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New Zealand's two main islands are connected by a car and passenger ferry service.

This is both a functional means of transportation and also a lovely scenic journey.

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Taking the Ferry between NZ's Islands

Part 1 :  History and Route Information

Taking a ferry between the North and South Island of New Zealand sees you cruising through areas of outstanding natural beauty.

Part of a three part series on New Zealand's Interisland ferries - see also :
1.  History and Route Information
2.  Vessels, Journeys, Bookings
3.  Fares, Weather, Misc

Part of a series on travel to and in New Zealand - click the links on the right hand side for more articles.



You'll almost certainly want to see both the North and South Islands of New Zealand during your visit.

To do so, you either need to fly or alternatively take the ferry that travels between Wellington in the North Island and Picton in the South Island.

If you are taking a ferry, you can either bring your rental car with you, or 'swap' cars at either end.  You can also enjoy convenient connections to/from the daily train between Christchurch and Picton as another way of continuing your journey.

A History of the Inter-island Ferries in New Zealand

The gap between New Zealand's two main islands has been an inconvenience and major divide since early settlement, and at times, the country has seemed more like two countries, with quite distinctly different social and economic circumstances in the two islands.

Originally ships traveled between various ports in the South Island - primarily Dunedin (which at one time was the country's capital) and Christchurch (which for a long time, but no longer, had a greater population than Wellington - Auckland is NZ's largest city), and going up to primarily Wellington in the North Island.

There have been four major enhancements to the connectivity between the two islands.

Rail service between Christchurch and Picton

The first was the extension of the railway line from Christchurch to Picton in 1945.  This meant that freight could efficiently travel up to Picton (or down from Picton) and only needed to be transshipped between there and Wellington.  It also made for a faster travel experience for passengers, being able to travel up from Christchurch to Picton by train before completing their journey by sea (instead of having to take a ship all the way from Christchurch's Lyttleton port and Wellington).

Passenger and freight service between Picton and Wellington was served for many years by a single ship, the Tamahine, operated by the Union Steam Ship Co.

Tamahine was a typical freighter of its day (it started service in 1925).  Cars and freight were loaded onto its deck via cranes and slings.  It also carried up to 400 passengers.

Eventually, its owners announced in 1956 that Tamahine would be withdrawn from service in 1962 (Wow - six years notice!  Things happened more slowly back then, didn't they) and said they had no plans to replace the vessel.

Roll-on Roll-off 'Rail Ferries'

The NZ government decided it would buy a ship itself and operate it under the aegis of the (government owned) NZ Railways.  This became the second major enhancement when the ship - Aramoana - arrived and started service in 1962.  It was a major enhancement for two reasons.  First, it offered 'roll on, roll off' service - you could drive your car onto the ship, take the crossing, then drive it off again at the other end.  This was a massive enhancement over the Tamahine's service.

Secondly, its main vehicle deck had three rail lines on it.  Goods wagons could be shunted on to the ship at one end and then shunted off the ship at the other end, meaning that freight could travel from anywhere (with rail service) on either island to anywhere on the other island with no need to be unloaded or reloaded or transhipped.  The Aramoana could carry 800 passengers and up to 90 cars (depending on how many rail wagons were also being transported).

These innovations, plus a generally nice ship in all respects, brought about a boom in inter-island travel for both passengers and freight.  As a result, Aramoana was supplemented with a second very similar vessel, Aranui, three years later (1965).  A third, all-freight, vessel was added in 1972 (Arahanga) and a fourth (Aratika) in 1974.  For the ten years that followed, all four vessels were in daily service.

These were known as the 'rail ferries' and while it is some time since they were owned/operated/branded by NZ Railways, many people still refer to them as the rail ferries.

Air as an alternate for passengers and freight

The third major travel enhancement was the gradual rise of air travel as an alternate means of connectivity between the two islands - first primarily for passengers, and with the advent of 737s in 1968, increasingly for freight too.

During the period when there was essentially only one airline in New Zealand - first known as NAC (National Airways Corporation) and subsequently conjoined with NZ's international airline and renamed as Air New Zealand, air fares were considerably higher than the cost to take the ferry and either bus or train or drive a car the rest of the way from Picton to wherever it was you were wishing to go (Picton is not a destination in itself, but merely a logical place for the ferry to terminate).

But with air competition and more economical types of plane, air travel can now sometimes be the cheapest means of travel (in July 2010 I bought an airline ticket for travel between Wellington and Christchurch for NZ$40 - less than a ferry ticket between Wellington and Picton alone; in August 2010 my brother bought a roundtrip ticket from Auckland to Christchurch for a trivial NZ$130).

The Fall and Rise of Competition - Bluebridge Ferries

Initially the relatively short ferry service between Picton and Wellington had as a mild competitor an eleven hour overnight ferry service between Wellington and Lyttleton (the port that serves Christchurch).  This service started in 1895, and latterly was available nightly in each direction, but in 1968 was reduced to every other night with a single daylight sailing added on Saturdays as well (the ship ran at a faster speed for the daylight sailing to fit two journeys into the day) so as to allow four sailings each way each week.

The service was sadly discontinued completely in 1976 when the graceful and nearly new ship, Rangatira, ended service.

From 1976 until 2003, the rail ferries in their various incarnations had the run to themselves, competing only and seasonally with the faster Lynx catamarans.

In 2003, the eleven year old company Strait Shipping added passenger ferry service to the already existing freight service it was operating across Cook Strait.

This seems to have been successful, and these days it operates two ships, providing 30 weekly crossings.  The two ships - Santa Regina and Monte Stello - are very slightly slower than the Interislander ferries, with a journey time of 3 hrs 18 minutes instead of 3 hrs 10 minutes.  They carry up to about 150 cars and 370 passengers.

The Route of the Interisland Ferries

(Note - we talk about 'interisland' ferries, which means either ferry company and their ships/route, and we also talk about 'The Interislander ferries' which refers to the three ships specifically operated by the company now known as The Interislander).

The ferries run from New Zealand's capital city of Wellington at the bottom of the North Island, travel across Cook Strait (surprisingly, to go to the South Island, they travel in a northerly direction), and then go through the Marlborough Sounds to arrive in Picton on the South Island (and, of course, vice versa too).

Wellington is a sensible point of departure for all reasons, but Picton is a tiny town of only 3,000 people.  Its main reason for existence is the ferry terminal and the proclivity of ferry passengers to stop in town for an hour or two, a meal or drink, and possibly even an overnight stay, plus some additional tourist type businesses, all fed from the ferries.

It is a nice little town, for sure, but there's nothing much to see or do there that can't be seen and done in an hour or two.

There are occasional proposals to move the South Island's ferry terminal from Picton to somewhere close to Blenheim.  This would represent a similar journey in terms of distance and travel time, and would get people closer to where they were most likely to want to go - ie, places further south and/or west in the South Island.

There is also a fairly vocal group of ardent environmentalists who complain about having large ferries traveling through the Marlborough Sounds, saying the vessel wakes harm the banks of the sounds.  They would love to see the ferries removed from there, and when they're not lobbying to have the ferries move away entirely, they're arguing to have the ferries slow down even more the already reduced speed they travel at through the sounds.

On the other hand, losing the ferries would pretty much doom Picton entirely.  Without the ferries, Picton would lose almost all reason for its existence.  The rail line would surely be discontinued, and the main road already bypasses Picton on the way from places south and over to Nelson.

This certain municipal death generally seems to be the trump card that keeps the ferries in Picton.

There have also been attempts to offer service from somewhere on the west coast of the North Island north of Wellington (ie Mana, just north of Porirua) but this concept seems to currently also be in abeyance.

Part of a three part series on New Zealand's Interisland ferries - see also :
1.  History and Route Information
2.  Vessels, Journeys, Bookings
3.  Fares, Weather, Misc

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Originally published 20 Aug 2010, last update 30 May 2021

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