October 25, 2016
We arrived in Auckland after 14 hours or so of flight, but having skipped Monday entirely. Despite the fact that it was 7am on Tuesday and neither of us slept much on the plane or in the airports we passed through, we moved through the Auckland airport pretty quickly. One of our first observations was that yes, the New Zealand accent is just as endearing in person as we thought it would be.
The NZ Customs officers were genial, going so far as joking around with us about our respective professions as we were screened for entry into their country. It was during the customs screening that I was given my first opportunity to point at Katie and publicly declare her as "my wife," which I definitely got a kick out of. We stopped briefly at a kiosk to exchange a chunk of US currency for some New Zealand Dollars, which was a significant aesthetic improvement in addition to being a "whoa, we're really here aren't we?" moment.
We exited to the "International Arrivals" section of the terminal, found a phone to call our rental car vendor, and walked outside to be picked up. 15 minutes later, I found myself behind the wheel of a Mazda and on the right side of the car instead of the left. The first couple minutes of even being in the car felt awkward and wrong, and I wondered if driving was going to end up being a nightmare for the whole trip. As it turned out, though, adapting to the foreign traffic laws was pretty easy.
Travel by Car
As I mentioned above, driving in NZ is pretty different. But it's also pretty similar to the US. Cars belong on the left side of the road, and slow traffic is required to take the leftmost lane (if you're lucky enough to be on a road with two or more lanes). This wasn't too hard to pick up. Apart from just feeling "wrong" for the first 30 minutes or so, there was a small period of time where I had to relearn how to keep the vehicle centered in my lane. When you switch to the right side of the vehicle, all that stuff you do subconsciously while driving just kind of disappears and you feel like you've never been behind the wheel before. That said, the hardest thing for me to un-learn and re-learn was the placement of the turn signal and the windshield wipers. These were on opposite sides of the steering wheel as well, and if I had a dollar for every time I mixed them up that first day our flight to Auckland would have been paid for.
There are also a lot (a ton) of roundabouts. At first these were a little intimidating (you don't see roundabouts in southern Indiana very often) but these too became second nature quickly. In terms of traffic flow, they seem to be loads better than traffic lights and we never once had issues with one. On that note, we also didn't see a single traffic collision the entire trip (rural and urban areas included). Some of the road signs are worded a little differently ("Yield" became "Give Way" and "Caution" became "Take Care"), but in general the signage really kept you informed and there weren't any nasty surprises. Using a smartphone while driving is prohibited (how about that!) and the whole country has a max speed limit of 100km/h (60mph).
Another interesting thing about driving in New Zealand is that their roadways tend to go *around* the geography of the country rather than through it (we only went through one tunnel the entire trip), which means there are lots of curves, twists, and turns. Most of these curves tend to be gentle enough that you can take them at 80-100km/h comfortably, and that always made me feel like I was in the second half of a James Bond film. Based on the way Katie was constantly holding onto the door handle while we were driving, she might have had a different opinion.
In terms of scenery, it's pretty amazing how much variation in scenery there is in different parts of the country, even within the same island. In the north we saw mostly rolling hills, huge grassy stretches of land covered in cows and/or sheep, sometimes deer. The trees are a strange mixture of what most people think of as "tropical" trees, and what I'm just going to call "normal" trees because I didn't spend 4 years in college studying trees, okay? In some areas, the amount of green is almost overwhelming. You don't really see dead trees or leaves in New Zealand (we were only there for two weeks obviously, but I did ask about this). Things are either green (fall), green and white (winter), green with some flowers (summer), or green with lots of flowers (spring). In the south, giant mountains and dense forests, glacial lakes, and ocean views were common. On either island, the coastline was always an awesome, almost alien thing to see. It was initially very weird to see a deep blue/green ocean butted up not next to a sandy beach, but instead a section of bright green grass or sloped farmland covered in sheep.
All throughout New Zealand, while driving, you can expect to change altitude frequently. There are so many huge hills, valleys, and mountains that picturesque views quickly become secondhand and "scenic outlooks" on the side of the road are more common than rest stops, gas stations, or buildings in general. There are so many places you can pull off onto the side of the road for a view that I eventually got tired of taking panoramas on my iPhone.