What should I know before doing a long road trip in New Zealand?
January 22, 2011 4:13 PM   Subscribe

I'm going on a road trip around New Zealand and also around Australia. What should I know about before doing a long road trip like this?

My boyfriend and I are leaving for New Zealand in September 2011. We plan to buy a used van down there (we won't be staying in many hostels), and use that to see the entire country as much as possible. We then plan to go over to Australia and do basically the same thing. When finished, we will finally settle down in a city (undecided which at this point), and use our working holiday visas to live and work for a few months.

What should I know before I do a long road trip like this?

If anyone has done something similar, how long did you stay in each town or city before you moved to the next?

General road trip advice also appreciated.
posted by Bron-Y-Aur to Travel & Transportation around New Zealand (25 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
In Australia, decent-sized towns are a lot further away than you expect. Whenever going through towns, check your petrol (gas) levels - we don't tend to have too many petrol stations by themselves along major highways.

More specifically, if you choose to do outback or desert driving, make sure you're carrying plenty of water and probably extra petrol in a storage can.

(Other random tips: please drive the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, and the roads and small towns outside of Adelaide are nothing short of amazing).
posted by chronic sublime at 4:55 PM on January 22, 2011

Best answer: This book, "Camps Australia Wide", saved our ass when we were campervaning around Australia. Find it at camping supply stores. Great maps of free campsites all over the country. Saved us hundreds of dollars in campground fees and hours driving around looking for somewhere to camp. Can't recommend it enough.

Some advice from my experience:
Staying in a hostel every once in a while gives you a good break. You are going to spend a lot of time in your van, and sleeping in a real bed once in a while will help keep you sane.

Most small towns don't have that much to do in them. Check out whatever Lonely Planet recommends, then move on. When you find somewhere you like, park the van and spend a couple days exploring. DON'T OVER-PLAN.

Like chronic says, fill up whenever you can. You van will eat through gas like you won't believe, and towns can be disarmingly far apart.

There is almost no reason to go to Canberra.

Plan times for you and the boyfriend to spend apart. It's hard get time for yourself when your sleeping space is also your driving space. My trip partner and I started getting a little antsy with each other after a month, and giving ourselves some alone time helped a lot.

I'll drop back in if I can think of more advice. It's been a few years now so the details are a little hazy, but I can tell you the best decision I made in Australia was to spend a couple months doing the camper van thing. You'll have a blast. Feel free to MeMail me with any specific questions.
posted by auto-correct at 5:07 PM on January 22, 2011

Best answer: In NZ you can camp for pretty much free at Department of Conservation (DOC) sites. If you want showers and cooking facilities, stay at Top 10 Caravan Parks occasionally.

Note that the concept of buying a camper at the start of the summer and selling it at the end of the summer doesn't work so well anymore. Because of so many people doing this, you basically can't get any of your money back when you sell it because the used car buyers know that you have to leave the country and will only offer you a pittance for it. I know a few people who had to abandon their campers because they couldn't find a buyer in March. If you're fine with not getting your money back, then don't worry about this.

MeMail me if you have any questions.
posted by krunk at 5:37 PM on January 22, 2011

Check out local fuel prices before you do your budget. They are much higher than the US.

Please don't crap all over the place. So-called "freedom campers" shitting in the areas around where they park up are causing considerable anger in small communities that have to deal with their mess. Most of the NZ hinterland is not well equipped with public toilet facilities and you are expected to pony up for a campsite.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:00 PM on January 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Just to check - by "used van", you mean a properly equipped camper van with toilet and waste disposal facilities and not just a bog standard van, right? If not, you should be aware that "freedom camping" - i.e. driving around in and living out of a vehicle without the use of approved hotels or campsites - is heavily frowned upon in many parts of New Zealand and will result in disapproval from many locals and, quite possibly, fines and legal trouble.
posted by fearthehat at 6:01 PM on January 22, 2011

Mostly, you need to know that they drive on the other side of the road. And there are shockingly skinny roads on the south island cut into the sides of mountains with no guard rails and there's a car coming and you're on the left side of the road with nowhere to move over because there's a really steep cliff there with no guard rail and you're sure you're going to fall to your death but the car squeaks through and you keep driving and you don't see another car for 45 minutes so it's okay.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:19 PM on January 22, 2011

You should know that petrol (gas) prices in NZ and Australia are MUCH higher than you will be used to if you are from the USA. And that a used campervan or whatever will use a lot of petrol.

You should also know that NZ is bigger than it seems on a map. I have known people who thought they'd drive around New Zealand in a few days and see everything. I expect you are smarter and more educated than that, though, but I thought I'd mention it just in case.
posted by lollusc at 6:23 PM on January 22, 2011

Don't under-estimate the challenge of driving on the correct ;-) side of the road. Many people can adjust easily, but I've also known many who were terrified after trying to drive out of the cities and along the highways - it's not so much the side of the road, but all the semi-automatic instinctive reactions need to be reversed. That said, people I've known who've hired cars seem to adapt quicker than those who jump into a campervan or tow caravans straight away. Maybe hire a car for a week or 2 in NZ first?

Much of the rest of your questions I'll leave, as it really depends on your timetable and interests - except to say that in Aus you could easily fill a week or two in each of the capital cities (OK, maybe 'up to a week' in Canberra* ;-), a few days to a week in major towns, and a leisurely couple of days to a week driving between each major stop. Adjust those times to suit your personal expectations and interests (e.g. you could easily spend a month in Sydney or Melbourne if you wanted to 'feel' the place, a month in central/northern coastal Qld if you were swimming / diving types, etc).

Nth-ing the fuel thing in Aus, though it's not really an issue along the major east-coast highway. Be wary on the other highways and roads, though, and fill up where you can - as said, campervans will empty their tank disarmingly quickly, especially when you know the next town is only 100km away…

* Canberra, I personally like - granted, the city's either dead or full of public-service types, but there's some pretty country around there, and quite a bit to see & do (both Parliament houses, the National Gallery, War Memorial, Black Mountain, Tidbinbilla Deep-Space Communications Complex, etc). Not necessarily 'gotta go there to see!' stuff, but if you're travelling that way, well worth the time to stop a few days and visit.
posted by Pinback at 6:35 PM on January 22, 2011

I would suggest checking out "In a Sunburned Country" by Bill Bryson which describes several trips he made to Australia in the mid 90s. The book covers a lot of territory, so you might discover some places which sound promising, but more than that he offers a lot of interesting general information, often humorous, about Australia which gave me an invaluable sense of place.

If you can get it I recommend the audio book as read by the author.
posted by Horatius at 6:50 PM on January 22, 2011

Many travellers don't realise just how large Australia is. It's roughly the size of the USA, but has less then 10% of the population. There's massive swathes of land where there's basically nothing, and every few years there's a tragic story on the news about somebody who underestimated how much petrol and water they would need, got into trouble, tried to walk for help and died. So please, be very careful and plan ahead if you're going to go anywhere other than along the east coast.
posted by Georgina at 7:52 PM on January 22, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the great advice everyone, you opened my eyes to a lot of things I hadn't considered.

fearthehat - I do mean properly equipped camper van! I should have clarified that. The idea of doing a road trip like this in a normal van terrifies me!

i_am_joe's_spleen - I can assure you I have no intentions to be a freedom shitter!

krunk - I was planning on doing the buying and selling at the end of the summer idea. I had heard that you can be taken advantage of by certain buyers/sellers, so its a helpful point you make regarding the difficulties that can arise when trying to sell the van after we're finished with it.

auto-correct - Thanks for the advice regarding spending time away from the boyfriend. I had previously expressed concern about us getting really grouchy or snippy with each other, definitely going to make sure we get some time apart so we don't bite each others heads off.
posted by Bron-Y-Aur at 8:59 PM on January 22, 2011

For Australia: a lot of retired people get themselves campervans or caravans and become "grey nomads", just travelling from place to place for a while, staying in camping grounds.

On the plus side, there are plenty of camping grounds, but my parents (who do this kind of thing when travelling interstate to visit relatives) warned me that the standard modus operandi is to move early in the day, get a campsite in the next town by around 10am (and no later than midday) and then hang out for the rest of the day. In other words, don't think you can show up at sunset & get a spot, because they may all be taken.

National parks are a good option for camping. You pay a nominal fee per night (generally, less than $10) and get showers, toilets, BBQ facilities etc. Park entry normally costs more on top, but if you get an annual pass from the National Parks & Wildlife Service this will probably end up cheaper in the long run. Annoyingly, I never realised that these seem to be state-based, and not fully national. At least there are only a handful of states & territories.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:21 PM on January 22, 2011

September is a long way ahead, but do remember that much of the interior of Queensland has just been devastated by floods, and it will take years before the road system gets back in shape. Don't rely on a map: before you set out each day, check with locals to make sure that there is still a road up ahead.
posted by alonsoquijano at 10:27 PM on January 22, 2011

In Australia, stick to the edges. The middle is pretty much a sequence of big deserts. If you'd like to see Uluru, do your research on how to get there - you can't just strike out randomly across the desert. There are also buses and planes to get there if you've got somewhere you can leave your campervan for a few days.

Not as many people make the trip over to Perth and the west coast, partly because the Nullarbor (meaning: no trees) is pretty damn boring to drive across. But if you do, the South-West area is full of beautiful karri forests, wineries, surfing and lovely people. Perth is good for a week or two of exploring - if you're there between December and March there are tons of outdoor events to take advantage of the hot weather. The inland mining towns (Kalgoorlie, etc) aren't worth visiting, in my opinion. The west coast has recently got a new road opened, a huge improvement over the old narrow Brand Hwy that was full of road trains. You can drive up to Geraldton from Perth in a day (the new foreshore development there is nice), then another half-day's drive will take you up to Kalbarri - you can easily spend a few days there seeing the gorges and eating fantastic seafood. I haven't been further north, but apparently Broome has spectacular beaches.
posted by harriet vane at 10:33 PM on January 22, 2011

Best answer: Please don't crap all over the place. So-called "freedom campers" shitting in the areas around where they park up are causing considerable anger in small communities that have to deal with their mess. Most of the NZ hinterland is not well equipped with public toilet facilities and you are expected to pony up for a campsite.


Camping sites are abundant, and there's no especially good reason not to use them. Unfortunately some of the "freedom campers" (raging arsehats) have collectively behaved badly enough that the mere sight of certain types of camping vehicale (such as the Spacebus branded ones) will automatically put you on the locals' shitlist.

You should also know that NZ is bigger than it seems on a map.

Yeah. New Zealand is the size of the UK. Just emptier. And the roads are far more challenging than you're most likely used to driving; I just took a trip of about 150km that took two and a half hours, mostly because of the Rimutaka road being between Wellington and the Wairarapa; this is State Highway 2 and one of the major routes in the country. In some parts of the South Island what lare marked as State Highways on the roads are unsealed gravel (the road between Arrowtown and points south is always good for a giggle; steep gravel inclines winding down the sides of mountain ranges!).

One problem is there's so much stuff you could look at or do. I spend a week in the South Island most years, and pretty much every time I go I take slightly different routes and I haven't run out of places to go and discover yet. Hell, lots of people (stupid people) suggest skipping Wellington on the way to the ferry, and that alone costs you the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, Te Papa, and a bunch of other stuff worth poking about. If you have time, I'd suggest doing a bloody big loop, driving down a more-or-less coastal route of each island, and back up the coast of the way north again, going inland for the Mackenzie Basin and the Southern Alps in the South Island, and Taupo and Rotorua in the north.

(An aside: the advice sometimes given to avoid/ignore the cities gets on my tits. It speaks a contempt for the people who live here and have made the country, for better or worse, what it is. The Goldies, the Len Lyes, the '81 Springbok Tour, Split Enz, Shihad, what-have-you are as much a part of the place as a nice view of the southern lakes.)

Australia is bigger than you'd imagine. And also very empty. Don't be one of those tourists who doesn't pack enough water and petrol and winds up dead in the desert, please.
posted by rodgerd at 12:56 AM on January 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Not quite sure how long the road trip part of your trip is meant to last but if you could do Australia first and then NZ you might end up with nicer weather.

September in NZ is still very early spring, September in many parts of Australia is pleasantly warm.

By contrast January/February in (most parts of) Australia is pretty darned hot whilst in NZ it's kind of pleasant summery weather (he said ... sitting in NZ in mid-January hearing the rain slash down outside).
posted by southof40 at 3:16 AM on January 23, 2011

Rodgerd's comments about the NZ roads are worth emphasising. Distances may not look large, but you will be driving on narrow, winding, hilly roads, not straight flat US-style highways. And you'll be driving on the "wrong" side of the road (don't be one of those tourists who loses concentration and drives headlong into another vehicle because you forgot we drive on the left).

Food prices may be more expensive than you are used to. They are currently very high compared to the UK and US (mainly due to the NZ dollar being very high). I just got back visiting NZ from the UK, and most food items were cheaper in London than in NZ.
posted by Infinite Jest at 4:49 AM on January 23, 2011

Don't underestimate how cold it can get at night. I spent last February in NZ and last March in Australia, and we had to sleep in thermal underwear (tops and bottoms), socks and wool hats, plus zip our sleeping bags together. We were tent camping, but unless those vans have heaters you'll be in the same boat.

Oh yeah, take silk sleeping bag liners! We found Katmandu (the giant Aussie/NZ camping shop) quite expensive and wished we had bought them at home. Books are also very expensive ($30 for a paperback) so you might want to look into getting a Kindle if you read a lot.
posted by krunk at 7:02 AM on January 23, 2011

Response by poster: September in NZ is still very early spring, September in many parts of Australia is pleasantly warm.

By contrast January/February in (most parts of) Australia is pretty darned hot whilst in NZ it's kind of pleasant summery weather (he said ... sitting in NZ in mid-January hearing the rain slash down outside).

I had heard previously that spring in New Zealand was gorgeous and that's why I felt September would be a good time to head over.

However, I don't take too well to extreme heat (I can get quite sick even here in Vancouver, BC during 32 degree celsius heat waves) so the idea of going over to Australia first before it gets too hot seems like an excellent idea.
posted by Bron-Y-Aur at 11:35 AM on January 23, 2011

Oh, another argument for doing Australia first: the Rugby World Cup is held in New Zealand in September/October. Airfares will be higher, and there will be more tourists competing with you for camper vans/sites, etc.

(Unless of course you are rugby fanatics, but if you are, I figure you'd already know about the RWC).
posted by Infinite Jest at 1:45 PM on January 23, 2011

the Rugby World Cup is held in New Zealand in September/October

Oh Yes I'd forgotten about this.

I wouldn't like to say for certain but I do think this is going to have a significant impact on all sorts of tourist resources (camp sites / hotel rooms / airfare prices / camper van rentals etc) during its run (9 September – 23 October). Certainly there have been concerns expressed in NZ media about the number of hotel rooms etc in the main centres and although I think this has been resolved to some extent you'd want to factor the event into your plans
posted by southof40 at 3:14 PM on January 23, 2011

Hmmm, if you melt at 32 degrees, you want to seriously think through your Australia leg.

There are few places, (Hobart, maybe Canberra), that aren't regularly over thirty from November onwards. October in Perth and Adelaide. And from November on, it's the Wet in northern Australia, with humid horribleness for a couple of months before that.

Make sure your vehicle is airconditioned.
posted by kjs4 at 6:07 PM on January 23, 2011

Best answer: This advice is all for Australia, although I'm sure a lot of it holds true for NZ too:

Carry lots of water. Enough for your car/van if it overheats, and enough for you to drink if things get bad.

Carry spare fuel (petrol, not gas. It's the same thing, but the terminology is different). Only use this if you HAVE to. Normally, fill up whenever you can. And while we're on the subject, don't try to pay for fuel BEFORE you have filled up! Fill up, then pay.

Check your blind spots - over your RIGHT shoulder.

Respect truck drivers. If you see a truck gaining on you in your rear-view mirror, keep to the left, keep your speed constant, and let him pass.

Kangaroos are cute and all, but if you hit one, it's likely to do some major damage to your vehicle. Try to avoid this occurrence.

Respect the speed limits. Cops in rural towns here often don't have much to do and will spend a whole day sitting there on the highway waiting to catch tourists who haven't slowed down for their town.

Get a mobile phone account with Telstra. Yes, they are the big corporate pig we all complain about, but, once you get outside the major cities, they provide the best coverage by a long shot.
posted by Diag at 2:53 AM on January 24, 2011

Kangaroos are cute and all, but if you hit one, it's likely to do some major damage to your vehicle. Try to avoid this occurrence
Yes indeed. The most dangerous times for roos are dawn and twilight, when they're most active, and least visible to you. They don't just stand still in the road, either; they often get hit trying to hop across the road in front of cars and trucks. The best thing you can do is slow right down if you have to drive in the early morning or evening.

Some other driving notes (for Australia): the speed limit is generally 110km/h on main highways, 90km/h on smaller country roads, and 50 or 60km/h in urban areas depending on the State. Seatbelts are compulsory for all passengers. The Australian blood alcohol limit is .05 BAC, and the police conduct frequent random breath tests.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:39 PM on January 24, 2011

I don't know if you'll check this thread again... but just in case. Regarding not dealing well with the heat, it's the begining of February and where I am, on the coast of South Australia about 400km west of Adelaide, it was 46C this week.

Forty. Six. Degrees.

And there will be plenty more days over 40C before things start to cool off around April.

While this year has been mild until now, that kind of extreme heat can start up in late November / early December.

So if you're thinking about heading through the Centre, through SA and the NT to see Uluru... think carefully about whether you want to be sleeping in a van in those temperatures. It's dry heat, but it's still, well, really, really, reaaaaaaaaaaaly hot.

Places up North on the usual tourist trail - the Whitsundays, Townsville, Cairns, Darwin - can also get ridiculously hot too. With the added bonus of soaking humidity. In fact, I'd say that 46C where I am now is nowhere near as debiliating as 38C in Cairns was when I lived there.

I'm not saying this to discourage you - you can still go to all of those places in summer and have a brilliant time. Just have some sort of cooling plan in place if the heat is bad. Perhaps as others have suggested, plans for a few hostel, or even hotel, nights. Hope you have a great trip!
posted by t0astie at 8:53 PM on February 1, 2011

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