Backpacker Buses

One of the most common ways of travelling around New Zealand, particularly amongst the backpacker brigade, is to use the backpacker buses such as Kiwi Experience and Magic Bus.

Kiwi Experience is aimed at the younger age-range and generally involves much drinking and other related activities, with the itineraries and accommodation tailored accordingly.

Magic Bus is a slightly less well-known outfit but from my perspective, though not having used them, is aimed at a slightly more discerning traveller.

InterCity Coaches

When I did my 4 week trip around New Zealand in 2003, my transport was predominantly by InterCity coach using a flexipass.

I found InterCity to be reliable and comfortable and a good choice as a fully independent traveller. Compared to the backpacker buses, I didn’t have to endure stops at places I wasn’t interested in and could make my own choice on accommodation.

Often you get a commentary from the driver and the people travelling on the coaches are a mixture of locals and tourists.

Furniture and Homeware

New Zealand doesn’t have an IKEA yet (some will be pleased to know) and when it does, it will probably be limited to the Auckland area.

Alternatives are Freedom – somewhere in the gap between IKEA and Habitat

Harvey Norman sell furniture in some stores as well as electrical stuff

Also – Farmers and The Warehouse are both all across New Zealand and sell some furniture

Healthcare

As with anywhere, it is a good idea to register with a GP when you arrive.

In New Zealand, most will have to pay to see a doctor but may be able to claim the cost back. I paid about $60 a time when I was there but invariably could walk into the surgery and see a doctor within minutes. That may have been unusual as it was a city centre polyclinic with services other than just general practitioners (it had an X-ray machine for eaxmple, physiotherapists and a walk-in test centre. All prescriptions are paid for.

Dental care is all private and can be expensive as a result. It is however very good. If possible get any dental work done before you set off.

Ambulances and the hospitals are all quite different to those in the UK particularly. Ambulances are either privately operated or run by St John’s Ambulance. In NZ, St John’s are a charity still but are, I believe, partially funded by the ACC (see below).

Every citizen in New Zealand is a member of the Accident Compensation Corporation who provide 24-hour no-fault personal accident insurance cover and compensation if off work to recuperate or unable to work long term. This is paid for by a tax levy similar to National Insurance in the UK. If emergency treatment is necessary, transport is paid for and the claim automatically submitted to the ACC on the patient’s behalf.

Part of the deal with the ACC is that it is not possible to sue for negligence which results in injury – ACC pays out on a no-fault basis. This has some irritating consequences, since for example pavements can sometimes be in poor condition as there is no incentive for councils to repair them.

Driving in New Zealand Part 1 – Licences

The UK driving licence is valid in New Zealand for up to a year after you arrive (the wording is a bit ambiguous in my view but assume that means after you FIRST arrive to be a resident).

Having a valid UK driver’s licence means you don’t (normally) need to take the practical test but you must take a theory test. This test can be taken at many locations, including AA centres which are usually in most large towns. It can be booked or can sometimes be taken on the day. The NZ Road Code books are available in “all good bookshops” or you might also find that friends or colleagues who have also recently arrived will have a copy.

The test is a multiple-choice paper and all the questions and answers are in the Road Code book – it only needs a few hours’ study for you to be able to answer all questions correctly – although I think you are allowed 2 or 3 wrong answers. You also have to take an eye exam which is undertaken in the test centre/shop using apparatus you peer into to check your ability to see at distance and peripheral vision/colour vision etc). Sometimes you need a recent NZ prescription (from the optometrist .. or as we call them, the optician) as the machine they use cannot deal with all eye conditions.

After a few days, assuming you pass, a licence photocard is sent to you and that is valid for 10 years.

You MUST carry the licence at all times when driving a car.

Incidentally, an NZ driving licence can be a very useful form of ID in shops etc (particularly if you look under 25 and wish to buy alcohol).

Driving in New Zealand Part 2 – Road Rules

New Zealand drives on the left, as in the UK, and generally their laws and rules are the same as in the UK.

There are however two key exceptions.

When turning left from a main road, vehicles must give way to vehicles turning right. This is basically as the right-turners are assumed to be more of a hazard and in a more dangerous position. You have to be wary though when you are the right turning vehicle. When the opposing traffic stream has more than one lane, vehicles going straight ahead do not give way and that can lead to accidents if not careful. You also need to be aware that in cities, especially Auckland, there are many drivers who are tourists and do not know the laws properly and so always wait until left turners in front of you stop – or slow down to stop – before you make your turn. Pretty obvious really but good to be careful!

The other maor rule difference is that drivers turning across pedestrian crossings at junctions (known as intersections in NZ) must give way. Pedestrians have priority over turning vehicles. As a pedestrian it is probably best to be sure the driver knows that before stepping out!

Driving in New Zealand Part 3 – On the Open Road

Driving in New Zealand can be very enjoyable. Apart from the roads being quieter (generally) than in the UK – many roads are often single carriageways with great views. Out of the big cities, its a bit like driving in Wales or Scotland. It can be frustrating in some locations where there are no passing places, however HGVs and tractors should – and mostly do- move over to the left as far as they can to let you pass and passing lanes are frequent and also signposted (e.g signs tell you “passing lane in 1km”) which guards against drivers taking unneccessary risks.

There are very few motorways in New Zealand and on those that do exist, the maximum speed limit is 100kph (approx 60 mph). There has been some major investment in the road system over the past 10 years, with Auckland benefitting most (to the acute annoyance of the rest of the country). In terms of long distance driving off the motorways, you couldn’t expect to get an average speed much higher than 70kph (40mph).

New Zealand does however have one of the worst road safety records in the developed world – far worse than in the UK. One of the many reasons for this is that you can start driving in New Zealand from the age of 16 and insurance is not complusory. You therefore have 17 year olds driving around in 2 litre Subarus or Mitsubishi Evos because, unlike the UK, the insurance doesn’t make the cost of owning one prohibitive. Drink driviing in New Zealand is also less of a social no-no than it is in the UK. The rural nature of most parts of the country and lack of public transport, means that most teenagers need a car if they’re not living in a city. Not all teenagers are like that obviously, but quite frequently, on a weekend, there will be a fatal crash reported where two or three teenagers have been killed due to speeding.

To put it into perspective – the fatal accident rate in New Zealand is about 3-400 per year (population approx 4 million). In the UK, road fatalities are at about 3,000 (population 70 million). The fatal accident rate in NZ is therefore about double that in the UK.

If you are travelling to New Zealand from the UK, particularly if you fly in one go, do not expect to be in any fit state to drive any great distance when you arrive. It would be better and safer to allow at least a day before driving significant distances. Many crashes occur because tourists attemp to drive long distances as soon as they step off the plane (the distances are large too – Auckland to Wellington takes at least 10 hours, to Rotorua and Tauranga at least 2.5).

Tips – Electrical Items

If you are planning on taking lots of electrical equipment etc, its worth buying a few UK-style 4-socket extension cables. You can then save having to re-wire plugs when you arrive and just re-wire the extension cable or plug into a UK-NZ socket adaptor.

Tips – Passports and documents

It’s worth both photocopying and scanning your passport, key documents and travel itineraries etc and emailing them to a Yahoo, Gmail or Hotmail account so that you can always get to them should you lose something. Having them on the internet is just that bit better than being on your own computer.

Tips – Doctor’s Letter

If you have any medical conditions, ask your doctor to write a letter of introduction to give to your GP in New Zealand, detailing test results etc. Its better than just having a presicription to give and also can be useful if taking banned medicines through customs in some countries.