The North Island is more densely populated, largely because of Auckland, the capital. Auckland's population is 800,000 and change, representing about a fourth of the total New Zealand population (3 million plus). Auckland has an international airport and is where we arrived. It is also possible to fly directly to the South Island at Christchurch. Much of the North Island landscape reminded me of England, with rolling green hills and sheep lots of sheep. However before you decide to write it off, the North Island also has mountains, active volcanoes, bubbling mud pots, geysers, and excellent trout fishing. There are also a number of excellent national parks. I particularly fell in love with Tongariro National Park in the southern portion of the North Island, with Tongariro, Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Ruapehu, three active volcanoes. Camp grounds are available nearby. There is a siren system that is suppose to be able to give you a 15 minute warnings to evacuate before an eruption. While we were there, the volcanoes were well behaved. There was one small earthquake that we slept through.
We generally avoided "tourist traps" except the town of Rotorua on the North Island. Rotorua is located about 140 miles from Auckland, en route to the southern portion of the North Island. Rotorua tourism was worth it to visit the geysers, and hot springs at Whakarewarewa and to learn about the Maori culture. The Maori were the first inhabitants of New Zealand, having Polynesian origins. Their contact with western civilization traveled paths similar to that of American Indians. Before visiting New Zealand, I wondered if we would encounter any Maori. As it turns out, our first Maori was our cab driver at the Auckland Airport.
There is an excellent ferry system that connects the North and South Islands, running between Wellington and Picton. The ferry crossing is about 3.5 hours and has spectacular views. The ferry is equipped with a cafeteria and a bar. It not only carries cars and trucks, but also rail cars. If you rent a car, several car rental companies have a system where you drop your car off near the ferry before boarding , and pick up another when you arrive at the other island.
The South Island is much less populated than the North Island and has rougher terrain. It has mountains, lakes, glaciers, rain forests, beautiful coastal areas bordering the Tasmanian Sea, and, of course, Milford Sound, a fiord that frequently adorns calendars. The rocky, rugged coastline with spectacular waterfalls, and the glaciers dropping massive chucks of ice into milky colored glacier streams are found on the South Island. We had beautiful weather for Milford Sound. It is certainly worth seeing, but we were told that we were quite lucky. Milford Sound receives lots of rain and visibility can be bad. Small ships take tourists out into Milford Sound for closer views of the waterfalls and wildlife including seals basking on rocks.
We rented a small RV that we picked up at Auckland. Driving and camping worked out well. It provides freedom from itineraries and concerns about motel or bed and breakfast selection. Perhaps camping would have been less enjoyable during peak recreation time, but in November and early December, one can cam with ease. At most places, there was no charge. Near Mt. Ngauruhoe, we stayed at a large, private campsite, but we were the only campers. It had showers, a hot tub, swimming pool. Most importantly, the camp had spectacular morning and evening views of the Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Ruapehu. The area is a photographer's delight.
The wildlife of New Zealand is amazing. It evolved isolated, resulting in some pretty unusual looking animals, often featured on TV nature shows. Many of the birds sport brilliant colors. More startlingly were the sounds of wildlife. When camping near forests, evening would bring forth sounds that couldn't possibly be from birds, but they were. On the South Island, while visiting a glacier, we encountered a native wild parrot, called a "Kea." The Kea is named for its call. It is, or at least was during our visit, protected by the government. The Kea is a fairly tame bird, that tried its very best to create problems. It steals bright objects, like keys left on picnic tables by unsuspecting tourists. We watch several Kea land on cars and campers at the remote parking lot. While the owners hiked to the glacier, the Kea pulled on the windshield wiper blades, and pulled out the rubber seals around the side windows and seams on a camper. They were feathered gremlins.
Oddly enough, the South Island also has a natural colony of penguins on the east coast. These are wild and come and go as they need, making their living off the fish that inhabit the waters along the eastern shoreline. My wife sports a sweatshirt she purchased near the colony the commemorates the first International Penguin Symposium held nearby in Dunedin, New Zealand. I'm guessing its the only such sweatshirt in the Midwest.
Culturally, the "Kiwis" are similar to Americans, except it was my perception that the government expects you to exercise good judgement. Unlike our national parks, New Zealand parks are not cluttered with handrails, fences, or warning signs. Its pretty clear that they expect you to be responsible for your own safety and your own decisions. I found this refreshing.
Because of the rough terrain in parts of the South Island, the roads are generally paved two-lanes. There are a minimum of guard rails and warning signs. Some practical tips: watch for sheep (sheep always have the right of way and always seemed to be in the road), DRIVE ON THE LEFT, and buy a good road map. Another tip, when driving on the west coast of the South Island, don't believe the road map. The maps show a scattering of small towns, which you might reasonable expect to be a source of gasoline. In reality, many of these little towns were a single residence that also functioned as a post office for this sparsely settled region. Bottom line: keep plenty of gas in the gas tank on the west coast of the South Island.
My favorite bridge is located on the west coast of the South Island. It was a one lane bridge. The one lane was shared by both north and south bound traffic, as well as a rail line. As far as I could determine, the first auto to the bridge had the right of way, and I suspect that cars graciously yielded to approaching trains.
We found that American tourists were well liked. The older members of the communities particularly like Americans, remembering our role in preventing an invasion by the Japanese during World War II. The younger Kiwi were also were friendly, but often expressed a strong anti-nuclear voice. It seemed to us that the Kiwis were all international travelers. Even folks who looked like they were having trouble paying for groceries would described their most recent trip to the US, Canada, England, or elsewhere. It was never difficult to strike up a conversation, and I never regretted one. This is a country that will provide your with the best memories if you meet the residents. They were always friendly and helpful
We found late November and early December to be an excellent time to visit New Zealand. It is early Spring with cool temperatures and snow-capped mountains. School is still in session and therefore the national parks and similar attractions were very accessible. Renting an RV was enjoyable. Other good options are bed and breakfast programs and farm stays.
Tours are available that provide rental cars and vouchers good at numerous bed and breakfasts or motels . If you are concerned about driving on the left, or just prefer to let others do the driving, there are numerous bus tours available. But if you are able, I urge you to get out on your own and meet the residents. On bus tours, you tend to only meet other tourists, mostly American. You can do that at home.
If you decide to drive and are not use to driving on the left, try me solution. On approaching intersections where you need to turn, keep telling yourself "Driver to the center line". I find that it helps me to turn into the correct lane. Another reminder, on approaching a "round about" (traffic circle), you go clockwise, not counterclockwise as we do in the US.
New Zealand currency is based on dollar and cents. Major American credit cards were accepted. Travelers checks were easily cashed at banks even in smaller cities. For car rentals, Hertz and Budget were familiar names and bookings can be made in advance in the US . Our RV was from a firm called "Maui" which seemed to be a major renter, judging from others we encountered on the roads. We had good luck with Maui, although the RV was a little "snug", being built on a small Japanese truck frame. We made reservations for the RV well in advance and we were required to book through a travel agent.
One other suggestion. Always travel with as little stuff as possible and keep in mind that the New Zealand government is nearly fanatically about preventing the introduction of agricultural pests. Don't attempt to bring any dirty camping equipment into New Zealand. We saw one young American trying to clean dried mud off a large tent, spread out on the floor in the customs are of the Auckland airport. His progress was being supervised by men in uniform.
New Zealand was a thoroughly enjoyable trip. We spent about two weeks there. I wished we'd had more time. Where else can you see wild parrots and penguins on the same day, and almost speak the language?