Road Trip New Zealand
October 30-November 13, 2005

Dwarfed by neighboring Australia, most of us from the other side of the globe picture New Zealand as a tiny speck of land at the corner of the Pacific Ocean. But in reality, the pair of islands that form the bulk of the country stretch about the same latitudinal range as from Albuquerque to Seattle with an equally dramatic diversity of terrain and climate. In fact, at places like Franz Joseph Glacier, tropical fern forests and glacial ice can be found less than a kilometer apart.

Jeff Weekley, who has shared several prior adventures with me, joined me for the journey. For two weeks, we explored the full length of the country, road-tripping from Auckland on the northern end of the North Island down to Te Anau at the southern end of the South Island. Along the way, we saw the expected sights -- lonely beaches and snowcapped mountains -- as well as a few surprises, like a twenty-foot tall salmon and buildings in the shapes of a dog and a sheep, molded from corrugated steel.

The trip started and ended in Auckland, a young, energetic city with a great nightlife that boasts the tallest building in the southern hemisphere -- The SkyTower. From the top, visitors can get an incredible 360-degree view of the city or pay an exorbitant price for a bungee-jump, a tribute to New Zealand's adventurous tendencies.

Over two days, Jeff and I headed south to Wellington, the southernmost city of the North Island. It was there, at a local bar, that we met Daniel, a young half-Maori who has thoroughly embraced his native heritage. Daniel was more than happy to give advice on travel destinations and share his knowledge of Kiwi wildlife. We were particularly struck by his description of the kea, the world's only alpine parrot, which he described as a "cheeky bird," mischievous and totally unintimidated by humans. Daniel scrawled down a couple pages of useful notes before the three of us were finally driven out by the karaoke.

Taking the ferry to Picton on the South Island, Jeff and I continued our journey south. And just as Daniel had predicted, it wasn't long before we encountered our first keas, exactly as he had described. On a short hike, the dingy-green parrots came right up to us, checking to see if we had any food to offer before heading back into the woods. When we got back to the car, they were hanging on the radio antenna and attempting to pull the weather-stripping from around the windows. Our rental car survived the attack, but we did notice other vehicles that took more of a beating.

Wanting to get away from the roads, Jeff and I took a three-day hike along the Kepler Track. Along the route, we spent a full day above treeline with incredible views of the surrounding snowcapped peaks. We're both accustomed to a little bit more rugged conditions, the immaculate conditions of the trails and huts took us by surprise, prompting frequent jokes about their handicapped accessibility.

Even after more than a week of hiking and driving nearly the full latitudinal extent of New Zealand, it wasn't until Jeff and I reached Milford Sound that I felt I had really experienced New Zealand. There, in a narrow fiord that can only be reached through a long tunnel, steep, glacial-carved cliffs rise directly out of the sea and into the clouds. Nearly seven meters of annual rainfall feed the dozens of towering waterfalls that tumble into the ocean, some blown into a fine mist before they strike the sea.

Due to its unusual geographic conditions, Milford Sound supports marine life that can typically only survive deep in the sea. An observatory has been constructed to allow easy access to the unique environment. Visitors descend a stairway to four stories under the sea, where thick windows look out on the native species, including the rare black coral -- which is, oddly enough, brilliant white when it is still alive. Outside, plants and corals sway slightly in the surge. Growing only a centimeter a year, some of the black corals must be nearly a century old.

It's no surprise that New Zealand is home to a huge array of species that aren't found anywhere else on earth. The island country was isolated from the rest of the world for millions of years, allowing creatures to evolve in a low-pressure environment, free from the ferocious predators that drive the evolutionary process. This explains the large number of flightless birds that would have a tough time surviving anywhere else. Unfortunately, many of these unique creatures are now threatened by the introduction of foreign species that have already resulted in the extinction of more than 40 bird varieties. New Zealand has embraced these mistakes, learning from its past to try to secure a better future. This is perhaps most evident when passing through customs, where non-native plant and animal matter -- even if seemingly innocuous -- are heavily restricted.

Reaching the extent of our travels, Jeff and I made a hasty return back to Auckland via a flight from Christchurch. Two weeks was enough to sample the country, but there are still so many mountains to climb and so much left to explore -- necessitating a future return.

© Copyright 2005 by Rob Jagnow.