For a long time I had wanted to visit New Zealand. We vaguely thought we would go after my husband retired but took no active steps. Nearly 14 years later we suddenly decided if we didn’t go soon we would be too old and creaky. We wondered, without enthusiasm, about a coach tour but our local travel agent, Hallmark Travel of East Grinstead, undertook to arrange a tailor- made trip in conjunction with a New Zealand specialist, Kirra Tours Ltd. We paid in advance for all accommodation and travel, and the trip lasted just over 5 weeks including a brief stop-over in Hong Kong in both directions. This was ideal for us, but people wanting complete flexibility should not hesitate to tour NZ on their own, taking advantage of cheap accommodation offers or, still cheaper, hiring a camper-van.
Hong Kong consists of a huge number of people crammed into a small space. Everywhere is very crowded, apartment blocks can be 50 floors high, and there are queues outside the big stores because they have to control entry. A brief visit was certainly interesting but we were not wholly sorry to leave.
From the moment we stepped off the plane New Zealand was everything I had ever expected it to be and more. The weather was glorious and the people were very friendly and welcoming. Auckland is a beautiful city with old and new buildings and harbours and lovely shops with lots of marvellous knitwear made with the merino wool from its millions of sheep, and also from a mixture of wool and possum fur. After a brief stay in Auckland to become adjusted to the time change, we picked up a hire car and journeyed east to explore the famous Coromandel countryside. Driving in New Zealand is a joy. They, too, sensibly drive on the left and apart from one or two towns there is very little traffic. Four cars at an intersection is a traffic jam! But there are two things drivers should remember: speed limits are strictly observed, and petrol stations in less populated areas are few and far between.
The scenery in the Coromandel Peninsula is stunning. Photographs cannot do justice to the vastness and beauty of the mountains or the crystal clearness of the streams. The flora is spectacular too with the lovely flowering gum trees, the giant ferns and the famous kauri trees – huge trees formerly cut down in great numbers for timber but now regenerating in this area. Every where, even at the side of the roads, there were masses of agapanthus in full flower. The blue flower heads were massive but they are looked upon as a weed in NZ because they grow so prolifically. Here at home we have a carefully nurtured clump in the garden with flower heads half the size! The coastline is wonderful too with beautiful islands off-shore, lots of sandy beaches and bays, including the famous Cathedral Cove used in the Narnia films.
One day we joined a small group led by an immensely knowledgable guide known as Kiwi Dundee. He showed us old excavations left by gold miners, now the home of glow-worms which really glittered in the gloom. He filled us in on the fascinating history of the area including his own successful one-man battle to save the great forests of kauri trees from being destroyed and replaced by commercial forestry. We learned that the kiwi, NZ’s national bird, is in severe danger from predators, mostly introduced by European settlers, such as stoats, ferrets, feral cats and, from Australia, possums. Attempts to control these are an uphill struggle. The kiwi’s habits do not help. The female leaves as soon as she has laid her eggs, the male sits on the eggs and then in turn departs as soon as the chicks are hatched, leaving them very vulnerable. Later, in Queenstown, we saw some kiwi in a bird sanctuary – or, at least, just about saw them since they are nocturnal creatures and must be kept in the dark if visitors are to find them active.
After the Coromandel we explored the volcanic and thermal region which runs across NZ’s north island from East to West. The first stop was Whakatane, further down the East coast (nearly all place names in NZ are of Maori origin and “wh” is pronounced “F”). The town is ideally situated for a boat trip to White Island, about 30 miles off shore. The boat is fast but landing involves a transfer to a small inflatable craft.
The island is actively volcanic at all times, with rising clouds of sulphurous vapours, jets of steam and bubbling mud pools. On landing, each visitor is equipped with a hard hat, and also a mask in case the sulphur gases become too strong. We were shown round by guides from the boat, who ensured we kept strictly to a safe route. We peered gingerly into the crater, filled with a steaming yellowish-green lake, whose acidity is so high as to be off the customary scale of measurement.
Sulphur was intermittently mined on the island but it was found unprofitable and was finally abandoned in about 1930. The remains of the buildings and mining machinery can still be seen. It is difficult to imagine how men could have lived and worked in such an atmosphere, with the constant risk of being overwhelmed by an eruption, as some were about a century ago.
From Whakatane we drove to the famous town of Rotorua, a centre of Maori culture. We spent one evening at a traditional Maori village and saw how they challenged, and then (hopefully) welcomed, their guests. This was followed by a concert and a buffet dinner, the food for which had been cooked in the traditional way on hot stones. It was all great fun.
Near Rotorua we visited Te Wairoa, one of several villages buried by a massive eruption of Mt.Tarawera in 1884, and now partly excavated. The eruption also overwhelmed some famous silica terraces, much visited by the tourists of the day. It is said to have been predicted by an aged Maori wise man, who survived the eruption but died not long afterwards. Some say this was because, when taken to hospital after being dug out, they made him have a bath for the first time in his life.
We also visited Waiotapu, an extensive thermal area with the usual bubbling mud pools, mini craters and warm lakes, with the difference that they exhibited a whole range of remarkable colours. In the centre of one steaming stretch of water, two birds were unconcernedly sitting or perhaps even nesting.
From here we drove past the famous and beautiful Huka Falls and reached the last stop in the volcanic zone, Mts.Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu, all between 6000 and 9000 feet high. Our hotel was at the foot of Ruapehu, which last erupted only a few years ago, though not disastrously. It is a centre for skiing and the top is snow-covered even in summer.
From here we made our way down to Wellington, where wind and rain perhaps unfairly coloured our perceptions of not very attractive modern architecture, and of the national museum which seemed to our old-fashioned tastes to be too full of “virtual reality” displays and noisy exhibits competing with each other.
Blenheim in the South Island, a short flight from Wellington, is in one of the main wine-making areas. At many of the wineries you can drop in for a wine-tasting either free or for a modest charge, as we did. We were also able to see the beautiful scenery around Picton on the North coast.
There is a single rail line (the Tranz Coastal) along the East side of the South Island, with one passenger train per day in each direction, and we took this train from Blenheim to, initially, Kaikoura.
I think that of all the places we visited, Kaikoura was my favourite. It is a coastal resort with an interesting front planted with some of the famous Norfolk Pine trees. It is also the home of Kaikoura Whale Watch Ltd with whom we went on a spectacular whale watching trip. The boat was planned so as to give everyone a good view. We saw three sperm whales basking, several orca – two of which swam alongside our boat for sometime – and a great school of dusky dolphins playing around us and diving under the boat: they are real comedians and like to show off.
To the north of Kaikoura we found a big colony of NZ fur seals and we watched them for a long time as they were either clambering over rocks, sliding gracefully into the water or simply snoozing in the sun. There was a big, more or less enclosed, rock pool in which a whole collection of young seals were having a fine time. It was as if the parents had deposited them there to play safely while they had a restful time without them.
From Kaikoura we continued by train to Christchurch, the biggest city in the South
Island. We visited its beautiful Botanic Gardens, were taken for a punt trip on the Avon River, rode on Christchurch’s famous old trams and went in a cable car up the hills that surround the city. There was also another boat trip at Akaroa, with an interesting journey by coach to reach it through some more stunning scenery.
We picked up another hire car in Christchurch and drove south through scenery that was flat to start with but became increasingly spectacular as we got into the hills. The first stop was at Lake Tekapo, which has the most striking vivid blue colour – provided the sun is shining, which it was. Apparently this is because the tiny rock particles in the glacial water that feeds the lake reflect the light in just the right way to produce this effect. The town contains a nice statue of a sheepdog, erected in testimony to the essential contribution made by the dogs to the success of sheep-farming in the area. The South Island contains the great majority of NZ’s 40 million sheep, compared with the total human population in both islands of 4.1 million!
Next came the tourist resort of Mount Cook Village. This lies at the head of a valley just below the mountain, the highest point in NZ at 12,300 feet, and some of the glaciers that flow from it. Fortunately the excellent weather continued and the views were superb in all directions. There are many walks from here, of a wide range of length and difficulty: we chose the easiest.
From Mount Cook we drove over the Lindis Pass to Queenstown, situated on a huge lake and surrounded by amazing mountains, appropriately named The Remarkables. We explored Queenstown’s lovely Botanic Gardens, voyaged on the lake in a 100 year old coal-fired steam boat, and visited the bird life park: there we saw many birds (besides the kiwi already mentioned) such as the Kea, NZ’s parrot, and also a very strange lizard, the tuatara. But the highlight of the stay here was a coach trip to the famous Milford Sound. Access by road involves a long detour round the mountains and did not exist at all until 1940, with the completion of a tunnel.
The Sound itself, as seen on a boat trip out to the Tasman Sea and back is amazing beyond all description: forest-clad mountains rise almost vertically from water level to over 5000 feet, with waterfalls cascading down from them. Again the weather favoured us: rainfall here is over 20 feet per year. For the journey back to Queenstown we were taken in a small plane directly over the sharp-ridged mountains and deep valleys that we had driven round during the morning: a hair-raising but unforgettable experience.
The next part of our journey was northwards through hills and mountains to Lake Wanaka. On the way we stopped at an old gold-mining site, where some of the old water-operated machinery still works. We had a go at panning for gold, alas without success.
From Wanaka, another beautiful spot, we travelled over the Haast pass to the West coast. Along this coast the mountains come close to the sea and the whole area is little populated and rather desolate. It is known for two things in particular: very high rainfall and sand-flies, tiny but nasty creatures against which precautions must be taken. We stayed at Fox Glacier, another tourist village aimed particularly at mountaineers and walkers. The glacier is one of several that descend from the Mount Cook range. It is possible to walk almost up to the glacier face (which we did) and also onto the glacier itself with an expert guide (which we didn’t).
Further north we did run into about 24 hours of heavy rain and thus saw little of Punakaiki, our last coastal stopping place. The following day we took one of the most famous train journeys in the world, the Tranz Alpine, which goes over the mountains from Greymouth to Christchurch. We left the train at Arthur’s Pass its highest point (about 3000 feet) to stay at Wildnerness Lodge.
Here we had rather an alarming experience. The son of the family that owns the Lodge had come in a minibus to meet us and a few other passengers and, to be helpful, had driven over the rails to park beside the train as it arrived. Meanwhile a long train of huge coal trucks came from the opposite direction and stopped on the track over which he needed to go to get back to the road. Undaunted, he tried to cross the track lower down, behind the last truck, and got stuck. He got out of the van to unhitch the trailer in which he had put our luggage in the hopes this would help, when the coal train started to move slowly back towards us – fortunately one of our number shouted “Get out”, which we all did very quickly. This was just as well as the train did back into the van and started to push it down the line before we were able to attract the attention of the driver! Fortunately no one was hurt and much fuss was made of us on our arrival at our destination, including free drinks, so we were all able to make an adventure out of it.
The Lodge is in a superb situation and a number of walks can be made from it, of which we again chose the easiest. It is also a farm, with Merino and other breeds of sheep, as well as beef cattle. On the following day the son, who had not been in evidence since his exploit at the station, kindly showed us their wool shed and demonstrated controlling the sheep with his dog. He then delivered us back to the station at Arthur’s Pass for us to travel down to Christchurch. The night we spent there was our last in NZ. The next morning we took the plane to Auckland, and thence to Hong Kong and home, with many memories.
We always thought that our trip to New Zealand would be a once in a life time holiday but I think that both of us would love to go again.
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