Monday, January 14, 2008

January 9, 2008 - Auckland, New Zealand

We were pleasantly surprised to discover that all of our baggage made the flight with us to New Zealand. Pushing our luggage carts out of the Arrivals terminal in Auckland this morning, we were hit with a wall of humidity. After 6 weeks at home, our bodies had so adjusted to the arctic cold in New England, Cleveland and Chicago, that we were completely unprepared for finding ourselves in the midst of antipodal summer. That's the trouble with air travel. You move across time zones and latitudes too quickly. Your body doesn't have time to adjust, not like it does when you are cruising at a stately pace of 6.5 miles per hour. We quickly found a bathroom and some cooler clothing to change into. Unfortunately, neither of us thought to pack a pair of flip flops, and Sten was stuck with his jeans until we could get up to Whangarei, but at least we were wearing short sleeves again.

We were planning to come back to Auckland next weekend to buy a car at the Ellerslie Car Fair, so we rented a car to get us up to Whangarei and back in the meantime. On our way north, we thought we should stop at the Backpacker's Car Market in Auckland to see if there were any vehicles there we might be interested in. We loaded our gear into the rental car and headed up to Auckland, which is about 20 minutes north of the airport.

Our initial session of driving on the wrong side of the road was a comedy of errors. Start with the facts that we were overheated, exhausted and disoriented, and add to it the fact that the driver sits on the right in New Zealand cars, which wouldn't have been much of a problem, except our cheap rental turned out to be a manual. So Sten had to shift with his left hand. The turn signal and windshield wiper controls are on the opposite sides of the steering wheel as American cars. So each time we went to make a turn, Sten would flip on the wipers. Luckily it was drizzling, so it looked almost intentional. After a few nerve-wracking minutes, we spied a sign for Villa Maria Vineyards. Never ones to pass up a vineyard in the best of times, we were more than willing to take a slight detour to recover from the introduction to driving in Kiwi country. After grabbing a few bargain bottles of sauvignon blanc we were on our way again.

Backpacker's Car Market is a garage in the center of Auckland where backpackers and other travelers at the end of their trips pay a daily fee to park their cars and campers and wait for someone to come along and buy it. The management seems to intentionally keep it dark inside so a potential purchaser can't see how damaged the goods really are. And conveniently, they don't have a torch to loan you to examine the goods in a better light. The people and inventory inside the garage are just depressing. We didn't have much hope of finding a vehicle, but we were pleasantly surprised by one car and its owner. Among all the converted vans stinking of patchouli and unwashed bodies, there was a Toyota station wagon. It was older, with over 200,000 km on it, and a few dings in the finish, but it was immaculate. More importantly, it came with a full size spare, the brakes felt fine and Sten liked the looks and sound of the engine. The couple who had bought it a month ago for their trip around New Zealand had to cut their trip short and go back to Scotland due to some health issues. They were in a hurry to sell and the price was right.

Realizing that we were in no condition to make such an important decision, we took a break for lunch and some much needed caffeine. Over lunch, we took the time to research prices for this model and to mull over whether it was the right vehicle for us. Sten likes the fact that it is a big enough station wagon that we could both sleep in the back in a pinch. He still harbors a hope that he is going to get me to sleep in the back of a car in some beautiful isolated spot - it is like he doesn't know me (or us) at all. I like traveling with my full kitchen, latex mattress and high thread count sheets. I have no interest in damp sleeping bags or cooking over a camp stove. We aren't campers. We're barely hikers.

When we returned to the garage, Ian was out showing the car to another couple. While we waited for him to return, his wife Robin made it clear that they would give us first option on the car, as we had seen it first. We made the decision even easier for them when we waved the mechanical inspection (I also like traveling with my own engineer). Our only glitch was that we didn't have enough local currency on hand to buy the car as we thought that we were going to have until the weekend car fair to accumulate a wad of cash. While the folks who run Backpacker's Car Market were checking to see that the title was clear, Ian went to the corner to get a paper with the latest exchange rate. In the end, we exchanged a wad of New Zealand and American dollars totalling $3,950 NZ (approximately $3,100 US) for the keys to our new (old) car. I don't think I've ever seen so much cash in one place before.
Robin and Ian - thrilled to be rid of their vehicle

Before heading north to Whangarei, we returned to the airport to turn in the rental car that we had only had for a few hours and collect our refund. Sten drove the rental car, while I drove our new car. Like Sten, I had a few instances of unintentional wiper activation - unfortunately now it was bright and sunny out so I couldn't even pretend that it was intentional. At least the new car is an automatic, so I didn't have the challenge of shifting with my left hand. A few hours later we were back in Whangarei, sitting at the local pizza joint, feeling like we'd been run over by a garbage truck. And smelling like it too.

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