It's easy to feel like Peter Jackson in New Zealand. Once you let the sight of pristine, rolling hills dotted with sheep and the dramatic sky take your breath away, you can just about see a line of ferocious orcs making their way across the clifftops. And if you look carefully, you might just spot Bilbo Baggins ambling down the quiet, grassy path that winds its way through the pine grove in the distance.
Unless you're a Bollywood producer with massive budgets, chances are you don't think about New Zealand (NZ) too much. Some of the only things I knew were this: it is pretty. Well, stunning; it's squashed away in a remote corner of the southern hemisphere, beyond Australia; there are no people (about 4.4 million. There's probably more in a Delhi suburb); Christmas is celebrated in summer. Or rather, summer comes during Christmastime; Lord Of The Rings was filmed there; they have a cricket team but are CRAZY about rugby; and kiwi fruit is delicious. Whether you're picking your way through volcanoes, hot springs and the natural geysers of the North Island or gazing upon the Southern Alps, dramatic fjords and rolling rivers of the South Island, I will give you this: New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places that you will ever see with your own eyes.
The Maori, New Zealand's original settlers, called the country Aotearoa - land of the long white cloud - when they canoed in to the East Coast and changed the landscape from dry brown tussock to the lush farmlands of today. I flew in about a thousand years later, at 3 pm on a July afternoon. The temperature was about 12 degrees, nearly double the average for winter.
What I was really looking forward to over the next few days was this: jet-boating across the freezing Rakaia river; visiting Lake Tekapo, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world with turquoise-hued water; visiting the Mt John Observatory for a sky-gazing tour of the darkest sky in the southern hemisphere; staying at the snow-clad village of Mt Cook in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, home to Mount Cook, NZ's highest peak; and finally, soaring high above the Tasman glacier, New Zealand's longest, in a ski plane.
For now, though, as acres of wheat and barley fields flashed past the bus that took me to my hotel in Christchurch, and as the temperature plummeted even further, I fell into a fitful slumber and dreamed of spells and sorcerers, elves and princesses and golden rings and hooded swordsmen on jet-black steeds.
The Kiwis claim that 'jit'-boating (as they call it in that distinct half English, half Australian accent) was invented here. It is a popular pastime, especially in winters, where part of the fun is having the icy wind whip your nose right off your face even as your fingers fall off. A 'jit' boat is propelled by a jet of water ejected from the back of the craft and can zip across shallow waterbodies like rivers and such. "It's not as scary as it looks," said our driver, Bli-uh ("Like Tony Bli-uh, you know?").
By the time we were cutting through the Rakaia gorge, the water a surreal blue and the tops of the Southern Alps glinting in the sunlight, at 50 miles an hour, I only knew one thing: I had never been this cold in my life. Blair, wearing only a thin sweater and beanie, whooped for joy as he swerved dangerously close to the gorge. As I thawed over coffee, I realised that the 20-minute ride had felt like an hour.
The Southern Alps are a constant presence on the horizon on the South Island (and so are sheep - there are 12 sheep for every person in New Zealand). As you drive down the desolate roads, they haunt you with a majestic beauty and the sight of them surrounding a turquoise-green Lake Tekapo is not unlike the heady rush of falling in love for the first time. Lake Tekapo has been billed as one of the most romantic spots in the world, which is probably why hundreds of couples from all over come here to get married at the Church of the Good Shepherd perched on its stony banks. The church built in 1935 is one of the most photographed in New Zealand.
Why is Lake Tekapo turquoise? Scientists say that the colour is caused by the incessant friction of ice and water, which grind pieces of rock into 'rock flour', the tiny floating particles of which help to reflect light. In the rays of the setting sun, the surface glinted like an unbroken sheet of glass. The pinks of the evening blended with the pale green of the water and I sat on a rock by the edge of the lake in serene silence.
Much of New Zealand is greatly influenced by Maori culture and tradition and you will be forgiven for muddling up names like Whatawhiwhi, Whangamata, Matamata and Te Araroa. Legend and folklore seep from every rock. One tale tells the story of Uru, the forgotten child of Rangi (sky) and Papa (earth) who would always weep with sadness, filling baskets with tears. To keep Uru happy, his brother, Tane Mahuta, would scatter the tears across the skies. That is how the stars were born.
Shortly before midnight, I stood up on a hilltop at the Mt John Observatory, not far from Lake Tekapo. It was a cloudy night, which was devastating, as there were no stars visible. Frost crunched under my feet as I followed an astronomer around the facility, who then talked about telescopes, nebulae, star clusters, planets, moons and the Milky Way and pulled up some stunning pictures of the night sky on her laptop to general oohing and aahing.
It was only when we were making our way down the hill that someone gave a sharp cry. It was then that we saw the clouds part. The first of a million, million tiny pinpricks of light showed through. The clouds parted further, and suddenly, the heavens were ablaze. We stood there in rapture with only the sound of the wind in our ears. The Milky Way cut through the star field in a misty swathe.
That night, Uru wept again.
You know you're in a special place when all you can see outside your window is miles of a frozen, snowy plain and snow-covered peaks a stone's throw away. The Hermitage hotel I was staying in was located in the village of Mount Cook in the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. It is home to the Tasman glacier - at 27 km, the longest glacier in NZ.
On my last day, I was swooping over the Tasman with only a red ski plane for company. Far below were miles of snowy ravines and sharp cliffs. Up ahead in the distance rose Mount Cook, the tallest peak in New Zealand with a height of 3,753 metres. It was like something right out of the Discovery Channel.
Thirty minutes later, as the ski plane gently settled down on the Tasman, the wind buffeted me in the face. At minus 10 degrees, the skin turned blue. Teeth chattered. I didn't really notice. I cut a path through untouched snow, shoes soaked, sinking in the softness; and when the sun scattered over blinding, virgin earth, I had visions of magic golden rings. The writer's trip was sponsored by AirAsia X and Tourism New Zealand