Thursday, November 26, 2009

NZ - Auckland

My arrival began with the clattering of people opening and closing luggage bins. Considering that there were fewer people in my little world to begin with, how they could make so much noise was beyond my comprehension. I lifted my little sleepmask thing and noticed that the cabin lights were on… I tried to get comfortable again & ignore the sounds, but I ultimately gave in and threw on another movie: Pelham 123, a lackluster film that wasn’t worth my two hours of time-wasting time.

Fortunately, I was able to distract myself from the movie periodically to watch the sunrise – something I haven’t witnessed since… hmm… I guess since my last night in Ukraine when I pulled an all-nighter. Once the sun had successfully risen and was hovering along the sky, that was when the first island began to pop into view. Then another. Then another. Draped in green, they were an archipelago of velvet cloth surrounded by sea. I could see Middle Earth unfurling beneath me.

Touchdown brought me to the most beautiful airport I’ve ever seen, set right upon the waterfront. Then again, in New Zealand, everything is along the waterfront. A quick disembarkation & tour through customs, and there I was in the terminal… too early… because my rental car agency doesn’t open until 8pm – another 20 minutes. At least it gave me time to consolidate my bags & reorganize things.

At the rental car agency I was bumped up a class since they ran out of my cheapest of budget classes. So instead of a Toyota Corolla from ’99 pushing 300k, I got a Toyota Corolla from the early 21st century pushing 200k. Woo hoo! It’s the small wins.

It was amusing as I made sure that the insurance covered everything and I confirmed what my deductible was, as considering this was my first time driving on the left side: I figured the odds were high that I’d crash into someone or something. And then I asked about whether or not they had speed cameras, since I’m not acquainted with how fast 40 km/h feels. I’m sure I made him feel nice & comfortable handing me the keys.

I pulled the car up & backed into a parking space just so I could run through everything & make sure I knew what did what. I didn’t want to have to learn something whilst on the road, though in retrospect I do wish I grabbed my Lonely Planet guide out of the trunk, as it had the address of my destination – the hostel.

I sat in the parking space watching the roadway for a couple minutes, psyching my mind up by thinking “turn wide right; drive on the left… turn wide right; drive on the left”. So I did it. It was easy. I approached a roundabout and that was easy. Pretty much every turn I had to make was a right-turn, which I’d thought would be more complicated… but when I missed my exit on the interchange & had to go over the Harbour Bridge & do a U-turn, I came to realize that all this practice doing right-turns totally neglected left-turns. I completely skipped doing the U-turn since my mind couldn’t comprehend which way to look whilst turning the wheel, hence I executed several left-turns and consistently looked the wrong way. Fortunately there wasn’t any conflicting traffic.

While sitting at signals, it was also a bit awkward when the opposing lanes would start up… and the lanes you’d expected to turn left – as per right-hand driving – instead come right at you. The real trick was in knowing the size of my car… I instinctively want to position myself further left in the lane, which means the left side of my car is in the gutter, on the sidewalk, running over cyclists, etc. Not a good thing. Fortunately, Aucklanders are an exceptionally courteous lot both on the road & off the road.

After an unintentional tour by car, I found a place to pull over in downtown Auckland so that I could grab my Lonely Planet guide and figure out where exactly I was headed. I knew my destination down to a couple blocks, but was consistently driving right by the street I was actually supposed to turn onto. I checked in at my hostel, but left my backpack in the car’s trunk since it was still too early – 10 in the morning – to move my stuff into the room. Out I went.

First up was to explore downtown… by foot this time. Soon after embarking down Queen, it then occurred to me that my first priority should instead be food. Very tasty Turkish food from an Asian Food Hall filled that void nicely. Then I was off to do the Coast-to-Coast Walkway, a hiking trail that goes from downtown’s harborfront past several volcanos and onto the other side of the land, and to the other sea.

I soon learned that trailblazing was essentially nonexistent. In my frequent pauses to consult my Lonely Planet guide, I also came to note that benches are also essentially nonexistent, apart from parks where they are in appropriate abundance. Though I have come to find that speed limit signs are often spot-on with where I and everyone else feel comfortable driving… except for the work zone speed limits, which can drop a 100 km/hr road to 30 without any particular intrusion into the roadway; or that 2-lane country roads that don’t even have a centerline are signed for 100 but the motorway is 80. …At least it’s still better than how we do speed limits in America.

So that was a tangent… I got onto the lack of trailblazing because the Coast-to-Coast Walkway is very nearly devoid of it. The only time I’d see an arrow pointing me in the right direction would be when I’m standing right at one of the major destinations along the way. For example, an arrow saying “cross here” when I’m standing beside a footpath going straight up to the summit of one of the volcanos… of course I cross here; I can see my destination right there. What’s missing are all the signs in between: at every turn and every other crossing before then. Western Europe has definitely got trailblazing down to a science.

I can’t even figure out what street I’m on half the time, owing to both poorly positioned streetname signs as well as the seemingly awkward way with which they’re oriented. Or maybe all the streetnames have changed since my guidebook was written… or since the maps I have were published. All in just those last 2 years. Sometimes the streetname signs work well, sometimes they don’t… something is not at all consistent. Also, advance streetname signs tend to be a rare commodity: so you best keep track of any landmarks preceding your next move, otherwise you’re prone to go right past it.

Several volcanos, flower gardens, and a museum later: I was exhausted & waiting for a train. I’d also become cold. The wind that I experienced on top of the first volcano had grown to a gale by the next volcano; and when I retuned to the bottom: that gale was still quite noticeable. It’s usually not the temperature that chills me; it’s the wind. The last fingers of sunlight were also disappearing from the sky as I stepped on the train, and while I almost completely cleared myself of the 9-hr jetlag; I still found myself a bit sleepy & zonked out on the train – waking up seemingly seconds later only to find myself at my destination; the end of the line. A quick hike up the hill to my hostel, then some chatting with my roommates, and eventually deep deep slumber.

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