New Zealand South Island Self Drive Tips!
As an American, the thought of a New Zealand South Island Self Drive terrified us. We researched the alternatives and learned that for us to be able to see most of the South Island, we had to drive it. After spending time on the North Island getting our fill of city life in Auckland, we were ready to hit the open road. While it was not easy, after a bit we got used to it and were able to get the most out of these drives-which are so incredibly beautiful and may have been our favorite part of the whole journey!
1. Mess Around Before Leaving the Parking Lot. Luckily we were visiting the North Island first we were able to do this before getting to Christchurch to pick up our van. However, it would be best to drive around on small roads before getting on the highway. Get used to driving on the left side, where your blinkers are, wipers, etc. (for us Americans, these two are reversed!).
2. Be Prepared to Stop. Constantly. There are beautiful mountains, hikes, and all sorts of sites all over the roads. Do not just drive and ignore them, go stop and take a hike/picture! These were some of our favorite places, do not miss them just because you are too lazy or rushing too much to stop.
3. Go Slow. With all the stops needed, make sure to slow down and pull over properly! Sometimes you will be too excited when looking at the Southern Alps that you pull directly into the grass or come suddenly upon a steep, winding curve in the road ahead Avoid those mistakes! Check your surroundings, take it slow, and make the safe decision.
4. Let Locals Pass You. Because you are visiting, you will not know the roads as well as locals. So if someone wants to go faster than you, LET THEM! Do not feel pressured, all the locals know you want to stop and take pictures while taking in the scenery, so slow down, pull over, or whatever you need to do to let them go by you.
5. Get Gas. Petrol–as the locals call it–Stations are not in abundance. Do not take chances, if you see a station and you have anything less than ¾ of a tank, stop and get it. This is especially important before heading to Milford Sound, the road between Te Anau and the sound does not have a single stop for gas. You do not want to be lost without any stations nearby.
6. Maps. Whether you buy a hard copy of a map–crazy I know!–or download your route on your phone before leaving, make sure it is done before you start driving. You will lose cell service throughout most of the island, get your route in order before you head anywhere!
7. Check Road Traffic Conditions. This is super important! New Zealand road conditions change constantly, but they are really good about updating you on them so long as you look. This traffic map was a guide for road closures and major weather threats to driving.
8. Check the Weather Every Day (No matter the season). Weather events are one of the main dangers in New Zealand, especially on the south island. Going along with the last tip, weather can close roads entirely which, on an island with very few roads, can lead to stranding or a completely different route. You will often be driving through entirely different terrains in a matter of a half hour. We would be sweating in the hot sun only to be shivering in a windy heavy rainstorm moments later. Take it seriously, check, chat with locals and you will be fine!
9. Food/Drink. Another thing, towns as a whole are not common on these roads. If you just plan on stopping to get food and drink, think again. Bring your sandwiches/fruit/snacks with you before any long drives, otherwise, you may be going for hours without seeing anything. And I really do mean ANYTHING, aside from sheep.
10. Rest, do not overdo it. These are long windy drives, you will be tired. Be smart and safe, give yourself extra time and stop if you need to. Grab a coffee, some lunch, and some water and sit at a cafe for an hour or two to get your mind right. Tired drivers are often worse than drunk drivers. Whatever you think your itinerary is, I recommend cutting a stop and saving at least 2 to 3 nights for buffer driving time. We ended up needing all of ours and then some.
11. Animals Everywhere! Especially if you are driving in the Spring, there are baby animals all over the South Island. They are incredibly cute and lovely, stop and check them out! Sheep, cows, goats, deer, ducks, you name it, there are babies here!
12. ENJOY IT. The most important of all the tips. This drive was one of the most incredible experiences of our lives. It was truly unforgettable. Take extra time–it takes longer than the roads say, always–and enjoy this drive. Green mountains, the Southern Alps, Milford Sound, baby sheep, and good company – it does not get much better than that!