“High Speed, Low IQ” was my favorite of the roadside signs urging motorists to slow down in New Zealand. The Grand Prix-like roads winding through the countryside and mountains would have the opposite effect and encourage me to speed faster…if I had a Ferrari. Driving a campervan whose dim headlights left me guessing which way the road was going to turn on curving highways barely wide enough to fit two cars forced me to agree with the signs.
The first few nights were the worst. We drove around the Northland, which is gorgeous by day but thrilling by night. Cars would barrel at you on these little roads at speeds over 100-km/hour. For a moment after they passed my eyes would be forced to readjust to the blackness. I would look down the road for some reflection or a yellow arrow to reassure me a sharp turn was not rapidly approaching. It was when a truck would appear out of nowhere and I would be forced to sway to the far side of the road to make room for both of us that my breathing stopped and my nails pried their way into the steering-wheel. With an impact rate of over 200km/hour, the damage would be instant and the results permanent.
After surviving the Northland, I figured I was an old pro on New Zealand roads. To my relief the main roads were larger 2-lane roads, similar to the Blue Highways in the states. On these larger roads the lack of handling and poor maneuverability of the campervan were less of an obstacle. Then I met an unexpected peculiarity of Kiwi highways–single-lane bridges. I can picture some transportation minister deciding to cut costs by building bridges half the necessary width, but if finances are still a problem perhaps we can get a group of concerned tourists to donate to a two-lane bridges fund. I understand New Zealand is the adventure capital of the world but driving between adventures shouldn’t be the riskiest thing you do. My timing was impeccable with these bridges. We could go 5-10 minutes and not pass a car coming the opposite direction, but every time I approached one of these half bridges, a car would come flying down the road at me. In a game that was a cross between courtesy and chicken, we would have to negotiate with our lights who would be the first to cross the bridge and who would stop.
For 14 days I negotiated these crazy roads, laughed at the funny signs to slow down, and felt good about exiting N.Z. with my family and the campervan in one piece. On the 15th day I pulled into a parking lot outside the Hobbit tourist office in Matamata. My copilot said in her nicest tone, “Are you sure you should turn in here?” One of the passengers in the back, sick from the windy roads, commented after leaving the toilet in the back, “There is throw-up all over back here.” Trying to calm him, I yelled back, “We’ll clean it when we stop” and turned into my parking space. At that moment the camper van made a new sound, a scraping, crunching sound. My copilot looked over at me, “What was that?” in a less than nice tone. I jumped out to notice a nice big scrape and crunch in the left(passenger) side of my campervan and a missing tail light and crunch in the campervan next to me. After a few expletives from me, and a few pieces of taillight being flung with abandon at a nearby tree I gained my composure and wished we had taken the full insurance on the campervan. I waited for the people whose van I had hit to return. They were a nice young couple on their honeymoon, she from the UK, he from South Africa. I gave them my information and we moved on–a kind of awkward, “mom can’t really look at dad and please nobody say anything upsetting to your father” kind of moving on.
The next day I pulled the campervan into a panel beaters shop and explained to them I would be returning it in two days and wanted to see if there were any superficial repairs which would lower the damage estimate (our exposure was $2000NZ). They were some great guys and said they could quickly buff out the scrapes. Within 30-45 minutes they had left me with a single small crack in one of the lower panels. We hung out with them for a little bit and talked about New Zealand and the US. I thanked them and left. The dark cloud that had hung over us the previous day lifted. With newfound confidence and relief, we headed into Auckland to see the penguins at Kelly Tarlton’s Antarctic Enounter.
As we searched for a street that would connect us with the harbor, I got a little lost on some residential streets. Anne mentioned how pretty they were, and as I turned down a small street wide enough for only one car to pass, she said, “Are you sure you should turn in here?” Perturbed, I ignored her. Twice a car going the opposite direction approached and we had to negotiate which of us would pull over to let the other get through. Near the end of the street a third car came at me. She was rather irritated with the fact that I was driving a campervan down her street. I tried hard to get out of her way and pulled the campervan to the left. As I did, a sound similar to that heard the previous day came from the back corner of the campervan. This time I had gotten hooked on the crashguard of a van. In my defense, I will point out that this crashguard was sticking out farther than the rest of the van. There was no getting out of this one. The crash guard had scraped two of the campervan’s plexiglass panels and was firmly embedded in a third. There was no moving the van or the campervan without creating a bigger hole. Luckily (as if I can use that word recounting this 24 hours), a group of construction workers, one of whom owned the van I had hit, helped me to lift the van and move it sideways, pulling the crashguard out. With fewer expletives and less stress than the day before, we headed to the aquarium. When I returned the campervan the next day, I smiled and tried to act like the damage on the side was really no big deal.