Driving in New Caledonia can be an experience that many haven't experienced before and to be tried, and often the best way to get around the entire nation, without missing out of the best and experiencing one of the world's most fought scuba diving sites at the world's second largest coral reef. It's often the best way to go, especially where buses don't operate.
Similar to the neighbouring countries in Oceania of Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, the car ownership is very high, due to the very low population density of the nation's size. With only a population of about 300,000, it's no surprise to see why. While public transportation is possible in Nouméa, once you get out of Nouméa, the options only become tour buses and car, and when you get out of those major tourist centres near Nouméa, the only option left is car. 90% of the population also lives in the Grande Terre, so that's where the best infrastructure is.
Because it is still a French territory, most of the road rules that apply in France also apply in New Caledonia as well. This also means that New Caledonians drive on the right side of the road, and drive left handed cars, unlike neighbouring Australia, New Zealand or Fiji.
Travel times from the following places from Nouméa are below.
|Time taken from Nouméa||Distance from Nouméa|
|Tontouta||approx. 45 minutes||46km|
|Poum||approx. 5 hours||423km|
|Bourail||approx. 2 hours||162km|
|Hienghène||approx. 5.2 hours||381km|
|Mont-Dore||approx. 15-30 minutes||10-25km|
Roads are classified by the following, suiting for the small, narrow roads through the mountains to wide with 50km/h limits, 4 lane expressways with 110km/h limits:
- RT# = Territorial highway (French: Route Territoriale).
- RP# = Provincial routes (French: Route Provinciale).
- RM# = Municipal highway
- RPN# = Provincial routes in the north (French: Route Provinciale du Nord)
- CR# = Local road
To rent in New Caledonia, you must be of at least 18 years, but some car companies only allow if you're over 21.
There are some well known international car companies in New Caledonia like Europcar, Hertz and Avis at La Tontouta airport, with some of them operating 24/7.
Road rules and safety
Similar to France, the urban default is 30km/h, the rural limit is 50km/h and on expressways, the limit is 110km/h. This may come as a surprise to those coming from Australia, where the urban limit is 50-60km/h, and rural being 100-110km/h. The limit may vary in some areas, so stick to what's signposted. While you might see another car in New Caledonia speeding, which is so common in New Caledonia, ever since 2011, mobile speed cameras are in use, and can be anywhere with penalties being similarly harsh like Australia or mainland France.
To drive as a foreigner, you will need the following: Driving License (translated in French), Passport, Registration, and Insurance. An IDP is only needed if you are staying over six months.
Similar to Australia, New Caledonia has a strict policy of driving with a mobile phone, and only hands free is permitted. There are harsh penalties for illegally using a non-hands free phone while driving. But as common sense would say, driving with a mobile phone in your hand is not wise at all, and if you do that, reconsider what you do.
Stick to the right
As a general rule of thumb, stick to the right side of the road, which means driving a left-handed vehicle. This is because, it has, and still is, a French influenced territory and thus, follows what France does. If you are used to driving on the left, which is the side Australia, New Zealand and Japan drive on, you must concentrate at all times. Take particular care when pulling out from lay-bys and driveways or when you are tired. It is very easy to have a lapse of concentration and to revert to habit. Especially on the open mountainous roads. Most, if not all apart from the expressways and some urban roads, don't have a median barrier and are undivided roads, it's quite easy to go your own way and forget. You may overtake on the left, where conditions permit, and are required to give way to traffic approaching your right (unusually, which in this case is similar to Australia).
Seatbelts are mandatory, no matter where you are in the car. Although a little bit of common sense and you would want to put your seat belt anyway, which does truly no harm. Children 7 and under must be restrained in an approved child safety seat, and there are hefty fines for not wearing one. The only exceptions are for the very small minority, who must carry their medical certificate to prove why.
Overtaking rules are very similar to that of France and Australia. On expressways, keep right, and overtake on the left lane and on rural highways, such as RT1 or RP5, keep right, but use the opposite incoming lane to overtake. However, it's not advisable to overtake on roads on the mountains due to the fact that most of it is just one lane, and that similar to Australia's rural roads. Unlike that though, since this is a mountain range, even veering off to the side is not possible.
The blood alcohol limit is 50mg/0.05%. But it's not a good idea to drink at all if you're used to driving on the other side of the road. People have been caught drunk driving a lot in New Caledonia, and while it's not that all uncommon for residents and locals, police may sometimes do random breath tests (RBT) along the road.
There are two toll roads in New Caledonia. The first being RP1 (expressway section) and the second being RP3 (rural road). Spare some cash in hand as they only tend to accept cash here, and even if card was accepted, it's quite frowned upon. While RP1 is avoidable, the slower route may simply not be worth it considering it is both bypasses the urban crawls of Nouméa, and that the alt route is mountainous.
Urban and rural driving
Driving through the Central Grande Terre mountain range
While most think of Pacific Islands to be low lying and flat, New Caledonia has a mountain range of its own. The roads here are fairly decent, in comparable in quality to those of New Zealand. They're slightly narrower than Australian roads through the Great Dividing Range, but since you're only going at a speed of 50 km/h, which may feel ludicrously slow for some, it's a lot more safer than Australian roads going through mountains at 80-100 km/h.
There is mainly only one rural expressway in New Caledonia, and this shouldn't be too much of a surprise given that the whole country has two expressways, the E1 (part of RT1) is mainly just a connector from Nouméa to La Tontouta Airport. This is also the only time where you could go 110km/h in New Cal.
Apart from this expressway, all other rural roads are just an undivided highway.
Parking in the city shouldn't be a problem as there's about 7000 spaces in Nouméa, with only about half of them being paid carparks. The risk of your car getting vandalised is extremely low, and unlike big urban cities, Nouméa doesn't have that problem. Parking your car on the street is also quite easy, and finding a slot is never too hard, but the hills may prove a challenge for some.