Wednesday, 1 September 2010

From Auckland to Gisborne

After staying in Auckland for one and a half weeks, we moved on in our newly bought car to Gisborne. With no driving experience with automatic gear, left side traffic or vans, I took on myself the job to drive us the 500 km through New Zealand's countryside.

New Zealand Traffic

What traffic might one expect in New Zealand? Well the answer is simple: none. At least outside of the big cities. The country measures 300 000 square kilometers, divide that by the number of people (4 million) and you get 13.3 people by square kilometer. However 1.4 million of these live in Auckland. So if you remove them from the equation, you are left with 8.6 people per square kilometer and even those people probably live in New Zealand's other central cities, like Wellington or Christchurch. Anyway long story short, there is no traffic outside of New Zealand's big cities. Despite that the maxmimum allowed speed is 100 km/h, even on motorways and highways. That seems slow at first, but with most roads being windy and climbing up and down mountains, you can't use the full allowed speed range that often. On the positive side, though New Zealand is really huge and has a small tax income correlated with the size, the streets are in excellent condition. We met not one street, which was below excellent.

Traffic Rules

New Zealanders drive on the "correct side of the road". Or so they say. I.e. the left side. It occured to me that all countries having left side traffic always talk about it being the "correct" or "right" side, while other countries see their "right" side as so given and normal, that they don't ever mention it.
Apart from that other differences include very special roundabout rules. The first is that there are some roundabouts with two tracks. You take the inner one, if you don't want to use the exit next to you and the outter one, if you do. Second is the way you need to use your indicator. While in Germany you simply enter the roundabout and blink, when the next exit is the one you intend on taking, in New Zealand you need to see first if the exit you are going to take is the first exit, correlated with the position you are entering the roundabout. If so, use the left indicator. If you want a latter exit, use the right indicator. In this case however you need to change the indicator the moment you passed the last exit before the one you intend on taking. Pretty confusing, eh?
Apart from the strange indicating practice, the rest actually makes sense after getting used to it. Oh, and there are a lot of roundabouts to gain this practice in New Zealand.


The nice thing about driving through New Zealand is that you will be able to see a lot of its beautiful landscape. It's even worth planning your route accordingly. We took a route that would lead us along the beach for quite some time. Very unique about New Zealand's landscape is its diversity. You can encounter barren lands and after 10 minutes they change into fresh green meadows, only to give way to rocky mountains and beautiful beaches afterwards. When we were climbing up the hills, we even understood why some people use the adjective fantastic to describe New Zealand's nature. We went through a part of green mountain meadows hiding in gray fog, only revealing some stones and rocks here and there. That really created an eerie kind of atmosphere and we thought ourselves to be in a fantasy movie.
One thing all different forms of landscape have in common though are sheep and cows. You can encounter them everywhere, even at the most remote places with no house, farm or town to be seen anywhere. In fact New Zealand's sheep population by far exceeds its human population. New Zealand is host to some 36 million sheep. That's 9 sheep to one human.

Out of Gas in the Middle of Nowhere

Especially the last part of our trip led us through about 200 kilometers of uninhabited land. Although we bought maps beforehand, we could not guess this, since there actually were locations mentioned on the map. So we left the last town with a gas tank more than half way full, expecting it to last easily till Gisborne. Guess what, it didn't. As it seems, we made a couple of beginner mistakes:

First: Always carry some extra gasoline with you when going for long car drives in New Zealand, since the number of petrol stations is very limited.
Second: Use any petrol station you can find on the road, when being on a long trip, even when your tank is still half full. You don't know when the next one will come.
Third: A car, especially a van, takes much more fuel when going up steep mountains. So be careful about that, when you estimate how far your tank might hold.

So we did not use that last petrol station, had no reserve and highly underestimated the increased gasoline usage for steep mountains. So there we were halfway between Opotiki (last town before the long nowhere) and Gisborne, with an almost empty tank still climbing up and down steep mountains. Also the sunlight left us earlier than expected, as we were driving to the easternmost city in the world. So what to do. We were afraid to drive on, since the engine could stop at any point leaving us on the middle of a narrow steep mountain road. So we considered using one of the few isles next to the road, park there and hope for someone to take us to the next town tomorrow morning. But then just when we decided to do that, there came a mysterious sign of some kind of hotel up ahead. It didn't say how far ahead, but we decided to go for it. After several more kilometers, we found one single house with light burning in the middle of the mountains. Having a big space for parking, we assumed it might be the hotel and stopped. Getting out of our van and approaching the house, however, we were stopped by loud and aggressive barking of several dogs. It being still night, we didn't see where the dogs were and if we could reach the house door unharmed. Also it looked nothing like a hotel here. Approaching some kind of fence the howls of the dogs got so loud and aggressive, that we ran back to our car.
That can't be the hotel, we agreed and after some thought, decided to drive a little further. Several kilometers later, the tank almost giving up (the car started to rumble), we spotted light at the horizon. Could that be the hotel, we thought. But getting closer the light was too strong for a single house. No it wasn't only one single hotel, we found a little mountain town. Wow.
With the last drops we reached the mountain town. And what do you know, it had a petrol station. We are saved, or so we thought. But getting closer, we found it was already closed. Damn it.
Parking our car and walking to some people standing nearby in front of some hall, we asked them for help. And as it happened, they said that they are waiting for the Karate lesson to end. Guess what, the sensei (teacher) was the owner of the petrol station (or her husband). So we waited for the lesson to end, and asked the white clothed people, that walked out, if they were the Karate instructor. Finding him, we pleaded for help. Ten minutes his wife came along the road, reopening the petrol station for us, saving our day.

With the tank refilled we managed the remaining 70 kilometers to Gisborne. And as luck was fond of us now, bilge rat could still get her key from the night reception of the hospital and we could move in her room in the middle of the night and had a bed to sleep.


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