New Zealand … Sweet As!
Sweet As: awesome, sweet, great, I agree with what you are saying, or as the t-shirts say, “I confirm that what you are proposing is good by me”. Used similarly to when you might say, “awesome”, “cool”, or “right on”.
If there was one phrase we had to use to sum up our time in New Zealand, it would be “sweet as”; the laid-back Kiwis use this phrase all the time, and generally we could describe our entire time in the country with this phrase. Amazing, awesome, sweet as.
Actually, it seemed Kiwis would add “as” to almost anything en lieu of finishing the sentence. We heard “soon as” (as in, you need to do that right away), “dry as” (as in, Shawn’s humor… ha! I kid), and many other variations. But I digress…
Like Australia, we spent five weeks touring around New Zealand. For a small country, it packs a punch. At every turn, absolutely phenomenal landscapes from glaciers to volcanos to mountains to stunning coastlines, and the flat bits in between are the idyllic pastoral landscapes you see on paintings in old country lodges and at your grandma’s house. Stunning, the whole lot of it.
Instead of just listing all the places we went, I’ll pepper in some geologic, historic, and cultural tidbits. So, a bit about New Zealand. About the size of the UK, New Zealand is comprised of two main islands, conveniently named the North Island and the South Island, as well as a myriad of smaller islands off the coasts of the mainland. New Zealand is actually one of the youngest landmasses in the world, and – just while we were traveling there – scientists confirmed Zealandia, which includes the islands of New Zealand and New Caledonia (among others) to be a completely separate continental plate, so… it turns out we’ve been to the 8th continent, lucky us! If not for this fact, New Zealand actually does not belong to one of the seven “proper” continents as we know them, Australia having shed them some millions of years ago.
So… a very brief geological history (please consult proper sources for all dates and details): A very long time ago, the islands that comprise New Zealand as we know it today were part of the ancient super continent of Gondwana, which contained most of the landmasses in the southern hemisphere as well as some that are now in the northern hemisphere. Through millions of years of geologic processes, Gondwana eventually broke apart, gradually becoming the countries as we know them today. Along the way, New Zealand went through various periods of submergence and reemergence before settling in its current location as the nifty island nation on everyone’s bucket list.
One interesting little factoid: due to continued submergence below and reemergence above the ocean’s surface, other than a few species of bats, New Zealand developed with no native land mammals, becoming mostly a bird colony. Because there were no natural predators, many bird species in New Zealand evolved to be flightless. The moa, believed to have been extinct for about the past 200 years, was the largest bird on earth. Shaped much like an ostrich, but much bulkier, the largest species of moa could stand over three meters high and weigh up to 250kg (550 lbs.). Even more importantly, for those that hate snakes, New Zealand has NO SNAKES! Huge item in the “pro” column if you ask me.
The landscape today is a living testament to both the processes that created it and those that continue to change it. On the South Island, we focused our travels around the beautiful landscapes of the Southern Alps, glacial lakes, the dramatic scenery of Fiordland, as well as the northern Abel Tasman coast. On the North Island, we traveled through volcanic and geothermal landscapes, including towns and lakes literally situated in volcanic craters.
We began our New Zealand adventures in Christchurch, which is in the process of recovering from earthquakes in February, June, and December of 2011. The February quake killed 185 people and the estimated rebuild from damages will total $40-50 billion. Despite signs of earthquake recovery and repair, Christchurch had a thriving downtown center with great pedestrian malls, squares, and public spaces. Modern container shops took the place of permanent storefronts in many areas, likely a solution for businesses to get up-and-running again quickly.
Our next stop was the beautiful Lake Tekapo. Lake Tekapo is fed by rivers containing glacial ice from high in the Southern Alps, which run the length of the South Island. Glacial grinding of rocks makes a fine powdery sediment, and it is the sun reflecting off these sediment particles in the water that gives Lake Tekapo and several other lakes in the region their amazing turquoise blue color. Lake Tekapo is also part of a chain of seven lakes that are used for hydro-electric power, which in addition to supplying much of the power for the South Island, supply about a third of the power for the North Island, which also gets power from its geothermal plants.
While Lake Tekapo itself was beautiful, one of the main draw cards of the area isn’t the terrestrial landscape, but the skies. The night skies of the Lake Tekapo region and surrounds are one of only ten international dark sky reserves in the world. An astronomical observatory sits atop Mount John, adjacent to the lake and town, the site chosen for the very high percentage of clear night skies suitable for stellar observation. Surrounding towns have very strict light regulations, which they are proud to uphold for such a magnificent view above them. We took a night skies tour from about midnight to 3am, where the guides pointed out stars, planets, constellations, zodiacs, and globular star clusters, with both the naked eye and some very impressive telescopes. Some of the more impressive stellar sights were the jewel box cluster, the Tarantula nebulae, and the moons of Jupiter. The night of our tour was phenomenally clear and the Milky Way bright as day, couldn’t have had a better night for stargazing. Unfortunately, without fancy cameras, the above free group photo is the only shot we have.
From Lake Tekapo, we ventured to the Southern Alps, into Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, where we hiked into the mountains to spend a night at the Mueller Hut. While we had rough weather on our way up, we were rewarded with clear weather and amazing views for our descent the next day. The Southern Alps run 650km along the length of South Island, and of the 23 peaks over 3,000 meters in New Zealand, 19 of them lie in the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, including the tallest of them, Mount Cook (3754m). Mount Cook is known to the Maori as Aoraki, Cloud Piercer, after an ancestral deity in Maori mythology. While New Zealand’s peaks are not the highest in the world, many of them are very technical and have proved excellent training grounds for many mountaineers, including the Kiwi Sir Edmund Hillary, whom the world knows as the first person to summit Mt Everest along with Tenzing Norgay.
The Southern Alps are one of the youngest and fastest rising mountain ranges in the world, the product of the clash of the Pacific and Indian/Australian plates. The rapid uplifting caused by the plates would have the mountains reaching higher than the Himalayas, though environmental forces wear them down almost as fast (or faster) than they rise. Mt. Cook itself lost 10km from its summit overnight in a landslide in 1991.
Another beautiful, though smaller, mountain range on the South Island is the Remarkables, which form a beautiful backdrop along a shore of Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown. The mountains were so named the Remarkables because they run perfectly north-south. The only other mountain range in the world to do so is the Rockies.
With mountains abound, we took to mountain bikes in several areas. In Queenstown, we hit up the Skyline Mountain Bike Park, using the gondola to access amazing downhill tracks, some of which took you along amazing ridgelines overlooking Lake Wakatipu and the mountains beyond. On the North Island, we spent a day covering as many trails as we could in Rotorua’s Redwoods, a mountain bike park with over 140km of world-class mountain biking trails. And in Nelson, on the northern coast of the South Island, Shawn took to one of New Zealand’s “great rides”, tackling a circuit with a 20km climb before a gnarly 15km descent. We also took to commuter bikes to ride along coastal Nelson and Richmond to Rabbit Island, stopping at breweries and wineries along the way.
Dotted amidst New Zealand’s rolling and mountainous landscape are beautiful lakes, one of our favorites of which was Lake Wanaka. Here, we hiked up Roy’s Peak for beautiful views over the Lake Wanaka region and took to paddle boards to get out on the water. The Wanaka tree is an icon of the lake, simple and striking amidst the clear waters.
Beyond stunning lakes and rivers, New Zealand has amazing coastline at every turn. We spent a day boating and hiking along Abel Tasman National Park, located along the northern coast of the South Island. The National Park contains one of New Zealand’s 9 great walks, as well as a remarkable coastline of bays, islands, and inviting clear waters. The park takes its name from the first European explorer to discover New Zealand, the Dutchman Abel Tasman. Though he was the first to arrive (1642), sensing that the Maori natives were hostile, he never actually set foot on the land, though would name it. Having first thought he’d come upon islands off Argentina, he originally named it Staten Land, later changing the name to New Sealand. It would be another 127 years before Europeans would return, this time with Captain James Cook at the helm.
Perhaps the most stunning of the coastal landscapes we visited was Milford Sound. A bit of a misnomer, Milford Sound is actually a fjord (or fiord, as they spell it), carved by glaciers, whereas sounds are carved by freshwater, rivers; however, the name stuck. Flanked by soaring peaks that plunge into the bay, Milford Sound has a beautiful misty quality, with fog covering and clearing from the peaks within seconds. A part of Fiordland National Park, the area sees 1.2 to 8 meters of rainfall per year, resulting in hundreds of temporary waterfalls cascading down from the peaks, in addition to two permanent waterfalls: Stirling Falls and Bowen Falls. We explored the sound on kayaks with an awesome guide from Iowa!
New Zealand’s largest lake, Lake Taupo sits in the center of the North Island in the caldera of a volcano. The volcano is the second largest in the world, as rated by the amount of material output if it were to blow, second to only Yellowstone. The most recent eruption from the volcano was about 1800 years ago, throwing enough ash into the air for the red skies to be noted by the ancient Romans and Chinese. The lake today is one of New Zealand’s most popular vacation spots and also the home of Ironman New Zealand, which took place just a few days after we left the area.
New Zealand’s longest river, the Waikato, originates from Lake Taupo and not far downstream from the lake are the rumbling Huka Falls, which shoot enough water over their edge to fill five Olympic-sized swimming pools per minute. A nice set of natural thermal hot pools also sit just off the main flow of the Waikato River, making for a nice spot to relax.
Traveling through New Zealand, it’s easy to see how the landscape was practically made for The Lord of the Rings movies, and indeed movie filming sites dot the entire country. Perhaps the most famous of the movie landmarks is found in Tongariro National Park, where a day hike over the Tongariro Alpine Crossing will take you past Mt. Ngauruhoe, the North Island’s youngest volcano and the the iconic Mt. Doom from The Lord of the Rings. A conical single-vent volcano with symmetrical slopes, it’s a stunning peak. The entire surrounding landscape, from the South and Red craters to the Emerald Pools and Blue Lake all make for an amazing day hike.
The most stinky place in all of New Zealand is Rotorua… and I mean that literally. The smell of sulfur from the geothermal activity in and around Rotorua hangs constantly in the air. This is New Zealand’s most dynamic thermal area, with sulfur pools, steaming vents and hot springs, bubbling mud pits, spurting geysers, and any/all other geothermal and volcanic feature you can think of, all amidst bustling populations, including one of the largest Maori populations in the country. To get up-close to more of this thermal action, we went to Hell’s Gate, so named as the landscape is something you’d imagine from the underworld. In addition to all of the thermal highlights I pointed out above, Hell’s Gate is also home to the largest hot waterfall in the southern hemisphere (the largest in the world is in Iceland) and a mud volcano, which continues to grow as the mud that erupts dries and crusts along its slopes.
To get further submersed in the geothermal aura of the area, we hopped in a mud bath. The mud collected from the geothermal pits is full of enriched minerals and known for its “curative and invigorating” properties, helping to promote skin detoxification and renewal, absorb excess oils, and serve as an antibacterial agent. We don’t really know how much of this is true, but it did make our skin feel very smooth. Following the mud bath, we soaked in the sulphur pools. Maori warriors would soak in the sulfur pools after war to cleanse themselves, heal their wounds, and remove the tapu of war. Like Lake Taupo, much of Rotorua and the surrounding area sits in and around volcanos.
Between the mud bath and the sulphur pools, we did smell slightly of sulfur for a couple days… nothing that would be noticed for a couple of stinky backpackers anyway.
Rangitoto Island is short ferry ride from downtown Auckland, the youngest of the islands in the Hauraki Gulf, erupting from the sea in a series of volcanic explosions only about 550 to 600 years ago, the last and largest of the volcanos to be formed in the local volcanic field. Trails through the lava crops lead to the summit and crater rim, as well as through lava tubes.
Auckland itself has 48 volcanic cones, the highest of which – Mt. Eden – we visited for amazing views of the Auckland skyline.
Perhaps one of the most fun days was our trip to Waiheke Island, where we rented scooters and drove around the island, visiting wineries and beaches… I’m sure there is something geologically spectacular about this island as well, though we were only concerned with fun on scooters for the day.
Tucked in amidst the country’s mountains, rolling hills, and lakes are picturesque pastures of dairy cattle and sheep. The dairy industry is New Zealand’s biggest exporter and there is a 1:6 ratio of people to sheep. Lots of merino wool comes from here… baaa…
While the majority of our travels focused on New Zealand’s amazing landscapes, I’d be remiss not to mention our time in some of the country’s bigger cities, including Queenstown, Wellington, and Auckland, where we took walking tours, visited museums, sampled the local brews and wines, and even took in a cricket match at Eden Park in Auckland.
Despite having done even more than I’ve mentioned in this post, with remarkable landscapes covering the country, we barely skimmed the top of amazing travel locations and adventures New Zealand has to offer. The entire country is one big outdoor playground, with hiking, biking, skiing, rafting… every outdoor activity imaginable. Despite being a small country it could take a lifetime to thoroughly explore and we’re beyond grateful for the time we had!!
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