Active volcanoes, rainforests, glaciers and lakes: New Zealand's unusual natural beauty has been preserved very well despite growing prosperity.
It says something about how little I know about New Zealand that I've never even heard of Rotorua, where I am headed. The flight is long and complicated. Five hours on Jet Airways to Singapore, four hours at Changi Airport (very comfortable), nearly nine hours to Auckland on Singapore Airlines, five hours at Auckland Airport (horrible) and then a small Beachcraft to Rotorua (about an hour).
Naturally I am a wreck when I arrive but my spirits lift visibly because of the natural beauty. I am staying somewhere special, the Lake Okareka Lodge which was voted New Zealand's leading luxury lodge last year. It is like a hotel and yet it isn't. There are just three suites with grand views of the lake and 24-hour butler service plus a chef who worked at the Savoy in London. It has all the usual hotel facilities; gym, massage room, laundry, climate-controlled wine cellar etc. But the feel is more intimate and personal.
It is the sort of vacation home a millionaire may design and many previous guests have been celebrities and jet-setters. When Steven Spielberg was here, he took over all three suites, and kept a helicopter parked in the garden as his personal limo.
The helicopter thing is not restricted to Spielberg. I am beginning to discover that in this part of New Zealand, choppers are not a big deal and people use them to get around all the time. Nor are they especially expensive.
In the morning, I manage a quick breakfast before a chopper comes in to land in the lawn near my window. The helicopter is there to take me to White Island.
According to legend, Captain Cook named this small island White Island because he saw plumes of white smoke emanating from it. What Cook did not realise when he saw the island from his ship is that it is actually a huge volcano, about 18 km wide, most of which is under the sea. The tip ? which is what is called White Island - is only about 2.4 km wide and rises 31 metres above sea level, while the rest of the volcano (around 760 metres) is submerged by the sea.
I have never seen a volcano before so I am both excited and apprehensive. The chopper takes me over some amazing countryside, and 50 km into the Pacific Ocean before we are over the crater of White Island. I assumed that this was a dormant volcano, but I was wrong. White Island is active but New Zealand's volcanoes do not have lava. Typically, the crater will have a muddy lake and below it will be gas, mud and bubbling sulphur.
Which explains the plumes of smoke that Captain Cook saw. All around White Island, sulphurous steam escapes from cracks in the ground and the pock-marked surface seems like something out of another planet. You can land on the edge of the crater so when the chopper sets down, I emerge somewhat gingerly, not sure what to expect. But after five minutes of walking around, smelling the sulphur in the air, watching the water bubble from the heat below and looking at the volcanic rock, I am glad I came. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The 'roto' in Rotorua means water-body in Maori so the area is full of lakes. I am off to cruise around one of them, Lake Tarawera on a 50-foot catamaran.
The Captain says that the trout season has just begun, so would I like to fish. I decline. Would I like to water ski? I decline again. Swim in the lake? No thanks.
He probably has me down as a boring Indian but the cruise is fun. The Lodge has packed lunch and the Captain expertly barbecues steaks and fish and opens New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
The high spot of the cruise for me is when we come to one of the edges of Lake Tarawera. Presumably there is some volcanic activity below the water because the sand at this edge is hot. The Captain makes me put my hand in the water. It is ice-cold. He takes the boat a foot away and asks me to put my hand in again. Now the water is scalding hot! A few feet further, there is actually steam rising from the lake.
That's a first for me!
I am due to take a floatplane (which can land on water) to explore the other lakes but the weather seems dodgy. They come up with an alternative plan at the lodge. Would I like to visit a winery and have lunch there? My attitude to wineries is slightly cynical: you've seen one, you've seen them all. No matter where in the world you are, they don't really look that different. But I say yes.
I haven't counted on the mode of transport, however. A chopper sets down again on the lawn. We fly for fifteen minutes or so to the winery, the pilot lands right next to the restaurant and I walk in and ask for a table. Nobody in New Zealand seems to think this is at all odd.
Lunch is pleasant (the food in New Zealand is generally very good) and the wine is okay. I skip the winery tour and head back (by chopper of course) to the Lodge.
When you live in such beautiful surroundings it seems a shame not to enjoy them. So I stare out at the lake and write Counterpoint.
Two more small planes. I fly from Rotorua to Wellington and then change planes to fly to the South Island (New Zealand comprises two large islands: North and South) town of Queenstown.
I am staying at Eichardt's Private Hotel. This turns out to be a wonderful historical hotel (dating back to 1870) which has recently been renovated in exquisite taste. There are only five suites but each has its own fireplace and is luxurious and comfortable.
Queenstown is pretty but it is a tourist town. As far as I can tell, the population is something like 25,000 and there are a million and a half tourists a year.
I've landed on an active volcano. Now it's time for a glacier. A Eurocopter flies me out to Milford Sound, the first of 12 fiords in the area. I have dim memories of fiords from geography class but associate them with Norway and Iceland. Apparently I'm wrong. New Zealand is full of them and though the pilot tries to explain to me what exactly they are I'm too busy staring out of the helicopter at the astonishing landscape below. The Lord of the Rings movies were shot in this area.
There are rainforests (which I thought you only found in the tropics) and black sand beaches. We land on one, where hundreds of wild fur seals are scampering and playing on the rocks. The pilot says to look for penguins but I cannot find any.
Then, we take off again and fly into snowy mountains before landing on top of a glacier. It's hard to describe exactly what a glacier is. I know (from geography class again) that it is something like a frozen river. But when you actually step out on to the ice, the experience beats anything you have heard or read about. It is totally desolate and the brightness of the ice as the sun reflects off it almost hurts your eyes. It?s back to Eichardt's after several hours of flying around in the chopper and a meal at Saffron, one of New Zealand's better-known restaurants.
The trip is finally at an end. A large plane this time (Boeing 737) to Auckland where I stay at what must be one of the world's more unusual Hiltons. It is at the end of the wharf, 330 yards into the Pacific Ocean and is designed to remind you of an ocean liner. My room is strangely shaped but decorated in modern boutique hotel style with huge plate glass windows that offer grand views of the Pacific.
Tomorrow I will fly to Singapore on my way back to India. (Ten hours to Singapore, an overnight halt, and then five and a half hours to India!) It?s been an unusual trip. I have never been so far down South before (New Zealand is to the South of Australia). Nor have I been to a country where natural beauty has been preserved so well despite growing prosperity.
It's an amazing place. You should go.