New Zealand - 4 Wheels & 8 Weeks
In 1990 and with a total budget of $800, we pick up a Morris Minor from an auto dealer in Christchurch. This is where my husband, Matthew, spent his youth and where we first met and we are here for two months to visit this small nation in the South Pacific.
The car came with a free map. We take this as a good sign as we begin our self-drive tour of New Zealand’s South and North Islands. We start by heading north to Kaikoura.The offshore waters of this area creates a rich feeding area for birds, fish and sea mammals and we decide to park the car and get out on the water. Some days the sea is too rough for the boats to leave, but on this day, good fortune is with us. After two hours of searching for spinner dolphins, fur seals and whales, we spot the breathing spray of a single Sperm whale, then see two more in the distance. Breaking the surface in preparation for a deep dive, they flash their giant tail flukes before disappearing into the blue depths. Later that day as we return to the harbour, another whale ventures so close to the Zodiac that the skipper must quickly cut the engines and report the close encounter to government authorities.
Thanks to the South Island’s trim waistline, driving from the east coast to west coast takes under a day. Halfway across at Arthur’s Pass, a fellow motorist parked next to us at a gorgeous viewpoint loses a wiper blade to a thieving Kea. These large, metallic-green alpine parrots ooze mischievous charm, and considering they’ve been known to steal SLR cameras left hanging on side mirrors, the fuming driver gets off lucky.
The west coast holds much magic for us as we walk to the foot of both Franz Josef and Fox glaciers, hike around gorgeous Lake Matheson, search in vain for an unclouded glimpse of Mount Cook or Mount Tasman, and kayak through a lagoon to a white heron sanctuary.
On the road to Dunedin we hit our first auto snag when an engine pulley breaks. Matthew remembers passing a wrecker’s yard. He hitches a ride and is back with a spare part within a couple of hours. While the hood is up, a car stops and the driver yells “Hey Matthew!” “Is that you?” It’s a friend who he hasn’t seen since leaving the country years earlier, a friend who still thinks; “Old Morris Minor – must be Matthew!” Arriving in Dunedin we are treated to a tour of a Scottish style castle, a peninsula walk with sightings of Albatross and two species of penguins and some wonderfully pastural landscapes.
We book the car on the Picton-to-Wellington ferry, crossing the Cook Strait on a relatively calm day. We traverse the entire North Island to wind our way to the very tip of Cape Reinga and take a few photos by the landmark lighthouse. We hear from locals that this is an intensely spiritual Maori sacred site, a place where departed souls are said to leave for the legendary homeland of Hawaiki. Geography forces us to turn around and we begin the drive back. We make a stop at 90 Mile Beach, which is only actually 55 miles long, but still impressive.Of the many fish and chip stops along the way, the hands-down favourite is at the authentic coastal village of Manganui. With its shack at the end of a pier, this is where fisherman motor up and sell their recent catch out the back door at which time the cook walks over to the menu board, picks up the chalk and adjusts the "Catch of the Day".
No trip to the nation would be complete without a visit to Rotorua which is a combination of Maori culture, geothermal phenomena, and a little Vegas. The main Whakarewarewa Centre houses Maori Arts and Crafts and a replicated Meeting House. These buildings are in stark contrast to the strips of white and blue painted cement motels that, after decades of little change, still brag of their queen size beds and “colour” TVs.
It was here that tourism in New Zealand began to draw international visitors in respectable numbers back in the mid 1800’s as visitors flocked to see the famous pink and white terraces and bathe in the therapeutic pools. Ironically, the world lost these terraced wonders to the same volcanic activity that first formed them. It continues to offer other places of awe, including the Waimangu Thermal Valley with its boiling mud pools, hot water springs, scenic lakes, silica terraces, numerous Maori villages and rare thermal plants.
It is hard to pick a favourite place in New Zealand, there are far too many experiences over the eight weeks to narrow. Now we find ourselves going over road maps with current New Zealand bound travellers, some of whom will rent and others who will buy a vehicle. Either way, self-drive is a still a good way to go.