Rotorua & Napier, New Zealand

From Bangkok, I flew to Auckland. My flight landed close to midnight and the last bus had long since departed for the city center. I could have arranged a single room at a nearby hotel at considerable expense, or I could spend the night at the airport. Having done that many times before, I opted for that choice. Since there were free internet terminals sponsored by Samsung, I whiled away the hours reading news. At 8 AM, Ace Car Rentals opened and I was able to collect my little Nissan Sunny (previously the Datsun 1000) and make for Rotorua.

The drive was interesting with views of sheep and cattle along the way. Beyond interesting, it was also kind of exhausting. It was my first time driving in about 8 months and it was all taking place in a mirror: on the other side of the road, with the steering wheel on the right side of the car and with the seatbelt, shifter, windshield wipers and turning indicator all in the opposite place from you’d expect in Canada. Only every sixth time did I indicate a left turn by slamming the wipers on to high. In the warm sun. Look: tourist!

As I drew closer to Rotorua, images of Iceland were conjured: the proximity to volcanic activity resulted in numerous fissures belching sulphuric steam into the air, all quite similar to the beginning of my epic journey. I checked in to the superb Rotorua Central Backbackers, where I had the chance to enjoy a hot tub and a glorious sleep in a snuggly bed. New Zealand’s laid back attitude was a nice change from the hustle and bustle of Thailand, but it was somewhat frustrating when at 8 PM I was hungry and there was nearly nothing open. Even the bars had started to clean up for the night. Dull.

At the backbackers in Rotorua, I met a fellow named Kumar. He’s been living at the backpackers for about a year and works at the nearby hospital. He spent 10 years working at the Sheraton in Singapore, so we spent a lot of time laughing about all the funny things that occur in hotels and how much fun it would be as a long-time employee to write an expose about it. His wife lives in India with their kids and he visits from time to time, but confessed that he has no desire to live with the heat and in-law interference in Chennai.

After a glorious rest, I departed for Napier. Rather than take the normal – and faster – route, I opted for a more interesting route that took me deep into the Whirinaki Forest Park, past many remote cattle, sheep and deer stations and along several hundred kilometres of narrow, winding gravel roads. The sights were epic, and the drive was harrowing for the sharp curves, steep hills and wild pigs (no joke!) that crossed my path. At one point, I was so tired that pulled off the road and had a two-hour nap in the afternoon sun. Wonderful.

I reached Napier just as the sun was setting, so I was treated to a skies of pink and purple as I pulled my trusty steed under a tree next to Archie’s Bunker, the hostel where I’d spend the next couple of nights. Although Napier is known as the Art Deco city, the hostel was actually in a building that borrowed from the Bahaus school of design. My time in Napier was terrific because I got to enjoy a nice run next to the ocean, found a new pair of flip-flops (jandals in New Zealand) and went on an Art Deco tour of the city, including the treat that was the inside of the city’s theatre and its spectacular neon lighting.

I would have enjoyed the chance to spend more time in Napier – its beaches must be superb during the summer – I was excited to meet Perin in Wellington. On the trip to Wellington, I picked up a Japanese student, and enjoyed her company during the drive to the southern reaches of the North Island.