New Zealand

This trip began with a letter in July, 2005 from United Airlines informing me that I had 29,000 air miles that would expire in September if I did not use them. Marilynn, keeper of air miles, grabbed it and said that with these added to her accumulated miles we could go anywhere. They had been my mother's, and when she passed away five years ago I inherited them.

We talked about Japan, but I had been there many years ago. Neither of us had been to New Zealand, and we have friends in Auckland - Michael and Janne Pender, who had invited us many times. We bought tickets for March, late summer there.

The purgatory of flying was reduced because there is a direct connection from San Francisco to Auckland. Furthermore, the plane was a three week old Boeing 777, a pretty good craft, I thought.

Janne and Michael heroically picked us up at the airport at 6 am. New Zealand is a long distance from here, but in March the time change is only 3 hours. Jet lag was minimal, but the flight was 12 1/2 hours. The inflight map was amusing. There was a vertical line for the dateline and a horizontal one for the equator. Other than that nothing but blue, though I think Hawaii and Fiji showed up briefly.

Auckland is New Zealand's largest city. A friend said it had all the character of Indianapolis, but I don't know Indianapolis, and I scarcely know Auckland. It has a lot of attractive areas, including Remuera where the Penders live. Between there and downtown is the university, where Michael teaches seismic engineering, a very relevant speciality in NZ. Auckland is set on a narrow portion of the North Island. It has a harbor on the Pacific side and water access to the Tasman Sea on the other side.

We had a tour of some of the notable places, a lovely park, view, view. Marilynn had seen in the airline magazine that a ballet called The Wedding was opening that evening. The story was by a New Zealand writer, Witi Ihimaera. He is the author of the story "Whale Rider" which was made into a movie a few years ago. She and Janne decided to go. I chose to take a walk through downtown. The first thing I found was a Border's bookstore and a Starbuck's. Downtown was very pleasant, active but not frantic. view. view. In the harbor were two America's Cup contenders. They have a broadcasting tower too. view.

You know exactly what they mean, and yet....

I returned to the theater as the performance ended. Marilynn had met the author, and he signed a copy of his novel "Bulibasha, King of the Gypsies", which I had bought and which I hear is being made into a movie.

Next day we went to the top of One Tree Hill. Many of the hills in Auckland are extinct (dormant?) volcanos, as is this one, I think. There is a war monument there, and they exist in even small towns all over the country. New Zealand's modern history turns on the First World War. With Australia they formed ANZAC, the Australia New Zealand Army Corp, which was sent to Europe. They suffered more casualties per capita than any other regiments. Perhaps the one positive outcome of that grim, dim disaster was the national pride it created in both countries. view. The park is lovely and is graced with members of New Zealand's characteristic species. NZ has 4 million people and 40 million sheep. We also went to the excellent museum.

The next day we rented a car and drove with Michael and Janne to the Coromandel Peninsula, southeast of Auckland. They drive to the left in NZ, and the cars have right-hand drive. It's easy to learn and easy to forget. I had only one bad moment. After getting petrol I pulled into the street, all the way across and turned to the left to wait for Michael and his car. Fortunately it was Sunday morning, and there was no traffic. I screamed silently at myself and pulled across to the proper lane. After that I kept a mantra going as I drove everywhere, "these are the rules of the road, these are the rules of the road". It was most helpful on country roads when watching a logging truck approach from ahead and pass on the right. Right turns are the most troublesome maneuver.

We stayed in a rented house overlooking a bay. view. Nearby was Hot Water Beach. Geothermally heated water comes up through the sand. People gather to dig pits and wallow in them.

The flora in NZ is fascinating, even to a non-gardener like me. It is green, of course, but nothing is familiar -- Moreton Bay fig, Norfolk Island pine, Rata, red tussock grass. If you are a horticulturalist of any sort, NZ has novelties everywhere.

We left the next day and drove to Rotorua. It's a very touristy town, though it has nice features like exceptionally wide sidewalks and a pretty good Indian restaurant. We stayed at the "Quality Hotel Geyserland". It overlooks the Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve and is worth staying in for that, but I can't recommend much else. It's standard cinder block construction, the lobby is a cold little box, the hot baths are in windowless rooms in the basement, and the pool is small, unheated and fenced in a small courtyard. The architect got the view but missed every other opportunity.

Guess what this building is -- hotel? country club? A century ago it was a center of "balneology" the medical science of hot baths. I think the modern term is "quackery". It had dozens of small rooms with large tubs. There was no large pool, well bred people didn't take their clothes off in public in New Zealand then. Unfortunately, the water they piped in may have been salubrious, but it was full of aggressive chemicals. The building was poached in sulfuric acid fumes and immediately began to disintegrate. Now it is a museum. There was a fascinating gadget - a musical metronome with a bracket fitted to the pendulum. It had wires and contacts that dipped into little wells that were probably filled with mercury. One would get wired, so to speak, sit in the baths and get regular jolts of electricity.

The next day we drove to Waimangu, a truly unique place. It is a valley and used to have famous "Pink and White Terraces". On June 10, 1886 there was a volcanic eruption along a 17 km. rift that destroyed the terraces and reformed everything. Today it is a national park with small lakes ranging from hot to very hot. There is a trail and a bus to return on, if you wish. Along the way there are spots where the trail itself is almost too hot to touch. It makes vulcanism very real. view. view. view.

We continued east to Napier. The intercity roads in NZ are all two lane and well maintained. It's not a populous country, though, and gas stations are sparse. This was the only one we found between Waimangu and Napier, a distance of more than 100 miles.

Napier is a harbor town and holiday center. On Feb. 3, 1931 a 7.9 earthquake devastated the city and killed hundreds of people. (Do you begin to see one theme of life in New Zealand?) It was rebuilt largely in art deco style. The Paramount Theater in Oakland, California is an art deco gem and makes most of Napier seem a bit pallid to me. However, we were lucky to have a spectacular sunset that evening. view. A panhandler at the beach.

Next day was a long drive to Wellington. Again, the roads were good and the countryside lovely. I don't remember the name of this small town where we stopped for lunch. Notice the solid awnings over the sidewalk. That seems to be common all over the country. view. (Yes, it's a statue.) Many of the "forests" in New Zealand have an odd look. The trees are all the same size and stand in regular rows. Lumber is a crop, as it is in many places.

We reached Wellington after a tiring drive over a very serpentine mountain road. We were glad to turn in the car. Wellington is a great town. Because of its hills, wind and harbor it is often compared to San Francisco. It is much smaller and easy to get around on foot. Some scenes around town -- view, view, view. view. They like Harleys there, too. And they pride themselves on their energy.

Boat racing is a common sport. view, view, view.

There is a steep tram that runs from the center of town, past the university and to the top of the hill. The national museum, Te Papa, is a huge building right on the water with a fine collection of Maori and other Polynesian things. link. In earlier days the Maori language and culture were denigrated. They are now emphasized. All the museum exhibits were titled in Maori and English.

Wellington is the capitol. The parliament building is called the Beehive.

We reached the South Island by ferry from Wellington, a serious, car-carrying, train-carrying ferry. The journey is about 3 hours, across the Cook Straight and down Marlborough Sound. The destination is Picton, a very small town which seems to exist to serve the ferry. We picked up another car and drove through the district to Nelson. This is New Zealand's foremost wine region. Nelson is everyone's favorite town. We stayed with Phil, an American friend who rents a house there every year. There is a weekly market with handcrafts, superb cheese and much else.

As dog lovers, we were surprised to find that they are prohibited in many places they would be allowed in the US, for example anywhere in downtown Wellington. The answer is perhaps that the early settlers were farmers, not middle class or aristocrats. Dogs are still seen as working animals more than companions.

Street in Nelson. Note the ubiquitous overhangs. A good seaside restaurant.

We drove west and north over another winding road to Golden Bay and the town of Collingwood. It is a gorgeous area, settled but not overburdened by tourism. The beaches are wide and vacant. view. view. view.

We took a bus tour to Cape Farewell, so named because it was the last point Capt. Cook saw as he left New Zealand. Cook, incidentally, was not the first European to see New Zealand. That was Abel Tasman, more than a century earlier in 1642. The bus trip goes almost the length of Farewell Spit, which sweeps more than 20 miles east from the cape. Could it be interesting? Two thumbs up. We saw fur seals, birds of many kinds, including a gannet colony, the lighthouse at the end, miles of absolutely untouched beach, and we got to play on dunes of very fine, dry sand. view. view. view. view. I remember thinking, I have never breathed air that seemed as fresh as this.

The next day we drove back over the mountains and stopped for a few hours to kayak near Abel Tasman National Park. view. view. view. It was fun, but kayaking seems too much like work. I rowed in college, I like to walk and bicycle. To sit with my legs immobile seems entirely contrary. We stayed at an old fashioned small town hotel that night.

The next few days we drove down the west coast of the South Island. It's a marvelous coastline, although California and Oregon yield nothing to it. view. view. view

Before humans arrived in New Zealand there were virtually no mammals. Birds evolved to fill the ecological niches. With no predators, many became flightless. Today there are predators and many birds, including the kiwi, are seriously threatened. Among the flightless birds is the weka, which seems to be as curious about us as we are about him. Here is a fantail.

The predators are dogs, foxes and possums, among others. Possums were introduced from Australia as a source of fur. So they are, and you can buy lovely wool/possum blend sweaters, socks, gloves and scarves. But they devastated the foliage and the bird population, and even the most civilized Kiwi gets a murderous glint in the eye when speaking of possums.

Going south the climate becomes colder and the country more rugged. You approach the NZ alps and Mt. Cook (3753m./12313ft.). One of NZ's remarkable birds is the kea, an alpine parrot bigger than a chicken. view. They are incredibly bold.

The Maori name for the country is Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud. It's accurate, as one sees almost every day. Australia acquired the slang name "Oz". NZ didn't want to be left behind so it's sometimes referred to as "Godzone".

Mt. Cook engenders glaciers, two of which come almost to sea level. Walking on a glacier is a big tourist draw, and we decided to do it. The ticket includes boots, guide and a bus to the glacier, but it is much more than a stroll. view. view. view. view. view. view. view. view.

Milford Sound is New Zealand's most famous natural site. It is a true fjord, a drowned glacial valley with access to the sea. The weather in Fjordland is changeable and wet. Some areas get 8 meters of rain per year. We decide to risk bad weather and go there. The drive took us through sheep country, past Lake Hawea, to Wanaka where we spent a night. Then more farm country with barnyard humor, over a sere and beautiful pass to Queenstown. New Zealanders love outdoor activity, and Queenstown is the capital of that. If you have a limb to twitch and the least desire to do so, they have something for you. It also happened to be St. Patrick's Day. We had lunch, watched the hanggliders and continued on to Te Anau.

There are few accomodations at Milford. If you don't stay there you must fly in at considerable expense or stay in Te Anau and drive in and out in a day, which we did. The road proceeds along the lake then through a valley covered in red tussock grass, a NZ native, then up to a pass, but the pass is too steep so there is a dark, steep, wet tunnel.

Milford in clear weather is stunning, judging from photos, but the rain made it sublime in a different way. There were waterfalls everywhere.

view. view. an ocean-going cruise ship and kayakers. view. view. view. view. view.

Swells at the entrance to the Tasman Sea. view.

Looking back. view. More sport with waterfalls.

"Lord of the Rings" was filmed in New Zealand, and one can buy maps of the various locations. We didn't, but we did find a certain Middle Earth quality in the landscape. view.

The next day was a long drive across the South Island to Dunedin. We paused to have lunch, see a fine exhibit at the art museum of portraits from 17th century England to contemporary New Zealand and see the railroad station. view.

Our goal was Oamaru. There are several penguin nesting sites there. The birds come out of the ocean at dusk. We arrived in time to get a motel and join a tour. As it was dark, I got no useful photos, but there are web sites with good pictures. link. link.

The tour ended about 9pm. Downtown Oamaru on a Sunday night is quiet, to say the least. We did find a pub serving food, and on the menu was an item called a "chicken enchellada" (sic). I couldn't resist ordering it. It was strips of chicken with a white sauce, wrapped in a flour tortilla, served over french fried potatoes with a salad on the side -- not more than a million miles from a real enchilada. However, it was tasty and made a good meal. Would anyone like to join me in forming the SPCT - the Society for the Preservation of the Corn Tortilla? I think wheat flour tortillas are an abomination.

Oamaru has dozens of buildings made of limestone. It gives the central area a bit of graveyard quality at night, but in the morning sun it looks grand. view. view.

Approaching Christchurch in late afternoon we were hungry and stopped at a place called Dunsandel. The store there is actually a restaurant. We ordered mutton stew, and it was the best meal we had on the trip.

Next day, Christchurch. It has a very British atmosphere with an Anglican cathedral, trolleys, etc. view. view. view. view. The art gallery was wonderful. link. A great shop full of food specialties. New Zealand (and maybe Australia) has the "anzac biscuit". It is a cookie made with oats, coconut and cane syrup. I love them. We had dinner with Janne Pender's sister Jill and left NZ the next morning.

Almost everyone we met in NZ was pleasant and easy to deal with. The sole exception occured while we were walking around Christchurch. Someone right behind us shouted "Get out of the way!" We stepped to the side and turned around. It was a young couple in full Goth who sneered at us as they walked by. I could only laugh.

New Zealand is a small country, 4 million people and about the area of Oregon, but there is so much to see. I have never traveled to a place that catered more to tourists (other than Las Vegas). Even small towns have tourist offices with maps, guides, brochures and good staff people. The smallest odd shaped rock gets a mention somewhere. We used the Rough Guide, which seemed the best. It's about 1000 pages and serves now to remind me of all the things we didn't see. (I wondered - if NZ gets a thousand pages, how big is the Rough Guide to India? The answer is, more than 1400 pages.)