In praise of the Kiwi road builders: a petrol blog

This post is aimed at those of you with a drop of petrol in your veins. Personally I am a committed petrolhead beyond the reaches of medical science, so bear that in mind as you read. Or best go do something else for 10 minutes.

New Zealand’s highways and byways are just outstanding if you enjoy motoring. I do not wish to alienate here, but by “enjoy motoring” I mean you drive a car like you mean it. Camper vans, SUVs and the like need not apply. Motorbikes? Ohhh yesss. (As long as we’re not astride a shiny, chromed mid-life-crisis-Harley.) Then again, let’s not encourage overt hooliganism: speeding through 50 limits (kph, so it’s approx 30mph) is for chumps.

Let’s look at this in terms of ingredients:

1 X naturally wonderful, free range vast and sparsely populated New Zealand South Island

1 X drivers car

1 X network of delightful roads (Let your road builders have free reign.)

A simple, classic dish then.

When the NZ folk mettled their roads, many of the tracks were there from early settler times. So they follow contours, cut through natural passes, hug valley sides and oft take the long way round. In the absence of vast civil engineering resource, the early road builders accidentally made some pretty scenic routes.

Of course, this means that if you are merely travelling from point a to b then it’s tedious. Twisty turny, travel sick tedious. Were you a crow, your destination would be near and obvious. But you’re not – you’re not are you? – and so you are going to have to drive the lonnnng way round. Outside of the towns, a commuting mindset would quickly, er, drive you round the twist.

In the mid 20th century, NZ became a hydro-electric mecca. To construct mighty dams, divert raging torrents and install turbines as big as houses you need infrastructure. Access roads. These wide highways straighten out some of the kinks and make shortcuts affording better progress to the motorist on the move. Though this trades off some of the fun, it does allow you to gawp at the splendour of the land.

Later on in the 20th NZ paved the way to some of it’s more remote communities. Various bits of the west coast were given proper roads to serve isolated locals.

Today of course, this engineering toil means the tourists get to easily access some of the most amazing vistas on the face of the earth. Whilst visitors get the landscape, its unlikely they get the toil and earthworks brilliance that afforded them their tour.

[We’re about to geek out, so hold on.]

Cambers on many a road are perfectly judged so that when you tip in to a corner it pulls you round. If a deliberate radius is present – not just hugging a cliff line – it’s constant and predictable. Compressions are avoided so that bottoming out is (mostly) avoided and the bumpstops are not troubled. Sightlines are difficult due to terrain mostly, but the road shoulders are well judged so that you can take lines that allow you to see ahead. The engineers who designed these roads really, really knew what they were doing.

The surfacing crews had a more patchy time of it. (Sorry.) This makes the roads more challenging for bikers. Gravel is the motorcyclist’ nemesis, causing – at the very least – a saddle chewing moment. As an incurable ‘biker, even driving the rural roads (in a car) has my heart palpitating as we round a corner on ‘the loose’. Again, massively rewarding if you are committed to the act of motoring, stressful if you are just getting somewhere.

Beyond patchy are the gravel highways. Where in the UK & Europe you’d give up and park or U-turn, the Kiwis plough on. We’ve covered many a kilometre on gravelled roads to reach a beach, rafting centre, viewpoint. Perfectly normal behaviour here.

Case Study: Highway 6

As you tour the south island, you come across Highway Six (the 6) a lot. Typically, when you’re having a wonderful driving moment, the 6 is the road you’re on. Being enveloped in the moment is a rare thing on many – say – British roads. Unless it’s road rage or sheer frustration taking years off your life. One difference here is that there isn’t any traffic. Okay, okay that’s not true. What I mean to say is that on a three-hour road trip across some of the most magical scenery on earth, you don’t get stuck behind anyone, nor snarled up in congestion. In 3 weeks we’ve seen one traffic jam in 3,000k of driving. And this was for access to an event on Easter Sunday near Richmond. (Maddeningly, never found out what the event was… looked awful popular.)

So the 6 has all the right ingredients. We are also hugely lucky to have bee-you-tee-full weather at every turn. Up hill, down dale the views are unblemished by cloud nor rain. We are also going to all the right places. (Though not necessarily in the right order.)

It’s a common line of conversation amongst tourists: how this island has a consistent ability to reveal yet another arresting vista around each corner. At first, you think people are making this line of conversation up, but having seen it myself… Oohs and Ahhs let forth as if we’re at a fireworks night. 

Another element to the plus column is that road users in other modes often allow you to hustle past by pulling over. Big rigs, camper vans, you name it. A toot and a wave all round sees you whizzing off into the distance. British HGVs take note!

So come on Ian, what’s the downside? Well, the maximum speed is a ton. 100kph sounds fast but isn’t on the open road. Local plod are keen so it can be a tad frustrating when conditions/road are right but you are pegged to 62mph. I’ll repeat that the 50 (30mph) limits are right and proper.

Tools for the job.

There’s a real car culture in the land. Not just boy racers in shiny ricers (look it up) but all sorts of modified, restored, customised wheels. Some are content with a Sunday cruise around the waterfront in their classic British metal, some park up their 30s US hotrod for a chat with their mates. Less pleasingly, some illicitly drag race their turbo’d Nissans and Scoobys around fringes of town of an evening like they were Vin Diesel’s mate in a Fast’n’Furious homage.

So what’s the ideal NZ car? Horses for courses. For pure blacktop work, any drivers car would do. The locals have a thing for V8 Holdens and their latest incarnations are ideal for the sealed roads. But if you lived here, you wouldn’t just be tackling the smooth. Even the slightly rough would reduce your thundering beast to a weedy crawl which would be tiresome. So you’ll be wanting an all rounder. A splash of robustness, a soupson of practicality. Lots of grip, good traction and bags of grunt to pass those slow moving trucks.

In fantasy land, a 911 Carerra 4 would work nicely. But in reality, a late 90s Subaru Legacy GTB estate would be ideal. One that’s had a trip to the (subtle) car-gym. And that’s what the locals drive.

[Geek moment] The most poetic motoring moment on our travels was when a white 1973 911 RS – surely a replica! – howled past in the other direction at full chat on the 6 traversing the jaw dropping Haast pass. I can imagine that driver is grinning inanely about it now a full 10days later. [It wasn’t me. Geek moment over.] Or he could be dead. The sheer drops and no armco…

All this Top Gear guff makes me only slightly bitter as I have explored the land piloting a Nissan Bluebird. It’s a Japanese market car, privately imported by the rental company as a “budget” offering. And budget it has been at £21 per day. 150,000km, 1800cc, auto, soft-suspension family transport. Sounds hideous? (Certainly looks hideous.) Well, it’s been spacious, comfy, frugal, reliable and – surprisingly – quite fun. And rented from surely the most helpful car hire shop on the planet! Teddy at Highly recommended.

Memorable stretches?

Almost all of Highway 6

Greymouth to Westport (6)

Moteuka to Takaka

The Haast Pass: Queenstown to Franz Josef (6)

Categories: Our posts | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “In praise of the Kiwi road builders: a petrol blog

  1. Debbie

    memories memories………’s been loving reading about places that I’d long forgotten the names of. Rekindled the desire to go back and visit with the children. So glad you;ve loved NZ.


  2. G/Pat.

    Very expressive.


  3. Richard & Amanda

    The best blog……in the wooorrrrld


  4. Completely agree with your sentiments. NZ is a lovely country to drive through – as you say, incredible scenery, good roads, virtually no traffic.

    I do remember our first encounter with a gravel road, though. We were driving in the Coromandel Peninsula (North Island) when my wife suggested a cut-through on what looked to be the equivalent of a smallish A-road. 20 miles of slithering and sliding on ‘the loose’ later – at speeds which Paula Radcliffe would have no doubt considered to be ‘a training jog’ – we decided to stick to more major roads for a bit.

    I do quite like the casual approach NZers have towards road repairs, though. Dump a load of gravel onto a potholed section of road, put up a warning sign and then wait for passing cars to grind it into the surface to seal it. And yet their roads still end up in much better condition than ours on the whole, but without weeks and months of closed roads, single alternate lane traffic and cones everywhere. Sometimes simple is best.

    Haast Pass was fantastic, although we did it the other way to Queenstown rather than from. There are a couple of spectacular bridges through the mountain passes, if I recall correctly.


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