Driving on the Left

March 29, 2011 Comments Off on Driving on the Left

So…remember when we left the dryer running and went to bed? Yeah, well, in the morning our clothes were still soaking wet. Even when we ran the dryer again, they remained cold and wet. Complaining at the front desk got us a key to a different room with a working dryer, with whose aid we got our clothes warm and damp, which was an improvement, I guess. The car rental agency, Ace Rentals, was supposed to send a shuttle to pick us up at 11, so we went out to wait, but it was something like half an hour late. The friendly driver (who also turned out to be the manager) told us in exasperation how his other passenger had asked to be allowed to finish breakfast first, then turned up fifteen minutes later to say he couldn’t find his driver’s license, could he wait one more minute? Which turned into forty-five. Anyway, we eventually got to Ace, where all the employees were incredibly nice but extremely busy. They were going to give us a sedan but after a while decided to give us a more accessible, already clean tiny silver hatchback. It fit all our stuff perfectly, and we loved it. I tried to name it the Ef Queen (because its license plate was EFQ887), but it didn’t catch on with Simon. Anyway, suddenly it was time to leave and we were sitting in the front seats on the wrong sides of the car trying to get up the nerve to go.

Fortunately, it was a left turn out of the lot, which is the easy turn. The hardest thing to adjust to about the physical driving was that the turn signal and the windshield wipers were on opposite sides of the wheel. Nothing threw me off like the wipers coming on when I was trying to concentrate on making a turn. In terms of driving strategy, the worst thing was the weird “give way to the right” rule: when two vehicles approaching from opposite directions are turning into the same street, the one coming across the oncoming lane has right of way. Simon kind of likes this rule, I kind of don’t, except sometimes I do…I just can’t decide. It’s a pain to try to remember to watch the other lane when you’re making an easy turn, but on the other hand, it is nice for the people who have it easy to cut you a break when you’re turning off a busy street. The jury is still out. In other news, NZ roads are kind of crap compared to American roads: they’re narrow two-laners, twisting and indirect—it’s like taking California Hwy 1 everywhere. I don’t want to be one of those tourists who insist that everything at home is better, but there were times I would have given my eyeteeth for an interstate. I am not given to carsickness, but I was regularly queasy, sometimes even while driving.

284 km

We had asked the Ace manager for scenic drive recommendations, and that’s how we ended up driving to Waihi via Karangahake Gorge. The gorge was beautiful! Jungly and rugged and with a lovely river flowing along the bottom, beside the highway. We stopped and hiked a loop that went out along the river and crossed it on a swinging bridge. The return trip was along old minecart tracks that ran through a tunnel just inside the cliffs over the river, with occasional windows cut out of the wall. At the end of it was an old minecart and a bunch of ruined buildings that had once upon a time been kilns and engine rooms and I don’t remember what all. The important thing was, you could climb around in them.

By the time we finished hiking, it was late and we were starving. We went to Waihi and looked for a place whose kitchen was open. We found a generic-looking café whose proprietor told us he just happened to have exactly two burger buns left, and went to make us food, in between catering to all the kids who apparently come there to hang out and wait for parents after school. Eventually he brought out two beautifully constructed burgers—this was the first time I encountered beetroot chutney on a burger, but both it and sliced pickled beets are standard issue burger condiments in NZ. It’s actually really good and I plan to imitate it. There had been “Expect Delays” signs on the highway regarding the Katikati Bridge which was under repair and appeared to be the only way to go south along the coast, so we asked the guy if he thought we should go another way. He said the bridge would be fine and asked where we were going and what we were planning to do while in NZ. He parked himself at our table and just talked at us for maybe half an hour. He had good things to say about some things and was very friendly and funny. It was a lot of fun to talk to him. He strongly recommended the Southward Car Museum outside Wellington, as well as the Waitomo Caves, and sympathized with our difficulty in deciding what to do. We never learned his name, so I call him Burger Man.

After lunch, we extricated ourselves from Burger Man’s verbal grip and drove to Rotorua, on a lake near an active volcano. It was too bad we didn’t spend any time there, because there’s a lot of Maori cultural stuff to do around there, including the famous Pink and White Terraces (?), plus thermal baths, which I was kind of keen to do and never did. The whole town smells like sulfur (“So don’t blame him!” said Burger Man, jerking his thumb at Simon), but was otherwise very pretty. The hotel we found was very near the waterfront, and it was the first place we stayed where we really got the typical NZ hotel experience. It had a kitchenette and a glass front wall with a sliding door and curtains, but more than anything, it sort of felt like someone’s spare room. In this case, it felt like showing up at your grandma’s house. The wallpaper in the bathroom is, I think, the same as in my grandparents’ downstairs bathroom, and above the toilet paper is an extra roll hanging in a probably homemade chintz holder with lace frills on it. And, of course, my favorite thing: when you check in, most NZ hotels ask if you’d like some milk (for morning tea or coffee, although they’re surprised to have to explain that), and when you say yes, they want to know if you’d prefer “original” or “trim.” They take it out of a fridge by the front desk and walk you to your room. I love it.

We learned an important lesson in Rotorua: when orienting yourself on a Lonely Planet guidebook’s one-page city map, the very first thing you should do is check out the scale. Simon picked out a restaurant and we found it on the map and set off on foot, only to find that it was apparently much, much farther away than we had realized. After quite a while we gave up, but then of course you have to walk back. We eventually settled for a different restaurant which, when we walked in, we realized was slightly upscale, and although the food was decent we worried about being underdressed and about whether the waitresses thought it was gauche not to order a first course. It was all extremely tiring.



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