The south island of New Zealand is
tailor-made for road-touring. Most of it is very well maintained, two-lane, open country road, clean except for the
occasional accidental opossum. All the sheep are safely penned. Other vehicular competition is surprisingly few
and far between. Mid-summer days are long, weather is bright, and roadside wildflowers continue their exuberant
The two Toyota "mini-buses" (one with a car top cargo container) we rented were both about
30-year-old diesel models. Gears were located on the steering column; the clutches had a little bit of slip. The one
I drove was severely underpowered, chugging up in second even the mildest incline. Every gear shift was accentuated
by a big black belch from its exhaust pipe. It’s a small complaint, considering that we logged many kilometers,
and they performed flawlessly.
Credit goes to Pegasus Rental
Cars. Owners Roger and Sarah Wyeth were a joy to work with. Each vehicle cost NZ$125 per day, very
economical for 10 people in each. Each van was also charged a NZ$110 relocation fee. This is because we wanted
them for a one-way trip, picking up at Queenstown and returning to Christchurch. For an independent franchise
like Pegasus, this is not easily accommodated. Fortunately, Roger and Sarah decided to spend their New Year’s
Eve at Queenstown. They each drove our two vans from Christchurch to Queenstown, and greeted us at the airport
when we arrived.
When renting a car in New Zealand, be sure to conduct a thorough inspection of the
vehicle and document all pre-existing damage. It’s an important precautionary advice. Rental car companies in
New Zealand, even the likes of Hertz, simply cannot support a business plan that relies on churning their inventory
with a constant supply of brand new vehicles. Rental cars are therefore inevitably older, and often quite beat up.
Regulated insurance policies for the rental car industry in New Zealand does not particularly side with the
customer. Every rental car comes with an "insurance excess policy" of NZ$1,250 (plus tax). For an additional
NZ$10 per day, the vehicle’s policy can be decreased to NZ$750. If you are careless, an unscrupulous rental
company may try to take this enormous sum of money from you (or your insurer). Because the vehicle probably
has at least that much damage to its exterior carriage to begin with, and you will be out of luck trying to contest a
he-said-she-said accusation of liability.
Having said that however, I found most Kiwis, as New Zealanders
call themselves, friendly, forthright, and genuinely welcoming of foreign visitors. Manners on the road seem to
reflect this easy civility.
Once my brother and I adjusted to driving from the wrong side of the vehicle, on
the wrong side of the road, the rolling roadways of New Zealand were both relaxing and invigorating. From
Queenstown, where we leisurely spent New Year’s Eve, our primary destinations were Milford Sound and Mount
Cook, before concluding the road trip at Christchurch.
The drive between Queenstown and Milford Sound
must surely qualify among the best in the world. The stretch along the base of the Remarkables Range, following
the coastline contours of Lake Wakatipu, is a roadster’s dream. Beyond the lake and the homesteads perched on
gentle hills, we stopped at the Kingston Flyer depot. Had
we known about this vintage steam train attraction, we might have tried to time it so that those of us who wished
could take the 30-minute ride to Fairlight. As it was, the rest stop was entertaining. The restrooms attached to the
depot were actual train carriage latrines.
Any talk of New Zealand’s countryside requires mention of . . . sheep. Goodness gracious, there are millions of them! The turn onto State 94 toward Te Anau is sandwiched
between two sheep ranches and easily missed; and opportunities to U-turn along the two-lane highway are
I don’t have enough accolades for the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound, particularly the half
through Fiordland National Park. We stopped often to admire and photograph the vistas we encountered, of Lake
Te Anau, the Eglinton River, and lush meadows in starbursts of colors. One good stop, also easily missed because
there are no parking lots for it, is Mirror Lake. There are nice views all along its boardwalk.
at Homer Tunnel however that you realize New Zealand is an entirely different world. I mean, like
Middle Earth or somewhere. At one end, it’s a small hole in a mountainside surrounded by snow-draped sentinels.
It doesn’t look like a single bus can fit through it. The tunnel itself is utterly scary! 1200m of pitch
blackness, to the extent that even your own vehicle’s headlights illuminate nothing and every oncoming headlight
appears to be a head-on collision. The tunnel is tilted at a pretty good grade, and without visual cues, your sense of
gravity becomes off-kilter, akin to a sort of vertigo. When you’re finally relieved at the other end, the road is a
steep switch-backing descent into a seemingly Amazon, rainforest jungle basin. It’s a dramatically dislocating
I personally felt extra-relieved to stop at The Chasm, about halfway down our final
approach to Milford Sound. It’s a short walk to the raging rapids of the Cleddau River’s narrow chute. But, the
final reward of this long drive is Milford Sound.
The drive from Queenstown to Mount Cook is also good.
Not far from Queenstown and the airport at Frankton, we couldn’t resist stopping at the old bridge spanning the
Kawarau River. It was too early for the crowds to have yet gathered; the jump had not yet opened for the
day’s business. I am, of course, referring to the world’s first commercial bungy-jumping attraction. With no one
but us there, we were able to walk right up to the platform, look down to the river below, and for most of us, safely
imagine the ordeal and feel re-assured that we rightly chose not to do it.
Past the bridge, the Kawarau
River meanders through a narrow, bucolic valley that is one of New Zealand’s better known wine countries. A
gradual ascent and descent over the verdant Pisa Range brought us to the town of Cromwell, where we topped off
our gas tanks. We’d reached State Highway 8. With a good stretch of mostly level road, we would make up some
Near the foot of Lake Pukaki, we stopped for lunch at the town of Twizel. Nice stop,
even if the town seemed to me sedate and suburban. With my parents, at a little bistro of patrons reading
newspapers, I ordered a breakfast plate of eggs and ham steak. The Korner Kafe serves a generous portion.
I’m also amused that both New Zealand and Australia seem to consider a grilled slice or two of tomato to be a
necessary side to any breakfast dish.
The subsequent drive on State 80, alongside Lake Pukaki, is terrific.
The first really good look at Mount Cook towering behind Lake Pukaki is at Peter’s Lookout. The head of
the lake changes into a shallow, alluvial ribbon of waterways typical of lakes with a slow-melting source, and the
road bends sharply to descend toward Glentanner. We drove right past this small collection of buildings, but it’s
worth noting that most of Mount Cook’s tour operators, including helicopter rides, are based
Summer at Mount Cook National Park is idyllic, but I’d like to someday take an extended winter
There are some interesting waypoints from Mount Cook to Christchurch, too. Lake Tekapo
Village is considered by most to be a requisite one. It was also a good stop for gas. At the end of this small town,
at the terminal shoreline of its namesake lake, is the Church of the Good Shepherd. It is a tiny stone
structure, but the large, glass-less window view of the lake and mountains behind a small pulpit inside had an
expansive effect on my spirit. I was also inspired by its resident priest, greeting all visitors with such
Next to the church is the also affecting Collie Dog Monument, an homage to
the animals that made one of New Zealand’s chief husbandry crops possible. There’s a great nobility to the
sculpture -- another shrine to the divine in nature.
We stopped for lunch at the charming town of
Geraldine along the shortcut, State Highway 79. Several of us sat in a spacious music/art/food joint called
Easy Way Cafe. It took them a long time to prepare our table’s mostly pasta and salad orders, but the meal
was superb, as was its big bowl of cappuccino. From there, the stream of small towns separated by agricultural
fields along Highway 1 passed by us in a blur before we realized that we were in Christchurch.
still much remaining of New Zealand’s South Island that we didn’t get to see on our two-car caravan tour. Next
time, however, I will institute a rule: No karaoke battles over the walkie-talkie.