Not something you see on the agenda of a packaged tour. Which is why we prefer the spontaneity and surprises of simply getting in a car and striking out cross country on our own. And New Zealand is the perfect place to do that. Apart from the unfamiliarity of driving on the left side—which quickly becomes more familiar--road signs are in English, roads are generally well maintained, and traffic is practically nonexistent once you leave the cities.
We mapped out a two-week route beginning in Auckland on the North Island and ending up in Christchurch on the South Island. In between we planned to hit some of the major attractions and still leave time to just ramble at our whim.
Once we left Auckland we discovered that the rest of the country bears little resemblance to its capital city. We consciously avoided the main thoroughfares, opting instead for secondary roads, and headed south for the Waitomo Caves, famous for their endemic population of eerie glow worms. Admittedly a tourist attraction, the caves are still well worth the visit. The entrance is a drive-up located right on the road and you can stop and buy tickets on site. The cave tour is actually a boat ride through the high ceilinged labyrinth with the attraction being the tiny glow-in-the-dark creatures that cling to the cave ceilings and suspend short silky strands down to entrap passing insects and other food sources. Thousands of pinpoint pricks of light gleam in the inky blackness of the cave’s twists and turns, and the specks of light above reflected in the water underneath provide an eerie and memorable spectacle.
We headed down highway 3 to Rotorua, through a sweet green valley that curled gently among farms and forests. Houses were few and far between and we passed through a half dozen wide-spot-in-the-road towns, most of which consisted of a few houses and maybe a farm implement business or garage. In the tiny town of Benneydale, we stumbled into the deserted Benneydale Hotel where the proprietor seemed flabbergasted to actually have customers walk in the door. Clearly not too many tourists make this stop. We had an excellent meal of fish and sausages amidst a motif of beer signs, a wall plastered with pictures of the locals in various stages of inebriation and posters of the beloved All Blacks, the national rugby team.
Rotorua smelled of sulphur—an unpleasant byproduct of the town’s plethora of geysers and steam vents. The odor is quickly forgotten as the town’s scenic location on the shores of Lake Rotorua and its green Government Gardens located near the city center grab your interest. The Princes Gate Hotel, a rambling 1880’s-era Victorian-style inn conveniently located at the front gate of Government Gardens, offers quaint accommodations, with a warm, wood-paneled off-lobby sitting area and outdoor garden dining complete with steam heated pools. South of the town are the geysers, with hiking trails winding around numerous active vents and geysers. Also here are Maori-run venues that provide a glimpse of native culture and customs such as native dance, wood carving, and traditional hangi, feasts featuring meat prepared in the time-honored Maori method of cooking over hot stones. We chartered a boat and fished the deep clear waters of Lake Rotorua, hooking a number of 4-5 pound lake trout which we took directly from the boat to one of the local restaurants for preparation. Fresh New Zealand fish from boat to table in less than an hour, with all the fixings. Rotorua has a fairly active nightlife, with the Pig & Whistle Pub and a couple of nightclubs on Tutanekai Street being the local hangouts.
We headed on to Nelson, which, with its meticulously maintained art-deco buildings, can best be described as passing into a time warp and coming out in the 1920’s. The city sits on the eastern shore of Tasman Bay with a narrow pebbled beach between the calm bay waters and the city storefronts. Apart from the picturesque buildings, the main attraction in Nelson is the Possum Store, offering everything possum-related.
Possums are to New Zealanders as Osama bin Laden is to Americans. A New Zealander would as soon compliment an Aussie as hug a possum. These introduced critters have overpopulated to the point of ecological disaster, stripping the countryside of vegetation, plundering native bird eggs, and otherwise exhausting their welcome. The national sport seems to be squashing the slow moving animals as they trundle across the roads and drivers can be seen careening down the highway, swerving toward them in murderous attempts to contribute to possum family planning. Possum carcasses litter the roads and are invariably squashed flatter than a fritter as succeeding drivers ensure that yes, that possum is indeed dead. In keeping with this cheery philosophy, the Possum Store has stuffed possums, possum recipes, possum fur coats, and a shoot-a-fake-possum arcade. Don’t miss it.
After a night hitting the clubs and bars of cosmopolitan Wellington, we caught a ferry across to the South Island. The Western shore of the South Island is a rocky and rugged landscape of rocky cliffs, lush rainforest, and windswept mountains. On the shoulder of this coastline is Punakaiki Rocks, one of New Zealand’s most breathtaking natural areas. Hiking out to the rocks to view the surf crashing into the rocky formations and spewing upwards in spectacular natural geysers is not to be missed.