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.