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New Zealand: The Great Outdoors
by Matt Thomas
I was slightly short of the halfway point of my world tour, when I landed in Auckland on a pretty cold and wet August morning, or to quote my travel journal, “well, it’s p*ssing down!” The first thing that struck me was the size and shear scariness of a Maori man in dark glasses on his mobile phone and the second thing was the general friendliness of the people and the customs official in particular. Although having come from America as my previous stop, I was probably quite easily impressed on that score.
Auckland is a very pleasant, if strangely quite, city, especially for the biggest city in the country. Even at peak time on a Saturday the shops and streets were not deserted exactly, but a little quiet nonetheless. I stayed at Auckland Backpackers which had an excellent tour and travel desk (it’s well worth buying backpacker card for discounts on transport, hostels and tours) and the facilities including a huge TV room were excellent. I am still not entirely sure what was going on, on the bunk above me on my second night mind you.
The main highlights were the Tamaki Paenga Hira (Auckland Museum) where visitors are treated to traditional Maori dancing, the excellent Auckland War Memorial Museum, and Mt Eden, Auckland’s highest point. From the peak you can see into the dormant volcanic crater and see for miles in all directions over the city, a great photo spot. As I went in the autumn I did not get the chance to take in Auckland’s varied beaches of white sand on the east side and black sand on the west which is also the main surfer hangout. Those would be highly recommended in summer months.
With a ridiculously short three weeks, due to my own poor scheduling, to see both islands I shipped out to Rotorua. The main highlight being the Whakarewarema Thermal Village, where food can be cooked through geothermal heat in the ground, wrapping the food in foil sheets. Rotorua is also good fun for a hill top walk but aside from the overwhelming smell of the geothermal energy which is not dissimilar to bad eggs, there is not much more going on.
Wellington was my favourite city in New Zealand. It is overlooked by hills to the North that are ideal for mountain biking(hard work though!) and has a fantastic bustling night-life. There is also a rich cultural diversity to the city as well, as quaint wooden houses pepper the hillside which contrast with the affluent promenade area and vibrancy of the town centre. One thing to note is that it is windy most of the time, especially in the harbour area. The best place to start is the outstanding Te Papa Tongarewa – Museum of New Zealand. This mixes hi-tech graphic displays and hands on activities to give a fantastic overview of Maori culture and the country’s history. You could do a lot worse than amble lazily around the zig zag streets, stopping at the odd café or pub on the way or take a scenic drive up Marine Drive starting at Oriental Bay. You will see a variety of coastline from sand beaches to dramatic rocks and the aggressive sea.
Kaikoura on the east coast of the South Island is a gorgeous spot. It is one of the few places in the world where one can see snow covered mountains form the beach. Hill top walks through the lush rolling countryside is the main attraction here, along with whale watching that can be done all year round. A perfect spot to relax for a day or two. “A contender for the most beautiful place in the world.” I wrote in my journal.
After a detour to Dunedin, I went to Queenstown, home for the world first commercial bungee at Kewara Bridge which I didn’t go on, but those who did tell me it’s awesome! I did go jet boating which was good fun but most certainly not worth $95 and was mainly memorable for bad jokes by the driver. Try and get a seat at the front.
In a country famous for its’ great outdoors’ activities, Queenstown is the home for this. Paragliding, river-rafting, skydiving, snowboarding in season and mountain biking are all available here. The countryside is beautiful and the air clean, it could not be more suited to extreme sports. If high octane is not your thing there are also plenty of hikes and fishing spots to keep you occupied. A short bus ride from Queenstown is Wanaka where the scenery is exceptional and the boarding and skiing just as good. I did find Wanaka slightly more relaxed than Queenstown which, while more popular, is much more tourist orientated.
My last activity was a day spent on the glacier at Franz Josef. To summarise $120 gets you a day with a guide hiking, climbing, having a lot of fun, and a few scary moments on a glacier. Being a glacier it is very cold on there, although being constantly on the move does help keep your temperature up. Take warm clothes and plenty of food and refreshments. If you don’t mind a few small jumps, hard work and testing moments hiking on ice, then it’s a brilliant way to spend a day.
New Zealand is a stunningly beautiful country. The diversity of the scenery from rolling green hills, rugged coastlines and black sand beaches to snow covered mountains and glaciers will take your breath away. It’s a haven for extreme sports fans as well as having some of the friendliest people and best night-life that I have found. Strongly recommended!