New Zealand – the travel blog that wasn’t

So I had every intention of blogging my travels in New Zealand, to one degree or another. It didn’t happen.  I tweeted, when I had internet connection, and took over 2,000 photos (only five of which have been uploaded so far…), but I didn’t pull any of it together. Most people who were following me on Twitter or seeing my facebook posts probably had no idea where I was or what I was doing.  So I’ll try to pull it all together. I’ll try to be concise, but I never am, so here goes.

First, why I was in New Zealand – when I first left Canada to move to Sydney, the plan was to live there for a year, as an experiment. If it worked out (which it only sort of did), I would spend the rest of my life travelling from country to country, living in any given place for a year or so at a time, and working remotely at the same work I’ve been doing for almost four years now. I’ve written long and awkward entries about why that won’t work in that exact form and I decided long, long, ago that I would be moving back to Canada, at least for the near term.  Ultimately, I decided on living in Vancouver, but that’s a decision I really only recently finalised with myself.  The “if it works out” plan had been to go to New Zealand for the second year, as the Working Holiday visa (which I was using in Australia, and was the main reason I chose Australia as the first destination) is only available until you turn 30, and sadly that’s approaching quickly for me (as a British citizen I have all of the EU available to me for the rest of my life).  When I decided I wasn’t moving to New Zealand, I knew I still really wanted to visit.  I had about three weeks between when I was able to get away from my computer (work, which I do almost entirely online, is busy until the second week of September) and when I needed to be in Montreal (shortly after Thanksgiving) for some work I do there each year.  This was the perfect time to go to New Zealand, and the Qantas fare that allows a “stopover” (of up to a year) in Auckland on the way to or from North America made this easy.

So anyway.  I landed in Auckland September 18th, late in the evening, cleared customs, and took a shuttle to the hotel.  It was the end of a long day, in which I left Sydney just as the weather was getting nice again (a series of ‘travel blogs’ for my time in Australia are coming too, I think… when I can find the time).  I wasn’t in New Zealand for the Rugby World Cup, but pretty well everyone else was.  I kept quiet as all the French people in my shuttle bus talked about the score in the Canada-France game that was ongoing.

I spent the next day taking care of the essentials – buying a SIM card, drinking coffee, and trekking out to the museums.  Auckland’s a great city, with all the standard things you’d expect in a major urban centre in a small country, but to be honest I was a little disappointed.  I wasn’t expecting a huge city by any means, but was hoping it would make up for its size in interestingness.  Fortunately, the lack of excitement gave me time to adjust to the weather, culture, and pace.

My second (and last) full day in Auckland began what became a long series of things going not-as-planned.  I was scheduled to go on a “Whale and Dolphin Safari” – a half-day cruise out into the harbour and surrounding area.  I got a call around midday telling me that due to severe weather, it had been cancelled, and I could reschedule if I wanted (but of course I couldn’t, as I was leaving the next day).  To be fair, it was incredibly windy even in the city, so I imagine the water would be pretty unpleasant.  Sadly, it was my best bet at seeing a dolphin on my trip (I’ve still never seen one in the wild), and I never did end up seeing any in the three weeks I was in New Zealand. Instead, I went out to Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World, an exhibit that was revolutionary when built, and still has an amazing penguin exhibition (you get to ride around on a mock Antarctic vehicle through the penguin enclosure, where you see the penguins up close… they’re so cute!)  I ended up getting a personal tour bus for a while on the way back, as I missed a handful of city buses.  As an example of Auckland’s exciting world, one of the highlights on the tour was the local middle school.

The “real” New Zealand is best discovered outside its cities, though, and the next day I picked up my rental car.  A note on the car: it was a Ford Focus (“Toyota Corolla equivalent” my ass), and I had an almost identical one on the South Island.  It (and its South Island counterpart, so I feel comfortable generalising about the model) handles terribly, has controls in the most bizarre places (it took me many, many minutes to find the headlights, and the AV input is inside the glove box!), and worst of all has a really bad transmission.  So bad, in fact, that I often resorted to switching over to the manual option when driving through the hills.  And had numerous instances where I almost had a parking lot crash as it’s incapable of switching smoothly from drive to reverse or vice-versa (the car has to be absolutely still when you switch, and then you have to wait a couple of seconds before it will go in the direction you want it to – and if you’re lucky it might do so without a severe jerk).

Anyways, I digress.  I picked up the car, had a terrifying first encounter with the transmission problems while trying to parallel park in front of the hotel, and off I went, headed for Rotorua, a centre of geothermal activity.  I spent the morning at MOTAT (Museum of Transportation and Technology), which had a number of old trams on site which was super exciting for me… they even had a double-decker tram that was at one point used in Sydney.  From there, I headed out on the highway, with really only a short stop in Hamilton to take a wander around the town.  I actually rather liked Hamilton, which is home to the creator of the Rocky Horror Picture Show and has a statue commemorating it right in the middle of the city.  I would have spent more time there had time permitted.  I got to Rotorua in the early evening and checked into my motel (“motel” is a loosely-defined term in New Zealand – most motels I stayed in were luxurious compared to even a mid-range hotel in Canada.  I rarely had anything less than a suite, and always had a fridge and mini-kitchen).  On my way into town a geyser was spouting in the distance, and the motel had a natural hot spring water tub behind each unit.  My first taste of New Zealand’s paradise.

I spent the next day exploring Rotorua and its major sites – the city centre has a large museum situated in an old resort spa (which claimed to cure virtually every ailment with the local water), which is surrounded by a park which gives easy access to the lake.  Parts of the lake are so close to geothermal activity that they’re actually boiling… I can’t even begin to describe what it’s like to see a lake boiling in front of you, but it’s simply astounding.  The sight of bubbling mud and various colours of mineral water became a regular thing as I spent the rest of that day and the next going to some of the other tourist sites in the area.  Te Puia and Wai-O-Tapu were amazing highlights… between them there were numerous geysers and brightly-coloured ponds and lakes.  It’s really the kind of thing you can only experience in person – photos or videos just don’t cut it (though I certainly tried, and took wayyyy too many of both).

The second day I was in Rotorua I had planned only to drive straight to my next destination, but realising it was only a few hours away I stayed close by, and I’m glad I did – one day was simply not enough.  While I was there, I got a call from the company I had booked a tour with later that week, asking to confirm the timing… only then did I discover that while I requested a specific date, they had booked me on the day before my requested date.  I frantically started re-planning, but was eventually able to speak to them and reschedule to the correct date with no issues.  The “not as planned” theme went on.

I eventually made my way to Whakatane (pronounced Fvak-ah-ton-eh), which was where I was to stay the next two nights.  It was around this part of the trip that it started to occur to me how few people were in the country at a time that it should have been overwhelmingly busy.  Whakatane was the first of many towns I visited that looked like bustling tourist towns that had long since seen their heyday.  While September is only just the beginning of the tourist season, the Rugby World Cup was supposed to be a huge economic boom for New Zealand’s tourist industry – yet still, the towns were vastly overbuilt for the volumes of people there, and there were many, many, vacant retail shops.

I actually stayed in Ohope Beach, just a ten minute drive out of Whakatane, and I’m glad I did.  It’s a beautiful seaside town with a long sandy beach and very few people – not helpful if you’re looking for food after 3 PM, but delightful if you want a relaxing walk on the beach.  I only had two nights there – it was just somewhere to stay so I could go on a specific boat trip – but it was delightful nonetheless.

The full day I did have in the area was on a trip to White Island.  White Island is an active volcano about an hour off the coast.  For those who don’t know, New Zealand was formed by volcanic activity along the border of two large plates of the Earth’s crust – so much of its landscape and geography is affected by vulcanism.  White Island hasn’t erupted significantly in a decade or two, and since they shut down the sulphur-mining operations has been a tourist destination.  Once again, words can’t express how amazing it was to be standing inside an active volcano – the kind that you need to wear a helmet and a gas mask to go to.  The whole thing was like a Mars-scape sticking up out of the middle of the ocean, and visiting it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

By this time I was a week into the trip, and beginning to be tired – not to mention that all my clothes reeked of sulphur from spending so much time around volcanoes.  (The jeans I was wearing on White Island still have a faint smell of sulphur, despite the numerous times they’ve been through the wash).  I had to decide between driving straight to Napier (my next destination), or going the long way following the coast.  I chose the direct route (still more than a few hours long, along rough roads – New Zealand has very few roads that are easy to drive on).  It was a good drive, but I was glad I went straight through as I was wearing thin.  Fortunately, I stopped in a town along the way to grab lunch, and stopped to look at the window of a pub.  It had the rugby broadcast schedule displayed, and I looked at the Canada-Japan game I had a ticket to in Napier.  And I did a double-take.  The “not-as-planned” theme continued – I realised that I had thought the game was the next day, but it was actually the day after.  Which would have been fine, if it were not for the fact that I had a hotel booked in Wellington (a five hour drive away) the same night as the game in Napier.  Some panic and re-planning ensued.

It worked to my advantage, sort of, as Napier is a really beautiful town – the majority of the buildings are Art Deco, which is my favourite architectural style.  The town was levelled in the 30s by an earthquake so all its buildings were rebuilt in the style of the time (its neighbour, Hastings, was rebuilt using Spanish mission… and is much less exciting as a result).  In the last decade or two it was realised that Napier was basically a living museum of Art Deco, and rivals Miami for the number of remaining Art Deco buildings (the other unique factor is that many of the buildings are low-rise, as it’s a small town… Chicago and New York have a number of Art Deco buildings but most are highrises as anything smaller has been developed away since).  The buildings have been restored and/or preserved and I took it all in with glee.  The town was also full of Canadians (because of the rugby), which was really awkward, but I went with it.

So, rather than spending half a day taking in the Art Deco, half a day watching the rugby match, and a day enjoying the drive to Wellington, I spent one and a half days taking in Napier (eventually one runs out of Art Deco to look at, and the town gets boring – though the people are very friendly and I finally replaced the backing to my earring that I lost days earlier), half a day watching the match, and a very long evening driving to Wellington in the dark.  I got to Wellington around midnight, completely knackered, and went straight to bed.

This left me only one day in Wellington, which is a big, big shame.  Wellington is a beautiful city – it’s the opposite of everything Auckland is.  There are so many interesting things to do, it’s set in a very attractive geographical location, and it has trolley buses!  I could easily have spent a couple of days there, or more.  That said, I covered what ground I could in the city, from riding the cable car to the gardens, walking along the harbour and civic square, visiting Te Papa (the national museum), and spending some time on Cuba Street.  So much good food and coffee… If I ever get back to New Zealand, Wellington is on the “must see again” list.

The next morning, I dropped the rental car off at the ferry terminal, and took the ferry over to the South Island.  While the North Island is full of exciting things to see and do, both natural and human, the South Island has a completely different pace.  Rolling hills leads to huge mountains, and nature is the main attraction throughout.  I spent the remainder of the day making the slow drive to Nelson along the coastline.  Nelson is a nice little town with some great restaurants (and host to a number of RWC games… the Russians were in town and some of their players ate at the same restaurant as me); one of its main attractions though is the geographical centre of New Zealand. Actually, it’s the surveyors’ centre of the centremost county in New Zealand, but it works.  I was generally unimpressed by it, until I looked away from the point marker and into the distance, where I got my first view of the Southern Alps – beautiful snow-capped mountains that look (and often are) impossible to access.  So wonderful.

The next day the only thing on my itinerary was to drive to Christchurch. But since I was in no hurry to get there, and I lost some time the previous day to do this, I ended up going to Abel Tasman National Park.  It only occurred to me about a day before that you can’t actually drive through the national park, so I stopped at an i-Site (tourist information sites are identically branded across New Zealand as “i-Sites” and are some of the most helpful places you can imagine) and booked a water taxi.  The trip I was supposed to go on would in theory have given me time to get to the park, then to the start of my hike, and back to the park entrance by mid-afternoon.  Through a series of planning failures (such as forgetting about the need to eat, and being taken by the water taxi one stop further than I’d requested on the basis of “it’s only an extra half hour” [at low tide… except, it was high tide]) it wasn’t until about five o’clock when I left the park.  It was a wonderful walk, though, and despite the blisters I’m glad I did it.  After a stop in the dodgiest roadside tavern imaginable (which thankfully was quiet, and of course friendly) I got to Christchurch late in the evening.

Fortunately, losing half a day in Christchurch was actually a blessing.  I should mention, when I booked all my hotels, I had no idea what condition Christchurch would be in.  It was three months after the earthquake, things were still a little shaky (in multiple senses of that word), but all the tourism sites said not to change any plans and things would be getting back to normal soon.  So I booked three nights – allowing one day to spend in the city itself, one day on a train to/from Arthur’s Pass, and some slack time if I wanted to spend more time in the city before leaving it.

When I arrived, I spent half an hour planning the next day, as it was the only day I’d have in the city itself.  I hadn’t looked at any of the road closure information in a couple of months, so went online and used that info to scratch out all the inaccessible areas on the map in my guide.  That was when I knew it was likely to be rough.  I had to catch up on laundry, and sleep, so I decided to sleep in a bit the next day, and spend the morning doing laundry.  I headed out from the motel shortly before noon.  Since I’d arrived in the dark, I had no idea what to expect.  The first thing I saw was that the building next door to my motel was condemned, and looked as if it were about to cave in on itself.  That was only the beginning.  The rest of the day was full of police blockades, collapsed buildings, boarded up rubble, shattered windows, fallen church steeples, and just general devastation.  It was hard. It was difficult to be there, even eight months after the tragedy, and I can’t even imagine what those who were there when it happened went through.  I tweeted at the time about it, remarking that I’d seen Toronto during the G20 riots, Brisbane four months after the floods, and New York nine months after 9/11… but none even came close to Christchurch eight months after the earthquake.  I do wonder if it will ever recover.

I made the best of it, though, and wandered around the outskirts of the CBD that were still open, ate lunch at the café that was still in business (actually, there were about three…), went to the only museum that was still standing, and explored the botanic gardens.  I had dinner at the Thai food truck, which seemed to be the only place serving food past 3 PM.

The next day I took the train to Arthur’s Pass, a point about half way into the middle of the Southern Alps.  It was amazing – you start in the very flat area that is Canterbury region and within a few hours you’re in the middle of beautiful snow-capped mountains.  Most people go all the way to the end of the line (which is on the West coast) and back half an hour later but I had decided to get off at Arthur’s Pass, go for a short hike, and have a casual lunch there, which was a good choice.  I must have taken a few hundred photos… there was so much to take in.

The next day I was headed out to Dunedin.  My guide book had suggested Lyttleton, a nearby suburb of Christchurch, was worth a visit. It never occurred to me that the earthquake might have damaged anything outside of Christchurch, though I clearly should have known better.  I made the ten minute drive, and as soon as I exited the tunnel and entered the town, I realised I had made a very, very big mistake.  I left soon after with the phrase “I should not have come to this place” on my lips.  I had gone in search of Timeball station, the biggest landmark, which was apparently one of many things destroyed in the earthquake.  All the roads I could have taken were closed, and I almost ended up driving into the port area (which was just poor navigation, not earthquake-related).  After encountering multiple road blocks and countless crumbled buildings, I eventually found the way back to Christchurch, with a very heavy heart.

The rest of that day was just a 5-ish hour drive to Dunedin, with some brief stops along the way to visit Oamaru (a town very reliant on the arts) and the Moeraki boulders.  In Dunedin I had some delicious Indian food for dinner and retired to my ‘boutique hotel’ which was a converted old mansion.  The next day was half spent on the Taieri Gorge Railway (which was fun, and pleasant), and half in the town of Dunedin, which is interesting and lively, but nothing particularly exciting.  I did have my first (and last) taste of whitebait, which is a New Zealand favourite.  Fortunately, I liked the national soft drink L&P much more!  If anyone knows where to get it in Canada, I’d love to know!

After Dunedin I took a slow drive, making a bunch of stops for short walks, to Curio Bay, where I only spent one night. It was another missed opportunity to see dolphins – though I expected as much as it was the wrong time of year. It was also really, really cold, being one of the points closest to the Antarctic.  Regardless, though, it had a beautiful beach, and access to a petrified forest just a short walk up the road, which also happened to be home to penguins! I got to see one fairly close which was amazing.  The area is a bit of a hidden gem that seems to be becoming less hidden – my guide book is only a couple years old and suggested that there are really only one or two accommodations in the town… by the time I arrived there were three or four, with a large parcel of waterfront land being subdivided and sold for more vacation properties.  I’m glad I went when I did!

The next day was yet more driving… I made a quick stop at Niagara Falls for the kitsch value, and then headed inland via Invercargill (where I basically just stopped for lunch and a walk around) to Te Anau.  I made a few stops along the way to Te Anau from Invercargill – most notably Lake Hauroko.  It’s a half hour drive (each way) down a very rough dirt road, and when you get to the end you’re exhausted. But it’s absolutely worthwhile.  I got there to discover that I was completely alone, overlooking a glacial lake at the edge of the mountains. The views were simply stunning.

I arrived in Te Anau in the early evening, filled the tank with gas and rinsed as much mud as possible off the car, checked into my drastically-overbuilt-for-the-volume-of-people hotel (which had upgraded me, leaving me with a beautiful mountain view room), and had a nice quiet dinner.  I got back to my hotel and had a brief panic attack when I noticed my guide said that tire chains were required for the next day’s drive to Milford Sound.  A few internet searches and a phone call later and it turned out they were only “suggested” for this time of year, and it was highly unlikely they’d be needed. Phew.

The next morning I was up early and ready to go to Milford Sound – a three hour drive through the mountains on a treacherous and narrow road, concluding with a drive through a frightening tunnel that was built years ago by hand, and still leaks terribly.  I got five minutes down the road and noticed a knocking and rattling noise from the back of the car.  I pulled over, got out, inspect the back area and even inside the boot thinking that some gravel from the day before was still kicking around somewhere in the car.  Only as I was about to get back in the car did I realise the back right tire was completely flat.  Like, not just low on air flat, but bulging sideways with the wheel itself practically touching the ground flat.  I started frantically coming up with alternate ways to get to Milford Sound, but first headed straight to the nearest service station. After re-pumping the tire I decided to check the remaining tires and discovered the gauge on the pump wasn’t working – I asked for assistance inside and the employee came out and pumped/checked all four tires for me.  I was concerned, as the wall of the tire had clearly been broken, but the tires never went flat again, even after more dirt-road driving.  Thankfully.  (Fortunately, I do know how to change a tire in an emergency, but I still didn’t want to have to do so in the middle of the mountains).

I offered to pay him for his time and he would have none of it – this was the same service station where the day before a different employee had helped me clean a centimetre-thick layer of mud off the back of the car, again with no expectation of compensation in return.  There’s something about small-town hospitality, and the feeling of knowing that people are looking out for you, that really changed my perspective.  More on this soon.

The tire problem resolved, I was back on the road to Milford Sound, and still arrived on time for my cruise.  The cruise ship takes you all the way out the sound (which is technically a fjord – there are a number of fjords in the area and none of them are correctly named) to the ocean and back in.  The views are astounding, and the day was clear so I’m convinced I saw Tasmania in the distance.  The cliff walls are practically vertical and the area has countless beautiful waterfalls… once again indescribable.  This was also my last opportunity to see a dolphin, and sadly we missed them – the morning cruise had apparently seen a pod of them, but they were on their way out at the time.

After the cruise I got on the road to drive back to Te Anau (you can’t really stay in Milford Sound), and about ten minutes up the road saw a young American woman I recognised from the boat trying to hitch a ride.  She was standing beside a car with its hazard lights on, so I pieced it together and pulled over.  Turned out she hadn’t put enough gas in it when she left Queenstown (which is a few hours further away than Te Anau is), and the only gas station in Milford Sound had a broken pump (which, I gather, is such a regular occurrence there that one is generally advised to always head there with a full tank).  She didn’t want to try to make it through the tunnel running on fumes and asked if I could bring her to the emergency petrol station at a campground about 20 kilometres up the road.  It’s the kind of thing I would normally never do, but she was clearly in need, and it seemed unlikely that a serial killer would go on a cruise before choosing their next victim, so I happily gave her a ride.

We got to the camp site, which features the oldest petrol pump in New Zealand.  The couple running it actually had a system set up whereby they sell the petrol (at normal prices) and put it in a fuel canister, and instead of making you drive the five kilometres down the dirt road to return the canister (or making you pay for the canister), they let you leave the empty canister near their mailbox on the main road.  It’s obviously part of their service, but given that they’re the only stop for multiple hours that sells petrol, that’s a pretty nice thing of them to do.

Anyway, we had a nice chat with the owner while we waited for his wife to return to the site from picking up the petrol can, and at some point I realised it was the longest conversation I’d had with anyone since arriving in New Zealand. She insisted she didn’t need me to drive her back to her car, but I insisted on at least driving her back to the main roadway so she didn’t have to walk.  I haven’t heard any news stories about anything bad happening, so I’m assuming she made it back to Queenstown alright.

I got back to Te Anau in the late afternoon, had a nice dinner of a veggie pizza and a glass of sparkling wine, and took a stroll by the lake on my last ‘real’ night in New Zealand.  The next day began a series of travel days – first the drive back to Invercargill, where I dropped off the rental car.  When I arrived at the airport (which is not much larger than the average corner store, and didn’t actually require you to go through security at any point), I was informed my flight had been delayed, so I should probably get on the flight that was leaving in 15 minutes for Wellington, to connect to a flight to Auckland (the initial plan was to fly to Auckland via Christchurch, as there are no direct flights to Auckland from Invercargill).  I did, and really should have expected that would happen – as I said, nothing on the trip went as planned.

I got to Auckland and called the hotel I was booked at to come pick me up (they had a free airport shuttle).  They asked for my name, and said they didn’t have my reservation, but fortunately there had been a cancellation so I could come anyway (when I booked this hotel back in May, it was one of the last ones in town and I spent far more than it was worth – there was a major RWC game in town that night. That was the only time on the entire trip that the RWC got in the way of my plans).  The trip naturally finished as it started – not as planned.  It ended up being okay, though, as they eventually found my reservation (so I didn’t have to pay a second time), and the room that someone had cancelled out of was a very large suite. It had two stories, internal stairs, and at least five beds.

Fortunately, the return flight went as planned, other than my inability to sleep.  After three weeks in New Zealand, I was exhausted, and am still quite tired now, three weeks later.  I’m glad I got to see as much as I did, but I still feel like I only got a small sample of what there really was to see.  There are so many hidden wonders in New Zealand, and it’s not a place a lot of people think to go.  If you haven’t been, and have the opportunity to go – do it!  Book a car, and wander off the beaten track whenever possible – you won’t regret it.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Update: I’ve posted all my photos (it took ages!)… they’re all in this collection on Flickr:


  2. […] both of these things happened in the same pub in Erskineville).  Then there was booking my New Zealand trip, which took a lot of time and still led to a very loosely-planned trip.  Finally, I got to go to […]


  3. […] New Zealand – the travel blog that wasn’t 49.277723 -123.119079 GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_bg", "ffffff"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_border", "dee0bf"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_text", "000000"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_link", "9c4617"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_url", "cf542e"); GA_googleAddAttr("LangId", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Autotag", "travel"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "australia"); GA_googleFillSlot("wpcom_sharethrough"); Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]


  4. […] and picked up my rental car – a Ford Taurus.  Despite the awful experiences I had with a Ford Focus in New Zealand a couple years ago, this car is pretty great… and surprisingly high-tech for a basic rental […]


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