I’ve wanted to visit New Zealand for a long time, but it always seemed so far away. (I mean, strictly speaking, it was so far away.) But it was going to be considerably closer to me from Sydney, and so in the same way that Americans travel to ‘Europe’ in a single trip – because why not? – I decided to spend my second week travelling around this country.
My first stop was Wellington to stay with Jen. It was so exciting to see her again: we first met back at Abbi’s drunken Christmas party in 2008 and have only seen each other episodically since, but it always feels like we’ve spent a lot more time together than we actually have. She was a wonderful, wonderful host, and from the first boardgame-playing night with her boyfriend, John, I was obviously going to have a great time here. (We played ‘Tiny Epic Galaxies’, for the record. This set a great tone for the nerdiness to follow.)
On Saturday I took a (free!) tour around New Zealand’s Parliament, which is pleasingly Westminster-like although with some fascinating differences (especially in its voting system) which are, of course, only fascinating if you are the type of person to tour a parliament in the first place. Later I rode the cable car up to the city’s botanical gardens and visited the national Te Papa museum, of which the most interesting part was the historical background on the Treaty of Waitangi between the British and the Māori. It’s the kind of treaty which was unhelpfully translated rather differently in English and Māori, and as such remains an active issue in New Zealand politics today.
The next day Jen drove me around on a loosely-themed Lord of the Rings day out, kicking off with the summit of Mount Victoria before moving on to the famous Weta Workshop. Their workshop tour was superb, and was delivered by an actual employee of the (surprisingly small) company who was obviously passionate about what they do and excellent at demonstrating the huge amount of work which goes into prop-making for TV and film. It’s sorta mind boggling. Plus they have trolls outside.
We also went to The Roxy Cinema, Peter Jackson’s beautiful art deco building which is filled with models in the lobby and I’m pretty confident would be beloved by Todd if he ever visited. I was particularly a fan of their gooey lemon cake, which would make it worthwhile to go see even a bad film. Afterwards, we walked by the sea at the Taputeranga scenic reserve, talked about blogging enough to distract me from getting sunburnt, and admired the seals chilling on the rocks.
That evening, Jen took me to the finals of the rugby sevens. My last interaction with rugby was refusing to play it at school, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that sevens is designed for people like me: everyone’s in fancy dress, nobody’s taking it too seriously, and – best of all – a game is made up of two seven-minute halves. If only all sports could follow this lead! And unlike American football, it was fast and fluid to watch. England satisfied my default expectations by losing horribly to Fiji, and then we watched New Zealand turn it around at the last moment to triumph over South Africa in the final. Which was the right moment to be in a New Zealand rugby crowd, obviously.
Special props to the guys who all came dressed as Donald Trump, with photos on their labels and ‘Make America Great Again’ scrawled amateurishly on the back of their baseball caps. (It’s worth noting that almost everyone I met on my trip volunteered the subject of Donald Trump as soon as they learnt that I lived in the US.)
I then flew to Christchurch, which is on the east coast of the South Island. It’s a city which is still very obviously devastated by the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011: everywhere you look there are buildings in ruins, in the process of demolition, or under construction. 185 Chairs is a moving memorial to the victims, and I also went to the Quake City exhibition which goes into the earthquakes in more detail.
Feeling earthquaked-out, I spent the afternoon down by Hagley Park and the river which has a distinctly Oxbridge feel. Not only are there punts meandering up and down, but at one point ‘Oxford Terrace’ faces off against ‘Cambridge Terrace’ on the other side. After discovering that a hour’s kayak hire was a mere $12 (and that’s New Zealand dollars!) I opted for that, doubly delighted that they didn’t ask for any ID, deposit or liability waivers. It was almost as if I had discovered a country chilled-out enough to just… trust people.
After kayaking, I stared nervously at the bike hire for a long time. I haven’t ridden in years, but my stated reason is always fear of cars, and here I was next to a large, bicycle-friendly park with no one I knew to watch me fall off. So I did it, and though I wasn’t the most confident cyclist on the planet, I hope it keeps my abilities fresh enough until the next time this urge arises.
The real reason I had come to Chirstchurch was for the TranzAlpine scenic train, which travels across the middle of the South Island to Greymouth on the west coast. It’s very much a tourist thing – there’s an audio commentary and a viewing car where you can take photos in the open air – but it’s still magical, and I don’t think any further explanation is required.
Not far south of the railway terminal in Greymouth is Hokitika, a “cool little town” (their words) by the beach. I swam a few times on this trip, but this was the place with the best waves. Other highlights of Hokitika include a beach-based sculpture competition, a chance to watch a beautiful sunset while worrying about being stood on an exposed strip of sand surrounded on either side by the sea, a night-time glow worm dell (pleasingly impossible to take good photos of, not that people were put off from trying) and what I consider to be an enchanted tree. (If you look closely below, you’ll see little magical people running up the left-hand side.)
For the final leg of my trip, I flew up to Auckland, where a third of New Zealanders actually live. Now I don’t want to be mean about this, but unlike the rest of the country, Auckland is… well, it’s a disaster. Everything about the city is set up to be nice: it has wonderful parks, good weather, cool things to do etc. And then somebody decided to plant motorway after motorway right through it, on top of which – and I can only assume malicious intent here – it takes forever to cross any road because the green light for pedestrians lasts only a few seconds. Plus they frequently fail to put in a crossing where you need one, so you have to make three crossings around an intersection just to get to the other side of the road. It’s exhausting, and sucks away the joy from what should be a lovely city to walk around. I realise that nobody reading this expects me to like cars, but I can’t remember a city this bad for road layout. It may even be worse than LA.
Thankfully, I spent almost none of my time in Auckland actually in Auckland. My first excursion was to Tiritiri Matangi Island – as recommend by Maria – a wildlife sanctuary which is only accessible via a daily ferry. (You have to take your own lunch, but they do offer free tea and coffee.) Despite the offer of guided tours to see the birds, I quickly decided I would rather get as far away from all other human beings as possible, and opted for the trek around the whole island. At some points I felt very much like a character in the closing stages of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (it helps to have just watched the latest BBC adaptation).
The island was not quite as secluded as one young couple were hoping for, however, and it took all the powers of British reserve to stare determinedly in the other direction as I walked past them in an advanced state of undress. I was awkwardly close when they finally saw me and scrambled off the path. It was very funny, and I wish I could have telepathically reassured them that I wasn’t scandalised.
On my final day in New Zealand, I succumbed to the inevitable and went on the tour of the Shire. And even though I spent most of the day on a coach to get there and get back, and even though they herd bus loads of tourists around like sheep, and even though everybody is obviously posing for the same photos, it was still magical. It’s large and hilly enough that you don’t really notice the other groups most of the time, and everything is beautifully decorated, and at the end you’re led into the Green Dragon pub for a surprisingly decent free drink. Hobbits are so great.
So there you go, my whistlestop tour of New Zealand. It’s a long way away, for sure, but it’s perversely easier to fly for a whole day – with a decent opportunity for sleep – rather than a shorter but more bodyclock-destroying journey. So if you ever feel a deep urge to commune with JRR Tolkien, this is the place to be.
Jen Vermeulen, Carolyn Regan, Randi Lawrence, Deborah Herrick, Julie Ann Self, Abigail Osbiston, Jane Biddlecombe, Troy Cooper, Sue Buxton liked this post.