Self Drive New Zealand is a great experience . Having driven across the length and breadth in India , we have acquired a passion for self-drive trips. We enjoy the sense of individuality, independence, adventure, quest for the unfamiliar, certainty and uncertainty alike. I am a 4WD enthusiast and seek out prospects to take vehicle off the road.
Should I drive in New Zealand ?
ABSOLUTELY, if you are an able driver. This should be the only mode of travel in New Zealand, whenever you plan to visit. For me it was a no brainer. I drive in India amidst the unruly traffic continuously. Hence, driving through the New Zealand countryside seemed a cakewalk. And you have to drive on the left side of the road in New Zealand. And everyone follows traffic rules. Need I say more! The vistas are unparalleled, the roads are good and the towns are not too distant from each other. Take your time and enjoy the absolutely amazing vistas that New Zealand offers on a road trip.
What vehicle should I rent ?
A lot of couple or family travelers in New Zealand go for Campervans. All across the country wherever you go, you can see the invasion of camper vans. The pink and green Jucy camper vans jar you first and needless to say grab your attention. We did not take a campervan, but booked our car through Europcar in Auckland. For us we were three travelers in this trip and if we needed to spend two weeks in a car, it better be spacious. We had booked for a compact SUV (thinking of Toyota RAV4) and got a Ford Kuga for the North Island and wait for it!! Got an upgrade to Ford Everest in the South Island. Excited about the upgrade!!! Incidentally, my current vehicle in India is the same in red .The Ford Everest 3.2 liter engine is a fuel guzzler. The Ford Kuga was more economical on the carbon footprint and handled surprisingly well. Well, my opinion – A segment which Ford / Toyota should invest in India.
You may wonder why not just ferry your vehicle from North to South island and vice versa using the Interislander Ferry. Many tourists ferry their rentals, camper vans and often tour busses as well. Car Rental companies like AVIS, HERTZ, EUROPCAR give you the option of two vehicles in two islands. Everyone emerges a winner in the bargain, we get to drive two vehicles and the Car Rental companies save on inter island ferry and other associated costs.
The whole experience is very seamless with returning the car at the Wellington Ferry terminal and dropping the keys in the Post Box as well as driving out another vehicle from the Picton Ferry terminal including baggage collection and drop off. The rental car outlets are just outside the luggage carousel area and all this in a single contract – no multiple signatures or documentation.
Rent a camper van if you love camping. The facilities are really very good.
Or an RV perhaps .
If you are not too comfortable with driving a stick shift on a mountain road with high gradient, please go for an automatic transmission.
If you plan to travel north of Auckland towards Cape Reinga or Ninety Mile Beach & Te Paki, you need to check with the rental company for permissions. Not all car rentals allow that plus you would need a 4WD vehicle to go there.
There are restrictions regarding night driving in the Milford Sound area. But, in short, all New Zealand roads are in good condition, thus you can rent any car based on your budget and you will thoroughly enjoy the experience.
What do I get to see in a day’s drive ?
As mentioned, New Zealand offers unrivaled landscapes. All the places that you would want to see at least once in your lifetime are pretty close to each other. So no need to rush, take your time.
Enjoy the rolling hills dotted with lambs.
Spend a while absorbing the serenity in the paradise-like setting.
Relish the wind beside the ocean view roads Get carried away by the sight and fragrance of the varied wild flowers in all possible hues.
Get stuck in a traffic snarl caused by hundreds of sheep.
Wonder at how the Mountain Keas perch atop your car antenna when you stop at Arthur’s Pass.
Marvel at the snow-capped peaks, rivers, surreal blue lakes and wild flowers all in the same frame! Sounds like a fairytale, but it is true, my friends.
Not once, not twice, but countless times you will come across panoramas that you will be forced to park and just go Click! Click! Just a foreword – please remember to park your vehicle beside the road where a shoulder available.
How much should I drive in a day ?
You possibly should plan to drive about 300 kms in a day. My recommendation is wake up comfortably by 7 am, have a proper breakfast and then set out for the day by 8:30 am. Arrive just around 1 pm lunch time in your next destination. The speed limit for most roads is 100 kph, so ideally 300 kms can be covered in 3 hrs. But factor in the additional time as I mentioned earlier to stop and gaze and admire the scenery. Take your time as you will need to stop many time enroute and you may not again get a similar chance.
Coming back to our experience, the maximum we drove in a day was 385 kms. Why, you may wonder? Well , we started very early ( it was still dark) from Quest Wellington, dropped the Ford Kuga at the ferry terminal, boarded the Interislander Ferry to Picton and then drove from Picton to Greymouth through Marlborough and Blenheim – Wine Country of New Zealand and Charleston and Punakaiki. Overall we had covered 800 kms in the North Island and 2300 kms in the South Island. We did not drive on the Stewart Island. Although you can rent small cars here, there are hardly any roads that cannot be covered on foot.
Things to keep in mind
Well there is nothing to be apprehensive about while driving in New Zealand apart from traffic rules. You will find mostly “undivided” highways in New Zealand. That means traffic flows in both directions on the same tarmac divided by a white dotted or firm line. Cities like Auckland have a couple of divided highways.
FOLLOW THE SPEED LIMIT
We did not find any stark example of individuals breaking the traffic rules at will. You will seldom see police or patrol on the route. Hidden speed radars and cameras are placed in all locations. Even the remotest ones! I know of a friend who sped to his heart’s content with no one in sight. And Lo and Behold! Back Home , a few months later, while gloating at the fact of having driven at twice the speed, the traffic tickets started arriving by mail which were charged to his credit card with the rental company. And if you do not pay, the next visa request will be refused. Guess who had the last laugh!
TRAFFIC SIGN – “STOCK”
The day we were driving from Rotorua to Wellington, Chandrima shows me a driverless car parked on the kerb with ‘STOCK’ written on the front and back of the car. Probably the driver was nearby . I did not understand its meaning . Therefore, I was unaware of the surprise that lay beyond. I continued to drive at the same speed. A km later, I suddenly see the road filled with white ewes and rams and lambs … hundreds of them.
The cure and frightened sheep try to dash off to a cosy corner in this unfamiliar terrain. They scuttle for space and simultaneously look for an open door or farm. All the roads in the country are lined by farms and they are responsible for putting in the fences so that the livestock do not come on the road and cause accidents.
SINGLE LANE BRIDGES
One more thing to be careful about are the single lane bridges. It is posted very clearly which side should yield should both vehicles arrive at the same time. There are other interesting things in this country like ‘dual use bridge’. Just after Greymouth, we crossed a bridge which was wide enough for one vehicle to pass and more exciting was the fact that the trains also share the same bridge.Apart from these, there is nothing to be careful about but not to get distracted by the vistas.
What are the best roads to drive?
First of all , any place you can think of in New Zealand is amazing, Which is why Self Drive New Zealand is such a great idea.
The North Island is picture perfect with rolling hills dotted with sheep while the South island is wilder at heart with less population. You might be lucky to see a car on the way, whereas houses and people can be a remote possibility. Personally I liked the South Island more, but I needed to see the North to understand that.
Seems like the following few places will remain etched in my memory for ever.
One must drive from Westport to Greymouth. I have driven in the famed ‘Route 1 South’ of California and any day I feel that this is way more memorable.
Driving over Arthur Pass while traveling from Greymouth to Christchurch is a must. In my opinion this was the best drive during our travel.
We could not drive Blenheim to Kaikoura. The recent earthquake in New Zealand had completely damaged the road. Do that drive as well when you travel there.
We also found the ‘Southern Scenic Route’ after Dunedin very picturesque as well .
Then comes driving beside Lake Tekapo and then Lake Pukaki towards Aoraki Mt. Cook. The lakes look surreal . Consequently you keep stopping at every corner.
Finally, the drive to Milford Sound. Very highly rated and absolutely amazing, we needed to cross the Homer tunnel. Once you cross the tunnel, snow melts drip down the entire mountain panorama.
But my all-time favourite in the whole trip remains the Arthur Pass.
Driving is my greatest passion and especially when there are no roads !
Bird photography is, however, another story. My good friends, Siddhartha and Dr. Asok Majumder were the ones who first instilled in me the love of observing these beauties in flight. And yes of course like any animal lover worth his salt, I do manage to click mammals, reptiles and amphibians and so on…
Chandrima and me like the independence that self-drive provides. It allows us to watch the world from close quarters, provides independence and a sense of adventure. A 4WD, a good camera and a smartphone is all that you need to get going. The passion of self driving has not only taken us to various parts of India on road like Zanskar, Ladakh, Gangotri, Kabini, Sikkim but has also driven on to countries like New Zealand, Namibia, Bhutan and so many more to come...