Today’s entry is about the trip we took to the spectacular, fabulous, gorgeous country of New Zealand during the last two weeks of February.
We flew Korean Air for eleven hours to Auckland, and then onward to Queenstown in an Air New Zealand jet painted black in honor of the national rugby team: the All Blacks. Our pre-flight safety film featured passengers who were characters from “The Lord of the Rings.” One thing I like about New Zealanders is their sense of humor—even when it comes to road signs, such as: “DANGER, spICE girls” and “DRIVE SOBA.”
Queenstown was every bit as beautiful and pleasant a place as we remembered from our trip here in 2010. A town built on a lake, surrounded by mountains, with good food and plenty of indoor and outdoor activities—what’s not to love? And here’s the thing: one can say the same about so many other towns and cities. Cromwell bills itself as being the town furthest from the ocean in New Zealand, but that’s only 74 miles, plus it’s built on a blue lake.
We drove north to Wanaka on a road colored yellow on the map. It looked like a short-cut, but wasn’t. Yellow roads are scenic, and even more twisted and winding than other roads in New Zealand; this one took us from below the clouds, to in them, to above them, then back down again. From a bird’s viewpoint, we saw two hot air balloons being launched. Wanaka is home to Stuart Lansborough’s Puzzling World, a delightful collection of holograms, life-size puzzles, mazes and rooms designed to trick the eye and the mind. I loved the colorful, Escher-like paintings of Rob Gonsalves which can be viewed from two perspectives. View them online at http://www.sapergalleries.com/Gonsalves.html. Really, do that now! Sarah L. Thomson has incorporated these images into three children’s books: “Imagine a Place,” “Imagine a Day,” and “Imagine a Night.”
Since we’d spent time on the west coast of the South Island on our last trip, we drove over to the east coast this time. I’d originally planned to visit Christchurch, but decided against it upon finding out that various tourist attractions hadn’t reopened yet since its February 2011 earthquake. One reason New Zealand is so beautiful is because of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes that thrust up mountains, form lakes, and create fertile soil. As Will Durant said, “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.” Christchurch had undergone previous quakes which had weakened structures. The 2011 quake brought them down, killing 185 people. The shaking also caused “liquefaction” of the ground. The city was built on soil atop a layer of sandy silt and water, and the quake squeezed it upward; 200,000 tons of silt needed to be carted away.
We learned about this in museum exhibits. In a museum we also saw Charles Blomfield’s paintings of the Pink and White Terraces near Rotorua, dubbed the 8th Wonder of the World, which were destroyed in 1886 when Mount Tarawera erupted. We learned that when the North Island’s Taupo volcano erupted in 181 AD, it affected weather in Europe and China, and Taupo’s eruption 26,500 years ago was the world’s largest known eruption in the past 70,000 years.
The west-coast city of Dunedin (pronounced Duh-NEE-din) is proud of its Scottish heritage. There's a statue of poet Robbie Burns in its aptly named Octagon city center, and we just missed a bagpipe festival. It's a college town, and students from the University of Otago were about to start classes for the year. We saw one group sitting on couches in a front lawn drinking beer, and another wandering the streets in togas.
Dunedin has great museums, botanic gardens, and restaurants, a Speights Ale brewery, and a Cadbury Chocolate factory. We visited the latter. Fewer factories give real tours these days (we heartily recommend the tour of the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield, CA), but this one does, though you have to pay for it. Cadbury had us take off jewelry and don hair nets, and then walked us along production lines. Unfortunately, we went on the first tour of the day before some of the lines had started up. To compensate, they gave us extra edible souvenirs. Their big season is Easter, and they showed us how they make hollow and filled eggs. At the end they took us inside and up to the top of a silo formerly used for storage, and entertained us with a shower of chocolate: one ton of melted chocolate poured out of a huge bucket before our eyes.
The Otago Peninsula is famous for its wildlife, including a breeding colony of royal albatrosses. We visited Penguin Place, a sanctuary for the endangered Yellow-Eyed Penguin, one of seven types of penguins found in New Zealand, and the only one that’s not social. Their preferred habitat of ocean-side forest, which affords individual birds privacy, was cut down, so Penguin Place has built little huts for couples to nest in while at the same time it is reforesting the area. They also constructed tunnels or “hides” that humans can walk through to view the penguins without them viewing us. What you see depends on the time of year you visit. As of February, the baby penguins were almost fully grown. Waterproof feathers have replaced their baby feathers. They hung around on land while waiting for their parents, who go out fishing all day, to return home with food. Soon the kids will go off to sea for several months. Mom and Dad will spend a month standing by themselves in the woods while they molt their feathers and grow new ones. They can’t swim while they’re molting.
The South Island contains fourteen sounds, or fjords. Our overnight cruise on Milford Sound was a highpoint of our last trip, so this time we took an overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound. Our journey began with a boat trip across Lake Manapouri. We then traveled overland by bus to reach our boat docked at the foot of the sound, named “Doubtful” in 1770 by Captain James Cook, who chose not to enter it because he was uncertain whether it was navigable by sail.
We traveled on a finger of ocean, surrounded by mountains, escorted by a pod of dolphins. We had fine weather both days, which meant great visibility but fewer waterfalls. At one point we paused in an inlet so we could kayak, and Tom went swimming in the chilly water. An albatross maneuvered on wind drafts, seldom flapping its wings, as graceful as a ballerina. Where the sound reached the sea, we found scores of fur seals languishing on barren rocks.
Onboard, the crew prepared a delicious buffet which included New Zealand lamb with mint jelly. For dessert we ate pavlova, an airy meringue and fruit concoction. Australia and New Zealand have a running dispute over whether its creator was an Aussie or a Kiwi. This is almost our favorite New Zealand dessert, second to the “Caramel slice.”
I generally make up a detailed intinerary before a trip, but often some of the best experiences are unplanned. When we flew up to the North Island and checked into our downtown hotel, I asked the desk clerk how we should spend the evening. She recommended the “Lenten festival” in Albert Park. Mardi Gras had passed so we were confused, but decided to take a look. It turned out she was saying “Lantern festival” with a Kiwi accent. We thoroughly enjoyed the Asian food (especially a mango lassi drink), the acrobats and musicians from China, and the lanterns, including those resembling a flock of sheep and a herd of cows.
We drove up to the Bay of Islands, stopping at the Hundertwasser Toilets along the way. This is a public bathroom decorated with whimsical mosaics that has put the town of Kawakawa on the map, tourist-wise. If you build it, they will come. We took a cruise around the bay with its more than 150 islands, visited the Hole in the Rock which boats can pass through when the ocean is calm, and watched dolphins.
The next day we went to the nearby Waitangi Treaty Grounds, which mark an infamous day in history for the Maori people. The Maori are a Polynesian people who arrived via canoe during the 13th century. Their language has much in common with Hawaiian. European whalers, sealers, sailors and missionaries began arriving in large numbers at the end of the 18th century. Aside from the missionaries, these were not generally a well behaved lot. In 1840 English Lt. Governor Hobson wrote a treaty which established English sovereignity over the islands, and asked Maori chiefs to sign it. It was translated into Maori by an English missionary who changed the meaning of the text. The Maori chiefs thought they were signing a document granting them protection from the rowdy Englishmen (as well as the pesky French) without giving up the right to manage their own affairs. This goes to show the importance of accurate translation.
When New Zealand native Peter Jackson read J.R.R. Tolkien’s "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, he was struck by the extent to which Middle Earth resembled his home country. He went on to film the series all over New Zealand, so most Kiwis can take you to some spot nearby and show you where a particular scene was filmed. Near Wellington, for example, you’ll find Rivendell, the home of the elves. What you’ll see is a forest and a stream, but no castle or waterfall, as these were added later via CGI (computer-generated imagery).
During his helicopter over-flights to scout locations, he saw a majestic tree at the edge of a pond set amidst rolling hills, the perfect spot for a Hobbit village. After negotiations with the farmer (it is still a sheep ranch), his film crew built Hobbiton out of nondurable materials, and then struck the set after filming finished. But the farmer kept getting inquiries from people who wanted to see where the Hobbits lived. So when it was time to film “The Hobbit” and the production company balked at paying for permanent materials, the farmer and Jackson each paid 50 percent to construct a permanent set. The day after filming ended the first tourists arrived, and they’ve been raking in money hand over fist ever since.
Hobbiton’s ridiculously over-priced, but quite cute. Hobbit homes are set into the hillside, surrounded by gardens, wash hung out to dry, and freshly chopped wood. There are no hobbits, because they’d have to employ children during school hours to play them. We heard about camera tricks, such as making the wizard and a hobbit look as though they’re sitting side by side, when the wizard was actually closer to the camera than the full-sized, adult actor playing the hobbit. Most hobbit doors are three-quarter size, but some are full-sized so that a grown actor standing in front of one still looks like a hobbit. You can’t enter a home, because nothing’s been constructed beyond the front door: all the interior shots were filmed on a sound stage. At the end of the tour we had a pint of beer at the quaint Green Dragon Inn across the pond, which can be rented out in the evening for parties and weddings. By the way, Hobbiton is located just outside the town of Matamata, which is fun to say.
Rotorua is New Zealand’s Yellowstone Park, full of thermal geological activity and sites that blurp, bubble, steam, and smell bad. From our hotel room window, we had a spectacular view of a 24-hour-a-day geyser plus mud pots. Most sites are privately owned. We toured the Waitopu Thermal Wonderland with its lakes and earth in every color of the rainbow thanks to minerals with names like orpiment and realgar. It’s also the home of the Lady Knox Geyser which erupts at 10:15 am each morning. It was discovered when convicts were washing their clothes with soap powder. There are two layers of water underneath the ground with differing temperatures. Introduction of the soap powder broke the tension between the two bodies, and caused an eruption that sent their clothes flying. Waitopu has built stadium seating around the geyser. At 10:10, an employee tells the crowd the story about the convicts, pours in some powder, and sets the geyser off.
People often go “trekking” for days at a time in Kiwi-land, because there are no animals, bugs or reptiles in the forest that can kill them. We went for a short hike in the Waipoua State Forest to see huge kauri trees. The largest one, named Tane Mahuta (Lord of the Forest), is 173 feet high, 45 feet in circumference, and 1200-2000 years old.We also went hiking in a forest of fern trees and redwoods. The fern tree is the symbol of New Zealand, while the towering redwoods were introduced in 1901, and are not protected because they are a nonnative species.
We heartily recommend a visit to New Zealand—wherever you go, you can’t go wrong! My caveat is that the country is reeaaallly expensive. We rented a car and stayed in inexpensive hotels, but my best advice is to spend at least a month there and rent a camper (not an RV, because it guzzles too much gas). Enjoy!