October 11, 2012

New Zealand Recap

NOTABLE IMPRESSIONS
Hot sand beaches, odd-colored lakes, glowworms, glaciers, blackwater rafting, active volcanoes, black sands, rainforest, stalactites, farmland, caves, penguins, waterfalls, mountains, wine, blowholes, fiords, and cosmopolitan cities. This is truly a magical country. I don’t know how one place can manage to look like Ireland and Hawaii and Colorado all rolled into one, but New Zealand delivers. I hope everyone considers coming here after reading about our experiences.




It’s like this…if you only have a limited time to visit, you might as well print out a map, pin it to a dart board, and shoot. No matter where your darts hit you’ll end up happy. This is a very, very special country. Mother Nature must surely have a crush on New Zealand.


Time flew by here. More than ever, the days really seemed to run together. We think it’s because of the campervan. We normally remember places we’ve been to based on where we stayed the night, but sleeping in various parking lots night after night hasn’t afforded us that same frame of reference.


North vs. South?

This is probably the least debated question that needs more scrutiny. The North Island gets flak for being “less grand” and “more gentle”. Everyone will tell you that the South Island is better. Everyone. It’s so predictable. We are here to tell you that the North Island deserves so much more credit than that! A good majority of your time visiting New Zealand is spent driving from spot to spot. The driving itself is worth the trip, and we thought the drives on the North Island were the most interesting.


We skipped a lot of the North Island’s beach scene because we had just come from Australia. In New Zealand you are constantly confronted with decision points. There is too much vying for your precious time. We decided that we wanted to spend our time doing things that we couldn’t do back home or somewhere else we’ve already been. So if you ask us if we went skiing, the answer will be NO…come visit us in Colorado. If you ask us if we drove 90-Mile Beach, the answer will be NO…we just drove Frasier Island in Australia. I think that’s the beauty of vacationing in New Zealand; no two people will visit it and have the exact same itinerary. You can make your trip all your own.

Let’s say we averaged about 5 sites per day. We were on the road for approximately 30 days. That means that we have at least 150 places swirling around in our heads. It is hard to keep the names straight! You can’t drive 10 kilometers without seeing a car park and a trailhead sign. And like I wrote before, a majority of the sites are simply accessible by short hikes. I have not written about all the towns and sites that we visited…it would just be too much.

New Zealand towns are nothing to get excited over. Each one has the obligatory shopping street and that’s about it. We would even go as far as calling them a teensy bit depressing, but perhaps that’s because we’re not here in peak season. Regardless, it's not about the towns. It’s about the journey in-between them.


This is a country of endless curvy roads. We know because we averaged 200 kilometers or 125 miles per day. The roads may be curvy, but at least they’re good.


New Zealand also has an impressively centralized and organized national parks and recreation department the almighty DOC. It’s an orderly society here…but maybe not as by-the-book as Australia. Still, New Zealand isn’t the kind of place where you ditch the shopping cart in the parking lot, if you know what I mean.

They have funny sayings here like “Sweet as!”, “Good on ya!”, or “Choice!” Ummm…okay. We knew what those words meant, but just not in that order. Now we try to use them without embarrassing ourselves.


This is the first country we’ve been to where the indigenous community is thriving and very much a part of everyday life.


Today the Maori culture, which has Pacific Islander roots, is concentrated in Rotorua. While we were there, we spent some time learning about their customs, like the Haka dance with thigh-slapping, eye-bulging, tongue-jutting, and hissing.


No recap of New Zealand would be complete without mention of rugby and the much beloved New Zealand All Blacks national rugby team. Before each game, the All Blacks perform the indigenous Maori Haka dance to intimidate their opponents. It feels like such an old-fashioned act in such a modern-day sporting event, but it's very catchy. Everyone looks forward to seeing it.


When the first Europeans arrived in New Zealand, 95% of the Maori people were living on the North Island. We definitely felt the effects of this when we arrived because their language is difficult to pick up. Most of the town/lake/river/trail/mountain names are based in the Maori language, so to our foreign eyes, all of the words look exactly the same. When you’re barreling down a curvy road in a campervan, it’s hard to quickly differentiate and process road signs labeled Waitomo, Wai-O-Tapu, Waipu, and Wairere. After we became more familiar with the map this got easier, and the South Island is much more English based (Greymouth, Queenstown, Christchurch). Even the charming and the intricately carved Maori meeting houses seemed to disappear once we crossed on the ferry.

 
Once we got to the South Island, there were lots of beautiful cherry trees in bloom. Spring has definitely sprung in the South Island…even more so than in the North Island, which doesn't make any sense. But it’s still been pretty cold. Some nights were well below freezing and we have no heating source in our campervan. Brrrrr.

 
When we arrived we were told that New Zealand looks green for a reason. We definitely missed out on some amazing places because of rainy weather and avalanche danger. It comes with the territory…we also know that we got lucky in some places, too.
 

FOOD
Steamed Mussels – this was the number one food I was looking forward to trying in New Zealand. The mussels were good, but the chefs’ preparations were beyond expectations. We tried all sorts of different combinations like bacon with melted cheese, garlic butter, pesto with feta, sweet chili sauce, honey mustard, parmesan crust, and blue cheese with spinach.


Whitebait – a small white fish about the size of an anchovy. These are caught in the West Coast from August to November and are considered a New Zealand delicacy. It’s common for them to be served as a fritter, so I tried them in a fritter sandwich…whole whitebait fish, egg, and bread. It wasn’t too bad. And if you’re raised on these things, I’m sure the eyeballs wouldn’t even bother you.

 
Lamb – there are about 40 million sheep in New Zealand. It feels like we saw 10 million of them. Only a couple ended up on our plates.


Hangi – the traditional Maori meal which is cooked in an earth oven (kind of like a Hawaiian luau). It typically consists of lamb, chicken, sweet potatoes, potatoes and carrots. What can I say…it tastes earthy.


Golden Kiwi – more expensive, smaller, and blander than normal green kiwis. By the way, they use the word “kiwi” for everything – the fruit, their beloved endangered bird, and even their nationality.


Pavlova – a big pie made of meringue and covered in cream and fruit.


Ice cream – our favorite local flavor was called Hokey Pokey…vanilla ice cream with little crunchy toffee balls.


L&P – which stands for Lemon & Paeroa, is a soft drink that tastes a lot like Sprite. Paeroa is a little town in the Coromandel Peninsula that we passed through. I love their slogan: “World Famous in New Zealand”.


Wine – Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir & Chardonnay are the mainstays, especially in the Marlborough wine region.


Beer – there are microbrews all over the country, particularly in the South Island. Unlike with American Pale Ales, they go light on the hops, which we appreciated.


WILDLIFE
Land:  roosters, peacocks, pigs, cows, turkeys, horses, goats, deer, and sheep.


 

It’s not uncommon to see a goat chained up in a front yard, or along the roadside, just munching away. They  always have a little house to sleep in.


There are no wild deer here…oddly enough, they're all penned up.


It’s springtime and so the little baby lambs are absolutely everywhere. They’re very curious and energetic, and we've had so much fun watching them for hours on end as we drove through the countryside. It was like watching fields full of puppies for 5 weeks straight. We saw them grow up before our eyes.


Cave:  weta, which is a prehistoric grasshopper that looks more like a spider. One time we were in a deep dark cave by ourselves, looked up, and saw a weta that was the size of a salad plate. Apparently they jump towards light, so imagine our horror as we stood there gawking up at the weta with our headlamps blaring.


Sea:  11-legged starfish, fur seals, sea lions, fiordland crested penguins, and yellow-eyed penguins. 


 

Air:  all sorts of strange birds that we can't identify. One that we did see a lot of was the Kea, the world's only alpine parrot. They are green with bright orange feathers, which you can only see when they fly. They're also known to be mischievous. This little guy flew in right over our heads and then tried to eat the informative sign. 

 
Otherwordly:  sand flies. These little vampires swarm without you even realizing and attack your ankles, which will leave you itching for days. They have led to repetitive renditions of “Shoo Fly Don’t Bother Me”. They’ve really made me rethink who is on top of the food chain: Homo Sapiens or Sand Flies???

The sand flies’ reputation precedes them. At Milford Sound, we watched from inside our van as a woman held a canister of bug spray about 6 inches from her face and sprayed for a good 10 seconds. It also took 1 minute before she could open her eyes. Stupid! Further proof of the harm that sand flies cause…they actually make us dumber.    

HOSTELS
This is the best part! We haven’t stepped foot in a hostel for 29 days!!! Except for a couple of book-ended nights in Auckland and Christchurch, Vanna White has been our one and only home. After 8 months, we had been getting a little tired of the hostel scene, so this was the perfect break before heading to Southeast Asia.


HIGHLIGHTS
 -  Hot Water Beach
 -  Rotorua’s many geothermal wonders
 -  Learning about Maori customs
 -  Glowworms
 -  Blackwater rafting
 -  Black sand beaches
 -  Marlborough wine country
 -  Abel Tasman kayak + hike combo
 -  Pancake Rocks and blowholes
 -  Fox Glacier hiking
 -  Blue glacial water – especially Hokitika Gorge, Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo
 -  Wanaka
 -  Milford Sound
 -  Clifden Caves
 -  Everything along The Catlins
 -  Shag Point & Moeraki Boulders
 -  Mt. Cook & Tasman Glacier
 
LESSONS LEARNED
New Zealand is much more agricultural than we imagined.


This was a wonderful surprise because driving through undulating farmland at dusk might be one of my favorite things in the world.


But farming comes in many different forms, and we saw some disturbing evidence of the logging industry throughout the North and South Islands. We don’t know much about the logging practices here. Perhaps it’s being done sustainably, and if so, that’s great. It’s just hard to drive such an immensely beautiful country one moment and then stumble upon a completely decimated plot of land the next.


We were in New Zealand during early Spring, and we have learned that there are big trade-offs between shoulder season and high season. Winter and Spring are rainy, cold, and give you less precious daylight hours to maximize in this outdoor wonderland. You don’t even want to drive at night because the drives are so beautiful. The rivers are high, which meant that we couldn’t access several of the caves or hikes that our adventure-prone guidebook had highly recommended. We’ve missed all sorts of things due to lambing season, viewing facility upgrades, and cranky farmers who periodically cut off access to their land. During this time of year, maintenance is underway for the big summer rush. Sometimes we obeyed, sometimes we didn't.


On the other hand, Summer means crowds, sand flies, higher price tags, and less opportunity for freedom camping. It’s a tough choice, so we reckon that sometime in November would probably be ideal.

We’re convinced that there is some sort of time-warp energy field that you pass through as you enter New Zealand air space. I don’t care how much time you may have to visit this small country, it will never be enough unless you live here full-time. It really has that much going on, not to mention that the tides and the weather put you on their schedule. We thought 5 weeks would be a comfortable luxury, and it still turned out to be way too skimpy. If we had all the time in the world, 3 months on the North Island and 3 months on the South Island would feel satisfying (!). Obviously that’s not realistic, so maybe 2 weeks on the North Island and 3 weeks on the South Island is a good start. Sigh.

HOW ARE WE DOING?
We were so surprised at how bored we were not. It gets dark at 6:30, so we thought we would have nothing to do at night. But by the time we cooked dinner (in a kitchen made for an elf), cleaned the dishes (in a sink smaller than our plates), and planned the next day’s itinerary (tough decisions), it was bedtime.

We had high expectations for New Zealand, which normally leads to a huge let-down. Not this time! We are so HAPPY!

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