Traveling down the length of New Zealand and back covers quite a few miles, and our trip includes all the usual means of transportation – car, boat, train, bus, and plane – each an experience in their own right.
On the North Island, we rent a trusty blue Mazda M3. Having a vehicle gives us a lot of freedom, and we take advantage of a flexible itinerary. The tricky part is driving it. On top of the whole driving-on-the-left-side thing (Mom recites, “It’s not the wrong side of the road, just the left”), New Zealand’s roads are fast, narrow, and curvy. The government does an excellent job of reminding you just how dangerous the drive is by putting up frequent signs declaring:
“You speed people die”
Mom does a great job driving, especially considering the awful coastal roads I put us on our very first day. It takes a while to get a hang of turn signal vs. windshield wipers, but that’s a minor detail. During my own attempts behind the wheel, I pretend I’m driving in mirror world. However, as I have never enjoyed driving, I primarily act as co-pilot. For the most part, my role is a litany of, “Keep left. You’re doing great. Ah, wait, too far left! You’re going over the line!” and guiding our way through one-way bridges, roundabouts, and the rare stoplight. Our teamwork fails only once, when I struggle with the GPS as Mom enters the wrong way into the roundabout. The blaring of horns and my wordless scream make her correct course before any harm is done.
It turns out what we see of South Island looks easier to drive, with straighter roads and fewer cars. The roads are excellently maintained on both islands, with Road Inspection vehicles more common than police cars. This also makes for lots of construction, queuing up to drive down a narrow gravel bypass while burly men in shorts shovel away.
To get between the islands, we take the three-hour Interislander Ferry from Wellington to Picton, boarding early to secure our seats at the very front of the boat. I kick off my shoes and prop my feet up on the windowsill, wriggling my toes against the giant plate glass view of the Cook Strait. Beams of light shoot their way through dark storm clouds, large pods of common dolphins veer to intersect our path, and fur seals roll on their side to take a look. As we wind our way through the scenic Marlborough Sounds, the area around our seats grows popular. The more brazen tourists lean over my head to take pictures, but I refuse to relinquish my spot (having learned from experience that you’ll never get it back) and relax to some film score music.
Coastal Pacific Train
We take the Coastal Pacific from Picton to Christchurch. It’s an easy walk to transfer from the ferry to the train station, with plenty of time to spare. The train is comfortable and mostly empty. A little Indian girl scampers up and down the aisle repeating, “Uh oh. Uh-oh!” Every so often GPS-triggered commentary comes on over the headset, relating some Maori myth or tidbit about the region. Sheep flee like waddling cotton balls from the train’s noise, making me laugh every time, and once a pair of horses gallop breathtakingly alongside the tracks. If you feel the desire to get blasted by cold wind, you can head to the open-air car, but I find our seats provide comfortable views of the Kaikoura coastline’s black sand beaches. Colorful gardens appear as we headed through the suburbs of Christchurch, where some kids bounce on a trampoline to wave at us over their fence. I’m somewhat underwhelmed by the level of scenery (I hear the TransAlpine is supposed to be the more incredible journey), but it’s a pleasant trip.
The following day we take the Naked bus from Christchurch to Queenstown, which turns out to be the best deal of the whole trip. Naked and Intercity bus services both offer $1 fares if you’re the first person to book on a bus, and at the time I made reservations they had additional $10 specials. The 20-minute taxi ride through earthquake-decimated Christchurch to the bus stop cost double the amount of our 9-hour bus ride. As an added bonus, it’s really fun to say you “rode the big black Naked bus.”
The bus has a wide range of travelers aboard, though isn’t much mingling. As we pull away from our first bathroom break, a man at the back yells “STOP!” and we look out the window to see a late passenger chasing after the bus, a lesson to the rest of us to stick to the timetable.
We drive through rolling landscapes of golden grasses, over braided rivers, and past glittering turquoise alpine lakes. We stop for lunch at one of these latter, Lake Tekapo, where an old church perches picturesquely on the shore. I eat my “cheese toastie” on a bench and contemplate how the water maintains that uniform and impenetrable hue all the way up to the edge (answer: sediment left behind by glaciers + sunshine). We pause again to gawk at Lake Pukaki by Twizel, which offers up even more vivid ice-blue water and and views of Mt Cook in the distance. Most amazing is that, despite being right off the road, there isn’t a building or a boat in sight.
After detouring to Wanaka and dropping a hippie couple with their bedrolls off on the side of the road, we finally pull into Queenstown, get directions from the driver, and said goodbye to the bus.
Air New Zealand
Our domestic Air New Zealand flight from Queenstown to Auckland proves another adventure. The day starts out beautiful and my window seat lets me watch the West Coast of the South Island slide by in a glory of untamed wilderness. The highlight is turning away from the trivia game onscreen and being surprised by two glaciers, Franz Josef and Fox. Here I thought I’d miss them entirely!
In typical NZ fashion, the weather soon turns rough and the plane is tossed about until we are forced to land in Wellington, refuel, and wait it out. The man in our aisle seat helps ease the wait by magically procuring chocolate after he returns from asking a question about his connecting flight. We eventually make it to Auckland in one piece, with an evening to rest up before our long flight back to the states.
- Drive Safe
Resource for planning and staying safe during your New Zealand road trip.
- Road Code
Familiarize yourself with signs and other rules of the road.
- Interislander Ferry
Timetable and booking for ferry between North and South islands.
Scenic train journeys include the Coastal Pacific between Picton and Christchurch, the TranzAlpine between Christchurch and Greymouth, and the Northern Explorer between Auckland and Wellington.
- Naked Bus / Intercity Bus
Book early to get fares as low as $1.