100kph is not a target

From Whitanga (pronounced Fitanga), New Zealand

It’s winter in New Zealand, and there aren’t many tourists to be found. Most of the town information offices have closed for the season, and the cold beach air quiets an otherwise bustling summer destination. Aside from skiing on the south island, this is the slowest time of year for one of the most popular travel destinations in the world. Hard-to-find summer parking is plentiful in the off-season for tourism, as are daily rain showers. According to the guidebooks, August is not the best time to visit peaceful New Zealand.

And yet here I am on holiday, putting peoples lives at risk.

My family and I are trundling across the country in an archaic Volkswagen RV Camper. Our initial request for a vehicle with an automatic transmission was met with a polite yet confident response that there is no such thing as an automatic RV in the whole of New Zealand. Fair enough. Driving a manual RV simply means that in addition to remembering to stay on the left side of the road we will have to remember to shift.

Being a danger on the road is one of the things Americans do best.

Being a danger on the road is one of the things Americans do best.

My lack of experience with a right-handed stick shift is a cruel transgression upon the very nice people of this country. The highlights of this first day of driving include a near fatal collision with a bicyclist while I was driving on the right side of the road (I forgot) and repeatedly stalling the belching diesel engine on a hill in front of several trailing cars. Second gear is admittedly hard to find. I also managed to scrape off a significant chunk of the roof by plowing into a low-hanging tree branch, a feat that will later cause me to surrender my $1,500 deposit. Fortunately the damage sustained from the branch did not create a hole large enough to let rainwater into the camper. My family and I take a few deep, calming breaths of the clean, oxygen-rich New Zealand air and continue on our journey.  This land is plush with vegetation that overhangs the roadway, so I divide my time between watching for road hazards and taking in the scenery of the forest parks.

Generally speaking, the roads are well marked and in good condition.

Generally speaking, the roads are well marked and in good condition.

Some of the oldest and largest trees in these forest parks are called kauri, which were spread abundantly over the North Island’s subtropical rainforests until the early 1800s. Within 50 years, the logging industry had decimated much of the land’s kauri for various uses. Today only a small portion (1%) of the native forest remains, and it is under government protection. The New Zealand landscape is without a doubt stunningly beautiful, but the velvet green rolling hills I am traveling are largely man-made. This land was once the last large, uninhabited landmass and was originally home to the Maori roughly 1,000 years ago when they migrated from Polynesia. Despite the decline in native forestland, the New Zealand landscapes seem like they have been taken from the pages of a fairy tale. For sheep, farmers, fishermen, country folks and hobbits, it’s the most perfect backdrop one could imagine.

When driving gets too stressful, walk.

When driving gets too stressful, walk.

Initially, it is somewhat challenging to enjoy the scenery behind the wheel of this old Volkswagen. My eyes are focused on low-hanging branches and speeding logging trucks, and my sweaty hands are locked on the steering wheel and stick shift (to my left) in a death-grip. Fortunately, my lovely wife patiently answers my trivial questions. “Do you see any sheep, or grass, or hills?” and, “Is it pretty?”

Yes, on all counts.

When in doubt, take a tour bus.

When in doubt, take a tour bus.

Like any vacation to unfamiliar lands, we will soon be comfortable enough with the hanging tree limbs, logging trucks and a troublesome neighborhood roundabout to enjoy this gorgeous country. We are sticking to the North Island for this trip. Believe me, in any season it’s a great place to visit. Fresh air, majestic beauty and warm hospitality are always worth a little vehicle damage.

A map of our transgressions.

If all else fails, take shelter in a hobbit house.

If all else fails, take shelter in a hobbit house.