After getting off the bus at Rotorua I-Site, Alba and I were excited to rent (or hire as they say here) a car and explore the East Cape of New Zealand’s North Island. After months of bus rides and tours, we were finally able to take advantage of the open road. For the next three days, we were free to explore the hills and valleys of New Zealand and follow any whim that should take hold of us.
We picked up the car and headed out-of-town to our first stop, Whakatane. As Alba wasn’t used to driving an automatic on top of being on the wrong side of the road, I kicked off the road trip. It took a few minutes to figure out where all the switches were for the blinkers, lights, windshield wipers and door locks, but before long we were off.
It was weird being on the right side of the car but on the left side of the road. It was also difficult to judge the middle of the lane, and I found that I’d either hug the center line or be way over on the left side of the lane. Good thing there were no major, multi-lane highways in our future. Most of the roads here on out would just be one lane in each direction, like it is when you head to the North Shore of Oahu or drive on the outer islands. This I could definitely handle.
The speed limit for most of New Zealand seemed to be 100 kilometers per hour, but as we soon discovered, there were many stretches under construction. I wasn’t sure if this was due to the earthquake that shook the country earlier in the year or if it was just normal road works. Whatever the reason, the speed limit invariably dropped from 100 kilometers per hour to 30 kilometers per hour within several dozen feet. Temporary speed limit signs were erected and placed within a few feet of the permanent signs and I cannot understand how one could slow down and speed up within the given distance.
However, despite the confusing speed limits cars drove as if they were participating in a Formula One race. They would overtake us (on the right side of course, which took a bit of getting used to, as the slow cars like us should be on the left) and blaze by doing more than 100 kilometers per hour. I’m sure it’s because they’re familiar with the twists and turns of the road and knew where the cops were hiding. But then again, I didn’t really see any cops with speed guns trained on the road. For most of the time, we drove along in solitude and was able to admire the desolate beauty of the landscape around us. Whether it was pounding surf on isolated beaches, rolling green hills with grazing sheep or forested expanses, everything was jaw-droppingly beautiful.
When we reached Whakatane, Alba and I did a bit of grocery shopping and had a bite to eat at Subway. Alba took a spin around the supermarket’s parking lot to try driving the car, but she decided she wasn’t ready to take it on the road so I ended up driving again. We continued along the twisty road and admired everything around us. We passed small clusters of buildings and homes that made up communities. I felt worlds away from everything that I knew as we zipped through these isolated towns. In some ways, you could feel that the quality of life here might just be better than in congested cities. With fewer distractions, you could spend more time with your loved ones and really focus on the important things. But, it also meant being self-reliant for a lot of things and being far from others. It really was a toss-up in my opinion.
Our destination for the day was Hick’s Bay and as we drew near darkness was already surrounding us. We wasted another 30 minutes when we took the wrong turn and drove through a small community before hitting a dirt road that looked like it led to a farm property. But eventually we found the small lane that lead to the Hick’s Bay Motel Lodge and checked into a four-bed dorm room with en suite shower.
As it was past 6:30 by the time we settled in and the motel didn’t have a proper kitchen, we headed for the restaurant for our dinner. They were about to close up for the night but allowed us to get the chicken schnitzel with fries and a salad. Surprisingly, the portion size was quite large and the meal was filling.
After dinner, we headed back to our room to relax a bit. We’d been on the road for close to 8 hours and many, many kilometers. It was good to stretch out and rest up a bit. Our first day on the road was a bit exhausting but completely worth it. The real New Zealand was right at our fingertips. All we had to do was grab on to it.