Road Trip: New Zealand

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Lesson #3: Plan your time

Don't assume just because your journey looks like 100km (62 miles) that you'll be able to get there in an hour regardless of the speed limit.  That little inch on the map usually ends up being a ridiculously winding doodle in reality and many times it takes longer to get somewhere than you expected.  You'll be sidetracked by scenery, sheep, and switchbacks.  

NZ mountain roadNZ suggested speeds
While speed “suggestions” in the states tend to be very conservative around the corners, I suggest you adhere to the NZ cautionary speed limits as some corners can be rather ambitious.  25kph is about 13mph.  But the combo of piloting a rented Focus and not knowing what lies around the corner (tractor, sheep, end of the road?) could spell disaster if you're carving some lines.

And given it's location on the Pacific Ring of Fire, you could even be disrupted by a “minor eruption” that closes nearby roads.  Mt. Ruapehu is the most active volcano recently in New Zealand and last erupted in 2007.  Volcanos seem to disrupt my trips often!  2 years ago, I was stranded at the gate in Amsterdam for six hours returning from Denmark when that unpronounceable volcano in Iceland erupted.  This year, the Chilean Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcano started erupting the same day I left the southern hemisphere.  1 day later that ash cloud wandered over the Pacific closing air space down.  

Weather can also be a little unpredictable in NZ, like simultaneously sunny and raining in summer; snow and ice in the winter and rental car tires don't usually offer much grip.  When the rain is whipping sideways- as is how rain tends to fall in NZ- oncoming trucks throw up a deluge of water onto your windshield, causing temporary blindness yet dilated eyeballs (yours- freaked out), and clenched butt cheeks as you try to recall which direction the road was going before you went under the waterfall. This is vastly apparent on the winding mountain roads.  

NZ volcano road
For the most part, I'm pretty fearless behind the wheel but I had probably the most trepidatious driving experience in my life on this road.  And I've been a passenger when Kojima decides to try his luck at off road racing while on a road course!  My goal had been to embark on the amazing 18km hike through the Tongariro Alpine Crossing- one of the top 10 one day hikes in the world- but the weather gods had other plans for me. Instead I took a drive around the three volcanos that border the hiking trail hoping the weather would clear up.  
Look Ma- no guard rails!
This road up the side of one volcano jumped in elevation to just over 9000 feet.  Passing through dense evergreen forests at the base up to a virtually desert climate at the top, the fog and rain rolled in quick.  As you can see, New Zealanders don't believe in guard rails much and any excursion off the road would most likely end by cartwheeling down thousands of feet of rocks and lava.  The wet road became slippery quickly and I decided to make my way back down as quickly and carefully as possible.

Lesson #4: Look right, look right again, look left, and look right!  

It's amazing how instinctive it is to glance towards the left as you're pulling up to an intersection (or even trying to cross the road) but uncondition yourself quickly. Look right first before pulling into the intersection or taking that step off the curb- it may be your last.  Crossing some streets is like playing a real life game of Frogger without any safety logs.  Pedestrians do NOT have the right away and by that, I mean you're fair game- 10 points for Australians, 5 for Americans, 3 for bicyclists, 15 for opposing rugby team fans, etc.  I'm not sure if some of the cars didn't see me and sped up.  I definitely felt like I was wearing a target on my back a few times.  

Watch out!

 

 

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