There are so many bends in the New Zealand’s roads, that the roads are much, much longer than they seems on the map. So many bends, that you forget how it is to drive on a straight road. That’s exaggerating things a little but I guess you get my point.
It means: plan much more time because the road is longer than it may seem and because you can’t drive as fast as you’d probably like. Unless you’re a Kiwi and take those bends as though they wouldn’t even exists.
Every rental car company wants to make you believe that the road rules in New Zealand are completely different from the rest of the world. They hand out brochures and make you watch videos; if they could, they’d probably make you take a driving test. Of course, it’s always a good idea to familiarize yourself with the road rules of the country you plan to drive in, some things are always different.
What is really different in New Zealand – at least it was for us – is that in New Zealand it’s not compulsory to have an insurance and to have your driver’s license with you. Doesn’t sound all that special but let’s imagine the following happens: You’re on a parking lot and suddenly a guy drives backwards into your shiny new rental car and totally damages the door. When asked for his driver’s license, he just insults you, tells you he doesn’t have it on him, and speeds away. Obviously he doesn’t come back but at last you’ve managed to take a picture of his car and his number plate.
The police don’t care much that the driver didn’t have his licence on him (“he probably didn’t even have one”, they might say). The rental company insists that they need the driver’s email and phone number (and maybe his Facebook and Instagram? Come on!) or else they can’t do anything. Well, they can, they can get the driver’s name and address from the police with the licence plate number you’ve provided. But then the only thing they can do is send the guy a letter. Please pay for the damage. Guess what the guy does with that letter.
Anyway, long story short, get full insurance, it’s worth it!
Metal roads and one lane bridges
Gravel roads are called metal roads in New Zealand and there are quite a few of them. But don’t worry, you can get to all the major sights and hikes on sealed roads. Some beaches, lookouts, or waterfalls however, are only accessible by metal roads but those roads are generally not too long.
The metal road’s conditions range from – you’ve guessed it – very good to very bad. Virtually all rental companies don’t allow their cars to be driven on metal roads but that just means that if you’re on such a road and something happens, you have to pay for the damage or whatever yourself even if you’re fully insured. But let’s face it, some really amazing sights are only accessible via gravel roads so you take the risk.
One really special feature of New Zealand roads are the one lane bridges. Bridges with just one lane, that easy. There’s not a lot of traffic outside towns so those bridges are, usually, not a problem. But of course you still have to watch out who has the right of way and if there’s not a car on the other side (if you can see the other side, that is). You don’t want to meet another car in the middle of the bridge.
Unlike in Australia, in New Zealand we rented a normal car and not a campervan. After one month of driving around the country, we’re convinced that’s the better option. With all those bends, and curves, and narrow roads, and mountains, driving a small car is much more relaxing (and faster). Plus, fuel is expensive in New Zealand and a campervan uses about double what a normal car. What you save on fuel you can spend on Airbnbs and/or a nice tent and a campsite.
Driving by yourself is definitely the best option to discover this amazing country. New Zealand really is as beautiful as people say it is!