Skydives, Spas, Glaciers and Glowworms - North NZ

Trip Start Feb 02, 2006
Trip End Aug 09, 2006

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Thursday, July 6, 2006

In Milford Sound we were the most southern we have ever been. You thought cockneys were bad, well these guys are true southerners and only Argentina and Chile can boast latitudes closer to the Antarctic. It had taken us 132 days to travel 11,737 miles from Manchester, and it was from here that we began our homeward route.

Our first northbound destination was Franz Josef, though we allowed ourselves a stop at 'Puzzling World' in Wanaka to confuse ourselves in their outdoor maze. A pleasant small village named in honour of old Archie-Duke, Franz Josef is a glacier town which exists solely on the custom brought in by those willing to part with hardy cash to strap crampons to their feet and walk on the biggest ice cube they'll ever see. We took a three-quarter-day tour in brilliant sunshine on the glacier, carving out steps and exploring crevasses. It was surprisingly easy to traverse across what is in effect a 20,000 year-old frozen waterfall moving almost 1 metre every day, and it was incredible to be walking on something which was both pre-historic and active.

We woke in the morning to a Sri Lankan/German crossbreed named Andreas who informed us rather directly that he needed a lift to the Abel Tasman National Park and that as we were going already it would make sense for us to take him. And so it was that the three of us set off north, leaving the snow-covered crags of the Southern Alps for the rainforests of the west coast, up through the small, inviting towns of Stillwater, Brunner and Blackball. At Richmond, a soulless collaboration of concrete and neon, we dumped Andreas and continued to Moteuka, gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park.

What is incredible about New Zealand is how quickly you move into new geographical environments. At Anchorage Bay in the Abel Tasman for example we found perhaps the most stunning, golden beach of our whole trip, yet the previous day we had been walking on a glacier. Throughout the country, landscapes which elsewhere in the world are separated by thousands of miles, are just a few hours drive from each other. New Zealand is a highlights package for Planet Earth and for this reason is truly unique.

From the Abel Tasman we wasted no time in the arrestingly dull towns of Nelson and Picton (New Zealand really does lead the world in bland, characterless small towns) and at sunrise crossed the Cook Strait through the mystical Marlborough Sounds, to Wellington. We arrived to a thick fog and immediately got lost trying to find the suburb of Khandallah where we had been invited to stay with Victoria and Chrtistie, the Kiwi couple we had met some weeks previously in Vietnam. We eventually rolled up outside the house and Victoria was there waiting with her two cats Gucci and Armani to greet us with warm food and comfy beds. Later that day Victoria took us on a guided tour of the city and in the evening with Christie back from work, we caught up over good food and fine wine.

After exploring what is an indulgent city with a good mix of colonial-style buildings and modern high-rises, we were invited to stay at Christie's parents' farm in Waikanae, just north of Wellington. The farm was beautiful, with a lovely farm-house and fantastic views out over the Tasman Sea and we had a great stay with Alan and Lynn who were lovely and extremely kind to open up their house to us. But after three days of being well fed and pampered it was time to continue north so we said our goodbyes and began the 5 hour drive up to Taupo.

Taupo is your standard New Zealand town, and by this we mean there isn't much to look at. But it is blessed with a captivating lake - the largest in New Zealand - which provides the perfect foreground to Mount Doom in the distance. Like most people we were here for the skydiving which takes place over this perfect vista, and we both went up that afternoon to jump from 12,000 feet. It's difficult to describe skydiving in a way that adequately captures the true sensation, but it's a lot like falling out of an aeroplane. For 45 seconds plummet to the ground, but when the parachute opens you float effortlessly around and can take in the spectacular scenery around you. In five minutes its all over, and you just want to do it again.

But of course, we couldn't, and so moved on that evening to Rotorua, without doubt the smelliest town on our trip, and don't forget we've been to India. It is the geo-thermic something-or-others which create the terrible eggy stench which engrosses the city. As with Taupo there isn't much to Rotorua city centre outside of the familiar sights of Subway and McDonalds, but in the surrounding areas we spent a pleasant day in natural spa baths, the Government Gardens and a 'traditional' Maori village, Te Whakarewarewa where we watched a cultural show and witnessed the impressive hot mud pools, springs and geysers in action.

It is a short, pleasant drive through the English countryside of the western north island to the Waitomo Caves, home to the world's largest population of glowworms. The Glowworm cave tour we took was oppressively touristy, packed with Japanese and Americans with screaming children and cameras bouncing off their bellies. But the worms and the galaxy of tiny blue lights they emit were mightily impressive. Our tip, however, would be to take yourself on a walk around the Aranui cave which is free, and to avoid the glowworm museum, which is naff.

The next two days were spent on the Coromandel Peninsular, another area of outstanding natural beauty but which is often overlooked by visitors. Again we found incredibly diverse landscapes in this one place; from rural Scotland to Northern Vietnam. But New Zealand, it seems, is doing its best to devastate this area with widespread deforestation which has scarred some parts of the region. It was truly depressing to find such disregard for what this country is uniquely blessed with, and New Zealanders should be ashamed they are allowing such an atrocity to happen.

And so to Auckland, our final destination in New Zealand and the hub of New Zealand's commercial activity. Without doubt this is the city which non-Auckland New Zealanders despise. Sure, it was busy, brash, impersonal, garish and noisy, but then it is a big city of international status where more than a quarter of the country's population reside. We explored the city centre, Devonport and Ponsonby amongst other areas during our time there and whilst it was reasonable enough with a amiable mix of communal parkland and reasonable architecture, we found nothing exceptional to write home about.

And now as we leave Auckland so concludes our time in New Zealand, a country without match for the beauty and diversity of its climate, landscape and people. Could we live here? Probably not, but New Zealand holds something for everyone and no matter what you are into, you should come here and visit. Finally, in the only thing that really matters, New Zealand is far better than Australia.
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