The best way to explore the South Island, New Zealand
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 license, and are a confident driver, renting a car will give you the freedom to explore the South Island in your own time.
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
A thing 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 Europcar as 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 was 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
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 signposted 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)!
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
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.
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.