New Zealand: Where flying is really a sin

New Zealand is a group of Islands with North and South being the main ones besides numerous tiny ones

New Zealand: Where flying is really a sin

Vijoy Kumar Sinha

For a traveller, flying between the South and North islands amounts to a sin. There cannot be a greater injustice to oneself than depriving the great experience of the most scenic ferry crossing in the world — across the Cook Strait.

At the ferry terminal in Picton, as we loitered around the area, we chanced upon the museum ship Edwin Fox. Her claim to uniqueness is in that she is the “only intact hull of a wooden deep-water sailing ship built to British specifications surviving in the world”.

Our share of pride in her was that she was built in Calcutta in 1853. She carried British settlers to NZ many times over in sailings (not a smooth one those days) that used to take six months then.

The Inter-islander ferry was piloted out skilfully through the numerous tiny outliers at Picton into the windy and choppy Cook Strait. To be on the bow with the icy wind in our hair, watching the slow passing of lush green islands on both sides in the azure blue waters was an experience in itself.

Yes, we did try to fly into romanticism by living our Titanic moment in the fo’c’sle of the ship. As the ship clears South Island at horizon at its aft, the first traces of North Island start showing on the fore. The experience of the three hours of sailing was made even more memorable by a gourmet lunch with Pinot Noir to wash it down--before we docked at Wellington pier.

The funnel effect between the North and the South Island make Wellington an extremely windy place. It is fun to walk down the sea front, trying all the time to remain steady in middle of the gusty wind that forces even the light masts to sway.

We walked up to the national museum, vainly hoping for the wind to do a Marilyn Monroe moment on some pretty woman passing by Te Papa Tongarewa — a Maori word that literally means ‘container of treasures’. A fuller interpretation on a plaque is ‘our container of treasured things and people that spring from mother earth here in New Zealand’, is a large collection of artefacts to show case the history, culture and the life of the times.

It also has on display among the wildlife the world’s only preserved colossal squid specimen weighing five hundred kilograms (the nearest to the mythical sea monster). What interested me most, however, was the gallery on military history. NZ army and Indian Army have a lot in common; after all we are cousins in commonwealth.

The journey across the length of North Island is an epic experience on the Northern Explorer — a scenic train running thrice a week between Wellington and Auckland.

A day long journey on a 600-kilometre course gives a complete panorama of NZ. As we walk into Wellington station to check in, the surprise greets me in the forecourt itself. Adorning the centre is the statue of Mahatma Gandhi. At a time when being critical of this great man is part of zeitgeist at home, a statue here in far off land speaks for itself.

Northern Explorer train with gleaming yellow coaches with panoramic windows and a viewing platform at the rear is a beauty in itself. It started dot on time, leaving the city behind, past the picturesque Porirua Harbour to run along a scenic stretch of coastline for some miles, with great views of the breaking waves on the sun soaked sandy beach.

For a long time, the train swishes past the green farmland before it passes through a station that reads “Friendly Feilding, New Zealand’s most beautiful town”.

Shortly thereafter it starts ascending up the volcanic plateau of the north, some 800 metres above sea level and the landscape changes to barren country with grass as the only vegetation. Then it crosses the Tangiwai Bridge across the Whangaehu river. It was the site of country’s worst rail disaster in 1953, that killed a hundred and fifty people. A small memorial by the track on the left side goes past.

After crossing some really tall viaducts atop the deep gorges with drooping lush green bushes at the edges, the train ascends to the thick rain forest of Tongariro National Park, stopping briefly at the station there.

The majestic volcanoes lend themselves to the delight of the travellers before an announcement is made of the approaching Raurimu Spiral.

The spiral is a remarkable engineering feat. Through a series of hairpin and horse-shoe bends, loops and tunnels through the thick foliage, the train climbs over six hundred meters in just seven kilometres, all along the natural contour of the land. It is a declared rail heritage site.

For the next two hours the train passes through lush green valleys, hills and rivers to unfold before the visitor the real beauty of this paradise on earth. It was here and on this very train in 1979 that film producer Peter Jackson, then just eighteen years of age, while reading ‘The Lord of the Rings’, realised how similar this land was to Tolkein’s middle earth. Rest, as they say, is history. This part of the journey passes through the prime kingdom of Maori.

Following some more miles through the rich farmland with flocks of sheep, herd of cattle and deer grazing in the distance, the train arrives at a major stop at Hamilton. We alighted there to take a rental car for the rest of our sojourn in North Island.

What a train journey it was! From an urban sprawl to the wild rain forests, from the surf crested beaches to the volcanic mountains, from across the grassy farmland to deep gorges, from tunnels and viaducts to a one in the world type of engineering marvel called Raurimu Spiral — in the cosy comfort of a modern rail car with gourmet food and drink on board — all in a day’s travel.

Sir Peter Jackson not only produced the universally acclaimed epic trilogies Lord of the Rings and Hobbiton to become a part of history of cinema, he changed the face of tourism in New Zealand in general and of Matamata in particular.

On a 500-acres farm, ten kilometres from Matamata, he created the fictional middle earth, the abode of Halflings (fictional people half the height of humans) living under the earth, as an incredibly real place, not just a film set.

The film went on to become one of the highest grossers on the box office. The sets were left as they were to develop into a great tourist destination that attracts more than half a million visitors every year.

It is an unbelievably real fictional world where starting from a giant Oak tree with two hundred thousand artificial leaves individually placed on an iron trunk to pumpkins and tomatoes, it is almost impossible to tell the real from the artificial.

The visitors are taken on a two-hour conducted tour from Matamata in batches with guides whose masterly narrative takes one on a fantasy trip as if under a spell. Photography here is a feverish activity in order to capture every square yard of this make-believe world.

Two hours’ drive from Matamata is Wi-O-Tapu, part of Rotorua volcanic geothermal zone. The general area greets the visitor with faintly acrid sulphur smell in the air and swirls of steam wafting from the ground here and there.

As we walked along the designated track, mother earth gives a preview of its inner warmth. There are geysers of varying intensity, hot water springs and pools at every turn. Depending on the mineral chemistry of the rocks and soils, the pools have colours that lent themselves to fancy names like Champagne pool and Artist’s palette.

There are also large mud pools, offering a unique experience of watching the boiling and bubbling mud of different colours. Surprisingly the area has thick foliage.

The most watched is Lady Knox Geyser (named after the daughter of local governor Uchter Knox, who was apparently despised for her mercurial temper). For the visual treat of the visitors, it is made to erupt every morning sharp at 10.15 by putting detergent in its steam spewing opening (detergent lowers the surface tension sufficiently for it erupt).

This phenomenon was a chance discovery by some prisoners on a working detail who decided to wash their clothes in the hot water and added soap in it. The sequence from steam to a gentle trickle gradually building itself into a fountain going vertically up twenty meters in the air was certainly worth every video recorder in sight.

The local Maoris have been using this geo thermal gift since time immemorial. Even today at a clean water boiling pool, they use it for Ingo — a unique way of cooking where fresh ingredients are lowered into the boiling water in baskets woven from flax for a ready meal to be drawn up minutes later.

Another Maori cooking tradition is Hangi, in which meat and vegetables are placed in baskets, wrapped in leaves, lowered on top of the hot rocks and covered with soil. This geo-thermally cooked food acquires a distinctly delicious flavour.

Driving in this country was a real pleasure for us. The roads are nice and the traffic modest. Being part of the British crown, NZ drives on the left side of the road like India. But they do not drive like we Indians do.

In fact, along with the visa the NZ High Commission in India sends a small booklet titled ‘Instructions for Indian drivers’! I had obtained my driving licence 45 years ago and have been driving ever since. At the end of our trip, I told my wife, “I have actually learnt how to drive here in this land.”

And driving becomes a real pleasure when all drivers follow the rules to the letter. Only once during my drive did I get startled by a blaring horn from behind. I wasn’t surprised to see the man behind the wheel — a fellow Indian!

For the visitor, New Zealand has everything to showcase. The journey from Milford in south to Rotorua in north unfolding the wonders of nature had a dream like quality at every moment.

It is a country that believes in order, where an ordinary citizen abides by laws even when not under any watch, where mutual trust — be it between individuals, organisations or communities — is the main stock in trade, where the society is bereft of fault lines, where the leaders are truly respected and the exemplary conduct of its young Prime Minister in the aftermath of a terrorist attack made her stand as a class apart to global acclaim.

Returning home, the last sentence of the welcome announcement on board the Northern explorer keeps itself repeating in my ears.

“While you are here, ladies and gentlemen, enjoy this paradise on earth”.

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