The wrap on NZ

The wrap on NZ

Once back on the coast of the Bay of Plenty, we spent a couple of days in Whakatane. It wasn’t until near the end of our time in New Zealand that we found out that the accurate pronunciation of Maori words and names with “wh” is actually an “f” sound. This explained why there were several places that sounded like curse words. Say Whakatane out loud three times fast pronouncing the “Wh” as an “F” and you’ll see what I mean.

Whakatane from Kohi Point Reserve

Whakatane from Kohi Point Reserve

Ohope Beach

Ohope Beach

The last stop was the Coromandel Peninsula. A gorgeous area that juts out into the Pacific Ocean just south of Auckland.

Whangamata on the Coromandel is the surf capital of NZ

Whangamata on the Coromandel is the surfing capital of NZ

One of the hot spots, literally and figuratively, was called Hot Water Beach. It featured hot springs that fed the beach where it meets the ocean. People go there with mini-spade in hand to dig holes on the beach so they can sit and relax in the hot sand.

I love the guy with the sunglasses on the left. He looks reeeelaxxxed!

I love the guy with the sunglasses on the left. He looks reeelaaaxed!

It sounded like fun so we borrowed a spade from the folks who owned the BNB and hit the beach. Once we learned where the springs were, Cindy and I simply dug our feet a couple of inches into the sand to find it was indeed hot. Really hot. It was so hot people were laboring to mix in the cooler ocean water by digging channels into their spring-fed holes or by taking buckets of sea water and pouring it in. In the end, we decided not to go through the trouble so we just enjoyed watching the scene.

hot water beach scene

Just north of there we took a hike to Cathedral Cove.

Cathedral Cove

Cathedral Cove

Near the north end of the Coromandel Peninsula was the Driving Creek Railroad, a narrow gauge railroad which zigzags its way up a mountain side.

Driving Creek Railroad

Driving Creek Railroad

On our last day on South Island I met a local who asked me if I’d gotten off the beaten track while in New Zealand. It was a great question but I had to think about it before answering that yes, I had. Always on the lookout for that rarely visited great nook or cranny, it’s hard to do when there’s so much to see and there are so many ‘don’t miss’ places to visit. Getting away from other tourists and the much frequented attractions are the goal of many travelers, though the reason tourists go to the most visited places may be because they are, in fact, some of the best places to see. And it’s easy to be fooled by a guidebook’s call on a ‘hidden gem’ or ‘secret spot’; if it was hidden or a secret, it is no longer since you and millions of other readers just found out about it. Although New Zealand is not an especially large country, places of interest are spread out requiring some degree of effort to get to many of them. Though there’s still much we haven’t seen, we felt like we did New Zealand right. Special thanks go to our Kiwi friends, Sue and Dave, for guiding us with a blueprint for exploring their vast and special country.

Opito Bay

Opito Bay

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NZ tourism and driving around

NZ tourism and driving around

We looked into renting a kayak ($20.60 U.S. per person/per hour, the only place I’d ever seen a rental kayak priced per person vs per kayak) on Lake Wakatipu in Queensland but nixed it when we found out we would only be allowed to go a few hundred meters from the rental point. If I didn’t like that, I had to hire a guide for a lot more money. At first, my cynical mind figured this to be another revenue enhancement scheme. Later, I found out its genesis was from an incident a number of years ago when a couple of kayakers drowned after a storm kicked up suddenly. The government had a similar reaction regarding white-water rafting. After a couple of rafters died because their life jackets were tied the wrong way, guides are now required to buckle the outside of every rafters’ life jacket for them. Signs remind you that ‘your safety is your responsibility’, but New Zealand, like its neighbor Australia, is in many ways a nanny state.

Help! Help! The icon is drowning!

Help! Help! The icon is drowning!

Still, New Zealand deserves credit for developing and maintaining great hiking and biking trails. As for the nanny state, because of accidents and fatalities involving bicyclists, the government put up a lot of ‘share the road’ billboards. I sure wish they’d do that at home.
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The tourist industry brought in $3.7 billion in 2013 accounting for 3.7% of the GDP. Another $9.8 billion indirectly flows in due to the effects of tourism. These are awesome amounts . In the words of our Fox Glacier guide, “Queenstown wants your money”. The same applies to the whole of New Zealand where there is extremely focused, concentrated and aggressive tourism marketing. And tour prices are extremely high. Another tour operator candidly told me the philosophy was that since people spent a lot to get here, they would naturally spend a lot on activities as well.

It’s a dilemma for budget travelers since New Zealand is very expensive.
Start with essentials like accommodations, food and (if you’re driving) gasoline, when you get to tourist and adventure activities, this place is a real budget buster. By comparison, I spoke with one kiwi traveler who was surprised at the low prices in NYC as she had heard it was supposed to be expensive. Say what?

The most compelling attribute of New Zealand is its scenic beauty. There are lots of things to do but having done lots already and considering they cost double or triple than elsewhere, it became important to use discretion in the activities we chose. Did we really need to do another whale watch/zip-line/bungy jump…? I’m glad we like hiking.

There’s an interesting system at the prolific iSite Tourist Information Centers. Most are owned and run by councils or local town governments; I was told some are privately owned but never entered one that was. They have lots of information but some centers also act as a retail store selling New Zealand clothes, memorabilia and kitsch, from clothes, hats and t-shirts to bottle openers and refrigerator magnets.

Despite being primarily government-owned and operated, the i-Site centers are a mafia-like enterprise. They only service and support the businesses that pay membership fees plus charge them commissions– 10% of anything they book for their members. They don’t carry brochures of non-members and they often won’t tell tourists about anything which they don’t receive a fee. On more than one occasion, when finding out I wasn’t going to spend money, I got a ‘we don’t want to know from you’ attitude.

When I asked about Milford Sound cruises, one desk-agent tried to convince me to book a tour which included the bus to and from the cruise instead of driving myself, reasoning that I could enjoy the scenery instead of driving, that the roads were very narrow and that the buses had the right of way. When I actually drove there, I determined the last two reasons to be outlandish. I had one or two other similar experiences with these government certified agents. These are the kinds of techniques I’d come to expect from third world up-sellers. Guide books may refer to these as ‘annoyances’. I don’t recall reading guide-book warnings for annoyances in first world countries but they are no less annoying.

This is supposed to be a country that is environmentally friendly, however, the i-Site centers push paper like it was going out of style. It wouldn’t matter if I said I already had a map or brochure, they’d really want to give me another one anyway.
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I’m happy taking various public or private transportation while traveling in foreign countries. But if you want to see places that are geographically spread out and require mobile flexibility, renting a car is necessary. I enjoy driving and have fun seeing a different part of the world pass by through the frame of a car window. It’s also interesting to see the people through that lens.

One of the things I found counter to most experiences with the laid back, easy-going New Zealanders is on the road. It’s not unusual that if someone wants to pass you and you don’t pull over fast enough to let them by, they can get impatient and irritated pretty quickly. And don’t dally while crossing the streets as a pedestrian; you might get hit. The former reminds me of Massachusetts, the later reminds me of NYC.

There are many similarities with Australia. The car culture is one of them. Like Australia, where cars are a necessity and driving distances can be long, it’s surprising to find a different type of car culture than we have at home. It’s very common to see people driving well-maintained cars that are 10 or even 20 years old. I like that.

The North Island

The North Island

Whereas the South Island has jaw dropping scenery, the North Island is just plain beautiful.

Note the person jumping off the tower

Note the person jumping off the tower

Despite being subjected to vast suburban sprawl, we found Auckland a hip town with a pleasant vibe. For a city of 1.4 million people you can imagine our surprise and delight when people exiting public buses thanked the bus drivers. We did, too.

auckland from water

We took a couple of local ferries visiting the Davenport neighborhood and a beautiful wine vineyard-rich island called Waiheke.

cindy with horse

It was a weekend so Waiheke Island was quite busy hosting weddings, bridal showers and lots of wine-tastings. We had to be very careful when walking roadside as there seemed to be a few tipsy drivers.

wine vineyard

After Auckland, Cindy and I headed south. Rotorua was originally conceived and developed as a tourist town with its many thermal springs. The refurbished Elizabethan-style museum was originally built as a ‘medicinal’ bathhouse around the turn of the 20th century.

rachel hot bath

Another unique geologic feature of Rotorua is that it sits in a 22 kilometer wide caldera.

rotorua town

The population is about 50% Maori –the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand– and we took advantage by finding bnb accommodations with a Maori couple, Heni and Stu. It was a rich and rewarding experience learning about Maori history and culture. Heni was a former guide at the museum and she was kind enough to take us on a free guided tour.

The museum is the most photographed building in New Zealand

The museum is the most photographed building in New Zealand

The Maori comprise about 17% of New Zealand’s population. Whereas most of the indigenous populations of the colonized world suffered immensely, the Maori certainly had their tribulations but over time they adapted so well to European settlement that today they comprise a disproportionately large number of representatives in government. Over the past 10-15 years they’ve regained the rights to a lot of the lands they lost during colonial settlement. They have a lot of political power.

Carving at the bow of a Maori war waka (canoe)

Carving at the bow of a Maori war waka (canoe)

We enjoyed a hike in the local redwood forest.

bill in redwoods

Back in Rotorua we took a 3-hour city bike tour which didn’t involve a lot of biking but covered a great deal of history, geology, and more about Maori culture.

Moving on, we worked our way south staying the night in Taupo. The Waikato River, the longest in New Zealand, gets squeezed from 100 meters wide into a narrow set of falls about 15 meters resulting in a raging torrent of water at Huka Falls.

A jet boat negotiates Huka Falls

A jet boat negotiates Huka Falls

Next up was the K2K or the Kawakawa Track (trail). During the approximately 20 kilometers round trip hike from the town of Kinloch, we got treated to a wonderful view of Kawakawa bay.

K

Kawakawa Bay

K2K is a multi-use trail. I thoroughly enjoyed our hike but as bikes passed us I pined a bit to be riding one.

A Geo-thermal power plant

A Geo-thermal power plant

This was the start of a hike-fest. We continued south to the center of the North Island and Tongariro National Park. Tongariro was the country’s first national park and the 4th in the world. It is also an area of active volcanos.

The first day there we did a two-hour hike around Lake Rotopaunamu. The second day was a more ambitious 5-hour hike to Tama (crater) Lakes. It was so windy going from lower Tama to upper Tama, Cindy held on to me thinking she might get blown off the ridge.

In front of cloud-capped volcano, Mt. Ngauruhoe

In front of cloud-capped volcano, Mt. Ngauruhoe

We double-backed through Rotorua where I spent a couple of hours tooling around the well-groomed mountain bike trails in the redwood forest.

When renting a bike, getting the right size is important

When renting a bike, getting the right size is important

Mt. Cook and Lake Tekapo

Mt. Cook and Lake Tekapo

Our final stops on the South Island featured more spectacular scenery. I pondered, could we ever get tired of such views?

Mt. Cook and Tasman Lake

Mt. Cook and Tasman Lake

Nahhhh!

Tasman Lake

Tasman Lake

Tasman Glacier Lake laps at the terminus of Tasman Glacier (foreground)

Tasman Glacier Lake laps at the terminus of Tasman Glacier (foreground)

We did a 2 hour hike up St. John’s hill past the astronomical observatories and continuing along down around the base of Lake Tekapo. We had an interesting conversation with a comparably aged Japanese man who was headed in the opposite direction and stopped us asking if we were expert hikers. I told him we were experienced hikers and would see if we could help him. Looking to make order out of chaos, he wanted to know which side of the trail was the proper one to walk on; should he keep to the left as drivers do, or to the right. Cindy and I had asked ourselves the same question many times in both Australia and New Zealand. Many people don’t seem to care about applying road rules to hiking trails so it just becomes a matter of avoiding collisions. Not too difficult to accomplish.

The gentleman went on to explain that after the recent tsunami he began to question how happy he was with his life, ultimately deciding to retire early and travel the world. We understood, and after trading some of our life situations and abbreviated stories, shook hands and parted ways.

Lake Tekapo

Lake Tekapo

We spent the last night on the South Island in our campervan in a so-called Holiday Park flanked by a highway on one side and an active railroad on the other. Without any fanfare but with much glee we turned the van back over to Cruzy Campers. In short order we boarded a plane to Auckland.

The Catlins to Central Otago

The Catlins to Central Otago

As our time on the South Island was winding down, we tried to be more strategic about where we’d go and how much time to spend in each place. The Catlins and the area just north of it, the Otago Peninsula, served as our best wildlife viewing areas.

catlins landscape

We spent a couple of days on the Catlins which occupies the southeast corner of the South Island. Primarily rolling farm land, it also featured rainforest, a dramatic coastline and lots of opportunity for wildlife viewing.

windswept trees

We stopped at several places along the way to do short hikes or to look at some of the cultural or scenic hotspots

Waipapa Lighthouse

Waipapa Lighthouse

We found an awesome camping spot at Waikawa on a tidal estuary at Porpoise Bay.

waikawa campsite

This spot was not only gorgeous, but it seemed to be set up very well for freedom campers as there was a public toilet and potable water only 150 meters away. At the end of the day, or actually, by next morning there were about 7 other campers gathered at the site.

 The perfectly curved Tautuku Beach is made up of fine quartz sand

The perfectly curved Tautuku Beach is made up of fine quartz sand

We enjoyed an impromptu stop for coffee and a visit to The Lost Gypsy Gallery in Papatowi.

The Lost Gypsy Gallery

The Gallery –an old converted bus– and its associated museum is the brainchild of Blair Somerville. It’s a most unusual creation of ‘automata’ which is… well, umm….hard to describe but loads of fun and guaranteed to draw some laughs or chuckles. One of his creations is a TV that turns on by riding a stationary bike. Turn cranks, push buttons, press keys and you’ll find out what happens.

Turn the crank to put the whale in graceful motion

Turn the crank to put the whale in graceful motion

He had the funniest quotes

He had the funniest quotes

It was difficult to get a good picture of an amazing seacoast feature called Jack’s Blowhole. Cindy and I hiked along the coast thinking this was going to be just another inlet with a wave-driven boom-maker. It was the low tide so there wasn’t much noise but the sight was quite impressive. As we reached the sign for the blowhole the path split making its way around a lush oval-shaped, flora-ringed sinkhole 55 meters deep, 144 meters long and 68 meters wide. Jack’s blowhole was flowing in at a whopping 200 meters from the coast and we had unknowingly stepped over a land bridge to access this amazing and unique blowhole.

Jack's Blowhole

Jack’s Blowhole

Nugget Point

Nugget Point

Continuing north of the Catlins, we stopped in the city of Dunedin to hit the Otago Museum shortly before it closed. It was quite a nice museum with exhibits on natural history, a maritime collection, the Maori culture and a special exhibit on motorcycles complete with a neat historical collection.

At the Otago Museum

At the Otago Museum

We moved onward and outward to explore the Otago Peninsula, another hotspot for local fauna, where we saw an abundance of Royal Albatross, Blue Penguins and Fur Seals.

Next stop was at the Moeraki boulders.

It looks like I just laid a septarian concretion

It looks like I just laid a septarian concretion

We headed inland stopping in Ranfurly to rent bikes for a ride on the Otago Central Rail Trail.

otago central rail trail-cindy

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

A steady rain started while in Te Anau and continued through the night. We camped at a DOC site, the closest one we could find to the terminal at Milford Sound where we would catch our 9am cruise. It was very cold that night and we had to use two blankets. The beauty was the snow that precipitated on the mountain peaks that night.

on the way to milford sound

The weather cleared enough so the 2 hour cruise was mixed with periods of rain helping create the numerous waterfalls that entertained us.

waterfall and boat

Captain Dennis graciously welcomed us in the pilot house.

In the pilot house with Captain Dennis

In the pilot house with Captain Dennis

The Sound meets the Tasman Sea

The Sound meets the Tasman Sea

Milford Sound residents

Milford Sound residents