Traveling New Zealand

Traveling New Zealand

North Island

Traveling in New Zealand is a different experience than traveling in Europe, the U.S., and Australia.  The country stretches across two narrow islands divided by the Cook Straits.  More than 70% of the country’s 4.4 million population live on the smaller  north island including the largest city, Auckland, with 1.3 million residents.  The capital, Wellington, is on a southern harbor that leads to the Cook Straits and the southern Pacific Ocean.

South Island

The south island is sparsely populated with jagged mountain ranges running in a general northeast to southwest orientation. One of the most prominent features on the south islands are the Southern Alps and 12,000 ft. Mt. Cook, the highest mountain peak in the country. Between the mountain ranges are glaciers, picturesque valleys, rain forests, lakes, and rivers.

The largest national park in New Zealand is Fjordlands National Park on the far southwest corner bordering the Tasman Sea.  Day and overnight cruises take adventure seeking tourists through the scenic, mountainous Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound in the fjordlands park. It’s an amazing experience.

Satellite view of the south island

Mt. Cook in the Southern Alps

These natural wonders makes traveling in New Zealand an adventure in itself.  The question becomes how best to visit the many stunning attractions traveling over rugged terrain.    Travelers have choices: renting a car, taking buses, signing up for tours, or flying.  We saw a few travelers on motorcycles and  bicycles, but wouldn’t recommend either.

Before we arrived in Auckland, we’d researched travel in New Zealand on Web sites, in travel books, and by talking to travelers who were  eager to share their experiences.  Their recommendations proved to be very useful; we’d already changed itineraries in Australia based on what we’d learned from other travelers.

Travel options in New Zealand

We spent part of an afternoon at the Britomart information center on Auckland’s Queen Street to explore our options.  This free service helps tourists plan itineraries, book bus and ferry tickets, and make hotel, motel, and B & B reservations.  Within an hour, our experienced travel assistant booked hotel reservations in Wellington and Rotorua, bought bus and ferry tickets, and made suggestions about travel and lodging on the south island.

After explaining how we like to travel, she helped us book trips on two bus services.  It was a good decision.  Here are the choices for traveling around New Zealand.

Car Rental  – New Zealand roads are well maintained, but narrow and hazardous.  Shoulders are narrow, often dropping into a river, off a cliff, or into the woods.  Road are winding with many blind curves, narrow one or two lane bridges, and congested bus and truck traffic.  Arriving in towns can be confusing with intersections, roundabouts, and road signs. Many of the signs are in Maori, which were confusing. On every bus trip we took, our experienced driver negotiated through hazardous situations that made me nervous.  We’d rather have trained drivers get us to our destination while we enjoy the scenery.    We rented a car for two days in Queenstown, but only for short day trips.  I’d never risk traveling by rental car for longer distances.

Bus Tours – tour companies offer packaged multi-day trips to main tourist destinations.  They offer large, air-conditioned buses the size of railroad cars, but are expensive, between $250 – $350 a day.  You also travel with the same group for several days, rarely meeting Kiwis or having time to explore on your own.  Tours stick to a strict schedule with few options. Meals and lodging are pre-arranged in expensive hotels and restaurants.  We prefer to travel where we have liberty to stay where we want, travel when we want, and linger and explore on our own.

Air travel – Expensive.  We  took one flight at the end of our trip, flying from Queenstown in the south to Auckland on the north island.  Had we taken the bus, it would have taken three or four long days.  Our two hours flight let us spend two more nights in Auckland before we flew to LA.

Private Bus – New Zealand has several bus touring companies  that offered options on departure times, destinations, and competitive prices.  We signed up with two bus companies, Naked Bus and Inter City line.  They offer different pricing models, some by mileage, others by destinations.  We liked the options and used both of them when they met our needs.  We like options.

Topography of New Zealand

New Zealand rests on junction of Australia and Pacific tectonic plates


New Zealand was one of the most geologically unusual places we’d ever visited.  Australia is a sprawling expanse of mostly of arid deserts and geological formations thrust up hundreds of millions of years ago.  More than 90% of the population live a few miles from the coastline. Vast areas of the outback are uninhabitable due to extreme temperatures and lack of water.  New Zealand’s topology is much different.

New Zealand and Australia were part of the ancient super continent Gondwana.  They split off from Gondwana about 100 million years ago; New Zealand split from Australia about 90 million years ago.


New Zealand geology consists of parallel mountain ranges rising above  a submerged continent that stretches to Australia.  The country rests on the junction of the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates which means they are subject to earthquakes and volcanoes. North island has dormant volcanos around Auckland and the central valley which has many lakes, including Rotorua and Taupo, formed from caldera of extinct volcanos.

Most travel is on north to south roads in valleys and across high passes in the mountain ranges.  One way to imagine traveling in New Zealand would be if the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada were scrunched into California with the Sierra Nevada on the coastline.  Travel over the mountains would be limited to mountain passes and through narrow valleys between them.

Naked Bus

Our introduction to traveling was via Naked Bus from Auckland to Rotorua where we spent three nights visiting one of the main tourist destination on the north island.  Fellow passengers were international gap year students, backpackers, and adventure travelers like us.  The bus stopped four or five times to pick up or drop off passengers in towns along the way.  Although the distance was about hundred and fifty kilometers, it took about four hours with a fair amount of traffic.

The trip was scenic through small towns and villages, following along rivers and crossing several bridges.  We drove through rural countryside where large herds of sheep grazed in pastures that ran up steep hillsides to the mountains. We were excited about the adventures ahead.

* * * * *

Next:  Rotorua


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3 responses to “Traveling New Zealand

  1. Finally catching up on your blog, Jack. Enjoying following you through Australia now, and reading your NZ blog, as we’re going to be house exchanging in Wellington in January, 2015. Your comments and advice are most useful! Joan & Dane


    • You’ll love NZ; Kiwis are friendly, entire country is like one huge national park. Wellington is a charming capital on hillsides surrounding the harbor. Hope you have time to visit both north and south islands. Taking a five hour ferry ride across Cook Straits was spectacular. And I’m sure you’ll read up on NZ history to enhance your travels.


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