Some interesting oddities I noted about New Zealand, written during six months' exploring this wonderful country...
This is ridiculous. I've just been glancing through my AA map of New Zealand, and up on the east coast of the North Island, not a million miles south of Hastings, is a mountain. It's not a very big mountain at only 305m (Mt Cook is 3754m, by comparison), but what it lacks in height it more than makes up in its name. And what's the name of this mountain? It is, of course, the easy-to-remember Mt Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateapokai- whenuakitanatahu: it almost deserves a visit just for a photo of the signposts. I bet the map makers are pleased it's on the east coast, so they can put its name stretching out into the Pacific...
Add in the pronunciation of place names in New Zealand, and it can make navigation quite a challenge. In the Maori language, 'wh' is pronounced 'f', and all vowels are long, so Whangarei is pronounced 'Farn-gar-ray', to rhyme with 'way'. At least, that's the theory. Even people in Whangarei pronounce it differently depending on the phases of the moon: I heard 'Wangaray', 'Wan-garry', 'Fan-garry', 'Fongorray'... you name it, nobody seems to know where the hell they live. However any European-named places that contain 'wh' are pronounced in the European manner, and the Whanganui River spoils the party by being a Maori name that's pronounced 'Won-gan-ooey'.
Prepare to be confused...
Another interesting aspect of New Zealand is the law on drinking. The legal drinking age is 20, but if you're married and you're in the pub with your spouse, you can drink at 18; in other words, if you don't have your spouse with you, you have to be 20 to drink, but without you can drink at 18. Don't ask me why, but I'm surprised the country isn't full of kids getting married simply so they could get slaughtered at the same time as most other country's kids can. Or perhaps it is, and I'm already too old to spot them...
While driving you notice odd little things about a country, and here's my summary of New Zealand's road system:
The age for driving in this country is 15 – yes, 15 – which might help to explain why Kiwi drivers are lethal. I'd have been a terrible driver at 15 too.
Then there's the left-turn rule. Driving in New Zealand is easy if you're used to driving on the left, except for one seriously strange law. If you're driving along and want to turn left into a side street, you have to give way to anybody turning into the road from your right. This makes crossroads somewhat exciting, and as the rule was only introduced relatively recently – in the seventies, I think – there are plenty of drivers out there who don't understand the rule themselves. It all makes for a bit of a gamble: if you're turning right and it's your right of way, are you going to exercise it if the vehicle turning left from the opposite direction is a huge truck? I think not...
Kiwi drivers are some of the worst drivers in the western world. They overtake on blind corners, they regard indicators as optional extras, and, possibly worst of all, they all regard themselves as the worst drivers in the world while thinking that London drivers are courteous and safe. Weird! Perhaps one of the reasons that Kiwi drivers are so bad is that...
...there are roadworks just about bloody everywhere. The marketing brains have got involved in the act, too, and the signs preceding the piles of monster trucks and bitumen machines proclaim things like 'Pavement rehabilitation' instead of 'Fixing a buggered road', making it all sound terribly pleasant. The fact that Kiwi workmen leave loads of gravel on the road when they reseal it, which shoots up into your windscreen and scratches your paintwork, is by the by. Another interesting difference with Kiwi roadworks is the large number of women on the team: there's normally at least one per set of roadworks, which you wouldn't see in the UK, and to the single-too-long traveller, it's a pleasant sight. My pet theory? Kiwis have too many distractions on the road, especially in dangerous areas like roadworks. This produces crashes...
...which produce crosses. Whenever someone dies on the road, the local council erects a small white cross at the crash site, one for every fatality. They also do this in Australia, the idea being that you see the crosses and it reminds you of your own mortality, and you drive more carefully. In my experience, people tend to think, 'Wow! A wipe-out crash! I bet I don't slide if I take this corner at break-neck speed...'
One interesting aspect of driving round New Zealand is that you can't buy leaded petrol anywhere in New Zealand; this worried me to start with, because the car I bought didn't run on unleaded. It's no problem, though: instead you buy lead additive from the garage too, which comes in a little syringe for NZ$1 (one syringe per 20 litres of petrol). These syringes are commonly known as 'squirts', so you should ask the man to fill it up with premium, and 'add a couple of squirts' – as most petrol stations have attendants, it's all taken care of. So it seems that in New Zealand you can have little squirts in the driving seat as well as the petrol tank: small wonder the road death toll is so high.
North vs South
Compared to the South Island, the North Island looks like a plucked chicken. Where the South Island has acres of untouched wilderness where the trees are random, ancient and indigenous and the bush bastards flourish, the North Island's forests are planted in lines, they're mostly made up of pine trees, and they're farmed. It's the hills that have recently been farmed and are now covered in stunted baby trees that look like plucked chickens, with rows and rows of orderly blobs where there should be chaos. That's just one reason the North Island feels more developed: as one of the guys at my Auckland hostel said, wherever you are in the South Island, you feel isolated, and he was right. In the North Island, you feel almost cosmopolitan in comparison, even in the bush.
The same is true in the wilderness. National Parks like Tongariro and Egmont feel much more developed than the likes of Fiordland or Mt Aspiring, mainly because there are more tourists, more tracks, and less totally unexplored regions. Tongariro is the oldest National Park in New Zealand, and as a result it feels a little exploited: Fiordland is too inhospitable to be westernised, with its weather, sandflies and ruggedness. I know which one I'd prefer to travel in... but then again, I also know which one I'd rather live in. It's horses for courses, of course.