Our travel columnist Brian Canavan is back, and this time he’s exploring what New Zealand’s north island has to offer.
When it seems like most of the country has upped and left these shores in pursuit of work in the land of Vegemite and Crocodile Dundee, its close neighbour and Oceanic cousin remains a mere mystery to some. This haven for those of us with an interest in outdoor pursuits, is close to Australia, it has more sheep than people and is climatically similar to our own dear island. You may have guessed that I’m talking about New Zealand, or ‘Aotearoa’ to those of you who have mastered the Maori language, but what has it got to offer the traveler or explorer? Well let me give you a brief idea!
Auckland is not the capital but accounts for almost one third of the population of New Zealand. For a large city, with an extensive urban sprawl, it maintains a small town feel, due in part, to the friendliness of the Kiwis. A routine purchase in the shop can turn into a 15 or 20 minute conversation with the sales assistant, about that social chisel we all have in our arsenal, the lilting tones of our accent. There is plenty to see and do in Auckland, jump from the Sky Tower, a commanding sight above the Auckland skyline. Or maybe take a visit to Cassette 9 where you will receive a drink with a quirky twist. It’s here that your cocktail arrives in a little teapot to assuage any guilt for indulging in a spot of drinking. Following that, a brisk stroll up One Tree Hill, will clear any cobwebs from an evening in Cassette 9 and gives a resplendent view of the harbor and the city below.
One thing New Zealand will certainly do, is push your boundaries. A trip into Waitomo caves to see glow –worms light up the cavern ceiling like the starry night sky, is preceded by a 100m abseil from the safety of ground level into the ‘Lost world’ below. Once those initial nerves subside, the abseil is quite simply breath-taking. The stillness, the calm but also, the anticipation of what lay ahead when we reached the cave floor and meandered along between rocks and streams in the darkness, made the experience all the more enriching.
Just as you’re regaining your composure and your feet are adjusting to being on level terrain again, you’re strapping on your crampons, being handed an ice pick and trundling along the side of a mountain. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a 19km mountain trek which is considered one of the greatest one day treks in the world. The views are quite literally jaw dropping, and for all those fans of the Lord of the Rings movies, the trek provides an excellent opportunity to experience Mount Doom up close.
I wasn’t exaggerating when I said New Zealand was a haven for the outdoorsy type, or those who enjoy raising their heart rate beyond the norm. And what better way to top that off than to throw yourself from a perfectly good plane 15,000ft above the ground below. The best piece of advice I can give is to keep your eyes open and fight that overwhelming urge to close your eyes and pretend your body isn’t dropping from the sky at terminal velocity! A jump above Lake Taupo, which in typically New Zealand style isn’t any ordinary lake, but a water filled caldera of a super volcano. Thankfully there were no eruptions as I gracefully glided through the air and took in the awe inspiring views of the coast, and the vastness of the Lake below, a monstrous 616 square kilometres.
It would almost be a crime to visit New Zealand and not experience any Maori culture. Near Rotorua, which is New Zealands centre of geothermal activity, and possibly the smelliest town due to the sulphur content in the water, I experienced an incredible evening of traditional Maori war dances and perhaps more importantly, sampled some of their food cooked in the traditional Maori way In a hangi. The food is cooked beneath the ground using steam which comes from hot stones and wet sacks which cover the food.
Not content at being wonderfully welcoming and at times completely bonkers, New Zealand is probably one of the most laid back places you might ever encounter. ‘Sweet as’ is a term that will forever etch itself in your vocabulary following a visit here, because no matter the situation or what you may throw at a Kiwi, the response is always a calming and very warm ‘Sweet as’. So If your backpack is bought, you’re planning that trip from Cairns to Melbourne, why not add an extra stamp to your passport and take the short hop across to New Zealand, it certainly isn’t something you will ever regret.