In the middle of 2015, I took a six month contract job in New Zealand. Was my wife thrilled about it ? No, but we agreed it would be my “semester abroad”, and that I should do my best to not get laid while I was there. I was hired to work for Weta, which is Peter Jackson’s visual effects studio, located in Miramar, right outside of Wellington proper. I was psyched for three reasons. One, Weta is world class studio; two, my brother Randy, and his family live there; and three, New Zealand is a beautiful country to behold.
Shortly after arriving, and sorting out some sweet lodging at my brother’s house, I needed to get a car. Work was right over the hill, but I wanted to see the countryside, so I started to scour what is the the Craigslist of New Zealand, Trademe.co.nz. I was on the hunt for something I couldn’t acquire stateside, and was fun to drive. I had a limited budget, but there was a good amount available for me to choose from. First find was a 1989 Lada Niva, Cossack special edition. A small, but capable Russian SUV, powered by a Fiat 1600. Not a great choice for long hauls and reliability, but damn, a Russian 4×4 was a pretty alluring option. Unfortunately/fortunately, this truck was sold to another buyer while I was headed over to purchase it. It broke my heart, but in hindsight, finding Russian parts in the Kiwi countryside would have really put a cramp in a weekend getaway. Shortly after, I took a ride in a friend’s Subaru Legacy, which drove like a rocket and handled fantastic. I asked how much he paid for it and in a chuckle he said “Three grand man”. Right then, I switched my tune.
Legacys in New Zealand are plentiful, reliable, comfortable, cheap, and since they are not detuned the way Australia’s are, they go like stink. I found mine in less than a day, right in Wellington. My winning Trademe auction bid amounted to $1500 US. Reliant K pricing afforded me a 1999 AWD, twin turbo, Subaru Legacy b4 RSK. It came with a novel of reciepts, 120,0000 miles on the odometer, a cracked rim and bare tires. A trip to the post office, and eight dollars had it registered, and a “buy three, get one free” tire deal locally had some new Bridgestone Potenzas strapped on. I changed the oil, charged my Nikon D90 and feverishly awaited my first weekend day away.
Now, buying a 5 speed, right hand drive automobile offers bit of getting used to for an American, but I had a full work week to get acclimated. Driving on the opposite side of the road offers real intrigue in roundabouts and major intersections, but fortunately Wellington is no metropolis, so the stress levels are far lower than taking a new car out on the 880 in Oakland, CA. Yes, I headed into oncoming traffic several times, and yes I missed a handful of shifts, but after a day or so, I had my bearings enough to feel comfortable on a solo weekend away. The twin turbo in that period of Legacy is sequential, the first, the small turbo, takes you up to the 2500 rpm point, where the second, large turbo kicks in and pulls hard all the way north of 7500. There was a road around the bend from me, Awa Road, which consisted of a couple of cork screws and a massive hill. That was my power test bed, and the Subaru expelled a laugh inducing amount of thrust up that gigantic hill . To say I was pleased about my purchase was truly an understatement.
Saturday morning and I’m up with the dawn to get a nice start on the day. This probably being the best garage I’ll ever occupy, was across the street from Karaka Bay, and a lovely greeting to welcome you to a Saturday drive. My first choice of destination was Castle Point, a small seaside town about two to three hours away, on the Wiararapa Coast, eastern side of the North Island. Once through Wellington downtown (15 minutes tops), Lower and Upper Hutts, you get to climb the Rimutaka Range. The Rimutakas, as they are called locally, is a 35 mile drive over a mountain range that consists of a super narrow, four lane ascent of switchbacks up to a peak around 3080 feet, and then down a steep grade into the town of Featherston.
Once through a few smaller towns, I came across Masterton, which served as a fine lunch destination. Large enough to have a bookstore, I scored a KiwiMaps North Island Complete Drivers Atlas. A stellar, binder style road map of the entire North Island, chocked full of every street, dirt road, and a host of hidden treasures with beautiful artwork. Happy to shed technology, my trips during my stay in New Zealand were all navigated by maps. The research was enjoyable and I was focused on the drive and not a phone or gps screen. After a meat pie in the Farrier’s Tavern, I was off and on the most glorious of roads, the Masterton-Castlepoint Road.
This is why people created cars and weekends and put them together. It’s a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup that lasts all day, really. Two things that car lovers crave: long winding roads and no traffic. That’s what this road was and it blew my mind. Single lane bridges, sloping hills and the greenest of green fields. I’m not kidding, we’re talking crayola green – with the sharpener in the back and everything. The winters’ in New Zealand rain like everyone owns an Ark, so when spring and summer arrive, the nature is bewildering lush. Coupled with a relatively low population, you get magical scenery and open roadways, once you leave any town with a building over two stories. More sheep than people inhabit rural areas here, so when driving the narrow roads, focus is of the utmost importance. Washouts, or herds of sheep, or both, can appear after a blind corner and you best have some quality brakes and a foot at the ready.
After an hour or so, drifting through hills and pastures, and maybe passing fifteen or so cars heading in the other direction, I reached the beach. There was a black dog that welcomed me. Nappy and full of sand, he and two other people on the shoreline were the only visitors present. Along with two fishing boats, that was the extent of the crowd at the beach during my stay. Castle Point, apparently named by Captain Cook in the late 1700’s, consists of a few houses, a small market, a reef, a lighthouse and absolutely crushing views.
And yes, you can drive your car on the beach – and no, nobody comes out screaming when you do. This whole day seemed to turn into a car commercial for a sixteen year old Subaru. I drove the length of the beach and back, parked and climbed up the path to the lighthouse to check out the view. Regal is a good descriptor.
Once past the lighthouse a skinny catwalk stretches out until you are almost surrounded by ocean. It’s truly gorgeous. I hung out for an hour, took photos and caught up on some much needed serenity. This was some serious inspiration for future trips to come. You can see by the lighthouse photo that parking was not an issue.
And yes, I found further evidence that everyone, worldwide, recognizes the the awesomeness of Black Sabbath.
Happy to get back onto the road for a few more hours, I hoped in my car, did a few AWD 360s in the sand and headed off through countryside. Having an open roadway was really helpful to get comfortable driving in New Zealand, learning right of way, signage and what to look out for, animal or otherwise.
A stellar first adventure out. Several wide open roads along the way back enabled me to stretch out the larger of the two turbos, and achieve my goal of exceeding the speed limit in both km/h and mph. This type of behavior gets expensive later on. Stay tuned for the next installment, where we journey to Cape Palliser.