If you come here a bit, you’ll know I am from New Zealand but live in England. People ask me about New Zealand a lot, so, now that I can write it down, I am going to save you reading a guide book. This is what you should or must do on your trip to New Zealand. I wrote a separate piece on how to get there and I’ll post a link to it at the end of this. Here goes….
So you are planning a big trip ‘down under’? Like almost everyone thinking that’s a good trip to make, you’ll be thinking of course, Australia! Stop it! What’s the matter with you? What are you thinking? Australia is awful. If you have access to any sort of media you will have heard that Australia is a cultural wasteland, mocked across the entire world for for being so. That’s not even the worst bit, in Australia everything that walks, crawls, slithers, swims or flies bites you. They are all poisonous. If you survive the millions of vicious toxic creatures that inhabit that vast inhospitable desert and fancy a dip in the sea, you will be killed by sharks. If you escape the sharks you will be stung to death by jelly fish or a tiny octopus, or a sea snake. If you wish to go for a drive to see some Australia, and god knows why you would as you will discover that gum trees get very boring after the first 24 hours of road, you will probably die. This is because you will run out of petrol and die of thirst because you are on your own in the middle of nowhere on a road so long it is actually infinite. No, go to New Zealand instead.
Our sea is full of Whales, Seals, Dolphins and Penguins. Just a handful of Sharks which hardly ever eat people. There is not one single snake in New Zealand. Not even in a zoo and there are no nasty poisonous bitey things. None, not one! OK one, no wait, two. There is a white tailed spider which has a stingy bite and a Katipo spider which lives under some wood on a remote beach there is no reason for you to ever visit. Neither will kill you unless you are allergic or sickly or an insect.
Back to New Zealand and what’s it all about. Firstly it’s bigger than you think, it’s a longer drive from one end of NZ to the other than from London to Naples, or Seattle to Tijuana if you are an American. New Zealand is a driving holiday and there are only two towns in all of New Zealand worth making a special trip for. One is Russell in the Bay of Islands and the other is Queenstown in Otago. Russell because it’s relaxing, rustic and pretty whereas Queenstown is where mad people go to do dangerous or exciting things but it’s not compulsory. Queenstown is also a nice town in a magnificent setting. All the other towns are somewhere you buy petrol and food while on your way to somewhere else.
Back to basics. When you are planning your trip to New Zealand one of the things you will need is a rental car. Do not go ‘second tier’ and get a cheap car from a company you have never heard of. Rent your car from one of the major players and get one with a big engine, either a Ford Falcon or a Holden Commodore. It’s worth the small extra cost as you will get the full Kiwi experience in a big car and New Zealand roads can be steeper than you expected. You will not be offered a diesel powered car as New Zealanders have yet to embrace going further for less. They like petrol as a fuel even though it costs a third more than diesel in NZ.
Do not speed and do not drink and drive, if you do, you will get caught. New Zealand has a reassuringly large number of Policemen with clever technology and they like nothing better than writing tickets. There is no talking your way out of the ticket so take your speeding ticket with a smile, they will be smiling as they write it. They really like giving out tickets as there is not much else for a New Zealand policeman to do during the day. They do their work at night because New Zealand has a bit of a gang problem. Bored kids and grown men beating each other up. During your travels in New Zealand you will see some Maori gang members, some Mongrel Mob or Black Power chaps. They are the most intimidating people you will ever see anywhere but generally they are not interested in hurting you, they have more pressing issues with other gangs.
The roads in New Zealand are empty, so you will be forgiven for thinking nobody lives there. Look at it like this, in New Zealand there are 15 ‘cities’ but only 6 of them have a population over 100,000. The 15th largest ‘city’ in NZ has a population of 35,000. New Zealand’s population is about 4.4 Million, of those, 3.8million live in the 6 biggest cities. Also at any given time, about half a million Kiwis are away overseas pouring peoples beer or having adventures in a Volkswagen Combi van.
New Zealand is twice the length of France, or half as long again as the whole of the UK, so out in the countryside there is nobody about. The main road connecting the Capital, Wellington and the biggest city, Auckland is not a motorway, not even a dual carriageway, it is a 9 hour drive on what is effectively a large country road.
So you go for a drive and this is how the country pans out, in brief.
North of Auckland is where all the good beaches are, well, there and the Coromandel Peninsula. Do not go to either of these places around Christmas time as those regions will be full of vulgar Aucklanders on holiday. Kiwis do not like Aucklanders, they are the ‘Californians’ of New Zealand. Go north in February when everyone has gone back to work and you’ll have the whole place to yourself.
South of Auckland, once you leave the motorway bit after the Bombay Hills, you get to the Waikato. This is where they grow racehorses and milk cows. You will never have seen such pristine farmland. Drive around Hamilton. Hamilton is too far to drive through. You could head across to the wilds of the Coromandel; it’s a good thing to do, or keep going south.
You’ll drive along the Waikato River for a bit then into the biggest pine forest in the Southern Hemisphere. After a while you’ll pop out near Taupo which is a great big lake which is actually one of the world’s largest volcanic craters. There is stuff to do and see around here. Over at Rotorua you will see bubbling mud and be amazed at how the air stinks, it’s sulphur not flatulence or rotten eggs.
Heading south from Taupo if you are lucky and the weather is nice you will see the volcanoes of the Central Plateau ahead of you. You might like to turn left though and head for Hawkes Bay, tough choice. Hawkes Bay is nice and my old stamping ground, but Hawkes Bay is really all about the wine and the fruit. The beaches are rubbish. Way off to the north of Hawkes Bay is the ‘East Coast’ that’s where NZ gets really rustic, it’s the New Zealand of ages ago. It is a very large distance from anywhere but worth a look. Up that way is also the Urewera National Park which is a huge wilderness of forest. If you like some nature that’s a good place to go and walk around in it.
On the Nature. New Zealand has it in spades. The birdlife in the ‘bush’ sounds like nowhere else on earth, very flute like songs rather than chirping. The bush smells amazing as well. It’s an ethereal experience walking around in the New Zealand bush, it’s like going back to prehistoric times, without the dinosaurs. Well actually we even have one of those, the Tuatara.
Back on the road. Up on the volcanic plateau you drive across the ‘Desert Road’. It’s not a desert, it’s an alpine environment. You will see Mt Ruapehu if the sky is clear. Mt Ruapehu is a 10,000 foot high volcano right there, just off the road. Stop and have a look, don’t worry, you won’t get in anyone’s way. You will be astonished at how quiet the main road running down through New Zealand is.
Stop at the Waiouru Army Museum have a look around, it’s very interesting. Waiouru is where New Zealand trains its soldiers. Out on that landscape you just drove across, it’s a good place to keep soldiers. You might pop across to Ohakune and drive up to the top of Mt Ruapehu, I would, I have, and it’s great.
The other thing about New Zealand is the quality of the air. There is no air pollution, on a clear day you can see as far as your eyes will let you. There is no haze obscuring the distance. It is incredible.
Once you get to the end of the plateau you drive down a great big deviation into the Rangitikei district which evolves into the Manawatu. Pretty flat farmland, it’s boring and there is nothing to see here. It’s ok though you aren’t far from Wellington now. You’ll see on a map a place to the west called Taranaki. there is nothing to see there except cows and a mountain so save yourself the journey.
You decide on your best approach to Wellington. Over the Rimutaka ranges or down the West coast, either is good in its own way. I prefer the Rimutaka route though. When you approach Wellington you’ll pick up a little motorway in to it. It will look very pretty across the harbour as you approach. There will be a wind blowing probably but Wellington is quite scenic although tiny for a capital city. Maybe a couple of days to have a poke around will be plenty. Drop off your car and catch a ferry to the South Island. You can take your car on the ferry but it is very expensive and the crossing can be rough.
The South Island is a huge mountain range basically, I’m not from the South Island and have only visited once. This is what you do. Look at Whales at Kaikoura. Spend some time with Sauvignon Blancs in Marlborough. Get to Queenstown and take an aeroplane over the Alps into Milford Sound. Catch a boat and have a float up and down the sound, which is actually a Fjord. Be amazed. Fly back. Have a couple of good nights out in Queenstown then leave.
Drive your car over the Cardrona track to Wanaka. Some guide books might say this is a tough or challenging road to drive. It is not. Then drive the Haast Pass road to Franz Joseph. This is one of the world’s greatest drives and no words can do it justice. You will remember the journey for the rest of your life. Do the Glaciers at Fox and Franz Joseph then drive back across the island over Arthurs Pass towards Christchurch. The scenery up there is astonishing and the landscape is incredible. You will feel emotional at the beauty of what you see, that is if you like mountains and forest of course. Head past Christchurch to Akaroa.
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