Think New Zealand – do flightless kiwi birds and fuzzy-skinned kiwi fruit come to mind? You’ll find both in this amazing country… where you can experience Maori culture, hike through tree fern rain forests, kayak scenic lagoons and explore glowworm caves.
New Zealand is “Down Under” – but actually not that close to Australia, its nearest neighbor. Both are British Commonwealth countries, yet each with their own currency, heritage and distinct personality. New Zealand is far smaller; the highlights of its North and South Islands can be visited in several weeks.
Initially I traveled the North Island, arriving in its major city of Auckland (where most international flights land). The Auckland Museum is a must-see for its exhibits on Maori history and culture. Highlight: an 1836 Maori war canoe (waka) built from a single, 81-foot-long totara tree trunk.
Here I learned Maori first reached New Zealand about 1200-1300 AD after migrating for centuries through the Polynesian Islands. They called New Zealand Aotearoa – “land of the long white cloud.” Surprisingly, language and DNA link Maori to ancient Taiwan origins.
Also visit Auckland’s Maritime Museum, filled with historic vessels and tales of Maori discovery, 1840s whaler exploits and European immigration. Step into a re-created ship’s steerage cabin – which creaks and rocks with “wave” motion – to experience immigrants’ cramped quarters while hearing their personal tales.
Maori make up 16 percent of the population total, and 40 percent of them live in the Rotorua area. Here I visited the Whakarewarewara Thermal Village, situated amid constant geothermal activity. Surrounding sulfur steam vents, bubbling mud pools and mineral springs make the village look surreal.
Maori cleverly use some hot pools to cook, others to bathe. Try a lunch of hangi – food cooked over a steam vent. Nearby, the famous Pohutu Geyser puts on a show every 30 to 60 minutes, spouting up to 100 feet high.
In the capital city of Wellington, don’t miss the Te Papa Museum. It features amazing Maori collections, including ancient feather cloaks and greenstone (jade). The latter was carved into both jewelry and weapons, valued for its perceived power.
The museum also includes an authentic marae (meeting house). I was intrigued by how similar the Maori’s totem-like poles and carvings are to those of Northwest Coast Salish Indians. You have to wonder about the possible link between ancient migrations through the South Pacific and those across the Bering land bridge to North America…
New Zealand’s South Island is known for its spectacular Southern Alps, Fiordland National Park and stunning scenery nearly everywhere. I chose to experience some of the highlights on a small-group tour with local operator New Zealand Trails. It offers several tours of the South Island and one of the North Island.
My World Heritage Walking Tour took us hiking on parts of New Zealand’s popular tracks, kayaking on Okarito Lagoon, and marveling at the West Coast’s “pancake rock” formations at Punakaiki. A highlight was Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, where we took a zodiac boat ride across a glacial lake past icebergs to the Tasman Glacier’s terminal face. Then we hiked the Hooker Valley Track with Mt. Cook in full, glorious view.
We also hiked parts of the famous Milford Track and Hollyford Track. Unfortunately, heavy rain prevented our slated hike on the Routeburn Track – but then, this is rain forest country. Moss-draped trees reminded me of the Olympic Peninsula’s rain forest – except here, huge tree ferns also grow in profusion. And frequent rain means spectacular waterfalls from the surrounding mountainsides.
Queenstown is mecca for all manner of outdoor sports, from winter skiing to bungy (bungee) jumping from the nearby Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge. It is the world’s first, permanent, commercial bungy site, established by the sport’s inventor, A.J. Hackett. I was amazed just watching this insane sport – and by the number of people willing to do it.
The resort town also offers much tamer activities such as a gondola ride up the foothill behind it for a sweeping view of Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu and mountain ranges ringing the area. Or cruise Lake Wakatipu on the historic 1912 TSS Earnshaw to enjoy the scenery at sea-level.
Another adventure on the tour was Paparoa National Park’s Nile Glowworm Caves. You can take a walking excursion part-way into the caves to see glowworms – or a floating adventure on inner tubes through the caves.
My group donned wetsuits, rolled our inner tubes into the caves past magical stalagmites and stalactites, and then floated on them through the caves. High above, glowworms lit up – like millions of stars in a pitch-black universe – a truly amazing sight. Then we floated out… into a river with several small rapids that challenged inner tube navigation.
After the tour, I spent several days hiking the Abel Tasman Coastal Track on the north end of the South Island. It’s New Zealand’s most popular track, thanks to “300 days of sunshine a year,” excellent walking trails and golden sand beaches. Water taxis and tour catamarans shuttle from the village of Kaiteriteri to designated stops along the coastal track. I arranged drop-off and pick-up at various points to explore most of the track over four days.
The nearest city is Nelson; don’t miss the astonishing World of WearableArt (WOW) Museum near the airport. WOW began in 1987 to celebrate fantastic expressions of art that actually can be worn. Entries come from around the world, often made with unusual materials ranging from household junk to bicycle tires. The museum showcases winners and finalists from the annual competition. It also includes a stunning collection of vintage and classic cars.
New Zealand Tourism
Whakarewarewara Thermal Village
Te Papa Museum, Wellington
New Zealand Trails
World of WearableArt Museum
— By Julie Gangler
Julie Gangler is a freelance writer who has worked as a media relations consultant for the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau. She began her career as a staff writer at Sunset Magazine and later was the Alaska/Northwest correspondent for Travel Agent Magazine.