New Zealand is far off. It is far off from anywhere in the world. Travel even from its next-door neighbour Australia requires a three-hour long flight. It is seven-and-a-half hours ahead of India in time and actually involves a total of about twelve hours of flying from India to reach there. This amazing landmass has been endowed by nature, owing to its location and other climatic factors, with such scenic beauty that it remains unquestionably the most beautiful place on the planet.
We took an Air New Zealand flight to Christchurch from Sydney. The Airline safety announcement is signed off with a greeting — Kia Ora. The inflight magazine of the Airline also, I noticed, carried the same title. Next to me sat a paramedic, who I discovered worked in a Christchurch hospital.
“Kia Ora is a Maori phrase of general greeting that literally means stay safe. The Maoris are the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand with a distinct culture,” she said, emphasising the importance of increasing Maori integration with the national fabric. This became even more obvious later as we travelled in the country. It is not only about Maoris; in general, the society appeared seamlessly cohesive, sans visible differences on the ground of ethnicity or religion.
Christchurch is small for an international airport but remarkable for its operational efficiency. New Zealand makes a conscious effort to maintain its eco system. Restrictions on bringing in plant and animal products into the country are stringent and strict. Any food material, seeds and herbal/animal products are not allowed either with passengers or in the baggage.
The customs officer at the point of disembarkation was stern to the point of being rude. All bags are to be opened more as a rule than an exception. Then there are specially trained sniffer dogs putting their nose to every single item of luggage and every single person. The lady ahead of me was taken aside on being found to be carrying a half-eaten fruit in her purse.
Along with Argentina, NZ is gateway to Antarctica. Not surprisingly therefore, International Antarctic Centre is located here. It is pretty close to the Christchurch Airport. It has an underwater gallery to facilitate people watching penguins in icy waters, a virtual peek into the history of Antarctic expeditions and a host of other exhibits.
The literal chill is experienced in the Antarctic snow storm room, where snowstorm and blizzards are artificially created to icy wind howling at speeds up to 50 kmph with mercury plummeting down to minus 40 degrees Celcius.
The country is best explored by road. Rail network is limited to just a handful of places. We decided to take a car on rental. Rental outlets are at the airport itself and the process is quick. The only requirements are driving licence (an Indian driving licence in English is acceptable) and a valid credit card. The car (a Ford Mondeo) was ours without burning a hole in the pocket — for approximately a modest INR 10,000 a day including fuel. Within thirty-five minutes of landing, we were on the road with a local data pack enabled smartphone to act as our guide cum navigator.
The country saw human habitation just seven hundred years ago (the local Maoris are descendants of Polynesians who came here in the fourteenth century). Europeans settled no more than two hundred years ago, and New Zealand has nothing to showcase by way of history in terms of old architecture or great archaeological sites. But what it has in great abundance to the delight of the traveller is bountiful nature. It is a place where every sight, from anywhere in any direction, is perfect for a picture postcard. Still, in a land where the word scenic actually loses its charm due to its sheer over-use, there are scenic drives aplenty.
On our first day itself we took a drive to Glenorchy Lake from Queenstown. It is fifty kilometres of uninterrupted delight on a meandering road, largely along the pristine Glenorchy Lake with mirror like blue water to our left and hills and forests to our right, interspersed with large swathes of lush grassland. Virtually every turn became a photo-op till our tired limbs said enough was enough.
At Glenorchy there are just a few eateries, lodges and a petrol outlet besides a small church and a tiny supermarket. In fact, this is the standard configuration of a typical locality in the country. But one can sit there by the lake for any length of time to soak in the unspoilt nature.
We drove to Te Anau as the gateway to Fiordland National Park. In a systemically orderly place, one doesn’t expect to find a stray animal on the highway till I finally saw one. Shortly thereafter and later many times over with regularity, I found crushed carcasses of a small animal on the roads that I failed to recognise.
I later learnt that they are Possum. Possums are marsupials that were brought here to control the rats. In the absence of any predator, they multiplied menacingly. They also took a liking for Kea — an already endangered species of mountain parrots found in Fiordland Area. They have been declared as a pest by the authorities with a pesticide based control programme. No wonder there is no one to shed a tear for a Possum dying under the wheels of a car.
Another interesting pest in this country is red deer. As the red deer population became unmanageable, the govt liberally issued hunting permits for the asking. For an extra thrill, it can be a heliborne hunting too. As a result of this culling exercise, venison is the staple meat here.
Being from India where eating deer meat can land you behind bars, we had a great time. On a suggestion of the steward in a fine dining restaurant, we had a dinner of stone grill venison with a glass of local cabernet sauvignon. It seemed like the heaven’s answer to a gastronome’s prayers — just for about Rs 5000 for the two of us. As a matter of strange coincidence, wherever we went for a sit-down dinner or checking into a big hotel, we were to meet an Indian on the staff. The Indian presence is clearly visible in the hospitality industry.
All hotels and motels in New Zealand are well appointed without an exception. They also cater to self cooking with at least a refrigerator, microwave oven, hotplate and utensils being en suite. My wife was delighted to find Indian provisions in almost all supermarkets. Occassional self cooking makes travel pocket friendly with a rough planning figure of INR 20-25,000 a day all inclusive per couple in three star comfort with a mix of fine dining, fast food, together with the independence of a self drive.
Fiordland National Park is enchantingly beautiful with the steep sides of the snow-capped Southern Alps and its glaciers, deep lakes, and its steep, glacier-carved sounds (a sound in New Zealand is actually what is called a Fjord in northern hemisphere) of which, the crown jewel is Milford Sound. The sounds were produced by a glacier carving out a valley on a coast and then receding, the sea invading the glacier valley as it receded. The glacier produced an inland sea which has steep, near vertical sides that extend deep under water. It is termed a fjord
(or fiord) in Scandinavia and Sound in New Zealand. The general area is called Fiordland for this reason as if to give respect to Norwegian nomenclature.
Rudyard Kipling termed Milford Sound as ‘The eighth wonder of the world’ and National Geographic puts it in the list of ‘ten places to visit before one dies’. As the only sound accessible by a sealed road, it is the most visited place in this country.
The road to Milford is where the distinction between journey and destination is completely lost. This road that took nearly four decades to complete is a road with a steep gradient (1:10) winding itself along the mountains and valleys, with large azure blue lakes along the sides and the famous Homer’s tunnel, named after the person who discovered a saddle on Darran mountain through which a road could be tunnelled to Milford sound.
On the wise suggestion of my travelling companions, we left our car at the motel at Te Anau and took a guided day trip to Milford. Terry, the driver of the coach was a remarkable man past his middle age. He was our all-in-one companion on this day trip. He spoke flawlessly with a clipped accent and had a contagious sense of humour.
In no time he befriended all of us personally, was a walking encyclopaedia on flora, fauna, history, topography or for that matter on anything and everything concerning his country, a knowledge he flaunted with justifiable pride.
There are numerous foot treks, large and small, along the journey. On Terry’s suggestions, we did take some of these smaller treks.
The most stunning is a trek to The Chasm, formed by the Cleddau River emerging through a narrow rocky gorge on its course down from the Darran Mountains in a roaring waterfall. The force of gushing water has scoured the river down to its bedrock. It is a place where swirling water writes poetry on rocks sculpting it into marvellous patterns and smoothed-out basins. The track is lined with metal runners and railings to take the visitor safely to this wonderland of nature.
Terry also revised my high school biology to show me on the ground the evolution of plants from algae and fungi to lichens to moss to ferns to conifers to flowering trees. There are countless types of ferns from tiny to gigantic tree ferns. He showed me the Silver Fern (named so because of its silvery underside) that finds for itself the pride of being the national emblem of the country.
He identified to us growing in the wild the Manuka flowers with a signature fragrance that makes mono floral Manuka honey the most exotic and most expensive in the world. En route, we stopped at Gunn’s camp by the side of Lake Gunn, Jimmy playing a perfect host for coffee and date scones covered with thick layers of the famous New Zealand butter.
Beyond Homer’s Tunnel, Milford Sound comes into its full view just past the visitor centre. The westerly wind bringing abundant moisture from Tasman Sea (part of the Pacific named after the Dutch explorer who first sighted Tasmania and New Zealand for the western world in the 17th century) is stopped by the tall Southern Alps, resulting in this area being one of the wettest places on the planet.
Milford receives precipitation round the year that is measured in meters, not centimetres. The sound looks most stunning just after the rains. We were lucky to have arrived at one such moment. The tall mountains all around had opened themselves up to numerous cascading waterfalls along its lush green sides to greet the visitor with a sight of a lifetime. The boats take visitors around clockwise along the periphery of the sound to have a look at the majestic mountainsides with water sheets pouring down close enough for icy spray mist to soak those on the deck. The sound is home to seals that can be seen lazing around the rocks. One can also take a flight back viewing the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers en route freezing in frame the rare sight of a glacier literally reaching down to the sea. The glacier flights are also available from Queenstown, Tekapo and Twizel for a modest price of INR 18-20,000 for a 45 minute flight.
Fiordland experience remains incomplete without a visit to the glow worm caves. Situated on the western bank of Lake Te Anau, these limestone caves have swirling water flowing down from the grotto that leads to a labyrinth inside.
Considerable engineering effort has made it a visitor friendly place where you walk atop the length of flowing underground river without wetting your shoes, go on to a ride on slim boat in an artificially created subterranean reservoir in pitch darkness and complete silence to see the rare spectacle of a million tiny creatures creating an intricate bioluminescence, an unforgettable mesmerising visual experience.
Tekapo at the eastern foothills of Southern Alps, is worth a visit for its sky. You read it right — Sky. We planned our visit to be here on a no moon night. A visit to Tekapo changed our perception of a dark sky. Living under a sky heavily polluted by light, dust and smoke, we were in for a complete surprise here. Being one of the most sparsely inhabited areas in the world — together with wind, being in rain shadow of southern Alps and other climatic factors that makes the area practically cloud free most of the time — it is in the heart of the Aoraki Meckenzie International Dark
Sky Reserve where light pollution is kept to the lowest possible that the night sky is a sight to behold. I never knew the Milky Way was actually so milky and the stars were actually so bright. Even the stars of the little bear could be identified and counted. How badly I wished to keep gazing at the sky the whole night but for the stiffness of the neck that is gift of old age. For the enthusiastic sky gazers there is a nice observatory here.
The Southern Alps may not compare with other great mountains in its might and expanse. It, however, compensates more than adequately by the varied experiences that it offers to the visitors and that too with such remarkable comfort and ease without burning a hole in the pocket.