Fifteen flashlights shone downward as we gingerly picked our way through the bush. At the appropriate signal, we extinguished our lights, and 15 expectant adults gathered noiselessly behind our boot-and-camouflage-attired leader. As his sole light hopped and skipped across the dark, remote seaweed-strewn beach, suddenly we saw her –- the elusive New Zealand kiwi. On orders to stay close, we waddled in muted tandem behind guide Philip Smith as he inched us to within 20 feet. Trying not to intrude upon her late-night supper, we were star-struck by this brown dumpling of a bird, head bobbing up and down, its long beak darting in and out of the sand single-mindedly nibbling on spiders, berries and crustaceans.
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Stewart Island, 674 isolated square miles of land to the south of South Island that very few New Zealanders visit, much less anyone else, is the only place in New Zealand where you can spot kiwis, the native bird that few natives ever see. According to Wendy Hallett, owner of the Greenvale B&B where we stayed, many people first book a kiwi-spotting tour with Smith, THEN book their trip to New Zealand and Stewart island.

But there are many reasons to visit Stewart Island other than the kiwi. Alternately described as isolated, insular, undeveloped, natural, wild, Stewart Island beckons in a way few modern destinations do. The downside? All the things that make it so appealing as a destination (unless, of course, you’re looking for luxury resorts and chic nightclubs) might themselves be ultimately destroyed by those to whom it so appeals. Hopefully, it’s inaccessibility –- if the flights or ferry can’t travel because of the weather, neither can the tourists – and its uber-emphasis on conservation might preserve it against the expected onslaught.
There is a very lived-on, lived-in feel about the island; everyday life is happening here, albeit probably not your everyday life. As one of the waitresses at the Just Café noted: “We have no banks, no doctors, no t-shirt shops (not literally true, but more on that later) … and no stress.”
Ask anyone how many people in town and you might hear something like: “Well, 400 at last count – no, wait – Annie just gave birth to the twins and Rupert died last week, so guess that makes 401.” And that number remained constant despite several efforts on my part to find an alternate answer. Eighty-five percent of Stewart Island was designated in 2002 as Rakiura National Park, making it the most recent addition to New Zealand’s vast string of national parks. While there are only 18 miles of road on the island, there are 174 miles of walking trails (called tracks), ranging from a 15-minute stroll through the bush to 3-hour hike to a 10-day trek. Basically, there are two ways to get around –- by boat and on foot. You gotta love a place that has more water taxis than land ones.
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A favorite hike was the Maori Beach Track, a 15-minute water taxi ride from downtown — which, by the way, covers about a one-block area. Captain Ian, a 6th-generation islander, carried me effortlessly across the slippery, moss-covered log he parked the water-cab against. Alternately walking through bush so thick as to be impenetrable or hugging the craggy cliff overlooking the sea, we were bombarded by a new form of surround sound: the thrashing of waves crashing below and the concert cries of birds overhead.
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The varying vocals from tuis, bellbirds, kakas and kakarikais were reminiscent of the array of voices one hears in a noisy restaurant: sometimes individual cries dominated, other times, a general din prevailed. Then suddenly the birds were vying for attention once again with the breaking waves. We heard the water before we saw it, as the expanse of coastline made yet another appearance.
The most natural destination upon our return to town was the South Seas, of course – the only bar in the only hotel on the island. This gives “local bar” a whole new meaning. Stocking-cap-clad men, just off their fishing boats, with long beards and high boots best each other at billiards and darts. The room overflows with men and women drinking with gusto, laughing over town gossip or bemoaning the latest catch. This is not a place that serves a lot of light beer. What it does serve is good food in ample portions, the fish in the fish ‘n chips just about the flakiest I’ve had, and the fries, crisp and tasty.

The other must-do activity –- like the calling of the kiwi –- is to board another water-taxi for a visit to Ulva Island. “This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks…” begins Walt Whitman’s famous poem, Evangeline. He also could have been describing Ulva Island, an untouched (“unmodified” is the technical term), predator-free, primitive slice of New Zealand the way it once was.
And that very nature of the island makes it an unparalleled sanctuary for birds, trees and plants that might otherwise be extinct. The hard-wood podacorp forest, literally of pre-historic ancestry, also houses species of plants 350 million years old. Rare birds such as the fernbird, saddleback, rifleman and yellowhead roam the woods with impunity.

And the inhabitants are not the only things special about Ulva Island; there’s also Ulva Goodwillie, another 6th-generation Stewart Islander whose breadth and scope of knowledge covers every twig, branch and feather found on Ulva Island. The similarity in names may be coincidental, but it’s one hell of a marketing tool. She conducts half- and full-day tours of the island, communicating with the trees and the birds in very personal, intimate terms, distinguishing between every caw, chirp, click, creak, twill or whistle emanating from the treetops.

One of my tour companions likened the sounds to an “avian symphony.” “If I could get them organized, I could take them on tour,” my musically inclined friend observed. Back on the mainland, a stop at the Ship to Shore general store provides another insight into island living. This is the place to pick up groceries, hardware, beer and wine, household goods, fishing and hunting equipment and videos. Videos? But for major food shopping, residents are dependent upon the supermarket in Invercargill, South Island (the real mainland). They pick up their orders at the Halfmoon Bay waterfront every Wednesday evening.
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Next to Ship to Shore is the previously alluded to T-shirt shop –- although the designation is really a misnomer. Dil Belworthy, like so many other Islanders, was a fisherman by trade and, like so many of his compatriots, several years ago “saw the writing on the wall.” As he tells the story, “I was drinking with some mates one day and we were discussing how the fishing industry was going downhill, and how we saw tourism on the horizon.” With tourists as their new prey, the question became: “How do you catch a tourist?” The answer: “You sell them a T-shirt!”

So Dil and his wife, Cath, started hand-printing their art-shirts on their kitchen table in 1997, reproducing native Maori symbols and traditional images. Now, their Glowing Sky Studio sells these individually designed and produced wearable works of beauty for $35 per non-T-shirt T-shirt. For sure, Stewart Island as a whole has learned well how to catch tourists, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the islanders have mixed emotions about just how successful they want their new venture to be.

The Holland America Line voyage on the MS Volendam with Captain Peter Bos at the helm would take us—my adult daughter and me, to the other side of the world, land of Maori culture and legend, from rugged sea coast where toned bodies surfed the huge waves in the western part of the Bay of Plenty, to lush vineyards that stretched against a backdrop landscape of eye-blindingly blue sea and, most importantly, to friendly locals. At the end of it all we would see the famed Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia, voted the world’s best city to live in for the second year in a row.

Cherie and I would fly Qantas Airline from Los Angeles to Auckland, New Zealand, to join the ship in harbour. The Volendam would circumnavigate the North and South Islands of New Zealand to ports of call with exciting names such as Tauranga, Napier, Christchurch and Dunedin. We would cruise Fiordland National Park—part of the Te Wahipounamu (native Maori name)World Heritage Area— to see immense valleys sculpted by glaciers during multiple ice ages, to get close to waterfalls, and to cruise into one of the park’s longest fjords, Milford Sound, visiting also visit Dusky Sound.

Two days at sea and we’d reach Tasmania, a southeastern state of Australia. But first we would cross Bass Strait overnight to reach in the wee hours of the morning Australia, the world’s smallest continent in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. First stop would be Melbourne. The next day we’d sail to Sydney before flying home.

On the Qantas flight to Auckland, we settled in for the fourteen hours’ flight with complementary wine from some of Australia’s best known vineyards: Yering Station, Adelaide Hills and St. Hallett. If it hadn’t been for the fine wines, top flight service and excellent dinner served by Qantas, the long flight would have been an ordeal. Cherie chose Moroccan-styled roast chicken and I chose seared tuna with lime and pepper sauce. While Cherie slept I watched half of the epic film “Australia” starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, both actors Australian born. I had never seen the film and found the Qantas screen too small to capture the full scope of the film. I hoped the Volendam would show Australia in its Wajang Theatre so I could really appreciate the film on the wide screen. I wasn’t disappointed and watched it twice, once with my daughter.

We arrived to Auckland around 6 a.m. After we passed through Auckland airport customs we took a bus to port where the ship was in harbour. Once through port customs we went aboard. Champagne greeted us in our cabin. A large picture window covered the room in natural light. It was fun to watch the action on the pier as people began to arrive to the ship. But this wasn’t the time to take in the true beauty of our home for the next two weeks. The Renaissance-era themed ship with fountains imported from Italy, valuable works of marine art by Captain Stephen J. Card, and elaborate fresh floral arrangements throughout the spacious common rooms would have to wait. The Volendam wouldn’t leave Auckland with her 1,351 guests until midnight. We made our way to the very top deck and enjoyed lunch in the Lido restaurant with views overlooking the city of Auckland and the harbour. Once off the ship we took the harbour seabus (five minutes by ferry) to Devonport—a small town with heritage charm with signs of Maori settlement that date to the mid 1300s. We found a naval base there. Massive trees along the seaside with thick roots spreading out from the base in search of deeper soil line many Devonport streets as the Pohutukawa tree is the national tree of New Zealand. We poked our heads into cafes, book stores, restaurants and gift shops. After we took pictures of clusters of sailboats with colourful sails we headed back to the ferry for the mainland.

We enjoyed dinner most evenings in the elegant Rotterdam dining room, taking Chef Rudi Sodamin’s recommendations. Does sashimi of salmon with wasabi mayonnaise as an appetizer sound good? A Merlot, Veramonte Reserve wine from Chile was served. The Rotterdam faced the ocean and offered a sweeping staircase leading from the upper floor dining level to the main floor. We enjoyed Trinity Hill Sauvignon Blanc from the famous Hawke’s Bay area of New Zealand the first evening. Some evenings we dined in the intimate setting of the Pinnacle Grill where fine wines from around the world were served. Pinot Gris from the Whitehaven vineyards in the Marlborough area was a feast in itself. Seafood and fine cuts of beef are a speciality. The exquisite cuts of meat are displayed on a silver trolley as sample that a waiter brings to your attention before you select your meal. The wine list was superb as was the dining. Porthole magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Bill Panoff, says the Pinnacle Grill offers an unmatched anywhere on the seven seas sophisticated dining experience.

We would be at sea for the next two days. We’d eventually circle White Island, the site of an active marine volcano. Spencer Brown, Travel Guide, offered expert commentary over the outdoor loudspeaker as the ship silently turned this way and then that way for an up close and personal vantage point of the spewing volcano. The ship is truly an engineering wonder. When in open sea, the top cruising speed is 18 knots. Environmental Officer Dolf Kramer, born and raised in the Netherlands, answered questions about how the ship preserves the environment. Long gone are the days when anything went overboard. Hotel Manager at sea, Robert Versteeg from Bithoven, Holland, and Cruise Director Rebecca, are just two of the “go-to” people on the Volendam if anything isn’t to your liking.

Over the course of our cruise, Cherie and I could be found just about anywhere on the ship involved in any number of exciting activities: the state-of-the-art Culinary Arts Center, sanctioned by Food & Wine magazine, where we learned the fine elements of creating an exotic martini, the history of coffee, or how to make Pannatone Tiramisu—a holiday tradition desert in Italy. There’s even a kid’s cookery program. We took part in many daily programs (Travel Guide Spencer Brown gave a talk on the First Peoples of New Zealand followed by a live didgeridoo performance). We caught nightly live Broadway-style shows in the two-story Frans Hals Lounge. The gym and spa offered ocean views. One of the cruise highlights was the Indonesian Afternoon Tea ceremony with organic teas and coffees from the world’s finest plantations and Indonesian sweets. Keeping in touch with the world and friends was a snap in the Explorations Internet Café.
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Our first port of call was Tauranga, New Zealand, a land settled and still revered by the Maori native people. The area is known for kiwi farms. We took a shuttle bus into town. The weather was unbelievably enjoyable, bright and sunny without a beating-down-on-your-head sort of feel. We bought cotton shirts and ate local oysters at a fresh seafood shack by the water where a seafood festival is held in November. We wanted to taste kiwi wine but couldn’t find it. The oysters were big and plump and tasted of sweet milk. I’ve never tasted anything like it. We hiked the rest of the afternoon, unexpectedly finding ourselves at the ocean amongst surfers. I found myself suddenly kicking up my heels at the edge of the surf while my daughter snapped photo after photo.

Still cruising the South and North Islands of New Zealand, we stopped at the port of Napier, a community founded in 1856 by Sir Charles Napier, a British official in India. A lively musical band and antique automobiles greeted us at port. Cherie took a stroll along a black sand beach in the morning while I myself toured some of the top vineyards of Hawke’s Bay. The vineyards are so lovely an entire week in the area wouldn’t be too much. At Church Road Winery, founded in 1897, I ventured deep inside the original concrete wine vats that now offer an intriguing wine museum. Mission Estate Winery, founded in 1851, is a vast estate ideal for weddings, fine dining and wine tastings. Mission hosts an annual concert. February 13, 2010, celebrates The Legends of Motown with The Four Tops, The Temptations, Mary Wilson of the Supremes, Martha & The Vandellas and many top names from Australia.
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The city of Wellington with its pretty harbour and picturesque architecture saw Cherie and me on the Kelburn Cable Car in the centre of the city and up a steep hill to the Botanic Garden with Carter Observatory. Get your cameras at the ready for the view is wonderful as are the formal gardens. The Lady Norwood Rose Garden was spectacular. There are countless shore excursions from which to choose, including where the film “Lord of the Rings” was filmed.

In Picton, originally called Waitohia, at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound, we were presented with a tiny nosegay of fragrant Old-fashioned roses when we got off the ship. The still floating hull of what is believed to be the ninth oldest ship in the world is that of the East Indian Edwin Fox. See it near the museum and the ferry wharf. We enjoyed a private lunch of locally caught river salmon at Barewood Garden after touring Yealands Estate winery. Peter Yealands is a local fellow who looks very much like a charming character straight out of a period swashbuckling Hollywood film, gray beard and hair in somewhat need of a trim; but highly knowledgeable when it comes to wine and the environment.

In Christchurch Cherie and I visited ChristChurch Cathedral in Cathedral Square where the annual Festival of Flowers (19 Feb. – 14 March 2010) decorates part of the church. We ate sushi in Cathedral Square, drank McDonald’s coffee, strolled along the Avon River but couldn’t rent an antique punt because we only had credit cards, and walked to the must-see nearby botanic gardens on Rolleston Avenue. Just minutes from Cathedral Square you can swim at the Centennial Leisure Centre. We watched the open tram rattle by and wished we’d first taken this for a firsthand view of the city. Nonetheless, Christchurch is ideal for walking as major cultural attractions are within one square kilometre of the city centre.
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In Dunedin we took the heart-stopping Taieri Gorge Railway over the southern hemisphere’s largest wrought iron structure to travel through tunnels and high up into the alpine hills. At one of the train stops I bought Strathdale organic clover honey and New Zealand Paua Shell jewellery used traditionally by the Maori and wished now that I’d bought more of both.

New Zealand’s daylight is of an extraordinary and luminous quality which made the cruise into Fiordland National Park all the more spectacular. The park is New Zealand’s largest national park at 3,000,000 acres with immense valleys sculpted by glaciers during multiple ice ages. Novelist Rudyard Kipling considered the Fiords the Eighth Wonder of the World.

In Tasmania, the 26th largest island in the world with a population of 500,000 mostly around Hobart and more than a third of the state World Heritage national park and forest reserve, we along with other Volendam passengers met Mayor Alvwyn Boyd and his wife Gwenda at Burnie pier. Lovely pewter “Burnie” pins were handed out. We took the free shuttle bus into town and walked along the short beach front before searching out a health food store to buy tee tree oil at The Soapbox on Mount Street. We learned that the highly praised local Angus beef is exported to a Japanese market.

We returned to the ship for a light lunch and then our shore excursion took us by bus to Gunns Plains Cave, about an hour’s drive from Burnie in Leven Canyon. We drove past lush vegetation where huge ferns seemed out of a prehistoric era gone berserk. Named after famed botanist and Tasmanian explorer Ronald Campbell Gunn, the Cave opened in 1909. The air is fresh even though the walkways are a touch damp. The limestone cave opening leads to a steep flight of 54 cement steps. The largest “ribbon” stalactite in the world is found here as well as stalagmites and flowstone suspended from the vaulted ceiling. When the lights were turned out momentarily, glow worms dotted the black space far above our heads like so many stars in the night sky.

The Volendam’s Greenhouse Spa and Salon continued to beckon with ocean views, terrace, steam rooms, hot tub, exercise facility and best of all heated ceramic lounge beds. The cruise ship has two pools on the Lido deck—one salt water and open to the elements, and one beneath a covered dome revealing natural light. One day while my daughter enjoyed a spa treatment I stretched out like a lazy cat over the smooth wood trim surrounding the outside pool. Blue skies above, warm breezes and, best of all, the gentle rocking of the ship lulled me to near sleep. Other times from various decks that were almost vacant of passengers I watched the Shy Albatross in flight with a wingspan of over two metres gliding above the southern oceans following the Volendam.
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Melbourne is the second largest city in Australia with a population around 3.5 million and the capital of Victoria. About 150 languages are spoken. Lively shops and restaurants line the harbour where the Volendam docked. We took a morning shore excursion into the country to see wildlife—Kangaroos, Koalas and the protected Black-tailed Wallaby. In the afternoon on our way back from a tour of the city by foot and historic rattling trolley ($3.70 each for 2-hours) we sat on a bench in the harbour and simply gazed out to sea and understood perfectly the many accounts of how friendly the people of New Zealand and Australia are.

We’d heard about the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb—one of the world’s preeminent engineering marvels—over 1500 metres of steel; but didn’t have the four hours’ needed to complete the climb. You can do this climb by day or by night. We can only imagine what the sensation would feel like to be atop Sydney Harbour Bridge: the Blue Mountains in the distance, the city at our feet.

The Sydney Opera House was all and more that photographs suggested. Sydney’s 4.2 million population is said to be the most densely populated in the world, but it’s hard to believe. The city appeared spacious and languid. There are chic terrace restaurants at the Opera House. We had signed up for a bus tour of the city and now found ourselves looking at the Opera House from a multitude of vantage points. Soon we were at the crest of a hill that overlooked Sydney. This was just a taste of a beautiful city, of a memorable cruise but a taste that tantalized.

Christchurch, on New Zealand’s South Island, a three-hour flight from Sydney, Australia, is the most English city outside of England. And, like England, people go punting on the tree-lined Avon River. The city is renowned for its gardens, and a free trolley makes getting to the parks and museums fun and easy.
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Rent a car. In New Zealand, driving is on the left but there is very little traffic and the roads are good, plus the motels are reasonable. It is the only way to see and enjoy the island. Driving west from Christchurch the towns and rolling hills are expected, but then the unexpected happens. The road begins to climb until it clears a mountain pass to present a stunning scene – snow-capped mountains against solid blue skies. A scene straight out of “Lord of the Rings.” The always-changing scenery of the South Island dazzles even the most jaded tourist with its variety: snow-capped mountains, blue lakes, teal-colored rivers, waterfalls, rainforests, rugged coastline, beaches, and glaciers. Just when you think there is nothing more to impress you, you round a corner or come to the top of a rise in the road, and once again you are amazed at the beauty of the South Island.
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New Zealand and extreme adventures are synonymous. The adventures are many and varied. For a thrilling bird’s-eye view consider paragliding over mirror-like Lake Wanaka with the snow-capped Southern Alps as a backdrop. After a hike on the rainforest path to the Franz Joseph Glacier viewing point, you may find you need a closer look. For those who are not into arduous hiking, a helicopter to the top of the glacier is the perfect answer. Walking on the ice field feels like being on top of the world. Returning, the copter swoops down for a closer look at the glacier’s surface, which is fractured into pinnacles creating what looks like a city of skyscrapers.

The West Coastal Road is one of breath-taking scenery at every turn. Take your time. Plan to stop at the uniquely layered Pancake Rocks and check out the seal colony at Cape Foulwind.
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After exploring the South Island head to the North Island. New Zealand is very tourist friendly. They have it all figured out. Just drop the rental car at the dock in Picton, take the modern ferry to Wellington, and a rental car will be waiting. It is all part of the service. In Wellington, don’t miss the Te Papa Museum highlighting the history of the islands.

It is nearly impossible to resist all of the adrenaline-pumping activities. Near Lake Taupo on the North Island is a beautiful place to bungy jump. Just step off a platform into a gorge, touch the blue-green waters of the Waikato River 150 feet below, and a boat will be there to “hook” you in. Jumpers say the walk back to the top is worse than the jump. A tip: “Don’t look down – just do it!”
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The central part of the North Island is a “hot-bed” of thermal activity; there are steam-spewing fumaroles. At Wai-O-Tau near Rotorua, I wandered around a thermal wonderland of collapsed volcanic craters, boiling mud pools, steaming lakes, and fumaroles. Adding to the unworldly look are the hues of red, yellow, orange and purple edging some of the formations, which is caused by the presence of sulfur, antimony, iron oxide and other elements. It is a bit unnerving to hear the earth gurgle and bubble so near the walkways. Geothermal energy is harnessed to provide five percent of New Zealand’s electricity.
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Don’t miss the Waitomo Cave, which at first seems like a typical cave with the usual stalactites and stalagmites. Then visitors board a boat on the underground river – in the dark. And above is a vast Milky Way of blue-green lights from the thousands of glowworms. The glowworm, really a fly larva, produces the light to attract a dinner of insects in its sticky web. Nearby is the do-not-miss Woodlyn Park farm with its “show-stopper” one-man Pioneer Show that relates the history of New Zealand’s settlers with a mix of humor, audience participation, and farm animals that perform on cue. The back of the stage is open to the hilly pasture, where the “header” chases the sheep down the pasture onto the stage. Someone from the audience volunteers to help shear one of the sheep the old fashioned way with a hand-cranked clippers. The farm also has unique accommodations – an airplane remodeled into a modern two-room “motel” with kitchenette. Airplane buffs can choose the bed directly behind the cockpit, watch a spectacular sunset, before dozing off.
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The Maori, the pre-European settlers of New Zealand, celebrate their culture with a show followed by a hangi. At the entrance of the Maori ancestral house the tattooed-faced warriors, after a series of challenges, determine if the dinner guests are friendly. If so, they are invited to enter. There are speeches of welcome and the traditional Maori greeting – hongi – a handshake followed by touching noses. The performance of traditional songs and dances is followed by a hangi – a feast steamed over red-hot rocks for three hours. After dinner each foreign national group was asked to sing one of their national songs.

The Kiwi expression, “Too right,” describes beautiful, tourist-friendly New Zealand where the sights are astounding and the activities varied.

In New Zealand, a country that embraces tourism like no other, the outdoor loving Kiwis have made nature’s treasures accessible to all. A network of trails from mild to wild, are well marked and maintained by the Department of Conservation. Numerous outfitters are happy to take visitors hiking, biking, kayaking, snorkeling, whale watching, birding and more. Just bring a fit body, plenty of sun block, and a sense of humor to the other land down under. You will be amazed at the variety of terrain from the snow-crowned Southern Alps with glaciers descending into lush rainforests, to rugged valleys carved by wild rivers rushing to sun-washed shores.

New Zealand consists of two major islands -the North and the South- and many smaller islands, including Stewart Island, recently given National Park status. Three-quarters of the not quite four million people that call themselves Kiwis live on the more temperate North Island. The South Island has the most spectacular scenery with nine National Parks dedicated to preserving the splendid native forests. The isolation of the landmass that split off from the South Pole eighty million years ago has engendered flora and fauna that is totally unique. Over 250 birds species are found nowhere else but New Zealand. Giant trees, ferns and mosses endemic to the region seem other-worldly.

The best time to visit is in spring (November) through fall (March). The temperatures these times of year are mild, averaging about 70 degrees with a tantalizing breeze, and the days are long with sunlight until about nine at night. I met Kyle, my guide from Active New Zealand, in Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island. This London knockoff is the start and end point for most outfitters and independent travelers as well. He picked me up in the van that would be my home away from home for the next two weeks. We collected the other five guests; a telecommunications whiz kid from Dallas, a systems analyst escaping from the deserts of Qatar, and a mature gentleman with his “thirtyish” daughter and son-in-law. Soon we were barreling up Highway One, a two-lane road that makes a giant loop around the South Island with unlimited opportunities for side trips to adventure.

I chose this moderately priced Kiwi owned tour group, because they offer the closest thing to independent travel available with the comforts of lodging, food, toys and transport in an all-inclusive carefree package. The popular multi-sport adventure I selected from their list of options is an action-packed holiday. It proved to be so eventful I can only detail a few of the highlights of my incredible journey that included trekking, kayaking and biking through magical terrain filled with beautiful surprises.  It’s wonderful to be chauffeured, especially when everyone is driving on the “wrong” side of the road. The panoramic windows of our van brought the magnificent scenery closer to view as we cruised past golden pastures sprinkled liberally with sheep along a rugged windswept coastline. We averaged a couple of hours of driving a day between adventures. Each evening brought us another lovely setting to explore while Kyle prepared a home-cooked meal for us. Our lodgings were a mixture of small motels with self-contained units, bed and breakfasts and even a shearer’s lodge on a remote knoll overlooking Mt. Cook.

It’s tough to choose from the fine experiences I had in the incredible terrain of the South Island, but my top four outdoor adventures on this whirlwin holiday are as follows:

Trekking in Nelson Lakes National Park

There are eight great walks on the South Island that require several days to complete. They are challenging, but the reward is the solitude of the native bush and genuine outback experience. Active New Zealand is one of two commercial outfitters with permits into the less-traveled Nelson Lakes National park at the northern tip of the Southern Alps. The Cascade track we were to take to the summit has a 3,500-foot elevation gain in thirteen miles. Throughout our journey we were given many choices in activities and on this leg of the trip we were offered a less strenuous track or kayaking while those who chose to do the more demanding trek were away.

914c0800Bent on having the quintessential Kiwi tramping holiday, I strapped on a backpack, even though I’d never worn one before, and followed the others in my group just as eager to get into the bush as I was. After a mellow march along the shore of sparkling Lake Rotoiti we spent a night at Lake Head Hut. It’s oddly peaceful to bed down with about twenty strangers on a communal mat like sheep in the meadow.

91adc930Next morning found all six of us rested, standing in tall grass spiked with purple foxglove beside the Travers River. Kyle pointed to the slate gray, snow-streaked peaks in the distance and said “That is where were we will sleep tonight.”  The under-thirties sprang like jackrabbits up the trail and were soon out of sight. I followed behind Lutz, a fit 64 year old Californian, whose stocky body was dwarfed by his pack. He picked his way through the root-strewn trail that led us through the towering red and silver beech forest. Three-quarters of the amazing variety of plants growing in this preserve are endemic.
Spreading fronds of giant tree ferns, and thick layers of moss, lichens and epiphytic vines converge to create a symphony in the key of green. Birds like the tomtits, robins, the tiny rifleman and the flashy fantail twitter from the depths of the cool forest. The friendly gossip of the energetic Hukere Stream churning over black boulders kept us company all along the challenging climb to its headwaters.

91c70a80Kyle, whose father is a Maori chief, unfurled a palm frond for us to examine. The tendrils of the mother fern hide thousands of fern pods that the Maori people saw as children of the forest. Soon the pods will propagate and this world will be rejuvenated with new life. The fierce looking faces of the Polynesian people, ancestors to the Maori, who sailed here in large canoes about 1200 years ago, became gentle to me with this knowledge. The swirling tattoo patterns that covered their faces and bodies were simply imitations of the ferns in the lush rain forest they lived in. No wonder the fern is the national symbol of New Zealand.

When we reached Angelus Hut, the hub of the Nelson Lakes trail network, we were greeted by an international array of hikers. Kyle whipped up a pasta dish for us that made the rest, eating from freeze-dried packets, envious. I fell asleep to a cacophony of snores that did not betray an accent. The hike out of the park from Angelus Hut across Robert’s Ridge involved a scramble up a steep face, followed by boulder hopping on a goat trail, to reach an undulating easy romp across the top of the world. For several hours, Lutz and I walked the spine of the mountain enjoying outrageous vistas of serrated peaks and the gold and green patchwork quilt of farms far below. Warm sun tempered by an intoxicating breeze kept my engine purring. Once down from the mountain, we cooled our “dogs” in glacier-fed Rotoroa Lake where Kyle waited for us with an ice chest full of cold drinks.

Kayaking in Okarito Lagoon on the Wild West Coast

We spent a couple of restful days in Okarito, a laid-back beach community, a few miles north of Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers on the windswept west coast of the South Island. At the Royal Motel, a cluster of cozy cottages framed in flowers, Kyle grilled up lamb, sausages, chicken and fish fillets and served them with mounds of fresh fruits, salad and vegetables to fortify us for our kayak outing in the morning.

916c0800The Okarito Lagoon is home to the only white heron rookery in the Southern Hemisphere and locals are proud of the 150 species of bird that breed in the region. It is the largest undisturbed wetland on the South Island and home to one of the last stands of the Kahikatea tree, the tallest of the native trees that takes hundreds of years to mature.

We were greeted with a perfect paddle day; glassy calm water, a mist hanging over the shoulder of the snow-frosted Southern Alps in the distance and a couple of promising patches of blue overhead. Wet suits, self-guiding maps and kayaks were provided by Okarito Nature Tours. Pole markers placed in the lagoon form a water trail to deep channels and the best birding spots. The estuary is a network of protected waters lined with flax, bright orange flowers, stalks of shimmering gold pampas grass (toitoi) and cabbage trees that look like a cross between a cactus and a palm. Tui, black birds with a puffy white ball at their throat, chortled as they plucked seeds from the purple seed stems of the flax. The thrum of cicadas filled the air. A flock of black swans drifted in the reflection of the shaggy Rimu and Kowhai trees, famous for yellow dripping flowers lining the shore.

Biking through Eglinton Valley to Milford Sound

No trip to the South Island is complete without a jaunt through Fiordland into moody Milford Sound on the southern tip of the Island. We did ours riding mountain bikes on the two lane road winding through bewitchingly beautiful Eglinton Valley. We pedaled past jade green Gunn Lake, stopping to admire the snowcapped spires reflected in Mirror Lake. Just before the Divide, the highest point on the route, we made a detour to hike Key Summit on the Routeburn Track. This switchback to the heavens provides staggering views of the Hollyford Valley. Once aloft, an undulating nature trail wraps around a sapphire glacier cirque, framed in low-slung alpine shrubs and ground hugging white flowers. On this plateau, I felt very close to the gods.

91887cb0From there we did a glide to our lodging in Milford Sound on our mountain bikes. The corkscrew descent through this spectacular valley takes you past a dozen waterfalls sliding down slick steep granite walls shimmering in the sun. We made a quick side trip at the Chasm where turbo-charged water has carved holes in huge boulders that look like great skulls with water gushing from the eye sockets. We spent the night in moody Milford Sound that reclaims its haunting majesty at the end of the day when all the tourist buses have gone back to Queenstown or Te Anau.

Jet Boating in Pristine Wilkin’s Valley

The jet boat, that rides on a cushion of air at about 60 MPH, was invented by a New Zealand farmer who wanted to get his sheep to market via rivers plagued with shifting gravel beds, snags and other obstacles. With veteran guide Brent at the wheel, we blasted up the Wilkin’s River Valley at the foot of white-caped Mt. Aspiring. A warm wind teased the sun-spangled water into small ripples. Cows munching peacefully on green grass on the shore made fun targets for Brent who swerved the boat sharply sending a rooster spray in their direction. He handily sideswiped trees growing on islands in the middle of our path. I shrieked with delight, as we charged up the river in a series of serpentine moves designed to provide maximum thrill. Brent revved the engine to power our way up a set of rapids and capped off the maneuver with a 360- degree spin that left me wet with spray and screaming at the top of my lungs. It was grand!

920dd930The sheer volume of soul stirring vistas and heart-thumping adventure on this journey was amazing. With the shackles of daily life put down for a time, my mind was free to roam unfettered. I felt soothed, as if I’d soaked in a tranquil lagoon for a century or two. Now that I’ve gained an overview of this fun-filled country, I hope to return for more of the “other land down under” where there are “no worries mate.”

New Zealand – If You Go

The best time of year to visit New Zealand is from November (spring) to March (fall).

Clothing: A light shirt, fleece jacket and hiking pants are best. Be sure to have a good rain slicker in your daypack.

For a complete listing of trip options and itineraries offered by Active New Zealand go to (www.activenewzealand.com) They have tours of the North Island and Aussie Walks, as well as the unusual policy of allowing travelers to join them on portions of their trips on a pro-rated basis.
Air New Zealand is the national carrier. (www.airnz.com). My flight arrangements were made by Down Under Answers (www.adventour.com) including strongly recommended travel insurance.
A world of information about tracks and national parks may be found at (www.doc.govt.nz) the Department of Conservations website.
For general information and deals offered in New Zealand go to (www.tourism.net.nz) New Zealand Tourism Online

My initial contact was World Outdoors, a Colorado based tour company arranging off-the-beaten path adventures. For over 15 years The World Outdoors has offered Multi-Sport and Hiking vacations throughout the Americas and South Pacific. Featuring small groups, local guides and personalized itineraries and Best Value in Active Travel Guarantee 1-800-488-8433 or (www.TheWorldOutdoors.com)

Note – If you are traveling independently you may take advantage of Tourist Information offices found in most cities to locate accommodations on short notice. However, they close at 5:00 pm daily. Online reservations may be made at (www.accommodata.co.nz)

 

Spray splashed over the bow of our ferry chugging across the wind-tossed Hauraki Gulf to Tiritiri Mitangi Island in New Zealand. The white tower of the landmark lighthouse built in 1894 atop the island still gives warning to ships sailing into Auckland Harbor. It stands guard over remote Tiritiri, a 220-hectare, island habitat reclaimed by caring Kiwi’s for rare, endemic birds.

Like much of the North Island, Tiritiri was shaved clean of its forests for farming. For many years the island was uninhabited, save for the lighthouse keepers, and considered a useless, vermin infested, rock. Today, the island provides a unique opportunity for visitors to walk through native forests and hear the din of wild birds that proliferated before human contact, and it is a monument to what caring people can do.

961dc910A visit to Tiritiri Mitangi is part of the itinerary for visitors enjoying the hospitality of Karen Baird and Chris Gaskin, operators of Kiwi Wildlife Tours specializing in birding hotspots throughout New Zealand. I stayed with them at their wood and glass bird lodge nestled in the treetops of a re-generating Kauri forest, about thirty miles outside of Auckland. Avid birders, Chris and Karen, love to share their knowledge with guests, and take turns topping each other with special finds in the wild.

We boarded the ferry to Tiritiri in Gulf Harbor and joined a host of independent travelers who had begun their journey in Auckland. The colorful sails of the yachts entered in the America’s Cup race shared the channel with us as we plied our way up the Hibiscus Coast. The sun was high overhead in a brilliant blue sky when we tied up at wooden pier at Tiritiri. The swimmers and sunbathers aboard headed for the crystalline water of a nearby Hobbs Beach, a sandy cove beneath sea cliffs draped in morning glories, while birders made their way to the forests.

960dcaf0Miles of trails fan out over the island, encouraging guests to wander freely. Raised boardwalks beneath the cool of the native tree canopy make walking through the lovingly restored native bush a pure joy. Bird voices ring out in clear, lilting tones. It’s easy to spot the source of the music because the wooden walk brings you almost to eye level with the tree canopy of the immature forest. Among the birds flitting in and out of the shadows was the tui, or parson’s bird. This black bird with the white tufts at his throat is a mimic and alternates between sweet tones that sound like that of the Bellbird (extinct on the northland for more than 100 years, but surviving on Tiritiri) to hearty chortles and squawks with a fire and brimstone fervor.

In this aviary without walls, birds gather at feeders lodged in cozy glens with seating platforms for visitors. I spotted the endangered saddleback, a large black bird with a clamorous song that is enjoying a comeback here. The haunting voice of the increasingly rare and shy kokako, a large gray parrot that cannot fly, drifted through the forest. The reclusive stitchbird revealed itself, along with a chatty fantail that spread its’ tail feathers for all to see. The most rare bird on the island is the takahe, a giant flightless rail, thought to be extinct for 50 years. There are six breeding pairs nesting successfully here, raising their chicks in the wild.

962b9ef0Since 1984, over two- hundred thousand trees have been planted on the island by volunteer workers. Altogether, thirty-eight different trees and shrub, including cabbage trees, flax and wattle, provide seeds and berries for the birds. Restoration of the island has been a product of community effort. Service clubs, students, and outdoor recreation clubs provided free labor and donations. Together they exterminated a huge population of Pacific rat before the replanting of the island. They built hundreds of nesting boxes for the birds, including a special underground site for the nocturnal blue penguin. They made sure that stoats, weasels and possums that feast on bird’s eggs and the tender shoots of sprouting trees do not exist here. These vermin, introduced to New Zealand’s delicate ecology through trade and tourism, are the bane of the birds and native bush on the mainland.

95bdc990After a picnic lunch, we made our way across the spine of the island to a valley where a primordial coastal forest has survived. These trees are the source of seeds for re-vegetating the island. Sun streamed through the sprays of immense silver ferns shading the walkway that took us past an ancient Pohutukawa tree with gnarled limbs that spread out in a tortured circle. This tree, flushed with a crown of crimson blooms, was here when the Maori people lived on the island hundreds of years ago. It is believed that the early Polynesian setters cleared the island to plant fern beds for food. This mighty tree witnessed the destruction and the resurrection of the island ecology at the hand of humans. Today, the open sanctuary created for the birds on the island of Tititiri Matangi is free, with the price of a ferry ticket, for all to enjoy.

If You Go to Tiritiri Matangi:
Kiwi Wildlife Tours host guests at their home and take them to local birding hot spots, that include a visit to Tiritiri Matangi, as well as arrange tours through the North South and Stewart Islands with birding in mind.
www.kiwi-wildlife.co.nz e-mail info@kiwi-wildlife.co.nz. Phone: +64 9 422 2115.  Chris and Karen will pick you up at the Auckland Airport when you arrive.

Auckland Harbor ferries departing from Pier 3 next to the Ferry Building in Auckland provide transport to and from Tiritiri Matangi on Thursday and Sunday plus Saturday in summer. 0800-424-5561. Island conservation guides greet independent travelers at the pier with self-guiding maps.

Adventure Cruising Company operates nature cruises that include Tiritiri Matangi. One tour includes overnight accommodations on the Te Aroha, the Tiritiri evening birdsong chorus, and a guided bird walk at dawn. Phone/fax 09-444-9342.