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Taking Rides From Strangers

My first trip to New Zealand was a quick 10-day jaunt with my friends before we moved on to Australia and our five months of studying abroad in Brisbane. Because we had such a short period of time to squeeze in a lot of must-do activities, we had pre-booked all accommodation, major transportation and activities before we even set foot in the country. This meant that we knew exactly what was going to happen and when we were going to make it to where—or so we thought.

It actuality, when we got to Auckland airport, we found the Air New Zealand terminal absolutely packed with a mob of frustrated travelers. Hoping that this was standard for the airport and that we would make it through in time for our flight, we calmly got in line. It was only then that we found out (from other travelers and one very harried-looking staff member) that our flight to Wellington wasn’t going to happen. Apparently Wellington Airport gets fogged out once or twice a month because of geography and the fact that the runway is only just long enough for a plane to land (so if you overshoot the runway, you end up floating in the bay).

Unfortunately, at least a day’s worth of frustrated travellers were already at the Auckland airport, and we couldn’t get a flight into Welly before our ferry was supposed to leave at 2:30pm the next afternoon. In fact, we couldn’t rebook a flight at all until our flight was “officially cancelled,” and it was indicated that it might be a while before this happened. We looked up train and bus schedules, but they were all jam-packed as well. We nearly managed to rent a car for over $400 for one day, but then the rental agency found out that we were all under 21, and that was the end of that.

When we were just about to give up a good portion of our travel plans (including a dolphin swim in Kaikoura), we ran into a guy that we’d previously been chatting to in line. He’d had a stroke of luck when he found out that his girlfriend’s mother just happened to be in Auckland and had a rental car that she was willing to drive to Wellington. One of my friends instantly latched on and begged him for the back seat. He agreed–prior to knowing quite how small the car would be. Somehow, the five of us managed to squeeze into a Hyundai Getz, along with our backpacks, his 3 months of luggage from a summer trip, and his kiteboard.

With Our Getz

Posing with our tiny Getz at a fuel station somewhere between Auckland and Wellington.

Brian chatted to his mother-in-law for a while, but then there was a break in the conversation. Megan–the one who had convinced him that giving us a ride was a good idea–took this opportunity and piped up from the back seat, asking “so, should we introduce ourselves?”

“You DON’T KNOW these people?!” the mother-in-law (Karen) asked, in absolute shock.

“Well, they seemed nice in the terminal…” Brian responded. Her eyes grew wide as she looked back at us in the rear-view mirror. We did our best to look as nice and un-threatening as possible so we didn’t get turfed out before we even got to Hamilton.

Luckily, the shock quickly wore off as she came to terms with the fact that we really were three students that had just hit some bad luck at the airport. After she realised that it was our first time in the country and that this was our first real introduction to non-Auckland New Zealand, she truly opened up. She pointed out every landmark possible (even the paper mills) and gave us thorough histories of the areas we were passing through. We stopped at a petrol station and she made sure we had a bottle of L&P (world famous…in New Zealand) and a bag of pineapple lumps each. She said that we couldn’t go through Lake Taupo without visiting Huka Falls, so we did. It was a great pit-stop–not only could we stretch our legs (which were feeling a bit smushed from the kiteboard lying across them), but we could do so while watching dusk fall over one of the most intense waterfalls I’ve ever seen. Water was pushing through the small gap in the rocks like it had been shot from a cannon and making such a din that I was certain you wouldn’t be able to hear your own thoughts for miles in any direction. At that moment, I was happy for all the stress I’d gone through earlier in the day, because if my plane had been on time, I would have missed this moment, this point in time where we were all hit by the natural beauty of this country for the first time. Sure, Auckland had a lovely harbour, but it’s still a city. This, on the other hand, was why we’d come to New Zealand.

Huka Falls

Huka Falls at Dusk

Taupo featured a few other stops as well–in fact, the last stops before we arrived in Wellington. We stopped on a hilltop that is supposed to have a great lookout across the lake towards the three mountains (Ruapehu, Tongariro, and Ngauruhoe), but instead we just saw fog–perhaps the same fog that was still enveloping the capital city 400km to the south. In town, we stopped at a chips shop and picked up some fish and chips (and my first taste of a pineapple fritter, which quickly became my favourite), which we then ate off of our very handy dinner table/kiteboard.

Fog Over Tongariro

Look at all those beautiful mountains in the distance...

Eventually, we made it to Wellington in one piece. Even though we were all flagging by the time the lights of Wellington lit up the horizon, I was a bit sad when we were dropped at our hostel and the Getz pulled away. Sure, it was a bit cramped, and sure, it was a bit of a risk getting into a car with two almost complete strangers. But it had ended up being a fantastic experience. We got our own personal Kiwi guide that had a great knowledge of the country, the culture, and its history, and we learned so much more than we would have on a short plane flight and then a bit of wandering around Wellington. Plus, it meant that I had that much more to talk about with my mother when she asked me the next day how I got to Wellington if my plane was cancelled.

“YOU DIDN’T KNOW THESE PEOPLE AND YOU GOT IN THE CAR WITH THEM?” she bellowed at me through the phone on the Interislander ferry.

Yes Mom. You were as surprised as the woman that we “hitchhiked” with!

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