Skip to content

Driving in New Zealand

Long journeys on endless roads, passing through a beautiful scenery: this is how’s driving in New Zealand. My experience, useful info and some pictures, because roads, in New Zealand can be incredibly beautiful

In the South Island you barely need a map. You enter most towns at one end and emerge at the other. The road is the road.

Had this been a motorway in any other country of the developed world we would have hit something. But on a motorway in the South Island of New Zealand there’s little to hit. And on a public holiday there’s nothing to hit( Joe Bennet, A Land of Two Halves)

I will always remember the roads of New Zealand. Not only because at the very beginning of the holiday after just twenty minutes in the dreadful traffic of Auckland I hit a kiwi’s car (slightly), leaving a lasting mark on the country (I wasn’t yet used to driving on the wrong side of the road). We sorted it out quickly enough, but I was going to leave another mark on the island and on my wallet: I got my first ticket for speeding when distraction made me exceed the rigid 50 km/h limit when I was leaving a town, obviously it happened under the eyes of the police.

These  are nothing more than details, anecdotes. What I really remember are the endless roads that seem to drag you towards the horizon, open spaces, an emptiness that calls you.

Driving in New Zealand is an exhilarating experience, exciting, but also deep, almost spiritual, especially in the South Island. It’s like travelling in the desert. When you walk even a few kilometres, the distance covered might seem long, the empty spaces, the forests can look vast, but you know you are moving slowly. But when you are driving on a road, you would expect to find signs of human presence, towns. In New Zealand it just doesn’t happen. You drive through a heartbreakingly beautiful scenery for hours and get a clear perception of how small and lonely you are. Human presence here is not only fairly recent (about a thousand years according to scholars) but also scarce.

You do see cattle and sheep. But sometimes you don’t see anything similar to a town for hours and even when it happens it can be just a few houses scattered along the asphalt and, if you are lucky, the gas station you have been hoping for during the previous hour.

Towns are rare and cities are few, if almost non-existent for a country of this size. The country is slightly smaller than Italy but it has one fifteenth of its people. There are only three cities with a population of more than 300.000 people: Auckland the biggest, and the small capital, Wellington, in the North, and Christchurch in the South. And then there are a few smaller cities like Hamilton, Tauranga, Dunedin.

Driving in New Zealand and speed limits

In the South Island, as soon as you are out of a town you are alone. On the West Coast people or other drivers will often wave at you. It looks like some sort of much-needed solidarity in a place where humans are so few. Many of the vehicles travelling long distances are rented camper vans, most with European tourists behind the wheel (and most of them will be from a German-speaking country, I don’t exactly know why). And for once their presence isn’t a primary source of discomfort for who’s driving behind them. The roads usually have two lanes (very few motorways have more), and many bridges only have one. But from time to time a third lane will open for overtaking slower vehicles. And if there’s no passing lane, slow vehicles will often kindly pull over or slow down making space for you (the kiwi seem to only get nervous in the traffic of Auckland and at roundabouts, in my experience).

Dont’go too fast

But never go faster than allowed. The intent is to make roads safer, which is a good thing, but the speed limit seems an obsession at times. On the side of the roads you will see huge, unsettling ads warning on the risks of ‘living in the fast lane’ or others with the Orwellian message ‘anytime, anywhere – speed cameras’, and police cars hidden in the middle of nowhere: I have seen them doing a u-turn and pursuing a motorbike that was probably no more than 5 km/h over the limit. If the sign tells you to go at 30 km/h, go at 30, please. You can apparently be pulled over for exceeding the limits by 1 km/h.

Considering the low speed limits (100 km/h on motorways, 50 km/h or less inside towns) and the type of roads, allow more time than you would normally expect for a distance when planning your trip.

On the road #newzealand   Una foto pubblicata da Patrick Colgan (@colgan78) in data:

Documents and laws

I don’t know if there is a history of deadly car accidents in New Zealand, or it’s just a campaign to prevent accidents, but the laws are strictly enforced (even Joe Bennet, in his book A Land of Two Halves, gets a  speeding ticket in the only short drive he does in the whole book, which is about a hitchhiking trip). It does look strange to me, though, as the roads are often empty and well-kept. And never, in twenty days, travelling thousands of kilometers, did I perceive a risk while driving in New Zealand, even a hypothetical one. It might just be because of these rules, after all.

The road to Kaikoura #newzealand #nuovazelanda #kaikoura Una foto pubblicata da Patrick Colgan (@colgan78) in data:

The new blood alcohol limit is extremely low too, and equal to 0.25 g/l, zero for drivers Under 20. Drinking and driving is incredibly dangerous, always, but we are not talking about big quantities here: this limit is low and means that one glass of wine, although hardly impairing, could put you at a serious risk of testing positive. I was breath tested twice during my holiday, during routine checks, and always passed the test. But please be careful while tasting wines in the wonderful wineries of New Zealand: you will have to taste and spit like a real wine connoisseur if you are driving.

To drive a car you will need a valid driving licence in English or an International driving permit. Here is a useful page on driving in New Zealand (and here is another one, from Wiki voyage)

Cars drive on the left-hand side. It’s something that scares people coming from countries where it’s the opposite, but you will get used to it quickly. Almost all rental cars are automatic. While it’s strange, coming from a country (Italy) where most cars have a manual transmission, if you are used to driving on the right-hand side, it will spare you from stick-shifting with your left hand, which could definitely be a nuisance.

Renting a car in New Zealand

There are the big international companies, while the local ones are Apollo and Jucy, and they specialize in camper vans (we rented with Apollo but we got our car from Herz). I always recommend a full insurance that will cover damages to the car. When I had the above mentioned small accident, all was smoothly handled by the company.

Should I use a gps?

A Gps navigation device can be useful on the North Island and in the cities, such as Auckland and Wellington, but it’s not really needed in the South: the roads are few and directions are well marked, though it can be occasionally tricky to find some hotels or places. If you are planning to travel in both islands you will probably have to leave your car at the Wellington ferry station and get another one at Picton or vice versa.

Driving in New Zealand: Lindis Pass

Driving in New Zealand: Lindis Pass (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2015)


Gas stations are not many, and in the South you can drive for one hundred kilometres without seeing any (long stretches without gas are usually well marked), for instance between Fox Glacier and Haast. Fill your tank when you have the chance, we feared running out of fuel a couple of times.

And… have a nice and safe trip driving in New Zealand!


Stop per fare benzina a Onga Onga Refueling stop in Onga Onga


Una foto pubblicata da Patrick Colgan (@colgan78) in data:

On the road to Fiordland, today we drove over 500 km towards the south of the island #newzealand #nuovazelanda #NyaZeeland #aotearoa Una foto pubblicata da Patrick Colgan (@colgan78) in data:

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

You may use basic HTML in your comments. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.