I recently spent a week exploring New Zealand on a whirlwind tour of the country coordinated by Tourism New Zealand as part of the Blog4NZ Project. As soon as I arrived, I knew that I had found a new favorite travel destination and I can’t wait to return and get to know the Kiwis better. Even though I loved my experience, there are some things I wish I knew before visiting.
1. Driving Quirks – I know what you’re expecting here, some sort of complaint about driving on the left-hand side of the road. That actually wasn’t a big deal and I adjusted to the change fairly quickly. No, I’m talking about some of the strange road signs associated with any type of driving in New Zealand. The most bizarre example is what I call the backwards arrow. When I first arrived early in the morning, I jumped in the rental car ready to start my adventure trip. The only problem was that I couldn’t figure out how to leave the car park. I found what I thought was the exit, except that the arrows painted on the road were pointing into the parking lot, which I thought was the universal sign meaning I was going the wrong way. From my experience, arrows pointed on the road are painted in the direction in which you are traveling, otherwise you’re in the wrong lane. After circling the lot a few times, to the amusement of the attendant no doubt, I finally realized that in New Zealand apparently arrows going in the “wrong” direction actually mean you are progressing in the right direction and not headed towards a car accident. Who knew?
2. Unbelievable beauty - Ok, this may be a little saccharine, but I wasn’t at all prepared for the constant, never-ending natural beauty of New Zealand. Yes I saw pictures before I left and yes, everyone told me how gorgeous it is, but I hear that about every new place I visit. What I wasn’t ready for was that every square inch of the country is stunning, almost beyond description. I wish I’d known about this beforehand, because it frankly would have saved me a lot of time. Early in the trip, I stopped every few miles to take photos of whatever new, jaw-droppingly gorgeous vista popped up after I turned a bend. Eventually, I had to stop taking pictures and just drive or I wouldn’t have been able to do anything else. This happened again on the South Island as I drove from Franz Josef to Wanaka. My directions said the trip took normal, non-amazed people 3 ½ hours to complete. It took me six hours, mostly because I couldn’t stand passing by the physical beauty of the countryside without stopping to soak it all in.
3. Rugby – Americans know that certain sports exist, but we don’t fully understand what they are or how they’re played. Cricket, handball and Australian Rules Football all fall into this category, but it was rugby that left me at a loss in New Zealand. To say that Kiwis like rugby is a massive understatement; to the casual traveler it seems to be the national obsession. I know that the impending Rugby World Cup, which is taking place in New Zealand, is partly to blame, but only partly. Regardless of the World Cup, they just really love the sport and I had no idea how to relate. I tried watching, Googled the rules and even asked people, but nothing helped. Instead, I just stood by the sidelines watching a high school team practice one morning in Rotorua interested more in what the sport means to New Zealand more than the actual match itself. Obviously, I wish I’d done some rugby research before my trip.
4.National Dish is…Meat – I’m a carnivore, dyed in the wool. I tolerate some vegetables, but not many and not often. So when I quickly learned that the entire country of New Zealand agrees with my culinary style, I was thrilled. Not only was a hardy meat dish the staple of every meal, meat was even served as a garnish! I had a mixed grill plate one evening that was surrounded by pieces of streaky bacon. It was awesome! Meat pies, sausage rolls, bacon as a garnish all combine to create a meat lover’s paradise. I just wish I’d packed some cholesterol pills in my duffel bag.
5. Masters of Understatement – My schedule in New Zealand was ambitious, and included a lot of exciting travel experiences – fitting for the adventure travel capital of the world. Before my trip, I visited the various web sites but nothing really jumped out as cause for concern. It seems though that Kiwis are so used to extreme travel, that they don’t even think to warn outsiders about it. This tendency towards understatement also extends far beyond adventure travel though.
Kiwi web site – Enjoy a tube trip through underground caves
Reality – Class five rapids in the dark with multiple waterfalls off which you will have to jump backwards
Kiwi web site – Take in the pastoral views as you drive across the country
Reality – You will pass by examples of natural beauty the likes of which you have never seen that will leave you momentarily dazed and prone to veering off road.
Kiwi web site – The roads are a bit challenging
Reality – Four hours of zigzagging mountain roads, covered with ice and grit and seemingly endless single lane, two direction bridges
I don’t think their understatements are intentional, New Zealanders are just used to the extreme nature of their country and assume everyone else is as well.
Have you been to New Zealand? What are some things you wish you knew before your first visit?