New Zealand Day 2: All the Driving
Despite our best intentions of sleeping in, Sibyl and I were awake by around 6:30 in the morning. Of course, that's 9:30 Seattle time, so it felt like sleeping in.
A Short Day's Driving
We had a plan for the day. My parents had made a reservation at Awaroa Lodge, a secluded lodge in the middle of Abel Tasman National Park, on the north end of the South Island. For day 2, we would drive down to a small town near Wellington (the southern-most national capital city, interesting factoid) called Otaki, and stay at a beach-side motel. It looked like a relatively easy drive, at a distance of around 450 km. The speed limit along most of the route would be 100 km/h, so we figured it would take perhaps 5 hours, with a couple of hours thrown in for stops.
We left Auckland at a relaxed pace, getting on the road around 11 am. The M1 was about as fast as we had anticipated, looking quite reminiscent of I-5 in the Seattle-Tacoma area: 2-3 wide lanes in each direction, with the slowest traffic running just below the speed limit, and most people driving at or a bit above the limit. We made good time, although we quickly passed a sign that said, "Motorway ends 400m". We were a bit apprehensive, but it turned out to be a matter of definition: the road went from 3 lanes in each direction to 2, and was then called an Expressway.
After about two hours, it was time to stop for gas. We came across a small town that had a gas station and a large inn, so we decided to stop for lunch for ourselves, and gas for the car.
The inn was quite nice on the inside, all wood paneling, and quite reminiscent of an English country inn. As we had expected, there was a dearth of vegetarian cuisine, but Sibyl and I both found something palatable. We placed our order, and retired to a table. At one point, I got up to get a glass of water from the bartender, who was a distinguished looking man of perhaps 60. He commented to a friend standing at the bar that this glass of water would cost me $5 in Auckland. The friend shot back that we couldn't even have gotten in the door for less than $5, to say nothing of a glass of tap water. I thought to myself that I was definitely out of the city.
About an hour later (I didn't actually check my watch, but it was a very long time), our food finally appeared on the counter for us to retrieve. We had been getting gradually more anxious as the time passed, although nothing like the French family who were vocally unhappy within the first 15 minutes of waiting, gesticulating to each other, young children running around with all the energy of small bodies that have been trapped in the car for far too long.
The food was quite good by all reports (I seem to have ordered the only thing on the menu that wasn't very inspired). However, we were all feeling a bit uncomfortably "late," even though we weren't. The hour's wait for food had made us all a bit anxious that we were going to get to our hotel late, so we were anxious to be back on the road.
I volunteered to drive for this next segment, my first time driving on the left in many years. I had driven for several weeks when I was in Scotland in 1996, so I wasn't totally green. We successfully acquired gas for the Lexus-like Toyota, and set out on the road. The road we were following (highway 1) had turned into a single lane in each direction by this point, but was still fairly speedy.
As we continued, we noticed that there were a lot of little towns we were passing through, and every time we did, the speed limit went to 70 km/h (about 45 MPH), then to 50 km/h (about 30 MPH) for the length of the town. And we weren't just hitting one or two of these towns, they came along every 20-50 km. The road was also getting smaller and curvier, reducing the prudent speed from 100 km/h (which is around 60 MPH) to more like 60-70.
We didn't put assign too much significance to this, though, because we were travelling through some of the most amazing scenery I've even witnessed. Every turn brought another view of an emerald green hill topped with fluffy cumulus clouds, covered with a smattering of trees and sheep. It looked like a scene from a child's book about happy farm animals. The hills and valley floors were nearly unreal in their verdant green color (in the height of summer, no less!). The trees were luxuriant with foliage. The sheep, freshly shorn, were just as cute and dumb as I had remembered them from Scotland.
As we travelled on, it was becoming clearer that it would take far longer than 5 hours to make this trip. We had already been on the road for that long, and were only about half way to our destination.
As we were travelling along, having passed Lake Taupo (the largest lake in New Zealand), my mom looked up from the map, and asked, "have we passed Rangipo yet?" My dad responded that we had, and she replied, "it's just that there's this symbol on the map that means "no rental cars..."
There ensued a discussion of whether we would want to risk our porky Toyota's suspension (already suffering from age) on a road that's explicitly marked to be avoided. It was called the Desert Road, and appeared to pass close to Mount Ruapehu, a fairly tall mountain south of Taupo. We eventually decided it would be prudent to backtrack by 5 km in order to avoid a potentially bone-jarring (and, more importantly, potentially quite slow) road.
Past Mount Ruapehu, we started passing into these amazing, seemingly computer-generated pine forests. All the trees were planted in perfect rows. Some of the forests were clearly quite young (only a few years from having been clearcut), some were older, some were clearly tens of years old. But all of them were planted in perfectly, improbably straight rows. I tried to get a few pictures of it, but neither of them came out very well, particularly as darkness was beginning to fall over the land.
As we passed into Wanganui, we decided to stop for dinner. It was nearing 8 pm, and we finally stumbled into a Pizza Hut and had some mediocre pizza-bar pizza. None of us wanted to stay there for long, so we stayed long enough to consume our slightly depressing pizza, stretch out cramped and tired limbs, and climb back in the car.
The remainder of the driving was completed in the dark, which removed one of the key distractions making the unexpectedly long trek interesting. We were driving along the coast at this point, which is probably fabulous to look at, but we couldn't really tell.
Finally, around 11 pm, we rolled into Otaki, and by 11:20 had located our hotel. The proprietor had agreed to wait up for us (having called ahead to let him know we would be in late). He showed us to our rooms, a pair of nice if simple rooms, each a small apartment, with a little kitchen, separate living room, bedroom and bathroom. We thanked him, and paid him for the night so we could take off in the morning without complication.
The plan for the morning was to catch the 8 am ferry at Wellington. This necessitated being at the ferry check-in at 7 am. It was about an hour to Wellington from Otaki, so this meant we'd want to leave at 6 am at the very latest, making a 5:30 am wakeup time about right.
We got into our room, set the alarm on the clock radio, and passed out.
Copyright © 2004 by Ian Johnston. All rights reserved.
Created by Ian Johnston. Questions? Please mail me.