Continuing my account of our trip to the South Pacific, New Zealand couldn’t be more different from Australia in almost every respect: landscape, people, accents and approach to life. The sun was less brilliant, the air was softer and the feeling of the entire country was homier. New Zealand consists of two elongated islands, both mountainous, with pastoral vistas dotted with farms and sheep ranches. Known as Kiwis after their famous bird, New Zealanders are much more British than the Ozzies, quiet, soft-spoken and very welcoming. Maoris, or native New Zealanders are very much a part of the culture, while still retaining their own identity.
We spent a week in Auckland, a charming little city, easily walkable, with a very interesting, busy waterfront, and sailboat masts as far as the eye can see. We walked around the docks every day. While we were there, yachts taking part in the round-the-world Whitbread Race (since renamed) were arriving daily. Also, Queen Elizabeth’s yacht, Britannia, came in and tied up at one of the central docks awaiting the Queen and her royal attendants.
Queen Elizabeth’s visit was an exciting event. She, Prince Philip and their attendants walked the length of Queen Street in a light rain, along with the city officials. She was very attractive in those days with her lovely English complexion and blue eyes. She paused to speak to several of the ladies I was standing with so I grabbed a nice close-up.
New Zealanders were like Australians at that time. Class lines just didn’t exist as we know them. The lowliest ditch digger felt he was the equal of anyone else and tipping a person who gave service was considered insulting. I wonder what it’s like now.
I had chatted up a department store clerk the previous afternoon and my mouth fell open when she mentioned, discussing the queen, “I thought she looked a little tired at dinner last night.” Talk about the ultimate name dropping! It turned out that her husband was some sort of government official and they had attended the state dinner for the queen the night before.
Lynn had spent some months in Auckland during World War II, recovering at a U.S.Naval hospital facility there, after the ship he served on was sunk during a battle. He had often told me about the War Memorial Museum and the remarkable exhibits of Maori carvings, especially a war canoe. It was amazing, carved from one kauri log in the 1830s, over 26 meters long and rowed by 100 warriors. It’s quite a sight in a room of its own.
Continuing our trip, we took a train to Wellington, the capital city. I decided every single structure, home, office, business and all, must have a view of the water as the entire city is on a bowl shaped hillside, sloping down toward the bay.
Planning to return to North Island later, we took a ferry across to South Island, the other half of this small country. We rented a car in Nelson and, risking our lives, took off driving down the “wrong” side of the road. Traffic was light enough that we never did get in too much trouble, both of us alert to every road sign and turn. Heading south, our first stopover was in Fjordland, in the “Southern Alps” as scenic and spectacular as any part of Norway.
Glaciers, including their famous Franz Josef Glacier, fjords and icy waterfalls were to be seen everywhere. We wrapped up in every warm piece of clothing we’d brought, especially for a long boat trip we took up Milford Sound. We only spent a few days on this wild coast but could have spent twice the time. By the time we’d reached the southernmost part of our journey, snowflakes were flying and we realized Antarctica was not very far away at all. And this was the middle of summer, as we kept reminding ourselves.
Finally heading north again, we were soon back to rolling green hills covered with, as their slogan went, “70 million nuclear free sheep.” Since this was during a global controversy over nuclear weapons, the slogan went a long way toward reminding people that New Zealand was peaceful and safe. We never got away from the Southern Alps. As long as we stayed on South Island, there was always a mountain in view.
We enjoyed Dunedin and Christchurch, boated through a firefly cave and spent a leisurely afternoon aboard a big old riverboat while a jolly Kiwi lady pounded away on an old upright and everybody joined in on the good old songs. Before we knew it we were back in Nelson, back on the ferry and headed for Wellington and North Island again.
Having survived driving all over South Island, we rented another car and headed north. All of New Zealand is mountainous, scenic and picturesque. From Rotorua, a small scale Yellowstone, geysers and all, to driving along 90 Mile Beach, the most northern point in the country, then to the Bay of Islands, a wonderland of beautiful inlets, with boats everywhere. Keri-Keri, on the Bay of Islands has New Zealand’s 2 oldest buildings, a stone grocery store built in 1822 and still in use, and a house dating from 1836.
To us, the most poignant sight was the grave of a young American sailor, buried there in 1824. He had died on a whaling ship and the locals have tended his grave ever since, I could only think what a comfort that knowledge would have been for his family, had they ever known.
We visited a vast kauri forest, the giant kauris being the most ancient species of tree to survive today. We got a peek at a few kiwi birds, the country’s beloved symbol. These large, shy birds are totally nocturnal and we were only able to see them in a sanctuary under night lights.
We were impressed by the many structures built by the Maoris and still in use. Meeting houses, businesses and other public buildings were distinguished by their typical carvings, deep and intricate.
And we feasted on tons of cheeses, butters and rich milk. Their dairy products are superior, the whipped cream is pure heaven. So much of the food had that special edge that total freshness gives.
We spent another week in Auckland, reluctant to leave a place where we’d felt so at home for the past 2 months, but looking forward to our next adventure. Who wouldn’t be eager to go on to Tahiti and Moorea?