This is the first in a three-part series on travel in New Zealand.
In the southern hemisphere February is our August. Late summer.
Reports to the contrary, New Zealand is not a small country. It stretches 1,500 km from the subtropical north, where olive trees bake in the hot sun, to the Antarctic-cooled waters of the south, where penguins march on pebbled beaches. And because Kiwi terrain is crumpled, the going is slow. It is a long, long haul from the southern port of Invercargill to the warm beaches of the north’s Bay of Islands.
Austral fall was nigh so we began our six-week tour of New Zealand in Queenstown on the South Island. As the plane banked for landing, I was surprised to see an arid mountain landscape overlooking a large, narrow lake. I wasn’t anticipating the south of New Zealand to look like British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley.
Back-dropped by the Remarkable Mountains, Queenstown (like Banff, to which it is compared) is gorgeous, expensive — and jammed with tourists from all over the world. After two hectic days of international socializing, we moved on.
We steered west toward Fiordland on the Tasman Sea.
The South Island’s similarity to B.C. became increasingly apparent: orchards and quaint wineries gave way to snow-capped peaks, then gigantic trees towering over lush rain forests; then raging rivers spilling through tight gorges. Near the coast, roadside pullouts offered teasing glimpses of remote ocean inlets.
With B.C.’s vast expanse, it would take days to experience such varied terrain. In New Zealand, it happens within hours; British Columbia compressed.
But there is much more to New Zealand. The Kiwis also have kiwis (both the flightless-bird and hairy-fruited kind), palm trees, the world’s only alpine parrots, active volcanoes and … sheep, lots of sheep: 30 million at last count — seven or eight lambs for each of New Zealand’s 4.4 million people. Thirty years, ago there were 80 million. But dairy farming has now surpassed mutton and wool as the country’s biggest industry.
Tourism is a close second. The Kiwis have this business down to a science. The country is chock-full of information centres, cleverly dubbed I-Sites. Smiling hostesses attend to one’s every travel need: guided tours, dining recommendations, last-minute accommodation, you name it — all free of charge, no appointment necessary. We happily took advantage of this nationwide courtesy. Our plans became spur-of-the-moment, footloose.
It was odd, disconcerting driving into the sun from the south. On a long February day (with 16 hours of light) the sun slings northward before eventually settling into the west.
And the clouds! New Zealand’s sky hosts arresting, unique clouds. Scientists refer to these unusual billows as “lenticular” or “asperatus” formations.
The Maori people’s name for their homeland is Aotearoa, “land of the long white cloud.”
And night after starry night, the Southern Cross — an Austral mariner’s best friend — stood out starkly against the brightest Milky Way I’ve ever seen; another amazing facet to New Zealand’s magical Middle-earth charm.
We had arrived Down Under with just three reservations: a car, a ferry between islands and a flight home. The plan was … head north. New Zealand’s unpredictable, malleable weather — and an open, flexible agenda — would dictate the tack. If rain were forecast in one direction, we’d simply head another.
We had intended to visit Christchurch, rent Segways (two-wheel motorized stand-ups) and tour the city’s Red Zone, ground zero for the devastating earthquake of 2011. I glanced at a television as we were leaving our Wanaka hotel. A reporter stood knee-deep in muck. Floods and catastrophic winds were pounding Christchurch into a fresh disaster zone. We veered left toward Franz Josef Glacier on the west coast.
The Haast Pass is among the most spectacular drives in all of New Zealand, so a three-hour trip became a full day pit-stop adventure; despite an early start, we arrived in Franz Josef only moments before the I-Site closed for the night. The pleasant young woman locking the door said urgently:
“The weather is meant to change and could sock in for days. You should consider a helicopter tour now, whilst you can.” New Zealanders love saying “whilst.”
We drove straight to the helicopter pad. Two blocks — and one minute — later we were standing in front of the frazzled gent who was charged with organizing the local ’copters.
“Any chance we might grab a flight up to the glacier tonight?” I asked politely.
“No” he said bluntly. We walked gloomily toward the door. A sudden, heavy thump in the air announced the unexpected arrival of a helicopter. He chatted into a headphone mic for a moment and stopped us: “If you wait 15 minutes, there’s an off chance of one last flight before dark.”
Spontaneity is the mother of serendipity. Twenty minutes later, rotors were firing and our whirlybird was headed for what our pilot Andrew described as “one of the better views we’ve had of Franz Josef this year.”
“Look there’s Mound Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak shining in the evening sun,” he marveled like a rookie tourist, “we never see that.”
Back at the helipad we thanked Andrew. He asked if we were Canadian. At the end of March he was leaving New Zealand. “I’ve taken a job helicopter firefighting out of a little place called Red Deer — in Alberta.” Travel life is full of odd coincidences.
New Zealand is renowned for hiking. Trekkers come from around the world to tramp its Nine Great Walks. Most are multi-day adventures. Backpacks, provisions and overnight gear are necessary to tackle these challenges. Since I prefer a hot shower, sizzling sirloin and warm bed to a wet sleeping bag and a swarm of sand flies (these malevolent blood-suckers are pervasive throughout the west coast), we instead chose to bite off day-hike chunks of the Great Walks, thus having our proverbial steak and eating it, too.
Which is not to say we stayed in Five Star digs. We had our share of high-end B&Bs and fancy hotels, but we prefer something a little chummier. Mostly we lodged at Backpacker Hostels, swapping road tales — and sharing kitchen facilities — with fellow travellers. (We quickly learned some crucial N.Z. jargon, like “en suite,” which means “private with bathroom.” Sleeping bunk-style and sharing a shower with strangers is only a step above a night spent swatting sandflies.)
Backpacker hotels do not offer soothing spas, hot mud baths or cold-water plunges. But they do make for some interesting situations and encounters.
We were socked in for a couple of days by Typhoon Lusi in the art deco town of Napier. Our inn was called Archie’s Bunker (an aptly-named place to wait out a tropical storm).
We were bored. Whilst Lusi wailed outside, one of the semi-permanent residents of the Bunker, an itinerant Japanese healer named Mitsuo Okano, offered to treat me — in the privacy of the packed common room. Another long-term occupant of the hostel, a recovering soul named Wallace, sat next to me. Wallace’s primary activities consisted of reading the Bible and laughing aloud at toilet-humour movies.
The doctor examined me and determined that a “realignment of the head” was in order. He laid three fingers on my nose — and held that position throughout Jackass II. Sensing my impatience, he said, “Relax, let mind be clear.” This was a difficult assignment given that his index finger was hooked into my left nostril and the good doctor had obviously cut raw onion for lunch. Wallace meanwhile, New Testament in hand, was guffawing uncontrollably at a disturbing scene involving male genitalia and a faulty zipper.
Florence, removed from the throng at the back of the Bunker, sat knitting, shaking her head at this surreal, All in the Family scene.
On March 30, we boarded a Boeing 777 in Auckland with 327 strangers for the 13-hour flight to Vancouver. I took my oblivious seat and promptly nodded off. Moments before takeoff, someone opened the overhead bin above me. A large, heavy pack fell squarely on my head, careened across the aisle and bounced off Florence.
“Oh sorry, that’s mine,” said the fellow seated next to me. I handed him a satchel jammed full of aviation books.
I looked at him and in slow recognition said, “That hurt, Andrew.”
Gerry Feehan, QC, is a retired lawyer, avid traveller and photographer. He lives in Red Deer. For more of Gerry’s travel adventures, please visit www.gnfeehan.blogspot.com.