The best kind of indie travel is inquisitive, spontaneous, and memorable. It’s not the sort of trip that comes with a pre-printed itinerary granting two hours of “free time” on Wednesday night—it’s the kind of adventure that happens because, well, why not?
New Zealanders actually have a term for this: it’s called a “tiki tour” and is used to describe a trip that is neither direct nor efficient. It is a meandering journey that is loosely planned, easily driven off course, full of unexpected discoveries and unplanned ice cream stops.
It’s no wonder that New Zealanders have a phrase like tiki tour — the country is set up for indie travel, both in terms of infrastructure and cultural values. Here are a few factors that make New Zealand such a great destination for indie travel.
One of the most popular ways to travel around New Zealand is via campervan. The geography (long and narrow) makes New Zealand easy to explore thoroughly by road, and the dramatic landscape and small towns along the two-lane highways make this the ideal setting for a road trip.
Along the way, campers stay at holiday parks or campsites. Not only is this significantly cheaper than staying in hotels or hostels, but this is a great place to meet other travelers. Holiday parks, in particular, emphasize the communal: shared cooking and dining facilities, lounge areas, entertainment rooms and bathrooms (though you probably won’t meet anybody here).
Campervanning is popular with domestic tourists as well as international travelers, so you’re likely to meet a well-mixed group of kiwis and foreigners. New Zealanders are especially excited to promote the highlights of their country (I’ve gotten great recommendations for restaurants and fishing spots), and those who come from farther afield usually have some gems of their own. You may even pick up some new travel companions.
Practical Information: There are tons of rental options for campervans in New Zealand, so shop around. Jucy and Escape often have good prices. Finding holiday parks isn’t hard either—almost every town has at least one. Top 10 operates holiday parks all around New Zealand, and if you think you’ll be staying at a number of them, it might be worth purchasing a loyalty card to get 10% off each stay.
Book a flight to Auckland
Did you know that bungee jumping was invented in New Zealand? So were jetboats (vessels designed to zoom over shallow, fast-moving water) and so was zorbing (speeding down a hill in a human-sized hamster ball). It seems like there’s no height too high, no slope too steep, nor speed too unwieldy to be untamed by New Zealanders.
There are a number of reasons a healthy adventure sport industry developed in New Zealand, but perhaps the most influential factor is the government’s no-fault accident compensation policy. If you break your arm on a bungee jump, the government pays for your doctor regardless of whose “fault” it was.
Life without lawsuits encouraged activities to be developed through trial and error — if something goes wrong, there is little risk to the operator. It also encouraged a culture of informed caution and sensibility — because you don’t really want to break your arm, do you?
By accepting personal responsibility, travelers are afforded the chance to push themselves in new and exciting ways. There are abundant opportunities to test your limits in New Zealand, arguably more than in a litigious society.
Practical Information: Rotorua (birthplace of zorbing) in the North Island and Queenstown (birthplace of bungee jumping) in the South Island are the country’s one-stop shops for adventure activities. If you’re looking for a thrill, you’ll find a variety of adventure activities in either of these towns.
Book an adventure trip in New Zealand
A history of living on an archipelago, far from anything you’d call a mainland, prevented a “throwaway” culture from developing. New things have traditionally been hard, or at least expensive, to come by, and so you can’t take for granted that something is easily replaceable. If the toaster’s broken, if you outgrow a sweater, or if you just have one too many coffee mugs, you certainly don’t go running to the rubbish bin.
Op shops (which is short for “opportunity shops” and is a much more pleasing way of saying “thrift stores”) are all over New Zealand and are always well-stocked. This is where all things unwanted-but-salvageable are sent, including clothes, tents, sleeping bags, and cooking utensils.
Op shops are a boon for travelers packing light—if you need a jacket or a pair of hiking boots or a few spare t-shirts, hit up an op shop. You can usually fill a suitcase for about $10. And at the end of your trip, you can give it all back.
Practical Information: Op shops are easy enough to spot — the Salvation Army logo will be familiar to a lot of people. For some trendier used items, Cuba Street in Wellington has some funky vintage shops that are worth a look.
Find a hostel in New Zealand
“World Famous in New Zealand”is the slogan for L&P, a kiwi soda that no one outside the country has ever heard of. In addition to displaying an ironic sense of humor, the slogan illustrates how very proud New Zealand is of its own.
Be they actors, directors, musicians, writers, or athletes, New Zealanders who make a mark on the popular imagination are beloved. What other country can you think of that puts a mountain climber on its currency? Athletes, artists, and activists have made their mark on the culture more than any politician.
From $10 notes featuring Kate Sheppard (suffragette–did you know New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote?) to the statue of Richard O’Brian (who wrote the Rocky Horror Picture Show) as Riff Raff in Hamilton, this celebration of local heroes makes kiwi culture very accessible to travelers. Just flip through a newspaper to get a feel for the cast of characters that constitutes New Zealand history and culture. You’ll also get a strong understanding of the qualities valued here and the kinds of issues New Zealanders care about.
Practical Information: If you want to warm up before you arrive, www.stuff.co.nz publishes content from most of New Zealand’s major newspapers. At the very least, be sure to know John Key (Prime minister) and Dan Carter (rugby player/underwear model).
Signs and Information Centers
In general, New Zealand has more comprehensive signage than a shopping mall. Signs along the highway will point you towards towns, popular attractions, scenic lookouts, campsites, picnic spots, and interesting-looking rocks. Yellow signs in towns will direct you to holiday parks, hostels, shops, and hospitals. And in the middle of absolutely nowhere, an information sign will explain a geological or historical point of interest about the rock you’re looking at.
Further, the country is dotted with remarkably helpful information centers called i-Sites. These places are stocked with brochures for nearby attractions and food and lodging, are also staffed by people who will happily give you the weather forecast, directions to anywhere, and they can even make your skydiving reservations for you. Essentially, an i-Site offers the functionality of a smartphone, but without the price of a data plan. You’ll find one in almost every sizeable town in New Zealand.
Rather than taking all the excitement and spontaneity out of travel, the thorough and accessible information actually facilitates unexpected adventures. Nowhere is it easier to travel without a guidebook than in New Zealand — who needs one when you can drive into the nearest town and find a holiday park just by following a sign? Or when the signposts on the side of the road tempts you with all the seal colonies and caves you need to fill a day?
Practical information: Finding an i-Site is as easy as following the signs that point to it. Really, getting lost in New Zealand is much harder than you’d expect. That said, it has been done. Having a map in the glove compartment never hurt anyone.
“It’s a great place to grow up. You can do whatever you want there. Whereas in America I think everyone’s obsessed with their careers, in New Zealand you get to just live your dreams.”
I wouldn’t argue that the US doesn’t produce exceptional artists (and possibly partly because of that high-pressure culture of achievement), but New Zealanders do take a much different approach to work. Thanks to a slower pace of life and a supportive social welfare system, it is not a risky dream to try and make it as an artist. As such, the number of plays, concerts, festivals, and gallery openings in New Zealand’s cultural centres is wonderfully high.
What this means for travelers is an abundance of opportunities to see the creativity that life in New Zealand seems to inspire. They might not all be Flight of the Conchords, but there are plenty of local artists to be appreciated.
Practical Information: For the best access to New Zealand’s art scene, spend some time in the two biggest cities: Auckland and Wellington. Though it’s a bit smaller, Dunedin is a college town with a decent live music scene. Try www.eventfinder.co.nz to find out what’s going on near you.
If the average person knows anything about New Zealand, it’s that it’s beautiful country. This is the takeaway lesson from watching Lord of the Rings anyway (if you’re not familiar, Lord of the Rings is a popular documentary series about how beautiful New Zealand is). Not only is it stunning, but the landscape is diverse: check out glaciers, beaches, forests, mountains, lakes, rolling pastures, and flat, ribbony rivers.
One reason New Zealand developed the reputation it did is that the countryside seems to be relatively untouched. The low population density helps, but the fact is that New Zealanders have chosen to protect the most scenic areas as parks rather than plant them with condos and chain restaurants. Don’t expect these priorities to change any time soon. Nature is part of New Zealand’s identity — look for an array of native birds printed all over the currency and the fern fronds on flags and rugby jerseys — and its protection is considered paramount.
Hand-in-hand with protecting the landscape is ensuring that New Zealanders and travelers have the chance to enjoy it. A network of trails, campsites, and huts have been sewn through the country by the Department of Conservation, allowing everyone free access to the glaciers, beaches, forests, mountains, and lakes.
Practical Information: The Department of Conservation’s website is the first stop for anyone planning an outdoor adventure in New Zealand. The site has maps and descriptions of trails and places to stay along the way. Be sure to read the descriptions carefully — some trails are suitable for experienced and well-equipped hikers only. For your own sake, do not second guess their recommendations.
To read more about New Zealand, check out the following articles:
- Nine New Zealand Wine Regions You Should Know About
- Eight Ways to Go Downhill in New Zealand
- Best Places for Expats to Live
- 7 Stunning Lakes of the South Island of New Zealand