At play in a land apart

Our laid-back month in New Zealand fea­tured beau­ti­ful scenery and en­ter­tain­ing dol­phins


Af­ter a walk un­der the hot sun, we found our­selves at a small park, whose en­trance was marked with tow­er­ing Nor­folk pines planted in the 1830s. Be­yond the trees, su­gar-white sand curved to­wards a craggy point, while turquoise waves gen­tly lapped the shore.

The scene was so invit­ing, we soon were jump­ing into the su­per-clear water. Af­ter­wards, we lay on the warm sand, en­joy­ing the views of the tree-lined bay. It felt like an idyl­lic af­ter­noon that couldn’t be im­proved upon, when I spied a tri­an­gu­lar fin cut­ting through the surf.

This was New Zealand, a be­nign land where shark at­tacks are rare, so I wasn’t wor­ried. Sure enough, we could soon see that the fins be­longed to a pod of bot­tlenose dol­phins, as they be­gan to play­fully leap above the waves, their sleek bod­ies gleam­ing in the sun. On the shore, ev­ery beach­goer stood en­tranced, en­joy­ing the gift of such a glo­ri­ous dis­play of wild na­ture and un­bri­dled joy.

That serendip­i­tous en­counter was typ­i­cal of the month-long visit my hus­band, Kevin, and I en­joyed in New Zealand: Like the en­tire visit, it was re­laxed yet play­ful, steeped in eye-pop­ping scenery, un­ex­pected and de­light­ful.

New Zealand is a land apart, lit­er­ally

Hole in the Rock in the Bay of Is­lands is one of the many stun­ning views in New Zealand.

and fig­u­ra­tively. Be­cause of this it of­fers an ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence in a place that’s dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent from any­where else on Earth.

About 2,000 kilo­me­tres of ocean sep­a­rate the coun­try from its near­est neigh­bour, Aus­tralia. That iso­la­tion is in many ways what de­fines New Zealand: a land of strik­ingly beau­ti­ful land­scapes, with hugely di­verse land­scapes. It of­fers the kind of scenery – snow-dusted crags, roar­ing alpine rivers, geyser-stud­ded moon­scapes, idyl­lic rolling pas­ture­lands dot­ted with sheep, mist-cov­ered fjords and sweep­ing golden beaches – you’d nor­mally have to travel to sev­eral dif­fer­ent coun­tries to find.

It means you can spend the day test­ing your lim­its on a phys­i­cally de­mand­ing moun­tain hike, and re­lax in the even­ing over a gourmet din­ner at an ele­gant win­ery, ac­com­pa­nied by a se­lec­tion of New Zealand’s ex­cel­lent wines.

That feel­ing of be­ing in a place like no other is pervasive. As we ad­ven­tured across the coun­try in our trusty lit­tle camper­van, it wasn’t un­usual for us to round a bend or go over a rise, and gasp in­vol­un­tar­ily, as yet an­other gor­geous vista re­vealed it­self.

New Zealand’s land­mass split away from the rest of the world 85 mil­lion years ago, long be­fore most mam­mals had evolved. Be­cause of this, New Zealand has no na­tive mam­mal species, other than a cou­ple of species of bats and sea mam­mals such as dol­phins, whales and seals. In­stead, the birds and plants that came along for the ride evolved in their own unique way.

It’s no ac­ci­dent that New Zealand film­maker Peter Jack­son chose to film his “Lord of the Rings” and “Hob­bit” trilo­gies here. The coun­try is a per­fect stand-in for the myth­i­cal world of Mid­dle-earth, where hob­bits peace­ably farmed and war­riors wield­ing broadsword­s gal­loped across sweep­ing land­scapes.

Any jour­ney to New Zealand of­fers am­ple op­por­tu­nity for other-worldly ad­ven­tures.

On the North Is­land, Ro­torua of­fers clear tes­ta­ment that New Zealand is still a place of seething, rest­less forces, of molten lava, grind­ing tec­tonic plates and vi­o­lent power. The very air around Ro­torua sig­nals this, with the fre­quent whiff of sul­phur tinging the lake­side town.

The geother­mal won­ders of the area are ready at hand – the land is pock­marked with great, steam­ing gey­sers, huff­ing steam vents and scald­ing hot pools. The scene is stark and dream­like, with grey, plop­ping mud, rocks encrusted with yel­low-green min­er­als, pools of deep cobalt blue.

Hot vents heat some rocks to a com­fort­able tem­per­a­ture, so you can pause to take in the sur­real land­scape while gen­tly heat­ing your back­side. You can also en­joy a hangi, a tra­di­tional Maori feast, where the food is cooked in a nat­u­ral hot spring.

In Wait­omo, on the North Is­land, you can ex­plore a labyrinth of sub­ter­ranean caves and then take a dream­like boat trip along an un­der­ground river. The boat slips silently through the pitch-black caves, the only light com­ing from thou­sands of tiny glow worms, car­niv­o­rous in­sects that lure prey with their bi­o­lu­mi­nes­cence. The worms’ eerie blue light forms con­stel­la­tions on the ceil­ings, re­flected in the inky-black wa­ters as the boat glides by.

An iso­lated area at the north end of the South Is­land of­fers a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence. Abel Tas­man Na­tional Park is jus­ti­fi­ably pop­u­lar – book ahead be­fore you go.

That said, we had a hair-rais­ing jour­ney, trav­el­ling in a con­voy over cy­clonedam­aged roads past mud­slides and steep moun­tain gul­lies, cul­mi­nat­ing in a wind­ing 12-kilo­me­tre drive over a gravel road that in spots seemed too nar­row to ac­com­mo­date two cars abreast.

But the stress­ful drive was worth the ef­fort when we ar­rived at To­taranui Beach,

a broad sweep of sand the colour of brown su­gar.

We spent a few days en­joy­ing re­laxed wan­ders through forests and along nearempty beaches, lazy swims in the warm, clear-blue ocean, and a steady stream of beau­ti­ful scenery.

In the even­ing, the sea would stretch be­fore us, as flat as a mir­ror, as we gazed out on per­fectly clear skies that soon be­came tinged with opales­cent blues, pinks and pur­ples as the sun dimmed. First one, then a hand­ful of stars be­came vis­i­ble, un­til even­tu­ally the sky was ablaze with dis­tant suns, and the Milky Way swept across the heav­ens in a vast, sil­very arc.

New Zealand’s iso­la­tion shaped the coun­try’s char­ac­ter too: early farm­ers and set­tlers had to be un­usu­ally sel­f­re­liant – if your pump broke you couldn’t eas­ily send for a re­place­ment part. Even to­day, Ki­wis pride them­selves on their can-do, easy­go­ing ways. A bumper sticker on a mud-cov­ered pickup that was clearly a work­ing farm ve­hi­cle cap­tured the spirit ex­actly. It read, “My for­mal at­tire is a clean pair of gum­boots.”

That re­laxed out­look made travel in New Zealand re­mark­ably easy. The coun­try al­lows “free­dom camp­ing,” camp­ing on pub­lic land where per­mit­ted, even in ar­eas that are not strictly camp­grounds. Although free­dom camp­ing has got a bit of a bad rap over the years, thanks to thought­less campers, it af­fords vis­i­tors a very dif­fer­ent way to ex­pe­ri­ence New Zealand’s glo­ri­ous wilder­ness.

On the ad­vice of a park ranger, we camped in the Waimakarir­i Val­ley in Arthur’s Pass Na­tional Park, in the heart of a vast alpine wilder­ness. Our lit­tle van seemed mi­nus­cule amidst the broad, grass­cov­ered val­ley bor­der­ing the braided river, with its back­drop of craggy, scree-scarred moun­tains. Wak­ing up in such a set­ting was ex­hil­a­rat­ing.

Cas­tle Hill is an ex­tra­or­di­nary spot in cen­tral Can­ter­bury on the South Is­land, where spec­tac­u­lar lime­stone for­ma­tions rise out of the sur­round­ing pas­ture­land, like mas­sive bat­tle­ments. Its Maori name, Ka Tir­i­tiri o te Moana, cap­tures some­thing of the site’s strik­ing beauty – the name means “gift from a dis­tant land.”

But in typ­i­cal low-key Kiwi style, there’s very lit­tle pro­mo­tion of this re­mark­able site, other than a mod­est sign at the en­trance off the high­way. Ad­mis­sion is free, and vis­i­tors can ram­ble at will along the trails that lead up the labyrinth of boul­ders, en­joy­ing breath­tak­ing views of the sur­round­ing moun­tains from the cas­tle-like perches. In­stead of warn­ings, fears of li­a­bil­ity and law­suits, and ugly fenc­ing to mar the wild beauty of the place, there’s just a po­lite sign re­mind­ing peo­ple to keep an eye on their kids and that dogs aren’t per­mit­ted.

We came across an­other in­stance of Kiwi non­cha­lance in Mi­ra­mar, the de­light­ful Welling­ton sub­urb where Jack­son has his film stu­dios – you can book a tour of Weta Cave, the spe­cial ef­fects work­shop, and get the chance to wield elvish swords and wear dwarf hel­mets as well as learn the metic­u­lous work that goes into craft­ing the props and cos­tumes used in Jack­son’s films.

Af­ter the tour, we popped into the Roxy Cinema, a sump­tu­ously re­stored art-deco movie theatre. We wan­dered up­stairs to ad­mire the sleek wooden bar and the ceil­ing art, and were able to get an up-close look at the Os­car won by one of the theatre’s own­ers, film ed­i­tor Jamie Selkirk, for his work on “Lord of the Rings: Re­turn of the King.” In an­other ex­am­ple of low-key Kiwi style, the iconic statue is dis­played, for free, with­out fan­fare, for any­one who ven­tures into the theatre.

New Zealan­ders can be both ex­traor­di­nar­ily civ­i­lized and deeply quirky. The coun­try is cof­fee-mad, so that it’s seem­ingly pos­si­ble to get a cup of ex­cel­lent

cof­fee in the small­est, most re­mote vil­lage. And on the three-hour morn­ing ferry ride across Cook Strait to the South Is­land, a trol­ley makes the rounds at 11 a.m., of­fer­ing home-baked scones with whipped cream and jam so that pas­sen­gers can keep up their strength as they ad­mire the views of the is­land-dot­ted Marl­bor­ough Sounds from the deck of the ship.

As we ram­bled around the coun­try, we saw the oc­ca­sional ad­ver­tise­ment for pet­ting zoos or “an­i­mal farms,” where vis­i­tors could en­joy such de­lights as bot­tle-feed­ing lambs. Weirdly, they oc­ca­sion­ally also ad­ver­tised “tame eels.” De­spite the in­trigu­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties, I was able to re­sist the at­trac­tion!

New Zealan­ders are jus­ti­fi­ably proud of their coun­try, and ea­ger to show it off. This is per­haps nowhere more ev­i­dent than in Fiord­land, the rugged moun­tain area of the South Is­land, rec­og­nized as a World Her­itage Site by the United Na­tions.

The area was the site of early en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivism in the 1960s, when New Zealan­ders ral­lied to en­sure a mas­sive hy­dro­elec­tric pro­ject didn’t harm the area’s stun­ning nat­u­ral beauty. We vis­ited Doubt­ful Sound, a wild and haunt­ing place, where tree-cov­ered moun­tains plunge steeply into the coun­try’s deep­est fjord. A cruise down the sound of­fers a rare chance to see a land­scape es­sen­tially un­changed from when British ex­plorer Capt. James Cook first saw it in 1770.

The sides of the im­pos­si­bly steep moun­tains sur­round­ing the fjord are thick with na­tive rimu pine and beech. Dozens of wa­ter­falls thread their way from the mist­capped moun­tains to the fjord’s blue-green wa­ters. When our boat cut its en­gines, the only sounds we could hear in all that vast­ness were the twit­ter of birds, and the gush of the water plung­ing into the sea.

As we coursed out to the mouth of the fjord, we en­joyed yet an­other un­ex­pected sur­prise. A pod of dol­phins be­gan swim­ming off the star­board side, cruis­ing just below the sur­face of the water, then ris­ing and arc­ing over the waves. Af­ter a few min­utes, they slowed and be­gan leap­ing high out of the water, prompt­ing cries of de­light from ad­mir­ers on the boat.

It was 2,000 kilo­me­tres from our first en­counter with New Zealand dol­phins, but just as spe­cial, and a fit­ting cap to our visit to an ex­tra­or­di­nary coun­try.

TOP: Cas­tle Hill TOP RIGHT: The Hob­biton movie set was a sig­nif­i­cant lo­ca­tion used for The Lord of the Rings film tril­ogy and The Hob­bit film se­ries ABOVE: Mo­er­aki Boul­ders

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