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Travelogue of a Trip Through New Zealand

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Assorted Adventures: Scuba Diving, the Tongariro Crossing Trek, Heli-Hiking the Franz Josef Glacier, Cruising Milford Sound, and Seeing Penguins

Friday Nov. 8, 2002
The flight to Auckland from LA is brutal – 12hr 9min to go 6520 miles. It seemed never ending. The line through customs upon arrival was similar – very long, but it finally started moving quickly – about 35 minutes to get through. From the airport is a Super Shuttle, which is a compromise between a taxi and a bus, but the fares are skewed toward people traveling together - $20NZ for one, $25 for 2 and $30 for 3. (It’s about $2NZ per US dollar). So if you can find anyone traveling to the same general destination, hook up with them and act as though you’re traveling together.

Auckland doesn’t seem like much. It has a nice skyline with the tower, but at ground level I didn’t find it that appealing. I went to Kelly Tarlton’s Anarctic Museum and honestly was disappointed with it. I guess I’ve been to too many other aquaria. If you’re going, buy your ticket at the information center – you’ll save 10% on the entrance fee.

In the afternoon, I shopped for a rental car. One of the companies offered me free ferry crossing at Wellington because they needed cars down in Christchurch. But these cars were pretty old. I used this as a bargaining chip at another rental place and they offered me a $10/day discount to drive up from Christchurch – they needed more cars north. I considered and tried to do this but the difference in airfare between a next day flight to Christchurch and a flight from Christchurch to Auckland three weeks from now is greater than the savings on the car. Plus, I’m not as prepared for the South Island as I am for the North (knowing what I want to see, etc.). But Omega rental cars offered $49/day unlimited miles inclusive of all GST and the cars look reasonably good. They have drop off points all over, so I’ll drop one off at Wellington, cross over to Picton on the ferry, then get another car in Picton and continue my journey on to Christchurch. And I now have a flight from Christchurch to Auckland for Nov. 26.

When trying to find out which bus would take me to Kelly Tarlton’s Anarctic Museum, one woman told me I might need the double “deeker” bus, “deeker” pronounced with the long “e” sound. When I asked again, I still wasn’t sure what this was until she mentioned the tourist bus. Although I still hadn’t seen a double decker bus, I thought this must’ve been what she meant. Now this is exactly how the Queen’s English is being bastardized – the Queen’s subjects taking liberties with proper pronunciation.(chuckle)

Later I learned that this is the typical Kiwi pronunciation – that they even pronounce “seven” with the first “e” having the long sound. And what’s the deal with the pronunciation of Whangarei? The “Wh” is pronounced like an “F”.



The information centers are a great place for info on accommodations. Here in Tutakaha they found me a great B&B for $50/night including breakfast. The room – large and very nicely decorated, is actually a separate structure attached to the house. The name of this B&B is the Country Garden Teahouse. It sits on 4 acres and the surrounding gardens are absolutely magnificent. Very beautiful.

After morning diving (great!) I had lunch at the Schnappa Rock Café, which was really excellent. I had a baked Kumera dish. Kumera is a locally grown veggie akin to a sweet potato. It was delicious.


The diving Saturday was pretty good. It’s all a matter of expectations and mine were high. The first dive was incredible – with lots of mantas and stingrays. And these were enormous. We dove a place called the Magic Wall – so called because the underwater cliff was covered with colorful “things”.

The second dive was a bit of a disappointment. I think our break after the first dive lasted too long and by the time we moved away the other good dive spots were taken. We ended up at a place called Cave Bay. Since I was diving with two guys that hadn’t dove this site before, we didn’t know where to look to find the interesting things. And the site had lots of crevasses to explore. The water was quite cold and required a full wet suit. I hadn’t done a dive in anything but a shorty in probably 20 years.

I stayed a second night at the Country Gardens and then on Sunday drove North to Whaitangi National Preserve to visit the treaty house and Marae. Afterward I drove west to the Kauri Forest, where I saw the Lord of the Forest, the Father of the Forest, and the Four Sisters. I spent the night at a place called the Castle Court Motel just outside of Wellsford.And then this morning drove down through Auckland to Otorohanga. I wanted to see Waiteken just outside of Auckland, but I didn’t have an Auckland map and didn’t find my way.

The Kauri Forest is reminiscent of Sequoia National Park in the US. The trees aren’t quite as large but are very large, short, and stout – not as tall as one would expect for a tree with such a large diameter. In that regard, they’re similar to the Sequoias.


Last night I stayed at the Waitomo Guest Lodge, run by Andrea and Peter. She seems to do the registrations and he takes care of breakfast. They’re quite an elderly couple, but both sharp as tacks. Peter is a very amiable character.

West of Waitomo I walked to the Natural Bridge (Mangapohue) which was adjacent to a sheep pasture. From there I continued west to the piripiri Cave and briefly explored it. It goes fairly steeply down with poor footing so I didn’t go very far in. From there I went on to Marokopa Falls – very photogenic. I was a bit disappointed that there didn’t seem to be a tavern at Te Anga as the Lonely Planet said. I didn’t go on all the way to Marokopa, instead heading south to National Park.


I’ve stayed the last two nights at Howard’s Lodge in National Park. Yesterday I did the Tongariro Crossing.

First, I’ll say a couple of things about Howard’s. As a motel, I wouldn’t recommend it. And yet, potentially it’s a nice place to stay. The problems – first, no alarm clock in the room. Also, the breakfast is at a fixed time – 7:15. On the morning I was doing the crossing the transportation to the drop point was at 7:30-7:45. This left virtually no time after breakfast to prepare for the hike. Also, even though they will prepare breakfast, they will not prepare a lunch. This means a quick run up to the BP gas station to buy pre-prepared junk food out of a cooler. And since the BP doesn’t open till about 7:30, this has to be done after breakfast – making the morning a constant rush.

The crossing itself was very harsh weather-wise. The wind was blowing so hard it at times almost knocked me off my feet. And very cold at the top. It had snowed on the mountain the previous day or two so I think some people had waited to do the crossing. But the guy that runs the lodge (Peter) said the crowd was small compared to the busy season. And yet, I was constantly in a pack of people. This detracted from the hike tremendously. Anyone that thinks the Inca Trail is the Inca highway should try the Tongariro traffic jam. And this is reputedly the “best one-day tramp in New Zealand” – with only the brief joy of first seeing the Emerald Lakes. The entire hike is worth the moment when one comes over the ridge near Red Crater to see Emerald Lake below. Gorgeous!


I stayed at the Kohinoor B&B in Ohakune last night. It was a strange situation. The owners had a houseful of guests coming for the evening but they made a place for me. There was a Sri Lankan couple (the guy is a doctor) and a Japanese man and three Japanese women. And then there was a New Zealand guy that runs a forestry farm and a woman whose husband couldn’t come. Also, there was a married couple that knew the owners from their grade school days. That couple spent the night but the others just came for dinner – a pot luck kind of thing with lots of variety.

Kohinoor looks out over Mt Ruapehu – a beautiful view. Bruce and Nita own Kohinoor. Bruce is the town’s pharmacist.

Today Bruce and Nita were leaving for a fishing weekend. Despite that, Bruce took me for a tour to Mt. Ruapehu – which was nice, but took longer than I wanted to spend.

From Okahune I drove the Wanganui River Rd. to Tanganui. The drive was a bit disappointing – much of it was very narrow and gravel and next to a cliff on the right so it seemed dangerous – often not enough room for 2 cars to pass easily. Despite what Lonely Planet said, there wasn’t much of interest on this road. Ironically I enjoyed most of what I thought I would like least – the Catholic church in Jurusalem. It had a Maori carved xxx and Maori paintings on the wall which were very interesting and beautifully done.

New Zealand radio is limited to the 76-90MHz band in FM.

The North Island is the country of single lane bridges. It’s reminiscent of the drive to Hana on Hawaii. But the drive to Hana would only give a taste of single lane bridges compared to the North Island of New Zealand.


The day started in an awful way. Because of the rain I decided it wasn’t worth trying to see Wellington. So I changed ferry crossing times from 2:30 in the afternoon to 9:30 in the morning. This also meant switching from the Lynx to the Interislander – ferries at different docks. I thought the rental car office was near the Interislander and so the drop off would be easy. When I arrived at the ferry terminal, there wasn’t an Omega dropoff. But the woman at the car park said to just park the car there and drop off the keys at the ferry ticket counter, which I did. It all seemed quite normal, as if this was a regular occurrence. Before going to the ferry I had called Omega and told them I was changing ferry crossing and they said no problem. But since I didn’t see anyone from Omega at the ferry, I called them again at the terminal, just to make sure all was well. The person at Omega insisted I bring the car to the other terminal. However, by this time the ferry was already boarding and I didn’t know where the other terminal was. They insisted it would only take me 3 minutes to get the car and drive it to the other terminal and that they’d bring me right back. After going back out to the car park before realizing I no longer had the keys, I went back to the terminal and called Omega and told them I couldn’t get the keys back. At that point, they relented and said it would be alright, that they’d pick up the car.

The crossing from Wellington to Picton takes 3 hours by ferry. It should be a beautiful ride – the gap between the islands is full of bays and coves and islands – all steeply rising from the sea and covered with trees – very beautiful.

The car they gave me in Picton to drive is a Hyundai Elantra – a nice looking car, but it has a manual transmission, which will take some getting used to on the hills and mountains here on the South Island – particularly since the driver’s seat and shifter are on the wrong side of the car in this beautiful, funny country.

I’m staying tonight in a beautiful B&B called the Lincoln House, run by Laurel and Bruce. An older retired American couple are also staying here – Ken and Eleanor. I like them very much – very nice people. I spent much of the afternoon talking with them. Toward evening Laurel joined us, then an Australian couple. We shared a couple bottles of wine and had a nice time.

I had no intention of staying at B&B’s on this trip, but came to like them after my stay in Tutukaha.

I’ve noticed that many of the gas stations here have LPG, but I haven’t yet learned what kind of vehicles are using it.


I drove from Picton to Karamea yesterday. Karamea was on the advice of an Info office woman that recommended the scenery. North of Karamea is where the Heaphy trek begins. There’s only one road in and it ends a bit further north so it takes backtracking to get back out. Once thw woman at the Info office knew what I was interested in doing she said she wished she could come along. I told her to come. She said something about having to pack her little baby and I didn’t think she would seriously consider it so we said a few more words and I left. But I think she might’ve come. And after getting about an hour away I regretted not telling her to pack her baby and come along.

Today was a bit more interesting. At Operara I did the beginning of the Heaphy trek. Then drove south to Westport and visited the seal colony. I continued further south to xxx and hiked the Niles River white cliffs. Also a short loop on the coast. While back near the White Cliffs I met an American couple. I’d noticed the girl at the café while I was having lunch – a fox. We talked awhile at the cliffs. It turns out she’s spent some time in the Amazon and is an Environmental Scientist.


The New Zealander’s seem to be a hardy lot. Every room I get has open windows despite some cool days. And in the morning when it’s quite cool, the windows are open again. This while a typical American would have the heat on.

This is the only place I’ve ever seen where there are miles and miles of pasture next to beach. The road along the ocean looks out to surf over a strip of pasture, fenced both along the road and also at a hedgerow that separates the pasture from the beach.

In bars and coffee shops waiters and waitresses won’t take your order. Instead you order your food and drinks, then sit down and the order is brought to your table.

Today I did the heli-hike up Franz Josef glacier. A bit over half way through the hike the Nikon digital camera died. Completely. The weather at the top was excellent – I had a ¾ length sleeve shirt on and was comfortable, despite hiking with crampons on ice. We hiked along crevasses – some making a few people a bit nervous – me included at times, I suppose. At the end of the hike we did find one beautiful blue ice cave.

After the hike I drove south to Haas. But the motels were full so I had the World Heritage Hotel call the Okura Beach B&B where I spent the night for $60. I was welcomed into the Okura Beach B&B with a couple of cups of tea and I think the caffeine’s kept me from easily falling asleep.



I arrived in Queenstown last night. Queenstown seems to be the Ann Arbor of New Zealand. A trendy place. And in a magnificent setting surrounded by the mountains named The Remarkables.

Here in Queenstown I was lucky in a particular way for the second time on this trip. After checking the map and travel times last night I decided I would try to book a cruise of Milford Sound in Queenstown rather than driving myself to Te Anau. I figured I’d have to schedule the tour for tomorrow. So I leisurely got up this morning, had coffee and cereal, read the paper then showered. Just before 9 AM, I went to reception and inquired about Milford Sound tours. From Te Anou the cheapest she knew was $99. From Queenstown it’s $135 (NZ dollars).

The tours from Queenstown include stops for short walks, a coffee break in Te Anau, lunch, the cruise, a dinner break in Te Anau (price of dinner not included) and the drive back to Queenstown. It makes for a long day – about 12.5 hours. Another nice aspect of this tour is that it’s a small outfit and uses a minibus – so there is not a big crowd involved.

As it turns out, today’s tour hadn’t left yet – it was scheduled for 9 and was still only 8:50. And since today is a beautifully sunny day after yesterdays dreary drive through the rain, I scheduled the tour for today instead of tomorrow. My timing was perfect. I had enough time to go back to my room and grab my backpack and camera and return just a couple of minutes before the minibus arrived.

Practically the same thing happened when I drove into Taupo. I went to the boat docks and a boat trip with only 5 other people was about to depart for a Lake Taupo tour to the Maori rock carvings. And this boat was the rapid tour – which was the one I preferred.

Timing however hasn’t always been good. I arrived in Okunu too late to go out and see the Penguins. Also the next morning – yesterday – I then drove down to Jackson’s Bay and arrived probably about the time of high tide so couldn’t make my way very far up the coast in either direction and only caught a very brief glimpse of some dolphins going by.

New Zealand hotels have a quaint little habit. When you check in they give you a little carton of milk for your tea or coffee. It seems all of the rooms have a little refrigerator and an electric kettle for heating water for tea or instant coffee. Many, but not all, also have microwave ovens.

Milford Sound – what a spectacular place. It’s approached on one of the most exhilarating and scenic roads you’ll drive anywhere! The cliffs rise dramatically about 1500 meters on either side with waterfalls sprinkled frequently along the way. The road is steep and windy and sometimes along the edge. There are intermittent views of snow capped peaks interspersed with rainforest. On the road about every hundred meters is a waterfall that cascades down the sheer cliff hundreds of meters, sometimes straight down, sometimes zig-zagging, sometimes falling a hundred meters or so before hitting another part of the rock face. Truly beautiful scenery.

Once on the sound the views are equally dramatic. These are true fiords with cliffs rising sharply to heights of 1500 meters from water’s edge and plunging down under the surface for another 100 meters. On the cruise we saw the rare Fiordlands Crested Penguins and fur seals.

Oamaru seemed like a quiet little town. I got in around 6:30 and went straight to where the Blue Penguins come ashore, thinking they did this around 6 PM. As it turns out, these Penguins come ashore only after dark. Around 8:30 they opened a viewing area and sold tickets. The Blue Penguins are only about 10 inches tall at most. According to the guide, some of the penguins have had radio transmitters attached which have shown that they travel up to 54 km per day and dive to a maximum depth of 9 meters. These are pretty long distances considering their small size.
I stayed in a Bella Vista motel. I like these – they’re clean and modern and reasonably priced.
The next day I drove down to Shag point – a nice scenic little spot on a cliff overlooking some large rocks offshore which are used by the birds to nest and the seals to sun themselves. Along the way down on the coastal road I also saw the Maerocki Rocks. These are almost perfectly spherically shaped rocks and so are interesting for that reason.
I had lunch in Maerocki – a quaint, quiet fishing village on a blue-green bay. I had a delicious seafood chowder with some dark bread. The NZ’ers sure can make delicious seafood chowder.
That night I went on Jim Chalmer’s Yellow-eyed Penguin tour. He took 10 of us along the cliff line where we visited three Penguin nests each with baby Penguins inside – one with two chicks that were very very small. In that nest, the mother repeatedly laid down on top of the chicks. I noticed that as we moved away from the nest, this behavior ceased. I’m convinced that she was not keeping the chicks warm (as the guide stated) but instead, was protecting them from us. The Yellow-eyed Penguins grow to a height of 30 inches or so and these chicks were 6 inches tall. This tour is worth taking – it offers the possibility of getting close enough to the penguins to get excellent pictures of them in their nests.
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