Five Things I Wish I Knew Before Visiting New Zealand

I recently spent a week exploring New Zealand on a whirlwind tour of the country coordinated by Tourism New Zealand as part of the Blog4NZ Project. As soon as I arrived, I knew that I had found a new favorite travel destination and I can’t wait to return and get to know the Kiwis better. Even though I loved my experience, there are some things I wish I knew before visiting.

1. Driving Quirks – I know what you’re expecting here, some sort of complaint about driving on the left-hand side of the road. That actually wasn’t a big deal and I adjusted to the change fairly quickly. No, I’m talking about some of the strange road signs associated with any type of driving in New Zealand. The most bizarre example is what I call the backwards arrow. When I first arrived early in the morning, I jumped in the rental car ready to start my adventure trip. The only problem was that I couldn’t figure out how to leave the car park. I found what I thought was the exit, except that the arrows painted on the road were pointing into the parking lot, which I thought was the universal sign meaning I was going the wrong way. From my experience, arrows pointed on the road are painted in the direction in which you are traveling, otherwise you’re in the wrong lane. After circling the lot a few times, to the amusement of the attendant no doubt, I finally realized that in New Zealand apparently arrows going in the “wrong” direction actually mean you are progressing in the right direction and not headed towards a car accident. Who knew?

2. Unbelievable beauty - Ok, this may be a little saccharine, but I wasn’t at all prepared for the constant, never-ending natural beauty of New Zealand. Yes I saw pictures before I left and yes, everyone told me how gorgeous it is, but I hear that about every new place I visit. What I wasn’t ready for was that every square inch of the country is stunning, almost beyond description. I wish I’d known about this beforehand, because it frankly would have saved me a lot of time. Early in the trip, I stopped every few miles to take photos of whatever new, jaw-droppingly gorgeous vista popped up after I turned a bend. Eventually, I had to stop taking pictures and just drive or I wouldn’t have been able to do anything else. This happened again on the South Island as I drove from Franz Josef to Wanaka. My directions said the trip took normal, non-amazed people 3 ½ hours to complete. It took me six hours, mostly because I couldn’t stand passing by the physical beauty of the countryside without stopping to soak it all in.

photo credit: Peter J Dean

3. Rugby – Americans know that certain sports exist, but we don’t fully understand what they are or how they’re played. Cricket, handball and Australian Rules Football all fall into this category, but it was rugby that left me at a loss in New Zealand. To say that Kiwis like rugby is a massive understatement; to the casual traveler it seems to be the national obsession. I know that the impending Rugby World Cup, which is taking place in New Zealand, is partly to blame, but only partly. Regardless of the World Cup, they just really love the sport and I had no idea how to relate. I tried watching, Googled the rules and even asked people, but nothing helped. Instead, I just stood by the sidelines watching a high school team practice one morning in Rotorua interested more in what the sport means to New Zealand more than the actual match itself. Obviously, I wish I’d done some rugby research before my trip.

4.National Dish is…Meat – I’m a carnivore, dyed in the wool. I tolerate some vegetables, but not many and not often. So when I quickly learned that the entire country of New Zealand agrees with my culinary style, I was thrilled. Not only was a hardy meat dish the staple of every meal, meat was even served as a garnish! I had a mixed grill plate one evening that was surrounded by pieces of streaky bacon. It was awesome! Meat pies, sausage rolls, bacon as a garnish all combine to create a meat lover’s paradise. I just wish I’d packed some cholesterol pills in my duffel bag.

5. Masters of Understatement – My schedule in New Zealand was ambitious, and included a lot of exciting travel experiences – fitting for the adventure travel capital of the world. Before my trip, I visited the various web sites but nothing really jumped out as cause for concern. It seems though that Kiwis are so used to extreme travel, that they don’t even think to warn outsiders about it. This tendency towards understatement also extends far beyond adventure travel though.

Kiwi web site – Enjoy a tube trip through underground caves
Reality – Class five rapids in the dark with multiple waterfalls off which you will have to jump backwards

Kiwi web site – Take in the pastoral views as you drive across the country
Reality – You will pass by examples of natural beauty the likes of which you have never seen that will leave you momentarily dazed and prone to veering off road.

Kiwi web site – The roads are a bit challenging
Reality – Four hours of zigzagging mountain roads, covered with ice and grit and seemingly endless single lane, two direction bridges

I don’t think their understatements are intentional, New Zealanders are just used to the extreme nature of their country and assume everyone else is as well.

Have you been to New Zealand? What are some things you wish you knew before your first visit?

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By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.Also follow Matt on Twitter, Facebook and

30 Responses

  1. The Travel Chica

    Bacon as a garnish? Love it! Although I do need some veggies to go with the carne diet.

    Reply
  2. Roy | Cruisesurfingz

    This post made me homesick! Btw, you see in NZ it’s our culture to understate things :)

    Reply
  3. Rebecca

    Ha! Love your picture of the bridge sign. The first time I saw it, it was like, Wha-? But oddly, I mastered reading it really fast!

    What do I wish I knew…distances are farther then you expect! “Wedges” are potatoes (My first day, when I saw it on the menu, I was like, “a wedge of what?”).

    Glad you had a great time, but cricky, a week for the whole country? You normally couldn’t even do the top of the North Island in that amount of time! Heck, my parents came to visit me for 12 days and we spent 8 of them in the car.

    Reply
  4. Rachelle

    #5 cracked me up! Especially the bit about tubing. :P

    Bet the jet lag from a week there was pretty understated too.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      seriously, that’s a rough transition. I almost never have a problem traveling to the new place, it’s the return that KILLS me. :)

      Reply
  5. Iona

    Hilarious and just about sums us up! Yes we do take they beauty of New Zealand for granted. Its only when we travel overseas for a comparison do we get to appreciate what we have.

    Reply
  6. Amanda

    Haha, I loved #5. So true! Kiwis are so laid-back and used to their country that they don’t realize how much of a shock it is to the rest of us. Didn’t you also love how those twisty mountain roads have no guardrails or other barriers between you and steep cliffs?

    As for that first photo of the “backwards” arrow, I think the big arrow just means that traffic coming from the other direction across the narrow bridge has the right-of-way. No clue about the weird parking lot, though… lol.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      naw, that wasn’t a photo of the bad arrow, sadly enough I didn’t take a photo. The picture shown is one of the dreaded one-way bridges.

      Reply
  7. Chris @CAroundTheWorld

    Hm. I’m debating whether or not to send this to Don in preparation for our RV trip in New Zealand later this year. It might freak him out, especially the part about the roads.

    Reply
  8. Lori Winter

    Haha! I loved #5 too. Kiwis are definitely rugged and used to living on the land. Thankfully, my husband does all the driving for us here in NZ, so I’m just the navigator, but the one way bridges were new to us, too.
    But we love it here! We’re already planning our next trip back in a few years.

    Reply
  9. Matt

    The bridge arrow as I guess you understand is give way to oncoming traffic. Unless you are already on that section of road. Swap the arrows round and they give way to you.

    Arrows painted on road and parking lots do tell you the direction of travel. I can think of somewhere in NZ where I have had to go against them. Either its a really bad confusing setup or they’ve for some reason only cared about traffic coming in. Not a great way to welcome people to NZ by confusing them as they first hop into the car.

    Glad you enjoyed your trip here.

    Reply
  10. Joanna

    Wish we had known not to bring food with us. They took it all away at the airport and told us the sheep are more important and no outside food is allowed in the country. Did the customs officer enjoy my mothers schnitzel? But it was worth it because the country was so beautiful.

    Reply
    • Odysseus Drifts

      Do you happen to know if canned goods are okay, like a sealed can of peanut butter? I know it’s a totally random question, but I have a new can of peanut butter, on a budget, and going to New Zealand soon, so . . .

      Reply
      • Matt Long

        I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t chance it. If possible, I’d buy once in NZ.

  11. Jessica

    “Kiwi web site – The roads are a bit challenging
    Reality – Four hours of zigzagging mountain roads, covered with ice and grit and seemingly endless single lane, two direction bridges”
    hahaha! I assume you took the crown range road in? one of your posts mentioned you went from Wanaka to Queenstown… you know that road is so much better now that they have finally sealed it…
    We’ve just come back from Europe and we were astounted and how marvelous the roads were there! They have like two lanes, in BOTH directions, AND they can drive at 130kmph, and they have tunnels instead of going round the cliffs!

    Reply
  12. Christina

    FJ – Wanaka is one of the best drives in New Zealand. So funny how you say it takes “normal, non-amazed” people a lot less than it took you to drive that route. And I agree on the understatement thing – everything is phrased as if it were second nature. Your translation for the caving activity is therefore most appreciated :) Sounds like I may have to do it on my next trip.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      I talked with an expat who has lived in NZ for about 7 years and that’s exactly what she said. New Zealander’s are just used to the extreme nature of their country. :) And you should definitely do the Blackwater tubing, it was a lot of fun. I’ll do a full post on it soonish.

      Reply
  13. Pamela

    Has anyone canoed the Whanganui river? We were told the trip was perfectly safe for people of all ages! Well, we two seniors capsized and were swept downstream for twenty minutes – in freezing cold water! Some less lucky are in the water much, much longer. However, the rest of the trip was wonderful.
    New Zealand is popular with cyclists but the roads we drove were not bike friendly, maybe cyclists have other safer routes to follow.

    Reply
  14. Mary Callier

    New Zealand is all that and more! We were there for a month last year and going back for 2-3 months next year. Can’t wait!

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      I am officially jealous. I fell in total and complete love with New Zealand and am hopeful I can spend more time there as soon as possible.

      Reply
  15. Lissie

    LOL is there still that beach on the West Coast where the one way bridge is shared with a train line! That one even gave me a pause!

    Though for narrow roads I think the Irish west coast are even narrower!

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      You know, it wouldn’t surprise me. The thing is, I didn’t know that’s what those signs meant at first. Thank God I wasn’t killed. LOL

      Reply
    • Rachel

      I actually remember that bridge! I was on a bus tour so I just shut my eyes and hoped the driver knew what he was doing… that was in 2008 so don’t know if it’s there now. It’s been the enduring memory of how intimidating the roads are there.

      Reply
      • Matt Long

        They definitely can be. I shudder to think how slowly I drove – I feel horrible for everyone behind me.

  16. Jessica

    One week! I don’t know how you did it. I was there for five weeks last year and felt like I was constantly on the move trying to see as much of the country as possible. One tip for first-timers is to travel via bus so you can gawk at the scenery without losing time. ;) I bought a pass with Magic Bus and they stopped for photo ops, so you’re not trapped the whole time.

    Oh yeah, and for any fellow vegetarians who happen to read this post and my comment, I was always able to find things to eat. Veggie pies weren’t too common, though! Coffee lovers should just go ahead and order a flat white even if you don’t know what it is. :) (I think one of my regrets was not doing so sooner in my trip!)

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Ordering coffee there still confuses me. :) And yes, a week was a bit tight, but Tourism New Zealand did a masterful job of coordinating everything. I cannot wait though to return for a more thorough inspection. Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
  17. Vegemitevix

    This post made me smile but also made me homesick (I’m a Kiwi expat Mum living in the UK). I often tell people visiting Down Under to make sure they allow enough time to drive through NZ as it takes at least 2x as long as you think it will. My British husband drove us from Queenstown to Milford Sound at the beginning of the year and we took 6 hours on the return drive simply because we kept stopping to take photos.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      I’m glad I’m not alone! It took me forever to drive around, for the same reason. :)

      Reply
  18. Ryan

    Hilarious…and so true when it came to things I realized too. Especially their understatements for everything. “Aye, no worried brew, that route’ll be no fuss” Except some were the most treacherous and remote I had been on!

    And I also wish I had known just how expensive it was. Though it was at the time 1USD=1.25NZD food, beer, and hostels were pretty pricey.

    Reply

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