The day before yesterday was our transition from South Island to North Island, a journey that involved busses, boats, and cars. We began with the several hour coach trip from Christchurch to Picton, which is the ferry port town on the north end of North Island. It was a beautiful trip, first through the mountains and then along the coast, marred only by our bus driver who, while not exactly surly, pretty clearly didn’t give a damn…the first such Kiwi tourism industry person we’ve encountered who had an indifferent attitude. This wouldn’t have been much of a problem but for the fact that the thing he was most indifferent to was our schedule: we had a ferry to catch, and it wasn’t looking good.
He was however good for one thing, which was correcting a previous piece of misinformation regarding the sheep-to-human ratio in this country. In an earlier post I reported that it was 3:1 in favor of the sheep; it is in fact 9:1. Forty million sheep, 4.5 million people. The driver reported this statistic with no little bitterness: the ratio used to be twice that — 80 million sheep! — but now the dairy cows were taking over and to his distress the sheep were declining. Cows, cows, dairy cows everywhere, he complained, a veritable Cowmageddon. It’s the Termoonator: Rise of the Bovines! It appears that in New Zealand you are either a sheep person or a cow person (sort of a Ford versus Chevy kind of thing) and he was very definitely a sheep person. (I should be mature and sophisticated enough to avoid saying that he was a dyed-in-the-wool sheep person, but I’m not.) But anyway…
The mountains in this northern part of South Island were gorgeous, painted in vast swaths of yellow Scotch Broom, actually an invasive plant but a stunning buttercup yellow against the verdant hillsides. Most of the hills that we wound through were relatively low, maybe 1000′ high, but we’d get an occasional glimpse of more distant snow-covered craggy peaks. The road was high above the valley and full of switchbacks, so the view was constantly changing and always beautiful.
After a couple of hours we turned towards the coast and followed it all the way to Picton. The water the entire way was clear and turquoise, the coast dotted with small resort towns, most catering heavily to backpackers and all featuring whale watching, swimming with seals, and similar cold water activities. We stopped for about a half hour in one of the better known and more populated of these, a bright whitewashed little town called Kaikoura, almost Greek in its appearance, consisting mostly of a couple of streets along a stony beach, populated with cafés and youth hostels.
Seals, by the way, are quite common, and we saw them all along the coast. When not passing through a town we would usually be driving along an escarpment above rock-strewn surf, and the seals were always out in force, swimming in the surf quite close to shore, or sunning themselves on the rocks. The weather was sunny, clear and in the 60s.
We were supposed to arrive at the Picton ferry port 45 minutes before departure. We were 30 minutes behind schedule, though, and close to giving up hope. But the 15 minute windows that we ended up with turned out to be enough, thanks to a mad scramble as we rushed from the bus, and helped greatly by the ferry crew, who knew the bus was late and were waiting there to help us board quickly.
The ferry was a 10-deck monster the size of a good-sized cruise ship, and quite new. It was very comfortably, even luxuriously appointed for the three hour trip, and we had been booked in the premium lounge, furnished with sofas and easy chairs and featuring a free lunch buffet in the bargain. (Sweet!)
The 40-mile passage across Cook Strait from Picton to Wellington (the capital, and the southernmost city on North Island) was, like everything else in this country, blissfully scenic, with the first and last hour looking like this:
The weather on deck was however quite brisk and windy; though sunny, it pretty much kept everyone indoors, where we could admire the view through large windows that filled most of the walls.
We arrived on schedule in Wellington and took a taxi to pick up our rental car; the rental counter at the ferry was closed. But the taxi ride through town immediately educated us to the striking differences between Wellington and Christchurch. They’re about the same size (350,000 people, though Wellington — being the capital — has more extensive suburbs), but Wellington has not undergone a seismic trauma and looks like a real city: skyscrapers, a bustling downtown, businesses, traffic. We also encountered the following poster spanning a pedestrian overpass:
I will have no additional comment on this. (Though it did spur us to start mentally collecting Strange New Zealand Signs. Our favorite so far, a billboard in dairy farm country, showed a smiling cartoon cow saying, “Peach Teats! Calves Love Them!” We will never forgive ourselves for not getting a picture of this.)
We picked up our rental car — we will be in a nice Camry for the next week — and I managed to drive on the wrong side of the road (i.e. the left side, which is the right side here, if you know what I mean) the short distance to our hotel without actually hitting anything. It’s actually quite easy to get used to, but now a day later I still keep turning on the windshield wipers every time I intend to use the turn signal. Here I am cheating death on the wrong side of the car:
We spent a couple of hours in the morning literally seeing the high points of Wellington, which is an overlook, botanical garden and observatory near the heart of the city. You get there via cable car, rather like the ones that ply San Francisco, though the route is very short with only four stops, and it only takes 5 or 10 minutes to get from the bottom station (which was quite near our hotel) to the the top. There is also a second, longer route that goes to a further reach of the city down the other side of the mountain, but we didn’t take that.
The observatory at the hilltop afforded a panoramic view of the city and the harbor, and housed a small astronomy museum and planetarium which we decided to forego. The are a few other domed buildings nearby, all housing now-defunct (and in most cases long since removed) telescopes; the observatory has not actually been used as such in many decades.
The botanical garden is pleasant and sprawls down the hillside towards the city; you can follow a path through it all the way down the hillside into town in a half hour or so. But we wanted to get on the road, so we just walked around for a few minutes and then took the cable car back down. We figured it would take all the time we had to get out of the city without causing a traffic accident, some kind of 20-car pileup resulting from my unfamiliarity with the fact that the traffic roundabouts here naturally go clockwise instead of the way God intended.
We drove about 230 miles northward through the middle of the island today, from Wellington to the town of Taupo, situated on Lake Taupo, the largest lake in the country. We had bought a very detailed and useful driving atlas for this purpose, but for additional peace of mind had also elected to include a GPS unit with the rental car.
The GPS proved useful, if occasionally maddening. It is pretty entertaining in its own right to receive navigation guidance from a female robot with a Kiwi accent (“Tirn lift in two hindred metehs…”), but this particular unit has the Speed Limit Nag feature: it knows what the speed limit is on each stretch of road, and nags you with an inoffensive yet nonetheless annoying Avon-lady chime (BING BONG) when you exceed the limit by more than 10 km/hr. New Zealand drivers are nearly compulsive about obeying the speed limit and so probably find this a helpful feature. For American drivers who view posted speed limits as vaguely quaint recommendations, it is a highway to madness.
The drive northward was a lot of fun and reminded me of nothing so much as driving around Kauai or the Big Island, so much so that the experience was practically nostalgic. North Island is very, very similar to those parts of Hawaii in may ways: its volcanic geology, the astonishingly iridescent green of the grasslands, the rolling hills leading to distant volcanic peaks, the proliferation of microclimates as the landscape changes from farmland to desert in a ridiculously short distant (a mile or two), and even the place names of the many small towns we drive through. The Maori and Hawaiian languages are closely related (as are the peoples themselves), and it was practically a time-traveling experience for me to go rolling through tiny one-street towns with names like Turangi, Kauhia, Wairoa, and Waiouru.
Also like Hawaii, these off-the-beaten path places are delightfully indiosyncratic. We stopped at one roadside café/souvenir stand/rest stop called Waikanga International Airport, so named not because there’s a runway there (there isn’t), but because there’s an actual complete ancient DC-3 airplane mounted next to the roof of the building. For a buck, which we happily paid, you can go inside the plane, whose cockpit is amazingly intact.
The first half of the drive was through very hilly farmland, heavily populated with sheep and cows (whose side are YOU on?) grazing on grass of such astonishing glow-in-the-dark lime-green verdancy that it felt like someone had turned up the color saturation slider in some Photoshopped version of reality. And then, with remarkable suddenness, the landscape changed. Our first indication was a sighting of snowcapped Mount Tongariro rising out of a distant plain, a large active volcano that closely resembles Mount Ranier. As we approached that plain, within the space of a few minutes the green had been leached from the landscape and we found ourselves with astonishing suddenness driving in a flat brown scrubby desert. If this were a Lord of the Rings movie — which it kinda is — it would have been the transition from Rivendell to Mordor; the contrast was not much less dramatic than that. And for good reason: this was Mordor, for there then emerged from the clouds this ominous sight —
If that dark sight looks familiar, it is because you have probably seen it before: it is Mount Doom from the LOTR films.
We were quickly overrun by orcs, and managed a narrow escape only because I inadvertently ran most of them over by driving on the wrong side of the road and signaling my lane change with my windshield wipers again. Whew!
Sauron’s armies notwithstanding — and why the hell is my wedding ring glowing? — we arrived unscathed at our bed and breakfast in Taupo at about 5 PM. It is a beautiful white mansion and as it happens we are the only guests and have been given the main suite, or rather “complex” as it appears to be about 800 square feet in size with the biggest bed either of us has ever slept in. We probably ought to just stay here and luxuriate tomorrow, but we’re not real good at that; the current l,an is to go see the Glowworm Grotto in the town of Waitomo. Which you will hear about soon enough…