3,000 km on foot across New Zealand

The Left Side of the Road

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Somewhere behind the cloud, a mountain was clinging to the memory of winter. Traces of snow flanked the sides of Ruapehu. Every now and then, the cloud would lift its veil and expose glimpses of the receding snow. From the YHA in National Park, I watched the mountain as Rory, Dad and I debated what to do next.

With the holidays reaching their height of glory, every campground – or at least the ones we needed – were booked along the Whanganui River. And, after several hours exchanging emails with the world’s worst customer service representative at a local rafting company, I determined the 3-day Whanganui River trip was not meant to be.

But what to do next? Rory made it clear he would not spend his remaining sliver of vacation walking on the road, the majority of trail after Whanganui. (For my readers outside the United States, Americans earn an appallingly small amount of paid vacation per year, so we have to take advantage of every hour we get!) The cloud shifted again and the sun caught on Ruapehu’s snow.

“What about the Tararuas?” I asked.

The Tararua Ranges are the first hint of real mountain tramping along Te Araroa. We could spend four days in the alpine. Above the tree line. With the smell of the mountains shifting in the breeze. Everyone agreed that sounded nice and we caught a bus to Levin where we headed into the mountains.

The weather was good in the notoriously volatile mountains. We clawed our way above tree line to the Waiopehu Hut and saw, for the first time, just what we’d gotten ourselves into. Mountains. Real, honest to Dog, mountains. Shit just got real. Clouds moved across the tussock tops at a surprising speed. The fading sunlight lit and unlit the mountains with the frequency of a child flipping a light switch on and off.

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In these four Tararua days, I discovered something I already instinctively knew: the mountains are my place to thrive. With all of New Zealand expanding into the cascading distance, I was rejuvenated after what seemed an eternity in a dark, dank forest. Then the trail went back below tree line.

Regardless, I felt a new sense of urgency to reach the South Island when we emerged near the small coastal town of Otaki. We checked into what was once a large holiday park, but now had an ominous air of abandonment. As the late mid-summer darkness began to creep through the trees, I realized this was a makeshift halfway house. One of the tenants turned on a Hitchcock film and disappeared into the long, dark aisle of single unit rentals.

Rory nudged my shoulder.

“That guy is still staring at us.”

I noticed, but had been trying my best to not look at the man with the pallid complexion and unblinking eyes. He lingered outside the kitchen for two hours watching us eat, never uttering a word to the other tenants. Never drinking. Never eating. Staring. Jimmy Stewart attempted to unravel a murder mystery in the background.

We packed up quickly the next morning as our friend resumed his position outside the kitchen.

“I think he’s hungry,” Rory said.

“For blood,” I whispered.

Rory left him a couple packets of ramen that we wouldn’t need as we left for the bus to Wellington.

Sometimes Rory is much more intuitive than I. He proposed a mini-vacation in the nation’s capital to alleviate what was, in retrospect, a low point of morale in our self-inflicted adventure. Dad stayed with some friends of a friend outside of town, and Rory and I booked into the YHA in the city centre. He bought me a dress, so I wouldn’t have to wear my sweat-stained and undeniably rancid hiking shirt. And for two beautifully brief days, we were tourists. Not worried about weather moving in. Not fretting over pace or distance. And not hungry!

The day before Rory was scheduled to travel back to Auckland for his flight home, we studied a sign advertising “free rental cars” on the quay.

“What about driving back to Auckland?” Rory asked.

I was skeptical. Nothing is ever free. But Rory persisted: We could spend another day together. I’m not going to see you for three more months. You could drive that section of trail…

In the end, it cost $32 to cover the optional insurance, for which I was sure to need if I was to spend the next 10 hours driving on the wrong side of the road.

The first thing you notice in a backwards car on the wrong side of the road is that everything is, well, backwards. Obviously the driver’s seat isn’t where it’s meant to be. When you go to flip the turn signal, the windshield wipers thrash violently. Your coffee, shifter, radio, and air control all must somehow be operated with your left hand while your right hand maintains a death grip on the steering wheel. I have to wonder if everyone here is left-handed.

Then there’s the backwards traffic. It is never where you expect it to be. Especially in roundabouts. And how on Earth do they mark passing lanes here? Do I pass when the stripe is on the left or the right? Honestly, who would just give an American a free car without so much as questioning her ability to temporarily remove the small part of her brain that learned how to drive on the right side of the road?

Miraculously, we made it.

The next morning, Rory and I said goodbye at the bus station. He was back to work, back to winter, back to home. I was back to the trail and the approaching closure of the North Island chapter of our journey.

One Response to “The Left Side of the Road”

  1. Rob

    That whole “wrong side of the road” thing was something I didn’t experience until a few years ago in NZ. Rented a car at the bottom of the south island and learned out in the countryside. After nearly a month I was comfortable in it and a couple of other month-long “wrong side of the road” trips in NZ and Australia cemented that sort of driving into my brain. I was in Japan in December and it took all of 30 seconds for my brain to “switch” in the rental car parking lot and I was good to go. Shifting with the left hand is still a pain, though. 🙂

    Referencing something you said – how much of the Northern Te Araroa is road? I’m a much bigger fan of trails and mountains and like your boyfriend would prefer not to waste walking time on roads.

    Reply

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