New Zealand's Sheer Beauty

New Zealand's Sheer Beauty

» Featured Columnists | By Mike Cooney | February 24, 2012 9:00 AM ET

Of all the places we had visited, Australia was the hardest one to leave.  Two months is a respectable amount of time to visit Oz, but like the U.S., still only provides a glimpse of what there is to see and do.  Given the time it takes to get there and the distance from almost anywhere, two weeks is the minimum for a visit.  It will take approximately two days travel time in both directions plus getting used to the 18-hour time change (East Coast of U.S. to East Coast of Australia).  Depending on your personal fortitude and stamina the time change could take several more days to become acclimated.

Originally, we had planned on three weeks in New Zealand - two weeks to tour the South Island and one week to tour the North Island.  After looking at maps, distances and the challenges of getting between the two islands we reduced it to 14-days and only toured the South Island.  Everyone we spoke to said that it was the more beautiful of the two, and it did not disappoint.

Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island and is where we landed after leaving Australia.  Both countries take significant measures to ensure no foreign plants and animals are brought into the country.  However, New Zealand immigrations and customs asked the most questions about where we had been, if we had been hiking and where, and if we had tents and/or sleeping bags.  Since the answer to all of the questions was yes, the officials took great pains to inspect all of our gear.  In addition to taking our hiking boots and spraying them with disinfectant, they literally vacuumed out the three tents and sleeping bags.  That thoroughness took more than an hour.  When everything was returned they apologized profusely for the wait, but said it was necessary to ensure non-indigenous species were not brought into the country.  Even though they had a very challenging job, they were the nicest, most courteous customs officials we had met.

Once outside the terminal, we met a van from the RV company where we had a reservation, and were taken to the depot near the airport.  Because it was winter, we had to go through a number of safety issues and were asked if we wanted snow chains.  Since we had no intention of venturing into locations with snow on the roads we declined.

The motor home was huge compared to the hippy van in Australia.  It also took some getting used to, as it was high, long and had mirrors sticking out on both sides.  Like Australia, we were driving on the opposite side of the road and on top of everything else it had a five-speed manual transmission.  The first stop was the grocery store to buy provisions for the first leg of the South Island trek.  The stores and food options were very similar to Australia, which made provisioning quick and efficient.

Christchurch is a beautiful historic city, which was recently devastated by a powerful earthquake.  It has been overshadowed by the recent events in Japan; however, the suffering and misery caused by the earthquake in New Zealand will be ongoing for many years to come.  During better times the downtown area was a clean, vibrant area that lovingly maintained its ties to the past through architecture and culture.

To prove New Zealand is one of the southern most countries in the southern hemisphere, the International Antarctic Centre (English spelling) is located near the airport.  It is the home base for scientists and adventurers going to and from the frozen wasteland.  The distance from Christchurch to Scott Base on Ross Island is over 2,000 miles, which takes six to seven hours by cargo plane.  Personally, I prefer to do my research closer to the Equator.

Because it was winter and low season, the huge motor home was only a few dollars more than the hippy van in Australia.  The cubic volume on the inside of our new house-on-wheels was nearly three times that of the van.   So it seemed logical that any conflicts we had as a result of closeness would be significantly reduced.  Wrong! Wrong!  Wrong!

By using the two "campers" as roving biosphere labs, I am confident a sociologist could have easily obtained their PhD by comparing the interaction between tribe members in each vehicle.  In reality it seemed we were even closer than when traveling in the Outback in a camper a third the size.  By comparison, once we found a place to camp in Australia, each person could spread out, go set up a tent and have some "me time", take a walk, etc.  In other words, get away from each other.  However, it was so cold during the 14-days in New Zealand that we ate and slept in a very confined space.  The only relief was at night when Morgan and Zach chose to brave the elements and sleep outside in their tents.  Even this created conflict because it was so cold they didn't sleep well and were very grumpy each morning.  They could have slept inside the motor home, but chose not to and we were glad they did.   Using the tiny toilet was challenging enough with only three people, much less all five.  On several occasions, temperatures hit the freezing mark and the inside of their tents were covered in a thin film of ice; a result of the moisture created by exhaling in a one-person thin-layered abode.  During one overnight stay, the wind was so fierce that their tents nearly blew away with Morgan and Zach in them.  It's true what they say about RV . . . in our case the experience was shaping up to stand for Ruined Vacation.

In spite of our personal issues with one another, we tried to make the best of it and enjoy the sheer beauty of New Zealand.  Of all the countries we visited, it was by far the most scenic and awe-inspiring.  Soaring snow-capped mountains, majestic waterfalls, picturesque lakes, deep fertile valleys, sweeping farmland and rivers so pure and cold they were blue represented just a few of its natural assets.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy was shot both on the North and South Islands.  There were tours offered in various locations to where the scenes were shot.  In one place the brochures proudly announced visitors could even see a dilapidated backdrop used in the movie.  Unfortunately, taking any of the tours was a big budget buster, especially since there was practically no budget left.

On one occasion we were driving to Te Anau and Fiordland National Park on the west coast when it began to snow.   Some in the vehicle expressed concern and reminded me we opted-out of renting snow chains.  I assured them it was no big deal and on we went.  When the snowflakes became the size of small birds my confidence began to wane.  It was wet and heavy and was sticking to all parts of the camper.  After finding a safe place to pull off, we stopped to let the boys have a snowball fight and left to retrace our route.  The decision to turn back was confirmed when in the distance I saw a "large yellow thing" fast approaching.  By now it was snowing so hard I had to put the windshield wipers on high speed, and they were just barely keeping up.  The "large yellow thing", also known as a snowplow, went whizzing by in the opposite direction, which strongly suggested that the weather was far worse closer to the coast.  Eventually we drove out of the snow and back to safer driving conditions.

There is no shortage of things to do and see in New Zealand.  Next week's article will focus on the towns and places we visited during our nearly 1,500 mile trek around the South Island.  Although tension remained high among tribe members, we tried to put our differences aside and take in the jaw-dropping scenery.  To help you win the next trivia game, stay tuned to lean why New Zealanders are called Kiwis and the ratio of people to sheep.  Both may surprise you.

And remember, "Travel is the ultimate education."

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