The View from the Left

So what if they drive on the wrong side of the road? A 1,300-mile trip across New Zealand's South Island is nothing short of spectacular.

South Pacific

Cover Story

March 23, 2003|By Jerry V. Haines | Jerry V. Haines,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The show starts when you pull out of the parking lot.

Before my wife and I visited New Zealand's South Island last year, we had second thoughts about driving around the island in a rented car. We had only five days, and our planned stops were scattered all over the map, with hundreds of sinuous two-lane blacktop miles between them.

Would we spend all day getting from point A to point B, collapse into our bed at the hotel and get up early the next morning only to press grimly on toward point C?

Fortunately, Janice and I discovered that driving on the South Island is not just to get you from one highlight to another -- the whole blessed island is a highlight, including the road trips. Getting into the car is like plopping into your seat at an IMAX theater -- on the wrong side of the road.

New Zealand is that two-island country on the part of the library globe that is usually out of sight, two irregular spots, huddling together in the wide expanse of blue ocean way down at the bottom. From Los Angeles to Auckland on the North Island, it's almost 6,500 miles -- at least a 13-hour flight. New Zealand is not even close to Australia (1,400 miles away), although Americans' tendency to confuse the two countries is a great annoyance to their respective citizens.

When you travel that far and that long, you wonder whether it's going to be worth it. I asked that question in an Internet chat room when I was planning our trip and was told simply, "It will change your life."

New Zealand's land area is about the same as Colorado's, but its population (3.8 million) is only about three-fourths of Colorado's -- and 70 percent of the country's residents live in about half a dozen cities. That means there are great sweeps of territory where the only residents have wings or hooves or gills; and most of the time, they hide, so it's just you and the mountains and the sky.

In the winds you can hear the rivers and lakes talking with the forests and the rocks. No wonder the Lord of the Rings producers chose New Zealand as the setting for adventures of Tolkien's hobbits and wizards. It is a magical place.

But New Zealand does have one practical problem: Driving on the left side is a significant disruption to your life. It's like waking up one morning to find that the kitchen is where the living room was. Making right turns, formerly something as natural as breathing, now requires deliberation. Clockwise traffic roundabouts paralyzed me. Add the metric speed limit signs, and it's all very disorienting.

So you need someone compassionate at your side for the occasional gentle reminder: "Left, dammit, left!"

Astra, and Christchurch

Our adventure began with a flight to Christchurch, the largest city on the island with a population of more than 300,000. Our rental car was a blue Holden Astra, the comfortable small sedan in which we would spend most of our waking hours during the next five days. Not sold in the United States, Holdens are made in Australia and occupy a position within the General Motors hierarchy comparable to Ger-many's Opels.

The Astra was set up backward, of course, with the steering wheel on the right, but this actually is a good thing. By sitting on the "wrong" side of the car as you drive, you are constantly reminded that you are not at home and that you need to reconsider everything that you normally do automatically.

We relaxed a bit in Christ-church, climbing to the top of its cathedral tower for a view of the city and the distant mountains. Christchurch looks like it was lifted out of the American Midwest and set down about a third of the way down South Island's eastern coast.

The only thing interfering with the city's otherwise primly rectangular grid of streets is a meandering, willow-shaded river. In such an easily walkable city, its charming old trolley cars seem superfluous.

Below us in Cathedral Square, players moved chessmen the size of trashcans around an oversize board set into the plaza. In nearby Victoria Square Park, non-singing gondoliers pushed boaters (or, more precisely, "punters") along the Avon River. We climbed down from the tower and walked through a calm botanic garden, preparing mentally for our drive on the wild side.

The next morning we began our road adventure, 301 miles from Christchurch south to Queenstown. (We would log 1,291 miles on South Island before we were done.) We took turns driving. Whoever was behind the wheel was relieved of all responsibilities save one: don't get us killed. Thus the driver got to feel like a celebrity neurosurgeon, and the co-pilot like a scrub nurse waiting to slap sunglasses, water bottles and sunflower seeds into the other's outstretched palm upon command.

Getting out of the city in morning rush hour was a bit stressful and necessitated a few activations of the "left, dammit, left" warning system.

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