Driving on the left was surprisingly easy to get used to. Multi-lane roundabouts took a few tries, but after a couple weeks I’m now yelling at other drivers when they’re too timid. Bloody tourists.
The hardest things are:
- Remembering to get in on the right side of the car. There’s no steering wheel on the left.
- Remembering to reach for the seat belt with my left hand.
- Remembering to signal with my right hand.
So I turn on the windshield wipers when I want to go left. No one seems bothered by it. Kiwi drivers seem pretty mellow, for the most part.
Outside of the major cities, there’s nothing like an American freeway. There are two-lane roads, and the major highways are somewhat less unstraight than the country roads, and they have fewer one-lane bridges, and you’re less likely to encounter sheep.
But there are no guarantees. Even the main highways pass through towns and you have to slow down. Outside of towns you see roadside stands selling honey or cheese or whatever, and you get the occasional crazy programmatic architecture.
It’s a lot like traveling in the US before the interstates. It’s fun if you allow the time for it. It’s sort of like going back in time.
Some other things:
There are few stop signs and few traffic lights outside of the major cities. What they have are Give Way signs, usually with roundabouts. If there’s no one else there, you don’t have to stop. The “California Stop” is not only allowed, it’s encouraged. And it seems to work just fine.
It would be difficult to speed. You would need a car that handles a lot better than the Aotearoaramblemobile, for starters. That thing drives like a tractor. But even so, you couldn’t go much over the speed limit or you would die. Consequently, I never saw a cop giving a speeding ticket.
What they have are propaganda signs everywhere. They say things like “Drive to the conditions” or “Drink, drive, die.” I drove all over the North Island and I don’t think I ever saw the same one twice. I don’t know how effective they are, but it probably doesn’t matter if all the bad drivers get themselves killed anyway.
And some complaints:
People of New Zealand! What do you have against street signs? You have them on some corners; why not put them on every corner? Finish the job!
If the parking garages in Auckland are any indication, New Zealand could learn something from California. Say what you will about California, they generally make very nice parking garages. Just don’t try to copy Seattle.
Update: The Britomart parking garage is pretty good. I give it a B+.
So one night I’m eating fresh fish of the day at a table on the bay in Russell, and the next night I’m eating a McDonald’s Kiwi Burger* in my motel room in Auckland. And what a room it is. I think the motel used to be an apartment building in the 1950s. They’ve updated the plumbing, appliances, and electrical system since then, but I’m sure the carpet is original. Furnishings are probably from about 1980. There are odd cupboards with tubing in them.
Each unit has a country or region associated with it — Italian, Mexican, Baltic, etc. I’m in the Swiss Suite. I can’t see anything Swiss about it, unless the Swiss put tubing in their cupboards.
I grossly underestimated the drive time for the Northland. In addition to sheep hazards, road maintenance, and slow logging trucks, the roads are more winding, and there are one-lane bridges and ferry crossings.
It’s 436 km from Cape Reinga to Auckland, or 271 miles. That took me a bit over seven hours. I would have been better off spending an extra day in Russell and driving straight down from there.
* I don’t think it’s made with actual kiwis, but I can’t be completely sure what’s in it.
Next: the Shire in Matamata.
Matamata is only an hour or so from Rotorua. I made it there by a little after 9:00 and then drove around looking for anything Shirelike. There were no signs indicating directions, but after a few minutes I found this.
This is the Matamata i-Site building. i-Site is New Zealand’s network of tourist information offices. They turn up in a variety of different buildings. Most are ordinary, but in Rotorua it’s is in what looks like an old train station, in Cambridge it’s is in the old town hall building, and in Matamata it’s is in this Hobbit building that only opened in November.
I went in to ask for directions and found out that the tours leave from there and that the next one was due in 15 minutes.
The Shire isn’t really in Matamata. It’s on a working sheep ranch about 15 minutes away. The bus takes you out there, then another bus takes you to the Shire itself, which is somewhere in the middle of this 1250-acre ranch.
The last two people on the bus were an American couple. The woman was very upset because they had told her not to get on the bus and they only let her get on at the last minute and they could have left her behind.
“They should have left you behind” is what I didn’t say out loud.
The tour was informative but informal. We could wander around and take pictures quite a bit. Whiny Woman was unhappy because she “didn’t know what we’re supposed to be doing.”
“How about you shut up and enjoy yourself” is what I muttered under my breath.
The timing of the tour was perfect. After Lord of the Rings, most of the set was destroyed, per the original agreement between Peter Jackson and the landowners. But heavy rain slowed them down, and during the downtime the family started getting calls from people wanting to visit the set. That was when the family started thinking that it might be worth keeping.
For The Hobbit, they negotiated a different contract for more permanent construction. They also constructed a working Green Dragon, which just opened last month.
The Hobbit holes are built to different scales, depending on who would be filmed standing in front of them—smaller ones for humans, larger ones for Hobbits.
Of course, it is still just a set, so as nice as the Hobbit holes look from the outside, there’s nothing in them. Inside scenes were all filmed in Wellington.
At the Green Dragon, I shared a table with Lyndon and Deb from Australia (Lyndon took the photos of me) and Nikolai from Germany, who was planning a hike south over Mt. Tongariro. Whiny Woman sat elsewhere.
I’m at Te Papa Tongarewa. I really need to rethink the size of the camera I schlep around.
This is a big museum. There are Maori boats and houses, interactive earthquake displays, Captain Cook’s cannon, videos of Roger Muldoon, and a Sheep Cam.
Phar Lap’s skeleton is here, but his hide is in Melbourne.
There’s a moa, too, but it’s fake. I will not be fooled!
Took a shuttle to the Christchurch train station and the train to Picton. Walked to the ferry and took that across to Wellington, then took a shuttle to the Wellington train station, which is adjacent to the central bus terminal. Took the number 7 bus to Victoria Street and walked three blocks to the motel. About 12 hours total.
The trains have been outfitted with all-new carriages. I’m told they’re quite nice. The one I was on had the old carriages. Nice enough, though. It was like Amtrak in the ’70s, before it started to fall apart. One noticeable difference is that they don’t slow down when they go through a town.
The Coastal Pacific line travels along the coast from Christchurch to Picton, which is near the top of the South Island. Most of the way it looks a lot like California, with farms and ranches, and brown hills beyond. Plenty of oak, cypress, and eucalyptus trees. The beaches were a bit rockier, the ocean was a bit greener, and sheep were more plentiful, but otherwise it was very California-like.