NZ may be an island nation but there’s virtually no long-distance water transport around the country. Obvious exceptions include the boat services between Auckland and various islands in the Hauraki Gulf, the inter-island ferries that chug across Cook Strait between Wellington and Picton, and the passenger ferry that negotiates the width of Foveaux Strait between Bluff and the town of Oban on Stewart Island.
Until quite recently it was quite fair and logical to think, ‘If there’s anywhere in the world where I can still hitch a ride, NZ is it.’ However, a few unsavoury incidents in recent years suggest that NZ is no longer immune from the perils of solo hitching (especially for women). Those who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. Prospective hitchers will be safer if they travel in pairs and let someone know where they are planning to go. That said, it’s not unusual to see hitchhikers by the side of country roads (signalling with a thumbs-up or a downward-pointed finger), although extensive bus networks and cheap car-rental rates mean that hitching a ride isn’t as common among travellers as it once was.
Before you start limbering up your hitching thumb, get an idea of the challenges ahead by reading Joe Bennett’s A Land of Two Halves , an entertaining account of hitching adventures through NZ.
People looking for travelling companions for car journeys around the country often leave notices on boards in backpacker accommodation. The website www.carshare.co.nz is an excellent resource for people seeking or offering a lift.
Bus travel in NZ is relatively easy and well organised, with services transporting you to the far reaches of both islands (including the start/end of various walking tracks), but it can be expensive, tedious and time-consuming. The bus ‘terminals’ in smaller places usually comprise a parking spot outside a prominent local business.
The dominant bus company is InterCity (in Auckland 09-623 1503, in Wellington 04-385 0520, in Christchurch 03-365 1113, in Dunedin 03-471 7143; www.intercity.co.nz), which also has an extra-comfort travel and sightseeing arm called Newmans Coach Lines (www.newmanscoach.co.nz). InterCity can drive you to just about anywhere on the North and South Islands, from Invercargill and Milford Sound in the south to Paihia and Kaitaia in the north.
Smaller regional operators running key routes or covering a lot of ground on the North Island include:
Magic Travellers Network (09-358 5600; www.magicbus.co.nz) Has a useful collection of passes available, covering both islands or each individually.Naked Bus (0900 625 33; www.nakedbus.com) Low-cost routes across the North (and South) Island, from Auckland to Wellington and most places in between.
South Island shuttle-bus companies:
Atomic Shuttles (03-349 0697; www.atomictravel.co.nz) Has services throughout the South Island, including to Christchurch, Dunedin, Invercargill, Picton, Nelson, Greymouth/Hokitika, Te Anau and Queenstown/Wanaka.
Southern Link KBus (0508 458 835, 03-358 8355; www.southernlinkkbus.co.nz) Roams across most of the South Island, taking in Christchurch, Nelson, Picton, Greymouth, Queenstown and Dunedin, among others.
Tracknet (0800 483 262, 03-249 7777; www.tracknet.net) Daily track transport (Milford, Routeburn, Hollyford, Kepler etc) between Queenstown, Te Anau, Milford Sound, Invercargill, Fiordland and the West Coast.
There are no allocated economy or luxury classes on NZ buses; smoking is a no-no.
Most of NZ’s urban buses have been privatised. Larger cities have fairly extensive bus services but, with a few honourable exceptions, they are mainly daytime, weekday operations; on weekends, particularly on Sunday, bus services can be hard to find or may cease altogether. Negotiating the inner-city area in Auckland is made easier by the Link and City Circuit buses, and in Christchurch by the Shuttle Bus service and the historic tramway. Most main cities have a late-night bus service roaming central entertainment districts on boozy, end-of-week nights.
The only city with a decent train service is Wellington, which has five suburban routes.
The best way to explore NZ in depth is to have your own transport, which allows you to create your own leisurely, flexible itinerary. Good-value car- and campervan-hire rates are not hard to track down; alternatively, consider buying your own set of wheels.
Fuel is available from service stations with the well-known international brand names. LPG (gas) is not always stocked by rural suppliers; if you’re on gas it’s safer to have dual fuel capability. Prices vary from place to place, but basically petrol (gasoline) isn’t pumped cheaply in NZ, with per-litre costs averaging around $1.50. More remote destinations may charge a small fortune to fill your tank and you’re better off getting fuel before you reach them – places in this category include Milford Sound (fill up at Te Anau) and Mt Cook (buy fuel at Twizel or Lake Tekapo).
Check your rear-view mirror on any far-flung NZ road and you’ll likely see a shiny white campervan (aka mobile home, motor home, RV) packed with liberated travellers, mountain bikes and portable barbecues cruising along behind you.
Campervanning around NZ is big business. It’s flexible and affordable, and you can leave the trampled tourist trails behind and crank up the AC/DC as loud as hell! Most towns of any size have a camping ground or campervan park with powered sites for around $30 per night, or you can seek out a remote beach/mountain/valley and dream in isolation.
You can hire campervans from assorted companies, prices varying with time of year, how big you want your home-on-wheels to be, and length of rental. Major operators:
A small van for two people typically has a mini-kitchen and fold-out dining table, the latter transforming into a double bed when dinner is done ’n’ dusted. Larger ‘superior’ two-berth vans include shower and toilet. Four- to six-berth campervans are the size of trucks (and similarly sluggish) and, besides the extra space, usually contain a toilet and shower.
Over summer, rates offered by the main rental firms for two-/four-/six-berth vans are around $200/300/340 per day, dropping to as low as $60/100/120 in winter; industry infighting often sees even lower rates.
Most towns of any size have a camping ground or campervan park with powered sites for around $35 per night. There are also more than 200 vehicle-accessible Department of Conservation campsites, which range in price from free to $14 per adult. DOC publishes free brochures with instructions to find every campsite (even GPS coordinates).
Never just assume it’s OK to camp somewhere. Always ask a local first or check at the local i-SITE or DOC office. If you are freedom camping, please treat the area with respect – if your van doesn’t have toilet facilities, find a public loo. See www.camping.org.nz for more tips on freedom camping.
When it comes to renting a vehicle, know exactly what your liability is in the event of an accident. Rather than risk paying out a large amount of cash if you do have an accident (minor collisions are common in NZ), you can take out your own comprehensive insurance policy, or (the usual option) pay an additional daily amount to the rental company for an ‘insurance excess reduction’ policy. This brings the amount of excess you must pay in the event of an accident down from around $1500 or $2000 to around $150 or $200. Smaller operators offering cheap rates often have a compulsory insurance excess, taken as a credit-card bond, of around $900.
Most insurance agreements won’t cover the cost of damage to glass (including the windscreen) or tyres, and insurance coverage is often invalidated on beaches and certain rough (4WD) unsealed roads – always read the fine print.
For longer stays and/or for groups, buying a car then selling it at the end of your travels can be one of the cheapest and best ways to see NZ. You can often pick up a car as cheap as (or cheaper than) a one- or two-month rental, and you should be able to get back most of your money when you sell it. The danger, of course, is that you’ll buy a lemon that breaks down every five minutes.
Auckland is the easiest place for travellers to buy a car, followed by Christchurch. An easy option for a cheap car is to scour the notice boards of backpacker places, where other travellers sell their cars before moving on; you can pick up an old car for just a few hundred dollars. Some backpackers specials are so cheap it may be worth taking the risk that they may expire on you. Besides, these vehicles often come complete with water containers, tools, road maps and even camping gear.
Car markets and car auctions are also worth investigating – check out information on car markets in the Auckland and Christchurch sections. At auctions you can pick up cheap cars from around $1000 to $6000 – Turners Auctions (09-580 9360; www.turners.co.nz) is the country’s largest such outfit, with 10 locations.
Make sure any car you buy has a Warrant of Fitness (WoF) and that the registration lasts for a reasonable period. A WoF certificate, proving that the car is roadworthy, is valid for six months but must be less than 28 days old when you buy a car. To transfer registration, both you and the seller are legally required to independently notify Land Transport New Zealand (www.ltsa.govt.nz) of the change of ownership within seven days. To do so, fill out a Change of Ownership form, which can be filed at any post office. Papers are sent to you by mail within 10 days. If needed, registration can be purchased for six months ($236) or a year ($324). Third-party insurance, covering the cost of repairs to another vehicle in an accident that is your fault, is also a wise investment – see Insurance, opposite.
Car inspections are highly recommended as they’ll protect you against any dodgy WoFs (such scams have been reported in the past) and may save you a lot of grief and repair bills later on. Various car-inspection companies will check a car you intend to buy for less than $130; you’ll find them at car auctions for on-the-spot inspections, or they will come to you. Try Vehicle Inspection New Zealand (VINZ; 0800 468 469; www.vinz.co.nz). The AA also offers a mobile inspection service – it’s slightly cheaper if you bring the car to an AA-approved mechanic. AA checks are thorough, but most garages will inspect a car for less.
Before you buy it’s wise to confirm the ownership of the vehicle, and find out if there’s anything dodgy about the car in question (eg any outstanding debts on it). A number of companies offer this service, including the AA’s LemonCheck (04-233 8590; www.lemoncheck.co.nz). A search costs $25 and is done using the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN; found on a plate near the engine block) or licence-plate number.
If you don’t have your own motorcycle but do have a little bit of time up your sleeve, getting mobile on two wheels in NZ is quite feasible. The beginning of winter (June) is quite a good time to start looking. Regional newspapers and the local bike press have classified advertisement sections. The obvious drawback of buying a bike is that you’ll have to sell it again afterwards, but don’t sweat it: just get your motor running, head out on the highway…
One way of getting around the hassles of buying and selling a vehicle privately is to enter into a buy-back arrangement with a car or motorcycle dealer. However, dealers may find ways of knocking down the price when you return the vehicle (even if it was agreed to in writing), often by pointing out expensive repairs that allegedly will be required to gain the WoF certificate needed to transfer the registration. The buy-back amount varies, but may be 50% less than the purchase price – in a strictly financial sense, hiring or buying and selling the vehicle yourself (if you have the time) is usually a much better idea.
In NZ you travel on the train for the journey, not in order to get anywhere (with the exception of the single commuter service detailed following). Tranz Scenic (0800 872 467, 04-495 0775; www.tranzscenic.co.nz) operates several visually stunning routes: the Overlander between Auckland and Wellington; the TranzCoastal between Christchurch and Picton; and the TranzAlpine, which rattles over the Southern Alps between Christchurch and Greymouth. All routes run in both directions daily, except the Overlander which runs 3 days a week off-peak (roughly May to September, check the website). It also operates the weekday Capital Connection commuter service between Palmerston North and Wellington.
Reservations can be made through Tranz Scenic directly, or at most train stations (notably not at Palmerston North), travel agents and visitor information centres, where you can also pick up booklets detailing timetables. Ask about discount fares – reductions apply for children (50% off standard fares), seniors (30% off), students (20% off), and holders of YHA, VIP and NOMAD backpackers cards (20% off). Discounts don’t apply on the Overlander service.
Over summer, school holidays and public holidays, book well ahead on more popular routes. At other times you should have few problems accessing your preferred service, but if your long-term travel plans rely on catching a particular bus, book at least a day or two ahead just to be safe.
InterCity fares vary widely depending on availability and how the tickets are booked (online or via an agent). The best prices are generally available online, booked a few weeks in advance.
Those who have limited time to get between NZ’s attractions can make the most of a widespread network of intra- and inter-island flights.
The country’s major domestic carrier, Air New Zealand, has an aerial network covering most of the country. Australia-based Qantas also flies between main urban areas.
Several small-scale regional operators provide essential transport services to the small outlying islands such as Great Barrier Island in the Hauraki Gulf, Stewart Island and the Chathams. Regional operators include the following:
Air New Zealand (0800 737 000; www.airnz.co.nz) Offers flights between 25 domestic destinations, in conjunction with a couple of small affiliated airlines under the banner Air New Zealand Link.
Touring cyclists proliferate in NZ, particularly over summer – the roads and trails run thick with fluoro-clad creatures with aerodynamic heads. The country is popular with cyclists because it’s clean, green and relatively uncrowded, and has lots of cheap accommodation (including camping) and easily accessible freshwater. The roads are generally in good nick, and the climate generally not too hot or too cold (except on the South Island’s rain-soaked West Coast). The many hills make for hard going at times, but there are expansive flats and lows to accompany the highs. Bikes and cycling gear (to rent or buy) are readily available in the main centres, as are bicycle repair shops.
The choice of itineraries is limited only by your imagination. Cycling some of the coastline will be a highlight, but inland routes have their share of devotees. One increasingly popular expedition is to follow an upgraded path along an old railway line into the former gold-mining heartland of Otago.
By law all cyclists must wear an approved safety helmet (or risk a fine); it’s also good to have reflective gear for cycling at night or on dull days. Cyclists who use public transport will find that major bus lines and trains only take bicycles on a ‘space available’ basis (meaning bikes may not be allowed on) and charge up to $10. Some of the smaller shuttle bus companies, on the other hand, make sure they have storage space for bikes, which they carry for a surcharge.
If importing your own bike or transporting it by plane within NZ, check with the relevant airline for costs and the degree of dismantling and packing required.
Rates offered by most outfits for renting road or mountain bikes – not including the discounted fees or freebies offered by accommodation places to their guests – are anywhere from $10 to $20 per hour and $30 to $45 per day.
Bicycles can be readily bought in NZ’s larger cities, but prices for newer models are high. For a decent hybrid bike or rigid mountain bike you’ll pay anywhere from $700 to $1600, though you can get a cheap one for around $400 to $500 – however, then you still need to get panniers, a helmet and other essential touring gear, and the cost quickly climbs. Arguably you’re better off buying a used bike (assuming you can’t bring your own over), but finding something that’s in good enough shape for a long road trip isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Other options include the post-Christmas sales and midyear stocktakes, when newish cycles can be heavily discounted.