By Jean & Peter Richards
Mary Laurenson has landed her dream job spending her days amongst royals who soar.
In middle age, her chin tattooed in tribute to her Maori forebears, Mary is a guide at the Royal Albatross Center on the Taiaroa headlands of the magnificent Otago Peninsula, a hair-raising coastal drive 29 kilometers out from Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island.
Daily, she leads the climb to the observatory well into the twilight so visitors can see the endangered, majestic seabirds on the nest and in the air. Mary can rattle off myriad albatross facts, but her real gift is her passion for the birds, for her culture and for the outdoors.
New Zealand is like that — two islands connected by ferry whose people are passionate about their landscapes and wildlife with good reason. It is one of the most consistently beautiful countries on earth.
“I live in Paradise,” one resident said early on in our 4,500 kilometer journey. We came to understand why.
The land bubbles thermally, rolls gently, rises magnificently, meanders glacially and sinks under the bluest of lakes. The sea erodes fantastical rock formations, renews sandy shores and gives passage to mammal and man.
Nature is everywhere in New Zealand and people are everywhere in it — walking, hiking, trekking, ballooning, gliding, sailing, surfing on sea and sand, rock climbing, camping, even sometimes just sitting.
Cattle and sheep speckle the countryside as far as they eye can see on farms still family owned. Seals sun on rocky inlets undeterred by observers. An eventide penguin parade is as much of a cause for celebration as the sighting of that flightless nocturnal bird from which New Zealanders take their Kiwi nickname.
The countryside is so relentlessly stunning that its beauty becomes almost numbing.
Cities, on the other hand, seem a mere pleasant necessity — a place to live, learn, work and leave to recreate. Perhaps that’s why we saw so many barefoot pedestrians on their pavements.
Shod or not, New Zealanders lived up to their reputation of being the friendliest people on earth.
If countries won prizes for providing pleasant amenities, this one would surely come first. Even small towns and roadsides have clean public toilets, pretty parks and comfortable benches in good repair. Motel rooms come with small kitchens and fresh milk as a welcoming gift. Roadside signs are more likely to list walking times on trails than distances to towns. Offered a choice amongst “20 minute, 3, 5 and 48 hour or 4 day” paths, it wouldn’t be hard to guess which one we took.
Roadside billboards can startle in their bid to promote safer driving. ‘You’re a longtime dead, so what’s the hurry?” caught our attention as did the corpse with the toe ticket.
“The South Island is the most beautiful,” we were told again and again. That may be, but after spending two weeks on each, we would be hard pressed to choose.
Auckland, home to almost a third of of the country’s people, anchors the North with its lively and expanding port, appealingly youthful population and museums elucidating Maori culture, colonization and maritime history. Our finest day was spent on a scow out of the Voyager Museum sailing the harbor.
We knocked over only a few orange cones on the motorway learning to drive on the left when leaving “The Big Little City” to head to the warmth of the north in this upside down world.
Our first destination was a toilet — not just any toilet — but one described as so Gaudiesque it had to be seen. Kawakawa might not make any one’s list as a tourist attraction were it not for Austrian artist-architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser who vacationed nearby and designed the wildly “organic” public toilet built by the townspeople in 1998. It is a hoot and quite serviceable too.
Paihia beyond is to the North Island as a Cape Cod town might be to New England. It’s charm is enhanced by the ferry linkage to the vintage village of Russell, home to the oldest European settlement in New Zealand and its capital briefly 160 years ago.
Kiwis frequently point out that theirs is a young nation of immigrants. Maoris, of course, had an earlier claim from which tensions derive, but the British associations from Empire to Commonwealth obscure significant settlement by Dutch, German and other Europeans, Pacific Islanders and most recently, Asians.
Were it not for the ubiquitous Chinese, we might not have eaten as well on this trip. Food in New Zealand restaurants often came mounded in layers — vegetables topped by potatoes, topped by meat, topped by gravy — or as inventive creations which failed. It often was ghastly. In fairness, however, we enjoyed a fish chowder in Paihia which outshone any in Maine.
A bus tour up 90 Mile Beach from Kaitaia to the northernmost Cape Reinga seemed like one of the dumbest trips we could take. We loved it, not just for the stunning beauty along the beach, astride the dunes and up the point where the Pacific Ocean and Tasmanian Sea meet, but because we had a great guide. Senny has been leading the Sand Safari for years and has his patter down pat. A self-deprecating Maori, he blended a splendid sense of humor with just enough information to keep it interesting while dodging an incoming tide.
Next morning, we were savoring bucolic beauty on the two lane road to Dargaville when we glanced against the side of a one lane bridge trying to avoid an oncoming car and crunched a front wheel. Other drivers soon stopped offering aid. A strong young Maori whipped out a jack, slipped off the wheel, mounted the spare and soon we were off following a Welshman determined to keep us in sight until we made Rawene and a garage. Better change cars, the mechanic told us. A wheel bolt had sheared. Ferrymen at Rawene had a good laugh at yet another right road driver with a left side compacted.
With some trepidation we hobbled on to Waipoua Forest to see New Zealand’s giant Kauri (Southern beech) tree. The 1,200-year-old Tane Mahuta, (Lord of the Forest) looms majestically at 52 meters high and with a girth of five meters.
The kauri has a unique niche in New Zealand’s history nowhere better explained than in the Kauri Museum at Matakohe south of Dargaville, a remarkably informative 4,000 square meter facility in the middle of nowhere which incorporates a saw mill, all manner of Kauri exhibits, first rate lifestyle displays and the largest collection of kauri gum in the world. The gum was used as an ingredient in varnish, for chewing, glue, kindling wood and jewelry. In the 1880s, Dalmatians became amongst the first non-British to immigrate for jobs and found them in the hard work of harvesting.
When we swapped out the car at Auckland Airport later that day, the cheerful Europcar agent told us he gets at least one car a day with that level of damage and several more with mere dents. Within an hour we were off through horse breeding country to sulfury Rotorura. It is a touristic town on a grand lake, famed for its thermal pools and home to a vintage mock Tudor spa turned museum and the conjoined but competing overpriced thermal parks of Te Puia and Living Village — one run by the Maori tribe and the other a government venture. We found neither appealing.
Happily we moved on to Wai-o-tapu thermal site where the $65NZ entry fee for two was worth every cent. There’s nothing like a well organized stroll in a landscape that could have inspired a freakish horror film to fill up a morning. Pools bubbled, plopped and hissed. Sulfury steam enveloped. We walked the planks over the ochre-edged Champagne Pool, admired the chartreuse of the Devil’s Bath and the grim, grey depth of his Ink Pot, but missed Lady Knox Geyser’s daily eruption. She’s fed soap to break surface tension and keep her to a 10:15 schedule.
One can drive for miles in New Zealand without seeing another person or vehicle and arrive at a spot like aquamarine Hukka Falls to find a throng enthralled by its roar.
Frolicking spring lambs dotted the sunlit hills on the roller coaster drive to Napier. The big red tractor trailer trailing us intermittently added to the thrill of the plunge and the climb.
Napier’s waterfront was destroyed by an earthquake in 193l, rebuilt and preserved in a distinctive local interpretation of the Art Deco style which is the town’s main attraction and cause for an annual festival.
Wellington, the country’s capital, prides itself on being in the top ranks of livable cities. It has its charms — a pleasant waterfront, a beautiful hillside botanic garden and Te Papa, the national museum which valiantly tries to contain the islands’ natural and human history within its halls. We decided to pass on the indoor bungee jumping in its Time Warp area — simulated or not — and caught the Interislander for what really is one of the most beautiful ferry rides in the world across the Cook Strait to the South Island.
The drive from Picton to Kaikoura winds down the coast with views of the Pacific, snow-capped mountains, grassy hillsides abundant in sheep, cattle and the occasional pasture of horses and red deer, once introduced for sport and now farmed for meat.
A colony of seals was sunning next morning on a nearby rocky inlet taking little notice of us enjoying their company before embarking on the Kaikoura Whale Watch, a splendidly organized catamaran tour led by youthful enthusiasts. Throughout New Zealand we were impressed not only by the genuine interest in environmental issues, but by the manner in which it is manifest. They don’t just talk about caring for the environment in New Zealand, they do it in large and small ways — protecting the species, respecting the land and the sea, tidying public spaces and proselytizing without being overbearing.
Even the crew expressed joy at the sighting of sperm whales, pods of frisky Dusky Dolphins and an abundance of seals. It was with great sadness that we read some days later of 23 seals being wantonly beaten and killed late one night near Kaikoura.
Crime is so distant in the mind when traveling in New Zealand that it was equally shocking when two different innkeepers volunteered that their biggest worry was those who might book a room to set up a methamphetamine lab. It was difficult to reconcile on these islands of energetic, eco-conscious, athletic people with freshly scrubbed faces that New Zealand has one of the highest per capita rates of methamphetamine use.
There aren’t many roadways by which to cross the South Island. The route west along the high, winding roads through Lewis Pass took us through sub-tropical forest, snow capped precipices and sparsely settled enclaves. As we passed one ranch, cattle were being herded by a modern cowboy on a motorbike and in a line so long it could have been a BNSF freight train in the American Southwest.A recent and deadly mining disaster was still on everyone’s mind at Greymouth. Conversation was split between the horrors of the disaster which buried 29 men and fury at the behavior of the media people who overwhelmed the city with their intrusions, demands and double booking of rooms. “We’re glad to see the back of them,” our host said pointing us in the direction of a spectacular sight we would have missed.
Paparoa National Park is 42 kilometers north along a coastline dotted with limestone cliffs and canyons ahead of Punakaiki — an outcropping of rocks that look like giant stacks of pancakes lapped by the sea. They were far more a treat than our next stop at Franz Josef where the terminus of the retreating glacier was a long walk through forest with helicopters whirling above carrying those willing to spring for the $215NZ to $395NZ per person 20 to 40 minute flight.
We abandoned the effort and saw our glacier next day when we could walk on a beautiful partly dry glacial blue riverbed right up to the Fox.
In the Southern Alps we came to expect snowy vistas above densely verdant hillsides and weren’t disappointed. We saw hardly anyone en route to Wanaka, except for a shepherd on an ATV and road crews who waved. As lakes became enormous and magnificent, the landscape became more arid.
The only other guests at the very pleasant Homestead Lodge in Wanaka close by the lake were a couple from San Francisco with whom we tarried over breakfast in one of those serendipitous experiences travelers can have.
The most popular destinations in New Zealand are the fjords of the Southwest coast. We chose Doubtful over Milford for our sound journey by car, bus, ferry and boat. Unfortunately we picked a day teeming with rain for a trip shrouded in fog. The wildlife was in hiding. The waterfalls were weak. The Real Journeys crew was boring and bored, but we could see where the sound could be magnificent on the right kind of day.
The landscape flattened and became less dramatic as we wound our way from Te Anau to Bluff through towns that recalled a 1950‘s Midwest snapshot. There was silly satisfaction when we reached Sterling Point and took pictures of its ochre sign. We were only 4,810 kilometers from the South Pole and 15,008 from New York.
The threat of over-commercialization weighs on some in New Zealand and was never better expressed than by the owner of snack shop at Cape Porpoise who makes a mean milk shake on the headland where Hector’s Dolphins have right of way. “I want my grandchildren to enjoy it as I do — to have a little shop that provides enough.”
Hers were typical of the values people expressed to us in New Zealand — a desire to work, protect the islands and maintain a decent lifestyle — aspirations no longer taken for granted in the age where success is too often measured by wealth.
That evening we met the aforementioned Mary Laurenson at the Royal Albatross Center in Otago. Before she led us up to the blind, she shared some facts: the birds have a nine foot wing span, on their first flight they head for Chile, spend three to six years at sea with swooping speeds clocked at 115 kilometers an hour, and then they return to the headlands to nest.
Outside the blind eight albatross with thin, black topped wings and white bellies soared and swooped before us. They are magnificent. At least one pair was nesting and we were riveted by a charming tete-a-tete as two others showed their wings and then neatly folded them in a mating match. Below, a colony of black and white shags nested in straw tub-like structures they had built. It was a memorable evening and the best reason for stopping at Dunedin, home to a charming museum, a fine Victorian rail station and a brewery called Speight’s which sells tickets for a terrible tour.
It’s a good thing we weren’t hungry when we came upon Lockies Takeaways in coastal Hamden between Dunedin and Christchurch having been alerted that his fish was the best. The blue cod in light batter was simply sensational. We lucked into the last little pieces as he finished preparing 100 orders for the local kids as a treat on the last day of school.
Christchurch was between earthquakes. Many buildings had shattered in a September shake and more damage was done in an aftershock in December soon after we left. Even with neighborhoods blocked off, we found it to be New Zealand’s most pleasant city and enjoyed its Canterbury Museum, Botanic Garden and the Bodhi Restaurant which introduced us to Burmese cuisine.
We ended our island journey where our travels began — in France — or its kitschy equivalent 75 winding kilometers from “Chch” on the volcanic Banks Peninsula. In 1840 settlers landed on Akaroa ready to claim New Zealand for France only to find the English had beaten them to it just days before. Today Akaroans cash in this history. The Tricolore flies over the pretty seaside town which attracts tourists by the busload to its maisons, gendarmerie, boutiques and boucherie before they line up for a lunch not of poisson et frites but Jolly Olde English fish and chips.
(Christchurch was decimated by a third earthquake on 22 February 2011 almost to the minute as I was writing the above paragraphs. It was centered on the Banks Peninsula near Akaroa.)