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.

A flotilla of 100 icebergs is less than 200 kilometers from the South Island. In 70 years they’ve never been so close.

We spent a couple days in Dunedin and declared it our favorite city so far. It’s not big, at least it doesn’t seem big, but with 130,000 people it’s big enough to be the South Island’s second city. And its charms are many.

Public transit: Check. Good, timely buses. Location: Good. Near countless outdoors activities, and a couple hours drive from Christchurch. Nightlife: Excellent. We saw a couple good bands and had our pick of a terrific slate of bars and restaurants. Plus it’s a handsome city, with good stout Scots architecture and a sprawling Botanic Gardens.

We spent the better part of a morning – and could have spent considerably more – wandering around the gardens on a sunny day. Rhododendron Dell, a 4-hectare spread of incredible color and variety, was especially impressive. Meditative. Tranquil.

We also took a tour of Speight’s Brewery. Tip for the curious: In the U.S. Speight’s can be found at some Trader Joe’s stores. Look for it.

Leaving Dunedin, we stopped at God’s Marbles (in the local vernacular), officially known as the Moeraki Boulders, odd round rocks that look as if they were swept onto the beach by a tsunami. Most are half-submerged in the sand. Some are broken open in a manner that suggests they were once occupied by aliens with explosive powers, or dinosaurs.

Science has been confounded by these boulders: but the theory goes that they were not brought ashore by big waves but exposed by erosion of the nearby mudstone cliffs. But it’s all speculation – guesswork. Their otherworldly aspect is not easily dismissed.

On to Christchurch. If we’d been smart we would have flown there directly from Fiji: cars cost significantly less in Christchurch than in Auckland: we could have bought in the south and sold in the north and perhaps made a profit. Let our mistake be your guide, future travelers.

Tip for travelers: If you’re in a youth hostel and want the TV room to yourself, turn on the news. Like bug spray to a cloud of gnats. 

Between Invercargill and Dunedin – a pair of Scottish settlements on the southern and southeastern coasts – we made two major stops. First at the Petrified Forest of Curio Bay, and then at Nugget Point.


Kiwis have an insatiable curiosity for all things biological and anthropological in their island’s history, to the degree that their newspapers actually carry science news on the front page. (They also regularly have climate change news, quite a stunner.) This is how we learned of the Petrified Forest, a cove of rock stumps visible at low tide in the quiet, tucked-away inlet of Curio Bay some 150 kilometers south of Dunedin.


The “forest” is a low-lying field of fossilized trees of a genus unknown to science (the precursor to kauri and matai, perhaps) that is about 180 million years old. It is littered with rubbery strands of snakelike kelp and splotched with green and orange lichen. Black oystercatchers, needlelike beaks perpetually pointed at the water, like the area for a hunting ground. As do the gulls, of course. The smell of dead and dying marine life permeates the place, the result of so much kelp baking in the sun.


What’s really special about the area – besides that it is not on most tourists’ radar screens – is how the petrified trees have become stratified by the action of the tides and the wind, breaking off at right angles and in odd shelves, steps, terraces, stumps, cairns and fault lines. Every inch is art.


We had a nice lunch on the stumps and drove on to Nugget Point, to see the seals. Nugget Point is a lighthouse-topped headland that shelters colonies of seals, sea lions and occasionally penguins, and of course a hodgepodge of coastal birds like gannets, shags, terns, gulls, oystercatchers, albatross. New Zealand is nothing if not rich in birdlife.


A path to the lighthouse took us to a cliffside lookout and as we approached, the lugubrious bellow of the elephant seal – followed by a deep, satisfying body-belch – echoed around the tiny islets. This eruption was repeated several times in 20 minutes. We saw a few seals and sea lions treading water below, hidden in the bog of kelp at the base of the promontory: more among the rocks, sunbathing. A seal’s favorite pastime.


Nugget Point is in fact a series of small craggy islands jutting into the ocean. The “nuggets” – an ideal descriptive as it denotes no definite shape – provide real estate with the double virtue of being all but inaccessible to humans, and ideal for hefting one’s fat brown body out of the water for a little relaxation. Hence the popularity of the site.


“I like these nuggets,” I announced. Close by a dowager frowned perceptibly. “I want to buy one.”


“What would you do with a nugget?” inquired Lisa.


“Live on it. Build a lighthouse. Train the seals to attack intruders. Nuggets have many uses. Harness wave energy to charge my electric toothbrush.”


“I believe you are well suited to the nugget life. But oh, aye, ‘tis a loooonely life.”


But beautiful nonetheless. A skirt of greenish-brown bull kelp, attached to the islands, swirls in the currents, giving the appearance of a sashaying dance. Cries of birds echo off the cliffs, competing with the groan of the seals.

Headline spotted in community paper: “Rogue gardeners harass elderly.” For those of you who thought New Zealand has no real problems.  

Glad to be motorized again, we rambled down SH 6 toward the coastal hamlet of Invercargill. This part of the country, just east of Fiordland and still in the shadow of the great Alps, is composed chiefly of farmlets and ranches. Not the most exciting stuff but pleasingly pastoral. Clumps of yellow-flowered gorse bushes break up the tidy parcels of green farmland, a tableau interrupted by tree-high hedgerows, perfectly trimmed, that hem in the endless fields of grazing sheep.


In Onepuki, on the southern coast, Dr. Seuss-like macrocarpa trees eke out a living against brutal ocean winds. Wizened grey trunks, dead-seeming, with bristly crowns of blackish green: the macrocarpa looks like a dog with its head stuck out a car window. The southerlies, we’re told, make for a hardscrabble life. You can see it in the natives too.
Macrocarpa trees, Catlins
We dashed across the southern coast, marking the stark changes in scenery. We were driving through dry, mountainous Colorado and were suddenly transported to the jungles of Costa Rica. Before we got our bearings we were in County Cork, all green fields and sheep. Blink, and we’d plunged back into Colorado, a high plain of ruddy chaparral and tussocks of brown, desiccated grass.

There are 142 species of fern in this country. Fern! Diversity of plant life, and terrain, is amazing.

“New Zealand really does have it all,” Lisa said.

What New Zealand doesn’t have is any large predators or undomesticated ungulates. This is our only quibble. No deer, moose, elk, buffalo. No grizzly, cougar, eagle, hawk, wolf. No fox or coyote. Wolverines are nowhere to be found. Nor are there unexpected dangers – the thrill of life-and-limb – from the reptiles. No rattlesnake, cottonmouth, alligator, crocodile. No black mamba. No fer-de-lance.  

Only the tahr – chammy, mountain goat – keeps this country from being strictly for the birds, and the sheep ranchers. He of course was another introduced animal, an invasive. But the shaggy, shy hillside dweller has done pretty well for himself.


We passed through Riverton and thought of Wyoming. There is no resemblance. We stayed a couple days in Invercargill, an unremarkable provincial blob, before moving on.

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