New Zealand Round 3

When I read a map, everything on it seems so accessible. Things are quite close to each other and the roads are nicely connected. When you see a map of New Zealand, it’s quite natural to assume that the two islands that comprise the country are practically connected.

There’s only a tiny bit of blue between them.

The beautiful day was sunny and calm. Hubby and I ate salty fresh fish n chips from greasy newspaper packets on the waterfront in Picton and said goodbye to the south island.

When we drove our camper van into the ferry that takes you to the north island, I was surprised to see personnel chaining the tires to the lower deck. With a shrug we went upstairs.

Once the ferry was under way, we paced the observation deck with our camera. The harbor wanders around islands and past glassy inlets and countless bays.

But.

The minute you exit the Marlborough Sounds you have entered the Cook Strait.

Make no mistake: this is open ocean.

Massive waves began to swamp our huge ferry. Suddenly everyone was in the top glass enclosed cabin, hanging onto brass pillars and trying to brace.

You could not see land in any direction.

You had just enough time to catch your breath and watch the next trough coming.

The ferry surged forward over the trough, dipped straight down into it, and was pushed back skyward, through a white water wall. This lasted almost two hours. Hubby and I were the last men standing, if you know what I mean.

Not that we got our sea legs, but we get a medal for keeping our fish n chips down.

Finally we pulled into the Wellington Harbor. Things were just stabilizing when we got a good look at the town.

Wellington is the capital of New Zealand. Looks benign on the map.

It is, in actual fact, a town built straight up the side of mountains.

We got jelly legs all over again. Because we had been invited this very evening to dine at the home of a lovely couple who lived…we suddenly realized…at the top of this town.

We retrieved our camper van from the bowels of the ferry and began navigating the tiny twisting roads. It was no longer enough to chant, “stay left, stay left”. Now we remained entirely silent as Hubby climbed streets that went almost vertical. Each time we arrived at a level intersection, we took another breath.

And then it happened.

We approached an intersection that had a stop sign. Clinging to the side of the hill, face up to the sky, waiting for the other car to drive through, we could hear our heartbeats.

There was a small car waiting directly behind us, an uphill acceleration to push our camper van through and a clutch to manipulate. Didn’t I mention the van was a manual?

It felt like asking an elephant to climb a tree. And not fall backwards onto the mouse sitting below it.

Our gracious hosts greeted us with wine. I guess they knew.

We went through Wanganui and up through the island center passing Lake Taupo up to Rotorua. The areas here are full of geothermal activity, with geysers and bubbling black mud pits. Lime green and vivid orange and milky blue-yellows marble in steaming flat liquid sheets that you walk over on boardwalks.

They call it Te Whakarewarewatangaoteopetauaawahiao.

Whaka for short.

You can soak in your own personal hot springs tub, but you will smell like rotten eggs for hours afterward.

We hiked Mount Maunganui the next day. Driving on to Whitianga and Hahei, we camped at Hot Water Beach. There, you can dig a hole in the powdery sand and hot spring water will fill it. We tramped to Cathedral Cove and saw stunning ocean carved cliffs and ancient twisted trees that stretched over our path.

We ended in Auckland and stayed with a lovely family that toured us around and introduced us to Piha, their own little slice of heaven. They keep a bach there with a long drop, but there was no time left to explore it.

Three patient children were waiting for us at home, cared for by a truly amazing mother-in-law.

And as I felt a bit weepy and homesick it dawned on me.

We were going home with an undeclared customs item.

I was pregnant.

New Zealand Round 2

Towering alps and exquisite waterfalls. Te Anau to the Fiordlands, Queenstown and  speedboating down the Shotover. Lake Tekapo, made of glacier run-off, milky and frigid and stunning.

The south island of New Zealand is more raw than the north island. The sheep far outnumber the humans. It’s a place of stark contrasts and sudden mood swings.

Flying to the country was a fairly straightforward overnight plane trip, but landing in Christchurch proved to be the first of a series of unanticipated adventures.

I think somehow, we get more than our fair share of those.

I like to say, we get plenty and more than our money’s worth out of life.

The pilot announced our arrival with a hearty “Good morning!” and proceeded to point out the view. The rising kiwi sun struck the tops of snow covered alps in a stunning introduction to the country.

Then he pointed out the obvious. The mountains were all we could see. Civilized areas with runways were totally fogged in. He decided to circle on auto pilot and see if the fog would lift.

While we waited for the plane to run out of gas, we were treated to a glorious bird’s eye tour of the area. Bonus!

Our pilot ran out of patience instead.

Down we plummeted toward the place where he was pretty sure a runway was.

We were completely blind until rooftop altitude, where the fog ended. Suddenly the tarmac was right under us and if the landing was a little bumpy and abrupt, we didn’t mind because now we could breathe again.

The cabin burst into applause.

We rented a camper van on the outskirts of town, filling out an amazing amount of paperwork.

Then we flipped a coin to see who was going to drive first.

I won.

As usual, my statement on Day One was, “How hard can this be?”

It was the ultimate backseat driver’s dream. The steering wheel is on the right side of the car.

Which means you drive your car on the left side of the road. We spent the trip chanting “stay left, stay left, stay LEFT!”.

Our first destination was the gondola ride across town, and I drove right through the middle of the city. We had no intention of stopping. But when our one way street starting to turn us the wrong way, I needed to pull over. A nice big parking lot seemed like a safe spot. Which it was.

Turning around and leaving proved a bit challenging.

It’s not my fault I backed into the lady’s shiny new red car.

I had plenty of space and I was going super slow and Hubby was giving directions via large and sweeping arm gestures.

I stopped when his arms went straight up into ‘touchdown’ position, not because of the little crashing sounds from the far depths of the camper. The kitchen galley back there was full of pots and pans that clanked along during the road trip. I just thought they wanted out to play.

This is why you fill out all that rental paperwork.

So that when a woman from another country gets hysterical because some crazy american tourist has put her tail light into said woman’s driver car door, the aforementioned crazy american can just go back to the rental place and say, “Dude, this is your problem and I am now fleeing the country. My bad.”

And flee we did.

Hubby drove the rest of the trip, which is just as well because then I could laugh every single time we bought petrol. He would trot around to my side of the car and hop into my lap to drive away.

I could warn him when the roundabouts were coming. These are circular intersections that will hold you hostage until you make the iron clad decision to exit, just to stop turning. You do NOT want to go the wrong direction in a roundabout.

Our camper van let us park all over the south island. We woke up to a different view every morning and didn’t worry about hotels or pit stops or restaurants.

We searched for greenstone, wandered among Paparoa’s Pancake Rocks, admired glacier ice caves, discovered suspension bridges.

Be warned. This is the land of the bungy jump and the fastest motor bike in the world. Kiwis thrive on adventure. So if you’re told it’s “an easy walkabout”, it’s an all day life-or-death tramp through the Abel Tasman jungles. Now you know.

We didn’t have time to see the penguins or the glowworms.

But they’ll be waiting when we go back.

New Zealand Round 1

The way we choose a vacation destination is simple: Hubby insists it has a nice beach.

I insist it’s a place we’ve never been before.

He insists it has a reason to dress up for dinner.

I insist it’s free of spiders the size of manhole covers, weird plumbing and weather.

Not that we ever go anywhere. But if we do, there are criteria.

It’s our own fault we ended up so picky about world travel.

When we took our first trip on our 10th anniversary, we went to New Zealand, and wouldn’t you know it, we hit the mother lode on our first try.

Not to date us or anything, but we found this place before Frodo Baggins did.

And I totally claim it. Ours.

I had the fun of my first airplane ride (12 hours long) driving on the wrong side of the road (crashed my first day) and seeing a place so devastatingly gorgeous that the whole rest of the planet pales in interest.

Plus, only sheep live there. No creepy crawlies with fangs. Perfectly safe.

The natives speak english and they’re happy to take your tourist dollars in exchange for some local excitement.

As a matter of fact, when we went our dollar was about 2 to 1 of theirs. It was like the whole country was having a ‘half off’ sale.

I suppose Frodo Baggins has taken care of that by now.

Hobbits.

I want to tell you about our trip in a couple of pieces but I won’t be able to do it justice. We rented a camper van in Christchurch and drove the south island before hopping a ferry to the north island and flying out of Aukland.

We saw deep jade green fjords and glaciers carving through gorges and beach rock blowholes and yellow orange sulphur springs and great fern tree forests and towering snow-capped alps and vast prairies of blowing grass.

Countless miles of beaches.

Christchurch has postcard perfect English gardens and fairytale architecture, and then sends you up a mountainside in a glass cable car for a wild view of untamed wanton countryside, with a backdrop of the south pacific.

We stopped at a McDonald’s and did not order the burger with beet slices.

We stopped in a little pub in the middle of nowhere and ate sticky buns and at people’s homes, ate roast lamb with mint jelly.

New Zealand is “down under” but never (I mean ever) confuse it with Australia.

Have you seen a haka? You don’t want a piece of that.

We went in September, and the air rates are a bit lower then. Seasons are reversed. Our beginnings of fall are their beginnings of spring. We brought warm clothes and were told to expect rain every day. It only rained once, during the night, during our entire two week venture.

For those of you who are curious, yes, Christmas holidays are spent on nice warm beaches.

Santa wears a speedo.

I’m going to open this particular travel story up to you beautiful wonderful loyal readers. If there is something particular you’d like to hear about New Zealand, put your request/question into the comment box below and I will try to address it next Tuesday.

If you actually live there – you lucky ducks you – by all means add your two cents to the forum.

And don’t forget your contact information so we can all come stay at your place.