Thursday, March 08, 2007

Kia Ora, New Zealand

Written by Lynn

I love this country....... I was here once before, in 2001, to visit my friend Alison. She was studying the weta (a endangered cricket the size of a mouse - feel free to correct my description, Alison) at a university on the South Island. My memories of New Zealand are filled with beautiful green landscapes, amazing animals and friendly people. Well, the second visit didn't disappoint.

We flew into Auckland totally exhausted from our marathon session of airport squatting in Tahiti. Our first stop was (hate to admit it), MacDonald's for breakfast. Here we met a retired American couple, ex-pats for the last 20 years. They couldn't rave enough about "their" country, and were full of suggestions of things for us to see and do. They even went so far as to offer to drive us back to Rotarura with them, a few hours west of Auckland. Sadly, given our limited time in New Zealand, we had already decided to spend most of it touring around the South Island, so had to decline their friendly offer.

For those of you who have never been to New Zealand, first off - shame on you! Secondly, it should be explained that New Zealand is divided into two main islands - North and South. The North Island is the most heavily populated, where over 70% of the estimated 4 million Kiwis live. The South Island has a much smaller population, but has most of the estimated 40 million sheep residing here. This number has dropped dramatically from the oft quoted 70 million sheep (or 20 sheep for every 1 Kiwi) that was true in the 1980's. Since then dairy has become a major industry and New Zealand has become the 5th largest dairy exporter in the world. As well, New Zealand has a thriving wine industry and forestry is becoming a more and more important contributer to the country's economy. But it's #1 industry, without a doubt, is tourism!

Almost 2 million tourists a year touch down in New Zealand. This number has increased dramatically since the release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, filmed mainly on the South Island, produced by New Zealand's own, Peter Jackson. Since then millions of fans have visited to see the amazing landscapes made famous by these films. Rightly so, Mr. Jackson said no other country would be able to provide the awe inspiring vistas Tolkien had envisioned for Middle Earth.

After a few days in Auckland, spent mostly wandering the city and admiring the tall ships and sailboats docked at the habour, we flew down to Christchurch. In a fine example of our advance planning abilities we had not booked a hostel or as of yet rented a car. Unbeknownst to us, we had landed in New Zealand at the tail end of high tourist season. This meant that cars and camper vans, if you could find them, would be three times as expensive as other times of the year. But there really is no other way to tour the South Island. While there are several bus companies that can take you to the major cities and tourist destinations, part of the charm of this island is how "accessible" the remote and isolated areas, such as beaches, mountains and treks, are. If you have a car that is. So after a few days of concerted effort we managed to find a beat up old Subaru Legacy wagon to rent. We raided the local Salvation Army for camping gear and cooking stuff, rounding out our trove of treasures with a camping table/chair set from Christchurch's local pawn shop.

While waiting for our car we explored the charming city of Christchurch, set on the Avon river and modelled after a historical English city. There is a large (30 hectare) botanical garden filled with exotic and native trees and plants. In it there are some impressively enormous trees, many of them over 100 years old. The main square has a trolley station that can ferry you around the city and a nice craft market and the town's museum has some impressive displays on Antarctic expeditions. Though not my cup of tea, we did spend the weekend in Christchurch during their annual flower and garden show, which meant the whole city was decorated with beautiful floral arrangements.

While here we also (to my extreme excitement - yeah, right) by sheer chance got to see one of John Britton's bikes (in reality it's a racing motorcycle, I just like this picture). I actually have to admit that I had no idea what this means when I say how lucky we were to see it. As a result I will have to leave the motorcycle enthusiasts in anticipation for Gilles' later post.

Once we gathered up the car and all of our acquired camping gear we set off on a 10 day exploration of the South Island. We started by crossing the Southern Alps through Arthur's Pass. The Southern Alps run down 2/3 of the island, close to the west coast. Once over the amazingly twisted and scenic pass we were on the west coast. We turned south and started to make our way towards the tip of the island. Hugging the coastal road, which dipped in and out of the surrounding forests, we were treated to many visual treats. The weather was perfect for us, barely raining at all (a minor miracle for New Zealand where areas on the island have an annual rainfall of 6 metres!!). Our first stop was to enjoy the beaches around an area called Knight's Point just north of a town called Haast. Here the you can look down onto white sand beaches from towering cliffs and catch the occasional call of the sea lions. We camped beside a lovely stream in a wooded area that was INFESTED with mosquitoes and sand flies (which I would compare to rabid black flies), driving us into our tent by 8pm that night.

A short aside here to say that camping in New Zealand is fantastic. Not only is the country non-stop natural wonders, camping involves just pulling off on a track leading down to a beach and setting up your tent. If you have a camper trailer you can just park where ever it suits your fancy, though you do have to be careful not to get stuck. We helped push out one camper that got a little to far onto the sand one night. Our Canadian winter background came in handy as no one else really understood the value of "rocking" a stuck vehicle.

The next day we continued on with our journey, making the requisite stops at the Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers. These glaciers are the world's most accesible, and are presently in the process of retreating at a blistering rate of of 70cm/day since 1984 (about 10 times faster than a typical glacier). Glaciers in general are in a constant cycle of advancing and retreating, a pattern driven by the differences between the volume of meltwater at the terminal face, and the snowfall at the "neve". The two glaciers here are over 13,000 years old and together make up the heart of the Westland National Park.

The next day we headed out to Te Anu, our jumping off point for Milford Sound. The sound is more appropriately labelled a fjord and is one of New Zealand's most famous tourist destinations. It sits on the south west coast at the end of a long road through the Fjordland National Park. Here there are several wonderful treks and you can visit with many gregarious KEAS, the world's only mountain parrots. These birds are well known for their extreme curiosity and intelligence, which has been compared to that of a monkey. They are a bane to the unsuspecting car owner who can return from an hour trek only to find a gang of keas has removed all the accessible rubber from their vehicle's windshield wipers and windows. Due to their extreme adaptability and varocious appetite, the Kea has been persecuted in the past for their supposed attack on sheep. While it is true that during the harsh winter months, when food is scarce, keas will turn into scavengers and rip open carcasses with their sharp beaks to get at meat, it has never been proven that a kea has attacked a live sheep. They are well known, however, for eating the hatchling mutton birds that hide in small nests along the coast while thier mothers are off fishing for them. They are seemingly completely fearless and will approach you as soon as you exit your car, looking for a handout.

Once you get to Milford Sound you can take a tour on one of the many available tourists boats to get a first hand view of the towering cliff faces which loom over 1200m above the water. Milford Sound has the dubious reputation as one of the wettest places on earth, receiving over 6m of rainfall annually. We were lucky and got there on an overcast day, but had no rain. This does take away a bit from the many waterfalls in the area, but made for nicer boat ride. Unfortunately, the marine life was a little scarce when we were there and we were unable to see any dolphins or whales. We did catch sight of several fur seals sun bathing themselves in the welcome heat of the day though. And what we did see was an amazing landscape of dominating rock faces that loomed over our tiny boat. Thumbs up to Mother Nature for being able to continuously amaze me.

After another night in Te Anu, we headed off for Queenstown. This is New Zealand's self proclaimed adventure capital of the world, and here you can do just about any crazy outdoor activity you can think of. From bungee jumping, to zorbing, to white water rafting, to helikayaking, it's all available here for a price. Sadly, the price is pretty high, though that doesn't seem to be affecting their business as the town is over run with adrenalin junkies. What we came to see (aside from the fact that it was right on our way) was the mountain that was used as Mount Mordor in the Lord of the Rings. Not quite as impressive or scary as in the film, and no orcs to be seen..................

From here we headed down to Invercargill. For those of you not in the know, it is one of New Zealand's most southerly cities and was the home of Burt Munro, the man made famous by the movie, "The World's Fastest Indian" (played by Sir Anthony Hopkins). We made our way to the local museum where there was an exhibit on Burt and the making of the movie, which was done mainly here in his home town. Gilles paid the extra money to go in and see this exhibit (and will tell those interested all about it in the next post), while I hung out and talked to the curator of the tautara display.

Tautaras are reptiles that are the only surviving relative of dinosaurs that roamed the earth over 225million years ago, and not much has changed for them in this time. They are only found in New Zealand and are the slowest growing reptiles alive today. One of the males at the museum was over 120 years old and weighed about 1kg. The female tautaras will only lay eggs once every 2-5 years, this slow rate of reproduction making them vunerable in the wild. Fortunately they are fairly easily bred in captivity and this museum has managed to have quite a success rate over the years in hatching the babies in a controlled environment. If you're interested, you can read more about them at

I did get to see the original Indian motorcycle that Burt Munro raced, as well as the ones used in the movie, as they were on display at the local hardware store, rather than at the museum, the owner of the store having been a good friend of Mr. Munro.

After Invercargill we made our way to my favourite stop of the tour, Porpoise Bay. Here, on the very southern tip of the south island, I went for a swim with a girl from Austria. Now, rightly so, you should think I'm crazy, because that water is COLD (as in can't-feel-your-toes-after-5-minutes cold). But it was worth it, because if you're really lucky (and we were) a group of dusky dolphins will come on in to see what the foolish swimming humans are up to and play in the waves with you. This was probably one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and though the pictures don't really show you very well (shame on my photographer!), the pod of dolphins came within a metre of us, and I probably could have touched them, had I wanted to. Amazingly, it was totally free (the Kiwi's have perfected the art of providing a tour/entrance fee for everything from sheep shearing to beach combing), though I would have happily paid for the experience. Since there were only the 2 of us in the water, we also were the centre of attention for our new friends, and managed to stay out there with them for almost a half hour, before the cold drove us in.

After this our next stops included the lighthouse at Nugget Point, which is very popular and probably where we saw the most tourist congregated in one place since we had left Queenstown. About 400 metres below the trail, at the bottom of a 90 degree rock face, you can just barely catch a glimpse of sea lions frolicking among the waves. Not completely satisfied with this long distance encounter, we made our way to the practically deserted Cannibal Bay where you actually have to carefully pick you way around the sea lions as they bask on the sand. We apparently weren't very interesting, as you can see from the pics of the yawning beasts (I'll try to crop one to include a close up of the greyish slime stuck between their teeth - yum!)

From here it was on to Dunedin on the Otago Penisula. The best thing about this area is the wildlife, and you can spend days exploring the many sandy beaches looking for encounters with sea lions, elephant seals and penguins. Here you have a unique chance to catch a glimpse of the yellow eyed penguin, the world's rarest penguin, whose population has been decimated by the increasing numbers of introduced dogs, feral cats and rats on New Zealand, along with habitat reduction. While very graceful in the water, these guys are VERY clumsy on land. But there's nothing quite like the site of a penguin rolling up onto the shore in a wave, then staggering to its feet and waddling up the cliff to a safe resting spot. While there is a rehabilitation area that you can tour at dusk (the best time to view penguins as they come in from the sea for the night) we elected to return to a beach that I had seen with Alison and Brian 5 years ago. Here, at Sandfly Bay, you have to descend down an enormous sand dune to get the the protected beach. You then hide behind a constructed blind and wait quietly for the feathered friends to head to shore. While a bit more difficult to get to, it was much less busy than the rehab centre and (best of all) free!

After a few nights in Dunedin, my favourite city on the South Island, we headed back towards Christchurch. Given that we had the time, we decided to visit Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest peak that peaks at 3754 metres. We weren't expecting much, being pretty cocky about having topped over 4200 metres in South America, but were pleasantly surprised by the impressiveness of the landscape. It's pretty much summed up in the following quote.......
“I am not sure that Mount Cook is not the finest in outline of all the snowy mountains I have ever seen. No one can mistake it. If a person says he thinks he has seen it, you may be quite sure that he has not seen it. The moment it comes into sight the exclamation is ‘that is Mount Cook’, not ‘that must be Mount Cook’. There is no possibility of mistake.”
Samuel Butler

This is definitely not a mountain to be taken lightly. When we first got there we hiked up to the Alpine Monument, which has plaques for the various mountaineers that have died scaling the peaks of Mount Cook. The most recent was in 2003, and a plaque from the 1960's list a climber from Calgary, Alberta.

After a night spent camping at the base of Mount Cook we took the morning to do the more mundane and very safe Sealy Tasman Track that takes you up to a look out point over the Southern Alps and lakes in the Mount Cook National Park. Turns out all the driving around in a car has seriously impacted my fitness levels and the 4 hour hike that went straight up, then right back down caused some significant leg pains for the next several days!! But the view was worth it and I'm happy to say that the detour to Mount Cook was well rewarded.

With only a day left before we flew out from Christchurch we decided our last stop would be to go to the town of Kaikoura. This small village turned tourist destination is becoming increasingly well known as a place go on whale watching tours, mainly to see sperm whales. They also offer whale spotting flights, chances to swim with dolphins and/or seals and several hikes. We hooked up with a couple of Canadians from Montreal, Alex and Alex, who were touring the South Island as well. They were members of the infamous Cirque de Soliel that had just finished a show in Auckland, and were on the way to Canberra. The 4 of us decided against the whale touring, partially because we were not convinced that we liked the idea of approaching whales in boats.

Whale watching as a tourist activity has increased dramatically in recent years (apparently the numbers world wide rose from 2 million people in 1990 to 9 million by 1999 and has continued to increase in popularity since then), and some tour operators are less scrupulous than others about how they monitor the interaction with the whales. Most whales only approach land during important stages of their life cycles, such as breeding, calving and nursing. Many rich feeding grounds also are close to land. The concern is that an over enthusiastic tourist industry will negatively affect these animals and drive them back out to sea. Regulations of the industry are patchwork and not enforced, so it is pretty dependant upon the company what your experience will be. On the up side, cetacean touring provides an economically viable alternative to hunting, a practice I have no qualms about voicing my opinions against. Questioning the tourist office in Kaikoura, it seems that they are well aware of potential problems and work hard to provide an eco-friendly encounter with these amazing beasts, and are very selective about which companies they will actually recommend and book tours with, which was nice to see. Still, a combination of expense, concerns over the practice, and timelines, prevented us from going out on a boat. Instead we toured some seal colonies, had some fish and chips from a landmark restaurant and wandered around this charming seaside town.

The next day it was back to Christchurch to catch our plane out of New Zealand and onto Australia. Overall it was once again an amazing experience here, and one I hope to repeat over and over again in my life. I don't think I can emphasize enough how great a country New Zealand is to visit. Very friendly people, beautiful landscapes, cool animals to see everywhere you turn...........if you haven't been, start planning your trip as soon as possible, I may even meet you there!


Anne and Rob said...

WOW - totally amazing pictures!! Looks like you are having an incredible time. We miss you guys...don't forget to come back!!!

saim said...

Very interesting thanks. I believe there's even more that could be on there! Keep it up

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