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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Hazards of Roadtripping NZed

When the drive to Franz Josef began, I was on a natural high. The weaving, winding roads that made “S” shapes up and down mountain passes didn’t phase me, the hairpin turns on opposite road sides couldn’t shake me, the barreling trucks coming at me straight on wouldn’t fluster me. The sheeps and cows were my friends, baa-ing and moo-ing as I past their pastures and since I was on the west coast, the sunset was on my side. I was invincible. I sailed through Wanaka, a pretty lake town that might’ve been nice to spend more time in, if time weren’t an issue. But alas, I had to take my coffee to go because of the day’s events. Then I got to Haast, chasing the sunset to Haast Beach. Haast, the last stop before the long road to Franz Josef, was supposed to be merely a fuel stop. But seeing the "Haast Beach" sign, I decided to see the sun set on the west coast of New Zealand before continuing the straight shot up to Franz. Sure of myself, I didn’t re-check my map after finding that Haast “Beach” wasn’t an actual beach, just a name of a town. I barreled past as darkness set in around me, figuring I’d see many more sunsets over the next weeks.

At about 9:30 PM, I found myself on a lonely, dark road, water to my right. That didn’t seem right. Heading north on the west coast, water should be on my left. And then, as if the road read my thoughts, it ended. Yep. Pitch black (there are no streetlamps on NZ roads), no more pavement, a cliff. Ummmm, what did I do wrong? There were NO turns off the road. How could I mess this up? I had seen ONE light on in a solitary shack a while ago. I’d have to travel back and…gulp…knock on the door. What else could I do? I was in the middle of a foreign country, lost in the dark.

Knock, knock, knock. A large, lumbering male figure approached, likely startled to find a knocker in the first place. I politely explained my predicament, to which he responded, “You’re at the end of the road, love. It’s a long, long way to Franz Josef.” Still on a bungee high, I shrugged, “Well, it could be worse.” I passed on the coffee he offered (“My mum’s in the other room, so you don’t have to feel worried…” Norman Bates' mum was in the other room, too, right?), wanting to just get on with getting on. He wished me well, sent me off. Plugging my Ipod back into my ears, I belted some Counting Crows as I ventured back the way that I came in the night.

After about 50 kms, I still hadn’t reached Haast again and started to panic. Had I really gone 50 kms out of my way on that little wrong turn? So when I saw headlights (the first pair in this whole mix-up), I put on my hazards, stepped out of my car and waved my hands above my head. It was now 10 PM. After whizzing past, the brake lights illuminated, and I exhaled in relief as a little sports car pulled up next to me. When the windows went down, clouds of marijuana smoke seeped into the air. Heavy-lidded young boys gazed my way. Uh-oh. Drastic scenarios found their way to my consciousness until a girl popped her blond, pony-tailed head out of the back seat. I exhaled in relief again. Kids from Invercargill (southern city) on holiday who had also made the wrong turn from Haast. Whew…I wasn’t totally crazy. Together, happy to be with same-plighted others, the potheads and I retraced our steps.

From Haast-Round 2, I ventured onward for another 3 hours to Franz Josef, crossing one-lane bridges, dodging (or hitting) possums (an enormous problem in New Zealand that locals actually try to hit them in an attempt to control the balance of the ecosystem; one local restaurant, The Mussel Inn, actually gives free beers to those who cut off and bring in tails of their roadkill), deafly singing in the darkness as I navigated (at 10 mph) the steep climbs and falls of the mountains in the foggy night. HOW I made it to Franz Josef is beyond me. HOW I didn’t scare or lose my cool is also beyond me. I rationalize it was the bungee high. Whatever the answer, I made it. At 1 AM, I passed the highway sign announcing that I had entered the Franz Josef township. I remember clapping, quite wildly, inside my little Mazda, as Kenny Loggins’ “I’m Free” came on. Apropos. My hotel left the door of my room open, key inside, that’s just the way New Zealand is.

The next day was completely worth the effort. Meeting up with Ken and Iris again (after my night, it felt great to be seen...), I heli’d over the Franz and Fox Josef glaciers, landing briefly atop, frolicking in the snow while amused strangers indulged the taking of a photo session. The three of us then partook in a 4 hour glacier hike, following our ice-pick laden guide over melting crevasses, sculptured ice staircases, and snowy blue and white drop-offs. Every so often, a gun-shot-like sound would echo in the air around us – the bottom of the glacier falling out, slowly rebuilding via the trickling streams of water, ice and new snowfall. The day after we did our hike, two tourists got seriously injured in the off-limits ice cave where the glacier bottomed out, driving home the point of just how unpredictable a natural phenomenon like a glacier can be… The headline in the paper read “Bloody Stupid Tourists!” From Franz, I headed up to Hokitika, a small beach town a few hours up the coast where I caught the most gorgeous sunset but where the hazards of roadtripping New Zealand continued to mount.

The next morning on my way out of Hokitika, I got a speeding ticket for going 68 km/h in a 50 km/h zone. The police officer chatted merrily the entire time he was issuing me my fine ($120 NZD), signing off with a “Well, Righty-O! I hope this is the worst car infraction you suffer on your holiday, Babe.” Babe, my ass. The good cheer of the Kiwis continues to amaze. From Hokitika, I crossed the South Island, following the highway through high plains and low, the awesome Arthur’s Pass, and the dusty, brown hills of Canterbury. Christchurch was the most charming of the cities I’d yet seen with it’s Victorian buildings, English gardens, artist cooperatives, and funky boutiques (most especially a designed named Carly Harris; I've hit her shops in EVERY city she has one for a new purchase); a brief two-day respite from the open road that kept me busy playing city-mouse to the country-mouse I had become en transit.

I overslept my alarm on the morning of a 2-plus hour drive to Kaikoura for a whale-watching expedition. Pulling into the coastal community at exactly nine on the dot, I ran into the Whale Watch office, wholly exasperated and New York-frantic only to be told that because of stormy seas, the tour was cancelled. Semi-relieved as whale watching just sounds like a waste of time, I shot straight up to Blenheim, the center of the Marlborough, and New Zealand’s most well-known wine region. I missed the start-times for the day’s wine tours. And, rationalizing that I wouldn’t be going on a rip-rouring romp through the vineyards as I did in the Hunter with Sarah, et al…I opted to take myself on a private, well-behaved, adult wine tasting tour, where I discovered more whites to add to my growing palate, and a few reds to compliment. Around the corner from my hotel, eager for a nap, I found that my day was far from over.

Heading over a speed bump in town, accelerating onto the gas just a bit to get my back tires over the hump, a taxi van swung the driver side door open. Yep, right into my little Mazda. Ccrrruuunnnccchhh!!! The hood buckled, the windshield cracked, the left side mirror collapsed into the window, shedding the protective plastic cover that I had nicked on various parallel park attempts in other places (guess I don’t have to worry about that now…) and the passenger side door (remember, it is on the left side here) dented in to refuse closure, swinging wildly as I move to the side of the road. What the fuck!?!?! Now, once upon a time ago, I had a bad accident record, but since I’ve been a vehicular star. The fracture of metal, foreign, rented metal no less, just sent me reeling. I jumped from the car to find an albino hobbit of a taxi driver (female) headed my way. What did you do, I said calmly. You were too close to me, she said. Just as I started to panic because I had NO IDEA what happens when you compromise an overseas rental car, two men who oversaw the whole thing start scolding the cabbie – you were in the wrong, they yelled at her, we’re calling the police. Wait, really? The cops. Foreign cops. No. God, what is going on here? (Cher, us and the freakin' Mazdas...!)

Then, all of a sudden, I realized...I had a few bottles of wine I had purchased in the car. I had the brochures from all the wineries I had visited littered on the floor, peppered with notes. I didn't overdo it, but I had my share of tastes. Granted, none of this seemed my fault, but...I couldn't help but freak out. Popping mints into my mouth, a towel over the 3 bottles in the back seat and cleaning up the paperwork, I met the townsfolk again, confident, strong and with fresh breath. Now, I don’t know if this cabbie had it coming to her, some karmic payback headed her way, but people were lining up to tell me how SHE was wrong. She opened her door; it was her responsibility to look before she opened. I would be absolved of any guilt. Um….Ok. Suck, suck, suck on my mints. Say little, stay calm. And, as promised by the townsfolk, friendly officer Mike Stern, who oversaw the accident from afar (Blenheim isn’t exactly a large town), concurred. Handing me his card, he took my cell and spoke with the rental company that I had on the other line (the frantic American on her cell phone schtick was working...) and assured them it was the cabbie’s fault. Luckily, I had taken the highest level of insurance on the rental (Dad, aren’t you proud?), so my out-of-pocket would only be about $100. Really….? Not arguing there. I stayed in that night. No more venturing out around Blenheim for this chick, no more wine.

Since Europcar was unable to locate another rental for me (as this one was practically impossible to get in the first place), Mike the Cop fixed my passenger side door (the window had to be pulled up and then he secured the lock back into place…magic!), and deemed the car drivable. Ummm… Ok. I had made so many plans over the next five days; it seemed silly to argue about keeping a car that I needed to keep, unsightly or not. So, the destroyed Mazda and I continued our South Island journey OUT of wine country and onto greener pastures the next morning. Broken windshield, busted side mirror, buckled hood, and all. I was quite the talking piece of every town I passed through. Strangers who might've passed me by were inquisitive; fingers were pointed, gasps were overheard, heads turned. “Oh, look at that irresponsible tourist!” they all said. To which I had no recourse but to respond “Righty-O!”

The pitfalls of automotive freedom…

More soon,

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