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Surviving the roads of New Zealand

all seasons in one day 20 °C

New Zealand is an ideal country in which to take a road trip. It is a small, skinny country which means it generally does not take long to get from point a to point b, it has limited motorways but ample back roads to explore, it is well signposted, and there are enough sights to keep a driver and their camera well and truly occupied. And you can jaunt easily and quickly from one side of an island to the other to follow the weather. The North Island is the yuppy island with its vineyards, rolling, emerald green hills, historical villages, expansive beaches and ancient kauri trees. The South Island is the adrenaline junkie with its gorges, snow capped mountains, icy blue white water rivers, glaciers and fjords.


I began my four week road trip at the car rental company in Auckland where I picked up my economy Hyundai putt putt: putt putt because I discovered that it could not go any faster than 52 kph going up any hill, regardless of the hill incline or length, or the gear I was in, and it had a rather disturbing and persistent crunch and grind. However, it held together and I managed to travel over 5,000 km between the North and South Islands without any mishap.

My tour of the North Island started along the western seaboard passing some magnificent sand beaches ideal for surfing, boogy boarding or splashing around, and cruising through numerous coastal towns, historical, quaint and modern, crowded with tourists or totally laid back, many that started with an M or upside down M and with way too many vowels: Whangaparaoa, Mangawhai Heads, Whangarei, Matapouri, Waitangi, Whangaroa, Mangonui. My favorite was Mangonui which is a historical fishing town. The waterfront is lined by weatherboard lined buildings including the nik-nak gift shops, the newsagent cum post office, the local pub hotel and cafe. Everything a person needs. In the 1920s, when the town was an active fishing area, the local school would send the fish and chip orders made by the students to the local fish and chip shop which would then be diligently delivered to the school at lunchtime. The fish and chip shop still stands and makes a pretty mean seafood chowder. I then ventured further north to Cape Reinga to see the meeting of the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean, and the place where, according to Maori culture, souls depart on their journey to their spiritual home. The next highlight was the Waipoua Forest where Tane Mahuta, the oldest kauri alive, continues to stands sentinel in a moss and fern laden forest which it has been doing for well over 1,000 years.

I continued south along the western seaboard through the rather dull city of Hamilton and on down to New Plymouth where I was hoping to see, and potentially ascend, Mt Taranaki. No such luck on either account. It was pouring down rain and sleet, the mountain was shrouded in dense fog, and it was bloody cold and windy. It was then down to Wellington via a rather special Whanganui, the home of lots of quaint weatherboard houses and the longest navigable river in New Zealand, to catch the ferry to the South Island, the rain and wind persistently following me.

I landed in Picton on a gloriously sunny and warm day and my aim was to head down the west coast of the South Island. This was not to be as a storm was due to come in off the Tasman Sea, and as I was getting tired of windshield wipers flapping across my windscreen, I shot down to Springs Junction and drove over a snowy Lewis Pass to Waipara, with a wee stopover at Hanmer Springs to indulge in the medicinal and warming properties of the hot springs.

Christchurch deserves special mention as a reminder of the resilience and coming together of people in the face of adversity and disaster following the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes. The Quake City museum in the central part of town is a must as it explains so well what happened and why. One of the most amazing videos they show is of a man who sought shelter under the gable of a brick building when the quake started and the entire facade of the building collapsed. A few seconds later, the man emerged from the cloud of dust and rubble, slapping the dust off his clothes and continued to saunter up the street. I wonder how long it took him before he realized that he should have bought a lottery ticket that day.

Onward down the east coast: Geraldine with a superb Swiss bakery, Lake Tekapo surrounded by masses of purple and pink lupin, Oamaru and its penguins, hilly Dunedin and the side trip to Slope Point, the southern most point of the South Island, where, not wanting to disappoint, the rain squalled and the wind howled. Up the west coast to Manapouri and a two day cruise through Doubtful Sound which was stunning. I initially hesitated to take the trip because the weather was so grim, but when it sunk in that this type of weather was the norm for this region, it gave the right historical and climatic mood to the place. The highlights of the trip were when the sails of the vessel were raised and when we went kayaking in a sheltered cove. The ultimate highlight was when we steamed up to the end of one of the arms of the fjiord and the captain turned off the engines. We were told not to talk, take photos, but just listen. We floated in total silence for five minutes and all that could be heard were the multitude of waterfalls, the wind, the birds and the rain on the water. Absolute magic.

Garston, Wanaka, Haast Beach, Fox and Franz glaciers, Hokitika, the home of the pounamu stone and setting for the novel "The Luminaries" which is well worth the read. Then crossing the southern alps over to the east coast for the meander back to Picton, passing through Waiau and Kaikoura. Once again on the North Iskland and I headed back to Auckland along the east coast via Napier, Lake Taupo and Lake Rotorua, Whakatane and Whangamata.


I did not indulge in bungy jumping, screaming flying foxes, black water rafting or a host of other paralletic, blood freezing extreme activities My great thrill seeking adventure was to take the jet boat up the Shotover Gorge. Rather good fun and exhilarating although it did take a wee while for me to get some feeling back in my frozen face. The best fun: kayaking in Doubtful Sound and in Kaikoura with the fur seals.

The aim of this trip was to see as must of New Zealand as possible: to get the "lay of the land" as it were. Next time will be a slower, more focused trip taking in more the the stunning hikes and treks on offer on both islands.


I finish my travelogue with some sage driving advice based on my motor travels as driving in New Zealand can, at times, be an extreme activity.

Drivers: Driving on the wrong side of the road, speeding and toodling seem to be the greatest vices of drivers. My vice was toodling. Based on an article in the Queenstown news, it also appears that some visitors don't realize that if there is a screaming police siren behind you, you pull over, not continue on your merry way. The police assumed that this was universally known and were slightly amused to discover this was not so.

One drives on the left hand side of the road in New Zealand. Unfortunately, too many visitors seem to forget this regardless of the 'keep left' sticker on the dashboard of the rental car and the 'keep left' signs on the road resulting in some rather interesting and sometimes, unfortunately, fatal road accidents.

There are hoards of very wide camper vans and trucks on the road. The camper vans, more likely than not being driven by visitors, take up space but seem to generally follow the road rules (this is more likely to happen if the visitors can read English). Local red sports cars and truck drivers do not. They tailgate, speed, honk and will pass even on a blind curve. Stunningly stupid. Admittedly, they are most likely not impressed with toodlers such as myself but pulling over can be limited at times due to the total lack of shoulders for long stretches of road and patience is not their virtue. They did lend to some bone chilling moments.

NZ roads: New Zealand roads are awesome to drive on: a great number are narrow and windy. But they can also be very hazardous. More often often than not there is no shoulder or if there is a shoulder, then it consists of a boggy wet patch of grass. What I call S roads, of which there are many, make for some ripper driving, These are roads where over kilometers you never have a chance to straighten out the wheel. The road consists of one S bend after another with some U bends thrown in for good measure and usually have a cliff on one side and a gorge, river or lake on the other. It makes for some adrenaline driving if you are on an S road that is used by dual carriage trucks and the occasional wayward sheep. For an exercise in concentration and driving skill, take the Rimutaka Hill or Manawatu Gorge roads, or the road between Rawene and Kaiku in the North Island and the roads between Makarora to Haast Village or across Lewis Pass in the South Island.


As I mentioned, NZ roads generally lack shoulders on which you can pull over. Thus means that if there is that shot of the century you want to take, you have to drive 10 km to find a driveway in which to turn around, drive back 15 km to find another driveway to park in and then walk to to the picture spot....by which time even the sheep have gone home.

Speed signs: The speed limit on the open road is 100 km/hr but it is not unusual to have a 45 km/hr sign posted ten metres behind a 100 km/hr sign because of a curve. This is followed by another 100 km/hr sign only to have a 30 km/hr sign immediately after. And so it goes, particularly on the really zippy S roads . The NZ government must spend a fortune on speed signs.

Wind: The wind! The wind! Someone turn off the wind! New Zealand is an amazingly windy country in which the westerly winds from the Tasman Sea buffet, blast, gust and howl incessantly. Coupled with rain squalls, sleet, heavy mist and fog, it can make for some insidious driving at times.

There was one road sign I did not immediately recognize until my little putt putt was jostled 15 inches to the right. Then, being a slow starter, I realized my unrecognized sign was a limp wind sock on a pole. They got it all wrong. The wind sock should stand tall and erect at 90o to the pole...then its message would be clearly evident.

One lane bridges: There are tons of these on the back roads, are quite quaint and cross over some interesting bridges. Just watch for that campe rvan or truck barreling along from the other direction.

One Lane Bridge approach

One Lane Bridge approach

Road construction: Just about every road in NZ is under repair. Expect to be toodling along and come across a 30 km/hr sign on a regular basis. And 30 means 30 not only because there may be a construction crew but to also minimize the risk of getting that unwanted stone through your windscreen by a passing truck that is not going 30.

Squished creatures: By latest estimates, there are about 30 million brushtail possums in New Zealand. They were introduced from Australia in the mid-1800s as a source of food and fur. The beady eyed little creatures decided New Zealand was just fine and bred to a population of about 70 million in by the mid 1900s. They may be fuzzy and cute, but they create havoc and massive environmental damage to the native flora and fauna of that country as they have no natural predator. The plus is that they have been professionally trapped for many years now and the fur is melded with merino to make a wool that rivals cashmere in softness.

Because of the masses of numbers of possums that cross roads in the dead of night, there are lots of these creatures in various stages of squished-ness all over the roads. In addition, there are lots of flat rabbits. I was told by a professional possum hunter that there is a road rule that the only animal one must avoid and stop for is a working dog. You are not to stop of anything else, including possums.

Two other dangers are pukekos, which look like a coot on stilts, that meander across the road in their own good time, and hawks. I always slowed down and avoided pukekos although I did this once and the police car that passed me didn't realize the reason for my slowing down and nearly barrelled the bird. It made it across the road in one piece.


As there is lots of possum and rabbit carrion on the road, the hawks have a feast. However, a passing car may give them a fright and they shoot up into the air carrying their food sometimes passing inches from your windscreen.

I rarely saw a sheep outside the fenced area and never saw a wayward cow. But that's not to say they are not there.


Maps: There are a number of good road maps which can be easily purchased just about anywhere, each which give varying degrees of detail. My preference was to use a map as compared to a road directory as I liked to see the entire picture rather than a portion that a road directory page would provide. I used the Kiwimaps Pathfinder maps which gave me ample road information as well as spots of interest. Used in conjunction with my Lonely Planet book and the masses of tourist information you can pick up for free, I found far too much to see and do. I found I was particularly fond of lookouts, regional museums and art galleries, historical signs and walks, gorges and small country roads with No Exit signs. New Zealand being the land of Hobbits, there was a picture to be had around every bend and along every straight stretch. There were some days when I covered no more than 150 km so I never paid any attention to the travelling times listed on my maps.

New Zealand pub hotels: Having a putt putt car meant that I needed to find a roof over my head each night. As chance would have it, my first night was spent in the pub hotel in Whangarei when I got turned away from a backpackers place due to it being full. It turned out to be the perfect pub hotel room and from then on I stayed in hotel pubs in small towns and villages whenever one was available. Some date back to the late 1800s and they had names that reflected stiff upper lip England, the name of the town or a characteristic of their location: names such as the Trout Hotel, Commercial Hotel, Star and Garter Hotel, Junction Hotel and the Grand Hotel. They ranged in price from $30-50 per night and offered the basics of a bed, clean sheets, towel, and occasionally a tv and a sink in the room. Paperwork at check-in and checkout was minimal....you sauntered up to the bar causing the patrons to do a freeze dance and stare, gave your first name, which may, or may not be written in a book taken out from under the counter, handed over the cash and in the morning you left via the back stairs, leaving the key dangling in the door. Most pubs hotels had a communal lounge where you could chat with the other residents and watch some program on tv that you would normally never watch. Some offered a rather unimaginative serve yourself breakfast of white bread, cereal, and tea and instant coffee. Although the standard of each pub varied a wee bit, each one was similar in the creaky wood floors, the quiet of the surroundings, and especially the friendliness and hospitality of the owners and staff.


Work hours: New Zealand closes insanely early on weekdays and 1230 on Saturdays. It stays stubbornly closed on Sundays. Travelling in late spring and summer is bliss because of the long days which makes for lots of adventure time. This, however, led to some minor times of anxiety particularly in the small towns. Staying in a pub was not an issue: I could rock up after 8 pm and still be able to check in. Not so for hostels and lodges. Any time after 8 invariably ended up rousing a grumpy keeper from the back rooms. A bigger issue was food: pub restaurants shut at 8 and even the tuck shops and petrol stations were shut by this time. This is where my cup of soup and Kruskits came in handy. I had bought a small insulated bag whose zipper never worked but it was handy for keeping a small stash of food with me. My one mistake was the time I bought some blue cheese. Bad idea in a small car.

Wet windy southern end of the South Island

Wet windy southern end of the South Island

Posted by IvaS 11:48 Archived in New Zealand Comments (1)

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