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Driving New Zealand Means Lots of Open Road

June 15, 1986|ED GILBERT | Gilbert is a San Gabriel free-lance writer. and

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Do you like to drive on your vacation? I'm not talking about getting into a serpentine down the Interstate, fighting off tailgating truckers and lane-splitting motorcyclists. I mean real driving.

You'll love New Zealand, where the roads are good to excellent, rolling over the hills and around the sweeping curves with a minimum of traffic.

With only 3 million people in a nation roughly the size of California, more than two-thirds live on the North Island, which has the capital, Wellington, and Auckland, the largest city.

If you are a member of the American Automobile Assn., the Automobile Assn. (AA) in New Zealand will be happy to help with your travel plans.

We arranged for the car rental through our travel agent. On the first day in Auckland we went to the AA office where we were warmly received.

After working out our itinerary on two large maps, one for each island, we were given a series of strip maps that showed our route in detail. The maps included short sketches of the towns and points of interest we would pass through.

Trouble-Shooters

The AA is responsible for signs on highways, which it places in excellent fashion. It also has a fleet of trouble-shooting trucks cruising the highways to help motorists with mechanical breakdowns.

You will want to buy an inexpensive "chilly bin" (cooler) so you can take along the makings for lunch each day.

You seldom are more than half an hour from a roadside rest stop. Some have only a small parking area and a table, but most have a large grassy area, several tables, play equipment for the young and restrooms.

Until you become accustomed to driving on the left side of the road, your first several miles may have a few thrills. You'll be operating from the right-hand seat.

It's particularly exciting if you pick up your car from a rental agency in downtown Auckland at the peak of the morning rush hour. Right-hand turns from, and to, what seems to be the wrong side of the street add to the fun.

And the locals don't help you a bit with their horn-honking, yelling and nasty looks. (The manager of the rental agency apologized in advance for their behavior. It's the only time that New Zealanders are not the epitome of cheerfulness and helpfulness.)

Queen Street Daredevils

You will quickly become aware of Auckland pedestrians. The best place to observe the action is Queen Street, the principal downtown thoroughfare.

Here pedestrians pay absolutely no attention to traffic lights, nor do they necessarily cross at intersections. They will show you moves that would inspire Baryshnikov or an NFL wide receiver as they dart among oncoming cars and trucks.

A word of caution: As a motorist or pedestrian, remember to look first to your right rather than left when entering an intersection.

Once out of downtown Auckland, you'll have a chance to get the feel of driving on the left side as you begin your journey on a four-lane divided motorway. The multi-lane stretches are only on the approaches to Auckland and Wellington. In open country there are nothing but two-lane, undivided roads, with occasional passing lanes in hilly country.

With the traffic as light as it is, you'll have a lot of open road in front of you most of the time. One day on the South Island we drove for 75 miles before overtaking another car or having one pass us.

Old West Echoes

You will find wide streets in the small towns. Early developers must have seen pictures of Dodge City and other towns of the U.S. Old West. Streets in the business section are 100 feet or more wide, the sidewalks have wooden arcades and the buildings have false fronts.

Much of the highway system, even main roads, is unpaved, but these stretches are well maintained. Because of the lack of traffic, you will not be driving in a dust cloud. You'll soon find that like the locals, you'll be driving at about the same speed as on pavement.

The traffic is so light in some parts of the country, particularly the South Island, that even on main highways there are many one-way bridges. At one end or the other there will be a sign requesting that you "Please give way." (You'll see "Please" on many highway signs.) At least two of the one-way bridges on the South Island are shared with railroad trains. If a train is approaching, the polite sign is, of course, superfluous.

You won't find the discourtesy of the big-city driver on the highway. We were held up one day for a construction project while winding through hilly country. Stopped immediately in front of us was a logging truck. We envisioned a long, slow ride over the hills and around blind curves once the road was reopened.

But the driver told me to move around him as soon as we got the go-ahead.

Stand By for Sheep

No matter how important or heavily traveled the road is, at one time or another you will encounter a flock of sheep being moved to another pasture. They have the absolute right-of-way, so just be patient.

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