Driving in New Zealand: the best way to explore the South Island

I often get asked about what the best way is to discover the South Island, and my recommendation has always been to self-drive. Naturally, it depends on your circumstances. But if you have a driving licence, and are a confident driver, renting a car will give you the freedom to explore the South Island in your own time.

Roads in Otago

Driving from Canterbury to Otago

I have driven throughout New Zealand in my own car (my comprehensive guide on buying a car in New Zealand can be found here) and various rental cars, and have never regretted this option. In fact, after every turn and change of scenery (the two being essentially the same) I have a hard time thinking of a bus journey as quite as exciting. For alternative forms of transport besides renting or buying a car, take a look at my guide to basic information on exploring New Zealand.

Now, let’s see what driving on the South Island is like and what you should take into consideration when deciding whether to self-drive or not.

Car rental companies

Lake Pukaki and Mt Cook in the background of our Nissan Juke, Europcar

Our Nissan Juke, courtesy of Europcar, next to Lake Pukaki

A think to keep in mind is that most car rental companies will require the driver to be at least 21 years of age. Some providers will want you to be over 25, but still rent you a car if you’re younger than 25 for an additional charge. Best to check with the car rental company of your choice directly.

I recently went on a South Island road trip with Europcaras part of my Blog4NZ fundraising tour, and had a great end-to-end customer experience with them. They provided me with a reliable, new car that was a joy to drive. Although I prefer driving manuals, I am glad we had an automatic car on our South Island road trip. Not being a regular driver on the left side of the road meant that it would have been a lot of shifting gears, with the left hand, on all those mountain roads. Europcar were brilliant from a customer service point of view, offering to deliver the car to our accommodation, and the whole process was very friendly, quick and easy. Conveniently the company also has quite a few pick-up and drop-off locations unlike some smaller outfits, which is brilliant especially when you’re on a tight schedule like we were!

Drive with confidence

SH1 from Blenheim to Kaikoura

SH1 from Blenheim to Kaikoura

New Zealand’s roads can be challenging. Perhaps the first thing to mention is that distances always appear shorter than they really are. There are no motorways in New Zealand apart from a few kilometres around Auckland, so you’ll be doing all of your driving on rural roads, with one lane per direction. There are passing lanes at regular intervals, but you’ll find yourself dealing with quite a few tailgaters even if you drive the maximum speed allowed. There are plenty of mountain roads (read: curves, bends, winding roads) that are a joy to drive with a good car and a sensible approach, but can be intimidating to less experienced drivers, especially if you have tailgaters behind you. Curves are usually sign posted ahead, with black curve-markers and speed recommendations. I recommend to follow the recommended speed and slow down (the speed recommended is not overly conservative)!

Single-lane bridge near Wanaka

One-lane bridge outside Wanaka

Another thing you may not be used to are one-lane bridges, especially on the South Island. Usually these are not a problem at all, as the signs tell you who has the right of way. There are longer bridges where it is difficult to see whether there is oncoming traffic who has the right of way, and you may find both parties on the bridge at the same time – fear not, there are bridges with passing bays, like the Haast River bridge on the west coast of the South Island.

For a comprehensive guide to rules and signs on New Zealand’s roads, have a look at the official New Zealand road guide.

Enjoy the experience

Canterbury roads: just outside Christchurch, the temptation to stop begins

Stopping randomly in Canterbury

As I said, you will want to stop a lot. All the time. Everywhere. This is by no means an exaggeration. New Zealand is known for its stunning scenery and ever-changing landscapes, and you surely don’t want to miss it by just zipping past to get from A to B. After all, it’s just as much about the journey as it is about the destination, when it comes to New Zealand road trips!

The scenery is one thing, but driving through those landscapes is just so much fun in itself. The roads are generally in good condition, and with a good and reliable car, all you have to do is enjoy driving your vehicle! I enjoy driving in general, but seldom has it been so much fun. New Zealand even has themed “highways”, such as the Forgotten World Highway on the North Island, or the Southern Scenic Route on the South Island. What can I say, they are a delight to drive.

Driving the Crown Range from Wanaka to Queenstown

Driving from Wanaka to Queenstown over the Crown Range

Some other fantastic stretches of road to drive on the South Island are the SH1 from Blenheim to Kaikoura, Queenstown to Glenorchy along Lake Wakatipu, and the road over the Crown Range between Queenstown and Wanaka.

Disclosure: A BIG thank you to Europcar for being part of Blog4NZ and providing me with a great car so I could travel throughout the South Island and get to all my adventure challenges to raise money for the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal.

Christina Hegele

About the author: Christina Hegele runs Sandal Road, a blog on her favourite destinations. It just so happened that 95% turned out to be about New Zealand. Follow Christina and her blog on Twitter, like her blog on Facebook, and subscribe to her Youtube channel. Alternatively, subscribe to her email newsletter at the top right of this blog.

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  9 comments for “Driving in New Zealand: the best way to explore the South Island

  1. 31 January, 2013 at 06:59

    I definitely admit I have to get over my “thing” about driving on the other side of the road, hire a car, and go toodling oot and aboot on *both* islands …

    I really want to go back.

    You know what the kicker is? There are many parts of my visit to the South Island, which remind me of my home province of British Columbia – in particular, the west coast, the Sunshine Coast, or just a little further north, where there are many many fjords. For example, there’s Howe Sound adjacent to the Sea-to-Sky highway from Vancouver to Whistler/Blackcomb. Well, that ain’t no sound; it’s a fjord. Sound familiar? 😉

    • Christina
      4 February, 2013 at 22:48

      Totally! In fact I thought of NZ when I drove the Sea-to-Sky highway for the first time. It’s not a coincidence that I am attracted by Canada as much as I am by New Zealand. Just love mountains, lakes, beaches.

      You’d be fine driving in NZ. I was a bit nervous at first, but you get into the swing of it pretty quickly and then you really enjoy it. Imagine all those photos you’d take when you can stop whenever you want… 😀

  2. 14 February, 2013 at 06:23

    I love all that gorgeous scenery. We only made it to Auckland during our NZ trip so it’s great to see this. It’s wonderful to know that the South Island is manageable to drive. Thanks for all this helpful information.

    • Christina
      17 February, 2013 at 13:38

      Ah Mary you missed out! Next time you gotta stick around Aotearoa a little longer 🙂

  3. 27 February, 2013 at 13:00

    Done a north and south island road trip – well worth doing to see the amazing variety of landscapes in New Zealand.

    • Christina
      17 July, 2013 at 11:23

      We’re totally on the same page here!

  4. 10 May, 2013 at 09:44

    Have always dreamed of driving around NZ – one day it will happen for sure, but the bucket list is becoming way too long! Thanks for the tips, will be sure to look out for those one-land bridges!

    • Christina
      9 June, 2013 at 22:00

      You’re welcome Emma – thanks for stopping by! You absolutely have to go to NZ – it is one of the most beautiful places on Earth 🙂

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