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Exploring New Zealand by the rules

How we prepared to step out of Auckland (where we had family) to start exploring New Zealand, starting with Wellington. It was time to learn and take some decisions.

How we prepared to step out of Auckland (where we had family) to start exploring New Zealand, starting with Wellington. It was time to learn and take some decisions.

It was time to start exploring New Zealand beyond Auckland. We had heard from fellow travellers how renting a car or a camper van was a common practice to travel through New Zealand. In fact, if travelling for longer, some would even buy a second-hand car, use it for the months they are travelling and then sell it off before leaving from New Zealand. We weren’t spending long enough time to
justify buying a car. Camper van travel was also quite popular. Friends, young and old couples, even families seemed to use this mode of transport. Renting a self drive vehicle in our travels was a completely new territory for us. We decided to give car driving a shot.

Auckland landing, New Zealand

What’s it like to drive in New Zealand

Chetan took his cousin’s car for a test drive to get used to the driving rules of New Zealand. It helped that in New Zealand, thanks to the British, they drive on the same side as in India. The big difference, though, was, they really meant it when they say they drive on the left. You stick to your lane. You get on the flash median way before the turn arrives. If the sign says “Give way”, you slow down and look around. If it says “Stop”, you stop, even if there is no car around or no police around either. You do not enter the bus lane even if it is empty and your lane is full of traffic. You do not honk! You honk only when someone on the road breaks a traffic rule. Even if you are on the other side of the road, and you see a car that has broken the rule, you honk to let the driver realise his mistake. So essentially, being honked at is similar to being publicly shamed.

Early morning rainbow over Auckland, New Zealand

You follow these rules, not because you are being watched (well, if you are then the fines are enormous), but because these are rules and rules are meant to be followed. They do not play the game of “how good we are at breaking rules” in New Zealand.

Following all these rules makes driving a pleasure. But it also meant a great deal of discipline. We started having doubts about whether we would be able to look around and stop wherever we wanted to take pictures on the beautiful Kiwi roads.

Duck crossing, Auckland, New Zealand

Travelling by bus in New Zealand

Exploring the options to travel in New Zealand beyond self-drive, we found out there were a few bus companies as well. They had a decent network spread out all across the country. We would be restricted to their routes, but at least the onus of driving wouldn’t be on us. And we could look out of the windows as much as we wanted to. We had managed “bus-photography” even on the treacherous bump filled Himalayan roads. Managing that on the silken smooth New Zealand roads shouldn’t be a problem we figured.

North bound NH1 out of Auckland, New Zealand

We chose the Intercity bus network, which wasn’t an exclusive tourist bus. Even the Kiwis used the Intercity buses. They had a flexible pass option – you just buy the pass for a fixed number of hours and use it as and when you want. This sounded perfect for our needs as we had no fixed plans.

“How” sorted, where to go next in New Zealand

Winter was setting in. It made sense heading southwards as early as we could since it would start getting cold soon. To make the most of the weather before the chilly southern winds began, we booked tickets to go straight south to the city of Wellington, the capital of New Zealand.

First taste of the New Zealand friendliness

Now the search for a couch began. We turned to our trusted Couchsurfing network. Luckily Wellington had a good deal of Couchsurfers ready to host a couple. Reading their replies was our first taste of the friendliness of the people of New Zealand. We had been told it would rival our current benchmark for Brazilian friendliness. A couple of rejects that we got because they were either already hosting other guests or themselves travelling elsewhere felt like long letters from old friends. They would’ve loved to host us. Hope we are able to find a couch somewhere in the city. In any case, we were welcome to join them for dinner at their place once we got to their city! And of course, they would be happy to help us out with any information we needed. This was a whole new level of Couchsurfing friendliness we were experiencing.
Our request did get accepted by Darci. She would initially host only for a couple of days and depending on how we all got together, we would decide about whether or not to extend our stay. Sounded fair. We decided to stay with her during our stay in Wellington. She offered to com to pick us up once we got there. Also, her housemate was a British guy, who loved Indian food. So “curry nights” would be a part of our stay, Darci informed us excitedly.

Learning certain Kiwi ways – supermarket specials

Chetan’s cousin gave us some final tips to make our travels in New Zealand easier. We had already been visiting the supermarkets with them, and had by then trained our eyes to look out for “specials” – the weekly discount items. Over our 6 weeks in New Zealand, these discounts would lead to a fair bit of savings.

We were also introduced to the New Zealand speciality of fish and chips. Choose your fish, which is then covered in batter and deep fried. Choose a sauce/dip that you want to accompany with the fish. Squeeze a great deal of lemon on the fish. We added an additional step of press the oil out of the fish.

Maoris and islanders and little brother Fiji

A term we heard often during our stay in Auckland was “islanders”. The Maori, the natives of NewZealand came here from the neighbouring Pacific islands. They had made this island home long before the British explorers like Cook and Tasman reached here. In the north island of New Zealand, the Maori are well integrated into society.

We were aware of this Maori culture before we got to New Zealand. But only after we spent a few days in Auckland, did we realise what a big a part the Pacific Islands played in the Kiwi life and vice versa. For the rest of the world, these islands are only exotic holiday destinations -somewhere in the Pacific, far from everything else. For New Zealand, especially in the North Island, these islands are very much a part of everyday life. We had heard Chetan’s nephew mention his Tongan colleague who really liked the spicy Indian snacks. Or once, when looking for coriander, we were told we would get it at the Samoan store.

The places like Tonga and Samoa, the tiny dots on the map, visible only when you zoom Google Maps to the maximum, were real places with real people, once we got to New Zealand. Fiji, the biggest of these islands was like a little brother to New Zealand. Fiji was just recovering from massive floods when we got to Auckland. Newspapers carried updates on the flood situation and the things the New Zealand government was doing to help Fiji. Interestingly, there was a distinction between Fiji and other islands. “Islanders” did not include the Fijians. And while we couldn’t differentiate the Maori from the Islanders (both originating from the same race), the people of Auckland could easily identify one from the other.

[fullscreen]Landscapes on South bound national highway NH1 from Auckland in New Zealand[/fullscreen]

Onward to Wellington

With a fair bit of understanding of the Kiwi ways, we set out on our way beyond Auckland. The bus was at 8 AM. On this first bus ride itself, we realised that, unlike the IST which for all practical purposes is a time-range, the Kiwi time was the precise time. Bus leaves at 8, which doest not meant 7:59 or 8:01. By Kiwi standards, Auckland to Wellington was a long, 11 hour journey. Having mastered the art of 28 hour bus rides in South America, 11 hrs felt like hardly any time.

New Zealand State Highway 1

Soon after the bus started and we were out of the city of Auckland, on the main highway, the driver started chatting with us. A few instructions, like fastening the seat belts, no hot and cold beverages onboard, followed. Which was followed by a detailed description of the route for the day, the exact times at the halt points and the number of passengers who would be joining and leaving us. We were pleased to see that most other passengers were the local Kiwis. Travelling on the bus with them, made us feel more at ease about travelling through New Zealand.

Signage on Southbound national highway NH1 from Auckland in New Zealand

Mounds, meadows and greenery now started following us. The sheep kept us company throughout. “There are more sheep than people” was by no means an exaggeration. The enormity of dairy as the biggest industry in NZ was becoming clear. Each little town was separated only by the meadows.
Except for a few tourist attractions like the Taupo lake or the Huka waterfalls near the lake, most of the time we were driving through the “real New Zealand”. Tiny towns would come and go. They would have enchanting little places like Enchanted Cafe. Or Loose Goose restaurant and bar, complete with a picture of a goose on their board. We realised the Kiwis took their toilets seriously, took every effort to make them stand out. One was shaped like a giant sheep, seen through the bus from several meters away!

We halted for lunch at a place called Gumboot restaurant in the rural town of Taihape. Our scheduled stop of 30 minutes in Taihape was extended to an hour. We were expected to meet another bus in an hour at a town called Bulls. Some passengers from that bus would join us. However, that bus was running late. So instead of waiting for that bus in a windy, open sheltered place like Bulls, we would be waiting here inside the warm confines of the cosy Gumboot restaurant!

We were amazed at the coordination these buses had. Not only did they know an hour in advance that a bus was getting delayed, but they also had a plan in place for least possible discomfort of the passengers.

New Zealand State Highway 1

We realised it was cold and windy outside when we got off the bus. We made ourselves comfortable inside the Gumboots restaurant with a couple of coffees. The wooden decor blended perfectly well with real fire inside. We imagined the local people, mostly all farmer folk, gathering here at the end of the day. Sitting by the fire, discussing their day. Enjoying a pint of local beer or two, with some fish and chips or the local lamb pies. And when done, being given the bill inside the leg of a real gumboot!

Landscapes on South bound national highway NH1 from Auckland in New Zealand

New freindships, new beginnings

Soon after we left the Gumboot restaurant, it started to get dark. We informed Darci, using the wifi in the bus of our whereabouts, to which she replied she would be waiting to pick us up!

When we reached the bus station, as other went by with their families and friends, and we picked up our bags, Darci came along and with a huge smile greeted us with a warm, “so nice to see you”. New country, new place, but the same, now familiar warmth of new friendships. Excited, we got into her van. Darci told us she was basically from Canada. She had lived in the South Island for a while before making Wellington her new home. She said she loved the city, and hoped we would too. She asked where all we planned to travel in New Zealand. We told her, all we knew was we were heading south! We made a quick detour to the supermarket where we picked up a few basic necessities.

Once “home”, Darci introduced us to Simon. And their beautiful grey furry cat, Sam Sam. She showed us our beautiful room, with a warm bed. She said she had also kept an extra blanket ready in case we got cold at night. Along with some maps of Wellington with pamphlets of things to do.

Some small conversations, “are you guys hungry?”, “no we aren’t much hungry. Just tired. Will have some warm milk”, “Let me show you around the kitchen” followed by, “You guys should rest. We can talk more tomorrow”.

New friendships mean new homes and a chance of becoming new families! In the home of our host Darci and her housemate Simon, we were beginning to feel this possibility.

Looks like our exploration of New Zealand had begun on a right note.

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