I’ve been anxious for weeks about driving in New Zealand. Neither Katie or I have ever done “left side driving”. I played a vision in my head on loop of careening into a medium or whacking a bicyclist. It is this paranoid daydream that drove my decision to purchase the super-ultra-mega-hit-anything-pay-nothing car insurance that agencies always try to force down your throat. I stepped into the rental car at the Auckland Airport as the official Guinea pig of the group. Everything is a mirror image, which means that the windshield wipers are where the turn signals normally live. If you are looking for a glaring “tourist” stamp on your forehead, be the person that switches on the wipers when making turns in NZ.
Katie sat in the passenger seat like a left-side driving cheerleader, praising every correct turn I made. The whole endeavor was not as horrific as I imagined. The median is still next to the driver’s side and the left lane is the “slow” lane (the one that all traffic merges into). The trickiest piece is probably spacing the car correctly in the lane, since your instincts tell you that you are too close to the center line when you aren’t. Oh, and roundabouts—there are literally hundreds of roundabouts. You enter them counter-clockwise and exit by signaling left. I had to re-circle 3 or 4 of them before it made sense to me.
The destination was Rotorua, a couple hours southeast of Auckland. Rotorua has deep roots in Maori culture and is home to geysers, sulfur mud pots, and mineral hot springs. We got to Te Puia geothermal park after only one missed exit that forced me to perform my first left-side K-turn. Te Puia offers free tours with entry, where you can learn about Maori culture (native New Zealanders). Tidbits included the fact that the Maori language only includes 17 letters, female Kiwi birds are larger than males (girl power), and Manuka honey (my new obsession) has special antibiotic properties due to the native Manuka bushes that the bees pollinate.
That unique aroma of sulfur reminded me of parts of Iceland as well as Yellowstone National Park. It’s pungent but reminiscent of previous travels. The geysers shot into the air and sprayed the pathway with mist as we wandered around, exploring bubbling mud pots and touring the Maori wood carving school.
When we got back to the motel, we were still itching for activity. The front desk attendant recommended the Polynesian Spa, which we could walk to. We dropped our bags, resting for about 5 seconds before heading out. The Polynesian Spa was a natural mineral hot spring spa with a casual vibe and only a handful of patrons. Slipping into steaming mineral baths after a long day of driving and wandering was perfect. The minerals gave the water a cotton feel on my skin and supposedly brings eternal youth (holler). The pools overlook a large lake which gives off a chilly breeze that mellows the steam. I stretched my arms onto the rocks at the spring’s edge and drifted off. A cold “plunge pool” is there for you experience that hot/cold contrast, but it rips the breath from your lungs and then the hot water right after makes your skin tingle. I became addicted.
It was a real struggle leaving the hot baths, despite a stayed-in-too-long heat rash on my legs. We strolled back to the motel through sleepy streets filled with tiny closed shops and “dairy” stores. The town was soothing and deserted. For dinner we stumbled onto “Eat Street”, a car-free stretch of town with a dozen restaurants and bars. It was interesting that all of the town’s activity seemed condensed into a single square block. Several Sulfur City Pilsners later and we were trekking home, asleep in minutes inside the town’s quiet night.