As a Brit, I was quite excited by the prospect of being able to drive on the familiar left-hand side of the road in a foreign country – a rare opportunity. However, this comfort aside, the New Zealand roads do present certain other challenges – some of which I hadn’t encountered before.
Below are a few hints and tips which should help to make your driving adventures problem free.
If you intend to get away from the urban areas and explore off the beaten track then you will encounter gravel roads. Many of these roads are pretty straightforward as long as you keep your speed to an appropriate level. However, there are some roads in this category which are definitely not for the faint hearted. Roads can be exceptionally narrow or steep, road surfaces can be pot-holed and crash barriers, separating you from a gut-wrenching drop (sometimes just inches away from your tyres), are often absent.
Driving such roads can be an exhilarating adventure but if you want to avoid them then arm yourself with a good road map which marks all gravel roads on it.
Again, if you are used to British roads, there will be very little difference.
Pedestrians will sometimes be shown a ‘free to cross’ sign at the same time as a traffic light turns green for you. Be aware of pedestrians and the fact that they have right of way in these instances.
When seen on a map, travelling from A to B might appear to be a short journey but don’t be fooled. Although Kiwi roads are often blessedly free of traffic, the terrain and road surface, particularly with gravel roads, can often make journey times much longer than you might think. Allow for this in your planning.
Speed limits are in km/h with the maximum speed for most main roads set at 100 km/h. In urban and residential areas speed limits will be shown on signs, as will places with certain hazards that require reduced speed.
There are some truly hairpin bends on New Zealand roads (which might make you feel you are actually going round in circles) particularly in mountainous regions. Tight bends are always marked with an advisory sign which states the maximum speed for that bend. DO observe these – they are hardly ever overestimated to allow for error as might be the case in other countries.
Passing lanes and pulling over
Some of the roads, as previously mentioned, are very narrow and offer no opportunities for safe overtaking for many kilometres. Sometimes there will be a brief section of a passing lane to overcome this problem but they can be few and far between.
If you are in a heavy or slower moving vehicle – such as a hired motor-home for example – then do be aware of any traffic behind you and pull over wherever possible to let them pass. New Zealanders will expect you to do this and it is one of the rare occasions where you might incur Kiwi wrath if you don’t observe this road etiquette.
Wildlife and animals on the road
Sheep and cows being moved in large herds can be encountered at any time as can stray and wandering domestic stock so be on your guard for this.
If you are driving at night then possums on the road are a common occurrence. Although these are too small to really cause a problem, they do present a hazard if you are not prepared, possibly causing you to swerve suddenly to avoid them.
I discovered the prudence of taking out breakdown cover after a very costly towing experience resulting from a van malfunction in the middle of nowhere.
If you are hiring a car, van or motor-home this is sometimes an optional extra (highly recommended) and if you have your own vehicle it is definitely a wise decision if you don’t want to find yourself very stranded and/or facing a big bill.
Cover is available for New Zealand visitors through the AA.
Prohibited roads and 4 X 4 roads
If you are in a hire vehicle then there are some roads in New Zealand which are prohibited to you. Ninety Mile Beach (technically a ‘road’) on the North Island is one example. Additionally, there are certain roads, usually in out of the way places, which are suitable for 4 X 4 vehicles only. If you get hold of a good quality road map all of these prohibited and 4 X 4 roads will be clearly marked.
Driving in New Zealand can be as straightforward or as adventurous as you choose. If you like easy and leisurely then there are plenty of beautiful places you can get to just off main, tarmac roads. If, on the other hand, you consider yourself to be in the Colin McRae rally driving category then take your fill. The choice is yours.
One last thing – don’t forget you will need to have a valid driver’s license, the original of which you must have with you at all times.
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