Aotearoa: Wellington to Wanganui, and onwards

The two weeks in Wellington were fantastic. Everyone I met was incredibly helpful, and I have more information on early contacts between Maoris and other indigenous peoples than I ever dreamed possible. But, of course, at some point you have to leave, and while there's certainly more to do, I can only do so much on a short-term grant. And, of course, my friend, The Lawyer Formerly Known As Sarah (henceforth: TLFKAS), arrived last Friday.

Photo of ocean shore
Just outside of Wellington, this is the highway along the coast - and one of my favorite pictures so far of the trip.
Photo of ocean shore
Same area, different vantagepoint
Photo of ocean shore
Looking out across the ocean

So we set out from Wellington on Saturday, driving towards Wanganui. Wanganui is on the west coast of the North Island, and the drive goes largely along the coast, which is gorgeous - as you can hopefully tell from the pictures. Being so close to the ocean all the time is just astonishing. Breathtaking, truly. We also stopped at a small Maori art and craft gallery and spent some time talking to one of the artists, who showed us around his workshop and told us the stories behind some of his work. (Because it was winter, there were hardly any tourists around, so he had time to show us these things.) His work was quite beautiful as well.

Photo of ocean shore
More of the ocean shore
Photo of ocean shore
Rocks. And ocean. Still pretty, really.

That the scenery is gorgeous is not surprising, of course; this is New Zealand, and if you've seen The Lord of the Rings, you have some idea what to expect. What is a bit surprising, though, is that driving on the left side of the road is not all that difficult. The first day of driving, in Wellington, was a bit freaky, especially the roundabouts. Drive left, yield right - it's a bit much to remember when you're also driving in a circle, wondering which of the roads radiating outwards you're supposed to be taking. But by and large, I've gotten the hang of it, and it's starting to feel natural. No doubt I will completely screw things up once I'm back in my own car in Texas.

Photo of Wanganui gardens
This is Wanganui, which during the summer apparently has many, many flowers both in the parks and on display down the main street. They don't do so bad in the winter, either.
Photo of flowering tree
More of the pretty winter flowers. No, really, it is winter here.
Photo of Wanganui downtown
Wanganui's main street; it's a very picturesque town.
Photo of Wanganui downtown
More Wanganui.
Photo of Wanganui downtown
It also has its Art Deco moments, Wanganui does.

So we drove to Wanganui and spent some time in the city, going to the regional museum (quite informative) and the Sarjeant Gallery. Perhaps the latter suffered from being placed late in the day, but aside from a rather funky, enormous flax teardrop just inside the entrance, it wasn't terribly impressive. As people used to the open-24-hours-a-day hours of U.S. stores, TLFKAS and I were also surprised at the fact that stores here tend toward a more European schedule of being open until early evening on weekdays, maybe until early afternoon on Saturdays, and mostly closed on Sundays. It's a good system for people who own or work in stores, but it does take getting used to if you're more accustomed to the U.S.-style instant gratification store hours.

Photo of Wanganui Sarjeant gallery
The Sarjeant gallery - a very nice building, and a local art gallery - local art, it seems, it always a mixed bag.
Photo of Wanganui war memorial
The war memorial, just to the right of the Sarjeant gallery. A lot of NZ'ers fought in both WWI and WWII, and monuments to the soldiers are fairly ubiquitous.
Photo of Wanganui River
Just out of town along the Wanganui River.

The next day, we hit the road again, onward to Turangi, near the Tongariro National Park (which the train, on the first day, took me through). If you're heading north from Wanganui, you can either take the main road, or you can take the Wanganui River Road - a.k.a. the Whanganui River Road. (Given that "wh" in Maori - logically enough, the linguistic source of many NZ place names - is pronounced like a soft "f", the difference in spelling actually makes a big difference in the sound.)

Photo of Wanganui river
One of the first sights off the W(h)anganui River Road. The mist is because it's fairly early in the morning and it hasn't burned off just yet.
Photo of Wanganui river
More of the same - and still pretty.
Photo of red flowers
Funky red flowers; I have no idea what they're called (hey Mom! Any ideas?) but they're pretty cool, and I've seen them everywhere.

The river road is astonishing, and well worth the detour. It's not much longer than the main road, but it's considerably slower, partly because you have to make frequent stops for scenic views. Well, at least you do when I'm driving. TLFKAS is a little less given to stopping every time you can see the river while you're driving along the, uh, River Road...

Photo of Wanganui river road
This is the road. You can't really tell, but the road, which in theory is two lanes, is really rather narrow.
Photo of Wanganui river road (again)
Again, the road. Again, you cannot tell how narrow it is, but really, two cars do not fit on it side by side.
Photo of Wanganui river road (yet again)
OK, here you can see the tire tracks on the road - yeah, that's one lane. But here in New Zealand, that's "two lanes." (It was unpaved for about half the trip.)

Yeah, so the other reason that the scenic route takes longer to drive is because the scenic route also involves a road that in New Zealand apparently qualifies as two-lane, which in my terms means "Cars go in either direction on this road and whoever's more scared just dodges off to the shoulder at the sight of oncoming traffic." Seriously, on most of this road, two cars really have to make a vast and complicated effort to fit next to each other, and it usually requires one car slowing to a near-stop. Even more astonishing than the breathtaking views is the fact that the speed limit in both directions is usually around 100 kph.

Photo of Wanganui river
The W(h)anganui River, from which the River Road takes its name.
Photo of Wanganui river
More of the river. Yes, I did stop at just about every slightly scenic spot, which meant about once every five minutes.
Photo of Wanganui river
On the other hand, it really is pretty every time.

The road did cause some consternation for us. After someone sped past us going about 100 kph in a hairpin turn, I started honking the horn going into every low-visibility turn. Heck, it's a sparsely populated area; at worst, I annoyed a bunch of birds (which my father perhaps might object to), and at best, saved us from being clipped by one of the many crazy Kiwi drivers we saw. Because while to me it seems obvious that you would take the scenic route in order to, say, see the scenery, most of the drivers we saw were on the scenic route to bypass traffic elsewhere, and were driving like the proverbial bats out of hell.

Photo of Wanganui river
Hills, forests, river - the scenery along the road is pretty varied.
Photo of Wanganui river
Not quite Lord of the Rings, but I'd say it's close.
Photo of sheep in a field
And of course, the ubiquitous sheep.

Luckily, though, there wasn't very much traffic. While at other times the winter temperatures have been rather a problem, this time it was a good thing that it was winter. Winter translates into fewer tourists, which probably translates into much less traffic along the river road. Which I must say we were both quite thankful for.

Photo of Wanganui river road
More scenes of the "two lane" (ahem) road.
Photo of Wanganui river road
The road. The river. This is why they call it the River Road.
Photo of Wanganui river
Hopefully all the scenic shots aren't starting to look the same to you yet.

The biggest driving challenge, however, came close to the end of the River Road, when we passed a couple of guys on horses, which seemed lovely and pastoral, and came smack up against...a big herd of sheep. Very pastoral. And very slow. And very much all over the road. The men on horses moved over to the side of the road, but this just put us right up against the sheep.

Photo of sheep
Sheep standing coyly by the side of the road.
Photo of sheep
The front end of the car, and, more to the point: Sheep, as far as the eye can see!
Photo of sheep being herded by our car
Our car, in an attempt to herd sheep.

We dropped back a bit and one of the men on horseback rode up to the side of the car. "If you get around some of them," he offered, "the rest of them will move over. You just have to get around some." Heartened by the advice (and the friendliness of the riders toward us generally), we moved to the left of the sheep, hoping to get past them in some way. However, the sheep, being Kiwis, were firmly wed to the left side of the road, willing to give way only on the right. So, odd as it felt, there I was, driving on the right side of the road, herding sheep toward the left as I passed them slowly in the car.

Photo of green hills
Past the sheep, it started looking a bit like Hobbiton.
Photo of green hills
In the background, you can see the snow-covered volcanoes of Tongariro National Park, where we went hiking the next day - and of which I will post more pictures soon!
Photo of green hills
Basically, it's always this spectacular around here. It takes some getting used to.

After a good twenty minutes, we finally had passed the sheep - some of them, rather than dodge to the side, had persisted in running ahead of the car, and I really hope we didn't herd them somewhere the shepherds weren't intending to go! But after the sheep, the one-lane (er, "two lane") gravel road didn't seem quite as much a challenge as it had, and so we relaxed and enjoyed the scenery until we got to Raetihi.

Then we - ok, well, I - left the lights on while we were eating lunch, and we got to wait for the Automobile Association to come help us out with jumper cables, which was a different kind of challenge entirely...


23. July 2003


All text and images © 2003 NoAura Productions. All rights reserved.


Return to Travel section index

Return to main index