I feel a little fixated on the weather in the Antipodes – Sydney airport en route to Auckland was being lashed by rain and now in New Zealand, the temperature in the evenings drops to shivering. The airport authorities Down Under however, are surely fixated on fruit. Even within Australia, all fruit needs to be dumped before leaving the plane. As for New Zealand (after having watched Border Security on TV), we pored over our landing cards, agonising over what to declare and what to keep schtum about. Would the new purse in the suitcase count as animal skin (what about our wallets?) and our wooden souvenirs from the Outback be liable for the hefty fine ($700 NZD)? The genial giant of a Maori Immigration Officer laughed away our worries but the man in customs made us show the heels of our boots and wanted to know where it had stomped recently. When the fruit-sniffing cuddly spaniel came and nuzzled my leg, the officer asked me if I’d had fruit in my bag before – the dog had smelt the pears from nearly a week ago in Melbourne – long consumed. Bio-detection security is the name of this game.
When people come to New Zealand, they go thrill seeking – bungee jumping, white-water rafting , sky-diving or even giant-swinging (where you drop down head first for 80 feet and then swing back upright, momentarily pausing to appreciate the spectacular view). Our big challenge though was learning to drive a camper van for the very first time! After a fairly lengthy warning by a dour German lady at the van-hire place about a $7500 liability for a two-wheel topple (if we drove the van into a ditch and it overturned), we were introduced to the joys of a motor-home. This is an ingenious Mercedez-Benz – an ensemble of detachable boards that slot and clip away, cupboards that lock down, shelves that slide shut, a spacious fridge, a three-hob gas cooker and a sink with running water. There is also a toilet and shower cubicle – in just half the space of an aircraft toilet. Thankfully, we figured out how to book a campsite for the evening where we could charge our electricals and use the toilet and shower facilities. Driving a camper van is easy as, as the Kiwis would say. We stocked up on food at the small shops run almost exclusively by Indians – where the cricket was on the telly and a long discussion was had about the match in Adelaide.
As we crawled out of Auckland traffic, the Maori names for localities is what strikes you first, before the odd feeling of being somewhere in Cornwall or Devon – as we passed row upon row of seaside-style cottages with beautifully tended lawns and rose bushes all around.
In fact, from behind the windscreen of our van, the entire country appears as if we are part of a giant video game simulation. The landscape is beguilingly familiar – swipe, you get Scotland maximised – serene hills over lakes with sheep and cows grazing nearby. Swipe again, you find yourself ensconced within a giant Alpine valley, being hugged by mountains everywhere and just long stretching road with no habitation. The pine and beech look familiar but look closer, they are all different. About 85% of New Zealand’s flora is unique to the country – because of its geographical isolation for many millions of years. It is a feast to the senses to be in the midst of such spectacular natural beauty.We reached Lake Taupo caravan park to play house – rustling up spaghetti and asparagus in pasta sauce – this is comfortable camping or glamping as its now known.
To describe the area around Lake Taupo would be to imagine old mountains with rich vegetation, a gushing stream thunders down on one side and then you see rising mist – only that it isn’t mist at all, it is warm steam puffing out of every nook and cranny of this hill side. There are geo-thermal plants all around this area set up to harness this for energy, but plenty of places offer this as an attraction to visitors.
The Wairakei Thermal Valley was exotic in so many ways – there were three or four peacocks outside in full display of their feathers – and the tearoom even offers Devonshire scones served with whipped (not clotted) cream. Walking out into the backyard was something I’d never seen before – we walked past Devil’s Throat – a cavernous rock letting out steam and onto Singing Cliff where birds conduct their own concert.
Dramatic doesn’t quite cover it. Forget Lord of the Rings if you can – Macbeth could be staged here.
Back into the van we drove on, heading to Wellington for the night before catching our ferry to South Island. Waking up with all good intentions of visiting the Te Papa museum, we were greeted by cold rain. Our bus journey into town was interesting – Wellington is a miniature capital city by the ocean. Sweet looking restaurants from all over the world and plenty of cafes led us into the central district that looks like a mini Kensington. We took shelter in Joe’s garage for a hot coffee and caught the bus back in order to make the crossing, hoping to make the museum on our way back.