It’s always funny.
You pick up an American at the airport, you put their suitcase in the “boot”, and then they walk round to the driver’s-side door.
“Ha. I forgot the steering wheel is on the wrong side down here!” they say in their jet-lag coma.
Then they repeat this behavior about a thousand times over the next few days because they cannot break a lifetime habit.
It’s even better when you are visited by a gutsy Yank with Hobbit fever who is absolutely committed to making the Haj to Hobbiton.
Such was the case recently.
Uber cautious (read “old fart”) me, had failed to convince this young buck about the dangers of driving in New Zealand.
I told him that, every couple of months, a carload of Americans has a terrible accident.
If the driver survives, he usually says something like:
“I don’t know what happened. I was texting on my iPhone and using the GPS and watching a movie on my iPad and drinking a Red Bull and looking at a tattoo book, you know. And the next thing I know, BOOM. I am like having this massive head-on collision with this stupid car in the WRONG lane. What?”
Which is why I always try to discourage Americans from driving in NZ.
Although it’s been 20 years since I first had to drive “upside down”, I still remember the fear.
The blind panic.
And that was before starting the car.
I experienced all those emotions when I sat on the wrong side, where the steering wheel had accidentally been hammered onto the dash.
Unless you have done it, you cannot imagine how weird it is.
I remember that driving straight ahead was easy enough.
And making a turn was easy enough IF you were following another car (which was not being driven by a Yank, else, BOOM).
What totally freaked me out was having to make split-second driving decisions.
Like, say, you have just pulled out of a “carpark”, and you see a concrete island road divider in front of you.
You are going 50 kilometres an hour and you have to decide right now which side of the island to drive on.
Your brain quickly replays all the helpful advice from friends and the rental car brochure.
GIVE WAY TO THE RIGHT.
SHE’LL BE RIGHT, MATE.
At which point you usually lose the security deposit on your rental car because you have made big wee-wees in the front seat.
And that’s if you are driving in the daytime.
If you are driving at night, it gets exponentially scarier.
First off, you are concentrating so hard that you could cut steel with your laser-gaze, which gives you a major headache.
You are driving the speed limit, so the Kiwi driver behind you is right on your butt.
You are repeating your Zen-like driving mantra over and over and over.
Stay left. Stay left. Stay left. Boom.
But it feels like you are flying a fighter plane or playing a video game.
Because all these lights are coming at you from all directions.
From places where cars should never, ever be.
Which causes your “fight or flee” primal reflex to make even more wee-wees in the front seat.
You’re in Good Hands…
Because I’ve learned many driving lessons during my 20 years in New Zealand, I decided to give this young buck American a little help before he raced off to Hobbiton and.
I had him follow me for about 10 minutes, as I gently drove through town.
I would take off, and he would take off.
I would turn left, and he would turn on his windshield wipers.
Because they are strategically on the wrong side of the steering wheel.
I would go through a “round-about”, taking care that he could follow me.
I would signal right when ready to leave the round-about.
He would turn on his windshield wipers and hit the horn.
Because you just do.
As I watched him in my mirror, I notice three things:
1) His eyes were open very, very wide;
2) He was driving while also trying to stick the GPS on his “windscreen” (Stupid American. BOOM.);
3) He was way too far from the “centre” line and way too close to the cars parked on (wrong) side of the road.
But after awhile, when I thought he had sort of gotten the hang of things (HA!), I took him onto the “motorway”.
At which point he made even more big wee-wees.
At least I am assuming he did.
Because that’s exactly what I did the first time I merged onto the wrong side of the “motorway”.
Driving 100 freaking kilometres an hour, on the wrong friggen side of the road.
Accidentally turning on the stupid windshield wipers and hitting the horn about every 15 seconds.
I am delighted to report that my fellow American made it to Hobbiton and back without a single BOOM.
I’d say that was a miracle.
This guy was a priest, so he had major help from above.
Still, it was not all smooth sailing.
Below please find a short photo essay of Father John’s “baptism” on a two-lane New Zealand motorway .
Pictures, which he took himself, BOOM, are indeed worth a thousand words!