Motorcycle Touring in the South Island of New Zealand
Created | Updated Oct 31, 2008
A Biker's Paradise
The main highways of the South Island of New Zealand are at best described as rudimentary, especially in relation to the UK and Europe. Think of Southern Italy or the Highlands of Scotland - only much quieter and less developed - and you might get an idea of what to expect.
One million people in an area the size of England and Wales.
20 towns scattered over six geographically diverse provinces, each separated by winding and often deserted roads traversing ranges of hills and mountains1. Lord of the Rings was filmed here because it is empty - and cheap.
Motorcycle touring in New Zealand is not for the faint-hearted. Why? Because...
Dual carriageways are almost unheard of.
Passing lanes are few and far between.
The driving habits of the locals are lethal! See the entry on Driving Etiquette in NZ and its attached conversations for further opinions.
If the prospect of riding day after day through an endless succession of corners makes you ask 'why bother?' then perhaps the South Island is not for you.
However, if all this sounds like fun, it can be! Why? Because...
The scenery is amazing.
Most of the locals (when parked) are biker-friendly.
Almost all New Zealanders at least claim to speak English.
The $NZ is worth peanuts compared to most other currencies.
Deciding what sort of bike to ride is largely a matter of personal preference. Dealerships for most of the major European brands are rare and parts and servicing can be expensive. Although Kiwi ingenuity has always applied to motorcycle mechanics (the spirit of John Britten lives on), if you anticipate bending something2 to be on the cards, it might be prudent to consider a bike from the land of the rising yen.
Sports-Tourer - Ideal for those who want to carry lots of gear and/or who want to stick to the sealed roads.
Off-Roader - If you want to head into the hills, an off-roader is the choice for you.
Sports Bikes - Can be a lot of fun, but they do have a tendency to minimise how much you get to see, because you will either have your head down while the scenery blurs past or you will end up in A and E (Accident and Emergency) before you knew what hit you (or what it was that you hit). Note that NZ does have free medical care for all accident related injuries, but who wants hospital food? Also, note that fines for speeding are neither trivial nor rare.
Some of the Legalities You Should Know...
Although the laws do change, you might need an international driving permit.
Your bike will need a Warrant of Fitness3 and registration although it won't need insurance as it isn't compulsory in New Zealand. Perhaps because of this, premiums are relatively cheap and most vehicles are insured, at least with third-party cover.
Despite many drivers not reading the road code (the Kiwi 'Highway Code') since the day they got their licence in a pack of Weetbix4, 'Common sense' seems to prevail on the roads.
When in Rome
Drive on the Left - Most of the time, most Kiwis do and it makes sense to follow suit, especially on tight right-handers. It's all very well getting your knee down and/or scraping your pegs but oncoming log-trucks are surprisingly big and very solid when seen from up close.
One Lane Bridges - These are still quite common, if not exactly popular. The law of the land demands that downhill traffic gives way. This is rarely a cause for confusion as most such bridges are in hilly terrain.
The laws of physics demand that little things give way to big things. If any confusion arises, be prepared to stop, quickly! Once bitten, you stay bitten!
One Peculiarity - Give way to all traffic on your right when turning. This includes giving way to any oncoming vehicle that is turning right into a road which you are turning left into.
Some Useful Links
If you are considering buying or hiring a bike, try NZ Yellow Pages - Motor Cycles for sale and/or hire to get an idea of current rates and models
If you are thinking of the BYO5 option, then check out the Land Transport Safety Authority page on Temporary Vehicle Imports.
New Zealand offers the two-wheeled traveller an ideal opportunity to experience a diversity of unique landscapes condensed into what must be one of the safest and friendliest countries in the English-speaking world. Quite simply, road touring in Godzone6 is different and the potential for fun and great times is huge!