Kia Ora! There’s a certain lilt in the common New Zealand greeting that just lifts your spirits. In eight days, the beautiful Maori greeting for us came to stand for the heart and soul of the country that we were about to fall in love with.
I’ll admit I was more skeptical than my husband when we first got there.
Many had extolled the wonders of New Zealand to me setting my expectations very high. Add to that, the presence of KFC’s and McDonald’s at every turn made me wonder if we had made much of a cultural leap on this trip.
Those sentiments quickly evaporated when we dropped a pin on the map as we looked up directions to our first destination. Picture it—we were standing in a remote corner of the globe in a country with just about 4 million people. Driving south from Auckland to Rotorua, human presence quickly started to diminish as the countryside opened up it’s sprawling green arms to us.
We had our tourist hats on for the first two days as we explored the North Island. We immersed ourselves in Maori culture at Te Puia ending with a traditional Hangi dinner. We then proceeded to tour Hobbiton (reruns of LOTR and The Hobbit are a lot more exciting now), and then to the Waitomo glow worm caves. Like many old cultures around the world, caves are sacred to the Maori. We’ve explored many a cave, both wet and dry, but nothing quite compared to floating silently on a tube through the Waitomo caves looking up at an ethereal blueish-silver glow emanating from the ceiling. Just ignore the fact that the glow worms are actually glow maggots.
Strapped for time, we decided to fly to Christchurch and continue our road trip from there. But if you aren’t, drive the full length of this magnificent island-country. You will meet the most delightful, genuine, and friendly people along the way and jaw-dropping scenery at every curve of the road.
But now it’s time for a pop quiz: do you know what the four stars on the New Zealand flag stand for? Look up at the skies when you’re there and you are bound to see it. Being a complete goof, I kept wondering why the big dipper looked strange. Maybe everything was just upside down in the South? We took part in a midnight sky gazing activity in one of the best stargazing areas in the world—Lake Tekapo’s dark sky reserve. I finally learned that the southern hemisphere sees a different part of sky than we do in the north (don’t judge me, it can happen to anyone!). That’s where we first identified the the Southern Cross, the four stars that are as dear to the southern skies as the Big Dipper is to ours in the north. Even on a night when the moon was shining in all it’s glory, we could make out several famous stars. We could see Orion himself charging from the skies, star studded belt and all.
Driving through the south island makes you understand why Peter Jackson chose this country as the back drop for a mythical world. The landscapes you see at every turn of the road (and there are a lot!) take your breath away and make you forget the material world you left behind. We were left continuously breathless as our eyes transitioned from the misty mountains of Milford Sound on a rainy day, to the enthralling southern coast of the Catlins, and rolling hills filled with sheep. And if you love wildlife, take your pick (or pick them all) between swimming with the world’s smallest and rarest Hector’s dolphins in Akaroa, watching the antics of Atu, the great spotted Kiwi, in Otorohanga, or sailing by the adorable New Zealand fur seals in Milford Sound.
New Zealand’s frontier-land feel, although awe-inspiring, does pose challenges to travelers who decide to go it alone. We were stuck not once, not twice, but three times without enough gas at a closed gas station. Most if not all service stations are closed on Sundays. And for the Americans out there, if you don’t have a chip and pin card, tough luck. On one occassion, we found ourselves in a remote part the Catlins without enough gas. Considering the sun only set past 9 pm in the Spring, the skies were deceptively bright when we pulled up to a closed gas station. There wasn’t another station for miles and even if there was, it was likely closed. We were seconds away from a hysterical breakdown when my husband went to investigate noises behind the station. A couple minutes later he emerged with our savior, the owner of the gas station, who kindly reopened his store for us and sent us on our way.
Which leads me to my final thoughts. I would like to end my ode to this marvelous country, with a tip of my hat to the Kiwis themselves (the people, not the bird). Just like the bird though, the people are one of a kind, embodying a generosity that is endemic to New Zealand. We were just as lucky during the other two “we’re screwed” episodes to be helped by Kiwis who in their infinite graciousness got us out of a tight spot. They were THE reason for a trip we could look back on with fondness rather than shudders. Traveling should leave you with the feeling of wanting more and New Zealand delivered. Eight days just weren’t enough to do justice to this country.
Have your own New Zealand experiences and tips to share or planning your first trip? We would love to hear from you. Until then, Kia Ora!