Expedition: New Zealand, 2001

Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travellers don’t know where they’re going. After the dark events of Sept 11, Anita and Julian Matthews sought to find a place to reaffirm their faith in humanity and life. With their two hyperactive toddlers, Andrea and Jordan, they found lots of hope and profound beauty over a 40-day driving adventure across New Zealand. This is their story….

The beginning: Auckland

“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost”

- J. R. R. Tolkien in “Lord of the Rings”

There is only one true and guaranteed way to plan a successful holiday. Just get up and go!

Anyone who lives by precise schedules and dates is setting him/herself up for disappointment. For what possible pleasure can be derived from travelling with foreknowledge? Better to just go and be damned. Or like us, get really lucky.

Our trip to New Zealand was a spur of the moment thing. Sept 11 and the antics of a certain pretzel-challenged president jarred us into a reality. That reality, hard as it was to swallow, was that Man is an incurable, warring animal.

We needed to get away. As far away as possible. New Zealand was our choice by simple elimination. If World War III broke out, we figured it would be the last target. Besides, in a worst-case scenario, we could probably hide out among the sheep.

Another good reason was that we didn’t know anyone there, hence, we were forced to interact with the locals and other lost travellers, like us, for advice. It would be a great adventure. Unshackled from the routines, the daily grind. Not knowing where would sleep or eat or who we would meet. No jams, no PC, no handphone, no nothing.

Pass On MAS

We booked Singapore Airlines because it was the cheapest. MAS apparently offers great rates to everyone in the world, except Malaysians flying out of their own country. We weren’t planning to be patriotic.

We took off on November 13 — on our daughter Andrea’s third birthday. Little did she realize the enormity of this year’s gift. Considering it was the kids first long-haul plane ride, Andrea and Jordan, our four-year-old son, fared pretty well. Of course, they were plied with Kid’s Meals, and snacks and games. It is true everything they say about the attentive Singapore Girls.

After 10 hours on a plane, mostly over Australia, we finally landed safely — and unhijacked — in Auckland. In the taxi to the city, we watched in bewilderment as a few fitness nuts were jogging in the heat of the midday sun on a weekday. New Zealand, we were told, is a sports-mad country.

Our home for the next three days was called Georgia Parkside Backpackers, a massive bungalow converted into cheap lodging. A post-colonial relic it featured creaky staircases, ancient ovens and heaters and huge pull-down wooden shutters, instead of windows. It was run by a Korean, who, along with some other guests, were immensely helpful on how we should tackle our four-week sojourn (later stretched to six weeks ) in New Zealand. “South Island better. Three weeks South Island. One week North Island,” was the learned advice of my Korean host in his halting English.

Pause for quick geog lesson: New Zealand comprises two major islands, North and South, and is roughly the size of United Kingdom and the shape of Japan. Population: 3.8 million people and 47 million sheep!

Auckland turned out to be a really BIG city. It is the lifeblood of business and economy in NZ with almost a third of the population living and working here. Wary of cities, we were itchy to get out, but chose to stay to get a “feel” of Kiwi-life.

One of the biggest attractions in Auckland is Kelly Tarlton’s Antarctic Encounter and Underwater World — a worthy visit if only to see the penguins. They popped us in a tiny windowed vehicle called a snow-cat and wheeled us around an artificial ice deck where King Penguins stood around lounging under the artificial light. What a thrill to see penguins in real-life for the first time! Even in such fake, no-cameras-please conditions.

Later, a walkalator took us on a circuit of the tunnel aquarium where we got a scuba-diver’s view of stingrays gliding overhead and moray eels lurking among the coral. The kids even got a chance to stick their hands in an icky touch-pool.

Money For Nothing, And The Kids For Free

In Auckland, we were to discover why bringing along the kids at this age proved to be so timely and a real cost-saver. The kids were both under five years of age which translated to FREE entry for various major and minor attractions in NZ including public transport, museums and later, boat cruises.

It was also true what they say, you can never get lost in New Zealand. The hostel manager’s office was typical of others we were to encounter. It was stacked wall-high with complimentary foldable brochures, glossy pamphlets, sightseeing maps and hotel guides of every conceivable destination in the country.

The never-get-lost theory was reiterated on a public bus in Auckland. We were quizzing the bus-driver about whether the bus would pass Stanley Street and he was clueless. A Maori lady passenger spoke up, “You know it Joe (she knew his name!). Stanley Street is at the corner of…” That typified the Kiwi-styled helpfulness that we would encounter over and over again from complete strangers.

At the A2B car rental, we decided on a seven-year-old white Toyota Corolla station-wagon for the price of NZ$29 a day. You can get smaller vehicles of NZ$25/day. Campervans are pricier and although there was an established network of holiday camp sites, we were against being tied down to the bulkier vehicle at our destinations. We were also warned about NZ being strict about car seats for the kids and got a decent belted one for Andrea, and a high booster chair for Jordan, both thrown in for free.


WE’RE OFF! HAMILTON, ROTORUA, TAUPO, WAITOMO

Hurry, hurry home love,
Hurry back to Rotorua,
To the mountains and the valley,
Hurry home to me.

- Pokarekare Ana, classic Maori folksong.

On the day we left Auckland, our friendly Korean host checked under the hood for us, gave us some pointers about speed limits (100kmh) and sent us off with an assured smile. Any nervousness of being stranded in sheep-country evaporated once we hit the road. On the road, all scenic spots and worthy stopovers are clearly signboarded in brown — and with two kids in tow, the signs for public toilets were a god-send (mostly clean, free and with paper!)

NZ is a very tourist-friendly country. Even in the smallest of towns we just needed to find the big, usually green, i signboard (i = information) for the i centres that had very helpful tourist guides ready to answer your dumbest of questions. In the more popular tourist towns, though, the queues of tourists asking dumb questions, were pretty long. Sometimes we’d just pop in, grab a brochure, and stop the nearest local outside if we couldn’t figure out where we were or what to do.

Hamilton Rose Gardens. Photograph taken by Jordan Jay Matthews, aged 4 years 10 months

Hamilton, was an easy 120 km drive south from Auckland. We stopped by to say hello to Dr Norman Simms, who Julian knew only through a single email exchange. He promptly invited us for dinner! We had our first home-cooked meal served up by his gracious wife, Martha. Martha spoiled the kids with dollops of ice-cream and plied them with crayons and drawing paper and paua shells dug up from the garden to take along the trip, while Norman read them stories and amused us with his brand of sarcastic humour.

Norman & Martha are originally from New York and came to New Zealand more than 30 years ago. He teaches at Waikato University. It was a night filled with laughter, and great ideas of what to do for rest of our trip, and when we left, we ended up hugging as if we’d known them for years.

Hamilton is famous for its 58-acre themed gardens with its incredibly luxuriant foliage. Jordan and Andrea got a kick out of chasing white doves and waddling ducks and posing with Egyptian statues and Chinese pavilions.

Yellow Wonder. Andrea and an incredibly colourful shrub outside Queenstown

Beware: Naked Man In Hot Pool

Our next stop was Rotorua, without a doubt, the most touristy town in the North Island. In fact, at any given month, a town’s population of 69,000 residents may swell to 120,000, with tourists combined. Located on a volcanic plateau, steam arises from parks, gardens and along the streets, and you are assailed by the smell of sulphur everywhere.

Splashing Spa Fun. Nothing like a warm spa for respite from the chilly winds outside. We enjoyed this in a motel in Rotorua and also later in another at the Tongariro national park.

The town is 30 percent Maori, and at Whakarewarewa, a living thermal village, we watched our first haka dance performance (11.15am and 2pm daily), complete with the warrior men’s tongue-wagging and gentle swaying of plump womenfolk. Some of the skinnier men came out shivering at first — it was chilly — but warmed up after all the chest-thumping.

Later, at a row of steaming hot pools we spotted a local man and his small son, totally in the buff, immersed in the boiling water in what must surely have been for hours. We braved dipping our weary feet in one of the pools and it turned out to be oh-so-soothing — once you got past the heat.

Tongue wagging with the Maori

At the Rainbow Farm, in the darkness we had our first glimpse of the kiwi bird, the flightless, nocturnal national bird. Depressing fact: there are about 75,000 kiwi left and the numbers are declining by nearly 6% a year. By 2006 there may be only 50,000 left.

Sheep Shearing. At the Rainbow farm in Rotorua you get to see how a sheep is stripped of its coat.
Shorn Sheep. The unfortunate shorn sheep poses along with his wooly mates.

Then came the sheep show, an NZ staple. A rollicking, onstage, life-on-a-farm show that speeds you through dog-herding and shearing sheep to milking cows and making cream and butter. After that, the kids were desperate for a horse-ride and we found a place nearby. Andrea had no qualms getting on the pony, even though it was her first-ever ride, and happily trotted off with her guide. Jordan was at first terrified but hopped on once he realised that little sister had gone off a good distance.

Falls Flowed, Worms Glowed and Craters Billowed

South of Rotorua is Taupo, another tourist-packed laketown, but somehow quainter. One of the first things you spot entering the town is the McDonald’s playground that opens into a real plane.

When searching for accommodation, one thing we quickly learned was, never believe the signs that say “Starting at $59”. That usually means the room’s a no-frills, no-loo, single-bedded and ++ for sheets & duvet, and is probably taken, if it exists at all.

We stayed at Sunset Lodge — another old bungalow converted into a backpackers’ that was off the busier lakefront area. The place was being painted by a handyman, who with his bald pate and dark glasses was a dead ringer for David Letterman’s band-leader. The lady behind the counter was another friendly Maori who instantly took to the kids and was chatty with information. She spoke with affection about a Malaysian woman from Ipoh (!) who was a frequent long-staying regular there.

Four for the Falls. Huka Falls, a gushing, noisy, dramatic waterfall with turquoise waters outside Rotorua.

Just north of Taupo is Huka Falls, a turquoise torrent that is more horizontal than vertical but no less spectacular for the thundering sounds as 300,000 litres of water per second are pumped by the Waikato river through a narrow gorge. A chance meeting with a gardener, led us further uphill for a better viewpoint of the falls.

We attempted a trek, along the Waikato in search of hot mud pools but had to abandon it as twilight was setting in and we had run out of drinking water. Of course, typically if a trek was labelled one-hour return it would take twice as long with the kids. But they still continually amazed us with their resilience — except for the occasional moan or two to be carried.

We had heard so much about the Waitomo Glow-worm Caves, we decided to cut across the island on a long and windy drive to get there. The caverns stretch for 50-kms, part of a unique karst limestone landscape sculpted by water. A guided walking tour, far too scientific and boring for the children, was climaxed with a boat-ride in pitch darkness, and total silence, under an amazing cathedral of dotted luminiscence.

Unlike the fireflies in Kampung Kuantan in Kuala Selangor, these worms did not flicker, and seemed quite static by comparison. But the ride was still enchanting, and the kids even managed to adhere to the boat guide’s shh-shh-ing throughout.

Taupo also hosts the Craters of the Moon, one of the still-free attractions run by volunteers. The track takes you around an outworldly landscape with steaming holes and craters filled with gurgling, hot mud. As recent as February, 2001, there were some spectacular eruptions that covered the wooden trail with five centimetres of mud! Looking down some of those billowing craters was really scary, knowing they might blow anytime.


NAPIER TO WELLINGTON

“A lot of movies you see, people wouldn’t have a clue where they were made…everyone knows that this is made in New Zealand. I think it’s going to see a lot more visitors come to our country …”- NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark at “Lord of the Rings” premiere in Wellington, Dec 19, 2001

From Taupo, we headed eastward to Napier, a coastal town ravaged by a 7.8 Richter scale earthquake in 1931, then completely rebuilt in Art Deco style. Some buildings were so quaint it reminded us of fancy birthday cakes.

We stayed at Stables Lodge, which had rooms fashioned like horse stables, and painted with horse motifs. The kids loved it. Right behind the hostel was Marineland, where we caught the dolphin and seals show, and had close-up views at feeding time of the performers as well as blue penguins, sea lions, otters and gannets.

From Napier we decided to shoot for Wellington, a 323-km journey that was the longest stretch we did in a day. To break-journey, we diverted to Owlcatraz, near Shannon. Along with schoolkids on a field trip, we were taken into the dark barn-like home of native NZ owls and watched as they swooped eeriely around us. The residents were given amusing names like Owl Capone, Owle MacPherson, Owlvis Presley, Owley McBeal, and of course Owlivia Newton-John. We swear the lady at the counter had an owl-like look herself, and we wouldn’t want to be caught dead in dark places with her.

Not So Hot About Wellington

Wellington was chilly and rainy and horrid for the cold. Coming to a big city again with its one-way roads and busy sidewalks was dreadful after the quaintness of the small towns we had just passed.

The no-frills Rowena’s Lodge we stayed in was a labyrinth of rooms with just too many lodgers, We had bunk beds, which sunk from our weight, and were so badly placed that it was uncomfortable to even move around the heater-less room. In big cities, like Auckland and Wellington, we realized accommodation was dingier for the same average price of NZ$50–70 we were paying elsewhere. Hotels were just too expensive, so we had to make do.

The one great consolation was meeting an elderly French couple in the dining hall, who had just returned from circumnavigating South Island and gave us invaluable advice for our journey across.

In Wellington, when the weather permitted we visited Te Papa Museum, a must-see for any NZ visitor. If you never see another museum, go to this one. Entrance was free, and the exhibits superlative, with so many interactive things to do especially for kids. We must have gone there thrice during our stay, and still hadn’t seen it all. Suggestion: park at the New World supermarket opposite, where it’s free as long as you purchase something.

The museum had a special Body Odyssey exhibit we had to pay extra for, and Andrea and Jordan had fun crawling through a giant mouth and esophagus and “fighting” with three-feet high bacteria.

We did all the other touristy things at Wellington as well, rode the cable car up Kelburn, roamed the bloom-filled Wellington Botanic Garden, walked the expansive zoo, took a guided tour of parliament, visited Old St Paul’s Church with its all-timber interior and hung out at the wharfs.

Curry, Curry, Curry, Home, Love

For food, Anita was the only one in a crowded kitchen of kwailos cooking curry and upturning noses in the entire dining hall of Rowena’s. We had ten packets of Brahim’s, a live-saver of cooking sauces to spice up our meals, and of course Maggi Mee from home for that quick meal when Andrea was pining for noodles. We found Maggi Mee at the supermarkets here but they cost a NZ$1 a packet and had odd flavours like Cheese, and Barbecue. Yukk.

At takeaways, we discovered that satay seems to be a part of the Kiwi vocabulary. Once we were amused to spot the Sungai Wang Malaysian Café, which is among 15 or so Malaysian restaurants in Wellington, none of which we bothered trying. But we did on a whim have a pizza named after Klang town from a local pizzeria. It wasn’t bad.

With the uncertain weather and the isolation of South Island, we decided to shop for some jackets, windcheaters, thicker clothes and new shoes for the children.

We were eager to hop over to the South Island. There are only two ways to get across Wellington, either by the Interislander ferry or the faster Lynx ferry. Both are massive cruise boats with the lower decks for cars and the upper decks for cafes, restaurants, beer bars. There was comfy seating everywhere and great window views. The Interislander even had a play area, which Jordan and Andrea immediately took to, along with dozens of other like-minded, adrenalin-fueled kids. We realized we weren’t alone with the knowledge that parenting toddlers is a universal, full-contact sport in which we always play referee.

Picton, on the other side, of the three-hour cruise, is about the smallest, quaintest town you could live in, with its curio shops and roadside cafes with such names as The Dog & Frog and Toot & Whistle. We chose to stay at Bell Bird Motel, a three-room self-contained unit, that was truly homely, and a welcomed respite from the wretched Rowena’s.


BULLER’S GORGE AND ONTO THE SOUTH

The precarious swingbridge over Buller’s Gorge.

Two Word Poem
The toad sat on a red stool
it was a toadstool.

The rain tied a bow 
in the cloud’s hair
it was a rainbow.

Which witch put sand
in my sandwich?

I stood upon the bridge
then I understood.

I sat on the ledge and
thought about what I know.
It was knowledge. 
~ Laura Ranger, aged 7, New Zealand poet

We aren’t sure what incensed us. Maybe it was all those Indiana Jones movies. Or perhaps we were starting to believe in all the brochures we were reading about New Zealand being the adventure capital of the world. Whatever it is, on a drizzly day in November, the Matthews foursome attempted the scariest thing they have ever done as a family.

We walked across the longest swingbridge in New Zealand at Buller’s Gorge!

The idea was to make a 110-metre-crossing, which, trust us, feels a lot longer, on the narrowest metal bridge, made slippery from the weather, over the fast-flowing Buller River.

Andrea, the youngest and bravest, led the walk, followed closely by Mum, and reluctantly by Daddy and Jordan. “Little did I realize what I got myself into until the bridge starts swinging in the wind, over this raging river, too far to look down. You suddenly realize your entire family is right there, and one slip and we were fish bait,” says Julian.

Several minutes later, we emerged, safe but shaken, on the other side. Phew! Little Andrea, we believe has a career with the Flying Wallenda family. So do you think we’d walk back? No way! We opted, at extra cost, to “fly” on what was called a Comet, that would hurtle us across to the other side on a modified swing in seconds. It was a thrill! And we were so proud that both Andrea and Jordan sat on their own individual seats, instead of sharing with their parents.

Buller’s became our initiation and benchmark for our approach to South Island. After that we were gungho to do anything.

Steam train, Shantytown. A real coal-fired steam engine in Shantytown, outside Greymouth
Shanty Sitting. Jordan fools around at Shantytown

Karaoke and Carolling In The Corolla

The roads in the south are far quieter, sometimes not a single other vehicle would pass us for up to an half-hour. Even so, it would be another campervan or luggage-filled car, with map-carrying passengers. One mistake was renting a vehicle without a tape player. It only had a radio with fixed stations that worked in the cities. But that turned out oddly fortuitous, as we had to entertain ourselves for those long drives.

Andrea became official car crooner and amused us with her renditions of Pokarekare Ana, and You Are My Sunshine taught to her by her Mummy. Daddy’s memory banks popped up songs like Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep and Beautiful Sunday that got the kids in stitches for the nonsensical choruses. When we ran out songs we sang Christmas carols.

For the most part, we had great company just beyond our windows. The landscapes around every bend were of undulating green hills, snow-capped mountains, turquoise rivers and endless evidence of farm-life — horses, deer, cows and lots and lots of sheep — with not a single human in sight. Yellow flowers and sometimes multi-coloured lupins garlanded the edges of the road and rocky hillsides.

Mountain & Lake. After days of rain in the west coast of South Island, it was nice to turn the corner and be greeted by this view between Haast and Wanaka.
Purple Splendour. A simple stopover to rearrange luggage turned out to be a great photo-op for this spectacular sight outside Oamaru
Farmer’s Mailbox. Mailman must get a kick out of delivering mail to this farm, outside Te Anau.

Sometimes we would pull-over and just gasp. New Zealand’s scenery fits every travel writer’s cliché. And where there was sheep when we stopped, they would all stop to look up and stare back as if to say, “Who are these dumb tourists?” Andrea and Jordan always replied with the coded “Bar…Ram…Ewe! Bar…Ram…Ewe!”

Road courtesy was of the highest regard, and vehicles wouldn’t overtake even when you slowed. They would hang behind until a passing lane showed up.

Every now and then we’d come across a single-lane bridge and had to be mindful to give way to oncoming vehicles. On one such bridge, we found the car trundling a little more than usual, only to notice that we were driving over railway tracks ! The narrow bridge doubled-up for passing trains as well! We swung our heads wildly back and forth 180 degrees, like Wile Coyote awaiting the Road Runner’s revenge, until we got to the other side…


SOUTH ISLAND

Whale Tail. A view of a sperm whale as it escapes our camera-toting bunch on the high seas off Kaikoura

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world…This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”
Herman Melville, opening chapter in Moby Dick.

Scenes From National Geographic

In South Island, the monickers of towns were pleasant to roll off the tongue: Te Anau, Wa-na-ka, O-ta-go , Oa-ma-ru, A-ka-roa, Kai-kou-ra. At every stop, even the tiniest of towns, there was always something special to do. We chose to avoid staying at the bigger cities like Christchurch and Dunedin, opting instead to go where most New Zealanders go for their holidays.

Access to animals in their natural habitats was priority. We struck out for places where we could see whales, dolphins, seals and penguins — none of which we could find back home.

In Kaikoura, on a huge speedboat, complete with vomit bags, we chased sperm whales. These 50-foot giants of the sea apparently reside on the coastline all year round because of abundant food and few or no natural enemies.

“Thar She Blows!” Spermwhale-chasing in Kaikoura, a feeding ground for this giants of the deep blue. Watch it arch back then dive, dive, dive

Our guide used an hydrophone, an odd, conventional-looking device that seemed like a long saxophone, to listen for whales. He stuck one end into the water and listened on a pair of headphones on the other. Then we were off. We were strapped in tight with life-jackets which the kids found uncomfortable. Julian made hand puppets out the barf bags and that kept them busy.

The rides were fast and bumpy. Once we got to a whale, we would all troop outside armed with binoculars and cameras and videocams and “Oooh” and “Aaah” while we snapped away. In all we spotted three whales at three different spots!

Each whale would hang out on the surface for only a few minutes. We could just see their shiny backs and the exploding water and air as they expunged their blowholes. Then, before you know it, they would arch their backs and go down, lobbing their tail flukes in the air, to a barrage of camera-snapping. We were told they could disappear underwater for as much as 90 minutes, so we didn’t hang around before we trooped back inside the boat to go chase another.

But the first whale was unusual. Just when we were all inside again, he resurfaced, as if to say, “Nyah, nyah, I fooled ya”. The boat spun around and we all trooped out again for more camera-snapping.

Why Penguins Divorce

In complete contrast, in Oamaru, another tiny town on the South Island’s east coast, we had to sit and wait for the penguins to show up.

Oamaru is home to the blue penguin, the smallest of the world’s 17 species of penguin. Over 100 pairs are breeding along an old harbour. The adults swim out to sea to forage all day and return at precisely 9pm every night.

Penguin Parade. (Strictly no flash photographs) The main stars of Oamaru showed up a little late, just after 9pm, dried off under the floodlights, then with their tummies full of grub from swimming out in the ocean all day, the mighty tykes waddled over to their bleating babies for feeding time.

We perched on a schoolyard-sized, wooden grandstand, under dim floodlights, as the spotters awaited their arrival. They were later than usual and the seas were battering against the rocky beach. As the night grew chillier, the spotters got excited as 50 or so pairs of tiny fins were seen bobbing on the horizon. The penguins nonchalantly hopped up the rocky path and then stood in the glare of the lights to dry off, as if on parade, right in front of us.

A chorus of squealing baby penguins on the hillsides could be heard. Then as if on cue, as the squealing got louder, the returning penguins, bellies laden with food, each waddled off to their individual burrows. Later another group of about 50 more penguins showed up.

By then we had decided to drive back, but we were surprised to spot others by the roadside away from the fenced areas, and quickly turned off our headlights to avoid frightening the daylights out of them. The signboard for crossing penguins was not just for novelty after all!

At the Otago Peninsula, off Dunedin, we stayed at Penguin Place, a sheep farm that was converted into a reserve for yellow-eyed penguins, one of the rarest penguins in the world.

A mini-bus took about 15 of us uphill to the reserve where a series of tunnels and hides have been built to observe over 30 pairs of breeding penguins. We were told the pairs are faithful to each other when breeding is successful, but were likely to “divorce” if breeding fails.

Penguin & Babies. The Penguin Place, Otago Peninsula has tunnels and hides to sneak up on yellow-eyed penguins tending to their young

In the glare of the sun, we spotted a mother feeding her pair of brown babies, and moved from hide to hide observing others in their built-up nest boxes. On the beach, we spotted a lone juvenile wandering around aimlessly. Further away, a sea lion showed up. The guide made us all excited at first by this, saying it was rare for sea lions to show up there, and then made us all fearful, for the poor penguin when he told us sea lions were known to chomp on a penguin or two for breakfast. We all rooted for the penguin, quite loudly, to “stay away, stay away” from the waters, and when the sea lion finally disappeared from view, we breathed a collective sigh of relief.

At Otago, we missed seeing the albatross colony, but followed the road uphill and were surprised to find another tourist attraction called Nature’s Wonders.

Penguin Peep. This juvenile yellow-eyed penguin gave us an angry glare from his grassy abode

Maria, a chatty mother of five, took us on an argo, one of those eight-wheeled all-terrain crafts, through the middle of a sheep farm. We trudged up the hillsides, with Maria shooing sheep away, and saw cormorants nesting on the hillsides, seals sleeping on the rocks, and, in the distance, more penguins. It was Maria’s enthusiastic banter that made the ride all the more memorable and she rounded off the trip with a grand view of the sunset from atop a hill.

Atop Otago. From the vantage point of a farm on the peninsula we had this classic Kiwi sunset view.

At Akaroa, we went cruising for Hector’s Dolphins, one of the the world’s smallest and rarest dolphins. The playful dolphins darted real close and were almost impossible to capture on film as they whizzed under the boat. We were running at every end of the boat trying to get a close up view.

One of the best parts of our trip in the south was spotting seals alongside the rocky shoreline outside Kaikoura, on the road back north. This time there were no signboards, and we seemed to have stumbled upon the seals by sheer chance.

We made a U-turn and just sat by the roadside watching five of these animals flopping around on the rocks. The seals were just a few meters away, the closest we had gotten to the animals ever, and they seemed groggy as if they had too much too drink the night before and missed the morning call to go out to sea.


QUEENSTOWN JETBOAT, GLACIER HELICOPTER RIDE, MILFORD CRUISE

“What I find is that you can do almost anything or go almost anywhere, if you’re not in a hurry.” Paul Theroux in The Happy Isles Of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific.

Jetboat, Queenstown. Thrilling, breakneck-speed ride up and down Shotover River outside Queenstown. That’s the four of us at the back along with some Hongkies. Just to give you an idea how fast we were going — my glasses sit at bottom of river now somewhere…

Screaming On a JetBoat
For adventure, we did the three cliches of any South Island excursion: the jetboat ride at Queenstown, the helicopter tour of the glaciers complete with snow landing, and the cruise to Milford Sound.

A jetboat is basically a Formula 1 racing car on the water. And the drivers are all obviously on drugs. After five minutes on the thing, you will be asking yourself, “What the hell was I thinking?!!”

Because we had two kids along, they placed us right at the back, as if that was going to be any safer. The driver speeds along a stretch of the Shotover River, at breakneck speed, then attempts to crash the canyon walls. Every now and then, he points his index finger in the air, and makes a circle, the signal for a 360-degree spin. Throughout the one-hour ride, there is little to do, but scream.

Just to get a rough of idea of G-forces hitting your face, Julian lost his glasses when he turned to check whether Jordan was still on the boat. Luckily he had packed a spare. And yes, Jordan, was still there — screaming his head off. Andrea, our little heroine, survived it with little incident.

Dreaming Of A White Christmas

Earlier, on the west coast, we took off to the air on a helicopter ride, that was no less thrilling.

We were off to see the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers, near Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak. A glacier, in case you missed that geography class, is a massive river of ice that is a relic of the Ice Age and still advancing towards the sea. But the Maori story was more fun to hear.

Early Maoris called the twin glaciers Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere — The Tears of the Avalanche Girl. As the story goes, Hinehukatere loved climbing in the mountains and persuaded her lover, Tawe, to climb with her. Tragically, Tawe fell from the peaks to his death and a broken-hearted Hinehukatere shed many tears, which eventually froze to form the glacier.

Not wanting to suffer the fate of Tawe, we opted to fly. We got a grand view of the Southern Alps, and soared over the glaciers — incredible white fields of snow pocked with surprising blue hues. The pilot said the blue was from pools formed from all the rainfall in the days before.

Snow thrill for the kids
Snow! First time experiencing snow.

We landed on top of a snow-covered mountain and had a walkabout. The kids were ecstatic — jumping, kicking and stomping and rolling in the snow. Jordan, who is usually discouraged from taking cold drinks and ice back home, must have thought he was on ice heaven. He was chomping on it, and even picking it off of his shoes and popping it in his mouth after we returned to the helicopter. The pilot was kind enough to take pictures for us and pointed out the coming squall in the distance, suggesting how lucky we were. Mount Cook was obscured by the clouds but we didn’t mind. It was great just chucking snowballs at each other.

Cliche family pose taken by helicopter pilot

Milford Sound is perhaps NZ’s most famous tourist attraction. The cruise takes one through a waterway surrounded by grand hills and waterfalls out to the Tasman Sea. If the cruise doesn’t impress you, the drive there and back from Te Anau certainly will.

(We were told that Doubtful Sound, another similar waterway, was longer and far more alluring by other travellers, but it meant a double bus ride plus a lake crossing, which we felt was far too exhausting.)

Waterfall Road. The road to Milford from Te Anau is landscaped with literally hundreds of falls streaming from the mountains
Curious Kea. These huge, green, alpine parrots wander around the Milford-Te Anau road bugging the life out of stopping travellers.
Spring Cleaning. Jordan dips hands in cool waters from mountain spring along the Milford-Te Anau road, an incredible 2-hour drive with numerous waterfalls on either side.

The drive there turned out to be one of the most scenic of the journey, and we were reminded of a few scenes we had glimpsed in The Lord of the Rings trailer. With the trees canopying the road in stretches and the innumerable waterfalls streaming down the mountains, director Peter Jackson had well-chosen his Middle-earth.

At one point we drove down Homer Tunnel, a pitch dark, cavernous hole that you can actually hear trickling water in. There were no cars in front or behind for awhile, and our headlights were little compensation in the darkness, until thankfully, the tiny light at the end of the tunnel emerged.

The cruise itself was memorable if only for the fact our kids sat below deck almost throughout colouring a picture of the boat we were on. At one point the boat pulled up close to waterfalls so we could feel its cool cascade, which impressed Jordan and Andrea enough to come top deck.

Seals lazing on a rock oblivious of our presence

On the drive back to Te Anau, we stopped a number of times to take in the amazing landscape of waterfalls all around us. Outside Homer Tunnel, the inquisitive kea birds, huge green alpine parrots, bugged us enough to part with some biscuits.

Rooms For Rent, Spectacular Views For Free

Accommodation in the South Island was far roomier than the north for similar prices.

Trusty Toyota. Anita and our trusty ‘steed’ that got us thru’ five weeks in NZ without a hitch. The cabin atop the hill is where we stayed in Mt Vernon Lodge, Akaroa with horses outside the door and horseshit too
Akaroa View. Mt Vernon Lodge, horses and the view — highly recommended.
Pony Pair. Jordan and Andrea enjoyed a number of pony rides, this one atop Barnyard Backpackers outside Te Anau, along with assistant from manager’s daughter.
Doe a deer. Akaroa was so peaceful that even deer allowed for close petting

At Mount Vernon Lodge, in the former French settlement of Akaroa, off Christchurch, we had the luxury of a whole cabin complete with kitchen to ourselves. Horses grazed outside our cabin, and the kids got guided rides from the manageress Cathy. They even had a barbecue with huge helpings one night for a nominal fee.

At Te Anau, we also got a whole cabin, minus kitchen, at Barnyard Backpackers, situated atop a hill overlooking a deer farm. We had to walk downhill to cook at the main building, but we didn’t mind so much for the views and incredible freshness of the morning. The manager’s daughter took our kids for free pony rides.

In Greymouth, on the west coast, we stayed at Global Village, a backpackers place we definitely recommend. It has a colourful, tribal theme and a worldly-wise British host named Andy who served great-smelling, freshly baked rolls and bread with fabulous jams in the morning, and even cakes for tea.

At Wanaka, between the glaciers and Queenstown, we stayed at The Purple Cow, a really clean and incredibly popular backpackers with individual toilets in every room. The dining area faced the lake and had a huge lounge window that was a living postcard. This laketown held a special place in our hearts for its breathtaking views and amazingly clean lake.

Up in Ivory Towers, at the little village at Fox Glacier, we had a family room with comfortable beds and a bathroom with huge glass windows that opened out to a forestry hillside. When you had a bath you had to hope no one was watching!


KIDS THINGS

“We live at the edge of the world, so we live on the edge. Kiwis will always sacrifice money and security for adventure and challenge…”
Lucy Lawless, Xena: Warrior Princess.

Trains, Planes & Cable Cars

One of the great things about New Zealand is never being far away from a fun activity for the kids whether it be a park, a zoo, a museum, a pool or even a castle. Many of the places we stayed even had a trampoline or swings out back, and of course board games in the common halls.

Outside Greymouth, on the west coast, when things were rainy and dreary we found Shantytown, a pseudo-cowboy town that is made for kiddy fun. We rode a smoking, coal-fired steam train and wandered around taking snaps among the antiques from the gold-panning era and replicas of the olden days’ sawmill, saloon, jail, church, hospital, printing press, firestation and livery stables — with real horses.

Leaning Tower of Wanaka. Puzzling World, outside Wanaka, was fascinating but dizzying way to spend the day

Just outside Wanaka is Stuart Landsborough’s Puzzling World, a theme park centred around boggling the mind. Inclined chairs on rails went up instead of down. In one room were made to look like dwarves or giants depending which corner we stood. Out back was a huge wooden maze in which we lost the kids and spent an hour getting out — only by cheating. The café and play area had an assortment of puzzles and games to figure out, while outside a leaning tower stood at a preposterous angle.

Wanaka also had the New Zealand Fighter Pilots or Warbirds Museum that had a number of restored classic aircraft and memorabilia from World War II. Note: NZ recently scrapped the combat arm of its airforce. The country’s lawmakers believe NZ is so isolated, it doesn’t even need the big-ticket expense to maintain military aircover.

Inside, we were surprised to find a flight simulation area with networked PCs sponsored by Compaq and all four of us had a go at some aerial combat. One section featured women pilots who had played a central part in war efforts. This is a great place to go, if only to remind you of boyhood Airfix days.


In Queenstown, we took the Skyline Gondola, a cable car ride that takes you to Bob’s Peak for a grand view of the city. From there we took another chairlift ride to the top where there was a luge track. The four of us donned helmets, got a quick run through, then made like the Jamaican bobsled team.

We only realized halfway that the track had various bends without fencing — yikes — as the luge plunged downhill in a heart-stopping panoramic blur. The kids wanted to go again but we adults chickened out. On the cable car ride down we were stunned to see sheep grazing by the high slopes — hundreds of meters above sea level.

View from Walter’s: At Walter’s Peak we were served tea and scones and this sumptuous view

Also in Queenstown, after the thrill and spills of the jetboat ride, we boarded the TSS Earnslaw, for a completely opposite leisurely cruise on a vintage steamship. Jordan and Andrea got to wander around the innards of the ship and watch the stokers fuel the fireboxes, while a pianist on the deck tinkled on the piano to the crooning of some of the older passengers.

We alighted at the Walter Peak farm, and were served high tea with lots of cake and scones at a 19th century house. The kids got to hand-feed deer, view another sheep show at the wool-shed, and chase ducks along the waters.

Larnach Castle. Andrea takes a snooze on the lawn and later the kids share a throne.

On the Otago Peninsula, we explored Larnach Castle, originally built in 1871 and fully restored to its former glory complete with Venetian glass panels, Italian marble fireplaces and intricately carved wood-panelling. We wandered around the bedrooms filled with Victorian antiques, clambered up the tower and strolled outside on the plush gardens and wondered how did those land-grabbing British get so darned rich?

At one point, Andrea asked: “Where’s Lord Farquaad?”, the mean character from Shrek.

Near Greymouth, we raced up a winding, windswept, rocky shore-lined road to see the famous Punakaiki Blowholes. No not those things on top of whales — but gushing sprays of water that apparently shoot out spectacularly from among the rocks at high tide.

Unfortunately the tide receded by the time we got there, but the rocks themselves were unusual. They looked more like broken, grey chunks of layered Indonesian pandan-cake rather than stacked pancakes.

About 40 kms south of Oamaru, we headed for the beach in search of the famous Moeraki Boulders. This strange perfectly circular boulders just lie there half buried in sand as if some giant kid had left his marbles on the beach all those millions of years ago. Apparently some of the smaller ones were carted away by souvenir-hunters.

At Gore, a town — which is coincidentally right next to a town called Clinton — on what is now called the Presidential Highway, we stopped by a farm turned into a strange mini-zoo.

The owner gave us stacks of old bread and we wondered why. The reply: “There are some real hungry pigs back there.” As the kids hand-fed birds and rabbits, we were followed throughout by four chihuahuas snapping at our heels, and finally came upon two of the ugliest, filthiest pigs you ever did see. They were so hungry that they got up on their hind legs and snorted over the fence. We threw the bread as far back as we could in their muddy enclosure and ran for our lives.


THE JOURNEY HOME

“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” Sir Edmund Hillary

We were headed home.

We took the fast Lynx back across to Wellington, stayed only a night to recover, before journeying up to Wanganui. Along the way we stopped at Foxton, a tiny town that was building a windmill as a tourist attraction, and Bulls, another town whose main attraction was the lavender shop.

Wanganui turned out to be a pleasant diversion, with its huge flowering baskets decorating the buildings on main street, great parks to explore and interesting museums. We walked into the 216-feet tunnel under Durie Hill, with the kids screaming and laughing from the echoes, then boarded an ancient elevator that led us up to a War Memorial Tower. We clambered up this tower made of fossilized shellrock, and had a panoramic view of the town, Wanganui river and nearby mountains.

Kowhai Park was a novelty with a variety of cartoon and storybook characters like Fred Flintstone and The Three Bears and animal-themed slides and swings. Why can’t they build parks like these back home, we wondered?

Later that night, we explored Victoria Park, which had a fountain that constantly changed colours and trees that were lit up. A parrot made us jump when he said “Hello!” from the darkness, and Jordan and Andrea had fun waking up the ducks asleep by the lake. Wandering around we spotted a decorated Christmas tree in the window of someone’s house and felt nostalgic for home.

In town, we looked for Maori designed clothings for our children. When we finally settled on a dress for Andrea and shirt for Jordan, we asked the counter lady where they were printed and she promptly replied: “Malaysia!”

Off we were to Tongariro National Park, famous for the Tongariro Crossing, reputedly one of the best one-day hikes in the world. We weren’t planning to do it of course, and it was rainy when we got there, but we did attempt a two-hour hike to Taranaki Falls.

L: The native birds at Tongariro seem unafraid, and allow you get real close for a shot. R: Taranaki Falls. Father and son strip and plunge into falls as daughter looks on at strange antics in Tongariro

The walk ranged from barren scrubland to rainforest and took us four hours, but the kids managed with little complaint. We stopped to dip our feet at a cool river and when we finally reached the falls, Jordan and Julian stripped and did the Haka dance in triumph.

On the last day, the chair-lifts up Mount Ruapehu, which had been closed in the rainy days before, finally re-opened. We climbed up the chilly mountain and got a chance to play with snow again at the top!

Chairlift, Whakapapa. The chairlifts were closed for days because of the weather, but opened up on the day we were about to leave at Tongariro National Park. We had great views on the way up but it clouded over and got really chilly on the way down.

In the last leg of our drive we stopped by Hamilton to say hello to the Simms before heading back to Auckland to catch our flight home. All in all we had traversed more than 4,000 km !

We never spent more than three days at one place, never lingered long enough to set roots or grow moss. But everyday etched indelible memories of a great time in our minds and of friendly faces in our hearts. New Zealand is all they say it is, folks, and then some.

The 40-day journey was, in a sense, a return to our inner ancestral nomad. A yearning for wide, open spaces, and for all things natural, and wild and untamed. It was the first real time we had actually endured a lasting experience together as a family, a bonded unit — something a little more endearing than a day at the mall.

Our advice to future travellers: Life is too short. Forget those packaged holidays. Explore and discover places in your own time, and on your steam. Take the plunge. Dive in. Just go!

Ride into the Mist. “The Road goes ever on and on Down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, And I must follow, if I can, Pursuing it with eager feet, Until it joins some larger way Where many paths and errands meet. And whither then? I cannot say.” Tolkien, Lord of the Rings.

Note: Forgive the bad scans — originally scanned on a low-rez scanner back in 2002.

Originally published in 2002 at http://matthewscyberhome.tripod.com/. All copyright belongs to Anita and Julian Matthews.