Guide to driving in New Zealand

 

 

The land of the long white cloud is perfectly suited to self-drive holidays, but there are a few things to watch out for…

 Most people exploring New Zealand will be doing so in a hire car, but there are a few subtle differences to driving in NZ. Most are not major – it’s not like the culture shock of attempting to drive through Marrakech or Ho Chi Minh City, but a few adjustments need making to driving habits.

The long and winding road: New Zealand looks small, but the time it takes to get from one place to another can be surprisingly long. That’s because New Zealand is crumpled as hell, and roads are often climbing around mountainsides. ‘Direct’ is a relative term, so the as-the-crow-flies distance may have an awful lot of kinks and bends added to it when you’re not a crow. 

Slow it down: The narrower roads mean New Zealand’s maximum speed limit of 100km/h broadly makes sense. Police will generally allow you up to a maximum of an extra 10km/h before pulling you over, but only on roads where it’ll not make much difference. For many, you need to apply common sense and go considerably below the limit to safely navigate the twists, turns and conditions.

 

 

Patience is a virtue: If you’re expecting big motorways, freeways or autobahns, prepare for disappointment. Much of New Zealand is traversed by two lane roads, and it’s generally only when you get to the outskirts of big cities that they’re widened to accommodate more traffic. On the whole, this doesn’t matter all that much – New Zealand is hardly choked by traffic. But it can mean having to be patient when it comes to finding a suitable overtaking spot for slow cars and campervans. 

Changing islands: New Zealand is made up of two main islands, and while you can take your car on the ferry between them, most hire car companies prefer to operate a policy whereby you leave your car at Wellington or Picton, then swap it for another one at the end of the crossing. Be aware of this if you’ve packed your car full of stuff – you’re going to have to get it out and keep it with you on the ferry.

Snow joke: In the winter months, on the South Island in particular, you’re probably going to need snow chains fitted if you’re planning to drive on mountain roads. This means that you need to check your rental company provides them, and you know how to fit them. Between May and September, it is a legal requirement to carry snow chains if you’re driving down the Milford Road to Milford Sound. 

One lane bridges: The country is riddled with rivers and streams, and it’s frankly cheaper to put little tiny bridges across them than big ones. This leads to a lot of one-lane bridges, but they’re well marked, and if you see the rounded red sign with one big arrow and one small arrow, prepare to give way to whatever’s coming in the opposite direction.

We have some great car and motorhome rental dealsin New Zealand here

We have some great deals to New Zealand here

 

 

A journey into the dark

 

On New Zealand’s South Island, David Whitley joins the hunt for planets in distant solar systems

Down below, the lights from the village of Lake Tekapo shine up towards the heavens. Or, rather more importantly, they don’t. They shine down towards the ground. Special lighting has been installed and covered so that it is focused downwards. In these parts, they want to keep as much human-produced light out of the sky as possible.

 We’re on Mount John, trying to guide ourselves along the paths and avoid the rabbit holes of the open ground with little red light torches.  Normal torches, or mobile phones, would give out a white light that interferes with the instruments of the observatory.

It is not our planet that’s of interest here – it the billions orbiting stars several billion light years away. The skies above Lake Tekapo were recognised as an International Dark Sky Reserve in 2012, and it was the first to be given a gold standard. The name’s something of a misnomer, as it’s the natural brightness of the skies here that make it special. You’d be hard-pushed to find anywhere better on earth from which to stare at the stars.

The Mount John Observatory is operated by the University of Canterbury in partnership with the University of Nagoya in Japan. As a sideline to assist with funding, they open the gates at night, allowing tourists to be given a guided tour of the skies above.

 

 

The site was partially chosen for its stable weather. The Southern Alps form a handy cloud-catching barrier, and Lake Tekapo to the east benefits from fairly consistently clear skies.

Alas, fairly consistently doesn’t mean permanent. And while a few stars are breaking through the wisps, the stargazing tour has morphed into the back-up option – the behind-the-scenes observatory tour. Which, as it happens, is much more interesting.

There are some phenomenally large telescopes up on the hill, and the first one we visit looks like some sort of weapon that should be kept under wraps in a Bond villain’s lair. It’s the McLellan telescope and it’s set up to pinpoint something in the sky, then follow it round. A 275kg mirror, made of special ceramics that don’t expand and contract with the temperature, allows for remarkably clear observations of stars billions of light years away. “This is basically time travel,” says one of the guides. “Everything we can see in space is coming from the past.”

Further up the hill is MOA, an even bigger telescope, and one that has a very specific job to do. It is looking for exo-planets around distant solar systems. It focuses on star-dense sections of the sky, regularly capturing images of them. What they’re looking for is differences in those images. If one of the dots doesn’t follow the usual patterns, it’s a decent indication that there’s a planet there. That information is passed on to researchers elsewhere who can then take a closer look.

It generates a phenomenal amount of data, and the clearest evidence of that is the room next to it where the evidence is analysed. We’ve all had enormous cold weather coats on outside, but everyone’s peeling down to base layers and sweating profusely. There’s a roaring, furnace-like heat in the room, and it’s coming from the cupboard at the side. “That’s not the boiler,” we’re told. “That’s the supercomputer processing all the readings.”

This room, on a remote hill in New Zealand, will probably be the starting point for us discovering life on another planet. It’s probably worth the sweat.

 

Disclosure: David visited the Mount John Observatory on a tour with Earth and Sky, as a guest of Tourism New Zealand.

 

by David Whitley   

 

 

You can get New Zealand included as a stopover on a Globehopper RTW or a Navigator RTW or on our New Zealand via Australia deal