“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Monday, September 5, 2011

New Zealand on our Own

“Shaving their bums” is not a memory I expected to bring back from New Zealand but these words from a local sheep rancher stick in my mind. We were cruising down a lonely country lane on the North Island when we spied a dog working a flock of puffy white sheep in an adjacent field. The dog was gradually herding the sheep toward a long low shed near the end of the field where three men were stooped over, working the animals. We stopped, hoping to see a sheep shearing in progress. “Hey mates,” a tall wiry man caked in mud called to us, “come on over.” Except once we slogged through the deep mud to get to the shed we saw they weren’t shearing sheep—at least not the entire sheep. The sheep’s caked and clogged rear ends were getting all the attention and we got the questionable privilege of viewing this delicate process up close.

Not something you see on the agenda of a packaged tour. Which is why we prefer the spontaneity and surprises of simply getting in a car and striking out cross country on our own. And New Zealand is the perfect place to do that. Apart from the unfamiliarity of driving on the left side—which quickly becomes more familiar--road signs are in English, roads are generally well maintained, and traffic is practically nonexistent once you leave the cities.

We mapped out a two-week route beginning in Auckland on the North Island and ending up in Christchurch on the South Island. In between we planned to hit some of the major attractions and still leave time to just ramble at our whim.

Auckland discombobulated us. Everything we had read about New Zealand led us to believe that the country was rural and bucolic but we dropped into a modern, bustling center of commerce. Perched on the edge of the Pacific, Auckland’s 350,000 residents seemed to be all business, hurried and harried, much like those uptight corporate types that are fixtures of large American cities. But as we explored the downtown area, another facet of the city emerged—an air of adventure and fun that we would surface as a recurring personality of the country everywhere we went. We shopped along unremarkable Victoria Street, with the usual line up of boutique shops and restaurants, but then stumbled across Quay Street, a short, almost hidden lane with quaint pubs packed with a vibrant mix of young free spirits and middle-aged artist types. We took in the Tower of the Pacific, a 600-foot tall glass and metal skyscraper that dominates the skyline and presents a very ordered and disciplined face to the city, but we also watched people queue up to bungee off the tower’s upper floors. We ferried over to Devonport and walked through the town’s back streets, viewing its pretty Victorian houses and hiking up to Mt. Victoria, which provided a grand vista of the bay bracketed by the Auckland skyline.

Once we left Auckland we discovered that the rest of the country bears little resemblance to its capital city. We consciously avoided the main thoroughfares, opting instead for secondary roads, and headed south for the Waitomo Caves, famous for their endemic population of eerie glow worms. Admittedly a tourist attraction, the caves are still well worth the visit. The entrance is a drive-up located right on the road and you can stop and buy tickets on site. The cave tour is actually a boat ride through the high ceilinged labyrinth with the attraction being the tiny glow-in-the-dark creatures that cling to the cave ceilings and suspend short silky strands down to entrap passing insects and other food sources. Thousands of pinpoint pricks of light gleam in the inky blackness of the cave’s twists and turns, and the specks of light above reflected in the water underneath provide an eerie and memorable spectacle.

We headed down highway 3 to Rotorua, through a sweet green valley that curled gently among farms and forests. Houses were few and far between and we passed through a half dozen wide-spot-in-the-road towns, most of which consisted of a few houses and maybe a farm implement business or garage. In the tiny town of Benneydale, we stumbled into the deserted Benneydale Hotel where the proprietor seemed flabbergasted to actually have customers walk in the door. Clearly not too many tourists make this stop. We had an excellent meal of fish and sausages amidst a motif of beer signs, a wall plastered with pictures of the locals in various stages of inebriation and posters of the beloved All Blacks, the national rugby team.

Rotorua smelled of sulphur—an unpleasant byproduct of the town’s plethora of geysers and steam vents. The odor is quickly forgotten as the town’s scenic location on the shores of Lake Rotorua and its green Government Gardens located near the city center grab your interest. The Princes Gate Hotel, a rambling 1880’s-era Victorian-style inn conveniently located at the front gate of Government Gardens, offers quaint accommodations, with a warm, wood-paneled off-lobby sitting area and outdoor garden dining complete with steam heated pools. South of the town are the geysers, with hiking trails winding around numerous active vents and geysers. Also here are Maori-run venues that provide a glimpse of native culture and customs such as native dance, wood carving, and traditional hangi, feasts featuring meat prepared in the time-honored Maori method of cooking over hot stones. We chartered a boat and fished the deep clear waters of Lake Rotorua, hooking a number of 4-5 pound lake trout which we took directly from the boat to one of the local restaurants for preparation. Fresh New Zealand fish from boat to table in less than an hour, with all the fixings. Rotorua has a fairly active nightlife, with the Pig & Whistle Pub and a couple of nightclubs on Tutanekai Street being the local hangouts.

We headed on to Nelson, which, with its meticulously maintained art-deco buildings, can best be described as passing into a time warp and coming out in the 1920’s. The city sits on the eastern shore of Tasman Bay with a narrow pebbled beach between the calm bay waters and the city storefronts. Apart from the picturesque buildings, the main attraction in Nelson is the Possum Store, offering everything possum-related.

Possums are to New Zealanders as Osama bin Laden is to Americans. A New Zealander would as soon compliment an Aussie as hug a possum. These introduced critters have overpopulated to the point of ecological disaster, stripping the countryside of vegetation, plundering native bird eggs, and otherwise exhausting their welcome. The national sport seems to be squashing the slow moving animals as they trundle across the roads and drivers can be seen careening down the highway, swerving toward them in murderous attempts to contribute to possum family planning. Possum carcasses litter the roads and are invariably squashed flatter than a fritter as succeeding drivers ensure that yes, that possum is indeed dead. In keeping with this cheery philosophy, the Possum Store has stuffed possums, possum recipes, possum fur coats, and a shoot-a-fake-possum arcade. Don’t miss it.

After a night hitting the clubs and bars of cosmopolitan Wellington, we caught a ferry across to the South Island. The Western shore of the South Island is a rocky and rugged landscape of rocky cliffs, lush rainforest, and windswept mountains. On the shoulder of this coastline is Punakaiki Rocks, one of New Zealand’s most breathtaking natural areas. Hiking out to the rocks to view the surf crashing into the rocky formations and spewing upwards in spectacular natural geysers is not to be missed.

Further south we arrived at Franz Josef, the staging area for treks onto Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. These massive ice flows dominate the area landscape and are a major tourist draw. The area abounds with hiking, camping, helicopter, and biking concessions so picking your method of approach to the glaciers is an easy propositions. We opted to hike to the glaciers’ bases first to get a feel for their massive proportions. Both are huge but Franz Josef seemed more dramatic to me. The fractured and tortured face is a near vertical 500-foot jumble of ice with a torrent of milky white water and tumbling ice boulders flowing out of an ice tunnel carved in the center foot of the icy face. You can hike up onto the glacier with a guide, but the hike is strenuous and if you suffer from vertigo, forget it. If you forego the glacier hike, hiking across the tumbled scree alongside the river of glacial water makes for a dramatic trek. We hitched a helicopter ride onto the top of the glacier, rising up from the cloudy sky on the valley floor at Franz Josef into the brilliant clear skies above the glacier. The bright afternoon sun hitting the white and glacier ice was near blinding and the deep crevasses that striated the glacier’s back glistened a brilliant cerulean.

Queenstown is the adventure center of New Zealand and it was bustling with young and athletic types. Take your pick here; jetboating, bungee jumping, horseback riding, biking, parasailing, hiking—you can try a new pursuit every day for weeks and not get bored. We spent a day jetboating and horseback riding and closed out our Queenstown visit with a shared a bottle of wine on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, the Impossibles Mountain range reflecting off the cool blue waters.
Last stop: Christchurch, a very proper and British feeling city. We arrived during the Annual Buskers Festival and dozens of street performers were singing, dancing, juggling or performing other, more arcane shows in the shadows of imposing cathedrals and buildings. After taking a punt ride on the gentle Avon River flowing through the city center and viewing exhibits at the Art Museum, we took in the architecture before hitting the pubs and restaurants. The Bog, a lively Irish Pub on Cashel Street, was hitting stride with a Celtic group playing traditional Irish folk music and the crowd bustled with lots of hot young bodies hitting on each other.

The next morning we opted for a day trip to the seaside village of Akaroa and a boat trip out to the ocean to spot Little Blue penguins, endangered Hector’s dolphins (which repeatedly shot through the water alongside the boat) and New Zealand Fur seals lounging, pups and mothers, on the rocky shoreline.

Two weeks of leisurely driving, picking and choosing our next destination and seeing the finest of this lovely country at our own pace, provided the perfect alternative to a structured package tour. If you want to avoid the tourist rut and experience your own customized adventures, New Zealand is a hassle-free place to make your own way.

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