I did learn a thing or three about life on my trip to lush, spectacular, beautiful New Zealand. And I finally realised what they say about travel truly opening up your mind. The country is such a revelation that my fellow travellers and I had to coin a new term to describe every new place we’d visit. We couldn’t parrot, ‘it’s beautiful, it’s beautiful’ each time our jaws dropped. It is common knowledge that this is where Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit were shot (and it is as beautiful as it looks on-screen). The man who directed these movies, Peter Jackson, is also from here.
New Zealand is the land of sheep and wool (there are six sheep to one person) and the country’s rolling hills, clear blue skies, glaciers, lakes, mountains and clean air are as raw and unspoilt as any land with human habitation can be. People love cricket and are mad about rugby too. The day I landed, their team, the All Blacks, had lost a match. So there was a feeling of ‘we lost’ in the air.
New Zealand is so remote, it was one of the last lands to be settled by humans (hence the name). The country is divided into North Island and South Island and 70 per cent of its inhabitants are European and the rest, indigenous Maoris and Polynesians. Though, as I was informed by my Brazilian guide (there are many South
Americans, especially Brazilians and Asians settled there too), there are hardly any pure-bred Maoris left, because Europeans and Maoris intermarried. It’s similar to big cities like Delhi, very cosmopolitan. People are proud of their roots, and are happy here.
If there’s anywhere in the world you can ride a horse and feel free (like they show in the movies), it is here
One of every six New Zealanders stays in Auckland (it is more heavily populated than the capital Wellington). It frequently figures in the top 10 most livable cities in the world. That statistic didn’t surprise me. With undulating hills, the sea on three sides, posh bars and cafés, wide roads, a thriving culinary culture (name a cuisine and you’ll find a restaurant) and ample opportunity for everyone to indulge in some sport or the other, it’s a great mix of calm of pastoral spaces with the glamour and energy of urban living.
As offices shut, you can see people jogging along the harbourfront (a popular fad is to run barefoot), or walking and cycling. On holidays, Aucklanders take off to the sea; they surf, kayak or swim (on rare good summer days). The three places I ate in Auckland didn’t disappoint. At Kermadec (a posh place next to the harbour), I had a gigantic oyster platter and it was amazingly fresh. Depot, a bistro run by celebrity chef Al Brown, was buzzy, and specialised in Kiwiana fare. It serves great bite-sized platters. At SPQR, in upmarket, artsy Ponsonby Road, we spotted a few Kiwi TV actors. We explored the street lined with eclectic bookshops, home stores (the city is an architect’s delight), old record shops and antique stores A pleasant walk later, I was taken to the iconic Sky Tower. It is 192 metres high and is the pride of Auckland. You can see it from everywhere and you can see the entire city and its neighbouring islands from it. A must-visit is Kelly Tarlton’s aquarium, where you can get up close and personal with penguins. It was also fun watching sharks and other fish from the moving walkway.
We saved the best for last: a 35-minute ferry ride to Waiheke Island. Its permanent population is around 8,000, but it is a weekend destination for Aucklanders and the richest people of the country have beautiful houses here overlooking the sea. Its vine-covered hills dip down to the beaches. A wine tasting session at Mudbrick – a boutique restaurant-cum-winery, with an unbelievable view of the hills and sea – was an interesting experience. It’s a popular place for destination weddings. A good way to come to Waiheke is by ferry or boat (one out of every eight people in Auckland own a boat) or helicopter. While in Mudrick, I saw four men having an extended lunch and drink session, with their helicopter parked a few metres away. A game of archery and laser clay bird shooting followed. After a heady tasting session (of boutique wines and locally-brewed beer), we were ferried back to Auckland.
From the Auckland bridge, or the Nevis platform in Queenstown (at 134 metres, the third highest jump in the world) or from the Kawarau river bridge, also in Queenstown (one of the safest skydiving spots in the world)
Sauna-hopping in Rotorua
The first thing that hits you on entering Rotorua is the stink of eggs gone bad. The next thing you notice are parks with mini-craters spewing clouds of steam. Rotorua is home to many lakes and has live fields of geothermal activity (you see sulphur and steam escaping from holes in the ground). The sulphur explains the smell. But that doesn’t deter people from visiting this popular tourist
The drive from Auckland to Rotorua was a delight. Summer rain, accompanied by The Beatles on the car stereo, Murakami for company, with spectacular views of green hills, swaying grass, and imposing mountains speckled with sheep made me wish the journey wouldn’t end. Waitomo Caves on the way is a must-stop. The limestone caves in the midst of a thick forest feel alive, with streams inside, lit up by thousands of glowworms. Despite being claustrophobic, I couldn’t give this a miss and so went in. A narrow staircase leads to a cathedral-like area with a high ceiling (a popular place for weddings). People love getting married in interesting locations in New Zealand. You are transported in a boat and rowed to a pitch dark place (I was praying all through) and just when I was going to cry out, I saw lights in the water. Looking up, I saw thousands of glowworms.
Next, we went to Matamata, a private farm, part of which was used by Peter Jackson for the sets for the Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. The Hobbiton Village is a pretty, fairy tale-like place that instantly transports you to the movie. There are little Hobbit homes, some with small doors, pots and pans and little niches. Our guide was Ian Brodie, a celebrity writer and photographer of the bestselling Lord Of The Rings Location Guidebook. After a nice walk, we ended up in the Shire’s Rest Café (you can have a wedding here too), drinking locally-brewed beer in front of a fireplace, with a Hobbiton cat curled up at our feet.
In Rotorua, taking a leisurely dip in a hot pool is a must-do. The Polynesian spa we went to had pools with temperatures up to 52 degrees. The temperature takes a little time to get used to but once you dip in, it starts to soothe your body.
Rotorua has mountain biking trails running past lakes and into forests. My guide said I could become very good at it (after I came hurtling down a slope). At Te Whakarewarewa Valley, it was unnerving to be 50 metres away from a live, steam-emitting geyser. I had the Maori Hangi dinner, which is vegetables steamed using hot earth. Those who dig farm life can watch the sheep show (the children are going to love this), feed the ostriches and emus and Angus cattle (which may soon be on your table).
Go on jeep safaris, zip through rainforests, go kayaking and sailing in the country’s lakes and sea, go rock climbing or swim in caves. Some travel operators even take you deep into the rainforests for an extreme survival course
Queenstown’s adrenaline rush
Queenstown’s beauty is very raw and New Zealanders make sure it stays that way. For the first 15 minutes, all I did was stare. And, for the next four days, I explored every little part of the town by foot. I ran next to the lake, into the forest. I ran without a care, because nobody stares or watches. In New Zealand, there are walking and biking trails everywhere, even in the midst of breathtakingly beautiful glacial mountains in Fiordland. Queenstown is arguably the adventure capital of the world. I was a little nervous about the 45-metre jump from the Kawarau Bridge. It is here that entrepreneur AJ Hackett started the first commercial bungee in the world. With Tom Petty’s Free Falling playing in the backgound, I waited for my turn. But as I looked down, I froze. Every self-preserving cell in my body was telling me to run away. But I shut my eyes and jumped. All I heard was screaming. Wait, that was me screaming.
The rush was astounding and my heart shifted from its original place; but I learnt a life lesson. It is okay to be fearful of the unknown, but it’s important to get over those fears. So jump from a bridge or plane. You’ll be surprised at how it will change you – for the better.
Unlike bungee jumping, the prospect of skydiving was not as nerve-wracking. We boarded a tiny plane (that seats 12 to 16 people). I was going to jump from 15,000 ft, strapped to an instructor who had done hundreds of such jumps. During the 60-second freefall, there was an indescribable adrenaline rush. Then, as the parachute opened, everything went silent. I floated down, past white cotton wool clouds. Then I hit the ground. I am glad I did both the jumps. Adventure sport sceptics say it’s a death wish; enthusiasts counter, “It’s a life wish. The body and heart never feel more alive”.
Go mountain biking, up beautiful hills and then down to blue lakes
Walk, walk, walk
There are walking tracks in forests (in Rotorua and Queenstown), and in remote mountains in Milford Sound
Currency: New Zealand dollar (1 NZ$ = R45 approx.)
Getting there: Malaysia Airlines flies to NZ six times a week. A 5 hr 30 min flight to Kuala Lumpur, and then a 10 hr 15 min to Auckland. Check other airlines for options too.
Best time to go: Their summer (December- February) is the best time, but if you are fond of winter sports, go during June-August.
Travelling around: ‘Naked’ buses (so called because they are cheap), cars, taxis and planes can be hired.
Shopping: It’s not really a shopping destination. Look for Maori crafts
For more info: www.newzealand.com/in
From HT Brunch, February 24
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