across the Cook Straits to Picton, on the northern part of South Island, where another rental car is picked up under the same rental agreement. Because of a recent cyclone (NZ-speak for a hurricane), some of the roads from Picton southbound were closed, so we flew from Wellington to Christchurch and picked up a car there, which we dropped off at Queenstown and then flew back to Auckland.

Apart from 20 odd mile stretches of 6 lane, limited access motorway outside Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, almost the entire intercity network is two lane undivided, and it’s all left hand drive, like the UK. The lanes are narrower than those on US two-laners. Driving on the left takes a little getting used to, particularly in parking lots or other areas where there are no lane markings, or turning at cross roads.  Rental cars have warning Keep Left! stickers on the steering wheel hub and instrument panel, as a memory aid.

Wiper and direction indicator stalks on the cars were the opposite of those I am used to in the US: wipers on the left side of the steering wheel, lane change indicators on the right. So I often found myself switching on the wipers when I wanted to signal a lane change and vice versa.

Roads are marked with solid white shoulder lines, dashed white center stream divider and solid yellow middle lines for the no-passing zones, with 3′ high reflector tipped posts at every 20 yards or so alongside the shoulder markings, with half car wide graveled space for pulling over.

The nationwide open road posted limit is 63mph (100kmph), and traffic flowed at 65-68 mph (110kmph), which felt quite brisk. I saw only 3 police cars, no speed cameras, and drivers flashed to warn about one of the three police units who was pulled over by the side of the road and seemed to be in speed check mode. Radar detectors are banned.

The roads have steep inclines and sharp curves with limited lines of sight and many, if not most, of the bridges are either signposted “Narrow” or are single lane, with priority of way indicated.

There are passing lanes every 5 miles or so, and in the hilly sections pullover areas, all signposted in advance (“Next pullover/passing lane 300m/5 kms”); with traffic signs saying “Traffic behind?  Pull over and let it pass!”

One confusing part was the beginning of turn lanes, which are marked by a cross hatched pattern, normally associated with a no-go area, before a short unmarked area with the turn arrow on the road surface.

Driver disputes were non-existent and cooperation to pass safely very strong: overtaken or opposing traffic would edge over towards the shoulders to give more room to overtaking cars. Drivers gave a quick beep of thanks if you pulled into a bay to let them pass. I was surprised though that the No-Passing zones were relatively limited, with passing allowed on curves, rises and other stretches where line of sight was quite short.

Mile markers or other distance indicators were few, as were signposts. Driving skills were high: tractor rigs with double trailers and large coaches safely navigated very tight mountainous roads and single lane bridges with no margin for error. In the towns and cities, the limits were 20-30-45mph, and compliance was high. You could pass a stopped school bus, but at 20mph. Red meant full stop and wait: no left on red.

I drove two Holden (the Australian subsidiary of GM) hatchbacks: I think the US equivalents would be Chevy Cruze and one model down. 1.8/2.0L+ engines, auto transmission, perfectly adequate for conditions and more than enough space for a couple.

New Zealand is a strikingly beautiful country and the views while driving could be distracting, but traffic particularly on North Island was light—I was often the only car on the road—while it was heavier on the more touristy and scenic South Island.

There are numerous viewing points en route, but the advance notice is often quite or too short—300 yards was typical—so you need to be careful in slowing down and entering the point, particularly if it is on the other side of the road and there is a line of traffic at 110kmph (65mph) behind you.

The most challenging stretch of road I faced was my first “mountainous” section about 50 miles north of Wellington: very tight, hairpin bends, blind corners, sharp drops, seemingly limited guard rails, even 25mph felt too fast. Fortunately, there were several stopping bays where you could pull over and let traffic piled up behind pass, catch your breath and then carry on.

By the time I encountered the other mountainous sections on South Island, I was more acclimatized. On the drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound on South Island, we took a coach: wise, since it freed us entirely to watch the scenery, listen to the driver’s witty patter (as a cultural tic, NZ prides itself on the “light touch” in all transactions— earnestness is the kiss of social death) and the drive itself was challenging (including a one way tunnel just before the Sound).

NZ is a relatively young country, geologically and otherwise (records of the first humans, Polynesians, suggest they came only 600 years ago), with distinctive volcanic landscapes with fumaroles, geysers on North Island and alpine landscapes on South Island (one landmass rises straight up to 5,000 feet from the waters of Milford Sound, if I heard the spiel correctly, like the Norwegian fjords).

We didn’t make too many spontaneous detours (see above about pulling over), but there was enough on the main throughways to keep us engaged.

NZ driving authorities have helpful videos on Air New Zealand flights: the first video is for US visitors, the second for those from India.

And website:

Overall, a very pleasant experience, and to add icing to the cake my dental emergency was same-day treated in downtown Wellington (including 20 minute consult; x-ray; prescription antibiotics) at walk-in, uninsured, overseas visitor, full rack rates for a total of, yes, USD85.  A follow-up visit in Sydney a week later came to USD105.  There’s a lesson there, too.


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2 Responses to “Road Trip through New Zealand 2018”

  1. James Walker says:

    We had a similarly delightful experience in this wonderful land with a visit at Christmas/New Years about 30 years ago. We kept our rental car the entire time and used the ferry between the islands. The people were uniformly warm and helpful in all situations. I prefer renting manual transmission cars in right hand drive countries because shifting with your left hand is awkward – and keeps you constantly reminded you are in a different driving environment. (I prefer manuals anyway, and drive one at home.) Our most interesting road experience was on a minor highway on the South Island where we crossed a one lane bridge over a small stream. It was ALSO the railroad, so the “Stop, Look, & Listen” was really important ! Being a motorists in other countries is a great experience, just take time to understand the idiosyncrasies like the turn lanes as Nitin mentioned.

  2. John Carr says:

    I know somebody who visited New Zealand. He enjoyed the trip. He can’t go back. He didn’t know about the speed cameras and a pile of tickets awaits his return.