If Australia is “down under,” then surely New Zealand should be called, “Farther Down Under. Over 1,000 miles southeast of Sydney, New Zealand is about as close as you can get to Antarctica without actually being there…
I actually felt as if I was flying into Antarctica on the 3.5 hour flight from Sydney to Christchurch, as the plane was ridiculously cold and there were no blankets to be had. But after clearing customs and picking up my rental car, I immediately warmed up under a blazing sun. I had not done a lot of reading or research on New Zealand prior to this trip. Probably for that reason, compared to the other places I was visiting on this Pacific tour… Thailand, Bali, Tahiti, and Australia, New Zealand was the one that at least in my mind seemed the least exciting or exotic. Still, I knew that it was reputed to be a place of amazing natural beauty and with a very sparse population, two things that definitely sounded good to me. And there are volcanoes. Surely that would be exciting for a professor who calls himself Disasterman.
I drove from Christchurch across the central mountains and to the west coast where I wanted to spend the night close to the two big glaciers there. The center of the country was much hotter and drier than I expected. Of course they were just coming out of their summer months, and the golden hills reminded me a lot of California in summer. All that changed as I reached the coast where I found amazingly lush rain forests, with snow-capped mountains looming above them and in places, glaciers coming down from the mountains to meet the forests.
My first destination was the remote southwestern coast of New Zealand’s South Island to explore Fiordland National Park. The fiords were originally carved by glaciers and as the glaciers receded, sea water flooded these glacial valleys to create long, narrow inlets. I’d seen the fiords of Norway a few years prior, and my scenic cruise down New Zealand’s Milford Sound did not disappoint. Misty and foggy, the sound winds its way between stunning snowcapped mountains, and the walls of the sound were lined with beautiful waterfalls.
I stayed in the gorgeous town of Te Anau, known as the “Gateway to Fiordland” and with that as a base, I did a bit of tramping. Get your minds out of the gutter; “tramping” is the New Zealand term for hiking. It is rather funny to see signs in places that say, “no tramping.” I also love the term the kiwis use for sheep herding: “sheep mustering.” It makes me picture someone playing reveille on a bugle and a regiment of fluffy sheep decked out in uniforms obediently lining up!
I am also trying to adjust to the change from the Australian to the New Zealand accent. On the surface it’s reminiscent of Australian, but the vowel sounds are more seemingly more extreme. For instance, there is no short “e” sound in their accent; words such as bed, bet, or red all sound like “bid”, “bit”, or “rid”, or even “”beed,” “beet” or “reed.” My name sounds more like MET than Matt. Of course I am always amused when I say something to someone and they go completely blank because they can’t understand MY accent! I had someone tell me how much they love hearing American accents. Too funny.
My other big plan while in this area was to try either hang-gliding or sky diving, activities that had been on my “bucket list” for a long time. New Zealand is the world capital for adventure sports (bungee jumping originated here) and the city of Queenstown seems to be adrenaline-junkie central. I decided that I wanted to do a tandem hang gliding trip, where I would go with an instructor. I made a reservation and arrived at the tour company office all psyched up and ready to leap off Coronet Peak near Queenstown. The guy behind the counter eyed me cautiously, looking me up and down before asking, “How much do you weigh, mate?” Unfortunately, my answer did not go over well and he politely told me that there was a weight limit and that I was about 30 pounds over it! This brought back memories of disappointment and loss I suffered 33 years ago when I was told that after annual summer pony rides at Roger Williams Park in Providence, I had grown too heavy to ride the ponies. To rub salt into my emotional wound, the hang glide instructor added that if there’d been more wind that day, we might have “risked it”, but with the currently calm conditions and my weight, “we’d have dropped out of the sky like a stone.” Being fat-shamed in New Zealand was not on my bucket list. So, with a heavy sigh I got back in the car and headed on. I didn’t even inquire about the tandem parachuting because if I was going to drop to the earth too quickly in a hang gliding situation, I can only imagine what free-falling from a plane 12,000 feet up would be like. Gravity is NOT my friend!!
I finished my travels on the South Island crossing its far southern tip, the Catlin Coast, a spectacularly beautiful region of rolling green farmland, low mountains, rainforest and deserted beaches where sea lions lounged on the beach and barely noticed me as I walked past them. I stayed in wonderful little motels, reasonably priced and all with a full kitchen. An amusing custom here is that at every hotel and motel, they ask you as they hand you the room key, “Do you want regular or trim?” Of course I was mystified the first time I was asked this, but I learned that they were referring to milk; they give you a small container of milk for your morning coffee. Still, it makes me laugh as each motel clerk invariably says, “Oh, don’t forget your milk. Regular or trim?”
My final night on South Island was in the very Scottish-influenced city of Dunedin (pronounced “Dun-KNEE-dun”. I found a great little motel at a beach just a few minutes from downtown, where I got a one bedroom apartment, which faced directly onto the beach for only $40 – and yes, there was MILK too! At the end of the beach there was a heated salt water pool which I used that afternoon; It was very cool, gray and foggy – a lot like San Francisco in the summer, so a soak in a heated pool on the beach felt great. I also had one of my best dinners that night at a place called “Palm Cafe”, an informal but lovely place with high ceilings, candlelight, and a view toward a small park. I had a great meal of mushroom soup, and a “lamb hotpot”, a stew of many vegetables and tender lamb poured over a flaky crust tart. It was absolutely delicious, and truthfully, most of the meals I have had here have been outstanding, particularly the lamb and venison.
The next day I took the short 90 minute flight from Dunedin to Auckland on the North Island, got my rental car and was on the road again. Driving here and in Australia has not been difficult at all. I have adjusted to driving on the “wrong” side of the road with little problem; however, I do often turn on my windshield wipers instead of my turn signal by mistake, as they are on the opposite side of the steering wheel than in American cars, and I am always trying to get into the car on the wrong side, since the driver’s side here is on the right! I know that when people see me go to the wrong door to get into the car, they will know I’m a tourist, so I try to fool them by following through and opening the passenger door anyway, pretending to be looking for something in my backpack on that side, before I calmly close the door and walk to the driver’s side! I am sure I am not fooling anyone, but it helps me try to maintain my dignity!
Listening to the radio has been like a journey back to my past and the 1970’s. Fleetwood Mac and Olivia Newton-John both had released new CDs that are getting a lot of airplay here. I’d bought a very hard to find compilation of Olivia’s early material back in Sydney, and the young man working the register exclaimed,, “Don’t you just love, Livvy? She’s a bloody angel!” And of course the Australians are still crazy about ABBA and the BeeGees, and they seem popular here in New Zealand too. So needless to say, I’m having 70’s flashbacks as I listen to the radio and I am really enjoying it.
The North Island is far more urban than the South. The land mass of this island is quite a bit smaller, yet 3/4 of the residents live here and it’s a noticeable difference. I drove about 3 hours south from Auckland to Rotorua, a large lakefront town that is surrounded in all directions by volcanic hot springs, steam vents, etc. I stayed at the Royal Geysers Hotel, with my room overlooking a volcanic thermal park. There is literally a geyser and a rapidly-boiling mud pool right beneath my balcony! Disasterman is home. Last night I slept with the sound of the ocean out my window, but on this night I had the boiling mud pools to lull me to sleep. It really sounds like someone left a huge pot of stew boiling away furiously on the stove. Very cool! I visited some hot springs and mud baths at a place called “Hell’s Gate” (what a lovely name for a place to relax) and had my first mud bath ever. Unfortunately, the weather here has been quite rainy – the first really bad weather I have had in 5 weeks, so I can’t complain. Still, what better way to wait out the rain than to stay warm in volcanic hot springs and mud baths?
The next day I spent several hours touring a traditional Maori village that is built in and amongst dozens of steam vents, hot pools, geysers and boiling lakes and mud pools. It was really interesting; it reminded me of the Aboriginal Park I visited in Australia, but was less touristy. I hadn’t realized that the Maori are a completely different people from the Aborigines of Australia. The Aborigines originated in New Guinea, while the Maori are Polynesian, and so are distant cousins to the Hawaiians and Tahitians. There is much similarity of language. The word “wai” for example, meaning “water” in Maori is the same as the Hawaiian word. The English word “taboo” is actually derived from “tabu” in Tahitian. In Maori it is “tapu”, and in Hawaiian “kapu”. The music and dance of the Maori is also very similar to Hawaiian hula or Tahitian dance; although the Maori dance is not as gentle as the Hawaiian hula, the songs have the same rhythms and beautiful melodies of the Hawaiian music I love so much.
I was also surprised by how much the Maori culture mixes with the prevailing Western culture here, especially on the North Island of New Zealand. In Australia, the Aborigines definitely seem not well-integrated into the mainstream society, and perhaps this is because the “colonization” of Australia was particularly brutal. On New Zealand, there was the usual taking of native lands, but overall it seems it was not nearly the violent conflict that occurred in Australia.
In the village I visited, the Maori had separate pools for bathing, cooking, and laundry. They demonstrated how the pools contain a number of minerals and they boil their sweet corn in the hot pools. Many other dishes are cooked in huge boxes placed atop steam vents, and their traditional “hangi” meal is kind of similar to a New England clam boil… well, without the clams: potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, chicken, corned beef, stuffing, cabbage and onion are all cooked together in the steam ovens and they served this meal for lunch, along with the sweet corn. It was all really tasty. The village hosted a music and dance concert performed by about 8 people and it was really excellent. The performers invited a lot of audience participation and I was chosen to help demonstrate Maori greetings, like shaking hands while touching noses. “Just touch noses, don’t rub them together! We are not Eskimos!”. I also got to have my picture taken with a Maori warrior, our tongues out and eyes bulging in the traditional battle stance. I’m not sure how convincingly I could ward off an attacker, but it was fun.
Between the heavy rain and the traffic, driving back to Auckland took a long time and the downtown was a nightmare as there was a huge rugby match and a Bruce Springsteen concert going on. Anyway, I found my way easily to my hotel, and was pleasantly surprised by my luxurious room, again with a full kitchen and milk. I spent the next day, my last one in New Zealand, wandering the city, which seems like a smaller and more sedate version of Sydney. It is very clean, has a great location overlooking a huge harbor and surrounded by many hills, including a volcanic cone. There was a great choice of cuisines and one of my most memorable meals was a scrumptious breakfast at the cafe inside the art gallery. I also drove out north of the city to some of the surrounding beaches, one of which was featured in the movie The Piano years ago. There were many wonderful natural sights to see within an hour’s drive of the city and I wish I’d had more time to explore them all.
For dinner I had what was advertised as “the best fish and chips in Auckland”, and it seemed to be. I had kumara chips (sweet potato) instead of regular fries, and they were delicious. The kiwis dip them in sour cream instead of ketchup, but as in Australia, you pay for all condiments! My fish and chips cost about $6.00, and the tartar sauce and sour cream were $2.00! I then visited a place called The Chocolate Cafe, where I had chocolate steamed pudding and an iced chocolate, which quenched my chocolate cravings for awhile.
The next day I had to pack up and head to the airport for the flight final destination on this Circum-Pacific trip: Tahiti. I was sad to be leaving New Zealand; funny that the place I was originally least enthusiastic about visiting turned out to be my favorite stop of the entire trip. There was so much more I wanted to see, but perhaps the trick to traveling is never to see everything you want, so you always have an excuse to go back. And as it turned out, I would see New Zealand again…
Even Farther Down Under: Again
It took me another 7 years to get back to New Zealand, and it was during another sabbatical leave from my university. A colleague from New Zealand with whom I’d done research on volcanic hazards in Washington State invited me to attend and speak at a summer workshop being held at Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city. I didn’t need to be asked twice, and so after a few days getting reacquainted with Sydney, Australia, I flew to Wellington.
At a travel writer’s workshop I attended a couple years ago, some of the experts claimed that it was bad form to start a travel story at the airport or on the plane ride, but in this case, they are an amusing part of the story of my return New Zealand. At the gate while waiting to board there was a group of French people who were extremely loud, and it appeared that a number of them were break-dancers. They took turns throwing themselves on the shiny floors, sliding and spinning around, nearly bowling over unsuspecting passers-by. I silently hoped they would not be sitting near me on the plane, but my seat was in row 25, and rows 26 through 30 were filled with the French contingent. I reassured myself that it would be unlikely that the cabin crew would allow break-dancing in the plane, but then, just moments before take-off, a photographer boarded with a group of about 15 professional rugby players from Wellington who were returning to New Zealand after a win against some Australian team. Evidently they were being filmed for a news show or documentary. As soon as the plane took off they began drinking – heavily- and running up and down the aisles slapping their “mates” on the head, ripping one another’s headphones off, and screaming loudly, which seemed to set off the French break-dancers who became rather rowdy. The timid elderly New Zealand woman sitting next to me muttered, “Oh my, this doesn’t bode well for a peaceful flight, eh?” Truer words were never spoken and I was amazed that the flight attendants did nothing to try and restore some semblance of order during the flight. It was a long three hours!
My colleague had arranged for a place for me to stay: an apartment/hotel called Quest on the Terrace (which in a New Zealand accent is pronounced QUIST on the TIRRIS. This place had gotten frightening reviews online and I wondered how bad it would be, but it was actually a nice studio apartment with a kitchen and bath. Yes, one of the windows was cracked and taped up, but otherwise it was generally quiet and comfortable. I’d been told that I was only a 10 to 15 minute walk from the Massey University campus where the conference was being held, but I found instead that it was a very hilly 35 minutes! Seems there’d been an error when they made my reservations and I was supposed to have been booked at a different QUIST location closer to campus. Alas, my place is in the financial district which shuts down by 7PM and it’s a good 15 to 20 minute walk to find any signs of life at night. At any rate, the conference began at 9 AM the next day and I made quite the entrance, huffing and puffing my way in at 9:10.
The conference was attended by 30 – 40 city managers and emergency management personnel from Australia and New Zealand and I was the only “Yank” in the bunch. The speakers were government officials, graduate students, professors and some emergency management experts, and my talk was scheduled for the final day of the week long workshop. We did group exercises in which I was elected spokesperson for my group because, “everyone likes hearing your American accent.” We toured the disaster control center beneath the Houses of Parliament, where many of us made jokes about feeling like Jack Bauer in the TV series 24 and participated in a disaster exercise in which I had to play the role of a reporter from Radio New Zealand during a tsunami crisis. One day we took a field trip to see the Wellington Earthquake Fault Zone, areas hit by past tsunami, and neighborhoods built directly atop fault zones; Wellington, like San Francisco, is a very earthquake-prone city. We went to some beautiful look-out points and I even got to ride a zip-line or “flying fox” contraption that allows you to fly through the air at the park where we stopped for a picnic lunch.
I met several great people at the conference. Brenda (pronounced BRINDA) was a graduate student from Christchurch whom I happened to sit next to at a presentation. So we sat next to each other and passed sarcastic notes back and forth and tried not to laugh aloud. One thing that I noticed about the emergency management folks was that they love using these horrifyingly complicated flow charts in their presentations – dozens of little boxes connected by arrows going in 20 different directions. My mind simply cannot grasp them and I shared my disdain for them with Brenda. Every time one would pop up on the screen, we’d try not to laugh or make eye contact. We became pals instantly, and I went to dinner with her and her husband one night. Then there were Peter and Mike, two Aussie firemen who were fun to sit next to because like me, they made lots of zany jokes and sarcastic comments during boring presentations. When one of the participants was acting like a know-it-all and not allowing anyone to get a word in to the conversation, Mike leaned over to me and said, “In Australia he’s what we call a WANKER!” I met people from Zambia, Pakistan and the U.K. as well as many kiwi graduate students who were great fun to hang out with. I noted that New Zealanders use an expression quite often that makes me laugh every time I hear it: “Bigger than Ben Hur”, referring to the 1960s, Biblical epic film with Charlton Heston. It’s used to describe anything that is exaggerated or over the top. So you might hear a speaker say, “That tsunami warning they had up the coast caused a ruckus bigger than Ben Hur!”
Wellington itself did not call to me; for a nation’s capital it is very sleepy, and the food was expensive and not great. Physically it reminds me a bit of San Francisco, as it is known for its amazing winds, fog, hills, earthquakes, and a famous cable car, but the views are not as impressive here and there is a lot of industry down by the waterfront that spoils it a bit. The people were quite friendly though. As they hop off the local bus, most people shouted out, “Thank you, Driver!” It’s very cute.
Of what trip would be complete without a little credit card disaster. I was unable to use my card, and when I called the company I learned that someone had been charging computer software and i-tunes on my account, so the card had to be closed out and I would have to wait a week until I arrived in Dunedin to get a replacement card that was being mailed to me.
One night I went to New Zealand’s national history museum with my colleague David and his 10 year old son Joshua. I’d met Joshua four years prior when we all visited Mt. St. Helens together. Even then he was amazingly advanced for his age, and now he could easily have become a curator at the museum. He grabbed me by the hand and dragged me off to show me earthquake simulators, volcano exhibits and dinosaur bones. It was all quite fun and distracted me from worrying about my conference presentation the next day. I tried to reassure myself that I would charm the audience with my American accent and hoped that my presentation would be bigger than Ben Hur! As it turned out, I it went well and I got a lot of compliments; Brenda rated it a 10 out of 10, but I think she is biased and it may also have had to do with the fact that I didn’t have any flow charts in my presentation.
It was sad to say goodbye to all the folks I met there. After the conference officially ended, a few of us all went out to a local pub for beers and then to dinner at an Indian restaurant which was “eeexcellent” as it sounds when the kiwis say it. Peter said he was determined to find a way to bring me to Australia for a conference, and Brenda and I planned to meet for dinner when I got to Christchurch, so I definitely made some new friends.
The next morning, I headed north up Route 1, which despite being one of the main highways in the country, is mostly a two-lane road with lots of roundabouts and lights, so travel was rather slow. I stopped for a great lunch along the way at a place that specialized in savory meat pies and had a tasty pork and sweet potato pie, followed by a piece of amazing banana cake.
As I reached the small city of Taihape, I saw big signs saying, “Gumboot Day! March 20, 2010!” Gumboot Day? I shrugged it off, but when I parked the car and went to mail postcards, I saw a “Gumboot Field” just off the main street. I finally had to ask a woman on the street what this was all about. She said, “It’s Gumboot Day here in Taihape! There’s a gumboot throwing contest and everything!” Blushing a bit, I asked, “But what IS a gumboot?” She looked at me as if I were from Mars and told me it’s a rubber farmer’s boot. She pointed me in the direction of the field where the Gumboot Day festivities were taking place and of course, I just had to check it all out. What I found was a local fair, with food, crafts, live music (a rock band and a group of military men playing bagpipes at opposite ends of the field). There was a giant inflatable slide for kids shaped like, you guessed it, a gumboot! And then there was the area where the gumboot throwing contest was held. Yes, people competed to see how far they could throw a big rubber boot. I guess the training field I saw earlier is where the locals practice all year long. Too bizarre, but very funny! And as I drove out of town I had to stop and take a picture of the enormous metal gumboot statue that welcomes drivers coming in from the north. It is right down the road from the Gumboot Manor Hotel. Imagine – an entire town whose reputation is made from throwing boots around!
I drove another couple of hours north, listening to an Irish CD I’d made with a mix of the Cranberries, the Corrs, and Sinead O’Connor providing some upbeat music that seemed to fit the scenery. Well, OK, Sinead is not “upbeat”; she sings a lot of mournful songs about dead babies, young Black men who die on mopeds, and a cheery little tune called “You Cause as Much Sorrow Dead as You Did When You Were Alive” But her melodies are quite infectious! I also listened to a lot of the native Maori music on the radio, which sounds very similar to Hawaiian.
The weather was warm and beautiful as I drove around the Ruapehu volcano, which last erupted in 1995 and it was impressive. I drove to a nearby hot springs area and soaked for an hour before finding a small motel near Lake Taupo, itself a submerged volcanic cone. I was so happy to see that 7 years after my prior visit, when you get a motel here, the manager still hands you your room key and a small carton of milk. “Fit or trim?” It was like a welcome back greeting to New Zealand.
Today I stopped at two more hot springs areas; one was a cold lake fed by two hot waterfalls and it was a great place to soak for a while. At one point I lost my glasses in the rushing waterfall and tried not to panic, but I told some guys nearby what happened and they helped me find them. Whew.
From here it was back to Auckland to catch my flight to Dunedin on the South Island, but I needn’t have hurried; the flight was delayed over two hours, and the wait was excruciating. A couple with four small children (between 1 and 5 years old) allowed their kids to run up and down through the waiting area, tripping over people’s legs and then screaming and crying when they fell, only to start it all again. They threw themselves into walls, they pushed each other, and they screamed. Man, could they scream! Thankfully my prayers were answered and they were not seated anywhere close to me on the plane.
I stayed at the same place in Dunedin as I did during my visit in 2003 as it had been one of my favorite stops. Of course upon arrival I was faced with The Milk Question: Regular or Trim? But this time it became more complicated because my host was not sure if there might already be milk in my fridge, so he grabbed my trim milk back from me and said we’d see if I already had one waiting for me in the apartment! Good Lord, we are talking about a little cardboard container of milk like we had before nap time in 1st grade. Would it be such a disaster if he’d given me an extra? There was indeed a carton of trim milk in my fridge, so my host took the extra one away and I got settled in to my place. It really was a great apartment and was in a rather old, art deco building with gigantic windows that looked out at the hills to the north and west, and I can see the ocean from the bedroom window; the place is one short block from a magnificent beach in an area of Dunedin called St. Clair.
Man cannot live on trim milk alone, so I headed into town to try a place I’d heard about called Bell Pepper Blues… but when I found it, it was dark and closed. Monday night, I assumed. So I headed a little further into town to a place I’d eaten at 7 years ago: The Palms. It was closed and dark. Hmmm. I tried a third place called Plato. Dead and dark. And then a place known for venison burgers… closed! I finally stopped an elderly couple on the street and asked them if it was some type of holiday here, and sure enough, it was. Some “provincial holiday” they said (but the reason for the holiday was lost in their thick kiwi accents) so I smiled and nodded. They pointed out a place called The Huntsman, and though it didn’t look great and though I did have a venison steak, it was “not brilliant” as they say down here.
The next day was bright and sunny and I decided to take a drive up the coast. I stopped at a savory pie shop and got a small, still warm apricot and chicken pot pie to tide me over until lunch. What a great combination! I took the main highway about 90 minutes north and inland through very beautiful, hilly country, finally reaching the coastline again at a place called the Moeraki Boulders that I had seen photos of in travel books. It was so comfortably warm and the water was a gorgeous shade of blue-green. Beautiful and strange seabirds walked along beside me like loyal dogs, and then fly gracefully over my head. The beach was covered in colorful and delicate spiral shaped shells, and I just relished the sound of the surf, the cries of the birds, and the feeling of the sun on my face.
After maybe a half and hour I reached the boulders and I must say, they were worth the trip. Perfectly round, they had odd linear markings on them and some of them were cracking open along those lines like giant black eggs. Really bizarre. They could almost pass for something out of a sci-fi movie. Brenda and others at the conference told me not to miss having seafood at “a restaurant near the boulders,” but they didn’t know the name of it. I ‘d seen nothing along the coast road, but on a cliff above the rocks there was a place called the Moeraki Boulders Cafe, so I went to check it out. It was a cafeteria style affair, but was clean and bright and it had sweeping views of the coast in both directions. I ordered the seafood platter and found a table out on the deck and waited for them to bring me my lunch. Nothing could have prepared me for the feast that they brought me. It was hands down, the best meal I’d had on the whole trip so far. It was a heaping platter of fruit, seafood, and salad: two beautifully fried pieces of flakey white fish atop a pile of French fries, lightly breaded rings of calamari, 4 prawns done two different ways, and 2 or 3 large fried oysters. Then there were cold scallops and very large clams that had been marinated in citrus, and a large cold piece of marinated salmon. Surrounding this were grapes, lemon and orange slices, melon slices and kiwi fruit, and under the fruit was a multi-colored salad of peppers and onions and carrots. I’ve lived in San Francisco for years and am a native New Englander, gut I am hard pressed to recall when I had such an amazing seafood meal. It was outstanding and such a surprise in a cafeteria-style café for less than $20. And then a 180 degree view of the beautiful South Pacific, the sun peeking in and out from behind majestic white clouds, and a warm breeze blowing. It is one of those meals and one of those days I will remember always.
I returned to Dunedin on the slower coastal road and there were some eye-popping views along the way. It’s no wonder that it was the Scots who settled this area around Dunedin; it really feels and looks like Scotland, with a slightly warmer Hawaii-like feel added in. I headed back to St. Clair to have a swim in the heated salt water community pool that sits at the end of the beach, a short walk from my place. When I returned to the apartment, my credit card had been delivered! It had been delayed because they had originally tried sending it to me at my address in Wellington, New York instead of New Zealand! Given that mistake, I felt fortunate that it found me in Dunedin. And finally I had a late dinner at the Palms restaurant and feasted on delicious lamb medallions, mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables. It is days like this that make me realize how much I enjoy just slowing down, enjoying the day and not trying to do too much and that I don’t do so often enough.
Before departing from Dunedin the next day, I revisited the little pie shop I‘d discovered not far from the apartment; this morning I opted for a New Zealand classic: a warm from the over chicken, cranberry and brie pot pie. I’d love to have a place like this in my neighborhood back home. I then hit the road, climbed the steep hills south of St. Clair, and took a fond look back at the beach before heading south along the Otago coast road through Brighton. It was another beautiful day weather-wise and the beaches and coves I passed were beautiful. I dug out my Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac CD’s and sang along at the top of my lungs with these old friends that I’d been listening to for 35 years! As I gradually turned inland, fresh blueberry, blackberry and strawberry stands appeared and I had to sample all of them. The land becomes drier and the hills browner as you head inland and it was odd to see signs for harvest festivals and pumpkins for sale, but of course March is their autumn down here.
As I drove I noted that the highway department has gone above and beyond the call of duty with signs warning about the dangers of drunk driving or fatigue at the wheel. Every few miles there are ominous signs: “You fall asleep… people die. It’s that simple.” or “Drink, drive, die! It’s that simple.” Geez, I was listening to Say You Love Me and feasting on fresh strawberries… stop bumming me out, people!
Sheep started appearing more frequently as I went inland, and I couldn’t help but think as I watched them standing in the fields munching grass, looking so sweet and innocent, how easily they could end up on someone’s dinner plate beside some garlic mashed potatoes. They’re just standing there like sitting ducks – or I guess “sitting lambs”. I imagined a road sign directed at the lambs: “Eat, get fat, end up on the dinner table. It’s that simple.” I saw a t-shirt here with lamb chops grilling on a barbecue and the caption said, “Silence of the lambs”, which I would have bought had they had one in my size.
By the time I reached Lake Pukaki and the road that leads up to Mt. Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak, rain had set in and the mountain was completely shrouded by rain but there were lots of rainbows straddling the nearby hills. I finally reached my destination, Lake Tekapo, located in the mountainous interior of central South Island. I stayed at Pepper’s Blue Water Resort, located right on the shore of the lake. It was a little more expensive than I wanted, but when I opened the door to my room I gasped. The resort is a very modern, two story building, but my “Lakeview Studio” was actually on a third floor, a single room that sticks out from the roof of the building like a treehouse or a lighthouse. It had floor to ceiling windows on two sides and the view of the neon-turquoise Lake Tekapo, with mountains in the background was awesome. The lake gets its bizarre color from glacial run-off, which contains fine particles of silt and they reflect the sunlight, giving the lake a very bright, almost other-worldly aqua color. The view made me want to just sit and stare, but I dragged myself away to see a bit of the area.
I visited the beautiful Church of the Good Shepherd, built on a promontory overlooking the lake. There was a spectacular sunset that evening and I fully enjoyed the show before heading off to get dinner. I ate at a very nice steakhouse and of course ordered lamb. I capped off the meal with a beautifully prepared pavlova, a dessert that both the Aussies and the Kiwis claim they invented. Whoever is responsible is to be commended: pavlova is a meringue topped with passionfruit syrup, and lots of fresh fruits: elegant, photogenic and delicious. After dinner, I found that the town had a hot springs spa, so I went up there at 9PM and enjoyed a fantastic soak in the three giant pools, each with a different temperature. It was quiet and there were few lights, so the stars were really putting on a show and I just laid back in the hot water and sent a prayer of thanks up to the heavens for allowing me to experience this wonderful palce. After the pools, I returned to my beautiful glass house and watched the moon set. The end of a perfect day.
For my last day in New Zealand I took my own advice and decided to slow down. I abandoned a plan to drive up north to another hotsprings resort that would have taken me another 180 miles out of the way. Instead I enjoyed my room until check out, had a walk around the lake, had a delicious breakfast in the village, and shopped for a t shirt that would fit me. I found one: “Baa, baa, baa… Bar, Bar, Bar. That about sums it up: New Zealand.” It wasn’t as cute as “Silence of the Lambs”. but what are you going to do?
I made it to Christchurch that evening and met my new friend Brenda for dinner at a wonderful Burmese place. She was a bundle of nervous energy as she had a big decision in front of her about whether to accept an offer to enter a prestigious Ph.D. program in Melbourne, Australia or to stay in New Zealand and work with colleagues up in Wellington in the area of disaster management. It sounded exciting either way. We had a nice stroll around the center of Christchurch, a vibrant area of brick buildings and atmospheric restaurants and cafes, and it was nice to spend my final night in New Zealand with someone I knew would become a good friend.
People often ask me for my impressions of both Australia and New Zealand. While I liked them both, for me Australia’s big draws were Sydney and Kangaroo Island. But New Zealand, it is the total package. The scenery is so varied and dramatic, the pace is quiet, uncrowded and mellow, the recreational opportunities are endless, the food is simple, wholesome, fresh and beautifully prepared, and the people are warm, friendly and funny. What more could anyone ask for in a travel destination? If I had to sum it up on a single road sign, I’d say, “Go to New Zealand! Fall in love with it! It’s that simple!”