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My Last Days in New Zealand

In my previous entry, I had just arrived in the pleasant tourist town of Taupo in the central part of the North Island.  I spent most of Saturday in Taupo working on my website and that evening, on television, I watched the New Zealand national cricket team, known as the Black Caps, play (and lose to) South Africa. 


It seems that all of the New Zealand national teams contain the word "Black," a tradition that got started with their national rugby team, known as the "All Blacks" (so-named for the color of their jerseys).  Rooting for New Zealand's Black Caps in cricket is like rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers in baseball or rooting for Brooklyn back when they had a baseball team.  The Black Caps are perennial losers against stronger teams like South Africa and Australia but they have a lot of class and character.  I always pull for the underdog so cheering on the Black Caps comes naturally to me.


This area, the central part of the North Island, is the most volcanic region in New Zealand, so after leaving Taupo on Sunday morning I visited a few geothermal areas.  With all the mud pots, geysers, and fumaroles here, this area is similar to Yellowstone National Park and is about the same size.  The major difference, though, is that each little geothermic area is privately owned and charges its own admission, so your wallet can take a big hit.  And with all the advertising and focus here on making a buck, visiting these sites just isn't the same as visiting a national park in the U.S.  Americans who support privatizing U.S. national parks and selling off federal lands should come over here and see what that really means.  I think they'll change their mind pretty fast.


With my website mostly caught up once again, I checked out of my motel room in Taupo in the morning and, on my way out of town, stopped at a place called Craters of the Moon.  While the numerous steam vents there weren't that impressive, and although, encompassing only a few acres, it's much smaller than the like-named national monument in Idaho which contains miles and miles of unfettered volcanic rock it was free.  I was little surprised that the park ranger there, a fellow in his 40s, had never heard of Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho, considering its expansive size and the hundreds of thousands of people who visit each year.


After Craters of the Moon, I headed to another geothermal site, a place called Hidden Springs, which received rave reviews in my Lonely Planet guidebook.  The colorful geysers and mud pots were interesting, but at US$8 it was also pretty expensive by New Zealand standards.  Still, I'm glad I saw it.  But if you want a real volcanic experience, go to Whakatane, fork over US$40, and ride out to White Island like I did in December (see News:  December 24, 2001).  That was unbelievable, and one of the most fascinating places I've ever visited.



Above left:  Lake Taupo, the largest lake in New Zealand.  It's in the volcanic highlands area of the North Island.

Above right:  Bubbling pools at Hidden Springs.  This place is like a small version of the Mammoth area of Yellowstone National Park in the U.S.



Above left:  Geothermal formations at Hidden Springs.

Above center:  Back on the highway heading to Auckland.  This is quite possibly the world's largest border collie (and tongue).

Above right:  After driving around New Zealand for two months, I finally returned to Auckland.  This is Waiake Beach at Brown's Bay, north of Auckland, on a Sunday evening.

The Super Bowl, New Zealand Style

I returned to Auckland on Sunday afternoon after a congested three-hour drive from Taupo and got a motel room north of town, where I spent that evening unpacking and sorting through everything.  After my two-month trip around New Zealand, I had a lot of organizing and packing to do before flying to Australia, four days later.  I was taking some of my things with me on the plane, mailing excess items to myself in Sydney that I wouldn't be able to carry on the plane, and mailing still other items, including most of my New Zealand souvenirs, back home to America.  I wasn't flying to Sydney until Thursday but I wanted to get everything taken care of beforehand so I could spend a couple days visiting the northern tip of New Zealand, which is called, not surprisingly, The Northland. 


Above:  In my motel room outside of Auckland, packing for my trip to Australia while watching the Super Bowl.  They didn't show the commercials, though, which is the best part.

I continued packing in my motel room on Monday, which happened to be Super Bowl Sunday (or, because of the time difference, "Super Bowl Monday" in New Zealand).  I watched the Patriots beat the Rams that afternoon while packing two big boxes of camping gear to send off to Sydney and another box to mail back to the U.S., which included all sorts of useless souvenirs of this Kiwi country.


Unfortunately, as I discovered, New Zealand television stations broadcast only the "European Version" of the Super Bowl.  They're the same video feeds as the American version but they use a couple of second-rate American announcers and some hyperactive Scottish guy for color commentary.  Folks in Europe apparently understand football better if it's translated by a guy who sounds like Scotty from "Star Trek."


Throughout the game, the announcers painstakingly described many of the game's intricacies, such as the "subtle" difference between Holding and a First Down, since football is, I'm sure, a mystifying sport in Europe, just as cricket is in America.  I was disappointed, though, that they didn't show any commercials, which is undoubtedly the best part of any Super Bowl broadcast.  Frankly, without the commercials the game was pretty bland, despite both the close score and the energetic sputterings from Scotty:  "Captain, the Patriots have just lost their dilithium crystals!  They can't take much more of this!" 


Despite the announcers, it actually turned out to be a pretty good game, which is unusual for a Super Bowl.  Still though, it just wasn't the same without the ads.

Dashing Through the Northland

With all my sorting and packing finished, I headed out of Auckland the next morning, Tuesday, stopping at a post office on my way out of town to mail the boxes some going to Sydney and others heading back home to Bellingham.  Then I spent the next few days exploring the Northland.  There are some pretty amazing places in this area north of Auckland, including the Bay of Islands and Cape Reinga, and I wished I had more time to see it. 


Above:  Heading through the Northland (the peninsula north of Auckland) on my way to Cape Reinga at the northern tip of New Zealand.  This is near Dargaville.

As I was heading north, I wasn't sure if I wanted to drive all the way up to Cape Reinga on the northernmost tip of New Zealand, especially since the last 20 miles of the drive were on a dirt road, which my car wasn't insured on.  However, since I had driven to the southernmost tip at Bluff four weeks earlier, I figured I better make it up to Cape Reinga, as well.  I'm glad I did, too, because Cape Reinga is one of the most spectacular places in the entire country.  Standing by the lighthouse there, you really feel like you're at the end of the world.


On my drive back to Auckland that afternoon, I dropped by the town of Waitangi, one of the oldest European settlements in New Zealand.  As luck would have it, this was February 6, also known as Waitangi Day, which is New Zealand's national holiday and similar to the 4th of July in the U.S.  As I discovered, being in Waitangi on Waitangi Day is a bit like being in Philadelphia on Independence Day, or in Punxsatawney, Pennsylvania on Groundhog Day.


I've already touched on the Maori situation in New Zealand, but I'll fill in some of the details here.  On February 6, 1840, the English and the natives, the Maoris, signed a treaty in Waitangi bringing the Maoris under the protection of the English.  By signing the treaty, the Maoris didn't give up any land, but they did allow English agents to act as intermediaries to buy land from the Maoris and then sell it to English colonists not at all like the massive and unrestrained land-grabs that took place in North America between the American settlers and Native Americans.


Above:  A typical vista in the Northland.

In general, the relationship between the Maoris and the whites in New Zealand was (and is) much smoother than the situation in America between whites and Native Americans.  One of the things I've been impressed with here in New Zealand is how much better the native tribes co-exist with the white culture compared to how Native Americans have been treated in the U.S.  The Maori influence is very strong throughout New Zealand and Maoris are treated much more as equals here than Native Americans are in the U.S.  And that's a good thing, as Martha Stewart might say.


After driving over 500 kilometers (300 miles) that day on narrow, winding roads out to Cape Reinga and down to Waitangi, my one-hour drive to the Auckland airport the next morning was downright leisurely.  I filled up the Corolla's petrol tank and dropped the car off with Sigit at Easy Rental, who was happy to see me (and his car) back in one piece.  After we had a nice chat, Sigit drove me out to the airport, where I said goodbye to him and bade farewell to my trusty Corolla, which had carried me 8,000 kilometers around New Zealand these past two months without a lick of trouble. 


Sigit's a good guy and he runs a efficient car rental company.  If you want to rent a mid-1990s car in New Zealand for a few weeks or a few months at a much better rate than you'll get from Hertz or Avis, I heartily recommend contacting him.



Above left:  Check out this license plate in Whangarei:  "Dels V8."  Hey Del, that's a nice V-8.

Above center:  Heading up to Cape Reinga, near the end of Highway 1.  

Above right:  The lighthouse at Cape Reinga, on a beautiful, windy afternoon.



Above left:  Looking west from Cape Reinga, the northernmost point in New Zealand.  That's the westernmost point of New Zealand off in the distance.

Above right:  The signpost at Cape Reinga, and as far north as you can go in New Zealand.  I've now been to the northernmost and southernmost points of the country.  Oddly, this is important to a geographer like me or to an odd geographer like me, I should say.



Above left:  Cable Bay near Kaitaia.

Above center:  I visited the Bay of Islands and Waitangi on Waitangi Day, New Zealand's national day.  There were LOTS of people here, including New Zealand's very capable Prime Minister, Helen Clarke.

Above right:  Filling up my Corolla in Auckland, just before I flew to Sydney.  My faithful friend had carried me over 5,000 miles to all parts of New Zealand without any problems. 

Putting It All Together

While waiting in the Auckland airport for my plane to Sydney, I thought about my two-month trip around New Zealand.  Although it was rainy during my first month here and was pretty crowded every where I went up until late January (the peak summer season), I had a great time overall and am really glad I saw the country.  I did a lot of driving and visited almost every corner of New Zealand, but even if I'd spent another two months exploring it, I still wouldn't have seen it all.  Not even close, because there's just so much to see and experience here. 


Here are some of my trip stats:

  • Days Traveled:  53

  • Miles Traveled:  5,523

  • Cities Visited:  Every one with more than 5,000 people.

  • Geographic Extremes Visited:  Northernmost, westernmost, southernmost , and easternmost cities. 

  • Kiwis Seen (the bird, that is, not New Zealanders):  Only one, stuffed and in a museum.

  • Sheep Seen:  Countless

The trip was more than statistics, though.  The best part was meeting the terrific Kiwis (New Zealanders, that is, not the bird).  I've said it before but I think New Zealanders are, for the most part, the friendliest folks I've ever met.  They're more courteous, honest, and open than most Americans.  They're also more trusting and, dare I say it, naive though in a good way, perhaps the way most Americans were 30 or 40 years ago before the country became so rude, money-hungry and suspicious.


Not every person here greeted me with a smile and a handshake, but I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of rude Kiwis I ran into during my two months in New Zealand even if my hand were missing three fingers.  And during all of my travels here, I encountered only one rude driver:  a bumper-riding truck driver north of Auckland.  That's not bad, I figure, considering that I drove over 5,000 miles around the country.  Looking back on my trip through New Zealand, I'd say that, without a doubt, the best part of it was meeting the people (even more than eating the fish and chips!)  Even though I was 8,000 miles from the U.S., just about every Kiwi I met during these past two months made me feel like I was home.


I also saw a lot of amazing places.  Trying to describe New Zealand to someone who has never been here is really difficult, but I'll give it a shot.  As I've said many times, the scenic variety in New Zealand is incredible and there isn't any single state in the U.S. that New Zealand can be compared to.  If I had to choose, though, I'd say that in terms of vegetation, climate, culture, attitude, and geography, New Zealand is like a combination of Oregon and Hawaii.  It's not like Oregon and it's not like Hawaii, but it's somewhere in between.  But you also have to throw in parts of Alaska, California, and the Midwest.


Above:  Saying goodbye to New Zealand at the Auckland Airport while waiting for my flight to Sydney.

Although New Zealand is only as large as Oregon, it seems much bigger than that state because of the variety of scenery and also because of the narrow, winding roads, which makes any trip long and slow.  You can't see all of New Zealand in a few weeks or even a couple of months.  I know because I tried.  Despite all the territory I covered, I still don't feel like I saw the entire country, or even came close.


The number of activities here, if your budget allows, is also jaw-dropping, much more than anyplace in America.  I didn't go on as many adventures as I wanted to because my main goal for this trip was to see as much of the country as I could in two months (and also to write about it, which took weeks of my time here).  But if you like adventure activities, such as hiking, bungy-jumping, jet-boating, helicopter riding, or just about any other imaginable amalgam, like bungy-jumping-jet-boating-helicopter rides, New Zealand has it.


As far as when to visit, don't make the mistake I did and come here between mid-December and early February unless you enjoy crowds and have lots of reservations.  Next time I come to New Zealand, I'll visit either before or after the summer peak, such as November or March.  The weather during those times is still pretty nice and the crowds are gone, so from what I've heard, it's the best time to see the country.  Even the winter here (June and July) can be a good time to visit because the temperatures are still moderate compared to, say, winter in America or Europe.  And even though some accommodations and activities will be closed then, you'll have the whole place to yourself.


Will I ever come back to this wonderful country of New Zealand?   Yes, definitely.  But now it's on to Australia.



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