The show starts when you pull out of the parking lot.
Before my wife and I visited New Zealand's South Island last year, we had second thoughts about driving around the island in a rented car. We had only five days, and our planned stops were scattered all over the map, with hundreds of sinuous two-lane blacktop miles between them.
Would we spend all day getting from point A to point B, collapse into our bed at the hotel and get up early the next morning only to press grimly on toward point C?
Fortunately, Janice and I discovered that driving on the South Island is not just to get you from one highlight to another -- the whole blessed island is a highlight, including the road trips. Getting into the car is like plopping into your seat at an IMAX theater -- on the wrong side of the road.
New Zealand is that two-island country on the part of the library globe that is usually out of sight, two irregular spots, huddling together in the wide expanse of blue ocean way down at the bottom. From Los Angeles to Auckland on the North Island, it's almost 6,500 miles -- at least a 13-hour flight. New Zealand is not even close to Australia (1,400 miles away), although Americans' tendency to confuse the two countries is a great annoyance to their respective citizens.
When you travel that far and that long, you wonder whether it's going to be worth it. I asked that question in an Internet chat room when I was planning our trip and was told simply, "It will change your life."
New Zealand's land area is about the same as Colorado's, but its population (3.8 million) is only about three-fourths of Colorado's -- and 70 percent of the country's residents live in about half a dozen cities. That means there are great sweeps of territory where the only residents have wings or hooves or gills; and most of the time, they hide, so it's just you and the mountains and the sky.
In the winds you can hear the rivers and lakes talking with the forests and the rocks. No wonder the Lord of the Rings producers chose New Zealand as the setting for adventures of Tolkien's hobbits and wizards. It is a magical place.
But New Zealand does have one practical problem: Driving on the left side is a significant disruption to your life. It's like waking up one morning to find that the kitchen is where the living room was. Making right turns, formerly something as natural as breathing, now requires deliberation. Clockwise traffic roundabouts paralyzed me. Add the metric speed limit signs, and it's all very disorienting.
So you need someone compassionate at your side for the occasional gentle reminder: "Left, dammit, left!"
Astra, and Christchurch
Our adventure began with a flight to Christchurch, the largest city on the island with a population of more than 300,000. Our rental car was a blue Holden Astra, the comfortable small sedan in which we would spend most of our waking hours during the next five days. Not sold in the United States, Holdens are made in Australia and occupy a position within the General Motors hierarchy comparable to Ger-many's Opels.
The Astra was set up backward, of course, with the steering wheel on the right, but this actually is a good thing. By sitting on the "wrong" side of the car as you drive, you are constantly reminded that you are not at home and that you need to reconsider everything that you normally do automatically.
We relaxed a bit in Christ-church, climbing to the top of its cathedral tower for a view of the city and the distant mountains. Christchurch looks like it was lifted out of the American Midwest and set down about a third of the way down South Island's eastern coast.
The only thing interfering with the city's otherwise primly rectangular grid of streets is a meandering, willow-shaded river. In such an easily walkable city, its charming old trolley cars seem superfluous.
Below us in Cathedral Square, players moved chessmen the size of trashcans around an oversize board set into the plaza. In nearby Victoria Square Park, non-singing gondoliers pushed boaters (or, more precisely, "punters") along the Avon River. We climbed down from the tower and walked through a calm botanic garden, preparing mentally for our drive on the wild side.
The next morning we began our road adventure, 301 miles from Christchurch south to Queenstown. (We would log 1,291 miles on South Island before we were done.) We took turns driving. Whoever was behind the wheel was relieved of all responsibilities save one: don't get us killed. Thus the driver got to feel like a celebrity neurosurgeon, and the co-pilot like a scrub nurse waiting to slap sunglasses, water bottles and sunflower seeds into the other's outstretched palm upon command.
Getting out of the city in morning rush hour was a bit stressful and necessitated a few activations of the "left, dammit, left" warning system.
But once on Highway 1, we breezed without care through the Canterbury Plains, paralleling a line of mountains. (I don't think one is ever out of sight of at least one mountain anywhere on the island.) A pack of motorcycles was parked at a truck stop in front of a building marked "tea room."
Rolling down Highway 1
The Canterbury Plains is farm country, with fields separated by dense, green hedges about 30 feet high. There were pastures of cattle, sheep, horses and, surprisingly, deer. We would see farm deer all around the South Island. They are raised for the velvet of their antlers, which is prized by gentlemen with certain delicate medical problems, and for venison.
Despite its high sounding designation, Highway 1 is mostly a two-lane affair. After an hour or so I worked up the nerve to pass another car, pulling out to the right and slipping back to the left. A traffic safety billboard starkly warned against rushing: "You'll be dead a long time."
Highway 1 follows the coast 360 miles down to the island's southern end, but about 100 miles south of Christchurch we headed inland on Highway 8. As though each highway had its own decorating committee, the scenery changed almost immediately, plains giving way to piedmont. Close by, hills snaked across the landscape in long, low rows. Farther off were the snow-capped Southern Alps, dominated by Mount Cook, the tallest mountain in the country at 12,319 feet. Edmund Hillary used Mount Cook as a warm-up for Mount Everest.
Although traffic on Highway 1 had been quiet enough, driving on the inland highways reminded me of traveling the tranquil back roads of Western Maryland. We stopped to stretch at Lake Tekapo and the Church of the Good Shepherd, a sincere little chapel that probably could fit twice into one of the tour buses idling in its parking lot.
The church is in sheep country, halfway between Christ-church and Queenstown, and the Highway 8 decorating committee had arranged for a beautiful turquoise lake and the Southern Alps as a photographic backdrop. The clean, fresh air was scented with sweet clover. The focal point of the stop was a statue, not of a saint, but of a border collie. The dog is a generic tribute to the shepherd's steadfast friend.
Lunch in the village was fish and chips, known as "the greasies." (New Zealanders seem to specialize in whimsical expressions. "Good on ya" means congratulations, and "Kiwis" with a capital "K" are New Zealanders, who, far from viewing it as a pejorative term, seem to welcome the association with an awkward, flightless bird that has an outrageously long beak. They also have some really creative profanity.)
We had expected fish and chips, lamb in various forms and New Zealand chardonnay, but we found New Zealand dining to be eclectic, with Pacific Rim, Indian and Italian often available.
Meg roars, not Annie
On the road again, and there are more mountains. Through-out our trip I would never be bored by mountains, because New Zealand keeps throwing different styles at you: sheer rock walls that come down to the edge of the highway; scruffy, brush-covered mounds; wind-eroded surfaces that expose the rock strata of ancient ages; some with surfaces dimpled like cellulite; and, of course, postcard-perfect alps. Owing to the various mineral compositions of their waters, the color of mountain lakes ranges from milky turquoise to deep azure to slate gray.
Near Queenstown, above a hydroelectric station called Roaring Meg (just down the road from the Gentle Annie Bridge), we watched the water churn through a long, deep gorge. A few miles later we saw bungee jumpers fall screaming off the Kawarau Suspension Bridge, plummeting toward the river 140 feet below and springing back up. Bungee jumping was invented in Queenstown.
In addition to scaring yourself silly in a Queenstown bungee jump, you can go whitewater rafting, paragliding, skiing, can-yon hiking, jet-boating, mountain biking -- just choose your "ing." We chose sightseeing.
Blue-gray Lake Wakatipu must frustrate every writer who sees it. How to capture in words the feeling that everything in its setting was perfectly placed? Wooded peninsulas embrace rounded coves. A red boat chugs across the water as the late afternoon sunlight fades. Beyond, snagging the clouds, are mountains aptly called "The Remarkables."
Rewarding ourselves for having survived a day on the left side, we ate that night at a Queenstown restaurant converted from a 19th-century miner's cabin and named for Roaring Meg. Turns out that Meg was a real person, as was Gentle Annie, and they are ambiguously described as accommodating members of the local hospitality industry during the gold rush days of the 1860s.
We ate hearty venison ravioli and sizzling ginger prawns, followed by an apple-blueberry cobbler. The food and the New Zealand wine were, like the mountain range, remarkable.
We rose before dawn the next morning for our 180-mile trip to Milford Sound. It's only 45 miles as the crow flies, but that crow can fly over two rugged mountain ranges that have no through highways.
Driving at sunrise was like watching the earth awaken. Almost alone on the road, we motored south along the extended finger of Lake Wakatipu, with the Re-markables on one side and the Eyre Mountains on the other.
In the limited pre-dawn light, mountains and lake appeared only in black and white, like images from an old film. Then from somewhere on the other side of the Remarkables, an unseen sun put a rosy blush on the underside of the gray clouds. Next the peaks of the mountains turned gold, and soon the valley was washed in warm light, the cattle and sheep casting long shadows in their pastures.
Many of the rivers in western South Island are rivers within rivers. There would be a wide but dry channel, looking like an abandoned interstate highway project, and in the middle would be a tiny stream. But the rocky debris and tree carcasses alongside it were evidence that the whole channel can fill to capacity with melted snow and defrosted glaciers.
We crossed many one-lane bridges, which are well identified by signs that establish priorities as to who is to give way to whom. But while the possibility of an ugly midspan shoving match is thereby reduced, at the end of each bridge we had to fight the natural Yankee inclination to head for the right side of the road.
The last third of the trip was a challenge. It started to rain heavily just as the road started to get particularly curvy and vertical. I was in the co-pilot seat at the time, pushing dents into the floorboard where the brake should have been. I looked out the side window into a moss- and fern-covered cliff face zipping by, about a foot from my nose. There were magnificent mountains around us, but we viewed them through the upper inches of our windshield, so steeply angled were we, between sweeps of the wipers.
And, actually, this is how you want it. Milford Sound is a fiord surrounded by mountains that release their accumulated rainfall in skyscraper-high waterfalls. A nice dry day, although good for driving, means puny waterfalls.
But, as we approached the sound, the rain and hills relented at the same time. Perfect timing -- our two-hour cruise on the sound later would be rain-free, but the falls would flow spectacularly.
Milford Sound is an odd gap among the mountains, like the site of an extracted incisor. The brooding, misty Mitre Peak looms, a movie villain about to wheel and snarl. Rising to 5,560 feet above sea level, it's one of the highest mountains in the world to ascend directly from the sea (about 1,000 feet deep here).
The wind battered us as we walked onto the exposed deck of the Milford Mariner. It blew so hard that the water from some of the higher waterfalls was blown away sideways before it had a chance to reach the surface. Nevertheless, the captain accommodated shutterbugs by taking the boat closer to one of the lower falls, then he nosed right into the falls, sending said shutterbugs scattering aft, mopping their camera lenses.
We followed the sound's craggy, forested southern edge 12 miles to the mouth of the sound, then sailed back along the north side, pausing to photograph some indolent seals lounging on the rocks.
We returned to Queenstown that same night, completing our southern loop of the South Island. We started out the next morning to see the island's west coast.
In our division of duties, the co-pilot was also the radio operator. We could pick up stations on most of our trip, even in remote valleys where the signal had to do a double bank shot off the mountain walls to get to our car.
The music was largely Amer-ican, but the English spoken was not. New Zealand pronunciation reflects a kind of vowel shift: "bed" becomes "bid" or even "bead"; "hair" is "here"; "Germany" is "Jiminy."
We were momentarily mystified by a commercial declaring, "You can't avoid Texas." True enough, but they meant "taxes." My favorite was the advice in a commercial announcing a direct mail campaign: "For details, watch your litter box."
To Mount Cook
We stopped for lunch at Wanaka, a lakeside village where you could spend an hour or a lifetime. The distant white sails on Lake Wanaka were aesthetically balanced by white gulls watching from the shore. We shared a table with a vacationing Australian couple and compared impressions of New Zealand's scenery.
"We have great things in Australia, too," the husband said, "it's just that there's a thousand kilometers between them. Here they're all together."
After lunch we returned to the road, where we were almost alone again. Frequently in New Zealand, we would see gorgeous mountains with no one, except us and the occasional heifer, to appreciate them. We wound our way to the west coast, turned right and sped northward through the seaside rain forest. Rain spattered our windshield intermittently as we climbed the big hills overlooking the seemingly endless Tasman Sea.
We stopped at Fox Glacier to photograph Mount Cook's backside. Nearby Lake Matheson had been recommended for an educational hike through diverse foliage and as one of the best photo opportunities in the country, particularly in the morning when the water is still.
New Zealand travel tip: given the country's changeable weather, always seize the moment. By the next morning it was raining heavily, and Mount Cook was barely visible in the clouds.
We stayed the night at Fox Glacier and then started off for the longest drive of the trip -- nearly 400 miles up the west coast, across the island's northern tip, to Picton and a ferry ride to the North Island. We paused at Franz Josef Glacier for a quick view. We had to cover a lot of distance that day, but the speed limit was never higher than 100 kilometers per hour (about 62 mph), and often that figure was academic because of large trucks grinding up the hill in front of us.
Penalties for speeding can be severe. I had the nicest little chat on this very subject with a uniformed policeman at the side of Highway 6 near Greymouth.
Although I never saw the speed limit sign that he insisted was there, in general we did appreciate the signage. Unlike American signs commanding, "Slow Down" at the start of construction zones, the Kiwi version politely asked, "Please stop upon request."
As we drove further north, the woods changed from rain forest to just forest. Tree farming was more evident on the hillsides here, and the rows of cultivated trees stood out against the random pattern of wild trees, like corduroy patches on a pair of jeans. And while the rivers in the south had been gray, the creeks flowing through the northern mountains were the color of iced tea, from the tannin in the trees.
We made it to our Picton hotel shortly after sunset. In bed that night, I could still feel the motion of the car as it accelerated up the hills and around the curves. I could feel the steering wheel in my hands and the gas pedal under my foot. On the edge of sleep I mumbled, "Left, left!"
And I thought of something Janice had said that day when she was taking a turn at driving along a remote stretch of two-lane. She had pulled into the right lane to go around a repair crew blocking the left lane. After she cleared the zone, she pulled back to the left and looked at me, with a homesick look in her eyes. "Oh, Jerry," she said, "it felt so good over there."
An ideal day
Pre-dawn: Breakfast at your hotel. Don't be surprised if the buffet includes canned pork 'n' beans along with Vegemite, a salty, brewers yeast extract that looks and tastes like athlete's foot ointment and is spread on toast.
Dawn: Get on the road, because you want to appreciate every minute of daylight. Be prepared to pull over on a moment's notice to take compelling pictures of animal life or landscapes or, if you're lucky, both.
10 a.m.: Also be prepared to stop abruptly, in case, for example, a farmer and his sons are guiding a herd of cows across the road from one pasture to another.
Noon: Stop for lunch in a small town. Stretch your legs, but be careful crossing streets. American pedestrians instinctively look the wrong way for oncoming traffic.
1 p.m.: Your spouse takes the wheel. The book you brought to read on long car trips remains unread -- the scenery never grows boring.
Near sunset: Arrive at your destination. You've been on the road all day, but it's more like all day at the movies. Dine on fine New Zealand lamb and green-lipped mussels, but first raise your glass of beer and toast each other's driving expertise with a congratulatory "Good on ya!"
-- Jerry V. Haines
When you go
Getting there: Currently posted Baltimore-Christchurch round-trip airfares begin at around $1,600. Thus, packages that include airfare, hotel and car rental can save money. For example, Newmans South Pacific Vacations (800-46-0667; www.newmansvacations.com) currently offers a "South Island Self Drive" package, which covers a 13-day trip at a per person price of $1,599, including round-trip airfare from Los Angeles, hotels, and compact car rental. That price likely will include breakfast at most of the hotels, but not other meals. It also does not include automobile insurance.
Getting around: If you rent a car independently, expect to pay a weekly rate of about $200 for a compact car. If you have a choice of cars, go for the bigger engine. You'll appreciate it when you want to pass a logging truck on a two-lane mountain road.
* No special license is required; you need only a valid U.S. license with photo. Even if the car rental company charges extra to have more than one driver, pay for it. You will tire more quickly with the added stress of left-side driving.
* Be clear on emergency procedures. Will you need permission prior to getting emergency service done on the car? Is there a toll-free number to call in such situations? Gas stations may be scarce in remote areas, so plan ahead and fill up when gas is available.
* Main New Zealand highways are well marked, but even so, it's easier to get lost after dark. Try to get your day's driving done by sunset.
* Speed limits are strictly enforced. Driving about 30 mph over the speed limit can result in a $300 fine. (See www.ltsa. govt.nz / travelers / driving.html.)
* New Zealand requires all car passengers to wear seat belts. Approved child restraints are required for children under 5 years of age.
* There is no equivalent to the American "right turn on red."
For more information
* About lodging, dining and attractions in New Zealand: Contact Tourism New Zealand at www.purenz.com
* On driving on South Island: www.cityofdunedin.com / city /