Unfortunately, watching old episodes of Flight of the Conchords didn’t provide me with much useful cultural immersion training before venturing into land of the long white cloud. But it didn’t take much research to determine that NZ (pronounced /ˈɛn/-/ˈzɛd/) did not have a transportation infrastructure comparable to the ones that make touring Europe so easy.
Surfing Google Images at home for luscious snapshots of the NZ countryside stoked the adventurous fire in my heart. But looking at our travel agent’s simplified tourist map, it seemed obvious to me that we would either need to join a tour or rent a car to see the NZ terrain. As you can imagine, touring for over a week in a confined bus would not help me keep Ms. HalfEmpty full, so I suggested the idea of renting a car. She loved the idea of being chauffeured (since it was very expensive to add a second driver) and I love road tripping back home in the US; it seemed like a natural win-win.
By our second full week traveling the globe, I found myself behind the wheel of a tiny silver Hyundai Getz in the drizzling rain at a rental car lot just off the motorway in Auckland. After nearly 30 years of driving experience, my brain was convinced that I was sitting on the wrong (passenger) side! For several days, I would walk to what I thought was the driver’s side, only to realize that the steering wheel was on the other side.
Fortunately, I had enough foresight to splurge on the automatic because shifting gears with my left hand seemed like it could be a dangerous proposition. Thankfully, the gas and brake pedals are on the same side as in America. But we had to laugh every time the windshield wipers sprang to life when I meant to use the turn signal, telling Ms. HalfEmpty, “Yep, the wipers still work!” But other than that, the mechanics of driving proved to be a rather mundane affair, much like at home.
As with all great road trips, great music is a must. NZ really only has about five radio stations broadcast across different frequencies as you move around the country. But I can confirm that eighties music is alive and well all across the dial in NZ! I got a kick out of it each time the announcers would say that they were playing music from the “eighties, nineties, and naughties.” In the US, we really don’t have a term for music since 2000, so it piqued my interest when I heard Kiwis refer to the 00s as the naught years. Constantly hearing the word naughty made me giggle every time.
My weakness for pop music (despite the fact that I’m clearly not the demographic) was absolutely fueled by NZ radio! I admit that Katie Perry’s “Teenage Dream” lyrics continue to haunt me, though Jessie J’s addictive “Price Tag” finally bumped her as my favorite guilty pleasure. My boy Bruno Mars’ “The Lazy Song” finished a close second, with LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” rounding out the field. After hearing the same radio songs for days, Ms. HalfEmpty found an inexpensive iPod plug so we could satiate our inner nerds and listen to downloads of my favorite show, Car Talk, and her favorite, This American Life.
Rules of the Road
I can report that, on the whole, NZ is a country of conscientious drivers, much more so than at home in Northern Virginia. As expected, things were a bit more tense in the cities, but nowhere near the level of aggressive road rage experienced daily while commuting in the greater Washington, DC area. The speed limits are pretty cut and dry: 30 km/h in towns and around construction (there seemed to be cones everywhere, for road repairs during the low tourism season), 50 km/h as you approach and leave towns, and 100 km/h out in the country and on most motorways. The suggested speeds around fast curves all seemed to be reasonable (usually 80 km/h) and there were no billboards to muck up the views.
If you’re contemplating a NZ road trip, there are only two major differences beyond the obvious side of the road issue to learn. First is how Kiwis give the right of way, which can be a matter of life and death entering any of their many traffic circle intersections. Right of way is super easy, but counter-intuitive to the American driver: always give way to any vehicle making a right turn or coming from your right in a traffic circle.
In practical matters, this is most difficult when you are waiting to take a right across traffic at an intersection and the oncoming car politely waits for you to make your turn before he makes a left turn. This has the brilliant side-effect of reducing congestion at intersections, and I must admit, feels very civilized. I am happy to report that none of the Kiwis honked at me while waiting for me to turn as I became accustomed to the right-of-way rules. As a matter of fact, over the course of 10 days of driving, I was only honked at once while waiting to enter a busy traffic circle during morning rush hour while transiting an industrialized city just south of Huntly (but more on that later).
The second major difference is the scheme for giving way on one lane bridges. The entire coastline of the North Island seems to be connected via a series of quaint one lane bridges that appear to have been built a hundred years ago while NZ was just becoming a country. As you approach one, you immediately notice a sign with a big arrow and a little arrow, just before the road funnels from two lanes to one. If the arrow pointing in your direction is much larger, you have the right of way and local drivers seem to maintain speed as they enter the bridge. If you are giving way, definitely make sure you stop at or before the white line or you will probably be blocking the oncoming car’s exit off of the bridge. The system works well because NZ drivers are so conscientious, despite the fact that many of these bridges seem to have a blind curve immediately before, after, or both!
Eventually, I found road tripping NZ to be a double-edged sword. On one hand, you have the freedom of the open road, and of making your own schedule. On the other hand, when do you stop and actually enjoy your holiday outside the car? A big challenge for me was the fact that the landscape is so utterly beautiful that my mind would tend to wander while driving; I earned a few half empty glances after crossing over rumble strips.
After a few days, I had become comfortable with NZ driving habits, but in the back of my mind I was wondering if the car was becoming a barrier to us fully experiencing the half full side of Kiwi culture. One day we would find a quaint beach town like Pahia (where, with hindsight, we should have spent a few more days) or the breathtaking magnitude of Cape Reinga’s coastal reserves and iconic light house. The next day, we would be on the outskirts of a mountainous national forest, the twists and turns of which we quickly learned were zero fun to drive through after sunset…and in the rain!
After visiting Cape Reinga and trying to find a place to stay for the night, we learned about the curse of the car. We ended up in Kaikohe, which seemed to be the only place with accommodations. However, it was quite an economically depressed town with abandoned stores and hotels on the main street. We considered eating at Subway for dinner, but instead opted to find out what the locals were serving. The only options besides McDonalds, KFC, and Subway were Chinese restaurants. We picked one, soon realizing we made a grave error. I’ve never seen a Chinese restaurant not serve rice with an entree, but apparently it happens. The food was terrible and we left without eating much. On the walk home, we stopped at Subway for cookies to try to wash the greasy taste from our mouths.
The next day, we were determined to stay in a nicer place with better food options. But once again, the curse of the car struck! We almost stayed in Helensville to avoid another super long driving day. But it looked a bit industrial on the outskirts even though the town was quaint, so I opted to keep driving. We then came upon the town of Kumeu, where I spotted a restaurant that I was dying to try. Now all I had to do was find a place to sleep.
We went to the Kumeu Information Center, like we did in most towns. But we were about an hour late for their early winter hours. They all have 24/7 touch screens for tourists, but of course those were locked up inside. We weren’t too worried; how hard could it be to find a hotel?
After driving up and down the main road and finding nothing, we ventured onto side roads and still didn’t find any accommodations. Usually signage in New Zealand is quite good for tourists, but we weren’t seeing anything. Finally, Ms. HalfEmpty remembered that she had spotted an accommodation sign on the way into town. We went back and followed the signs for a home stay, which turned out to be a bed & breakfast with no vacancy. So we got back on the road to find the next town…
We were hoping to find something before Auckland, but that didn’t happen. We ended up right the middle of Auckland’s rush hour traffic. By this time it was dark and we were tired after two long days of driving. We stopped at a rest area cafe just south of Auckland to jump online and search for hotels. After finding a few options in the next town, we got back on the road. We stopped at each one, only to find they were all booked. We went to the next town and they were booked too.
How was I supposed to know that a professional rugby match combined with a lawn bowling tournament would result in every single accommodation along the motorway two hours south of Auckland being fully booked? For the most part, road tripping in NZ winter was awesome because we could literally pull into towns where we wanted to stay, find Wi-Fi, and book a nice room (usually at a discount) within walking distance to sights and restaurants. Not this time!
Nine hours of bleary-eyed driving later, we ended up in Huntly. Ah, Huntly, the sad industrial power plant town that I was able to show Ms. HalfFull because “playing things by ear” had gone awry. It was late and we had to eat so we headed downtown. The options were as depressing as the previous night; we settled on fried take-away. I ordered a steak burger. Little did I know that it would actually be a hamburger topped with strips of steak!
After that greasy cultural immersion, we implemented what turned out to be an excellent rule of thumb: we would use Trip Advisor to find a nice room the night before, and limit our driving to approximately 4 hour legs. The twisting mountainous roads of NZ make it difficult to guess driving times based on map distance, which led me to discover the priceless feature in the corner of all free Jason’s NZ travel maps – a table of cities that you can cross-reference to learn reasonable driving times. We became a well-oiled road tripping machine, which (despite a landslide-narrowed road) enabled us to “discover” my new favorite Kiwi city, New Plymouth, which had not been recommended in any of the tourist literature from our travel agent. We enjoyed our first night so much we decided to stay a second (thankfully) despite the double-edged sword of seeing our car idle in the motel’s lot.
Getting Lost Can Be Good
In defense of “playing things by ear” (and despite Huntly), I will say that one of my favorite afternoons of our early road trip was the direct result of getting ourselves lost in Matakana wine country in search of lunch. Because we were on vacation and love our sleep, we were having breakfast and getting on the road around 10 AM every day. This resulted in the hunger for lunch not setting in until well past noon, which is fine if you’re in a big city, but we were meandering about the NZ countryside. It was only our second day of driving, and we were happily lost in the gorgeous mountainous/beach landscape north of Auckland. Every tiny restaurant we stumbled across had closed by 2 PM, and we were getting a little crotchety, resulting in a wrong turn down a secondary (perhaps tertiary) road.
Low and behold, we saw a gorgeous winery and vineyard with the word Plume in a nice cursive scrawl across a barn, and more importantly their open sign. Poking our heads in, a lovely German girl notified us that the kitchen was closed but that if we tasted a glass of their scrumptious red wine, she could put together a platter of cheese, bread, fruit, and a small bowl of Manuka honey, which is now one of my culinary obsessions. Let’s just say that the nice folks at Plume winery did a wonderful job keeping Ms. HalfEmpty full, and we give two big thumbs up to the Matakana wine country for a perfect combination of hospitality, scenery, and deliciousness!
The Glorious Dead
In the end, we discovered that every town and city we passed through had a war memorial prominently displayed as you passed through. We later learned (in Australia, oddly enough) that these war memorials are so pervasive because soon after New Zealand became a country a majority of their boys and men were swept up into World Wars I and II, in some cases losing one generation in WWI and then the next generation in WWII. So many men were lost so fast that the U.S. Marines were actually sent to defend NZ from the Japanese during WWII, which explains why you will find an oddly located US Marine Corps flag proudly flying inside the Old St. James Church in Wellington. As a tourist, it felt weird at first to keep reading the words “To The Glorious Dead” upon entering every town and city, but once it was put into context, the sacrifices earned a place of deep respect in my heart.
Unraveling the Mystery of Cookie Time
On a final and lighter note, the other thing besides war memorials that we noticed in most towns was a big sign on each of the small roadside grocery stores advertising fresh NZ milk (of course) and something called “Cookie Time.” Being a lover of ice cream, it took several days before the siren song of the Cookie Time sign lured us into a store. Up until that moment, I would simply see the cheerful signs with the big red monster and scream “cookie time!” much to Ms. HalfEmpty’s chagrin, since I’m known to be quite loud.
On one of our last days with a car, I turned to her and said, “We have got to unravel the mystery of cookie time.” The girl behind the counter seemed to give my wife a sympathetic glance as, grinning from ear to ear, I placed my container of NZ milk and giant Original Cookie Time chocolate chip cookie on the counter. In an unscientific survey of two Americans in a rental car, it was discovered that 100% of the people who tasted an Original Cookie Time cookie thoroughly enjoyed it, so much so that Mr. HalfFull hereby declares it his official must-have road trip food of New Zealand.
- Would you rather rent a car or join a tour group on a bus?
- If you’ve driven on the other side of the road in a foreign country, how long did it take you to become comfortable? Did you have any mishaps?
- Which driving tunes are critical to your road trip enjoyment?
- Have you found renting a car to be a double-edged sword on holiday?
- What treasures have you found as a direct result of getting lost?
- What were you surprised to find in almost every city/town while in a foreign country?