There is no cruise control in New Zealand.
Or maybe there is, but I’ve been driving here for ten days and haven’t taken my eyes off the road long enough to figure out all the controls. There might well be cruise control, a laser missile launcher and a hot coffee dispenser for all I know.
It doesn’t matter in the slightest. There’s not a chance on the face of this earth that I would have used cruise control at any time. I’m driving on the left, which requires a lot of concentration, on pretty narrow roads – about a lane and a half wide in many places - and every now and then there are one lane bridges, and it’s up to the drivers to keep track of whether or not they have the right of way. It’s not the sort of thing you just cruise through. I thought it was bad enough on the North Island when I was worried about running into sheep, but this morning on the drive to Milford Sound on the South Island, I had to get around a three day old avalanche.
Avalanche trumps sheep in my book, but worrying about hitting either one is not relaxing.
Here’s the thing. My home is on the prairies of western Minnesota. If I pick the correct road, I can drive for three hundred miles without moving my steering wheel more than a quarter of a turn in either direction. A very common problem in my part of the world is falling asleep while driving.
I’m willing to bet no one falls asleep driving in New Zealand. For one thing, the scenery is relentlessly stunning. For another, the roads are so curvy driving is a little like riding in a Tilt-A-Whirl, except that many other Tilt-A-Whirls heading right toward you. Plus, where we have ditches on our roads, New Zealand tends to have cliffs. Just to add variety, some cliffs have oceans at the bottom of them, sometimes just rocks.
People tend to worry about the roundabouts, but I’m actually okay with them. I suppose the problem most strangers have is knowing when to yield, or “give way” as we like to say in New Zealand.
That’s not my problem. I’ve simply decided that I’ll give way to anyone, driving in any direction. Yesterday I gave way for a duck and six ducklings, and if there were any turtles in New Zealand, I’d give way for them, too. My ego as a good driver has completely disappeared, perhaps because I’m spending all my time muttering, “Stay on the left, stay on the left,” while trying to work some feeling back into my clenched fists.
Despite the unrelenting terror, it’s all been worth it. The people have been terrific, the country beautiful, and the parrot who landed on the car was amazing, although when I wouldn’t give him anything to eat he fixed me with a beady gaze as if I owed him money. That was before he tried to bite off the rear view mirror.
I suppose he was mad because I couldn’t figure out how to give way.
Copyright 2011 Brent Olson