In the year ending in July 2017 the total number of visitors to New Zealand was over 3.6 million. To be specific, it was 3,657,277 give or take a bit of reporting error. Of those, close to 3 million of them were in New Zealand on holiday or to visit friends and relatives. That is a fairly significant amount considering New Zealand only has a population of 4.6 million.
A lot of these visitors choose to drive as it is a great way to really explore the country and meet real New Zealanders. However before renting a campervan and hitting the road, someone needs to warn people what to expect on New Zealand roads. Instead of waiting for someone else to do it, I figured I would do it myself.
Here are a few things I'd like to share about driving in New Zealand.
GET LICENSED AND LEARN THE ROAD RULES
I'm only including this because it is obvious and all apparently obvious things need to be explained as there is usually one person to whom the obvious is not very obvious at all. With this in mind, if you don't have a license then you shouldn't be driving in New Zealand.
You can check if you're legally allowed to drive in New Zealand here.
Like many countries, New Zealand has road rules. You can learn what they are by reading through the New Zealand road code here.
In New Zealand, people drive on the left. No matter how stupid you may think this is, I do not recommend protesting it by refusing to follow local custom. Some have tried. All have failed. Try to remember this as it is fairly important. The easiest way is to make sure you, the driver, are in the middle of the road. It is usually after you have been parked somewhere that you will forget so be extra cautious as you pull away. Intersections and roundabouts confuse most people so take your time.
NZ ROADS ARE DIFFERENT
I wouldn't say New Zealand roads are shit. That is a matter of perspective. I've been in some countries where roads are held together by prayers and wishes.
However, the roads in New Zealand are different to those in many other countries. New Zealand roads can be narrow, extremely windy, and cover a lot of hilly terrain. The road conditions can change as you drive, and what may look like a short easy drive on a map could take much longer than you expect.
Outside of the main centres, there are no motorways. Much of New Zealand's highways are single lanes in each direction. There are a lot of single lane bridges. Weather has a huge impact on New Zealand roads and you can't plan for everything. You could encounter snow, ice, flooding, slow moving tractors, slow moving livestock, or falcons feeding on freshly splattered roadkill.
WEATHER AND DRIVING
Weather in New Zealand can change very quickly. You might leave the house ready for the beach only to be hit with rain and hail an hour later. While this might make for a funny story when you're walking around, it can make driving somewhat hazardous. Be prepared and take a moment to check the weather.
DRIVING IN WINTER
If you're from a cold country then you will know what driving in winter can be like. You will understand snow and ice don't give a shit how good you think you are at driving. In New Zealand, in any month other than summer, the roads can be subjected to snow and ice, especially in alpine passes. Take any advice you see. If a sign recommends you carry chains, then carry chains. It is probably a good idea to know how to use them to.
In much of New Zealand, grit is used on many roads during winter. While this might help with ice, it can pile up creating an entirely new hazard. Neither ice nor grit mix well with a 2001 Mitsubishi Delica flying along the road at 100 kms an hour filled with people, backpacks and a mattress.
WATCH FOR OTHER DRIVERS
While I love going on road trips and exploring New Zealand, other drivers ruin driving for me.
Driving is not a game. It is a means of getting from one place to another and while that can be pleasant and enjoyable, it is a bloody stupid way to get an adrenaline kick. If you want to feel your pulse race and your palms sweat, go jump out of a plane or climb a mountain.
There is a strange and pointless sense of urgency in some drivers on New Zealand roads. They drive faster than they need to on roads that are unsuited to it. They will try to catch the person they can see in the distance. They will tailgate and overtake in stupid places. They will speed up on passing lanes, then slow down again, much to the frustration of everyone around them.
Don't be one of these people. Just chill out and enjoy the drive.
IF YOU'RE IN THE WAY, PULL OVER
New Zealanders are known as being some of the most laid back people in the world. We should probably add a line that says "unless they're behind some idiot driving 30kms under the speed limit". If you are driving slowly along the shores of a mountain lake taking your time to admire the view, you will soon learn that New Zealanders still have places they need to get to.
If you have cars behind you, when it is safe to do so, pull your vehicle to the side of the road and let people past. It is considered common courtesy and you will likely get a polite 'toot toot' as people overtake.
WATCH FOR ANIMALS, ESPECIALLY BIRDS
Ever driven around a corner and found yourself facing an ocean of sheep being mustered along the road by a pair of dogs and a farmer in a ute? It happens in New Zealand, though usually on small country roads and not main highways.
Birds are also often on the road, including New Zealand falcons and swamp harriers picking through the splattered remains of roadkill. You will definitely see possums and rabbits along roads at night, and while these are considered pests and no one will miss them if you run them over, you should check you're not aiming for a kiwi or some other endangered bird.
WATCH FOR TRAINS
Closer to main centres, railway tracks have automatic alarms that signal trains are coming. In some rural areas this is not always the case, and you will have to use your eyes. While the chances are slim, it is a good idea to perform this simple check as cars usually come off second best against a fully loaded freight train.
GETTING FLASHED OR BEEPED
New Zealand drivers tend to use their horns less and their lights more.
There are three kinds of horn usage in New Zealand. A polite 'toot toot' as a thank you if you have allowed traffic to pass. A simple 'beep' that means 'The light is green, idiot. Move your car.' Then there is the universally recognised 'BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP'. In New Zealand, this is only used by assholes and tourists. When heard, people standing close by will yell out helpful advice such as "calm the fuck down, dickhead!!" Rather than use their horn, a lot of New Zealanders won't care enough to do more than roll their eyes.
A flash of the headlights from oncoming traffic means there is a hazard on the road. It could be an animal on the road, slow moving traffic, or a cop with a speed camera. Or it could be you; check your headlights are on and you're not trying to blind everyone with your high beams.
If you're being polite while driving around the city, you may also see a few flashes of hazard lights. This means "thanks for letting me merge in front of you and not being a complete jerk like the last three people".
FIND OUT WHERE YOU CAN PARK
Some years ago, people could drive around New Zealand roads, park a car in a convenient spot, and hang out for a few days enjoying the local area. Those same people would use the convenient spot as a toilet and leave all their rubbish behind, which is obscenely rude considering most people go to New Zealand because it doesn't look like the garbage dump these people had likely travelled from.
Now, the rules are more strict regarding where one can park and they are enforced, so any visitors will need to ensure they are parking in the right place and overnight camping is permitted.
DON'T BE AN ASSHOLE
Recently, a group of backpackers visiting New Zealand filled their petrol car with diesel fuel. They are not the first people this has happened to, of course. Mistakes are forgivable. Unfortunately, instead of having the tank cleaned properly, they parked next to a storm water gutter and started emptying the tank into a catchment that drains to the nearby beach where people catch fish and swim.
They were not popular.
People travel to New Zealand because of its natural beauty and while it may not be perfect, we still like to keep it as nice as possible. This means everyone, including visitors, need to do what they can to leave it the way they found it. Do not ruin it for everyone following you.
Now...get along to new zealand and have a look around!