A Motorcyclists Guide to Surviving New Zealand

Slippery Roads – Ka

Update – Christchurch Mosque Terror Attacks

Due to the abhorrent attacks on two Christchurch Mosques on 15 March New Zealand has raised the threat level to High.

In practice this means increased security when boarding aircraft. There may also be additional police visible.

You should check with your own authorities before traveling.

New Zealand

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of cars per capita in the world. With almost 5 million people now in the country, there are also 4.2 million cars, trucks, and campervans, with a further 150,000 + motorbikes.

New Zealand is 158th in the world for deaths per capita, with 5.74 deaths per 100,000 people. This equates to almost 400 deaths per year, with 1000’s more injured. If you are going to motorcycle in New Zealand take the time to read the information below and increase your chances of surviving your trip through New Zealand.

The Metric System

New Zealand follows the metric system, kilometers (km), litres and dollars.
One mile is 1.609 km. The most common speed limits are translated below;

KP/HMiles
5031
8050
10062
A black speedometer with an orange needle pointing at 0. Miles per hour are written in white and large font on the outside, going to 110mph. Kilometres are in a smaller orange font on the inside, going to 180 kph.
Miles and KPH speedometer
Image courtesy of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metrication

Speed

Make sure your speedometer is set to kph. There are a couple of small stretches of road that have a limit of 110 kph, but the standard open road speed limit is 100 kph (62 mph).
The police have a low tolerance for speeding, and over holiday periods will stop and fine you for exceeding the limit by as little as 4 kph (2.4 mph). There are also speed camera’s in ‘high danger’ areas. Take your time and enjoy the ride.

Keep Left

New Zealand is one of 76 countries in the world that drive on the left. Every year there are accidents where tourists have forgotten this. Get a sticker to put on your bike or draw an arrow with a marker pen on your windshield to remind you to keep left. It’s easy to forget to keep left when you are tired, especially at intersections. Remember to remain aware on rural roads, especially near the main tourist centres. Meeting a campervan head-on around a bend will not be a pleasant experience.

On Motorways

New Zealand motorways are mostly dual carriageways, with some stretches of three and even four lanes each way. Most motorways are located in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch, however, there are expressways in other cities.

Filtering

You are allowed to filter through traffic. The law is based on being able to pass on the right of a vehicle, as long as you stay on the left of the lane markings, i.e stay in the same lane as the car you are passing. Fortunately most of the time the police are not concerned with the staying in the same lane part of the rule. Be aware and don’t exceed the speed of the surrounding traffic by more than 20 km/h.

A diagram in black showing two lanes of traffic. Three cars in the right lane and two cars in the left lane. A yellow motorcycle is in the left lane and an arrow shows that the motorbike can pass the two cars as long as it stays in the left lane while doing so.
How to filter

Always remain alert for drivers on their smartphones or who are otherwise distracted. Using a handheld phone while driving is illegal, however, is widely practiced.

Most trucks will move over to allow motorbikes to filter safely. Simply be patient and ensure the driver can see you in their mirrors.

Passing on the Left

The New Zealand Road code states that you should keep left unless passing, however many drivers choose to ignore this.
There is no law against passing on the left on motorways in New Zealand. Riders from the UK especially may find this unusual. Stay alert and you can pass safely.

Road Numbering System

New Zealand State Highways are numbered from 1 to 99. State Highway 1 runs the entire length of the country. While useful as a simple and reasonably quick way to get from A to B, Motorbike World recommends motorcyclists stay off it as much as possible. We design all our trips specifically avoiding most of this highway.

  • In can be extremely boring
  • It carries a significant amount of traffic, including trucks and campervans
  • There are often road works and there can be long delays due to traffic build up
  • It avoids much of the real New Zealand, towns and places that we think you should take the time to visit
  • It is where most of the NZ Police Force hang out doing traffic enforcement.

That said there are some great towns on SH1, and some sections are worth doing. The Desert Road between Taupo and Waiouru, for example, is a must ride.

Many of the other highways, with larger numbers, are a real treat to ride.

Indicating

Cars in New Zealand are not fitted with indicators.
Ok, that’s not quite true. They are fitted, but many New Zealand drivers find this high tech feature beyond them.
Be aware that if you do see a vehicle indicating is not necessarily a signal that they do in fact intend to turn.

Red Lights

Orange lights are often ignored. Red lights are also being ignored more often. Take the time to check at lights before you accelerate away, especially in Auckland.

Road Works

You will not ride for long in New Zealand without coming across road works. These could be controlled by static signs, portable lights or road workers with ‘lollipop’ signs.
Road works can pose a danger to motorcyclists. There are often extreme undulations and/or loose gravel. Slow down and follow the instructions of any road workers. Remember excessive speed can cause loose stones to be flung out. Be considerate of other vehicles.

Gravel Roads

Roughly 40% of New Zealand’s roads are gravel/dirt. These roads can be extremely narrow, with frequent washouts, and may be very rough. They are often very windy as well. There can be unexpected pockets of deep gravel, with large stones that behave like marbles. In summer cars and trucks create large dust clouds that can reduce visibility to almost zero, and irritate the eyes. In winter heavy rain can turn sections of these roads to mud. Large trucks and 4 wheel drives create ruts, and on some, there is a strip of grass down the middle that can be slippery. These hazards are in addition to those found on all rural roads (see below).

That said, for confident riders, gravel roads allow access to some of the greatest areas of New Zealand. Sweeping views, waterfalls and rivers are common. In addition the sheer remoteness is attractive to many motorcyclists. Be aware that travelling on gravel roads can be a lot slower than expected. Allow plenty of time. It is also advisable to be able to carry out minor repairs yourself. Gravel roads can be hard on tires and punctures are common.

A gravel road with a right-hand corner in the distance. On the left is a paddock with brown grass, on the right a large tea-tree and some cabbage trees in the distance.
A typical Kaipara Road

Rural Roads

The great joy of riding in New Zealand is kilometer after kilometer of rural roads. These roads are as good as you will find anywhere in the world for their scenery and the corners they offer. You will get drawn in, excited and distracted at the sheer joy of riding here.

Loose Gravel

Be aware of loose gravel that can be found on many corners, generally on the perfect line, and with no apparent reason for it to be there.

Unexpected Undulations

Rural roads can suffer from unexpected undulations and wash outs. These can be hard to spot and could end your ride. Expect the unexpected.

Fences and Live Stock

The New Zealand economy is based heavily around agriculture. This means that many rural roads are boarded by 7 wire fences, sheep, beef and dairy farms. This poses a number of hazards for motorcyclists.

  • Seven wire fences and riders do not mix
  • Stock can be on the road, either escaped or being moved. This can range from individual animals to herds/flocks of 100’s of animals. They tend to gather just around the blind corner you are entering. If they are being moved then there will normally be a quad bike and dogs as well. For individual animals that have escaped slow down and be prepared to stop. Pass with care when you can, making sure you don’t spook the animal. If possible, especially for cattle, see if there is a paddock you can put them in and notify a local. If you are not comfortable around cattle, especially bulls, do not attempt to move them. They can be unpredictable. Where stock is being moved stop and wait until they are clear of the road or you are waved through by the farmer. Again, take your time and avoid spooking the animals
  • Stock effluent can be slippery
  • Large vehicles are common. These include milk tankers, stock trucks, tractors, and hay bailers. Tractors especially pose a real hazard due to their slow speed.
  • Other Animals can also be found on rural roads, including horses, pigs, goats, turkeys etc.
Hundreds of sheep are being moved on a country road. The road is narrow and lined with bush on either side. The head of the column of sheep is not visible.
A flock of sheep on a country road
Photo courtesy of https://www.independent.co.uk

Cutting Corners

Remain vigilant while enjoying the corners as many New Zealand drivers ‘cut the corner’. This is an extremely dangerous practice, especially as they will often be exceeding a safe speed at the same time.

Railway Crossings

Many railway crossing in New Zealand are not controlled in any way. Always check before you cross!

Learner Drivers

Learner drivers should have an L Plate on their vehicle. This does not really mean anything though as the L plates stay on even if the learner is not driving, and many learner drivers simply don’t display them.

Yellow Learner Plates with the L in black and a narrow black border.
L-Plates

Fatigue

It’s easy to underestimate the time needed to get to your destination on New Zealand roads, which can result in long days and rider fatigue. Plan your day, your mileage, and ensure you have plenty of breaks and fluids. Riding on New Zealand roads while fatigued is extremely dangerous. Many roads have rest stops which provide a safe place to stop and refresh. Be aware of others in your group if riding together.

Weather Conditions

The weather conditions can change quickly, especially in autumn and spring. This can lead to heavy downpours and rapid changes in temperature. Some rural roads may not be exposed to the sun so may be subject to ice in winter. Some areas are subject to high winds, which can lead to rider buffeting and can mean debris like leaves and branches are found in unexpected places. Cold weather especially a factor in the lower South Island, and on the Central Plateau of the North Island.

Riding in Groups

When riding in groups be considerate of other road users and be aware of the skills and fatigue levels of others in the group. Maintain a safe distance and stagger the line. Always have an escape route. Make your own decisions. Corners can come up quickly, which can make passing extremely dangerous, even if it was safe for your colleague to do so a second earlier. Don’t treat New Zealand roads like race tracks as there can be unexpected hazards and other road users. There are options to do track days if you want to test your skills.

Alcohol and Drugs

New Zealand has criminal laws dealing with drugs. If you are caught with drugs then your stay in New Zealand will either be a lot shorter than you planned, or a lot longer.
The alcohol limit in New Zealand is 250 micrograms per litre of breath or 50 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood. Motorbike World recommends that you wait until you have finished riding for the day before enjoying a cold one.

General Safety

New Zealand is a safe place by world standards. Unfortunately, crime does exist. Remain vigilant and use common sense. Avoid leaving valuables where they can be stolen by opportunistic thieves. Only leave things on your bike, especially with soft bags, that you can afford to lose. Motorbike World recommends hard luggage for peace of mind.
If possible travel together, especially at night. Being physically assaulted is extremely rare, but it does happen. Maintain contact with your family and friends and let someone know your route. It can be difficult to find a vehicle that has accidentally left the steep bush-clad roads. Keep your cellphone where you can reach it in the event of an accident. The emergency number is 111.
New Zealand has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, with high exposure to UV from the sun. When you take of your motorcycle gear put on a hat and apply sunscreen.

Disclaimer

The information contained in this post is for general information only. Motorbike World does not warrant that this information is correct, and you should not rely on it for understanding the law in New Zealand. For information on the legal requirements to ride your motorcycle in New Zealand, we recommended you read the information on New Zealand Transport Authority website, view the official New Zealand Road Code for Motorcyclists and read the official guide for tourists below.

When should one travel to New Zealand

The best time to ride New Zealand is December through March. While it can be busy over the Christmas period the warm weather makes for great riding. It can reach over 30 degrees Celsius in some places. Heading into March the rainfall increases. Autumn can provide some stunning scenery, as the leaves turn golden and begin to fall, which can make the roads slippery. Winter in the North Island can be wet, but riding is possible all year round. It is not advisable to ride in the deep south through winter, especially July and August. There can be snow down to quite low levels.

Guided and Self GuidedTours

If you are planning to come to New Zealand and want more information on guided or self guided tour options please contact Motorbike World using the form below.

We hope you enjoyed these New Zealand travel tips. Be sure to contact us below and sign up for our newsletter.

We receive a small commission, at no extra cost to our readers, for links and adverts on our site. This helps to pay for the site and enables us to continue to bring quality content to our readers.

Please support us by using our site links.

Thanks for your support.

The MBW Team.