Why do we travel? We travel, initially, to lose ourselves, and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel just to shake up our complacency, in search of both self and anonymity. Freed of unessential labels, we have the opportunity to come in contact with the more essential parts of ourselves (which may explain why we feel most alive when far from home). Abroad is the place where we stay up  late, follow impulse, and find ourselves as wide open as when we were first in love. We live without past or future, for a moment at least, and are ourselves up for grabs and open to interpretation. So, one more time, we are off!

Kia Ora! This is the traditional Maori greeting, meaning “Be well, be healthy.” How can anyone argue with that? A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. This particular holiday was, however, way beyond my expectations, and almost all in a good way. New Zealand has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember, and here we are, having just landed in Auckland.

Air New Zealand lived up to its reputation for excellent service, but after 13 hours inside a plane, we were ready to stretch our legs. We decided to arrive a day early before joining our 20 day tour around the islands, in part to get over jet lag, and also to allow for unforeseen delays in getting here.

Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand with a population of over 700,000, and is the major business center, as well as the place where most new immigrants initially come. As such, we encountered a vast array of aromas coming from the myriad ethnic restaurants lining its streets. Most are of the Southeast Asian variety, but you won’t have a problem finding foods from anywhere in the world. (We ate at an excellent Euro Asian fusion place called Ortolana that has next door a chocolate shop called Milse that is the next best thing to heaven this side of the great divide.) Not wanting to succumb to the arms of Morpheus, we took the concierge’s enthusiastic recommendation, and went to a matinee of Priscilla, a Tony nominated musical very reminiscent of La Cage aux Folles, held in a historic old theater. Our second night, we met our new travel companions, who turned out to be one of the nicest (and definitely the most punctual) crowd of people to tour with us. Vivace, the Italian restaurant just a couple of blocks from our centrally located Citylife hotel, provided a satisfying meal, along with a venue to get acquainted.  (Prior to dinner, we met up with Ilze, the charming daughter of one of Miki’s Latvian friends, who now lives in Auckland and is married to a Kiwi.) Most of our crowd was still pretty shell shocked, having just arrived from an arduous journey, which for our British compatriots was up to 27 hours with connections. We almost felt guilty, having only a 13 hour non-stop flight from LA.

Prior to our dinner, we began to receive a flood of concerned emails from our relatives and friends back home, who heard of the 7.8 earthquake in Kaikoura  on the South Island (about 60 miles north of Christchurch) that devastated the city, wiped out the main coastal highway, and sealed off the survivors from the rest of the country. It took helicopters and Navy ships almost a week to evacuate over a 1000 stranded tourists. Their cars and buses remain there for the foreseeable future. Being almost 600 miles away on the North Island, we were not affected, but Lee, our tour guide from Collette, was left scrambling, as she had to find a new hotel for us in Wellington, which sustained water damage, and arrange to reroute us around the damaged area. We were scheduled to stop in Kaikoura originally, and had we started our travels a couple of days earlier, we would have been amongst those trapped in the town. Having lived a good part of our lives in earthquake country, Miki and I were both very much aware that the problem was not over, and in fact, the area continued to have over a 1,000 aftershocks while we were there, including a 5.8 in Christchurch (which we thankfully did not feel, being on our bus as we were driving into town.)

In a pattern that was to continue throughout much of the tour, breakfast the next day was available at 6 AM (and I must say, the buffet breakfasts provided by the hotels were almost uniformly excellent, evidenced by my scale on our return home), bags outside the room at 7 AM, and departure at 8 AM. Not designed for relaxation, Collette’s schedule did maximize our opportunity to see as much of this gorgeous country as 20 days would allow, covering over 2,100 miles of driving. This was the reason we chose this particular itinerary, and we were not disappointed. Lee was a capable guide who worked mostly behind the scenes, and did not allow the hassles caused by the earthquakes to be reflected back to our group. Our coach driver, Scotty, who also doubled as our narrator traveling through the countryside, did an incredible job of both navigating our large bus through often narrow roads, as well as telling us details of the passing scenery, and  about life in his country. Possessing a dry sense of humor, his narrations were entertaining as well as informative, and reaffirmed our choice of taking a guided tour over driving ourselves. I was impressed with the amount of detail he provided as well as his delivery in sharing of the information. If he ever decides to quit his current job, he’d make an excellent teacher. By the way, for those of you who were travelling with us, or are familiar with New Zealand geography, this narration will not follow our trip itinerary, but skip around to highlight those themes and places that were meaningful to me.

New Zealand has a population of 4.5 million people, 700,000 of whom have Maori ancestry. The Maori people, whose language and culture are closely related to the native Hawaiians, whom they consider brothers, arrived with their outrigger canoes and shark fin shaped sails about 800 years ago, and prospered in a land free of any large predators or even snakes. (The absence of these natural enemies accounts for the development of flightless birds such as the kiwi, which over the millennia learned they could build their nests on the ground, and lost their need of wings for survival.) Possessing a strong warrior culture and formidable military strategy, they were able to resist the masses of white settlers seeking their lands, until in 1840, when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the leaders of the Maori tribes and the representatives of the British crown. In 1860, land wars broke out between the settlers and the Maori tribes, and the negotiations to compensate native tribes (the iwi) continues through this day. Today, the Maori language, with its very long names, remains one of the three official languages of the country (English and New Zealand Sign language being the other two.) The Maori have strong spiritual connections to the land, regarding soil and water as taonga, treasures, and see themselves as guardians (kaitaki), thus providing a source of unity for themselves as people. Tattoos are still the norm, but the facial tattoos worn in the past to signify tribal membership and status are less often seen, being applied in ink for tribal ceremonies, then removed to accommodate the mores of the dominant Anglo culture.

While still in Auckland, we were fortunate to see an exhibit of Gottfried Lindauer’s Maori Portraits. These exquisite, captivating and moving paintings from the mid 1800 to the early 1900s captured in over 120 powerful portraits a remarkable sense of the pride, the dignity, and the intelligence of the Maori people. We had a chance to visit Waitangi House, the place where the treaty was originally signed, and hear from our Maori guide her insights and the deeper history of this landmark event. Subsequently, we also spent time in Rotorua, the center of Maori culture, as well as visited the Te Puia Cultural Village, where the traditions of native wood carving and weaving are passed on to the next generations so these arts may not be lost. Rotorua sits inside the cauldron of a huge volcanic eruption, and, like Yellowstone, has a number of active hot springs and geysers. We got to see a thirty minute eruption of steam and water rivaling any that Old Faithful produces. Geothermal energy is also a source of electrical power, though its use has been curtailed recently for fear of unintended consequences. Shortly after leaving this area, we heard that there was an unexpected 80 foot geyser erupting in middle of the lake that adjoins the town, so these concerns remain real. Our Maori cultural experience ended in the evening with a Hangi, a luau like feast at the Tamaki Maori Village. The food was quite good, cooked in pits with hot stones and wrapped in leaves, and the demonstration of native games and ceremonies, with members of our group acting as semi-willing students, was enjoyable. The highlight of the evening, to me, was provided by our Maori bus driver who transported us to and from the event in his bus. With the skill and timing of the best late night TV comedians, he had us rolling in the aisles during the trip, and at the same time, exhibited his pride in his people and his culture, and the All Blacks Rugby team. Having greeted us in 61 foreign languages (his Hungarian pronunciation, challenging for most, was excellent) he continued to amuse us on our return to our hotel. He proceeded to repeatedly honk at passing vehicles, then circle us around six times in the bus in one of the many roundabouts, while drivers stared in puzzlement at our antics. He was a man ALIVE in the moment!

Miki, who is prone to sea sickness, was quite apprehensive when we departed on our four hour Bay of Islands cruise to visit Otehei Bay, walk around Urupukapuka Island, and see the sea life on the way to the famous Hole in the Rock. Fortunately, between the use of a scopolamine patch, a seat in the fresh air at the aft of the ship, and a relatively smooth sea (3-4 foot swells) she did fine, and got to enjoy a sunny day, with porpoises leaping alongside our ship, and surfing our wake. The Hole in the Rock was a bit anticlimactic for those of us living along the California coast, where similar formations are readily visible, but the walk around the island was very scenic, despite the fact that the trail was heavily peppered with sheep droppings, they being the dominant life form on the island.

If you love Art Deco, Napier is the place for you. The city was pretty much destroyed by an earthquake and attendant tsunami in the early 1930s, then rebuilt completely in the just the space of a couple of years. Since Art Deco was all the rage at the time…you guessed it! Perhaps the most amusing part of the visit here to me (though not to Scotty) was the local guide who came on the bus to describe the history of the town and its buildings, while giving frequent directions to our driver as to where to turn and how to go in the manner and accents befitting a lady from the upper crust addressing the servants. I’m likely being rather uncharitable here, as she was a volunteer, and proud of her heritage, but it really was too reminiscent of a scene from Downton Abbey.

New Zealand’s climate and the soil are quite conducive to the making of good wines, and there are excellent Sauvignon Blancs produced here, especially from the Marlborough region, as well as Pinot Noir, along with a number of other varietals. Naturally, we attended several wine tastings during our travels. While most of the wines were quite good, perhaps jaded by my experience in Napa, Sonoma, as well as the wine regions of Europe, I found the people presenting the wines more knowledgeable about sales than wine making. I was impressed, however, by the full meal provided at one of the vineyards to accompany their featured products, and the wines themselves were tasty. Back home, though getting pricier as they have become better known in the States, New Zealand wines still represent great value for the money.

This brings me to another insight I gained during my travels, regarding the local economy. As New Zealand has very little, if any manufacturing base, almost anything purchased locally has to be imported. The country’s main exports are agricultural, and the products that get exported have to be of the highest quality in order to compensate for shipping costs over large distances, and to be able to effectively compete on the world market. Around ten years ago, the government decided to abruptly end all farm subsidies. During one of our farm visits (where the farmer’s wife served us fresh baked scones with homemade jam and cream, and he demonstrated how he shears a sheep and how his dogs herd them) the farmer explained clearly the benefits of this policy as well as the downsides. The big benefit is that it focuses the producer on what the market wants, rather than what he felt like producing, and forced him to be relentlessly focused on quality and service, and what adds to his bottom line. It also keeps a bureaucrat from dictating what crops he should grow, or how many heads of sheep he should keep. The downside is that he has no buffer from the market cycles of a free economy. It’s a lesson our own agricultural industry should look at closely. Besides wool, the demand for which is decreasing with the development of new synthetic fibers, New Zealand’s main exports are lamb, beef, dairy (95% in the form of powdered milk), wine, and venison.

Back in the 1850’s, the settlers from England imported deer into the country in order to be able to hunt them. Remember what I said about no natural predators? The deer population exploded, and became so destructive that a bounty was paid for each deer killed. Hunters, working from helicopters, would shoot up to 800 deer a day. At one point, someone had the thought not to waste this resource, and found there was a considerable market for venison in countries such as the USA. The problem was how to get the animals from the forest back to a point where they could be exported.  So, in the country where bungee jumping was invented, someone decided they would stand on the runners of the helicopter, have the pilot fly low over the deer, at which point they would jump out, wrestle the deer to the ground, hog tie it, and ride it back up into the helicopter.  (Shooting them with tranquilizer guns didn’t work well, as it took some time for the drug to work, by which time the animal wandered back into the forest.) Then they would take it back to a farm, keep it in a dark barn until the deer was no longer in shock ( a couple of days) then let out to pasture to graze, surrounded by a fence with a single electrified wire which shocked the animal if touched.  Amazingly, once domesticated, the deer would not attempt to get away. Thus, the venison industry continues to grow.

Wellington (appropriately nicknamed “Windy Welly) is the capital, though Auckland is the largest city. In a building resembling a beehive more than anything else, Parliament meets to pass the laws governing the country. With a beautiful port, a scenic cable car, great restaurants, and gardens exuding roses, it’s a city you should definitely visit. The museums here, as well as those throughout the country, are almost all free, and the quality of their exhibits equal or surpass many I’ve seen elsewhere in the world. The Antarctica exhibit in Christchurch was singularly impressive to me. It’s particularly tragic that Christchurch, which suffered such heavy damage and loss of life during the earthquake of 2011, from which it still hasn’t recovered, now has to deal with this latest disaster.

If you are a Lord of the Rings fan, this is the place for you. I wasn’t particularly thrilled when I heard we were going to Hobbiton, the place Peter Jackson selected for the locale of the Shire, home of the Hobbits. When the movie was first filmed, the owner of the farm insisted that at the end of the shoot, all the sets be taken down and the land restored to its original state. However, tourists soon began to show up, wanting to see the site where the film was made. So, when the sequel was shot, this time the farmer, seeing a business opportunity, had all the sets made as permanent structures. I expected something a bit cheesy and Disneyland-like, so I was pleasantly surprised to see how the natural beauty of the rolling hills blended in with the Hobbit homes, and was fascinated by the details Peter Jackson was insistent on getting right  to create a truly believable fairyland that exists today. Like many things in this country, photos and descriptions don’t do it justice.

Of all the things I looked forward to seeing in New Zealand, Milford Sound and Mt. Cook were at the top of the list. The fact that we arrived in the rain and mist, and never saw the Franz Josef Glacier was OK by me, as I had seen lots of other glaciers. However, when we were driving to Milford Sound, and Scotty announced that due to an unseasonable snow, the pass was closed and we might not get through, my heart sank. As it turned out, the gods smiled upon us, the pass opened just as we got to it, and we were able to cruise through the Sound under ideal conditions.  If you come on a bright, sunny day, you’ll see the fjords, but not the gorgeous waterfalls cascading in prismatic glory down sheer cliffs colored with rainbow hues, only seen within a few hours of the rain stopping. This was the experience gifted to us. Combined with our visit to Mt. Cook, where multihued lupine lined trails culminated in an impossibly blue glacier lake, at the end of which soared New Zealand tallest peak, over 12,000 feet high, shimmering in the sun, with not a cloud to hide its glory – it doesn’t get much better than this. The temperature was perfect for hiking, and Miki, despite herself, enjoyed the exertion as much as I did. The whole country is designed for a scenic photographer, and it’s hard to take a bad picture here.

Of all the cities we visited, I found Queenstown to be my favorite. A ski resort in the winter, surrounded by impressive homes, overlooking a scenic lake, it’s a paradise for the active person. Whether you choose the madcap ride on the Shotover jet boat into water carved canyons, take a four wheel adventure into the back country where the Lord of the Rings was filmed, or risk your  eyeballs popping out bungee jumping off a bridge, it’s all there for you. We chose to relax, hike, and have some good meals – it was marvelous.

For me, the transformative experiences of the trip came during the overnight stay on a farm with Diane Parker, a wonderful lady who made a simply delicious dinner and breakfast for us, as well as four of our fellow travelers, Ron and Pat, farmers from Manitoba, and Alex and Pat, a lovely Scottish couple now living near Hamilton, Ontario. Diane was so warm and welcoming, she made us feel like we had known her all her life, and the expansive views from her spacious, comfortable home, were stunning. Sharing the evening with her and our four new friends is a memory that will stay with me always. Alex used to play with a dance band, and during our stay at our Mt. Cook hotel, he entertained us for a couple of hours in the bar after dinner with his piano playing. He and Pat both have a great sense of humor, and my conversations with Ron and his wife felt so warm and genuine, I regretted we didn’t have more time to share.

We also enjoyed getting to know delightful Geoff and Jane, along with their friends, Steve and Anne, from England. Both men are plane and flying enthusiasts, and it was hard not to get caught up in their excitement over any aircraft that was in our vicinity. Time allowed us only to scratch the surface of what I hope will be a long term relationship, as we found them to be very simpatico. Space and time keep me from mentioning all the wonderful people who shared this great experience with us, but travelling with and getting to know them as individuals added tremendously to our experience. The enduring gifts of travel are the people you meet along the way. Coming from different places and diverse backgrounds, the experience of New Zealand welded our small band of travelers together in a way I’ve yet to experience on other journeys.

Until we meet again,


George & Miki

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