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New Zealand Dreams

I flipped the page, looked up from my guidebook, and took a moment to pause and let my eyes re-focus. Too much reading in a car makes my stomach do somersaults. I glanced out the car window; I didn’t want to miss anything. Blinking from the bright sunlight, I discovered that the scenery had changed since I last looked up. Stop the car, I thought, instinctively. I reached around behind me and fumbled for the camera. “Stop the car,” I said aloud. “I have to get a picture of this.”

If you’ve ever had a dream where you were standing nowhere, looking longingly out into a pristine body of water, watching waves dance enticingly, yet you were surrounded by completely untouched wilderness, I know where you were. Where nature was calling you to surrender to your senses and embrace all that was around youwell, you were no doubt in New Zealand.

New Zealand has a way with flirting us into believing we are in a place like no other in the world. And she’s right.

After spending 3 weeks travelling her rocky interior, driving along her slender, yet curvy natural coastline, and the magnificent diversity in between, I’ve come to call this forgotten and sometimes unknown land, my home. My favorite country by far.

New Zealand herself showed me more than the many travel books I had sprawled across my lap could ever do. Just driving and starring out the window open-mouthed in awe at the country so many people only dream of ever visiting was enough for me. Often thought to be the country for crazed extreme sport types, New Zealand has something for any aged traveler, risk-taking or not. I didn’t go bungee jumping, skydiving or zorbing down a hill suspended in the middle of a giant rubber bouncy-ball. Nope. My senses were on overload just sitting as a passenger in the rental car. I left the driving to my boyfriend.

New Zealand is a place where you can experience clearer than possible blue skies, clouds the size of countries, raging winds and rain, and a snowstormall within a few rotations of the second-hand on your watch. I thought it couldn’t be possible, and was outright mistaken not once, but a few times.

It’s a place where sheep can trot right past you on the highway. Where customers in a restaurant stop you mid-mouthful to tell you that they hope you’re enjoying your time in their country. A place so full of life and vitality that even 82 years of age is actually quite young.

“You don’t know rugby?” my 82-year-old great-uncle asked me while I was recently visiting. It was the night the Kiwis played the Aussies in a much-anticipated Super 12 League match. “Well, come and sit down!” he urged, as he offered the fireplace another piece of wood with a few surprisingly quick kicks.

Rugby is the country’s national pride. Just ask any local in a pub to give you the low down on the rules. Make sure you know what league you’re asking about firstthere are too many to count, and so many more rules at that!

Towns resemble their original locale: A quite distinct English feel in Christchurch; Scottish flare in Dunedin and the ever-increasing vigor of the Maori, New Zealand’s first peoples, everywhere in between.

In Rotorua, (ro-to-roo-ah), about 200 km (125 miles) southeast of Auckland on the north island, the expression of the Maori people is very much alive. This area is the country’s number one tourist attraction, known for its bubbling thermal activity and strong sulphur smell, but it’s also the best place to see the Maori in traditional action!

My boyfriend and I made reservations to attend a Maori concert and feast while in Rotorua. When the bus arrived at our hotel full of anxious people, ready to taste food steamed underground in an earth oven or hangi, little did we know the adventure was already beginning. Before the bus even pulled away, we were welcomed as part of the Maori family. The bus driver told us to put our arms out to our sides. We all obeyed, hesitantly.

“People on the left, put out your left arms. People on the right, put out your right arms. Now stroke!”

We were in a giant, imaginary waka, or canoe, rowing our way to our family’s marae, or meeting place.

This re-enactment of Maoritanga, the “Maori way of doing things,” opened up our eyes to the sacredness of this land that lies over 1000 kilometers away from Australia. The Maori spirituality is found in everything from mountains to trees and even every vegetable we ate at the hangi. If there’s one thing the pakeha, or white Europeans, have learned from the Maori it is to love your land. All kiwis, Maori or not, like to think of their home as “Godzone” (God’s own country) and their easy-going and low-key lifestyle was a nice change to see after my boyfriend and I spent 2 years living in Japan.

Leaving the fast-paced and intense metropolitan life of Tokyo, we were relieved to find that New Zealand, in May and June, is a rather quiet time, coming off the peak tourist season of the summer and fall months of December through April. Remembering that May was the beginning of winter here was hard to grasp hot chocolate and mittens in June was foreign to us.

Traveling by ferry through the Marlborough Sounds to the south island, we were given our first taste of the bitter cold weather to come. The rainstorm the night before in Wellington, the country’s capital on the bottom tip of the north island, was the first indication.

Although Wellington offered many great eateries and picture-taking opportunities, we were too excited to get on our way to the south island to stay there too long. However, if you require coffee, then Wellington is your niche. The streets of Wellington are lined with new-age coffee shops and high fashion boutiques; a little out of our budget. We stumbled out of some lower-priced and more enjoyable pubs instead.

Snugly situated on the east coast of the south island, midway between Blenheim and Christchurch, Kaikoura’s sunsets might make a prairie sunset blush. Kaikoura is praised as being the region’s number one site for whale gazing. Whale watching had always been a dream of mine, and since my boyfriend and I both agreed that bungee jumping was not on our “to do” list, we decided to pay the $100 NZ fee for a whale watching tour. Not badonly $48 US.

On the morning of our tour, we were cautioned that the waves and ensuing storm might be too much for the boat to handle. We needed our hats and mitts today. We were fooled again by those ever-changing weather patterns, and within a half-hour of the predicted delay, we set out in search of anything that might come up for a breath of air for our cameras.

Each sighting that morning was reported by someone different; one from our captain; one from a fellow tourist onboard, who screamed it like he had just found the world’s largest and most impressive gold mine; and a third time by radio from another whale watching tour company. (How nicethey work together, I remember thinking).

What an adrenaline rush, feeling the boat surge forward in high hopes of locating the massive mammal first. Everyone’s eyes were peering excitedly out into the depths of where the Arctic Ocean meets the Pacific. We couldn’t get too close to the whale, explained our guide, warning that the touring companies must respect the unique feeding areas that are frequented by a number of whales and dolphins. They choose this area, he revealed, because of the diverse and distinct plankton and algae that thrives here due to the different waters that merge in this area.

People venture to New Zealand because of the food, too, to try such local cuisine as wild venison, mutton (sheep), which is highly recommended by everyone, and scrumptiously fresh seafood. But they are also beginning to come for the wine. New Zealand wine is gaining popularity within the world’s wine culture, proving that the country’s cool climate and maritime influence is comparable to that of Bordeaux and Burgundy, France. Our tongues were left with a permanent red stain as we took every tasting opportunity we could from the top to the bottom of the country.

It was time to see a little of Europe we found out, when we drove into Christchurch, the country’s largest city and mistakenly thought to be the capital. Christchurch looked like London, on a much smaller scale of course considering the whole of New Zealand is packed into an area about the size of Britain. The information center for travelers gave us a great rate at a luxury hotel downtown. In fact, most information centers (just look for the circled, lower case “i” anywhere in New Zealand) cater to the many travelers that are looking for an overnight deal. With our savings, we gambled the night away at the Christchurch casino.

Leaving Christchurch up $7, we drove south along the coast towards Dunedin, stopping briefly, (okit’s impossible to stop briefly) to marvel at the emerald green water of the Pacific. We still hit Dunedin before dark, just as the students were heading home in their knickers and plaid. A little like Scotland, I thought.

Here, we met my relatives, who I hadn’t seen since I was a child. The drive from downtown to their doorstep was insanely steep. We discovered that our plan to stay on a farm in New Zealand could be accomplished right here. My family lives on a sheep farm, nestled in the hills atop Dunedin, with an unbelievable view from the kitchen sink of the ocean contrasted with the downtown. We were so high up. I had heard of a snow line before but didn’t really know what it meant until the morning of our third day. Winter had surprised us with a huge dump of snow. The blizzard, my family warned, would make it difficult for our small Honda rental car to descend the gravel road, which normally only takes about 5 minutes to drive. Our only chance to get on the road was now or neverwellmaybe on Wednesday. (It was Monday!) It took us 30 minutes to slide down that morning, and when we reached the bottom, it was like we had driven through a whole season. The bottom was greenand looking up over our shoulders where the farm should’ve been was a white wash of nothing. Amazing, my boyfriend and I repeated in astonishment. They really weren’t kidding about their crazy weather.

Now, if there was ever a place where you could swear the air was perfect, where the smells were captivating, where the sounds were serene and where the panorama was speechlessit is Milford Sound. Described as “the eighth wonder of the world” by Rudyard Kipling, this is the place I was waiting to see.

It was here, on the west coast of the south island; where I stood on board our overnight cruise boat, looking out into the brilliant water, where the winding fiords crawled into the rough Tasman Sea. I was surrounded by gently cascading waterfalls, snow-capped mountain peaks that glowed overhead in the soft light of the moon, and lush, untouched wilderness carved into the rock some 4,000 ft. high on all sides of me. They say one is lost for words upon sight of this magical place. My words are in every picture I snapped. This is where I surrendered my senses and breathed in everything around me. This, I thought, is New Zealand. Exactly like I pictured it in my dreams.

Not far from this enchanting spot was another captivating landscape of mirror lakes and slopping hillsides with a backdrop of snow-laced mountains. Queenstown, the south island’s most popular tourist stop lies here, on a glacial lake beneath the Remarkables, a chain of great ski terrain. There seemed to be so much energy and dwelling potential along the route to this hidden town, but it was as if this area had not been discovered yet. Once we arrived, it was obvious. Queenstown is the place to be.

Once a quiet lakeside town for New Zealanders, it has grown into a trendy year-round tourist resort, attracting people from all over the world. Signs and pamphlets everywhere advertise the numerous leisure activities and daring thrills you can experience, all for a reasonable price. Seclusion doesn’t mean inaccessibility. Queenstown offers some of the finest restaurants and accommodations outside of the major cities. Shipped in or flown in, you won’t miss anything here.

We had one more stop: Auckland. Back on the north island now, we left behind the awesome mountainous and snowy landscape of the south. Auckland is the country’s most populated city, providing a metropolitan and faster-paced lifestyle than anywhere else in New Zealand, not to mention great last minute shopping! We didn’t really want to catch our eternal flight home. Knowing we might never come back, picturing New Zealand on a map in relation to the rest of the world, made my stomach and my heart long to stay. However, dropping off our rental car was a reliefwe had made it across the entire country, driving on the opposite side of the road, completely problem-free.

When I look at my photographs, I’m flooded with so many memorable moments of breathtaking scenery, exciting encounters and unforgettable memories. Most people dream of visiting places because they haven’t been there yet. Now I dream of returning to New Zealand; the nowhere that is now somewhere in my mind.


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