In-A-State Highway

Auckland to Wellington by road

To anyone used to the motorways of Britain, the Interstate Highways of the U.S. or the autobahn of Germany, New Zealand’s State Highway 1 might come as a bit of a surprise. In around 660 kilometres, it takes you from one thrusting urban streetscape to another, via bland suburbia, through rolling farmlands, river-worn valleys and even a stretch of tundra desert. However, whilst one is more than prepared for the landscape to change frequently on such a road trip, what is less common is for the road itself to change to a significant degree. Yet, in the space of eight hours, I and my fellow southbound motorists drove along everything from multi-lane expressways of smooth asphalt to dust and gravel.

Leaving Auckland on the Southern Motorway is pretty much like leaving any other city by road with traffic lights, filter lanes and fumes soon giving way to the synchronised lane surfing and whine of tyre noise of high speed trunk roads. This very recognisable system bore me as far as Mercer before the Southern Motorway metamorphosed into the State Highway 1 as I would know it until I reached Mana, 25 kilometres north of Wellington. For the vast majority of the journey SH1, as it is known, consists of one lane and a wide driveable shoulder in each direction, supplemented by slow vehicle and overtaking lane combinations every now and then. In my vast experience of exactly one southbound trip, this set up proved to be more than adequate, allowing me to make reasonable time without getting stuck behind too many road trains and slower cars. This is probably just as well given that, as of last weekend, the NZ Police can now endorse drivers’ licences with ‘demerit’ points for 32 offences, ranging from the usual speeding and traffic signal offences to the seemingly rather pedantic ‘driving too far out from the left hand kerb’ crime. I was periodically reminded to curb any such enthusiasms by passing those getting ‘nicked’ at the roadside, including a coach driver whose charges watched his admonishment from the comfort of their air-conditioned seat while he squirmed. Secondly, a good few Kiwi friends had warned of, how shall we put this, a certain relaxed attitude to car safety and sloppy driving and this was borne out in the Government’s blunt and often graphic road safety posters along the route.

Long stretches through gorgeous rolling farmland and pine plantations made for easy driving with lovely views across the fertile meadows to the hills and ranges beyond and reminded me of my travels through rural Virginia and Maryland in the U.S. In a landscape so pastoral, one is lulled into by the bucolic charm, so much so that the odd rare industrial structure like the Huntly Power Station and the geothermal works north of Taupo hit you like a slap in the face. Conversely, it is perhaps ironic that the grain silos and barn-like farm machinery dealerships dotted along the route only seem to reinforce the American analogy. If any further confirmation were needed, it is readily available in the form of the signs welcoming you to each town along the route. When town elders have gone to the trouble of ensuring that you know that you entering the ‘Peanut Capital of New Zealand’ or that their dot on the map is ‘Hometown, N.Z.’, it seems churlish to do anything but take them at their word. This I had to do as my tight time schedule left me no time to stop and take in the sights or explore the wonders promised by signs pointing away from the highway. Whilst I cursed my lack of time, I also knew that if I kept focused on the matters at hand and the prime reason for this trip, there’d be time enough for such things in the future.

After dropping down into Taupo and skirting it’s eastern shore whilst taking in the view, I passed through Turangi and the road started to climb again, taking me into the Tongariro National Park. Those who have seen Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy would be more than familiar with the view west as you take the Desert Road south from Rangipo. Mount Ngauruho, with it’s snow filled gulleys and cloud-obscured peak is instantly recognisable as Mount Doom and the land on it’s northern slopes as the Plains Of Gogoroth. As I followed a lumbering logging truck up the the switchbacks and onto the plateau, I passed men working on rebuilding the washed-out road over the aptly named, pampas-covered Black Swamp. As I crested the rise, it became clear why the Desert Road is so named. Having passed large gates and a road open/closed/diversion information board back near Rangipo, I was puzzled until I saw the Rangipo Desert. This desert is not of the sand dune Arabian type so beloved by Lawrence but more akin to the vast steppes of Russia or windblown tundra of Iceland. Although this fifty kilometre stretch was without habitation, it was far from deserted as I found out when, driving cautious through a dust cloud, I almost ran over a young lad sitting in a patio chair in the road. The dust made the ‘stop/go’ lollipop in his hand pretty redundant and he waved me on without so much as a glance in the direction I assumed his opposite number was located. Proceeding with some care, I drove on past more guys fixing the road and continued on my way south through the bleak but beguiling landscape. Further on, I spotted the more usual fast moving and camouflaged inhabitants of the desert, namely the armoured divisions of the New Zealand Army, who were about their business far beyond the ‘Do not stray more than 20m form the highway’ signs that keeps Joe Public on the straight and narrow. The army also makes up the majority of the population of Waiouru, the first town settlement south of the desert. Pulling into the gas station to fill up the car, pick the flies from my teeth and answer nature’s call, I felt like a character in a road movie and all that was missing was the tumbleweed. Waiting in line for the fuel pump, I cleaned the windscreen with the squeegee provided and looked down the road towards the Army Museum. Turning back, I was approached by a woman whose reddened face testified that she’d known many hot, windy days and cold desert nights. After filling the tank, she preceded to clean the windscreen and I joked that maybe she thought this Pom hadn’t done a good job first time. She smiled, flushed an even deeper red and we shared a good laugh and a few words before I paid and moved on.

From here on, SH1 is slowly but surely drawn south west towards the coast across flat wide lands which were under grain, crops or pasture. After a dogleg through the wonderfully named Bulls and turning south again at Sanson, a Brit could be mistaken for thinking that the Romans had been here, as the road runs in an almost straight line down to Levin. Foxton, some two-thirds of the way down this stretch, is the home town of Kiwi friends back in the UK and, whilst I was unable to swing east to see their family in Palmerston North, I did stop at the most fine and supremely clean public toilets there by way of homage. Another Kiwi colleague had issued a very clear warning about the heat haze and mirage that occurs on these undulating straight roads. Driving towards the sun, it was easy to see how folks could pull out into the opposite lane to overtake only to have a vehicle suddenly spring from a shimmering patch of silver straight into a head-on collision. Content to take my place in a small convoy of cars, I continued towards the capital, trying to ignore the tempting signs indicating that warm beaches and inviting water lay just a few kilometres to my west. That said, nothing prepared me for the sudden arrival of the Tasman Sea’s vast expanse on my right hand side as I passed the last buildings of Paekakariki at the top end of Pukerua Bay. From here, it was just 20 kilometres until the Johnsonville Porirua Motorway that would draw me, past the superbly-named Colonial Knob, through the suburbs that nestle in the valleys north of Wellington. This changed into the Wellington Urban Motorway without my noticing and, within minutes, my exit ramp spat me down into the narrow streets of the district of Thorndon. Here, I pulled slowly to a halt at the kerb to rub my tired eyes and reach for the city map whilst, outside the car, the famous Wellington wind lifted the skirt of a passing pedestrian in a saucy salute of welcome.

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