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Road Tripping New Zealand’s South Island

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Love a good road trip? It’s one of the best ways to experience New Zealand’s South Island! Our trip took us from glaciers to hiking trails to unique rock formations and more, and all our tips and things we learned along the way are here to help you plan your own trip!

Rules of the Road

You may already know that New Zealand’s road rules involve driving on the left, but here are a few more you may not know!

Speed Limits

Your speed will be measured in kilometres per hour (km/h), so going 100 km/h is perfectly normal! On the open road, the speed limit is typically 100 km/h, but that speed goes down to 70, 50, or even 30 km/h through villages all along the way.

Pull Over for Photos

This may seem obvious, but when you see the epically beautiful scenery, you might forget. So this is your reminder! There are plenty of places to pull over. New Zealand knows it’s beautiful. They want you to take pictures, but please do it safely!

Blinkers and Wipers

The most frustrating part of driving on the left (I drive on the right in my home country of the USA!), was definitely mixing up the windshield wiper and blinker levers. I don’t know why those have to be on the opposite sides, but they were! Every time I went to signal for a turn, I turned on the windshield wipers! It took me a couple of days to get used to it, and I still messed up a few times throughout the week. Just be aware of that before you start driving!

Winding Roads on the West Coast

The winding, two-lane roads on New Zealand’s west coast are plenty wide enough for your car, but please pay attention to the speed reductions around those sharp corners and winding roads.

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Need a hairpin?
Gravel Roads

I lived on a gravel road most of my life growing up. In fact, I learned how to drive on gravel roads, so it never occured to me that there would be gravel roads on which you’re not allowed to drive! Apparently, you are not allowed to drive on gravel roads in Australia, but you are allowed to drive on them in New Zealand. This was not a big deal since we only encountered maybe one or two gravel roads the whole trip around the South Island, but just so you know, now you know!

Give Way: Yield

When you see an upside-down triangle with the words “Give Way,” that means “Yield.”

One-lane Bridges

Particularly on the West Coast, those one-lane bridges are no joke! Signage and notifications on the road leading to each bridge will indicate who has the right of way, and we noticed that priority changed with each bridge—at one bridge we would have the right of way, at the next bridge cars coming the other direction would have the right of way.

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The larger arrow indicates which direction has the right of way.
Stop for Pedestrians

When you see a crosswalk with an orange circle on a black and white pole, this means stop for pedestrians:

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Stop for Pedestrians

Rental Car or Camper Van?

I’ll be totally honest with you, as usual: I was super overwhelmed planning this trip. Multiple stops, multiple options, unclear information, not knowing what to expect… Instead of my usual love for all that planning, I just got overwhelmed. Our original plan was to rent a camper van so we wouldn’t need to pay for a rental car and multiple hotels (plus, who likes packing and unpacking and repacking every day or so?). But we were warned it would be too cold for that in New Zealand’s winter, and when searching for information, I found myself more confused than before.

While we were there, however, we met several people who had rented camper vans for their trip and had a great time. So, in an effort to help you make the best choice possible, here is a cost analysis and the pros and cons of renting a car instead of a camper van. Now you only need to do half the research!

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Don’t forget you’ll be driving on the left and sitting on the right!
Cost in USD of a Rental Car Road Trip (7 Days Driving, 6 nights in hotels)
  • Car: $310
  • Gas: $210
  • Hotels: $802.72
Pros of Renting a Car and Staying in Hotels
  • Easier to navigate narrow roads and curves.
  • Knew we’d have a hot shower every day.
  • Knew what we were getting—there may have been some unexpected surprises with a camper van since we’d never rented one before.
Cons of Renting a Car and Staying in Hotels
  • Packing, unpacking, repacking, unpacking, repacking, unpacking, repacking… all week long.
  • Knowing where you’ll be stopping every night.
  • Less flexibility.

Sites Not to Be Missed

New Zealand is full of breath-taking landscapes. A trip to the South Island in particular is far more about the journey than the destination, so slow down, don’t be in a hurry to check into your next accommodation, and enjoy the ride. Here are some of the highlights from our driving tour of New Zealand’s South Island!

Arthur’s Pass
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Arthur’s Pass National Park
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Devil’s Punchbowl Hike
Punakaiki

A quick side-trip to the Pancake Rocks was well worth the journey! We got there early so we had the park mostly to ourselves!

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Punakaiki, or the Pancake Rocks
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Tight squeeze! Up close and personal with some of those “pancake” rock formations.
Franz Josef Hikes and Glacier

I think I can speak for both of us when I say Franz Josef was the best surprise of the trip! We plan to go back one day and really explore this hikers’ paradise. We hiked out to the Franz Josef glacier viewing area almost as soon as we arrived into this village, and the next morning we started our day with a hike to Callery Gorge—a verdant hike leading to glacier blue waters!

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Franz Josef Glacier Viewing Area
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Bright Green Callery Gorge!
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Glacier Blue Water flowing through Callery Gorge
Queenstown’s Skyline

You will want to make a stop in Queenstown. If for no other reason, you will need to take the Skyline Gondola or take the 45 minute hike up the mountain to Bob’s Peak. The views are spectacular!

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Queenstown Skyline from Bob’s Peak
Meet the Sheep

You will see sheep, cow, and deer farms on your road trip, so take an opportunity to stop and take a look! We do not have deer farms here in the US, so it was funny to see these deer being bred on purpose! And, of course, you have to meet the sheep:

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Here’s looking at you!
Tunnel Beach Walk

After a long day of driving, a good hike is a must. New Zealand’s natural landscapes are really something to behold. The Tunnel Beach Walk just south of Dunedin will be well worth your time and effort to get down to the beach and back!

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Walking among Giants at Tunnel Beach
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Tunnel Beach Coastal Walk
Larnach Castle

Wait, there’s a castle in New Zealand!? Yes there is! It’s called Larnach Castle, and while the story of the Larnach family is a bit tragic, the story of the new owners’ journey in restoring it is inspiring. Well worth a stop!

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Original Tilework
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Castle Turret
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Larnach Castle

Are you ready for an epic road trip? New Zealand is the place to go!

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