Useful NZ bits and bobs

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Here is an infodump of useful bits and pieces for the NZ visitor.

Alcohol

Licensing laws vary by region. In some areas, such as Auckland and Invercargill, supermarkets often do not sell any alcohol so you’ll have to find a bottle shop for that vino. In Christchurch, you can get your beer and wine at the supermarket, but spirits are sold by bottle shops only.

Bottle shops are frequently co-located with pubs. Some bottle shops have unusual hours such as closing for an hour in the afternoon on school days. This is written into their license conditions as a harm reduction strategy.

Biosecurity

NZ is very strict on items which may pose a risk to the natural environment. See Biosecurity (in Getting here & around).

Crime

NZ is pretty safe, but you should take reasonable precautions to keep valuables out of sight. You should not leave valuables (particularly passports!) in vehicles. Car break-ins are fairly common in touristy areas.

Dietary restrictions

Those with gluten intolerance are well catered for in NZ, as a significant fraction of the population are affected. We recommend coeliacs make sure that foods which claim to be gluten free have actually been prepared in gluten free kitchens, as this can’t always be assumed.

Vegetarians are…. catered for, but not well. The provision is similar to that in the UK in the 1990s or so. Kiwis put bacon in all sorts of strange places, including scones, soups and salads. There is also a lot of lard used in cooking here. You’ll need to read a lot of labels and ask a lot of questions! Watties is a reasonably reliable brand for not adding bacon to everything, but even they have the odd ‘vegetable’ soup that isn’t vegetarian. In cities, ethnic restaurants are often a useful get-out.

In the back country it’s not unusual for the one pub in town to have one meal on the menu, a good old Kiwi roast. We often carry a few tins of baked beans and similar in the car when we’re travelling; it’s not a great solution but it sure beats going to bed hungry.

Vegans are even less well catered for than vegetarians. You may have to prepare meals yourself from raw ingredients if you travel outside the major cities. Kitchen equipment in motel rooms varies; some have only a kettle, toaster and microwave.

Electricity

NZ mains electricity is 240V, 50Hz (same as Europe) with a 10A limit per socket. We use the same mains plugs as Australia; adaptors are easily found in chemists and supermarkets. We recommend the Korjo brand.

Emergency services

Dial 111 for police, fire or ambulance.

Dial *555 from a cell phone for urgent (but non-life-threatening) Police road matters such as non-injury crashes, bad driving and obstructions.

Food shopping / Supermarkets

Even pretty small towns will have a Four Square and/or a Supervalue, which are basically similar to your small-town Co-Op. They keep a range of common products, but not an extensive range, so those with dietary restrictions will need to read labels and be prepared to get creative.

Larger towns and cities will have proper supermarkets (Countdown, Pak ‘n Save, New World), but these tend to lag behind European supermarkets in terms of size and range of products.

The “dairy” is the Kiwi name for the local corner shop. You can generally buy milk and non-perishables there; they’re not cheap but they are convenient. It’s quite common to find dairies which have branched out and also sell coffee, ice cream, takeaway foods and/or postal services.

You might come across a business describing itself as a “superette”. That’s a small supermarket, larger and better stocked than a dairy but generally not as big as a Four Square.

Freedom camping

In theory, camping and campervanning is permitted in any public place. In practise this is becoming much harder because of freedom campers leaving poo and litter behind them. Many councils have enacted by-laws restricting camping in certain zones; restrictions aren’t generally as tight if your vehicle is fully self-contained (toilet, shower, etc).

If you plan to do this, it can be absolutely wonderful, but you will need to do your homework in advance where you can and can’t stop. You can’t leave anything behind you to show that you camped there. Government page on freedom camping.

There are many organised campsites, including Department of Conservation sites and holiday parks. The services available vary.

Internet access

Many accommodation providers provide wi-fi to guests, often for free. In our experience the coverage is often not great though and you often need to sit outside or get closer to the motel office in order to get it to work…

Tourist areas often feature paid wi-fi and cybercafe-style services.

3G and 4G are generally available in inhabited areas. Check your roaming costs before travelling! If you really can’t live without internet on the go, it might be worth investing in a mobile access point and a local SIM for it. The main networks here are Spark, Vodafone and 2 Degrees.

Medical treatment

If you need medical treatment you should seek a local doctor or pharmacy, or dial 111 if it’s an emergency. There are out-of-hours urgent care facilities in the cities which offer an alternative to a full A&E department.

Long story short, you should probably have travel insurance that includes medical cover.

All medical treatment for accidents is paid for by the Accident Compensation Corporation. This applies to everyone in New Zealand, including tourists.

NZ has reciprocal health agreements with Australia and the UK. There are restrictions on what is covered; broadly, you get the same deal as a local if you fall ill. You still have to pay to see a doctor, in the same way that we do; expect to pay $50–$100 for an appointment as an unenrolled patient. Out of hours, expect to pay a surcharge (and another surcharge to get that urgent prescription filled out-of-hours).

Mobile phone coverage

In towns and cities, coverage is pretty good with 3G widespread and 4G (LTE) increasingly extending its reach wherever there are people.

Out of town, the main roads generally have some form of mobile coverage but it doesn’t cover everywhere. On the West Coast road (Highway 6) between about the glaciers and Wanaka, and the Milford Road (Highway 94) beyond Te Anau, there is no coverage at all. For this reason, some tour buses carry satellite phones, and there is an emergency satellite phone on the Milford Road at the entrance to the Homer Tunnel.

Money and card payments

Most Kiwis pay for everything by EFTPOS (card payments); some don’t even bother to carry cash any more. Chip and PIN is widespread.

On inserting or swiping your card, you will be asked which account to charge, with options Cheque (CHQ), Savings (SAV) or Credit (CRD). For an international card you need to press Credit, even if you think of it as a debit card. (Australian-issued cards might conceivably go through CHQ or SAV; we have no firm data on this.)

Some businesses, usually small family-run affairs with little tourist traffic, don’t take Credit-type payments as it’s too expensive for them. They will have a sign on or near the machine saying “No Credit” or similar. It might pay to carry some cash.

ATMs are generally found attached to banks and in shopping malls. They are plentiful in the cities, not so much in the country. Foreign cards will generally attract a surcharge on top of your card issuer’s fees. There is an exception, if your bank has an alliance with one over here; for example, Barclays customers can use their debit cards in Westpac ATMs without a surcharge.

When paying cash, your total will be rounded to the nearest 10c at the till. This is called Swedish Rounding.

Pounamu (greenstone)

This is a culturally important semi-precious stone, called “jade” in NZ but not to be mistaken for the jades found in China or elsewhere in the world. All jade in the wild is now under Maori ownership, save for that occasionally found on beaches. If you are buying a pounamu souvenir, make sure you buy it from a reputable outlet (it will not be cheap!); there are reputedly a lot of very convincing epoxy resin fakes out there.

If you find yourself in Hokitika, a day spent carving at Bonz ‘n’ Stonz is a wonderful experience: you can carve some of their greenstone, or take along an interesting stone of your own to work on. They’ll also tell you which of the green stones you’ve picked up on the beach is actually greenstone (spoiler: probably none of them, they’re most likely green quartz).

Restaurants

Restaurants will not bring you the bill! You have to go up to the desk and pay. They can usually cope if you ask for the bill at the table, but you’ll mark yourself as a tourist by doing so. See also the section about tipping.

It’s OK for restaurants to add a surcharge to their displayed prices on public holidays but they must have words on their menu to this effect or put up prominent signage.

Eateries generally provide drinking water for free. Some will bring it to the table; in many you need to serve yourself.

Some restaurants are described as “BYO”. That’s right, Bring Your Own. They don’t have a license to sell alcohol but are happy to provide wine glasses etc. (It’s up to the restaurant as to what type of alcohol they allow you to bring; some won’t allow beer or spirits.) Fully licensed restaurants can allow BYO at their discretion, but expect to pay a corkage charge.

Many Kiwis keep early hours, so eateries in villages and suburbs often close by 8pm – don’t get caught out.

Sirens

In rural communities what sounds like a WW2 air-raid siren is the call signal for the local retained fire brigade. Most calls these days are for car crashes.

In some coastal areas – predominantly north- and east-facing coasts – there are tsunami warning sirens. You will only encounter these within a few blocks of the beach. They sound quite different. Their meanings vary so if you hear one, seek local advice.

Tipping

Kiwis are not expected to tip. Really. Not at a restaurant, in a taxi, at the hairdressers, nothing. It’s a cultural thing; we pay our people a fair wage so they should automatically do a good job without expecting a tip. This doesn’t stop businesses from trying it on, particularly in tourist areas when you’re paying by credit card and the machine asks you whether you want to add a tip. But you don’t have to feel like a meanie if you press No. (This isn’t the same as a service charge at a restaurant, which is sometimes levied on large groups.)

Tourist and outdoors information

i-Sites are the official tourist information facilities around New Zealand. You can find one or more in the towns, and in most villages in tourist areas. They will be only too happy to advise on places to stay and things to do. There are also locally operated Information Centres in some parts which are not part of the official i-Site network.

The Department of Conservation have a network of visitor centres in rural areas, often co-located with i-Sites. These are the places to go if you plan on spending time outdoors as they keep updated information on walking track conditions, sell maps, rent mountain radios, etc. DOC also maintain many campsites around the country.

Water

Tap water is clean and drinkable throughout the country.

Weather

Weather in NZ can be highly variable; it’s described as the third most complex weather in the world, after Japan and the UK.

Typical daytime summer temperatures on South Island are 20-25 degrees, but could be as low as 10 degrees, or occasionally as high as 40. It always feels warmer in the sun, which is pretty strong.

North Island is generally a bit warmer than South, with a Mediterranean climate and higher humidity.

Wherever and whenever you go, bring lots of layers, and waterproofs. Sun hats are also a good idea (see below). The weather, particularly in mountain areas, is very changeable and New Zealand really knows how to rain.

Nuisances

Insects

NZ has a variety of really unpleasant biting insects known as sandflies. These are particularly found on the west coast of South Island, but are endemic to the whole country. They predominantly live in areas of native bush; locals can advise on where’s hot and where’s not. While sunrise and sunset are the worst times of day, this is cold comfort in areas of thick bush where they are a serious nuisance all day long.

The best solution is not to be bitten at all. We use Bushman’s repellent with 40% DEET; it’s available from pharmacies as a spray and a cream. Apply it before you leave your room (just mind where you spray; it can strip paint and melt plastic). Reapply on top of suncream throughout the day.

When you are staying on the West Coast, you may also want to apply before bed to avoid being bitten in the night. If mosquito netting is provided in your accommodation, you should probably take the hint.

When you have, inevitably, been bitten we have found a combination of Ibuleve (ibuprofen gel), hydrocortisone cream and Anthisan (antihistamine) creams to be helpful.

Kea

NZ’s most mischievous and intelligent parrot, found in the Alpine regions of South Island, is known for vandalism and thievery. They will damage cars (rubber trims, windscreen wipers) and steal jewellry and occasionally wallets. Protect your valuables and food from them, but do film their act of malfeisance for everyone’s viewing pleasure later on Youtube. They won’t think twice about pushing a coffee cup off the table.

Do not feed or disturb keas; they are an endangered species, protected by law. Feeding is bad because it teaches them to stray into hazardous situations.

Weta

These terrifying-looking insects are particularly found across the North Island. They are harmless unless you really provoke them; their defence mostly consists of looking scary and retreating if given a chance. Don’t harm them (some species are endangered), just put them outside.

Hazards

New Zealand has a very different attitude to danger than the UK. In the UK, dangers are often marked by signs, telling you what not to do where. This is not the case in NZ. You should use caution and common sense everywhere you go, and be mindful that help may take a long time to reach you. Do not assume that an activity is safe just because there are other people doing it, or that a place is safe because there are no fences or warning signs.

On the other hand, if you are taking part in an organised adventure activity, you are entitled to expect that they will assess the hazards and brief you as to how to keep yourself safe.

Caves

Caves which are run as organised tourist attractions are likely to be pretty safe. However, NZ has various cave systems which are open to the public to explore on their own. Stay out of these unless you actually know what you’re doing or are with somebody who does.

Earthquakes

All of NZ is seismically active. While earthquakes are infrequent they cannot be predicted in advance. You should make yourself familiar with the “Drop, Cover, Hold” guidance. Once the shaking subsides, then take stock of your situation and consider evacuating. As with fire safety, know your exits and assembly points.

Forest fires

Much of NZ’s countryside is under fire restrictions during summer and autumn. You’ll see signs warning of the fire danger level as you drive around. Be watchful for fires, and make absolutely sure that you aren’t responsible for starting any. After a long drive the underside of your car can get quite hot, so be careful not to park over dry shrubs or long grass which may catch.

Geothermal areas

Hot pools (water and mud) can be very dangerous. If going to visit them, wear sensible footwear and stay behind any fences you find. It’s particularly important to keep children under control; the Kiwi attitude to Health and Safety assumes a certain amount of common sense.

Remoteness

If you are going for a walk in the bush, make sure someone knows where you are going. AdventureSmart is the one stop shop for safety information and a source of Intentions forms. You need to nominate a person who will raise the alarm if you don’t check in as planned; there is a list of officially approved providers on the website who can do this for you.

If you are hiking, consider hiring a locator beacon and/or mountain radio to take with you. It is very easy to underestimate how remote the NZ bush is. People go missing every year in NZ while hiking, sometimes they are even found alive.

Roads

NZ roads are well maintained, but the terrain in much of NZ is complex and mountainous. NZ also has a problem with drunk and/or distracted drivers (doesn’t everywhere?). Drive according to the conditions, be patient, and stay safe. We wrote a whole article about driving in NZ.

Seas, lakes and rivers

Between 90–130 people drown in NZ waters each year; don’t be one of them. NZ seas are incredibly dangerous, with powerful rips. Even more drownings occur in lakes and rivers. The only truly safe places to swim are those which are monitored by lifeguards. If you go into the water in unpatrolled areas, be aware that it is up to you to stay safe.

Sun

The sun is much stronger here than in the UK. The UV index goes up to 12 or 13 at mid-day in the height of summer; you’ll burn in 12-15 minutes.

Use at least a factor 30 suncream, and check the instructions for re-application time. It’s a good idea to also wear a hat, lip sunblock and good wrap-around sunglasses. If you can bear to wear more clothing in the heat, long sleeves are a good way to reduce the UV reaching your skin.

The Met Service weather forecasts include daily UV hazard times from October-March. In the winter, you don’t need to worry unless you are spending a lot of time outdoors in the mountains.

Tsunami

Tsunamis are a risk in NZ because of the local fault system and as part of the bigger Pacific Ring of Fire.

If a tsunami occurs on the other side of the Pacific, we will have several hours notice – enough for an orderly evacuation. In some coastal areas – predominantly north- and east-facing coasts – there are tsunami warning sirens. You will only encounter these within a few blocks of the beach.

If you are near the sea and you feel an earthquake that is long (lasting a minute or more) or strong (hard to stand up), you should self-evacuate: get to higher ground, or at least 1km inland, as quickly as possible.

Volcanoes

Much of the central region of North Island is volcanic, including Auckland itself.

In most areas volcanic activity is picked up by Geonet before it becomes an actual threat to life and limb; Civil Defence will co-ordinate an orderly evacuation, DOC will close walking tracks, etc.

In a small number of areas it is possible for eruptions to cause fast-moving significant hazards. Practically speaking this applies if you’re on the Ruapehu ski field, which is subject to lahars (mud flows); make yourself aware of local alerting and evacuation procedures. You will see signs posted around the ski centre buildings.

Cover image: Romneys, by foolfillment, CC-BY-2.0