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On The Road; John Szabo’s New Zealand

If you’ve never been to New Zealand, or even if you have, you may get a kick out of my personal snapshot of what it’s like to travel in New Zealand.

On The Road: A Snapshot of What it’s Like to Travel in New Zealand

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

When I arrive at the Gisborne airport to collect my rental car, I’m met by a friendly woman, who knows my name before I give it to her. She leads me to the small parking lot outside of the diminutive, low-slung building, which also doubles as the baggage pick-up area. Convenient. She politely opens the right side door of the car, and I start to throw my knapsack down onto the passenger seat as I always do. Then I realize it’s not the passenger’s side. It’s the driver’s side. Oh yeah, this is a former British colony and they drive on the other side of the road. Time to pay attention. Words of advice: when crossing the road, remember: look right.

More sheep pastures

More sheep pastures

New Zealand is a sparsely populated country, with famously more sheep than people. This is no exaggeration. Sheep outnumber citizens by 7-1 (although the ratio is down from the 1982 high of 22 sheep for every citizen). It’s possible to travel for miles on back roads without crossing a single soul, and one gets the impression that time has spun a little more slowly here. In fact, New Zealand feels as though it were several decades, and in a few places, several centuries behind the rest of the hyper-developed world.

Phone numbers here still have seven digits and license plates just 6 characters. Apparently it’s OK to park in the bus stop zone during certain hours, as long as you leave enough room for the bus. You’re as likely to pick up magnetic resonance as cell phone reception outside of city and town centers. New Zealand is emphatically not underdeveloped; there’s electricity and running water and amenities of all kinds, even organic produce, espresso coffee and concept restaurants. It’s just that the water is still clean – there are lakes and streams that you can drink from without Maori revenge.

Picton Habour, South Island

Picton Habour, South Island

And there’s a small town feel to the entire country. An anecdote to illustrate: I left my hat at the Inter Islander Ferry Terminal in Picton on the south Island after the trip over from Wellington. When I realized it, I track down the number for the terminal to inquire, though I had little hope of ever recovering it. Leave something, say, at Pearson Airport, or even the Toronto Bus Terminal and just try to get a live person on the phone who can help you. And even if you manage to reach someone, you can almost hear the sarcastic laughter.

But when I ring up the Ferry terminal, a living, breathing woman answers straight away, without having to press zero or pound or some cryptic code of characters. Panicked by having to interact with a real person, I stutteringly ask for the lost and found department, managing to spit out that I may have left my hat in one of the men’s washrooms. She responds, most shockingly, that she has the hat, even though I hadn’t even gotten around to describing it. She then even offers to send it by post to wherever I was staying. “Brilliant, I say in disbelief tinged with bewilderment, “but how can I get the money to you to cover the cost?” There was a brief silence, a silence of puzzlement, as though my question were a little queer. Finally she responds that “we” would take care of it. Well, whoever you are, I thank you. And yes, I got my hat back.

St Leonard's Woolshed

St Leonards Vineyard Cottages
The Woolshed

Another anecdote illustrative of the small town, frontier spirit evident throughout the country: Paul and Daphne, the owners of St. Leonards Vineyard Cottages in Marlborough where I stay (in a rustic but fully refurbished, airy and comfortable former sheep-shearing shed) inquire on the day of my departure if I might happen to be heading to Kaikoura on the coast. I think it an extraordinary coincidence that I am indeed heading past Kaikoura, on my way down to North Canterbury (extraordinary, that is, until I later realize that there was pretty much no other direction to go in other than back from where I had come). When I say that I am, they ask me, very politely, if I would mind, and I quote, “delivering a bag of lemons to the store in Kekerengu on the way?” I’m a little puzzled at first, not knowing of course where Kekerengu was, or even the name of the store, or how I would enter the address in my GPS. The details are more than vague, even if the request is not untoward.

I make a non-committal agreement to run the errand, happy to help out, though admittedly somewhat wearily considering the long drive I have ahead on unknown roads, wondering how far out-of-the-way I might have to go to, and how easy it would be to find this store to deliver a bag of lemons. I wait expectantly for more information; Daphne doesn’t seem to understand my hesitation. After a slightly awkward silence, I press for details. “So where is the store exactly and what’s it called? I ask.

The Store, Kekerengu

The Store, Kekerengu

She smiles, finally understanding my confusion. “Well, it’s actually called “The Store”, she says. “Oh, I see”, say I, “is it easy enough to find in Kekerengu”?

She laughed again and replies that The Store is all there is in Kekerengu. Kekerengu is not so much of a town as it is an outpost with a single building called The Store. “You’ll come out of the hills, over a rise, then as the road veers left towards the coast you’ll see The Store. You can’t miss it.”

So much for the GPS. It’s rarely needed in New Zealand and besides, it doesn’t know where The Store is anyway.

Loaded with fragrant Meyer lemons, we embark on the drive out of Marlborough over the Kaikoura Mountain range (more like hills, really) down into the Awatere Valley, past yet more vineyards that are part of the Marlborough region, sheep-dotted pastures and grazing lands and on down to the Pacific coast.

After a stop at “The Store” in Kekerengu to deliver the Meyer lemons, precisely where Daphne said it would be, and another hour’s drive further south along the coast between hills, the railway and the ocean beyond, we turn inland from highway One and climb high into the real mountains. I get my first taste of backcountry driving in New Zealand.

One-lane bridges

One-lane bridges

This is the land of the two-lane highway; four lanes are far more rare than black sheep. We cross about a dozen nearly dry rivers, each spanned by a one-lane bridge. Luckily the roads are virtually empty and we don’t have to wait to cross a single one. Indeed we pass no more than half a dozen cars over the course of the 100 kilometer journey from Kaikoura to our next stop at the accurately named Hurunui River Retreat, a truly remote retreat in the most unlikely of places. It’s to be found just off the loosest of gravel roads some five kilometers off the main road, with no signs. Strike two for the GPS, which declares that we have arrived at our destination in front of an open shed filled with bails of hay. Not promising.

You have arrived at your destination

“You have arrived at your destination”

It turns out that the real Retreat is another two kilometers down this most improbable of access roads from the GPS’s declared location. Fortunately the cell phone miraculously crackles to life and we reach the owner of the retreat. She gives us the courage to keep grinding along the gravel until we see the two small cottages that comprise the Hurunui River Retreat. She’s standing at the top of the drive just to be sure we don’t drive on past at the speed of the city.

Huruniu River Retreat

Huruniu River Retreat

In addition to innumerable sheep I see along the way, I also spot that rarest of breeds, the hitchhiker. I see them all over the roads, sometimes alone, occasionally in pairs, and even in larger packs. And they seem happy and hopeful and carefree, not like a hitchhiker in Europe or North America, if they still exist. There they look forlorn, desperate. There’d be no other reason to put your life at risk other than some catastrophic circumstance. In New Zealand, hitchhiking is a plausible way to get around. On more than one occasion, the winemakers who were touring me around made apologetic gestures to these itinerant travelers as we drove past, as though to say they would have gladly picked them up were it not for the foreign journalist in the passenger’s seat, who might think it strange. I can’t remember the last time I saw anyone hitchhiking in Toronto.

Nature's works of art

Nature’s works of art

New Zealand is also the land of the camper van, a sensible form of transportation/lodging, considering the scarcity of accommodation options once you’re outside the last village or town. If you want to go back-country exploring, it’s probably the only way to go, and most townships invite you to the “free camping zone” – meaning you can park your campervan just about anywhere without hassle from local authorities. The coasts are largely undeveloped, much as I imagine California’s coastal Highway 1 might have been a hundred years ago, or BC’s Sea to Sky highway in the 1950s.

New Zealand is a land of considerable natural beauty. It’s also the land of the long white cloud, or Aotearoa in Māori. If you enjoy open space, a natural gallery of nature-hewn works of art with few people to share them with, excellent lamb and some pretty fine wines, you’ll enjoy traveling in New Zealand.

Watch WineAlign for over 300 New Zealand wine reviews which will be posted in the days ahead.

John Szabo, MS

Letter from Gisborne; John Szabo’s New Zealand
Letter from Hawke’s Bay; John Szabo’s New Zealand

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