Monday, November 03, 2008

New Zealand: North Island

Kia ora! After three weeks in New Zealand, D. and I are totally enamored with the country, which amazingly lived up to all the hype we had heard before going. What we knew beforehand was that there was breathtaking scenery and great hiking. What we learned was that the people are extremely friendly, the culture laid-back and relaxed, and the food excellent (you would think it would be like British food, but actually it’s more like all-day American breakfasts, gourmet coffee drinks, and international fusion cuisine). New Zealand is fast becoming known for its wines as well, and they have even established a "wine trail" for enthusiasts.

New Zealand is a relatively small island all the way at the edge of the world, underneath Australia. To give you an idea of how far away it is, it takes an equally long time (over 20 hours of flying) to go from Belgium via China to Auckland as it does to go via Los Angeles. One common misconception about New Zealand is that they have kangaroos and koalas like Australia. In fact, New Zealand has no native land mammals, only species introduced for hunting purposes (mainly possums, rabbits, and deer, plus stoats introduced to kill the overpopulated rabbits). It has a wealth of native birdlife, however, including the famous kiwi, most of which is now endangered as a result of the introduced pests. Although there are only 10 million people in the country (of which 9 million are on the much smaller North Island), there are over 40 million sheep. Cows and domesticated deer are also common sights in the endless countryside. The deer were domesticated after they were almost hunted to extinction by overzealous men in helicopters (Palin’s kiwi doppelgangers, I suppose).

We only spent 5 days on the North Island (New Zealand has two main islands and a few smaller ones), so since I’ve covered some background already, I’ll tell you about the North Island today and the South Island next time.

We landed in Auckland, exhausted after two days of traveling, and were immediately impressed by the atmosphere of the city. It is springtime right now in New Zealand, and we were greeted by blue skies and chilly air. Auckland is a reasonably-sized city, and we headed straight for breakfast on the trendy Vulcan Lane. We took the ferry to Devonport and wandered on beaches and volcanoes, before ascending the SkyTower, the highest tower in the southern hemisphere, where we got a great view of the city and our first exposure to the country’s extreme sports addiction, as we watched people leap off the top of the tower, connected to two thin wires via a harness and landing on a kind of trampoline.

The next day we headed south to Rotorua, famous for its thermal srings and mud pools and smelling of sulfur wherever you go. We detoured past Mamaku Blue, where we tasted some disappointing blueberry wine, though we give them credit for an original idea. By afternoon it was raining buckets, so we visited the nearby geysers and thermal pools at Te Puia and saw a touristy Maori song and dance show before calling it a day. The Maori are the native people of New Zealand, and despite the typically fraught history they have with the white settlers, the two groups seem to be living quite peacefully together now for the most part.

The real attraction of Rotorua for us was Wai-o-tapu, where we saw mud of all different colors. The famous Champagne Pool features green water and bright orange mud, surrounded by grayish mud with big pools of bright yellow. Mineral deposits that come from deep within the earth give the array of colors to the mud and the water. There was also a pool with impossibly azure water, and mud pools boiling up and spouting mud into beautiful shapes. The steam and the drizzle made it sometimes tough to see and to walk, but the unusual scenery made it well worth donning a raincoat and going anyway.

From here our plan was to hike the Tongariro Crossing, billed as the most beautiful day hike in all of New Zealand. We stopped at the lovely Lake Taupo on the way to the national park, but by afternoon the weather was not looking good, and by the time we reached our destination, it was so foggy that we couldn’t even see the mountains we knew were around us in all directions. Nonetheless, the forecast was good, so we arranged everything, fitted up our crampons (just in case), and set our alarms for 5am. Unfortunately the wind turned, and by the time we got up, all the ski shelters had been closed due to bad weather, and the bus company refused to drive us. Without any flexibility in our plans, we had to give up on the Crossing this time.

Instead we drove through the downpour to Martinborough, where the major attraction is, for once, indoors – this is the heart of the North Island’s wine country. We tasted a few vintages and some local cheese before heading down to Wellington, a very pleasant city as well. The following day we took a funicular up to the botanical gardens and wandered back down and around past some of the major sights before we boarded the ferry to take us to the South Island. Interestingly we found out that you actually end up no farther south than you began, because the South Island juts upward such that the ferry essentially just goes west. The ferry ride was quite beautiful, and we landed in Picton with gorgeous weather in the late afternoon.

The South Island was way more beautiful and wild than the North Island, but it deserves an entry of its own, so… to be continued…

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