New Zealand overland travel guide

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

The remote location makes New Zealand a pretty hard place to reach without flying, but once you’re there it’s an awesome country for overland travel. The roads are quiet, the views outstanding, the air clean, the people friendly; you can hike and climb, jump off bridges and out of planes, see whales and dolphins, and of course – the main reason I was there – you can ski. I spent the 2006 ski season in Queenstown and New Zealand really is one of my favourites, both for travel and for living.

Travel to New Zealand overland

Being a Pacific island nation, there are of course no routes to New Zealand overland – but by the same token, New Zealand is surrounded by water and arrival (or departure) by sea is possible. There aren’t any international passenger ferries though, so if you want to travel to New Zealand by sea there are basically three options – cruise ship, cargo ship, or private yacht. Cruise ships are the most expensive, but by far the easiest to arrange if you have the budget; I’m sure it’s a nice way to travel, though I’m yet to experience it.

The other two are a bit harder to set up, requiring significant planning (and funds) to land a berth on a cargo ship, and good timing / good luck to score a spot (as a paying passenger or as a crew member) on a yacht. In the case of cargo ships, while some do have berths for paying passengers, it doesn’t seem to be all that common and most ships don’t take passengers. For those that do, you can contact them directly through their company websites (like here and here) or book through specialist cargo cruise travel agents (this one is based in New Zealand, and the wikitravel page has a good list) – you need to do this months ahead of your desired travel time, as available berths and departures are limited. The going rate seems to be around 100 to 150 US dollars per day, and obviously with passage to New Zealand taking days from Australia (or weeks from America or Asia) this isn’t exactly a cheap option – but then, considering that it essentially covers all food and accommodation costs, it doesn’t seem too bad as long as you find the time on board to be a good travel experience and time well spent rather than wasted.

Personally, I would love to travel by cargo vessel at least once – those enormous hulks are incredible and it would be pretty cool to be onboard, to see how they look and work inside, to see the daily lives of the crew, and to experience the pace of life aboard ship. Even more than that, I find the workings of global freighter trade fascinating – all those ships, all those containers, all filled with so much stuff, all going here, there, and everywhere… all those ports and docks and their workers running to and fro every day, loading and unloading all that stuff to send it on further, here, there, and everywhere by rail and road… first seeing new lands not as a miniature patchwork out of a plane window, but as the cliffs and towns of a rugged coastline; and first arriving in new lands not in the sterile confines of an international airport, but in the nitty and hustle and gritty and bustle of a container port.

I did actually once attempt to arrange passage on a cargo ship from Australia to Indonesia by just rocking up at the docks in Cairns and asking around – it was an unsuccessful (yet interesting) day, have a look at my Australia page for more details but basically if you want to travel by cargo ship it needs setting up months in advance.

Finally, there’s the yacht option. Some yachts will take paying passengers, but it’s more common to pay your way by working as a deckhand. For yachts to New Zealand, it seems the best bet is to travel from Australia or elsewhere in Polynesia, depending on the time of year; the main yachting routes around the world are generally done in specific directions at specific times, so your timing needs to be right. To get an idea about sailing from the US to the South Pacific, have a look at the Pacific Puddle Jump; if you did that first, you could then attempt to continue on to NZ through the South Pacific. For more ideas, see here for a report on hitching from Tonga to Fiji. Perhaps the best way to go about this, though, is to set it up through findacrew – this website allows captains to advertise for crew for upcoming crossings, and through it you can get things set up in advance instead of winging it.

(A word of caution though – two British co-workers of mine in Canada had attempted to travel from England to Vancouver overland, and having made their way by train down to southern Spain and then by ferry out to the Canary Islands, they sailed all the way across the Atlantic as crew on a yacht arranged on findacrew… only to be promptly arrested upon arrival in Antigua for not having the correct yacht crew visa and deported back to the UK by air and at their own expense! If you do manage to secure passage this way make sure you have whatever paperwork you need and don’t find out the hard way)

Lake Wakatipu & the Remarkables (Queenstown)

Around New Zealand overland

Most overland travel in NZ is by road, and the road network is extensive and well-maintained. The traffic is generally light outside the cities (and not too bad in them), and the scenery spectacular – this is definitely a good country to drive around.

If rail is your thing, NZ only has a few routes available but they’re good ones. The TranzAlpine from Christchurch to Greymouth is rated as one of the world’s greatest scenic rail journeys (check out the video on their site); another route connects Christchurch to Picton, and another runs from Auckland to Wellington. This means you can get all the way from Auckland to Greymouth by rail and ferry. The trains are more expensive than taking the bus and mostly exist for tourism purposes rather than for daily transportation; I never took the train in NZ, but I’d love to do so.

Ferries cross the Cook Strait between the two main islands several times per day connecting Wellington to Picton, and there are ferries to various smaller islands like Stewart Island (from Invercargill) and the islands off Auckland. You can search and book these online with Direct Ferries.

These days you can book many of the main road & rail routes online on here (they also sell Wellington-Picton ferry tickets so compare prices with Direct Ferries)

Mt Potts

Things to do in New Zealand

Go skiing! I once spent a ski season in Queenstown; the ski areas there aren’t exactly world-class, but it’s an awesome part of the world and you can ski in June / July / August.

Do some tramping (trekking). New Zealand has many famous tramping routes featuring spectacular scenery, from one-day hikes like the Tongariro Crossing to epics like the Milford Track and Abel Tasman Coastal Track, and it really is a walker’s dream.

Get stuck in to all the other outdoor activities on offer – in Queenstown alone you can do canyoning, skydiving, bungee jumping, mountain biking, jet boating, rock climbing, white water rafting, river sledging, and skiing.

Go spelunking in the Waitimo glow worm caves (nearish Rotorua, and usually done as a day trip with pickup from there if you don’t have your own vehicle)

Rent a car to visit the stunning Milford Sound; taking a cruise through the fjord itself is awesome (a pod of bottlenose dolphins tagged along with our boat), but the spectacular drive there alone would be worth it even if there wasn’t something so good at the end of the road.

Franz Josef GlacierAnother amazing road – the west coast road of South Island, from Wanaka up to Greymouth, is incredible. The journey is worth doing in its own right, but you can also stop off at Franz Josef Glacier or Fox Glacier and try your hand at ice climbing, or take a helicopter up to the upper glaciers for a guided walk.

ZorbingTry zorbing – this activity was invented in New Zealand (as was bungee jumping) and consists of climbing inside a giant inflatable ball and being rolled down a hill; it feels a bit like being in a washing machine. The original zorbing park is in Rotorua, North Island.

Whale watching in KaikouraGo whale watching in Kaikoura. Sperm whale sightings are common, and dolphins are often spotted too – we saw five sperm whales (including the rare sight of two together) and a huge pod of highly acrobatic dusky dolphins.

Resources and Useful Links for Visiting New Zealand

Search for hotel deals in New Zealand

Search for bus, train, and ferry tickets

Flexible travel insurance from World Nomads, especially useful if you’re already overseas (this can be an important point, as I once found out the hard way in Bangkok). If you’re hitting the mountain, check out their snow sports cover

Lonely Planet New Zealand

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