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Sunday, 25 February 2007

Rocks And Roadkill: Thoughts on Road Tripping in New Zealand

Written by Karen Elowitt
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nzGuidebooks and advertisements perpetuate an image of New Zealand as a pristine, unspoiled territory, almost sterile in its purity – which on the whole it is. Soaring peaks rise above shimmering crystal-clear fjords, icy glaciers cut through craggy mountain passes, and picturesque herds of fluffy sheep lazily wander across the endless green rolling hills.

But once you take your eyes off the horizon and focus on the road in front of you for just a moment, the picture isn’t as pretty. To put it bluntly, there is a LOT of roadkill in New Zealand.

Having been on two prior trips to New Zealand, I was somewhat aware of this paradox, but on my most recent journey to Aotearoa, “The Land of the Long White Cloud,” I spent a lot more time driving (as opposed to taking the bus or train) so I suppose the roadkill “issue” became more obvious to me. By the way, I’m not talking about pet dogs and cats, just hapless possums and moles and other small furry critters that end up spectacularly squished all over the vast network of backroads that zig-zag across New Zealand’s rural countryside.

nzRoadkill was only one of many road “hazards” I encountered during my two-week odyssey around the North Island. I learned that driving in New Zealand can be alternately a messy, perilous, funny, or heart-warming experience, depending on the circumstances. I also found that the driving itself can end up becoming one of the most memorable parts of the trip.

Seeing as my trip involved mostly backroads instead of main highways (which I had mostly stuck to on prior trips to NZ), my journeys took longer, but the trade-off was that I got to have some uniquely rural experiences and even learn the origins of pastoral traditions. Other people may already know of such matters, but being a city girl, I must confess ignorance of all things farm-related. I wouldn’t know the difference between a pitchfork and a hoe. But at least now I know why there are so many lone goats by the roadside.

I had first noticed the phenomenon on a prior trip, but it didn’t register. This time though, I started to wonder. Why was a goat tied to a tether on that little strip of land between the edge of the road and the farm’s front fence? I posited a few explanations: maybe it was some kind of signal to the letter carrier that there was mail waiting to be picked up. Or maybe it was punishment for a wayward goat who had eaten through a hedge or committed some other unspeakable offense. Turns out that the explanation was much more mundane – it is simply a low-tech way to keep the weeds and grass trimmed in areas where the law requires it to be neat.

nzDuring my trip I also got to do some “off-roading,” though it was mostly unintentional. I learned by trial-and-error that where the map showed a pink-colored road, it meant the road was “unsealed,” or in plain English, unpaved. Though New Zealand is a modern industrialized Western country, there are still plenty of places, mostly off the beaten path where roads are not paved. This usually means that whatever beach or hiking trail that lays at the end of that road is spotless and untouched. In fact, one day I found myself all alone on a stunning postcard-perfect beach thinking ‘can I really be only person here?’ But off-roading also means that you expose your vehicle to a lot of dirt, grit, and potential damage.

Luckily I didn’t have to worry about damage because it turned out that serendipity was my savior. At the rental car counter on the first day of my trip, the clerk had walked me through the usual formalities – license, insurance, credit card, damage check, etc – but when he asked me if I wanted the optional windshield coverage, I had to pause a bit and consider if it was really necessary. I didn’t recall having any problems in that department on my prior trips, but I figured that at 50 cents a day, it couldn’t hurt. And my intuition was right - barely two hours later, when I found myself unexpectedly on a gravelly unpaved road, rocks flew up and cracked my windshield in a number of places.


nzThough the cracks did prove to be something of an inconvenience during the rest of my trip, they were not bad enough to make me turn around and swap my car for a new one. Besides, there was something almost poetic about it. Viewing the loveliness of New Zealand through a lens of fractured glass seemed to reinforce my impression that New Zealand is a land of imperfect beauty.

But don’t get me wrong - imperfect does not equal bad. It simply means that a realignment of expectations is required. Expectations, driven by glossy brochures and slick advertising, that lead one to believe that NZ is a fantasy-land of fire and ice, Hobbits and hedgerows. But it’s just a country like any other, with warts and all.

For example, driving through any small kiwi town will bring your high expectations down to earth real fast. At first, it seems inviting and picturesque. But the quaint inns and quiet parks are often found side-by-side with drab auto body shops, ugly used car dealerships, and petrol stations. Nary a Hobbit in sight.

But sheep and trees – you get to see a lot of both. And did I mention sheep? And then there are the sheep…OK, you get the picture. There are untold millions of sheep, which are a mainstay of the economy. Some of my favorite driving experiences occurred when I would round a corner and chance upon an endless flock being herded across a rural road. Nothing you can do but sit and wait. Other drivers would get annoyed, but I welcomed it. I loved watching the dogs intently working the herd, and the shepherd trailing behind, giving a friendly wave as he finally

Trees are also an essential part of the economy, or so I learned. One day, while driving on a long stretch of rural byway between the geothermal cauldron of Rotorua and the lakeside resort town of Taupo, I passed through a seemingly endless forest. I was lulled into a trance by the eerie regularity of the trees, which were all perfectly evenly spaced, the same height, and the same species . . . until I hit a clear-cut area. In a “D-oh!” moment, it hit me: these were farmed forests, planted by timber companies, one of New Zealand’s largest industries.

nzI learned that most of the forests are planted on disused agricultural land, land that otherwise would have lain fallow. 150 years ago, most of New Zealand was covered with thick rainforests. Eventually most of it was cut down to make way for farming and grazing. Now I suppose it has started to come full circle, in a way.

Back home, I tried to avoid driving if at all possible. It generally was a stressful, traffic-plagued experience. But in New Zealand, it was mostly a pleasure, even in the big cities. What kiwis consider traffic pales in comparison with the gridlock we have in cities like Los Angeles and Boston, and drivers tend to be courteous and non-aggressive. So much so that I found myself feeling physically more relaxed behind the wheel than I had in years.

However, old habits die hard, and sometimes the beast within would threaten to emerge. One day, while driving through the town of Tauranga, I found myself in the middle of a mini-traffic jam. Instead of just shrugging it off and waiting it out, I felt my blood pressure begin to rise and my mood become irritable. At one point a vehicle pulled out sharply in front of me, almost hitting my car, which automatically triggered a hostile reaction in me. As I started to curse and snarl, and prepared to give the driver my middle finger as I passed, he slowed down, changed lanes, and let me pass him. As I drove by, he waved and mouthed “sorry” in apology. I was in shock. I can’t remember a time that another driver EVER apologized back home. I fell in love with New Zealand even more at that moment.

nzThough driving was not stressful in New Zealand, that’s not to say it was always easy. Maps sometimes make it hard to tell which roads offer a more or less straight shot to your destination, and which ones require you to pack a barf-bag. My trusty road atlas simply showed red and blue lines marked with gentle squiggles, which belied the precipitous twists and turns I often abruptly came upon. For example, according to my map, the drive between Taupo and the art-deco town of Napier is about 150 miles and takes 3 hours. What the map didn’t show was that after passing through gently undulating farmland for about an hour, you then hit a long stretch of highway that winds and weaves its way through a heavily forested mountain range. The drive is beautiful but tiring, with switchbacks and narrow lanes forcing me to concentrate harder and longer than I was used to. However, the kiwis seemed to take it in stride, effortlessly zipping around the turns like it was second nature. I guess I just need a lot more practice

And maybe I will get more practice soon – I am already planning my next trip. I enjoy road-tripping so much that I might just rent a camper-van and take my time. Perhaps I’ll meander around for 6 weeks, or maybe 2 months. Either way, you can bet I’m gonna get the windshield insurance, let my aggressions go, and watch out for small furry critters. New Zealand doesn’t need anymore roadkill.

© Karen Elowitt - 2007

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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