|On Saturday I decided to rent a car and drive down to Queenstown, to check out the scene down there. Queenstown is a major outdoors and adrenaline mecca on the South Island, sorta like Taupo on the North Island is, but much, much bigger/better. Let's Go! New Zealand calls it "arguably the globe's adventure capital." Wow, sounds fun. It is a small town on the shores of Lake Wakatipu that probably triples in population on the weekends. The streets are filled with kayakers, cyclists, hikers, boaters and all sorts of extreme sports enthusiasts. Lotsa spandex.
So it is Saturday morning and I'm in Nelson (on the top of the South Island). I know it is a long drive to Queenstown from here, but I don't know exactly how long, partially because nobody here will give you a straight answer. They either 1) don't actually know how long - it is as though people here have never driven to Queenstown; or 2) give you conflicting answers - I've heard it will take 6 hours, and I've also heard it will take 15 hours. Huh? Six hours and 15 hours seems like a huge discrepancy to me, but whatever. [Note: In hindsight, this should have been a first clue for me.] I guess it depends on how many times you stop and how quickly you drive, etc.
On Friday night I went to the car rental place, but they were out of cars for Saturday. They told me of another place in town to try, but it was the end of the day and I'd need to try in the morning when they opened at 9 am. In between that time, I went to the bus station to check out bus rides to Queenstown in case I couldn't get a car. The young woman behind the counter looked at me as though I was daft when I asked the schedule for Queenstown. "We don't go directly to Queenstown from here. You'll need to catch a transfer at Christchurch." Well, that would take all day, so no thanks. [Note: in hindsight, this was clue #2.]
The next morning I arrived at Apex car rentals, and sure enough they had a car. It would take about an hour to get it from the airport, so I came back at 10:30. Now, in an ideal world I would have had the car at about 8am so I could hit the road at a decent hour, but I'm thinking, since it only takes about 8 hours to get there, I've got time. When I pick up the car I ask the guy the best route to get to Queenstown. "Well, how many days are you planning to take?" Well, just one. I'd like to get there today. "Oh, no, no. You'll want to take at least two days to get there." [This is clue #3.] And all this time I'm thinking, "Oh, these crazy Kiwis are afraid of any car ride that lasts longer than 4 hours at a time. I can handle an 8 hour drive no problem."
So I'm getting ready to head out of town, but my rental car has got a rather nice stereo system, so I decide to stop at a record store to pick up some music. I buy Nature's Best: New Zealand's Top 30 Songs of All Time because I want to full NZ experience (the album is hit-or-miss, btw. There's some good stuff on it, but some of it seems rather poor). I'm getting comfortable with the steering wheel on the right side of the car, along with all the other controls also being in the opposite of where I'm used to. But everytime I go to use my turn signal, I turn on the windsheild wipers.
It's now noon and I'm finally on the road to Queenstown. To get there, you drive Route 6. Like all of New Zealand's freeways, Route 6 is a two-laner (as in one lane in each direction), so God help you if you need to get somewhere fast and get stuck behind a truck. Luckily for me, that rarely happened; in fact, there were hardly any cars on the road the whole time. Sorta creepy, in retrospect. Now, two-lane highways might be rather quaint in theory, but after several hours of winding through the countryside, sometimes all you want is some good straightaways. I mean, c'mon, don't these people ever have to get anywhere in a hurry? At least in America we have the decency to pave 8 lanes of concrete directly from Point A to B, boring over wetlands and through mountains if we have to.*
After about 3 hours I realize that I may have slightly underestimated how long it will take me to get to Queenstown, since I've barely gone an inch on my map. I recalibrate my e.t.a. to about 9pm, which is fine since the sun will just be going down then.
A few hours later I'm passing through some gorgeous areas around Franz Josef and Fox Glacier and see picturesque old church along the side of the road, with the mountains and whispy fog clouds in the background and I think, Cool, that would make a great photo. So at the next turn (about 300 meters up the road), I do a U-turn to head back to the church. Things are fine for about a minute, until I realize that the van of old people coming towards me around the turn, the same van that is about 25 feet in front of me and getting closer, is on the wrong side of the road. Oh, wait. They're not on the wrong side of the road, you are, you idiot!!!!! And in that moment that I see my eyes flash before my eyes I remember thinking: I can't go this way. This would be perhaps the most pathetic and idiotic way to die (for all involved). So I swerve into the left lane in time and death is diverted. The van of elderly does slow down momentarily, but then undoubtedly decide to keep going as to not have to risk any contact with the crazy person driving in the wrong lane. I pull over for a minute and take a few deep breaths, contemplating just how close to death I was before turning back around and continuing along my journey. Oh, and that photo of the church and the mountains? Lame, very lame and certainly not worth risking death for.
Cut to a few more hours later, and I'm heading through a town called Haast along the coast. At this point, Route 6 heads inland towards Queenstown. Haast is the last gas stop for about 80 kilometers, and even has a sign that says so. I am starting to run low on gas, but I check my gauge and I definitely have enough to go another 80 kms (I've got about a quarter tank). But in Makarora I'll definitely need to refuel because by then I'll be cutting it close. Fast forward to Makarora and me pulling into the only gas station in town to fill my tank, which is starting to hover close to "e" on the gauge. What's that sign read? Oh, gas station closed. Are you kidding me? There's a lesson in all this folks, and it is: When the sign reads next gas station in 80kms, double-check with someone that the gas station is also open as well. 'Cuz a closed gas station ain't going to do anybody any good now, is it? Next gas station is in Wanaka, which is about 50 kms, no joke. I do some math and estimation in my head and think, I might be able to make it. And besides, what choice do I have?
By the time I reach Wanaka, my tank is so empty that the car is hiccupping along the road. So empty that the "refuel" light, which had been on for about 20 minutes, has now turned off. And it is remote here, folks -- I'm driving through some of the countryside that Lord of the Rings was filmed. There's one scene in the first one where all the hobbits and folks are stopped on a mountaintop for a brief rest when that flock of birds comes fllying by looking for them and they hide among the rocks. Dude, I'm like there, at that mountaintop. And it's dark now too. Like the kind of dark where if I have to spend the night stranded with no gas in the car here, there's bound to be something out in the wilderness that will eat me. But luckily I make it into Wanaka and am able to refuel (whew!).
But it is late - it's about 10pm. I've been driving for 10 hours and still not to Queenstown. I ask the gas station clerk (a kid who you can tell works here just so he can earn enough money for his next heli-snowboarding adventure) how far it is to Queenstown. He says that if you take Route 6 it is about an hour. But there's a shortcut up the side of the mountain that will get me there in about 30 minutes. I think I can't drive for another hour, but I could try the 30 minute route. Tell me more about the shortcut. "Well, how confident a driver are you?" Well, that ends the conversation right there. Considering a few hours ago I nearly killed a van full of old people as well as myself, I'd put my driving confidence at about a -2, thank you very much.
So I find a hostel in town and spend the night in Wanaka. I decide to go straight to bed. Enough excitement for one day.
* PS - I don't really think this way, actually. Mostly.