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Grid of six photos of different tunnels in New Zealand including the Kaori tunnel and the Waterview tunnel. Has been colourised green
Which tunnel will come out on top? (Image: Gabi Lardies).

SocietyApril 20, 2024

All 29 road tunnels in New Zealand ranked from worst to best

Grid of six photos of different tunnels in New Zealand including the Kaori tunnel and the Waterview tunnel. Has been colourised green
Which tunnel will come out on top? (Image: Gabi Lardies).

From the unstable and drippy to the hi-tech and pretty, here’s our ranking of all the tunnels you can drive through in this country.

The first tunnel seems to have been built in 2200BC in Babylonia, kicking off a global phenomenon for digging holes in order to get places more easily that Aotearoa is fully on board with. While enthusiasm for tunnels has been demonstrated most recently and notably by New Zealand’s transport minister Simeon Brown, it’s a passion that has a long history in this country.

By our count there are 29 tunnels you can drive through in New Zealand, and we have ranked them all, so if a shit one is on your route, you can take the other way around.

But what makes a good tunnel? We’ve decided that the value of these elongated holes comes down to their length, beauty, engineering, and free flow of traffic they allow. 

We settled on a total of 29 tunnels with a lot of help from this very helpful Wikipedia page, and disqualified any of the following:

  • Tunnels that don’t exist and may never exist
  • Out-of-use or closed tunnels
  • Rail or cable car tunnels (although train conductors are said to be driving, they’re stuck on the rails so it doesn’t count) 
  • Any tunnels for walking or cycling – transport is all about driving now, OK?!

Apologies to any tunnel that should have been included and wasn’t.

A note on language: tunnels come with their own jargon – entrances are portals, roofs are crowns, floors are inverts and sides are sidewalls. 

29. Karori Tunnel


Inside New Zealand’s worst tunnel. (Photo: Paul Le Roy, Flickr.)

As someone who grew up driving through Karori tunnel in order to get virtually anywhere, I can confidently say it’s pretty shit. Only 70m long, it barely qualifies as a tunnel, more a thick archway. The entrance and exit (no matter which direction you’re travelling) is connected to a bend, making it unpredictable traffic-wise. It’s old and so buses are too big for one lane and either require an oncoming car to essentially scrape the side of the tunnel or stop before the tunnel to let the bus pass through. Again, this would be easier if the tunnel didn’t have corners on each end, giving drivers approximately half a second to make the decision before being inside the tunnel with no turning back. It’s also always dripping, even when it’s not raining, and is gross to walk through. Technically a tunnel that works but certainly not a good one. / Mad Chapman

28. Rotowaro Road Tunnel

Just outside of Huntly

The tunnel on Rotowaro Road looks eligible for short tunnel syndrome. However, it hasn’t let its length turn it sour, even though it is far less than 70m long and some (Mad Chapman) would categorise it as a thick doorway. On its own it is not particularly beautiful, but 22 hours a day big yellow tip trucks roll over its top, carrying dirt and rock to fill the old Rotowaro opencast mine. It is these trucks, in my favourite colour, which have the Rotowaro Road Tunnel’s placement in the ranking, from last to second to last. / Gabi Lardies

27. Terrace Tunnel 


A great example of an expensive motorway project that did nothing whatsoever to solve traffic. It was originally meant to be two tunnels, with three lanes in each direction. Due to funding pressure, it ended up being just one tunnel, with two lanes going north and one permanent traffic jam going south.  / Joel MacManus

26. Urutī Tunnel 


Chains hang from the crown to warn tall vehicles they’re nearing the top. (Photo: Peter via GoogleMaps).

This tunnel is pretty – Taranaki museum Puke Ariki even deems it “gorgeous”. It’s 200m long, which is decent. It’s the access point to Urutī Valley, where Tom Cruise hung out for a while and pretended to be a samurai. Despite these excellent qualities, it’s a bad tunnel because at each end there are signs advising pedestrians not to walk through, and prohibiting stopping. It’s notoriously unstable. Also the uphill slope is freaky – apparently it causes a tightening sensation. No thank you. / GL

25. Mount Victoria Tunnel


A polarising, controversial tunnel that no one is happy with, but all for different reasons. If you’re driving, the tradition of honking in the tunnel is a delightful little game, especially for any kids in the car. If you’re trying to walk or bike, the tradition of honking in the tunnel is pure agony, the terror of a thousand hells beating down on your eardrums. You will not have a single moment of peace until you are free from its dark belly. 

The tradition has a dark history – it began as a tribute to Phyllis Symons, a 17-year-old girl who was murdered, buried (possibly still alive) inside the tunnel’s earthworks. Not so fun now, huh?  

The tunnel’s single lane in each direction isn’t really enough, and it often gets shut down by accidents. But the bigger problem traffic-wise is the fact that it ends at the Basin Reserve, the biggest and worst roundabout in the country. / JM

24. Moa Point Tunnel 


Another “tunnel” in Wellington. / GL

23. Seatoun Tunnel


This tunnel connected Seatoun to the rest of Wellington in 1906. Previously, people had to go by ferry or traverse dense bush. Now, Seatoun is Wellington’s most expensive suburb with a median house price of $1,740,650 – more than double Wellington’s median house price ($820,000). Jeepers. / GL

22. Fraser Smith Road Tunnel

Near Awakino, Waitomo

This tunnel is sooooooo beautiful. If it wasn’t on a dead-end road, aka useless, it would be number 1. / GL

21. Johnstone’s Hill Tunnels

Auckland Northern Motorway extension near Pūhoi

It costs $2.30 toll per car, per trip, to pass through these tunnels. They are aqualine, like two elegant nostrils on a rather craggy hillside, but coming from the south, the experience of going through the tunnel is overshadowed by the bridge, which elevates you over a river and wetlands into that hillside. That feels rather sublime, and passing directly into a dark, confined space feels a little like going into an office on a Sunday – not quite right and a little bit soul-destroying. / GL

20. Arras Tunnel


At least it cannot be mistaken for any other tunnel (Photo: NZTA)

Let’s be honest, this is barely a tunnel. The Arras Tunnel would more accurately be called the Arras Underpass. But, as tunnels go, it’s a very nice one. It’s 130m long, and well lit. It helps that it’s one way, because oncoming traffic in tunnels always freaks me out. There are poppies on the walls, in memory of the wartime efforts of New Zealand miners in the French town of Arras. It’s a nice touch. But the best thing about the Arras Tunnel is what’s on top of it. Channelling the motorway bypass underground opened up space for Pukeahu National War Memorial Park, a beautiful public space and unofficial skate park. / JM

19. Whangamōmona Road Tunnels


Both are pretty, but on a road that hasn’t been maintained by the district council for over 80 years, with maintenance funded by a jar at the Whangamōmona pub. As a result, they are only suitable for 4WDs. I do not have a 4WD. / GL

18. Northland Tunnel


Very intriguing due to its proximity to the Karori Tunnel, but peculiarly the footpath always seems to have abandoned e-scooters on it. What happens in the middle of the tunnel that makes people dismount? Why did people in Wellington’s northern suburbs love building tunnels so much? Nonetheless it’s a perfectly serviceable tunnel, solid middle of the pack. / Shanti Mathias 

17. Huinga Tunnel


Entrance of Huinga tunnel. Yonic shaped and cut into mossy stone
Huinga Tunnel, as seen by a Google Street View car.

It’s rather hard to ignore the vulvic shape of this tunnel, thanks to its pointed crown. This is not a bad thing, just its most defining feature. Perhaps, in 1893 when it was built, there weren’t too many design options around. It’s the oldest of many little tunnels in Taranaki, and even though for the Huinga District Centennial it was rated only an 8/10 for heritage value, in December 2012, locals and former residents of Huinga held a party to celebrate the tunnel. / GL

16. Kiwi Road Tunnel / Eastern Kiwi Road Tunnel


Extremely similar to the Huinga Tunnel, just a little more egg-shaped. / GL

15. Tarata Tunnel 


Same as above. / GL

14. Kiore / Matau / Matau Valley / Mangaoapa Road Tunnel 


It looks like a long, dark passageway in a church. Creepy but quite beautiful. / GL

13. Okau Tunnel


photo from the outside of the entrance of Okau Road tunnel. Lots of native bush around the entrance
A very beautiful tunnel, but beauty can only get you so far (Photo: Andrew McMillan)

The Okau tunnel is Ghibli-esque, sitting in the hairpin bend of Tongaporutu River, and reached by bridges on either side. I like it. / GL

12. Panmure Covered Box Tunnel

 Te Horeta Road, Panmure, Auckland

This 220m tunnel, running alongside the rail line, opened in 2014 – ten years later it almost elided our ranking. As well as the usual car lanes, it has properly separated cycle lanes, which are beautiful features. Its proportions are well balanced and sleek, though chatter in the office indicated it resembles an overpass. A good, solid tunnel, but nothing too special. / GL

11. Makahu Tunnel 


This is one of just two tunnels in Taranaki not shaped like a vulva. Instead its top is semi-circular. Boring, until you learn that over the years, the locals have held numerous impromptu parties inside the tunnel, which occasionally forces travellers to join in, or wait until the end to get through. / GL

10. Victoria Park Tunnel 


This is an extremely useful tunnel. One minute you’re in Auckland city, next minute you’re basically on the Shore. It’s got lights that dim depending on the time of day, so that you don’t get blinded coming in or out of the tunnel. It feels like a high-tech, seamless driving experience. Maybe engineering can be cool. / GL

8 & 9. Paratitahi Tunnels and Raramai Tunnels

South of Kaikōura

These two sets of twin Kaikōura tunnels 3km apart are very “blink and you’ll miss it” but make you appreciate how crazy it is that the mountains are right next to the sea, and the way the light shines through them makes them kind of look like eyes as you approach. The tunnels adorn a lot of sun-faded postcards in the Kaikōura township. I feel that at some point in time a largely unsuccessful effort was made to brand the tunnels as New Zealand icons or something. / SM

7. Tangahoe Tunnel 


The Tangahoe Tunnel has a 4.5 star Google rating from 10 reviews, with comments such as “The tunnel and old bridge were pretty cool”, “very neat” and “would make a fun spooky Halloween walk”. One reviewer was glad not to have driven their rental van down it, as it appeared there were remnants of side view mirrors littering the tunnel. I think they were pussies. / GL

6. Lyttelton Road Tunnel 


PHoto of the inside of the Lyttleton road tunnel. The sidewalls are covered in white tiles
Cinematic, says Alex Casey (Photo: Patchy1 via Wikimedia)

A stunningly beautiful and cinematic tunnel. The pristine shiny white tiles, the bleach blonde hills hugging the entrance, the gentle curve concealing what lies ahead. But even more powerful than the aesthetic of the Lyttelton Tunnel itself is what it represents: a magical portal from the flat wide streets and black puffer jackets of suburban Christchurch to the jagged hills, twinkling port lights and creative kooks of Lyttelton. Besides, is there any other tunnel in the country that comes with 98% guarantee of seeing Gary McCormick at the end? / Alex Casey

5. Homer Tunnel 

Fiordland, leading to Milford Sound

I went through the Homer Tunnel over the summer (and spent a lot of time helping my sister with her fieldwork which was in the Homer basin right next to the tunnel). It is interesting because it was built by the public works department, and it’s also a plot point in the Guardian Māia video game/interactive story. It’s a very nice experience because it is so exhausting being surrounded by absurdly beautiful scenery at all times and it gives you a little break from that. / SM

4. Mt Messenger Tunnel


This tunnel is at the tippy top of the very windy road over Mt Messenger and a happy reward for actually making it to the top alive. Nothing more thrilling/terrifying than squeezing through the tunnel just as a milk tanker is coming around the corner the other way. Very little time to beep though, which is sad. Currently the Mt Messenger Bypass is in construction – so there will be no more driving through this tunnel, but there will be another, 235m tunnel. This tunnel deserves extra points for its endangered status. / Tara Ward

3. Waterview Tunnel 


Photo of the entrance of Waterview Tunnel, with a sign saying "no lane changing".
Always follow tunnel rules.

While many tunnels on this list are fun to drive through, the Waterview Tunnel excels because it is nice to drive through. There’s no novelty tooting, no feeling of rising dread that it might collapse at any moment – it’s just a really nice drive. As a Wellingtonian, I didn’t realise tunnels could be spacious and properly lit (even if it’s that weirdly alien orange glow that we’ve decided is how we want all our tunnels to be illuminated). Waterview is also the country’s longest tunnel and there’s a sense of exhilaration when you hit that bend in the middle and realise you’re only about halfway through. Buckle in and enjoy the ride, I say. / Stewart Sowman-Lund

2. Moki Tunnel

Between Whangamōmona and Taumarunui

If I wanted to impress a newcomer, and at the same time try to explain part of our national identity, I’d drive them through Moki Tunnel, while showing absolutely no emotion on my face. I’d continue chatting about flat whites, the housing crisis and our low-wage economy as they shat their pants next to me. The tunnel is a narrow single lane, it barely looks like a crack in the rocky mountain. It’s no surprise that it was hand-dug with picks and shovels in 1935 by workers for the Public Works Department. They buttressed its ceiling with wood. Its sidewalls are dark, wet, mossy and encrusted with fossilised crabs. At its entrance is a sign calling it the “Hobbit’s Hole” though hobbits, I’ve heard, prefer more comforts than this tunnel could offer. / GL

1. Hataitai Bus Tunnel

Mount Victoria, Wellington

Photo of the entrance to the Hataitai bus tunnel with a yellow bus coming out
The best tunnel in Aotearoa and possibly the world (Photo: Tom Ackroyd via Wikimedia).

​​The Hataitai Bus Tunnel is exclusive and glamorous. Only one bus is allowed to enter at a time with a system of lights. If you are sufficiently public transport pilled you can learn to feel like a punter lining up outside an exclusive club as your sleek Metlink omnibus waits outside its dark mouth. Like all glamorous experiences, there’s an element of risk involved: as you roll through the total darkness, the light from inside the bus casting only the faintest glow on the tunnel’s close grey walls, there is absolutely no way to be sure that you’re not about to hit a bus coming from the other direction. Instead, you have to surrender to trust in the bus lights and your driver. Also, it makes it much faster to get to Hataitai (which is convenient if your friends have a homebrew set-up in their Hataitai flat) and to the airport, and you get a tour of some random streets in Mt Vic on the way. Extremely convenient and special, great tunnel; everyone tell Nicola Willis that the second Mount Vic tunnel already exists and it’s full of buses. / SM

Keep going!