Sipping a Cabernet Sauvignon en-route my long haul flight back to India from New Zealand, I settle down to watch a movie. But my mind flips focus and my eyes refuse to converge.
A time-lapse of tangled mountains, meandering lakes, breathtaking landscapes with the golden sun transforming swaths of acreage into a frenzy of color… flashes before my eyes.
Oh, the delicious splendour of newfangled memories!
My heart says Stop. Turn the aircraft around. I need to hug New Zealand one more time.
‘Ventral Striatum’ is a part of the brain that is said to light up at the sight of pretty objects. Well, my poor ventral striatum didn’t get a moment’s shut-eye in the last ten days as I drove across the Southern and Northern Islands of New Zealand with my travel buddies.
After such a glorious real-life spectacle, an in-flight movie seems so inane. I switch off the TV and pull out my iPad, as an urge to pay back my host country in some way, ANY way, takes over.
My mind toggles. Pen a poem, and vent this emotional surge. Or, slog a blog, and document your memories, before they gather the dust of time. Slog a blog seems like a good idea. Both time and inclination are on my side. So I pour myself another Cabernet and plunge into memory-land.
We’ve all heard the buzz around New Zealand’s exotic brand of beauty. From brochures. From websites. From travel agents. From friends. It’s been named among the Top 10 Countries to Visit by the Lonely Planet. It’s been voted the World’s Third Most Beautiful Country (after Scotland and Canada) by some travel magazines, and the World’s Most Beautiful by others.
But brochures mostly exaggerate. And friends often hyperbolate. And awards? The less said about them, the better. Seeing is Believing, goes the cliche. Or, Looking is Litmus, goes Ajup (my cynically-inclined alter-ego) who secretly gloats over her improvised version of a stale cliche.
And so with my eyebrows partly furrowed in skepticism (thanks to Ajup), I scale the skies from Sydney to NZ and land in Christchurch in the dead of the night.
Day 1: Christchurch, South Island
It’s a bright Sunday morning in Christchurch. Joggers and morning walkers are the only traffic on the roomy roads. A spanking new pre-booked Toyota Highlander awaits us on the George Hotel’s porch. We love our transport vessel instantly. It’s clearly drool-worthy.
Our goodie bag is almost the size of one suitcase – with apricots, cherries, chips, and chocolates jostling for space. What’s a driving holiday without comfort munchies!
Emptying our minds of worldly worries, we open ourselves to the unexplored mysteries of the impending experience. A sense of distance looms in the air, as we hit the highway. The GPS is turned on. It is going to play our guiding star for the next ten days.
I briefly reflect on the credulity with which we surrender to the command of an alien yet strangely reassuring voice… trusting it to navigate us safely through unchartered waters on alien soil, in an alien country. The paradox of how technology frees us by making us its slave amuses me.
As soon as our car meanders out of the town suburbs, we begin to notice an unfolding of nature’s largesse, sprinkled over an unlimited horizon. My skepticism dissolves almost instantly – its crumbs flying out of the car window like sawdust in the wind.
Soon the linear value of time is forgotten. Worries of home and hearth are forgotten. Even the goodies bag is forgotten. It’s not every day that you get to drive straight into heaven like this!
The untainted countryside blushes a shy pink. Amorphous clouds hug the trees which dance in abandon to the tune of nature’s symphony. Hills and lakes lie au naturel, locked in a lovers’ embrace – poised, tranquil, and heartbreakingly beautiful.
They communicate wordlessly. Like a piece of art. Unmindful of the poetry and awe they inspire in barren minds. Innocent of the spiritual surge they evoke in the hearts of smitten travelers.
We ogle unabashedly at the unblemished landscapes as they roll by like a time-lapse. It strikes me that we’re behaving like lusty predators. I try to look away. But then the evanescence of this moment strikes me. Isn’t this what we’re here for in the first place? I start to ogle again with renewed lust.
Two hours into this surreal drive, we are convinced that our surroundings will merely change contours along the way; they won’t diminish in beauty.
Our picture-clicking frenzy ebbs. We finally exhale and find our rhythm.
We are now humming Country Roads (in unison) as John Denver plays on my iPad. The iPad is stacked with enough music to last us our 3000+ km journey. Bluetooth does the rest.
Rafi, Kishore, Nusrat, Beatles, BoneyM and a host of other invisible travel companions wait, in attendance, in my playlist queue. They don’t take up physical space in our car but they do embellish every mile of our journey with their evergreen melodies.
Day 2/3: Queenstown, South Island
Queenstown, New Zealand’s adventure capital in South Island, snuggles between the shores of the shimmering Lake Wakatipu and the snowy peaks of the Remarkables.
You can go bungee jumping, jet boating, white-water rafting, paragliding, rock climbing, mountain biking, and hiking.
We, of course, do none of these!
Our machismo years are long gone. We now prefer to spend our time sampling exotic cuisines in exotic restaurants, or tasting quaint wines in quaint vineyards.
Bungee jumping from steep mountains is injurious to our temperament. And to our fragile bones. You can skip it too. And, like us, enjoy a sundowner at a pristine villa overlooking the lake if you like.
That’s good for your nerves. And your bones.
Not wanting to drive out for dinner that night, we order a meal of lamb shoulders and potato wedges, a local specialty. It is juicy, sumptuous, and finger-licking good.
The next morning we do a day trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park – named the World’s Top Travel Destination by Traveller’s Choice in 2008.
A two-hour boat cruise offers the most breathtaking view of a stretch of foliage-laden mountains that seem to spring from the belly of the sea.
The tributaries of the sea drape these mountains like a sheer blue scarf wrapped flirtatiously around a belly dancer’s waist.
As the boat veers within kissing distance of a gushing waterfall flowing down the nape of a craggy mountain’s neck, it’s hard to catch your breath in the thick wind-blown misty spray. The Mitre rises over a mile above the waters of the sound, in which pods of frolicking dolphins send us into a clicking frenzy.
There’s a clutch of cute seals huddled on rocks, too.
We drive back to Queenstown just in time for dinner at The Taj, an outstanding Indian Restaurant recommended by our Del Lago Villa hostess. The plaza that houses the Taj is buzzing with tourists and activity.
Day 4: Franz Josef Glacier, South Island
Our next destination is Franz Josef Glacier, South Island. As we drive up to the glacier, Mountain walls streaked with dozens of tiny waterfalls coming off the snowfield run parallel on both sides for miles.
Soaking in the unhurried aura of my surroundings, I conclude that Mother Nature has definitely gone on a fantasy overdrive while crafting NZ.
I’m beginning to feel that a common-place descriptor such as ’beautiful’ is a gross understatement to describe this gorgeous country. Ethereal? Surreal? Sublime?… I’m ready to spill out the innards of a thesaurus on this page.
Franz Josef Glacier features among the most accessible glaciers in the world. The river of ice flows from some of the highest peaks in the Southern Alps to near sea level where the gentle coastal climate makes it easy to explore on foot. We too bravely set out on a 45-minute climb… but turn back within 20 minutes! Because beyond that, our feet suddenly raise their hands and show us the red flag! At our age, we’re used to such mutinies by our body parts as they become increasingly intolerant of one another and refuse to work in tandem.
We briefly think of hiring a helicopter to view the top of this vast tongue of ice, but quickly abandon the thought. Forget the hike. Let’s binge on a gourmet meal with the dollars we’ll save by skipping the copter-ride.
A memorable evening is followed by a comfortable stay at Aspen Court Motel.
Day 5: Picton
Driving through myriad landscapes and stopping at a vineyard en-route, it is finally evening by the time we reach Picton – a beautiful waterside holiday town with some of New Zealand’s highest quality marina facilities, boutique shops, and accommodation options.
It offers the visitor a fantastic base for exploring the Marlborough Sounds and Marlborough’s inland attractions and landscapes.
It is also the South Island base for the ferry service that links the main islands of New Zealand. Options for water sports, eco-tours, and boat trips abound.
Picton’s seafront is dotted with cafés, restaurants, various types of galleries. There’s also a floating maritime museum and an aquarium.
We explore the local shopping area, have a fabulous fusion cuisine for dinner at a lively local restaurant, and do some photo-ops, before retiring for the night at Azure Jasmine Court, a motel that provides well-appointed accommodation.
Day 6: Wellington, Rotorua
The next morning, we drop off our car and board a ferry to Wellington – the NZ Capital. The ferry is fun. It gives us an awesome view of the ocean.
Wellington is the southernmost capital in the world. It flaunts a Capital’s business-like demeanor and its roads buzzing with traffic (by NZ standards).
Unfortunately, our itinerary allows us no time to explore Wellington. We pick up a new car here and set off for our next destination: Rotorua in North Island.
Rotorua is one of the most active geothermal regions in the world. Boiling mud pools, hissing geysers, volcanic craters, and steaming thermal springs speak to you in their own vocabulary. We drive past steaming mineral springs, lush rainforests, fascinating fjords, and virgin rivers flush with fish.
Our stay in Rotorua is booked at a plush, extravagant villa owned by a lady who is also an interior designer. We learn about the region’s rich Maori history and culture from our hostess as she serves us breakfast the next morning.
Dinner, that night at an Indian restaurant turns out to be our first bad meal since we landed in NZ.
Day 7: Tairua, North Island
The drive to Tairua is once again studded with amazing locales. The landscape changes moods every couple of hours.
The town lies at the mouth of the Tairua River. The population is barely 1500. Beautiful beaches and rugged hills dot the area.
We are booked in a 3-bedroom lodge for 2 nights and are looking forward to a brief pause after almost a week of daily driving. Unfortunately, the lodge doesn’t meet our expectations of luxury and comfort.
So we decide to snip our 2-day visit to one, and head for Aukland the next morning.
Day 8/9/10: Auckland, North Island
Soaking in the rolling green hills, the sparkling blue waters, and the lush golden fields under crystal clear skies, we drive from Tairua to Aukland.
Blessed with two sparkling harbors, Auckland in Northern Island is New Zealand’s largest city and the most populous Polynesian city in the world.
It is a perfect base for day trips and wilderness adventures in neighboring locations. More people live in Auckland than the whole of the South Island.
There are 50 volcanic cones in and around Auckland but most of them are extinct.
To appreciate Auckland’s stunning location, one can zoom up the 328-meter Sky Tower for spectacular views of the city and hinterland.
We didn’t, but you can.
Top-notch dining, a vibrant arts scene, a revamped waterfront district packed with boutiques and restaurants, and some shopping keep us busy during our stay in Aukland.
And finally, it’s time to say goodbye. We leave for the airport with heavy but happy hearts. We are now homeward bound.
The 400+ photos that we’ve clicked during our trip seem woefully inadequate in capturing New Zealand’s full beauty. A beauty that reinstates one’s faith in the jaw-dropping bounty that nature has unselfishly showered upon mankind.
But this faith is accompanied by a hint of jealousy. As a traveler from India – a country of rich cultural heritage but poor population control, I feel a twitch of envy towards the 4.5 million populace that breathes gallons of crisp oxygen across the expanse of NZ.
It is easy to tell why pollution is a word that a New Zealander needs to look up in the dictionary.
Even the flock of sheep in the earthly equivalent of heaven, seem to graze with an air of entitlement. And why not? Elaborate water sprinkling systems are deployed throughout the country-side to ensure the livestock gets green fodder to yield the world’s best wool and meat.
By the way, there are 9 sheep for each person in New Zealand, making it the highest ratio in the world. We in India probably have 9 people per cow ( no offense meant to either cattle class or Shashi Tharoor)!
For such a small country, NZ really does pack punch with a capital P. How many other countries in the world are home to glaciers, volcanoes, geysers, geothermal pools, white sand beaches, caves illuminated by glow worms, waterfalls, mountains and so much more?
No wonder International tourism is New Zealand’s largest earner of foreign exchange. It pumps approximately NZD14.5 billion annually into the nation’s economy.
Over 3.4 million visitors arrive in the country every year. The largest number of international visitors arrive from Australia, China, and the USA.
The sheèr natural beauty of New Zealand blows your mind many times over.
It is perhaps the only country that looks better in REAL life than it does in brochures and websites.
On our 10-day trip, we managed to see just eight places. There’s so much we couldn’t see.
I’m back in India now but a part of my heart is floating dreamily in the verdants of Kiwiland.
There’s just one piece of advice I’d like to give to all those who haven’t yet visited New Zealand: Don’t die without seeing this place.