March 7, 2016
by Betsy Herbert
When I first arrived in New Zealand, I had just broken off a romance with a man whom I had hoped to travel with here. I had discovered--by sleuthing on his Facebook page--an irrefutable trail of deceit that left me no alternative but to end the relationship.
So, here I was on my own in New Zealand, reeling from a disheartening betrayal. But, as I’ve said in previous blogs, life goes on while you’re traveling. . . and this was just a bump in the road.
New Zealand is a sojourner’s dreamscape. I had no problem lining up a series of great activities and adventures to immerse myself in. I started by viewing some indigenous arts and crafts In Rotorua, a cultural center for the Maori people. Maori carvers create traditional jade pieces whose shapes symbolize a range of valued character attributes. New Zealanders commonly wear them as pendants. I bought a one in the shape of an adze. A pendant of this shape is known as a Toki and it symbolizes strength and courage. I wore it for the rest of my trip.
After spending two nights in Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island, I took a two-hour bus ride southeast to Rotorua, both an icon of geologic/volcanic wonder and a cultural center of the Maori people. Rotorua's Whakarewarewa Valley has geysers and thermal mud pools fueled by geothermal activity. The Pohutu geyser here erupts many times during the day. After visiting Rotorua decades ago, I knew I must return to experience this place again.
Rotorua sits on Lake Rotorua, which is edged with bubbling black mud pools, including one that emits nitrous oxide, also known as "laughing gas." The lake has a plethora of bird life, including Canada geese and my favorite, the black swan.
My hotel was also on Lake Rotorua. The hotel's hot water, including water in its jacuzzi pools, was all heated by natural hot springs. Just a short walk away at the edge of the lake is the famous Polynesian Spa, where you can soak in a series of naturally heated pools of therapeutic mineral spring water. As you move from pool to pool, the heat gradually increases. There's also an ice plunge available if you get too hot. After a 25 minute soak, I treated myself to a mud bath and massage. It was all very relaxing and left my skin feeling smooth as a seal.
Next, I took two great day-trips from Rotorua:
Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland.
I took a walking tour of Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland, sited in the Taupo Volcanic Zone, which lies at the intersection of the Indian-Australian and Pacific tectonic plates beneath the surface of New Zealand. The tremendous amounts of energy released here produce spectacular outcomes, including mountain-building, volcanic activity, and earthquakes.
Above is a bubbling hot mud pool typical of the Taupo Volcanic Zone near Rotorua, New Zealand.
My next adventure was an exciting afternoon zip-lining in an old-growth forest near Rotorua.
Up 120 feet in the forest canopy, I launched off a platform surrounding a towering 1,000-year-old kauri tree in Dansey Forest. Holding onto my harness straps, I pushed off with my feet, surrendered my weight to the zipline, and went flying 720 feet through the treetops. About halfway through the flight, I let go of the harness, leaned back and spread out my arms. Exhilarating!
I had a little help of course! I was part of a group of 10 zipliners led by guides Scott and Kathy, locals employed by nonprofit Rotorua Canopy Tours.
During our three-hour adventure, we whizzed over .75 miles of ziplines, traversed three swinging bridges, and hung out on five tree platforms, all the while learning about the plight of New Zealand’s native birds and the group’s ongoing efforts to help them survive. By the time the tour ended, I was glad to know that a portion of my ticket price would be invested in supporting these efforts.
Kathy explained that 51 bird species endemic to New Zealand including the moa and other flightless birds are now extinct, while many other species are in decline. Because New Zealand birds evolved in isolation when there were no existing land mammals to prey on them, they never developed natural defenses needed to fend off introduced mammals.
While humans hunted the moa and other large birds, the nail in the coffin for many extinct bird species was the introduction of exotic mammals such as the possum, rat and stoat (a type of weasel). Fur traders introduced the possum because of its value in pelts, the rat came into New Zealand as a stowaway on ships, and the stoat was introduced in hopes that it would prey on rabbits, which were themselves introduced earlier with prolifically tragic results.
Some of the favorite foods of the possum are the new growth on New Zealand’s native trees and the eggs of its native birds. There are now some 30 million possums in New Zealand, so their impact is astounding.
The rat also likes to eat native birds, as well as the seeds and fruits of the native trees, inhibiting their ability to propagate. Perhaps worst of all is the stoat; once introduced to New Zealand, the stoat lost its taste for rabbits and instead took to preying on native birds, especially the kiwi, New Zealand’s national icon.
Native trees logged and replaced with Monterey Pine. As all of these exotic mammals were being introduced, New Zealand’s native forests were being decimated by logging and slowly replaced with introduced tree species like Monterey pine, which is now the country’s leading commercial timber tree. As native forests were replaced with exotic tree plantations or converted to farmland, the habitat of New Zealand’s native birds took a huge hit.
Restoration solution. What could be done to turn this around? In 2002, New Zealand federal law went into effect, prohibiting logging on publicly owned land. Then founders of Rotorua Canopy Tours, James Fitzgerald and Andrew Blackford, decided to create a successful eco-tourism business to support the active trapping and killing of possums, rats and stoats on this publicly owned 1,235 acre Dansey Forest to bring back native bird populations. The group joined into a partnership with the New Zealand Department of Conservation, which owns the land.
Their efforts have paid off. After testing different kinds of traps, the company now has installed more than 1,000 instant kill and humane traps in the forest. To date, 10 percent of the Dansey Forest is free from these exotic predators. Zipliners can now hear the birdsongs of the native North Island robin, the tomtit, tui, and the kaka, which are returning to the forest.
Heading to the South Island.
It was time to head back to Auckland to catch the Northern Explorer train to Wellington, at the southern tip of the New Zealand's North Island. From there I would take the ferry to the South Island.
The eleven hour Northern Explorer train ride from Auckland to Wellington gives passengers an extended view of the countryside, which is mostly land used for sheep grazing, punctuated by bits of forest land.
I was surprised by the extent of the erosion on these grazing lands. I was also somewhat shocked at the clear-cuts within the few patches of forest land.
One of my seat mates on the Northern Explorer, a tall, lanky young man named Robbie from Salt Lake City, was taking his bicycle to the South Island, where he would ride and camp around the island. He had assembled his bicycle in Auckland at a bike shop. He also brought along his guitar. When we finally arrived in Wellington, Robbie headed for the waterfront where he played his guitar, hoping to earn some extra spending money. Wellington is full of musicians and buskers, or street performers. It also boasts some great pubs, where Robbie and I engaged in some interesting discussions with locals, who loved talking politics.
I had booked a reservation on the ferry the next morning to take me across Cook Strait to Picton, on the South Island, so I was up early to get to the dock.
After arriving in Picton, I continued on the bus to Christchurch, New Zealand's second largest city, on the east coast of the South Island. Unfortunately, in 2011 Christchurch was devastated by an earthquake which destroyed much of the city and killed 185 people. The entire city seemed like it was under construction. Below is a photo of one of the reconstruction zones:
My main reason for coming to the South Island was to visit Queenstown, a beautiful city in its own right, but it's also the gateway to Milford Sound and Fiordlands National Park on the west coast.
It was an eight hour bus ride from Christchurch to Queenstown, but we made some interesting stops along the way. First was Lake Tekapo, a 32 square-mile body of water fed by the Godley River from New Zealand's Southern Alps. Below is a photo:
Sherwood Community Hotel--my kinda' place. When I arrived in Queenstown, I set up my base at the Sherwood, a very cool and casual hotel on the city's outskirts, overlooking Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables Mountain range.
The Sherwood is conveniently located on the public bus line. The whole place is dedicated to sustainability, and though they're still working to perfect this goal, I found that both staff and management were actively striving to do the best possible job. For example, they used recycled materials in the hotel's re-construction. The hotel restaurant has a kitchen garden and they offer an organic menu. They also constantly try to reduce their waste stream through recycling. I was invited to attend one of their informal staff meetings, and when I did, I was impressed by the free exchange of ideas. They were discussing the need to find more affordable sources of organic food, and one of the options on the table was to start an organic food co-op in Queenstown to not only serve their hotel's needs, but the entire community's. And just to top it off, the Sherwood has great live music in the bar, which, when I was there was standing-room only.
I found Queenstown to be lots of fun, as it should be, since it's the extreme sport center of New Zealand. After taking the Skyline Gondola to the top of Wellington, which towers above Queenstown, I felt like being a little more adventurous.
After I talked with the paragliding company representative at the top of the Skyline Gondola, I decided to take the plunge and pre-pay for a para-glide the next morning from here into the town of Wellington. Unfortunately, high winds the next morning caused the trip to be canceled. I guess I'll have to wait for another opportunity somewhere in the world to para-glide!
The next day, I took the bus to Milford Sound via Fiordsland National Park. Just so happens that the tour group that took me there was called "awesome NZ." Sometimes when people ask me why I decided to take a trip around the world for a year, I tell them that it's part of my quest to escape the word "awesome." I seem to be thwarted in my quest, because this word, possibly the most over-used word in the English language, is repeated in almost every country I've visited. New Zealanders especially seem to love it!
Fiordlands National Park.
This phenomenal place that contains the Southern Alps is part of southwest New Zealand's World Heritage site called Te Wahlpounamu. It's also the gateway to the famous Milford Sound.
My first stop in Fiordlands National Park was Mirror Lake, which is surrounded by a New Zealand beech forest. Photo below:
Mirror Lake is part of the Eglinton valley, hosting forests of five species of native evergreen beech trees. These beech trees were originally named fagus, because they resembled beech species of that name growing in Europe. Later, botanists recognized that these New Zealand trees were very different from European beeches, so they changed the name to nothofagus, meaning "not a beech." The New Zealand beech trees are threatened by introduced species like the stoat and the possum, which eat their leaves.
The wilderness in Fiordlands National Park is breathtaking. Below are a couple of photos:
After cruising the fiords of Milford Sound, watching the seals on the rocks and the sky-high waterfalls, it was time to return to Queenstown, where I would catch a flight back to Auckland. From there, I would depart New Zealand as a very happy camper, bound for Tahiti and its neighbor the island of Moorea.