Wednesday December 31st, 2003 to Sunday March 14th, 2004
So then it was on to New Zealand. We left on Dec. 30th on a five hour flight but, because we crossed the International Date Line, we arrived on Dec. 31st. We spent almost a week with Peter's mate, Bruce, in Auckland. He and his wife, Vicki, have a fabulous house in Devonport overlooking Auckland harbour with great views of the Auckland skyline. The night we arrived was New Year's eve and, at the stroke of midnight, they lit up the Skytower with a dazzling display of fireworks.
The first order of business was buying a car. Driving is definitely the easiest way to get around New Zealand and, assuming no major problems with the car (fingers crossed) the cheapest. Fortunately, Japan has a crazy law that makes 5 year old cars almost worthless in Japan so New Zealand is flooded with inexpensive, good quality cars. We bought a very nice Honda with electric everything for NZ$2600 (1000 pounds) hoping it would be reliable.
That taken care of, we were off to visit Auckland. The Devonport ferry is just a short distance from Bruce's place and takes you into the centre of downtown. As we arrived, the world's biggest cruise liner, the Star Princess, was at the dock (although she was not the biggest for much longer, the Queen Mary II is now the biggest). Right on the waterfront is the fascinating Maritime Museum and we spent many hours there. After several hours of wandering around downtown, we went up the Skytower, the tallest structure in the southern hemisphere at 328m (for comparison; Eiffel Tower in Paris is 321m, CN Tower in Toronto is 553m). From here you can get fabulous 360 degree views of Auckland and the surrounding area.
The next day we went sailing (well, motoring, there was no wind) on Bruce's boat to Rangitoto Island. This island is the youngest around as a volcanic eruption created it only 600 years ago. So eventually we were off on our own. It had been great staying with friends and family but it had felt a little strange always being around others after having spent so many months just the two of us together in S. A. and The Bahamas. We were looking forward to doing some serious travelling again.
Welcome to Middle Earth! Just in case someone in the world was not aware that the Lord of the Rings was filmed here, the New Zealanders have made every effort to inform visitors. They have postage stamps with LOTR characters, the national airline has painted up some of their airplanes, the major telecom company is advertising and everything from potato chips to panty liners are being called 'My preciousí. The town near the location for shooting of scenes in The Shire has a sign reading 'Welcome to Hobbitoní and there are LOTR posters in just about every shop. Of course, we loved The Lord of the Rings (saw it twice in Wellington at the Embassy Theatre) so we bought the location guide book and went around taking pictures of empty fields and stuff.
Unlike South America where we travelled by bus and lugged our backpacks around, for New Zealand we bought a car. It was pure luxury to not have to cram everything away each time we moved; just toss it into the trunk of our car. Also, by driving rather than paying for the bus and by camping rather than staying in motels the car more than paid for itself.
Driving in New Zealand can be quite tiring though. As it is a very mountainous country, there are few straight roads so the driver really has to pay attention. The speed limit on the main highways is 100kph (60mph) which would seem quite reasonable until you see the roads. The roads themselves are in excellent condition but there are bends with 25kph speeds, one lane bridges, tractors, bicycles, traffic lights, level railway crossings and thousands of slow campervans. It wasnít often that we were actually able to drive at the speed limit.
What causes the roads to be so twisty windy is the spectacular scenery (which Jackie got to see as Peter had to watch the road). New Zealand has no lack of wonderful scenery and itís all packed into such a tiny country (about the size of Great Britain) with only about 4 million people. We drove the full length of New Zealand and back again. We saw magnificent mountains, fantastic fiords with cleft cliffs, fern filled forests, beautiful beaches, great green grasslands, gushing geysers, glistening glaciers, boiling bubbling mud pools and voluptuous volcanoes -- not to mention the tidy towns and polite people.
Another thing that New Zealand has in abundance is wildlife. Most of it is birdlife and sea animals because before people arrived, there were no land based mammals. The Maori introduced pigs and dogs and the Europeans brought sheep, cows, deer, ostrich, etc. They also brought rats and cats which are having a devastating effect on the many flightless birds; most importantly, the kiwi, New Zealandís national bird. One other human effect was loss of the Moa, a 3m (10ft) tall flightless bird. The Maori had hunted them into extinction before the Europeans arrived. Perhaps one of the biggest environmental mistakes was the introduction of the possum. A cute little creature, it was brought over from Australia and bred for its fur. Unfortunately it has a voracious appetite and can denude a tree in a night. With no natural predators there are now millions of them and they are killing forests. In our tour we saw humpback whales, dolphins, little or fairy penguins, yellow-eyed penguins, albatross, gannets, fur seals and much more.
The Kiwis are big on tramping. Thatís trekking to the rest of us (well, unless youíre from Australia in which case its bush walking). There are hundreds of trails whose walking times range anything from 10 minutes to 10 days. The best and most popular ones are called The Great Walks and we did four of them. The first was the Tongariro Northern Circuit, a four-day trek that circles around Mt. Ngauruhoe (aka Mt. Doom) on North Island. It included the spectacular Tongariro Crossing with emerald lakes, a red crater and a smouldering mountainside across the saddle between Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Tongariro. On the other side of Mt. Ngauruhoe, we had great views of snow-capped Mt. Ruapehu.
Next we spent five days canoeing down Whanganui river. This is also classified as a Great Walk (do you think that someone should explain it to them?). We navigated 197 sets of rapids and didnít dunk once (barely). It was great fun until the rain started and the cold headwind picked up. We didnít know it at the time but this was the weather that was to come for most of the rest of the trip. (New Zealand had their rainiest summer in recorded history.) On the South Island we walked the Abel Tasman Coastal Walk. Fantastic coastal scenery and beautiful beaches were mostly hidden by the rain. However the sun did come out enough for us to appreciate the stunning vistas.
The last one was the three day Rakiura trek on Stewart Island. Most people think that New Zealand is just two islands but there are, in fact, hundreds. Stewart Island, just south of the South Island, is the third largest. We opted out of the muddy 10 day Northern Circuit. Good thing too because the Rakiura trek is mostly board- walked but we still got seriously muddied.
New Zealand is definitely the adrenaline capital of the world. Every wild and crazy way to get you free falling or upside-down is available. We started with a mini jet boat in a man-made set of canals. The driver could zoom along and make sharp turns on canal that didnít seem to be much wider than the boat. Next is was the Swoop where they put you in a hang glider bag attached to two huge poles, raise you on a bungee jumping crane then you drop and it becomes the biggest swing in the world. The craziness didnít end that day because then it was time for a Zorb. You squeeze through a hole in a giant inflatable ball, strap in then go rolling down the hill. We then tried black water rafting where you abseil into a cave and float down an underground river on an inner tube in the dark. This was great fun and we got to see glowworms up close. Peter also did a skydive (Jackie had already done one once) and a bungee jump at the original Kawaru Bridge Bungee (Jackie whimped out). We also had great fun on the Shotover Jet boat ride zooming through narrow canyons and doing 360 degree spins. You could spend thousands of dollars on all these crazy things all for a two second adrenaline rush.
With spectacular scenery, wild empty spaces, good food, beer and wine, nice people, and a pleasant climate (so they tell us), New Zealand has to be one of the nicest places on the planet. Weíd like to stay but now weíre off to Australia.
Click here for Australia travelog