Go Big or Go Bust: Day 124 (the Vehicle of Death)

In New Zealand and in the yellow countries on the map below, people drive on what the rest of us righteously call 'the wrong side of the road'. 

Priding myself on a bodily or kinesthetic intelligence, I didn't think that adjusting to this would be a big deal.  Wrong.  I'm still marching out into oncoming traffic at crosswalks and have no sense (when sitting in a car) of how to stay on the left.  So in order to get around and see more than we can on foot, we were grateful to be offered to be driven around, at no charge, by an intelligent and thoughtful young man, someone we'd met in the States and who's stayed with us there.  

Today was the day that we were going to spend the afternoon driving out to the end of the nearby Otago Peninsula, a marvel of farmland on steeply graded hills running down to valleys and/or to the South Pacific Ocean.  Due to my extra-length legs, I was offered the front passenger seat in a borrowed (somewhat battered) small Nissan sedan henceforth to be known as the 'Vehicle Of Death'.  The front passenger seat, commonly referred to in lighter moments as "the suicide seat", has by far the best views so I took it willingly.  I did note an inoperable side-view mirror out my window, bent in and de-commissioned by a thick wad of wide scotch tape which faced it to the door.  In the States you can get a ticket for a non-functional mirror but New Zealand seems to (refreshingly) not-sweat-the-small-stuff so I didn't give it a second thought.  

Setting off excited, on the open road

Setting off excited, on the open road

No need for guard rails here but a little barbed wire keeps the sheep penned in.  

No need for guard rails here but a little barbed wire keeps the sheep penned in.

 

Wouldn't have minded a guard rail here but hey, who needs one for a 30º grade.   

Wouldn't have minded a guard rail here but hey, who needs one for a 30º grade. 

 

Drops off quite a bit more sharply here.  A guard rail would be Nice. 

Drops off quite a bit more sharply here.  A guard rail would be Nice. 

Ten minutes after leaving the city and the nearby villages, the road grew narrower and turned to dirt with loose stones.  Road signs suggest the road is not wide enough for commercial vehicles and that 60 kph (37 mph) is a safe speed.  Hairpin curves, blind hairpin curves soon became the standard.  Ever go on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride at Disneyland?  Scary as that was when I was five, it's got nothing on our trip.  Unfortunately for you, at this point, when we were in motion, I stopped taking pictures so as to keep my attention on more important matters.

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We proceeded along at what felt like a good 50 mph around the curves.  Peering out just beyond the edge of the road, were drop-offs which sometimes looked at a 75º grade plunging down to valleys or the South Pacific. Over the course of the hour, I saw one twenty-foot guard rail, once.  Generally between us and eternity was a barbed wire fence held up by some wooden fence posts.  I later learned that my risk-averse Mr. Green's imagination ran to the recurrent scenario of our micro, light-weight sedan (think Smart Car+) rolling end over end, hell-bent for the bottom.  Our driver, good-natured but apparently possessed by urges beyond his control, continued to attack the curves at immoderate speed, slowing momentarily only when our child, his friend, pleaded with him to slow down.

Feeling especially vulnerable in the front as we seemed to always be hogging the road (even rounding blind hairpin turns) I kept my anxiety to myself for political reasons. But at one point, the anxiety leapt out of me in a desperate, mute two-hand gesture to GET OVER.  Our driver responded to my frantic signalling with a huffy: "What was that?  Are you trying to tell me something?"  He met my explanation with condescension, that there's a judgement call involved here and that he'd determined, due to the low volume of traffic on the road, that he'd rather drive down the middle.  ALL WE NEED IS ONE ONCOMING CAR screamed my inner-voice on a loop.  I redoubled the effort to repress my fears figuring that further antagonizing him might bring out an even more extreme demonstration of the fact that he was in charge here.  I kept my eyes on the road, my hands ready to jerk the wheel if necessary. 

We made it to the Albatross Center, we picnicked quickly in their café and set off for home before full darkness descended.  (The sun sets at around 5PM here in late May ... think late November.)  When I noticed that our driver was reading the map as we approached a hairpin curve at lightening speed, I blanched.  When I took my eyes off the road to observe that he was enjoying long stares at the views out the side windows, regardless of the fact that he was neither slowing nor on a straightaway I felt resigned to the real possibility of my impending death. 

But I'm writing so it's obvious that we made it back without incident.  Now to deal with the prickly questions of the delicate politics of the situation and if Mr. Green and I can rise to the challenge of driving on the wrong side in a rental car for the remainder of our stay.