Should you go to the land of the kiwis?

IMG_2050.JPGWhile flying home Saturday, I reflected on our four weeks in New Zealand. Kiwis kept asking us along the way, “What have you enjoyed most?” And I couldn’t tell them. We enjoyed so many things. You might think it’s a no-brainer; that everyone should go to New Zealand, even you. But the truth is more complicated, I think. 

Two reasons NOT to go to New Zealand seem evident (to me). 

  1. It’s REALLY far from almost everywhere. For our flight from Auckland to San Francisco, we were aloft for almost 12 hours (and then it took hours more to get home from the Bay Area.) That’s a long time to be cooped up in a metal tube at 36,000 feet. Even if the flight is free (as it was for us, using frequent-flier miles), the long passage takes a toll.
  1. The New Zealand dollar has lost almost a fifth of its value against the dollar over the last four years. But travel there still feels no less expensive than it is in the US. Meals in restaurants cost about the same, as do hotels — and why not? New Zealand is at least as advanced a country as America. If you’re on a budget, so many other destinations offer much more bang for the (US) buck (e.g. Ecuador or India or Vietnam or Portugal, etc.)

On the other hand, you still might want to come to New Zealand:

3. To experience nature. My good friend (and travel blogger par excellence) Doris has commented as she’s read my posts that she’s not terribly interested in New Zealand because it looks a lot like Iceland (where she has already traveled). I haven’t been to Iceland yet, but I don’t doubt that’s true. However, I’ve retorted that New Zealand is also carpeted with vast emerald farmland that reminded me of Ireland. It has deer farms…IMG_2061.JPG and The Shire.IMG_2051.JPG We drove through stretches of the South Island interior that felt like the American Southwest. We hiked through tropical rainforests that filled me with a sense of rapture. We floated through those caves illuminated only with incandescent larvae. We walked on beaches devoid of people but filled with sensuous driftwood.IMG_2064.JPG

Steve and I partly went to New Zealand at this point in our lives to take advantage of the hiking and trekking we’d heard about. We were not disappointed. Indeed Kiwis struck us as having more of a passion for striding through the outdoors than any place else we’ve been. 

On the other hand, you can enjoy tremendous natural beauty in America too. It may be less concentrated than it is in New Zealand, but you don’t have to travel as far to get to it (see point number 1 above.)

4) Related to but different from coming for the nature is coming to participate in crazy action sports. Bungee jumping was invented in New Zealand…

Here’s the birthplace. People still bungee jump today, but alas we missed seeing the action.

To that a head-spinning list of other crazy adventures have been added: luging, sky-diving, jet boating, paragliding, whitewater rafting, and more.

I used to think maybe this was a marketing ploy — something Kiwis had dreamed up to attract tourists. Maybe there’s some truth to that, but over the past few weeks, Steve and I have come to think it also reflects something in the character of New Zealand’s residents. They appeared to us to be tough, hardy folk. Seeing the “pleasure” sailors out on Auckland Bay in icy winds so strong they would have caused the issue of small-craft warnings in San Diego…IMG_2066.JPG …watching a dad ignore his toddler daughter making her way up the climbing wall at the fabulous playground in Christchurch…IMG_2065.JPG… or trekking with the gang on the Routeburn in the storm. It made us suspect New Zealanders relish the wild adventure options themselves.

5) New Zealand exposes one to a different relationship between native peoples and their Anglo invaders than anywhere else we could think of. We didn’t know this before we came. We understood little to nothing about kiwi history. Learning that the first humans didn’t set foot on either island till around 1200 AD — and that they were Polynesians (hailing from Fiji or Hawaii or similar islands) startled us. The Maoris (as those first New Zealand settlers became known) had lived here less than 500 years before Captain Cook arrived. The Englishmen (and other white folk) who flocked here after Cook’s reports managed to get a whole bunch of the land out of the Maori hands. 

But about 100 years after they did, the pendulum began to swing the other way. The Maoris have since gotten some stuff back. Reparations have been made. (We heard at one point that more than 98% of the “reconciliation” process has now been completed.) 

The net result is that today, to us hasty visitors, it looks as if Maoris enjoy more respect and a more central place in New Zealand society than the natives anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. We liked that.

4) Visiting New Zealand is more like visiting one of the planets in the Galactic Association than anywhere else we’ve ever experienced. (The Galactic Association is Steve’s science-fictional invention. It promotes settlement of 8 planets by pioneers from earth.) 

Before the first humans arrived just 800 or so years ago, no mammals lived in New Zealand (except for three tiny bat species.) It was all birds, a vast variety of them, including the giant flightless moa and the huge and terrifying eagles who hunted them.IMG_2052.JPGThe Maoris brought invasive dogs and rats, and other animal (and botanical) invaders followed. Battles between the natives and the alien predators are being fought intensely today.IMG_2053.JPG

Still, where else on the planet can you hike through wild, wild country and know there are no bears, no snakes, no big cats or elephants — just birds, whose songs are slowly fading as the possums and wallaby and rats eat them?

Is that a good reason to travel to New Zealand? Certainly all of those (except for the adventure sports) were reason enough for us. As a bonus, we have memories of being stopped on that road to let modern shepherds guide their flocks across the highway.IMG_7.JPGIMG_2047.JPG

There were amazing skies…IMG_2048.JPG and magnificent trees. IMG_2049.JPG


I’ll probably forget most of it. But part of why I write this blog is to help me remember. IMG_2062.JPG

Goodbye road, hello rail

Around noon Wednesday, we returned Car #3 and added up the total mileage covered with our three rentals. Steve safely piloted us a total of 2,124 miles. He says it felt like twice that long. The extra concentration required by the left-side driving on narrow roads never ceased to be tiring, although after three-plus weeks, it was far less foreign than when we started. We never regretted making this as much of a road trip as we did; the freedom it gave us was delicious. But we also were so happy we were able to shorten the driving portion, just a bit.

It was about a week ago, in the middle of Mt. Cook National Park, that it struck me we might not want to drive back across the South Island (through Arthur’s Pass), given that there was such an attractive alternative. There’s a train, the TranzAlpine Railway, that covers that passage. Lonely Planet says it’s one of the world’s most scenic rail journeys. Months ago, I thought we would certainly want to take it, but then I changed my mind.

On that road-weary afternoon, I wondered if I might change it back. Thanks to the wonders of the wired world, we found we could still book two train tickets and modify our car reservation, dropping Car #3 off Wednesday morning in Greymouth instead of at the Christchurch airport Saturday, when we fly home. Frosting on the cake was that because the car-rental agency needed for a car to be moved to Greymouth, it would only cost us $9 a day, instead of about $35.

We felt jubilant. Then three days later, I got an email informing us that a landslide had just destroyed part of the track! But, the message continued, we could take a bus from the Greymouth train station to Arthur’s Pass, then board the train there and ride for three hours through the most scenic part of the line! If we chose this, they would refund us half of what we’d paid for the train tickets!

We caught the bus at the Greymouth train station.

I may have been dumb not to plan to take the train in the first place, but I wasn’t dumb enough to turn down this second chance. It felt divinely inspired. The 90-minute bus ride was just as pretty — and vastly more relaxing — with someone else at the wheel. On the hair-raising, serpentine uphill near Arthur’s Pass, heavy sheets of rain lashed our vehicle, and then they lashed us as we dashed from the bus to the train. (So we never would have been able to hike in the forest there, one reason the drive had seemed attractive.) The train was one of the nicest we’ve ridden anywhere ever, with new immaculate toilets, huge windows…optional pre-recorded guiding commentary, an open-air viewing car…

…and TV screens showing a map of our position. But who would choose to look up at them with scenes like this outside the window?

No further landslides impaired our progress. We reached Christchurch station at 6:15 pm and took an Uber to our Airbnb apartment. We’ll have three final nights here, getting around with more Ubers and on foot, before taking to the air Saturday morning. I wish I could take the train all the way home.

How we got to the rainbow at the end of our Routestorm

That sea captain in Kaikoura was right. The massive storm from Antarctica reached New Zealand just when he predicted: the very day we began hiking the Routeburn Track. The meteorological chaos it spawned nearly killed us. Now that we’ve survived it, Steve and I agree: we’ve never experienced anything remotely similar; it was unforgettable.

First a bit of background. New Zealand is a country of keen hikers, and they’ve created thousands of trails lacing through both of the big islands. Among them, ten treks are considered the most sublime. They’re known as the Great Tracks.

Of these, the Milford Track is most famous, an item on many a bucket list world-wide. When I started planning this trip, I originally thought we would hike the Milford Track. But then I read that some folks consider the nearby Routeburn Track to be even better. It’s a bit tougher, but shorter (a little more than 20 miles covered over three days and two nights, versus the four days and three nights it takes to walk the Milford Track’s 33.5 miles. Hiking the Routeburn thus takes less time and costs less money, and all these things made me think we should do it instead.

You can hike any of the Great Hikes on your own, paying modest trail fees and sleeping in cheerless, uncomfortable government huts. Or you can do as we did: splurge by paying an expedition company to provide expert guides who lead one to private lodges where you sleep in warm beds and eat meals prepared by excellent chefs. We started our adventure with a Thursday afternoon briefing at the Ultimate Hikes office in Queenstown. Then our group of 16 (9 kiwis, 5 Australians, Steve, and me) reassembled shortly after dawn Friday morning. A bus transported us for three hours to a point known as The Divide. Shortly before 11, we were striding down the trailhead under leaden skies, with only a slight mist dampening the path.

The weather worsened but never got truly bad that first day. My feet, protected by my fancy new “waterproof” hiking shoes stayed dry well into the afternoon, and I actively enjoyed several of the first hours. The path led through dense and eerie forests, first uphill, then down along paths that varied from good gravel to treacherous rocks to elevated walkways, in places.A stop at the Howden rest hut revived us with hot drinks, though the warning board outside bore grim news.Around mid-afternoon I reached Earland Falls, a magnificent cascade of icy water plunging down the mountain face in the most ostentatious way imaginable. At first I thought we were meant to admire it from a distance. Then I realized we had to negotiate a ledge cutting in front of the cascade in order to continue on. The minute or two it took me to battle my way through the saturating spray froze me with its combination of bone-chilling cold and terror (as close as an encounter with a Dementor as I ever hope to have.) Somehow in the violent passage I ripped up one of my beautiful new merino possum gloves, and once past, it took me several minutes to begin to recover any feeling in my fingers. That gave me time to see Steve survive the passage.

We heard from the guides that we should reach our first night’s lodge in another hour and a half. Most of that required climbing uphill for a long time, over trail that increasingly was flooded with storm water.

The further we went, the more the water flooding the path looked like this.

The last hour or so, a steep downhill stretch, was hardest. I felt groggy with exhaustion, yet mindful that a misstep down the wet rocks could send me sprawling off the narrow path, to break bones or rip ligaments or smash my head on a rock on my way down the abyss. It was close to 5:30 by the time I stumbled into the private lodge owned by Ultimate Hikes. Steve, bringing up the rear, arrived about 20 minutes after me.

We warmed up, dried our clothes…

The entire Drying Room is a gigantic clothes dryer.

…ate well, enjoyed a lively dinner conversation, then went to bed. But about 2 in the morning, deep explosions of sound awakened everyone —thunder overwhelming the incessant roar of rain smashing down upon the lodge’s roof. (We later heard that more than 200 lightning strikes were recorded in the area, an all-time historic record, someone said.) “We would die if we were caught out in that,” I thought.

As it turned out, I was wrong. We eventually were caught in something similar, and it’s hard to communicate how difficult that turned out to be. Sitting at dinner, after we’d survived it, I commented that at least it would make for good storytelling. “But no one will believe you,” said one of the Australian women, part of a group of four chums celebrating their 30th high school reunion. They were tough accomplished women, all of them, among the fittest of our our whole group, but another of them observed, “When the kiwis say a hike is Intermediate [as the Routeburn is labeled], I’ve come to realize that means Difficult.”

The second day we started out in driving rain, climbing up to magnificent (if fog-enshrouded) views of the valley where we’d spent the night. After an hour or two, we stopped for a hot drink, and the guides told us to put on any extra heavy-weather gear we were carrying. We would be rounding a rock wall and hiking for the rest of the day on a ledge exposed to all of the elements. I donned my down jacket (over the three layers I was already wearing) then zipped up my heavy rubber rain jacket over that. With no warming, the sky flashed white, and a few seconds later, a peal of thunder boomed.

Over the next several hours, fierce winds blasted us with hail. Over long stretches, we slogged through icy run-off that at times was several inches deep. The thunder and lightning continued, always unexpected and frightening. Not that more warning would have helped; no shelter existed. At times the wind blew so strongly, I had to dig in my hiking poles to stay erect. One 60-mile-an-hour gust pushed me over, happily against the wall of the mountain rather than away from it.

Again, all of us made it eventually to that day’s lodge, though we learned that the group which had started up the Routeburn the day after us had NOT been able to get around Earland Falls, by then swollen by the downpour to monstrous proportions. Those poor trekkers had to retrace their steps all the way back to The Divide, we learned, where there was talk of helicoptering them out.

For a while, I thought we might snag a chopper ride too. That second night our guides hinted the rivers downhill from us might be too flooded to cross. But the third day dawned calmer, and they said we would walk as far as possible.The rain slackened and disappeared. We ran into one unexpected obstacle…

We had to climb down into the hillside to get around it.

We crossed a few scary bridges.But the river the guides had feared might block us never overwhelmed the bridge that spans it. Plus we were moving through forest again, which made the journey more soothing. By 2 in the afternoon, our hike was over.

I’ve been trying to figure out how I feel about it. Certainly, it would have been more fun and pleasant had the sun shone. We would have been able to drink in the glorious views, unobscured by storm clouds and drenching downpours. Spring flowers might have been blooming, as they are in the Ultimate Hikes promotional video. The trek still would have been physically demanding. But it would have fallen into the realm of the normal.

Any time you commit to a trek in a place with unpredictable weather, however, you have to accept that fate may serve up the violent, savage stuff. What happens then? It was interesting to observe how gamely all our trekking mates took it. Everyone joked a lot. We kept our cool. I reached points along the trail where I wondered how I could go on, and then I learned: you just do. You have to. Over and over I noted how easy it would be to trip up and die. But I never thought, “I’m going to die.” I just did my best not to trip.

Experiences like this change you, at least temporarily. Thought subsides, replaced by concentration on the moment. Only afterward do the reflections crowd in. In the aftermath, I’m proud of myself (and Steve) for accomplishing this. I’m humbled by how much worse we did than almost everyone else in the group. But I also feel vindicated. New Zealand offers epic hiking adventures, and we wanted to have at least one while we still could handle it. We squeaked in under the wire.

The sun was coming out again during our final one-hour return ride to Queenstown.

Fjord lands

Yesterday we visited one of the most dramatic and celebrated landscapes in the world, and the weather was excellent. But I’m afraid our luck is about to turn. Tomorrow we will start our three-day trek into the New Zealand alpine wilderness, and we’ve heard rumors that a huge storm from the Antarctic is bearing down. My iPhone doesn’t give weather predictions for the Routeburn Track, but the outlook for the area appears ominous.

The good stuff yesterday was extremely good. Seeing the Milford Sound probably would have met my expectations even had it been blustery and rainy. The Fjordlands area of New Zealand gets something like 27 feet of rain per year. Rain pounded the roof of our B&B Tuesday night, but by dawn, it had stopped, and Steve and I made the two-hour drive from the town of Te Anau over dry roads. We’d stayed in Te Anau because the only places to sleep at Milford Sound are in an RV or at the absurdly expensive Milford Sound Lodge (or, there is ONE other private hotel reserved for those who have completed hiking the Milford Track). The Milford Sound (actually a fjord, not a sound, because a glacier created it, rather than a river) is a narrow finger of the Tasman Sea that pokes into the forbidding mountains that muscled their way to the very edge of New Zealand’s southwesternmost coastline. It feels like one of the true ends of the earth.

The final leg of our drive plunged and twisted past rocky faces streaked with an unreal network of waterfalls… …then through a long, creepy, one-way, unreinforced tunnel crudely hacked through the mountain more than 70 years ago.Still we made it to the terminal on the water without incident, checked in for our boat ride, and shortly before 9 am trooped onto the Pride of Milford for our 90-minute breakfast cruise.

I found the TV sets mounted throughout the ship’s lounges to be hilarious.Happily, no one was sitting and watching the televised scenery, and really, how could anyone not want to drink in the real-life version of scenes such as these?

The weather got better and better throughout the day, which was great because on our return, it freed us to stop and enjoy sights we’d blasted by earlier, when we were racing to reach the ship on time. We hiked through pristine forest dripping with moss…

…breathed in the vapor rising from water racing through ravines…

…and admired the native bird life…

And the wonderful kea, the world’s only alpine parrot, known locally to be as mischievous as monkeys

We sat on the shore of this lake, marveling at the absence of any sign of human life except for us.

A bit further down the road, a set of ponds mirrored the magnificent mountains, the plants bursting with new growth, the contrast between cottony clouds and azure skies.

Now it’s Thursday morning. We’re back in Te Anau, but we’ll return to Queenstown in a few hours. We will have the briefing for our trek at 3:45 this afternoon. We’ll be bused to the trailhead shortly after dawn tomorrow morning (Friday, 11/7), and an hour or two later, we’ll lose electronic access to the larger world until our return Sunday afternoon. By then, I should have plenty to report.

Our wild albatross chase

That’s the peak of Mt. Cook, outside our glass doors.

We are sitting in our motel room at the foot of Mt. Cook (Aoraki). It’s a gloriously warm, cloudless day; we have the sliding glass door open. We really should be out hiking, but I’m recovering from a case of food poisoning that felled me yesterday. (That damned ham-and-cheese croissant at the roadside eatery, probably under-refrigerated.) Plus we’re happy to have the break from so much driving.

It occurred to me yesterday it’s been almost 25 years since Steve and I did any trip like this, driving day after day with only a night or two at each place along the way. We’re mostly only driving between 2 and 4 hours a day, but as people point out here,

It’s tiring. On the plus side, we’re loving the chance to see such stunning countryside: rolling green pastures so intensely green they almost hurt your eyes…A lake more neon turquoise than any swimming pool…Now these snow-covered craggy mountains.

This mode of travel also is freeing us to make spur-of-the-moment decisions, like stopping to taste New Zealand sauvignon blancs and rieslings and pinot noirs at wineries that are the polar opposite in their hospitality (inexpensive tastings, no fuss about making reservations) from what we experienced in Chile and Argentina this past summer. A more unexpected piece of serendipity took us on the hunt to see wild albatrosses in Kaikoura.

We were plodding down the coastal highway on the South Island’s northeast corner, where huge sections still are being rebuilt in the wake of the deadly 2010/2011 earthquakes. Sometime after 3 pm, I was reading to Steve Lonely Planet’s description of what there is to do in Kaikoura, the town where we had a reservation for the night. Tourists swim with the dusky dolphins that thrive there, but it was a chilly day, plus we have dolphins in San Diego. We have whales too, maybe not as many types, but we’ve seen enough gray whales to make the thought of spending almost $200 for whale-watching unappealing. Then I read the listing for the Albatross Encounter. “Even if you’re not a bird-nerd, you’ll love this close encounter with pelagic species such as shearwaters, shags, mollymawks, and petrels,” enthused the writer, who added that the albatrosses (“just awesome”) steal the show.

When he was 8 years old, Steve and his mother sailed from San Francisco to Yokohama on a steamer. One of his most vivid memories of that passage is of the albatrosses who accompanied their ship for the whole 5,000-mile journey. I’d never seen one, so this sounded like a magical opportunity. The magic started when I was able to use my iPhone (while we were driving along in our rental car) to reserve and pay for tickets for the first outing the next morning. I called the Albatross Encounter office to confirm everything. “Be there at 5:45,” the young woman on the other end instructed me.

The sky was just beginning to lighten when we checked in. I could see that only 6 people would be going on the trip. Two were an Ozzie couple, both bearing cameras fitted with lenses so huge they looked like weapons. The other pair were two young women who emerged from a camper van in the parking lot. One clutched the definitive guide to New Zealand birds; the other had her own super-long-lensed camera. I patted my beloved Sony and whispered that size wasn’t all that mattered, while Steve planned to use his iPhone.

Under the direction of a grizzled captain named Gary, we clambered up the ladder of a jet boat parked on a trailer.Gary and a helper quickly maneuvered it into the water, then we were off, pounding over a rolling swell. Before long we stopped near a fishing trawler, that had already attracted a raucous avian audience.

If one of our fellow passengers were writing this, you would probably get a much more detailed listing of everything we saw. Collectively, the other four must have taken more than 10,000 photographs, and one of the girls made eager notations in her birding notebook. I can only say: those birds put on quite a show. We saw hundreds of gulls and terns and Cape Petrels. Most of the latter are small but two giant species awed us. Even hard-bitten Gary seemed blown away by the presence of three Giant Southern Petrels.

Here are two of the three. You can tell they’re the southern variant by the green tip of their bills.

They normally hang out in Antarctica. “I think we may have a world record with that one today,” the captain/guide declared.

The male Northern Giant Petrels put on displays of machismo.
This sometimes resulted in birdy battles.

Gary pointed out the Hutton’s shearwater, which nests in the alpine mountains but spends most of its life flying at sea. And he counted six different varieties of albatross. I loved the dapper, slightly sinister Salvin’s albatross.

The star of the ensemble, however, was the Gibson’s Antipodean Wandering albatross.

Those guys weren’t just soaring overhead, though they do that sublimely. They were landing (much more gracefully than brown pelicans, Steve and I remarked) and joining the feathered throng jockeying for scraps from the fishing boat or pecking into the bale of chum that Gary sometimes suspended overboard.

This guy got cut up in the fracas.

It was a squawking, jostling, intensely social scene.

Steve captured good video (on his trusty iPhone), and I tried twice to insert it here, but the Internet in the national park is very slow. I’ll make another effort to add it when I get back home, but in the meantime, I’ll wrap up with this photo of a red-billed seagull. They’re nowhere near as big as the albatrosses, and we didn’t have to pay to see them. They still have a lot of style, I think.

Blogger hell

Compared to India (where we were traveling last year at this time), New Zealand is a tougher place to be a blogger. Or so I’m finding. For one thing we took many trains on the subcontinent, many of them interminable, and that gave me vast amounts of time for writing. Here for the past 10 days, we’ve been waking up between 5 and 6am, then quickly getting organized and hitting the road, either to sightsee or drive to our next destination (or both). I can write in cars, but not in New Zealand, where driving on the left side and negotiating narrow roads and sometimes-confusing traffic circles puts me on full-time duty as navigator. And then there’s the question of subject matter.

We’re having a great time: drinking in beautiful natural scenes; learning about the Maori culture; enjoying food that has consistently ranged from good to excellent. But it’s the sort of stuff that’s more fun to experience than to read (or write) about. It is NOT the stuff of high adventure. I’m not complaining, but rather explaining why I think some of the highlights of our last few days are better communicated in photos, than words.

Tuesday morning, we spent eight hours on the road from Rotarua to Wellington, arriving tired but happy to have had no driving catastrophes. We chose to drive, rather than fly, because the country sounded so extraordinary. At one point we took a short hike to this beautiful waterfall…

Then we headed south past Lake Taupo, the caldera created in a supervolcanic eruption that was the biggest anywhere on earth for the past 70,000 years.It’s still a wildly active volcanic region. We’d hoped to see three of the giants, including one that was the stand-in for Mt. Doom in the Jackson/Tolkien movies. But the national park that contains them was enshrouded in appropriately gloomy low clouds.Happily, the sun was shining yesterday, when we set out to cram as much of Wellington as we could into our single day. Wellington is the kiwi capital, but Parliament was not in session (or else I would have dragged Steve in to see it deliberating.)

This striking structure houses one of the oldest continuously functioning parliaments in the world.

Instead we took a cable car up to the excellent Botanic Gardens, strolling down through the horticultural wonders.

The grounds include a photogenic old cemetery.

After lunch at one of the country’s best restaurants…

This was my dessert: hibiscus panna cotta.

…we spent the rest of the afternoon in a museum that has to rank among the best anywhere.It mashes together earth science, natural history, anthropology, art, and more.

Here we learned that New Zealand possums, a notorious and much-loathed pest, look nothing at all like their North American cousins.
This marvelous art installation, a two-story-tall explosion of confetti, frozen in time, enchanted me.

Now it’s the morning of Halloween, and we’re on the ferry, halfway between the three- and-a-half-hour-long passage between the North and South islands.Ironically, it’s a nice chunk of time for writing. If only we weren’t in blogger hell.

Big sights and little sights

What to see? What to do? How do you plan activities in a place on the other side of the world that you’ve never seen before?

Before we leave home, I ask experienced friends for suggestions. I also read as much as possible, both guidebooks and (recent) online articles, blogs, and other sources. This gives me ideas, which I weigh in light of Steve’s and my idiosyncratic appetites.

And sometimes I just get lucky. This happened to us two days ago in Otorohanga, a small town about two and a half hours south of Auckland, where we spent our first night on the road. (For our first five nights, in Auckland, we stayed for free in a townhouse I arranged through

We wanted to sleep in Otorohanga because it’s well-positioned between two of New Zealand’s biggest tourist attractions. (More on them below.) The Mohaonui Farmstay was reasonably priced ($80 for bed and breakfast) and well-reviewed on I also figured it might be cool to sleep on a working dairy farm. As things turned out, we only had about 15 hours there, most of that time after dark. But in the few daylight hours, I was more or less continuously filled with peace and pleasure and delight.

Owners Marain and Noel Hurley greeted us and seemed happy to expound at length about the property, which has been in the Hurley family for decades. Today they share it with about 200 head of Friesian cows. They’re milked twice a day by a 56-year-old “tenant farmer” named Brent. He splits the milky profits 50-50 with Marain and Noel. I gathered that the farmstay operation is a recent diversification. Here’s the private cottage where we stayed:

The interior was even cozier than than outside.

The weather had turned sublime. Toward sunset I sat in the chair that hangs from the large tree in back of the cottage. Calves in the paddock to my left pulled up mouthfuls of kelly green grass, shooting curious glances my way as they chewed.

Off in the distance, I could just make out the rest of the herd at the foot of a distant hillside.

We’d been sufficiently foresighted to pick up a roast chicken, some deli salads, and a bottle of wine at the Countdown grocery store in town. It felt great to hunker down in the cottage and climb into bed early. That set us up to wake before dawn to the opening overtures of a symphony of birdsong. (I think New Zealand’s birds must rank among the world’s most melodious.)

As soon as it was light, we slipped outside and through a back gate to reach the dirt road running through the middle of the Hurleys’ fields. From time to time, cows filed past us, making their way on their own to the pasture of the day. (Apparently they’re rotated among 47 different areas.)We eventually met up with Brent, another friendly fellow who answered even more of our agricultural questions. A bit later, back in the cottage, we tucked into good coffee and delicious muesli, yogurt, and fruit until it was time to hit the road. I felt sad to go.

But there are amazing things to be seen in this part of North Island. They include the complex of caves in Waitomo. We toured only two of them, both filled with wonders.

Ruatari Cave is enormous and has fantastic formations, while the highlight of the Glowworm Cave is a boat ride through a passage illuminated only by some of the strangest creatures on the planet. These “glow worms” emit a bioluminescent blue light from their tails. Assembled en masse, they look like a field of fairy lights. They cling to the damp rock walls in these caves and spin gossamer threads that hang down for about a foot. Insects attracted to their light get stuck in the threads, which the worms then reel in. Talk about eating in!

On the morning when we had to leave behind the dairy farm, our destination was Hobbiton, the 12 acres where director Peter Jackson filmed the Shire scenes for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. I had thought this outing would be fun, but it exceeded our expectations.

A view from the bus that took us to “Hobbiton.”
Bag End
Steve channeling his inner wizard.

Then we moved on to the town of Rotorua, famous for being a center of Maori culture… and geothermal marvels. Today we took in a bunch of both, then spent an hour soaking in pools fed by hotsprings…

Can you spot Steve?

…before dining well on Rotarua’s “Eat Street.”

Tomorrow Steve has the tough task of driving us all the way to Wellington, at the south end of this island. Folks say we’ll see more wondrous sights along the way. I expect we’ll find they’re right.

A visit to the old gods

Years ago, an astute park ranger told me that perhaps the most valuable plant in all of Balboa Park was the kauri growing next to the Mingei Museum. This species (Agathis australus) is one of the most magnificent trees on the planet, capable of growing to massive size and living for more than 2000 years. Mature species are rarely found in the US. (The San Diego specimen is thought to be about 90 years old.) The Maori people considered kauris to be demigods; they cut one down only after reverent ceremony. However, when Captain Cook arrived in New Zealand, he judged them to be the finest sources of timber anywhere, and within a generation, something like 90% of New Zealand’s great kauri forests had been chopped down and carted off by Europeans.

Before this trip, I’d read that the Waipoua Forest on the northwest coast of New Zealand’s North Island is the largest remaining kauri sanctuary left on earth. Although Steve and I knew we’d have to drive for about three hours from Auckland to reach it, we decided to make the pilgrimage; that’s what we planned to do Wednesday (10/23). We confided our plan to some locals Tuesday, and they strongly advised us to instead head for a regional park an hour or so west of Auckland. The outing would be less grueling and we would see at least some kauris. We followed their suggestion and wound up being grateful we did.

We’re beginning to learn that a one-hour drive here FEELS like it took three hours. It’s not that the roads are bad; they’re in much better shape than most American thoroughfares. But people drive on the left side, and while Steve is competent at that, the switch still demands a lot of concentration, particularly when the streets are narrow and cars are parked along both sides or the curves are head-spinning, as they were over the mountains.

Moreover the weather Wednesday morning was wicked and tempestuous. When we checked in at the Arataki visitor center, this was the view to the south.

The friendly ladies at the center’s help desk suggested where we should go to see highlights of the area, and once again, the local knowledge was invaluable.

We drove west, to Piha, where the beach was almost empty, save for a land sailor harnessing the wind.

After lunch at the sole cafe in town, we took in the view of nearby Karekare falls…then hiked to the beach made famous by the movie The Piano.Grains of sand driven by the gale-force winds stung our faces, so we didn’t linger but instead drove back to the nature trail adjoining the Arataki visitor’s center.

Present-day kauris are threatened, not by loggers, but by a virus that is killing many off, one by one. To combat it, forest managers have set up shoe-cleaning stations like this one.

Dense forest pressed in. We saw just one other pair of hikers. The trail terminated in a spot that’s been designated the “Kauri Cathedral.” A dozen or so of the gigantic trees clustered there, looking as much as demigods as any plant could. We stood and looked at them for a long, long time before heading back to the visitor’s center.

Steve in the Kauri Cathedral

The wind was calming down. The sun was shining. That same view to the south which had been cloaked in gloom in the morning had changed to this.

I was sorry that we missed seeing the great kauri forest; that I almost certainly will never get to it. But we saw other soul-stirring sights and learned a lesson about the wisdom of being flexible about travel plans.

And now for something completely different

Tomorrow we depart for Middle Earth (aka New Zealand), a part of the world (Oceania?) to which we’ve never gotten close before. It’s not that we lack interest in the land of the kiwis or in Australia (where we’ve also never visited). Rather, we’re trying to be strategic in our travels, visiting more difficult places first and saving the safer and more developed destinations for when we’re more infirm.

What prompted us to target New Zealand now is not increased infirmity, but the realization that hiking and trekking in New Zealand is a great attraction (at least for us.) We figured we should do that before our joints rebel.

So it is that we will trek for three days on the Routeburn Track, considered to be one of the greatest of New Zealand’s “Great Walks.” That’s in the South Island, but we’ll start our touring in the north, renting vehicles to cover as much ground as possible. We’ll stay in a home in Auckland, where spring has sprung (at least according to the calendar). As usual, I’ll try to report on our adventures. It may feel different not to be taking anti-malarial medication. But we should be able to handle that.