If you’re looking for a place to die, New Zealand is a wonderland. You can meet the ground at the end of a mismeasured bungee cord, drop like a rock in a fritzed-out helicopter, or spontaneously eject from a Shotover Jet rooster-tailing the river canyons. The means are endless and New Zealand—Queenstown in particular—is a mecca for thrill-seekers willing to pay the ultimate price for the ultimate rush.
Chris and I were unprepared for what seemed to be a death-defying subculture. We were there to see friends on the North Island and had decided to make a longer trip out of the visit since it would take us seventy-two hours to get there and back. Let’s make the misery worth our time, we said. So we decided on a two-week tour of the South Island before heading up to Hawke’s Bay.
The thing about New Zealand is that it’s so outrageously picturesque and dramatic that it’s pointless to even try to describe it. Suffice it to say that if you visit the country you will find many occasions to catch your breath—like I did when our prop plane landed inside the misty décolletage of emerald mountainsides stippled with freshly shorn sheep and meandering brooks. Welcome to Middle Earth.
The majestic mountains, alpine lakes, fresh air, and the fact that people are outnumbered by animals made me and Chris feel right at home. The South Island was like our northwest Montana, only airbrushed. It was as if the Supreme PhotoShopper had taken out the big predators and nasty insects of the North Fork and added an ocean, a temperate climate, heaps of songbirds, and super-civilized people who said things like “heed” for “head” and “bead” for “bed.” If they were feeling great, they were a “box of birds.” A little under the weather and they were feeling “crook.” We were in a distant land with a nearly foreign tongue, yet it was comfortingly familiar. Until we got into our rental car.
“What are you doing?” I asked Chris from the left-side passenger seat. I’d been watching him rip the yellow logo of the Hertz brochure for the past too-many minutes.
“I’m making an arrow,” he said. He took what looked like a Peep with its beak pointing left and pressed it to the center of the windshield with a used piece of tape.
“There, now I’ll remember to drive on the left.”
We checked the side mirrors and the rearview mirror, checked them again, and then looked out the windows for stray tourists, toddlers, and dogs. Finally, we double-checked the GPS screen and awaited instructions before proceeding with all the caution we could possibly muster. Up ahead lay our first roundabout, and the finer points of the give-way rule in New Zealand (recently changed we found out later) were still fuzzy to us.
“Stay to the left! The left!” I shouted. Chris fumbled around the steering column for the turn signal and the windshield wipers took off, slapping wildly across our view.
“I know!” he said. A tiny hybrid zipped around the traffic circle with a cheerful tap of the horn while our lug of an SUV came to a full stop as more cars blew by in front of us and others stacked up behind.
“Where’s the damn turn signal in this thing?” Chris’s face was turning red, and I was grateful it wasn’t me trying to drive from the wrong side of the car on the wrong side of the road, in the middle of a roundabout. But from where I sat, it all seemed perfectly logical. “Try the other side,” I said calmly.
Then around the merry-go-round we went, windshield wipers slapping out a tempo, keeping perfect rhythm with the song on the radio. (Where’s Eddie Rabbitt when you need him?) Trying to orient yourself to a foreign way of driving after disembarking from a flight across twenty-one time zones and the International Date Line isn’t easy for anyone. Especially the Chinese, apparently, who had had a spate of accidents in New Zealand just before we got there.
“It’s the Chinese New Year,” our driver in Auckland told us. “They’re coming over in droves because it’s the year of the goat. Over there the animals are the same, you know, the goat, the sheep, the ram, all that.” “So they come here because you have a lot of sheep?” I asked.
“Mm. And they like a holiday, you know, but they can’t drive. Not a’tall. They forget to stay to the left and then they just stop right in the road to take a picture, ay? Because, you know, that’s how they do it in their own country. If they drive a’tall.”
When we got to Queenstown I saw that the issue had become front-page news. Residents were snatching car keys from Chinese drivers and calling for them to be tested before renting vehicles. The Chinese weren’t popular at the moment, and even we had felt cautious whenever we saw them on the road. But it hardly seemed fair to single them out. Bad drivers are universal. Yet somehow we ourselves are never to blame. As our friend in Italy says about his fellow motorists, “When the person is ahead of you, he has no idea you’re behind him. And when he’s behind you, all he wants to do is pass you.” Or as Chris likes to say: “Anyone going faster than you is a maniac; anyone going slower is an idiot.”
For now we were just happy to park the car at the hotel and wander around town on foot. There’d be plenty of time to drive our lives away tomorrow.