New Zealand

We didn’t go to Gisborne, but we spent some time in Napier, not far south …

(not anywhere near that)

“You know, 15 percent of people believe the moon landing was staged on some movie lot, and a somewhat smaller number still believe the Earth is flat. They get together on Saturday night and party with the global-warming deniers.” – Al Gore, Oct. 25, 2006

Al Gore was in Auckland just ahead of us after vacationing in the Bay of Islands with Tipper. Headline: The Inconvenient Truth-teller. Then a big headline-sized pull quote: “I have a big ally – reality.” They really worry about climate change down here. Depletion of the ozone caught these people by surprise and they haven’t gotten over it. It is true that the sun is stronger here, sunburns, heat exhaustion, sunstroke more common. In a recent poll some 58 percent of Kiwis want some something done, post haste, about the problem.



The rest, almost to a man (and woman), consider it one of the most if not the most pressing problem faced by the world. So it’s a perfect place for Al to come: his movie is in every theater, viewed by droves, and his work is admired by the populace.



Plus everyone here hates Bush. So there’s a general pervasive sentiment that the world would have been better off if Gore had triumphed (I don’t say won: he did win) in 2000.



We returned to Auckland with time to spare to prepare Melba for sale. Tip for travelers: if staying for a week or more in one place, inquire at dormitories or other university accommodation: they often have cheap weekly rates. In our case we stayed at the centrally located Huia Residence and paid something less than NZ$36 a day (which translates to about US$24).



Our first day in town we took Melba for a Warrant of Fitness, or WOF, which every car in the country must have every six months. Melba’s was about to run out and we knew having a new one would be a big selling point. Problem is, the technicians who do these assessments are usually strict. We encountered a couple Italian guys who were in tough straits because a van they’d bought at the car market wouldn’t pass muster without a couple thousand dollars’ work. Testimonials of that sort (there were others) stimulated fears of paying Melba’s value twice over just to qualify her for sale. Trying to recoup that kind of expense by transferring it to the sale price was more likely to keep us in the market for a longer period, twiddling our thumbs so to speak, perhaps even having to more than once pay the three-day display price. Or maybe we wouldn’t be able to sell her at all.



Our concerns seemed justified when Stan, an older gentleman who examined poor Melba, summoned us from the waiting room.



“Everything’s fine. But. You’ve got an emissions problem. There’s too much smoke coming out of the exhaust. I would have overlooked it but you were parked right in front of the window and my boss saw the whole thing. When was the last time you had an oil change?”



“Couple thousand kilometers ago. But we checked and filled the oil very regularly,” Lisa said. She’s the mechanic. “We were very careful about that.”



“Take ‘er next door and get an oil change.” Stan’s voice was low now, conspiratorial. “Ask for the more expensive synthetic oil. That cuts down on the smoke temporarily and it may be enough to get it through inspection. You’ll have to drive ‘er around for 100 kilometers or so to get the new oil into the system. Even then with a van this old it’s only about a 50-50 shot. But it’s either that or an engine overhaul.



“When you come back, pull into the front area there” – he waved with his clipboard – “where no one else can see ‘er, and come find me.”



We did as he said, and after about NZ$200 and an unplanned trip to the terminus of the Auckland Motorway, we returned. We caught Stan just as he was walking by, clipboard in hand. I didn’t even have to stop the engine. There was no smoke. New WOF for Melba, oh yeah.



After a thorough cleaning, we set up the next day with a buffer of about nine days in case Melba didn’t attract interest. We’d bought her for NZ$3,450 but that was at the tail end of the slow season and now it was the high season, so we marked her at NZ$4,300 with a secret willingness to go down to NZ$4,000.

I spent the first morning there while Lisa ran some errands. I talked with a Welch guy who had been there more than a week. His van was parked next to Melba. He was asking too much money but didn’t seem to realize it. Still – a week. Worrisome. He had a dead, zombie-fied look about him. He smoked a lot of cigarettes and ate candy out of a machine.



Lisa returned in the afternoon and I was happy to get out of the garage and into the fresh air. I was gone two hours. I returned to find Lisa sitting near the van, reading a magazine.



“So, no interest, huh?” I plopped down, looking around at the surroundings I’d already memorized and come to hate.



“I sold her.”



“Tomorrow you take the morning shift and … what was that you said, my darling?”



“I sold Melba.”



“Whaaaaa?!” My best incredulous interrogative, courtesy The Simpsons.



“To a French couple. They’re getting the money now.”



Turns out that Lisa, my darling wife, is one heck of a salesperson. She took a proactive approach. Right away she had a couple of Germans on the hook, but the French couple swooped in. Aided by the market overseer, Nina – who happens to be French – the sale was completed in minutes. Much more effective than my sulky, scowling laissez-faire approach, I must admit.



We got NZ$3,900, in cash, and were out of there by 3 p.m. The giggling glee, however, didn’t fade until well into the next day, despite attempts to subdue it with alcohol. Counting some repairs and things like the oil change, we spent about NZ$700 on the Melba Experience – far less than the NZ$3,100 it would have cost, at a minimum, to rent a car for nine weeks.



So we say, the Backpackers’ Car Market rules! And thank you Nina, you’re the best.



The sudden successful sale left us with more than a week in Auckland. I’ll wrap this up quickly because we’re already in Australia and just as we came to be sick of Auckland, and to a lesser degree New Zealand (only natural), I’m sick of writing about it. We went to the Sky Tower, because I think it’s written somewhere that you have to, and we went to the museum and the botanic gardens and did some shopping on Queen Street. We sat around and enjoyed sleeping and waking up in the same bed for more than two days in a row. We watched glorious television; I even watched some cricket, just because the pictures were moving and had sound. And we ate out a lot, enjoying the best of Auckland’s cuisine. We had a great Japanese dinner the last night at a place on K Rd. called Masako.



And then we were on a plane and then the plane was touching down in Melbourne. And that was that.

We did not go blackwater rafting. The weather wasn’t right – too much rain, making underground water levels too high. Too dangerous, they said. We didn’t argue.

We went on a more sedate cave tour and learned about the geology of the area, which I will not bore you with. The caves, many of them undiscovered, or at least unexplored, lie all across the sheep country northwest of Taupo, a region green as Ireland and ornamented by limestone crags, plinths, shelves, and sinkholes, speckled with copses of coniferous podocarp trees – 60-meter rimus, I think, and the smaller totaras – and girt by flowering gorse. (We were informed that gorse – which is literally everywhere in New Zealand – was introduced by the Scottish. But then, most plants and animals here were introduced by settlers, be they Maori or white. It’s both the tragedy and the triumph of the place.) The cave systems are extensive – but “extensive” doesn’t capture their scope. They are immeasurable. Everywhere amid the rolling hills are the “tomos,” Maori for “holes,” where the limestone has worn down from the battering rain and emptied into an abyss. It is a spelunkers’ paradise, not least because of the extant chance of discovery and glory. Few places in the world still afford such a chance.

Our guide, Norm, is one of those rare guides who seem to take a genuine interest in his charges. He has a brother working for DOC (Department of Conservation) who used to tie himself to trees in protest, so Norm is interested in Lisa’s affiliation with Friends of the Earth. When we tell him we lived in Washington, D.C. (easier than telling people we lived in Riverdale, Md.), he launches into a political discussion.

“So, what did you think of the elections, eh?”

“Very interesting results,” we say.

“Sure. And how do you feel about that Bush?”

“Well …”

“He’s a right wanker, isn’t he?”

The van heaves with a group guffaw. Our little tour is joined by four Germans, two Kiwis (Norm making three), two Aussies and two Brits. A nice microcosm, decidedly left-leaning.

We are entranced by the caves. We see two. In the first are the famous glow worms. It is pitch black except for a million points of unblinking starlight overhead: the slender hanging luminescent threads of glow worms. Glow worms are actually maggots, but glow-maggots, Norm says, is not the best tourist draw. The glow worms spin straight blue filaments much like spider webs to catch prey: light gleams from the end of the threads: in places they are so concentrated they shed enough light to see dimly by.

In the second cave, which Norm and his colleagues helped preserve, we see the bones of a moa – an extinct giant flightless bird, sort of a cross between an emu and an ostrich – next to the remains of goats, cows and possums. They wander in and get lost in the pitch black and lay down to die. Moa have been dead and gone for 500 years.

Norm tells us an old trick: colored lights on cavern walls. Tour companies often use such lights to enhance tourists’ visual experience. Such chicanery.

Outside the scudding field of clouds has darkened: more rain. We get back to our car park and one pair of Germans, Bavarians if I recall, has accidentally left their van’s lights on. We give them a jump: a last good deed by Melba, who now must return to Auckland.

The next morning, bright and clear, we hit the road early and head north for New Zealand’s biggest metropolis. Still 10 days before we leave, but we’re worried about selling the car. The Backpackers’ Car Market is a capricious experience.

Wellington to Turangi: 340 km

Turangi to Waitomo: 204 km

Waitomo to Auckland: 198 km
We caught the ferry (another three-hour boat ride, this time through calm waters) back to the North Island. A day later one of the competing ferry company’s boats almost capsized along the same route.

We seemed to be just skirting disaster on this trip. We read in the paper about a Dutch couple, sleeping in their camper van, taken hostage and assaulted at gunpoint: they were staying at a holiday park we’d almost gone to.

It was with this looming dread in mind that we headed for the Tongariro Crossing, our last planned Great Walk, a one-day, eight-hour tramp over the desiccated, treeless Mount Tongariro, an active volcano used as Mount Doom in Return of the King.

Tongariro is New Zealand’s oldest national park and a World Heritage Area. We’d tried to do the hike on our way south in early October but were thwarted by ice and snow. Problem is, bad weather can confound hikers any time of year on this particular tramp.

One look at the terrain tells you why. There are no trees. There are no buffers for the wind. Think Ecuadorean altiplano. Think Death Valley in spring. Storms whip up without warning: sunny days give way in moments to leaden skies that quickly turn to torrent.

It is beautiful, if harsh, country. The line of mountains crawls down the valley in waves of scrub, declining into broad brush-strokes of sandstone, walls of it along the road appearing to melt into protruded lips — looking like ramparts of milk chocolate that someone walked along with a blowtorch. These formations shrink and fade and the road twists in a descent to the Kaimanawa and Rotoaira forests, where huge dark podocarp trees bend to the brunt of the mountain winds.

I think we knew instinctively that the weather would not cooperate, but we went through the motions of making shuttle reservations for dropoff and pickup. At the appointed time, our shuttle didn’t show: we called and were told that 80-km winds near the top, at Red Crater, precluded any hiking for the day. The forecast was grim for the next day as well, and we were on a tight schedule.

We quickly rearranged our plans. You gotta be flexible on a trip like this.

We had time for one more Quintessential New Zealand Experience before prudence dictated we return to Auckland to begin the process – probably laborious – of certifying Melba as road-worthy. And selling her and quickly leaving the country.

We headed for the Waitomo Caves, home of Blackwater Rafting.

The election news came to us as we settled in at our hostel in Renwick, near Blenheim, in the heart of the Marlborough wine country in the north of the South Island. All the Kiwis we met wanted to discuss it, and voice their approval.

New Zealand, and Marlborough in particular, is best known for its white wines: Chardonnays, Sauvignons Blanc, Rieslings, Pinots Gris, Gewurtztraminers, Viogniers. Some areas are dry enough to make good Pinots Noir as well. We took a walking tour – the only ones who did so that day, except for a young Cornish sportswriter who shared our hostel: most people go by bicycle – and sampled some great wines that aren’t available outside restaurants.

It’s good country for wines. After the rocky coast, the bald, green, pyramidal hills grope inland toward the slopes of the Southern Alps, a line of mountains sheltering and keeping dry the sprawling Awatere Valley and Wairau Plain. Wild anise by the roadside, yellow and purple lupin along the hills. This used to be sheep country (of course) but now there are hundreds of vineyards, wooden posts and tiny tree-like vines orderly as a military cemetery, stretching in every direction.

I’m no wine expert but these vintages stood out: Domaine Georges Michel Sauvignon Blanc 2006 (fruity, nice finish); Charles Wiffen Riesling 2004 (also fruity, not too acidic); Huia Sauvignon 2006 (tart, peachy); Staedt Landt Pinot Noir 2001 (perfect red, in my humble); and Herzog Pinot Noir 2004 (terrific “nose”). Some are available in restaurants in the States, I believe. We had a pleasant if preposterously priced lunch of cake and cheese at Herzog, solely because it shares a surname with one of my favorite movie directors.

Strong winds. We heard that up in Auckland they had to close the Sky Tower because of the 85-km winds, an unusual move. The tower – the tallest structure in the southern hemisphere at 328 meters – was built a decade ago to withstand up to 125-km winds, but it can move as much as a meter from side to side and that must be an unnerving experience.

We’ll be up that way soon enough.

More goofy British spellings: Tyre. Tonnes. Cheque. Manoeuvre.

Up to Kaikoura, where there are two pastimes: whale-watching, and dolphin swimming. The water wasn’t warm yet, so we opted for the whales.

Sperm whale-pestering with 100 other people on two-meter swells in a boat spewing exhaust is not really my idea of fun. The creatures are majestic. The dolphins – “dusky” dolphins, the most promiscuous of marine creatures: they can mate seven to eight times a day, with different partners – are playful and amusing. And the birds, especially the giant albatross, are fun to watch. But the sea is not for me, nor Lisa, a child of the mountains. We were green by the end of this three-hour tour.

We got some good photos that should be up on Flickr soon; we haven’t been able to put any in the body of these posts because of some glitch we haven’t solved yet. But the Journey Map is now operational, check it out.

In the news we read that 37 whales died after beaching themselves up north, near Whangarei. The next day another 17. Front-page photo of a little girl with plastic pail dousing a blanket-covered baby sperm whale.

Morose weather. Trouble with Melba in Oamaru, between Dunedin and Christchurch: ignition locked, key won’t turn. Turns out to be a key problem. Locksmith is hours late, but we make a cannonball run and reach Christchurch before nightfall – 250 kilometers in under three hours. Good ole Melba.


Sullen skyline. Brooding. We’ve been told Christchurch is the most English of New Zealand cities and we can believe it. Dour, and dull.  Also the food is lousy.


Buskers and a giant chessboard in the city square. Potatoes and kumara – yams – from a vendor beneath the tower of the Anglican cathedral. He slaps some cheese and sour cream on top: “Eight dollars.” All-day wind and misty non-stop rain. Electric tram and red British phone booths, and a fine museum.


Guy Fawkes celebrations each night this week, in every town. Christchurch boasts the biggest. Fireworks at night to commemorate foiling the plot to blow up Parliament. Should be the other way around. We toast Fawkes from the lonely veranda of Dux de Lux, a local brewery, keeping our seditious opinions to ourselves. Good lagers at Dux de Lux by the way.


Melba gets up to 125 kph on the Southern Motorway getting out of town. A new record. Atta girl Melba.

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