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Greetings from New Zealand!  I've heard a lot of great things about this country and it feels good to finally be here.  I plan to travel around New Zealand for the next two months until early February, then I'll hop on a plane for Sydney, Australia.  Between now and then, I hope to visit a good part of this Kiwi country.  But first, let me get you caught up.

Leaving Raro

During my last entry (News:  December 14, 2001), I was in Aitutaki, a beautiful atoll in the Cook Islands group.  I spent two nights on Aitutaki keeping the lizards company in the Vaikoa Units, a rustic and "colorful" accommodation near the beach, then I flew back to Rarotonga, the main island in the Cook Islands.



Here's some nice slack-key Island music. This is Keola Beamer playing He Punahele No Oe.  Translated, I believe that means "Who Let the Dogs Out?"


After I returned to Rarotonga that morning, I checked back into my beachfront studio at Vara's Place, where I had stayed during my first two nights in the Cook Islands.  Vara's isn't the most luxurious place on the island but it's very reasonable and the staff, including Vara herself, are all quite wonderful.  I really enjoyed my peaceful stay at Vara's and will definitely stay there again the next time I visit Rarotonga.  


Despite the constant trade winds, the air quality on Raro was not the best, however.  During the whole time I was on Rarotonga, I noticed a lot of folks there burning leaves, so much that the island was cloaked in a thick haze of smoke.  The smoke smelled a lot like marijuana (but not that I would know what that smells like), which surprised me because the Cook Islands is a fairly conservative country.  I got a little alarmed when I saw a big bonfire right next to an elementary school, with all the kids standing around the fire, breathing in the smoke.  Just like Bill Clinton I didn't inhale and I was hoping they didn't either.


I discovered later that the residents weren't burning marijuana, but instead dead palm leaves, which apparently smells very similar to pot when they're burned.  A local guy told me there was a burning requirement in effect to reduce the insect population, so everyone was out burning palm leaves.  It must work, I guess, because during my three nights on Rarotonga I hardly noticed any mosquitoes flying around.  But perhaps they were all high from the smoke.



Above left:  Da plane!  Da plane!  The Air Rarotonga turboprop arriving at Aitutaki to take me away.

Above center:  Flying back to Rarotonga after two days on Aitutaki.

Above right:  And an hour later, back at Muri Beach on Raro.



Above left:  Muri Beach on the east side of Rarotonga. 

Above right:  Smoke gets in your eyes... and ears, and everywhere else.

On to Auckland

I got up on Friday morning at 5:00 a.m. (with help from the crowing roosters nearby) and snagged a ride to the airport from Ben, a mellow, dreadlocked Islander surfer dude who works at Vara's and handles transfers.  While standing at the check-in line at the airport, I noticed a gorgeous young woman who was working at the terminal and thought she looked familiar.  I was trying to figure out where I had seen her during my five-day stay in the Cook Islands but couldn't remember.  As I got up to the counter and started checking in my bags, she came over to ask someone a question, saw me, and said with a smile, "Hi Del."  This really dumbfounded me because beautiful young women typically don't come up to me and say hi.  Like, never.


For the next 20 minutes I tried to figure out who she was.  Then it hit me she was the receptionist at Vara's (apparently she did double-duty with Air New Zealand).  In fact, she was Vara's daughter and, as someone told me, she had recently won the "Miss Rarotonga" beauty pageant.  At least I hadn't said anything stupid to her, which for me is unusual when I'm around beautiful women.


I got on the jet bound for Auckland and we took off around 8 a.m.  Shortly after leaving Raro, the plane crossed the International Date Line and consequently, I totally missed Friday, December 14, 2001.  If anything important happened on that day, please let me know.


Four hours later, and now Saturday, our plane cut through the thick clouds over Auckland and landed at the airport.  This was my first trip overseas and I had heard lots of horror stories about going through customs and getting hassled by the officers, but fortunately everything went smoothly.  I've learned on this trip that it's much easier to travel overseas than I had thought.  Even something like finances is easy to deal with, as I've learned from the PBS master traveler, Rick Steves.  Rick suggests getting cash at the ATMs in the airports and not fuss with going to banks and cashing in Travelers Checks (or Traveler's "Cheeks," as they call them in New Zealand), which is good advice.  By the way, getting cash from an ATM is easy in New Zealand because this country has more ATMs per capita than any country in the world.


Above:  Leaving Raro early in the morning.  Auckland, here I come.

A month earlier when I was back in Bellingham and planning my visit to New Zealand, I'd thought about transportation and how I was going to get around the country.  There are several hop-and-ride buses designed for tourists, as I learned, which circulate through the country, dropping passengers off at hostels every evening.  It's a good way to meet fellow travelers but I wanted more flexibility, so I thought about buying a pickup truck.  I was hoping to buy a truck in Auckland after I arrived and then sell it two months later before I left for Australia. 


I wanted to buy something like what I had in the U.S., a  single-cab pickup with a camper shell and a long bed to sleep in at night.  I've driven that truck all over America during the past 16 years (see My Toyota Pickup) and it's the ideal vehicle for a camper/traveler like myself, because I can throw a foam pad in the back and sleep on it at night. 


However, from Internet research that I'd done in the U.S., I learned that single-cab pickups with six-foot beds weren't common in New Zealand, which surprised me considering how ubiquitous they are in the U.S.  As I discovered, and for reasons I don't understand, dual-cab pickups meaning no long bed in the back where you can sleep were a lot more popular in New Zealand than single-cab pickups, which are virtually unknown.  The truck option was out, so instead I'd decided to rent a car in New Zealand and had made the arrangements over the Internet for a long-term car rental from a small firm in Auckland.


After clearing customs, I called my car rental company, Easy Rentals, and picked up my car from the proprietors, a nice gentleman named Sigit and his kind wife, Nelly.  It was a six-year old white Toyota Corolla that rented for about US$15 a day, which I thought was a good deal considering that this is the summer peak season.  If was about half the rate of renting a newer car from Hertz or Avis.  You can also rent campervans over here but they cost upwards of US$50 a day, which is quite a ways beyond my rather shoestring budget.



Above left:  A sunrise photo a rarity for me in Rarotonga.

Above right:  After spending five days in the Cook Islands it was time to leave (although not by choice).  This is checking in at the Rarotonga Air Terminal.  Sorry, you can't see Miss Rarotonga in this photo.

Where Driving Left is Right

As you may know, people in New Zealand, Australia, and on many Pacific Islands drive on the left side of the road or as Americans refer to it, the Wrong side of the road.  Although I had driven a rental car in Rarotonga for a day, I was still a little uneasy about driving on the left side.  The cars take some getting used to, as well.  Americans like me often try to get in on the passenger side (oops), the steering wheel is on the right side of the car, which feels strange, and the turn signal and windshield wiper levers are exactly opposite of where you'd expect to find them.


Above:  The Corolla I rented from Sigit in Auckland.  All ready for my New Zealand adventure!

As I was driving my Corolla down the streets of Auckland, I kept telling myself, "Left, left, left stay left."  I also kept turning on my windshield wipers before making a turn, which is something I'm sure Aucklanders are used to seeing.  In fact, after seeing a car with its windshield wipers turned on during a sunny day, I'm sure they snicker to themselves and say, "There goes another dumb American."  Also the slow lane, which is the right lane in America, is the left lane here, and that feels strange, as well.  Despite all this, I arrived safely 30 minutes later at The Amberley, the Bed-and-Breakfast in Devonport north of Auckland, where I had made a reservation.


In most countries of the world, people drive on the right side of the road.  However, in England and many former English colonies, such as Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong, people drive on the left side of the road.  Why the difference?  Left-side driving had its beginnings back in the Middle Ages and the days of King Arthur when knights in jousting competitions, carrying their long poles in their right hands, would pass to the right of each other while trying to skewer their opponent like a shish kabob.  That's why people in England today, and England's later colonies (like New Zealand), drive on the left especially before having shish kabob.


Right-hand driving had its beginnings in Pennsylvania in the 1790s on one of the first toll roads in the U.S.  Since most people are right-handed, the toll operator set his booth up on the right side of the road to make it easier for riders on horseback and in horse-drawn carts to hand him the tolls.  That's why people in America today, and in most other countries, drive on the right.  Why male drivers (like me) refuse to ask for directions when they're completely lost, regardless of which side of the road they're driving on, is a mystery that has no explanation.


Driving on the left side of the road really isn't that big of a deal and I've gotten pretty used to it.  I don't even think about it anymore, in fact.  But of course, that's when old habits take over and accidents happen.  So I need to keep telling myself:  left, left, left.



Above left:  Clearing customs in Auckland was a breeze.

Above right:  Before I committed to the rental car, I wanted to check out the Auckland Car Fair.  I was hoping to buy a single-cab pickup here with a long bed in the back, like my truck in the U.S.  But as I discovered, there are very few single-cab pickups in New Zealand.



Above left:  My little Corolla in front of the Amberley Bed-and-Breakfast in nearby Devonport, my home for six days while I got ready for my trip around New Zealand.

Above right:  My room at the Amberley.  Mary and Michael were very pleasant hosts.



Left:  Devonport (foreground) and Auckland (background) from Mt. Victoria.




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