by Lee Foster
New Zealand’s scenic green countryside and the compelling story of the indigenous Maori people are primary pleasures in visiting the country, starting with the main city, Auckland.
Visitors find the people here genuinely friendly and the diverse countryside, which the Maori call “Land of the long white cloud,” stunning. A Dutch navigator, Abel Tasman, first stumbled across these large islands in 1642 and named them after the Dutch province of Zeeland.
Allow several days as a minimum stay here. Weeks could be consumed for a thorough immersion in the country. Combine a look at the main city, Auckland , with an excursion into the countryside. One good initial trip is a drive south to the Maori capital of Rotorua. Make this a circle trip by driving back along the coast, passing the prime kiwi-growing territory.
New Zealand keeps you pleasantly off-guard with its low key surprises. You drive on the left side of the road, as a start. The seasons are upside down, with spring in October. (October is an ideal time to visit the country to witness the surge of spring growth and flowering. Autumn, in May, would be another appealing time.) The language is English, but the connotation of words often differs from American English. When you buy cheese for a picnic lunch and the label says Tasty, it means Sharp. As you travel south, weather gets colder, and the north island is the warmer island. Familiarity with southern hemisphere geography makes this obvious, but the reality is unexpected.
The jetlagged traveler arrives in Auckland after an approximately 13 hour flight with a four hour time difference (you arrive a day ahead) from the U.S. mainland west coast. The best advice after such a long flight, some 6,000 miles, is to hit the ground running, stay up through a normal day of activity, and pretend that your body is indeed on local time.
About 1.3 million of the country’s 4.4 million people live in Auckland , a city with an egalitarian temperament and a physical setting of undulating volcanic hills along an elaborate bay.
The harbor can be toured via catamaran or ferry from several vendors at the foot of Green Street. Cruise companies offers a full range of outings, including lunch and dinner cruises.
West from the main city harbor is the pleasure sailing marina, at the base of the Auckland Harbor Bridge. Here you see thousands of anchored sailboats, lending credence to the touristic title of Auckland as the City of Sails. Thousands of sailboats participate in the annual February regatta. It is quite common for people to own a sailboat. For a pleasant vantage point over the yacht harbor, try the restaurant, appropriately named Sails, where you can indulge in the local catch, such as the John Dory fish.
Back downtown, walk Queen and Albert Streets to peruse shops for the main New Zealand products. With some 34 million sheep, at lambing time, for a small human population, you might expect that the country is a major mutton exporter. But those sheep also produce wool, which becomes attractive sweaters, dresses, suits, and rugs. Sheep skins are a sensual souvenir. Green jade jewelry, ornaments made of paua shells, and wood carvings fashioned by the Maori people are other favorite choices for visitor souvenirs. All can be seen at several export stores.
If you enjoy a good walk, stroll the full length of Queen Street to K Road , the pronounceable short version of Karangahape Road. Another category of shop to watch out for are the wine bars. Wines are often sold by the glass. The whites are consistently good, especially the sauvignon blancs.
K Road is also the Polynesian center of the city. Auckland has one of the world’s largest Polynesian populations.
A short taxi ride away is the other intriguing street in Auckland, Parnell Street , where many small restaurants and artsy stores flourish. Espresso houses abound here, as do pubs serving craft New Zealand beers.
Then walk or take a taxi to the large park, known as the Domain, a favorite outdoor center for the city. In the Domain you’ll find the single most crucial stop in Auckland , the War Memorial Museum . War paraphernalia is not the primary matter of interest here, although it occupies the third floor of the structure. The Maori culture exhibit, at ground level, is the key attraction. Here you’ll find the largest collection in New Zealand of artifacts from the Maori people. Remarkable Polynesian ancetors of the Maori were skilled avigators who made the long trip south from Samoa and other islands in several migrations, probably in the 13th century, but perhaps earlier. A hundred-foot Maori war canoe is the centerpiece exhibit. In 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the British Crown and various Maori chiefs, bringing New Zealand into the British Empire and giving Maori equal rights with British citizens.
The Maoris are a special New Zealand subject, which requires a foray beyond the city to encounter, as noted below. However, the War Memorial collection, with its masks, portraits, feather or reed garments, storage houses, and ceremonial halls is a fascinating prelude to a field excursion into Maori country.
The Maori weathered the transition to European domination of the land with much success. Today they number about 565,000 in the 4.4 million population and hold some seats in the Parliament.
Aside from Maori culture, the museum devotes a floor to the natural world of New Zealand. One sad story here is the extinction of the moa bird, a ten-foot flightless creature that the Maori people hunted to its demise. Unfortunately, several environmental tragedies characterize the history of New Zealand, a backwater of evolution which had no mammals, except bats, but many unusual wingless birds. The birds’ ability to fly atrophied, over time, because there were no predators. Aside from eliminating some bird species, man also introduced numerous mammal species, such as rats, weasels, and possums, which further decimated the birds. Man also introduced deer-family animals, such as the taur, whose extensive grazing left steep hillsides exposed to erosion. Another environmental imprudence was the overharvesting of the prized, slow growing tree, the kairi, which the Maori used to make their hundred-foot canoes.
The prime Maori country is three hours south of Auckland at Rotorua. You can take a tour bus down and back in a day, but the best plan is to rent a car and stay overnight at Rotorua, which has ample hotels. Drive down Highway 1, look around, attend an evening Maori feast, and then drive back the following day along Highways 33-2 on the east or Pacific Coast .
The Maori, which consist of several tribes of people who sailed to New Zealand from various Pacific Islands, had no written language. Lore of the past was transmitted in chants and songs, with prospects of legendary embellishment.
Maori lived in various parts of New Zealand , but a large number congregated at Rotorua, partly because of the thermal activity. Boiling geothermal pools provided easy cooking, good drinking water, plenty of washing water, and therapeutic bathing. It is not surprising that this congenial Rotorua real estate was highly contested by various Maori tribes. Fortifications have been manned here since the 13th century.
The main cultural stop is at Rotorua, which was the central Maori living area. See the Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve and Maori Arts and Crafts Institute. Guided tours, given by Maori, inform you about the wood carving, flax-reed weaving, cooking in thermal pools, and natural features of the landscape, which include several sporadic geysers. The wood carving, especially of ceremonial faces used to frighten off attackers, is a major craft. Flax reed capes, sometimes embellished with feathers, are another prominent ornamental art.
The main evening experience in Rotorua, not to be missed, is the hangi, a Maori dinner and concert of singing and dancing, interpreting Maori life. The hangis take place at several main hotels.
Hangi refers to the method of cooking, putting all the food into an earth pit, where hot rocks or geothermal heat slowly steam the contents. The foods emerge cooked, but lightly seasoned. Lamb, pork, and chicken are served at a hangi. Seafoods include ocean fish and river eels. A vegetable specialty is the kumara, a red sweet potato that the migrants brought to New Zealand from the South Pacific. Desserts include tropical fruit and pudding.
Following the dinner, you witness Maori singing and dancing, recalling the migration, how the Maori lived, how they made war, and finally, how they said farewell. The sense of community in the Maori songs is moving. The dancing is both purposeful and entertaining.
The circle trip to Rotorua and return to Auckland via Waihi and the coast exposes you to the range of lush landscapes that make New Zealand so attractive. During the trip you see homes bursting with flowers, rolling green pastures dotted with sheep, and fenced flatlands with prize horses, cattle, goats, and milk cows. The drive passes manicured forests, planted with Monterey pines, and large kiwi farms along the coast.
Some stops to consider on this route are:
*Any of the roadside produce stands, displaying sumptuous vegetables and many kinds of citrus.
*The McWilliams Winery, where you can taste a range of whites.
*The museum at Hamilton , where the primary subjects are Maori artifacts, such as clubs, plus the riverboat paddlewheeler era along the Waikito River .
*The large handicraft center, at Cambridge , located in a red ex-church and appropriately named Craft New Zealand.
*For a picnic on the route down to Rotorua, a good stop would be the Karapiro Lookout along the Waikito River .
*A good picnic setting on the coast route from Rotorua back to Auckland can be found at Tauranga, where picnic tables line the coast just after the bridge.
*For a look at a surging river, filled with large trout, stop on the route back at the Karangahake Gorge, a forest and gold mining reserve. As with so many roadside stops, you will find good picnic areas. At this reserve, the Talisman Tea Room serves tea and scones.
You’ll gaze at all these New Zealand landscapes with a more informed eye if you stop in Rotorua at a remarkable attraction called Rainbow Springs and Farm.
At Rainbow Springs you can see much of the flora and fauna of the country. The kiwi, a national symbol, can be viewed in a special dark house environment. Kiwis are wingless birds that come out at night to probe the ground with their sharp beaks in search of worms and grubs. The word kiwi causes some confusion for travelers. It refers to the bird, to a fruit, and to New Zealanders. The bird was the original bearer of the name. Then a marketing genius determined that Chinese gooseberries would be bought readily by consumers if the name was changed to kiwi. So the name was changed. And gradually, the people of New Zealand have also assumed the name Kiwis in a slang connotation that is cute rather than pejorative.
Rainbow Springs also displays rainbow trout of legendary size in readily-observed ponds. It is said that these trout originated from eggs brought from the Russian River of California in the 1870s. Another prominent California contribution to the country is the Monterey pine, Pinus radiata, which grows along the California coast. When planted in New Zealand , the tree matures rapidly in the cool, constantly-moist environment and can be harvested for lumber in only 25 years. Rainbow Springs also displays much of the local flora of New Zealand, including 135 of the country’s 152 species of ferns. One species, the silver fern, is a national symbol.
Across from Rainbow Springs, at Rainbow Farms, you can see a bucolic demonstration of sheep dogs managing sheep, shearers clipping the fleece off sheep, prize beef cattle, cow milking, and other farm skills. This popular show imparts some of the extensive lore and skill involved in sheep ranching and other farm undertakings.
New Zealand resembles, for many visitors, North America of an earlier period, when small town friendliness, a rural basis of national life, and an open landscape were the norm. After encountering the green countryside, the Maori culture, and the friendliness of New Zealanders, a visitor returns home with a refreshing southern-hemisphere perspective.
New Zealand: If You Go
For further information, contact New Zealand Tourism at www.newzealand.com.