Central Otago: The right way

By Tina Trenkner-Meade

Expat American Tina Trenkner-Meade finds she's no longer on the right side driving through Otago.
The road alongside Lake Wakatipu delivers stunning views.
The road alongside Lake Wakatipu delivers stunning views.

"Now come towards me a little, then stop.

"Now turn left and right a little, then stop.

"Now turn left and right a little wider, then stop.

"All right, go ahead!

This tutorial from a young employee was something he'd recite maybe 100 times an hour to every single person - Kiwi and foreigner. All Skyline Queenstown Luge riders are required to demonstrate their competence in driving the luge cart on the easy course at least once before jumping on the big-kid course with steeper hills and sharper turns.

All that prep, for something that doesn't even have an engine.

Without that introduction, someone could get extremely hurt instead of being able to enjoy the twists and turns that provide a gorgeous new view of Lake Wakatipu's whitecaps on this brisk, clear and windy Queenstown day.

An instruction sheet for foreign drivers, attached to the steering wheel of a rental car. Photo / Tina Trenkner-Meade
An instruction sheet for foreign drivers, attached to the steering wheel of a rental car. Photo / Tina Trenkner-Meade


I would have appreciated such a primer and practice the night before, when fellow American Cathy and I drove our rental car from Dunedin, navigating Otago's narrow roadways from the left side of the road.

My US driver's licence was still a valid document for renting a car and driving in New Zealand, and I'd had some experience doing short trips to the supermarket in central Auckland. Plus, driving was much cheaper than booking a return flight to Queenstown with 10 days' notice. If we could save a few dollars by obeying the road signs, I was willing to get my Queenstown thrills from my unfamiliarity with the road, instead of a bungy jump or a jetboat.

With a map of Otago, a New Zealand Transport Agency guide to driving and a note on the steering wheel to provide additional safety reminders (keep left, speed limit is 100 km/h, no overtaking on solid yellow lines), I drove to pick up my friend. She walked to the right-hand side of the car to get in. After that false start, she got in on the left side and we started chasing the sun as we passed by the greenery and the many, many sheep alongside State Highway 1 before the turn-off in Milton.

While I was remembering to stay at 100km/h, everyone else around me - Porsches and Audis and a Land Rover - easily passed our puttering, dinky four-door automatic, probably going at least 120. If they know the roads better, then sweet as. I don't, so I'm going to Sunday drive through Otago. It gives us more time to take in the green fields, the river views and the small towns as we saunter by.

Driving past the orchards, wineries and small agricultural towns of Otago brought to mind trips through California's Central Valley. But State Highways 6 and 8 are very different to the interstates connecting major US cities. California's Interstate 5 has multiple lanes and few bends to worry about. Cruise control was made for boring, straight interstates. In New Zealand, the two, sometimes three-lane roads, the one-way bridges and the slower speed signs near bends require much more mental engagement, and perhaps that wears down drivers faster.

Tina Trenkner-Meade in Central Otago. Photo / Tina Trenkner-Meade
Tina Trenkner-Meade in Central Otago. Photo / Tina Trenkner-Meade


By 8pm, it would be an opportunity missed if we didn't take a break and take in the view of the light dimming over Cromwell, where we'd stop tracing the Clutha River and start following the Kawarau. That epic photo op would have to be quick, as we had to check in to our hostel by 9.30pm. The leg from Cromwell to Queenstown should have been less than an hour, but our caution, the winding State Highway 6, and a detour near Frankton got us there almost two hours later. Luckily, the check-in guy didn't make us sleep in the car that night.

On the return to Dunedin, I happily whisked along Malaghans Rd to walk through charming, leafy Arrowtown for a coffee, knick-knacks and daydreaming about what life would be like outside of Auckland. On SH6, my lower lip folded over in fear each time I tried to bring my speed down to take a sharp bend, or when a big truck passed by. Despite a whole lane between myself and the Kawarau river, I kept the car as far left as I could to avoid falling into the water. How fast do other drivers take this road? I started counting roadkill after Arrow Junction and stopped counting the number of dead animals on the road after I reached 10 in the first hour.

SH8 seemed to have more straight shots and passing bays than SH6, perhaps giving more permission to not feel guilty going 100km/h. Eventually, intimidation started to dissolve to the point where one might feel comfortable enough in the left lane to weave through the hills, obey the changing speed limits and croon with Adele on the radio at the same time.

The car was returned to Dunedin airport with a few hundred kilometres more on the odometer and no new damage.

I may not have had a friendly guy give me a don't-crash course on New Zealand roads (or a high five when I came back in one piece), but I still felt similarly exhilarated returning the car and giving the keys to the attendant as I did returning my cart after a couple of runs at the Queenstown luge. Getting back safely - not becoming a foreigner crash statistic - made the Speight's I had at the airport as a reward go down even easier.

Looking down to Cromwell and Lake Dunstan.
Looking down to Cromwell and Lake Dunstan.


Checklist

GETTING THERE
Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Dunedin, with one-way fares starting from $83.

airnz.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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