(Click on a picture at the bottom to pull the full sized gallery up!)
How awesome is life when something great comes and smacks you upside the head and changes you for the better? On this trip to New Zealand in 2003 I was broken out of my structured shell by my best travel buddy ever, Fabian, and from him acquired the greatest paradigm shift of my life: from a careful, somewhat uptight planner, I learned to go with the flow, follow the interesting thing, push myself a bit farther, and that you should worry about a hotel when you start to feel sleepy. I know I got the flu and had bronchitis the entire trip…but I hardly remember that part. On this trip I began to see the value of making connections to total strangers. Today, three people I met in utterly diverse circumstances are friends of mine. There was Joshua who’s luggage was lost with mine upon arrival in Auckland, and today is a California cop who I believe is standing on the continent of Antarctica as I write this (Feb. 12, 2012), Tobias, a German friend I met at a cave who now works at Google in Sydney and whom I visted there last November, and Glenn, who we picked up while he was hitchiking outside of Franz Josef Glacier on our one rainy day. Glenn stayed with us for a week of our trip, he was just a lot of fun, and I’ve been to visit him twice at his home in Copenhagen. It was also the first time I was heartily encouraged to run over wild animals with my car. It seems non-endemic possums are destroying the native Kiwi population and squashing a possum is the least a tourist can do for this Eden during their visit.
The North Island
I flew to New Zealand at Auckland, which is a nice big city, but nothing particularily special. I don’t recommend you spend your time there. I drove south to visit Rotorua, a very geologically active area full of weird lakes and steaming super heated waters. But on my way there I stopped at a sheep show. Yup – it’s appropriate when you are in a country where sheep outnumber people 10 to 1. They even sent my sheepskin rug home for free. To the west of Rotorua are the Waitomo Caves where I took a journey via tire inner tube through an underground river where millions of purple glow worms hung from the rocks like a starry night. It’s not for the easily claustrophobic; at times my face floated just inches from the cave ceiling. I also went to a Hangi; which was fantastic! The Hangi is a tribal meal of the Maori people, the native New Zealanders, often served before battle. The dance before the battle is called the Haka. Click here to see the NZ All Blacks Rugby team perform it. I do have a few regrets about the North Island, but this is where I got sick and was holed up in Taupo for a few days. I hear the Bay of Islands in the far north are beautiful if you like to sail. I fully intended to hike through Tongariro National Park – I was lucky enough just to be able to drive at that point – but I got a beautiful picture of Mt. Ruapehu at least. This mountain and the desert on the leeward side of the prevailing winds can be seen below. I dropped the car in the capital, Wellington, where I was proud that I had not killed myself driving on the “wrong” side of the road while sick, and took the ferry over to the South Island.
The South Island
I met Fabian and his friend Claudia on the steps of the Cathedral in Christchurch, the very one shown so much on the news after the February 2011 earthquake. The next day we began our circle of the South Island. First, toward Arthur’s Pass over the Southern Alps to the northeast. Fabian, being a crazed driver, made it over a treacherous pass on a single lane gravel road through the mountains to a place few tourists ever go, but I highly recommend: Farewell Spit. There we got caught in a fierce sandstorm which was bang on exciting. Golden Bay, nearby, sits on waters that look Caribbean, but the water is freezing. The next few days we spent heading south and all the amazing things on the west coast: the Pancake rocks, Truman Beach, the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. Driving out of Franz Josef Glacier in the drizzle, Fabian suddenly asks “Should I have picked up that hitchiker?” Claudia says “Yes, he was cute.” And I hadn’t seen him but said it was fine by me. Fabian, having hitchiked himself a lot, spun the car around and went to get him. Glenn, from Denmark, was momentarily confused and thought we were heading in the wrong direction, but we explained we were simply turning around to pick him up and he jumped in. Judge for yourself if he’s cute. In any event, he was fun and we invited him to join us for as long as he liked and he did! The next days included Queenstown (the single most touristy town I’ve ever seen – it’s nothing but a centralized jumping off point for all sorts of insane Kiwi hijinks, including the bridge where Bunji jumping was invented), cruising down the world famous Milford Sound, which should be left off of no one’s itinerary, a visit to a bird sanctuary where we saw actual Kiwis (birds that don’t fly), and a stop in Te Anau where I was indoctrinated into the insanity of Rugby at a local bar where we watched New Zealand play Australia in the 2003 World Cup semifinal (All Blacks lost).
Finally, we spent about four days at Fabian’s place in Dunedin where he was studying. Dunedin is near the Otago Peninsula which had phenomenally fierce winds the day we visited (we tried to fly) and is the home of an alabatross museum/colony. Opposite to the earthbound Kiwis, these birds fly around the globe with wingspans reaching 12 feet. At the end of my trip, Fabian drove me up to Christchurch where I began my 35 hour journey back home to Traverse City, sitting in a middle seat from Auckland to Los Angeles, coughing into my black fleece pullover, apologizing to my seat mates. That pullover, by the way, has now traveled worldwide and is the closest thing I have to a “blankie”.