One. Lane. Bridge.

With about 1400 kilometers under our belts in the past 10 days (~900 miles), I’ve spent a certain amount of time behind the wheel driving and I have to say that it is absolutely nothing like driving in the USA, and not particularly similar to anywhere else we’ve been either.

For starters, driving is on the “other” side of the road. That’s actually not a significant issue for me it turns out because I drive so rarely in the US that I pretty much forget how to do it at all. So when I do have to drive on the left or the right it pretty much means just figuring out what the rules are in whatever town we pick up the car and going with it. There was one wrong turn late one evening when I was the only person on the road, and a mix-up in terms of right-of-way at one point, but no major problems and no real damage done.

There are also a number of road signs that seem to exist here but not elsewhere I’ve driven. The signs include Sneezing Mountain:

Sneezing Mountain with Extra Phlegm:

And this combination sign focused pretty much entirely on scaring the hell out of whoever approaches:

You’re welcome, I guess:

They do strictly enforce the speed limits here, which I discovered the hard way. The more I think about it I’m amazed that I could actually get the rental car we had up as fast as I was clocked (118 km/h or ~74mph) but I was definitely going that fast and the constable was pretty clear that there would be a mandatory fine issued. And there was. So now NZ Transit has ZND120 of my money, and I know not to speed (as much on roads that are highly patrolled). The speed limit is 100 across most of the highways here, and that is completely unreasonable in much of the south island. The roads are narrow and wind through the mountains and around rivers and lakes, so actually getting up to 100 most of the time is almost impossible. Google’s driving directions seem to just use the speed limit as how they calculate drive time, so depending on that isn’t particularly useful – a lesson we learned the hard way.

There are also a range of rental car companies, from “known” names like Hertz, Avis and Budget, to local brands like Jucy and Apex. With a significant cost savings we went with Apex. And we got a car that basically had no brakes. I’m not a mechanic, but I’m pretty sure that there aren’t supposed to be gouges in the brake pads like these:

It took us a couple hours in the repair depot waiting around while they sorted it all out, but they eventually gave us a replacement car instead of insisting that we wait for the repairs to be completed. The replacement car has been fine and I really have no complaints of note now that we got working brakes, but be careful and make sure that the car is actually functional before heading out on the road.

And that brings me to the title of this post. There are a few levels of road here in New Zealand, with State Highways being roughly the equivalent of the US highways (main roads but not limited access like interstates) and the most pervasive roads in the country. At every single crossing of a body of water there is a sign naming the crossing. And there are a lot of them, and they’re all named uniquely. Some of the names are fun (Stinky Creek), some are rather misleading (Blackwater Creek – the water was crystal clear) and some describe the area they’re in (Hairpin Culvert). I think that NZ Transit may employ the same folks who name paints to come up with the names for all the creeks, streams, culverts and other trickles of water that a road might cross. The significant bridges (mostly over rivers, but not always) are almost all one lane. So each time you come up on a bridge there is a chance that someone else is already on it, coming right at you. Some of the time there is a passing bay halfway down the bridge to allow you to pull aside and let the other cars pass, but much of the time you basically just sit there and wait to see if the other car is going to stop or not and then you get to pass. Suffice it to say that it adds some excitement to the travel process. And if you happen to come across a bridge that also has railroad tracks in the middle of the road, the train ALWAYS gets the right of way.

There are also scenic overlooks every few kilometers. There are so many that eventually we stopped checking what the view was at each turn off. Of course, we did still stop at a few, including this one on the highway to Arthur’s Pass (one of the more photographed viaducts there is):

And these few along the highway between Te Anau and Queenstown:

Finally, be careful when stopping, as the Kea (a local parrot) has a habit of getting close to cars. Very close. This guy was actually walking around on the hood of the car for a while and didn’t seem all that concerned when I opened the window to snap this shot:

Overall, a pretty easy country to get around in if you’re comfortable on the road with a bunch of camper vans driven by folks who don’t seem that used to driving large, top heavy vehicles on narrow, winding roads where everyone is trying to go faster than they should be given the conditions and is distracted by the amazing views!

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.