Pictures below. If you want to see them, I am forcing you to page down or read through my editorializing.
What I really liked about NZ:
- Routeburn Track. I can't imagine how this will not remain one of the top trail runs of my life.
- Unique climate and ecosystem. Imagine if one day in Portland Oregon, people awoke to find that their flora had been replaced by Hawaii's, somehow adapted to cool temperatures. What's not to like about that?
- They are not shy about saying NO FIRES AT ALL in their parks, even in that wet climate. I wanted to high five all of New Zealand when I saw my first one of these signs. Why we can't bring ourselves to do the same in our dwindling, much drier SoCal national forests is really an indictment of American conservationism.
- Food: the salmon is OUT OF THIS WORLD and deserves to be better known. There are also lots of fish that I've never had or in many cases heard of (blue cod, warehou, hoki, kawahai). I had the best abalone (paua) I've ever had in my life, for NZ$3.50 a go. Why New Zealand isn't more of a seafood country is a mystery to me. If Japan has competition, it's from this place. The milk is in fact noticeably fresher (it better be because the biggest company by revenue in NZ is the national milk cooperative, and dairy is NZ's #1 export). St. Pierre's Sushi is tasty, creative, and a great value too. (Hawaii has spam sushi? Well the hell with that, St. Pierre's has chicken sushi!) Also you can buy canned tuna with flavors in NZ (lemon pepper, thai, etc.) This is an absolutely brilliant idea. Someone get on this back here in the U.S. Also kiwis take their bacon seriously, telling you which part of the animal it's from. There's not just "bacon" there. The pinot gris is the best outside Italy (sorry Okanagan and Columbia Valleys). The sauv blanc I could take or leave but I'm not a fan to begin with.
- No scary critters: no snakes to step on while running. Or mountain lions to get you (a friend in Poway ran across a still-bleeding kill one morning a few weeks ago!). Or bears to get you. Or nasty plants that make you itch.
- Lots of interesting endemic critters: The first mammal in New Zealand was the first Maori to step out of a waka onto shore, less than 1,000 years ago. That's amazing, and the flora and fauna reflect this. Consequently, the birds have taken over many of the mammalian niches (kiwi are nocturnal ground-foragers with whisker-like feathers, for example) but this also means that they're terribly vulnerable to introduced mammalian predators.
- Super-interesting endemic plants: Extending this theme, the Alpine flora on Tongariro is absolutely alien to my northern hemisphere eyes, adapted as it all must be from South Pacific tropical ecosystems.
- Tourism as conservation: their tourism industry really focuses on the outdoors, and their conservation department is in charge of it. If you want to make sustainability, you know, sustainable, you should be looking for immediate reward, especially monetary! So whoever was behind this strategy was pretty clever. Normally outdoorsy types aren't good tourists because we don't spend much money, but if you do the Great Walks in season, you'll be spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars between trail pass, hut reservation, and transportation. For some people that's worth it. If you go in the off-season like I did, you might be a little cold and wet, but you'll have the place to yourself for cheap or free. Despite the rain I managed to get badly dehydrated, and told myself that the lack of native mammalian fauna meant a lack of giardia, and drank out of a stream up at the pass; my reasoning must be sound because there was no resulting GI distress. (A down-side to doing the track in the off-season is that the water is off in the huts, which to this thirsty bear was like that Bradbury story about Venus where the sun-dome was leaking.)
- New Zealand law: The fact that there is no real "constitution" as such and the Treaty of Waitangi is thought of as the founding document is interesting, if you think that countries' founding documents are really just ways of forming identities and don't actually constrain their behavior that much. Gun laws are smart (you get screened by police interview as a gun owner in general, rather than for specific classes of licenses.) Drinking laws are smart (you can't buy alcohol if you're under 18, period. You can consume and possess it though.) Despite NZ's approach to need a reason to outlaw a new psychoactive substance, rather than proactively banning everything and requiring approval, there hasn't been a rash of overdoses on home-brew psychedelics.
- Non-ironic penguin-crossing signs on the roads. I retain an affection for "hidden queue" as well.
Neutral but possibly interesting observations and questions:
The kumara (the Maori name for sweet potato, hence the New Zealand English word for it) has its genetic origins in South America - it wasn't brought to NZ by Europeans - and (here's the kicker) the word for sweet potato in the Inca language (Quechua) is "kumara" (that link is from the journal Nature!). This is the strongest evidence I've ever seen for prehistoric Polynesian-South American contact.
- Forgive my puerility, but I greatly enjoyed the naming of New Zealand places, which includes: a town called Athol. Also, Kaka Creek, Random Creek, and Dicks Creek, all with signs along the road, advertising their presence to the delight of 6 year-olds everywhere. Also, a fish called pipi. While I'm being ludicrous, I should mention thatI ate a kiwi in New Zealand (the fruit, stupid), much as I had French fries and France and Belgian waffles in Belgium. I looked for beef Wellington in Wellington but could not find it. [Later note: I have since had it and my life has not changed dramatically.]
- There is a monorail between Queenstown and Te Anau under consideration. Assuming there are cars available in Te Anau, this would be good for both places in terms of making Milford and Routeburn Tracks more accessible.
- English second person plural vernacular: previously I thought youse was only found in the American Northeast, but I heard it in the wild from New Zealanders in Wellington. "Just the two of youse?"
- Wellington does in fact look a lot like San Francisco in certain places. I was skeptical of this claim until I happened to look up from the harbor, uphill toward Parliament, where you might as well be looking up at UCSF on the side of Mt. Sutro. The hillside streets in that neighborhood complete the picture.
- New Zealand's model of aboriginal integration: I have to say that sometimes, the Maori translations on government signs and the inclusion of Maori legend side by side on a display with the actual geologic history. Also, the formal handing back and forth of territory between the NZ gov't and various iwi (tribal governments) seems a little forced. And the pronouns give it away: in conversations and historical displays, Maoris (even in modern times) are referred to in the third person. This is not a criticism because this seems to reflect the genuine way of thinking of the majority of NZers (who are white). There has also never been a Maori PM, and currently there are only a small number of Maori MPs, less than 10 out of 120. I saw Maori people around, but mostly in official capacities, who I didn't have occasion to talk much with other than ask directions. I did see one guy on the ferry with full facial tattoos. Certainly I encountered a number of white NZers who were unaffected by these cultural bridge-building efforts and were not afraid to offer their negative views of their Maori countrymen. Of course it would be quite forward of a Yank to be criticizing someone else's treatment of indigenous people, but the observation here is just that NZ's government has obviously long been making a very strong and explicit effort, without much resultant mingling visible "on the ground" as it were. Compare this to Mexico, in which today almost everyone is of mixed native and Spanish descent, but don't talk about it. Russell Crowe mentions his Maori ancestor, but if you were to suggest to many Mexicans that they're part Aztec, the conversation might become uncomfortable. In NZ's defense, Mexico has had a three century head start on their integration project.
I thought about asking the facial tattoo guy what he thought of Mike Tyson's, but I thought better of it.
- Speaking of Mexico: there's a Mexican food boom going on in NZ. I was busy eating all the fish I could so I can't evaluate it.
- Overvalued home prices? While I was there, an economic body (can't remember which) released a report that NZ's homes were the most overvalued of any OECD country. I have difficulty with this. Homes in Picton, South Island with private beaches were listed for US$400,000. Really nice places in Auckland were listed for $500k. Maybe I've lived in California for too long but those seem like good deals to me.
- Like a single American metro area: Listening to national news in NZ is like listening to the Philly nightly news, with fewer shootings. "Home invasion in Auckland...2 dead in car accident in Christchurch..." which is not surprising considering the number of people in greater Philadelphia and New Zealand is the same.
- Food again: For all their sheep, you don't see as much lamb on the menu as you'd expect. It was as good as any other lamb I've had. I also had many kinds of pies, including my first venison pie. I'm convinced that English-style meat pies could use rat sphincter and it would taste the same in all that gravy (and still just fine) but I was glad to be helping reduce invasive species.
- And food yet again: When I got warehou, I asked the fish and chips proprietor what it was like. "It's fish" was his unhelpful yet uninformative response. Other than saying it was kind of buttery and lumpy, I don't know that I could describe it either. And I've noticed this before: ever been speaking another language and not known the word for a certain fish, and not known how to ask for it? "Fork" you could figure out. "Philosopher" you could figure out. But "halibut"? No dice. This is intriguing, because this is another example of how language fails when trying to describe taste (or smell.) [Later note: smell does not get processed through the thalamus like other senses. The sense organ itself is also rather inelegant and just consists of many separate channels for possible smells.]
- Rugby culture: It's easy to get annoyed with the focus on sports in the U.S., but the focus in New Zealand is so one-dimensional on rugby that it's hard to believe. I saw one rugby guy's face on about a thousand different ads (no I don't remember his name and I'm not looking it up). When people weren't talking about rugby, it was about the cricket scandal.
- Is there a reason that shepherding is so prevalent? Other than the obvious, the Scottish extraction of many of NZ's citizens (which suggests that occupation may be about cultural inertia more than what is necessarily optimal for the land.) I had to stop for several sheep drives along the highway, which always put a smile on my face, but damn those guys work hard (and I never cease to be amazed by the intelligence of sheep dogs and how effectively the shepherds communicate with them.) But damn. It really looks like those guys work hard.
What I didn't like (NZ readers, I'm giving an honest opinion, and would seriously enjoy hearing what you honestly didn't like about any experiences in America):
- Wellington on a weekend night. During the morning and afternoon, it was the sleepy/quirky national capital the guidebooks suggested. After nightfall it turned into worse than the most annoying college town you've ever been in, with the streets taken over with hooting drunks rushing in and out of traffic and blocking sidewalks. Sorry New Zealand, but this was just not impressive. (And for those who love Wellington or the rest of Enzed who love to hate Auckland: sure, people in Auckland clearly enjoy a pint at night, but somehow, in so doing they don't regress en masse to adolescence.)
- Many things were more expensive, not surprisingly for an island nation, but still. Beer was outrageous (US$8-9/bottle not uncommon in grocery stores), and I didn't really find any high quality and/or original microbrews. Gas about US$7.50/gallon. $4 for a 2.25 liter bottle of soda. No good. A 3 oz. bottle of bug spray was $25, no good if you're planning on going to Milford Sound.
- Abel Tasman park is very poorly signed. As a result I had to give the whole thing a miss because by the time I found it I was out of time.
- I know people warned me not to trust the weather forecasts, but I mean come on. You could plan your day by expecting the opposite of what the forecast said.
- Pavlova's charms escaped me, and I'm a dessert fanatic. Seriously, the cake is just a crumbly dry marshmallow. Just give me the fruit.
- I emphatically DO appreciate the road signage and reflectors and maintenance in NZ. If it weren't for the devoted posting of upcoming curves, everyone would be going off a cliff, and I think NZ civil engineers should teach everyone else how to do this. That said, driving super-curvy 2 lane roads in the (nearly constant) rain from Picton to Queenstown (or Queenstown to Greymouth) at night in one go was not pleasant, and I was not unhappy when I handed back the rental car keys at the Picton ferry terminal. (Yes, it was my fault for planning such ridiculous one-shot drives, but I still didn't like it. All hail the flat part of Route 1 in southern North Island)
- A bridge where the opposite direction lanes merged into a single lane (like most bridges in NZ) along with a freaking rail line - on which bridge people were killed the very next day after I crossed it (in Greymouth).
- Running along Queen Charlotte Track, at several points I was almost overcome by a bitter, almost acetone-like smell that seemed mingled with the forest. Is this some animal or plant? I've searched online and found nothing.
- There are large, large stretches of NZ being taken over by Douglas firs, one of the few North American plants to invade the rest of the world (it's invasive even in Europe). It has taken over the lower half of the mountains around Queenstown just in the last 30 years, and if there isn't a massive campaign to eradicate it starting now, then I don't know why NZers expect there to be anything but Douglas fir left in South Island in the next half century.
- It's weird that the tuataras are the biggest (and only large) reptile in New Zealand, but until very recently geologically the place was heavily glaciated, and these guys have a much lower body temperature on average than more "modern" reptiles. That said, I think if some jerk brought a bunch of rattlesnakes from the east coast of the U.S., they would do just fine in New Zealand's climate.
- New Zealand has a higher percentage of sexed plants than any other land mass. One can't help but wonder if this is a result of having been such a bird-dominated place for so long (lots of cross-fertilization).
- Many plants in New Zealand, especially creeping vines, have exactly symmetrical pairs of leaves. This pattern jumped out a lot. Heavily speculating: plants don't mind as much when birds eat them, because they don't have teeth and hence are more likely to spread seeds as opposed to destroying them, versus mammals. (This is the evolutionary strategy behind why capsaicin-bearing plants burn the mucus membranes of mammals, but not birds, as you can see here.) Sometimes nature evolves tricks to keep animals from detecting patterns that they can then exploit. Maybe this pressure is decreased in an environment with only birds and no mammals, so there is no reason not to just let your leaves grow in exactly even pairs.
- Ever see The Future is Wild series, speculating about evolution on Earth hundreds of millions of years hence? (It's pretty cool.) I thought of pre-Maori New Zealand as a sort of post-mammalian Earth. While I'm being both geeky and speculative - to those folks who think that aliens visiting us would be just dandy, just look at what flora and fauna from right here on this same planet have done unintentionally to New Zealand. (40% of endemic bird species lost.)
All THAT said, here are pictures and narrative. If you want you can open a map to refer to these places.
Looking up at Parliament from the harbor. See? San Francisco's long-lost twin.
Parliament. 120 members. I wonder if there's a relationship between legislature size and efficacy.
Looking down at the airport. At LAX from wheels-up to passing over water you generally have about 20 seconds. At Wellington it's 5. (I like to count.)
From the Wellington-Picton ferry.
From the ferry to Picton again.
Queen Charlotte Track on South Island, with fern trees. Other users were mostly mountain bikers that day. Still, like all trails in NZ, mostly empty.
Skyline luge! Like hot cycles for grown-ups. Or the offspring of slalom and bumper cars. Amazingly fun.
On the way to Milford Sound. It's a long damn way from Queenstown to there. (And the other end of Routeburn. 32km to walk, 300 km to drive.)
Milford Sound with waterfall mist from the side. I was almost sick of waterfalls by this point
DAMN them fern tree ferns is big
The famously intelligent keas seemed uninterested in my keys (perhaps fortunately). This spot near the tunnel above Milford Sound is infamous for keas. Sometimes they land and try to strip the liner off your windshield wipers.
Glacial valley just the other side of the tunnel. The rivers were all swollen with four days of heavy rain. Between how achingly cold the water was after just one crossing and the fact that there were more, I decided to turn around. It turns out a hiker died that day trying to ford a creek.
Beech trees, and in fact much of Fiordland, belong in Sung landscape paintings.
Sung landscape painting. See what I mean?
Driving to the west coast and glaciers past Lake Wanaka, autumn. Some areas really reminded me of Pennsylvania (with slightly craggier hills).
Lake Wanaka, with the footprints of two watersports. As I was heading west from Otago to the fiords some amazing wind came up from nowhere and I was almost unsurprised to see these.
Fox glacier, looking down the glacial valley toward the Tasman Sea. This was all still filled with ice in 1751.
Fox glacier. People getting into a boat to (I guess) take the glacier river down to the sea.
Franz Josef Glacier. These are some of the few glaciers in the world that penetrate temperate forests. With the rainfall on the west coast it's not surprising.
Waterfall at Franz Josef Glacier at dusk...that is to say, an evil waterfall. This might be my favorite picture from the trip.
Pancake Rocks on the West Coast, north of Greymouth. Natural formation. We don't yet understand how they formed.
Once back on North Island, I made straight for Turangi (a fishing village at the south end of Lake Taupo) intending to take on the Tongariro Crossing next day. (Thanks for the tip, random wildlife photographer in Milford Sound.) I should clarify, it was less Tongariro Crossing, and more Tongariro run up to Red Crater (I think because there was zero visibility) clinging to rocks in the extremely unpleasant wind and sleet and then run back down.
About the clearest view of anything I got on Tongariro.
Similar to what I saw on Tongariro, but with much better visibility. For all I could see I might as well have been on Venus. Granted it was cooler on Tongariro, but the atmosphere stripping your skin off factor was about the same.
Te Kooti's last stronghold, Te Porere. His followers were killed fighting the British here in 1868 but he escaped (again). (The last fighting between U.S. troops and indigenous people was late 1860s-early 1870s as well; coincidence?) As with many other Maori sites like the much older One Tree Hill overlooking Auckland, defensive earthworks remain.
Craters of the Moon Volcanic Area near Taupo (not to be confused with America's own Craters of the Moon in Idaho).
Then I went to Auckland, where I had some Polynesian food (taro, plaintain and pork...I have to admit I can see why it's not sweeping the world), had a pint or two, went up One Tree Hill, and hung out in the Central Business District eating and drinking. I had an 18 hour layover so I just waited until the sidewalks rolled up and then went to the airport in the middle of the night. I liked Auckland but was surprised at how early most things closed, given that this is NZ's big city.
Looking down at the CBD of Auckland from Ponsonby.