New Zealand, the land of Maoris, mountains, sheep and of course of Kiwis, this cross between the English and the Ozzies of which there is only 3.5 million. I just couldn't visit Australia without seeing New Zealand any more than I could roam this part of the world without sampling the famed South Pacific Islands! So I came and spent a most pleasant month here.
|Lonely Planet CIA nz|
Auckland, the economic center of gravity of the North Island (seen from Devonport across the bay), looked very much like any canadian city of the same size. There was none of the obvious culture shock I had experienced in the exotic Pacific islands but there were more subtle differences worth exploring. Here I had the luck of being invited for dinner by the parents of a backpacker I had met in Kenya in 1995. That gave me a good start in discovering Kiwis.
Backpacking is widespread and very well organised in New Zealand, there are youth hostels everywhere filled not only by tourists but also by Kiwis who love to explore their island. Almost two dozen backpackers hostels can be found in Auckland and its suburbs. For 11US$ per night, I stayed in the huge Auckland Central Backpackers which had six floors and space for 300 hostellers. The place had everything a traveller could possibly wish, kitchens, a video room, a rooftop cafe and bar, and a backpacker oriented travel agency. I found it very convenient but somewhat impersonal. This remarkable place was right in the center of the city close to Auckland harbour shown here.
Auckland has a lot to offer. The Auckland Museum features an extensive display on Maori history, culture and artifacts, it even presents a very interesting Maori dance show. The city also has a great art gallery, fine parks, busy markets and some beaches. Here we see an imaginative street show; two dancers weaving about in silver air ducts in a mini mall in the city center.
The very English Christchurch is the largest city of the less populated South Island. For a small city of 300 000, it has more than its share of museums, galleries and other public attractions including a ancient but well restored tramway line that runs by this big arts and handicrafts center housed in the beautiful old buildings of the former Canterbury University.
Sheep farming and tourism are the mainstays of the South Island. The Wizard of Christchurch is a major tourist attraction. This bizarre eccentric is seen here spouting his provocative harangue to a youthful crowd in Cathedral Square. Personally I suspect that he is employed by the local chamber of commerce!
There is a high concentration of tourists in New Zealand but it is not without cause, the country is beautiful and its nature is well preserved as can be seen going over the south island's mountainous spine and coming down from Albert's Pass towards Greymouth on the west coast.
The west coast is sparsely populated because of its rugged topography and inclement weather, freezing in winter and wet in summer. Hokitika, south of Greymouth is typical of the small west coast towns where the once important activity of mining has been replaced by catering to the flood of tourists who come to see the mountains and glaciers in summer.
The Franz Josef Backpackers Hostel is typical of the inexpensive accommodations (10US$/night), that can be found all over New Zealand. The laid back and friendly atmosphere of these small places makes it easy to meet and fraternise with other travellers. Here I had dinner with two charming South Korean girls that I had met on the bus from Christchurch to Greymouth and I met Steve, a young Britisher with whom I walked up to the Franz Josef glacier the next day.
On the way up to the Franz Josef glacier Steve and I discussed the pros and cons of backpacking. I find that youth hostels can be as impersonal as five star hotels when they get too big like the huge Auckland Central Hostel. Those big institutions might be OK for backpacking couples but they are certainly not satisfactory for a solitary traveller like me. I prefer small places because I travel alone for long periods at a time and need to make friends with whom I can communicate along the way.
Getting closer to the Franz Josef glacier, Steve who had not seen glaciers before was impressed but I found that it was somewhat small compared to several glaciers I had climbed in the Canadian Rockies when I was young fourty years ago or to the great andean glaciers which I saw (but did not climb) in Peru and Bolivia and Chile in 1994.
As small as it was, the Franz Josef glacier was something to enjoy in the cool mountain air. I must say however that there were a lot of tourists about and that it took some patience to take pictures without a bunch of them getting in the way.
Leaving the town of Franz Joseph, I visited lovely Matheson lake but skipped the Fox glacier and took the bus south with my Korean friends. We crossed the mountains again by Haast pass and enjoyed great scenery, such as this view on Lake Wanaka, all the way to Queenstown. The mountain landscapes are really spectacular; it's not surprising to find so many tourists around here!
Queenstown on beautiful Wakatipu lake started out as a sheep farming and gold mining town but died at the end of the last century. Now it has been born again as a tourist attraction and is doing very well thank you. The setting is truly beautiful and as it lies on the eastern side of the mountains, the climate is good year round.
Skiing in winter and all kinds of sports in summer from bungee jumping through white water rafting, jet boating and parapenting to the more staid pleasures of nature treking are available to enthusiastic tourists. The reborn Queenstown can truly be called "The Town that Tourists Made". The tourist circuit is so well organised that it is hard to resist.
Having set foot in the tourist circuit, I just had to go along with it and visit Milford Sound which no self respecting tourist can avoid. All joking aside one has to to give the Kiwis their due: they are master shepherds and do it as well with tourists as with sheep. Personally I think that they are better shepherding tourists than sheep because they do it quite efficiently even without dogs! Anyway, this is beautiful Gunn Lake in the mountains on the way to Milford Sound.
Milford Sound was great to see but I'm sure I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I had not been passenger no. 23 on bus no. 8 of a 14 bus fleet moving the herd of tourists from Te Anau to Milford Sound and back. On this picture you can see another two catamarans each with about a hundred tourists like my own.
I look pleased to be photographed on Milford Sound in this picture but that is only my apparent good nature. Actually I am furious with myself for having allowed myself to be herded into this very touristy tourist tour. Feelings have nothing to do with logic and I admit the contradiction I am facing here. I would have been absolutely thrilled to discover beautiful Milford Sound after doing the four day tramp along the Milford Track trough the mountains but I am far from being pleased with myself for being here as passenger no. 23 on bus no. 8... (even if I do realise that I would not have the stamina at my age to do that four day trek). That is definitely not logical but that's the way it is.
Well, having gotten over my mixed feelings about tourism and Milford Sound, I spent a couple of days in lovely Scottish looking Dunedin on the east coast of the South Island. Dunedin was great, I stayed in a friendly backpackers called the Penguin Place and enjoyed the local sights including an antique train ride through the spectacular Taeri gorge. All this was also quite touristy but I did not feel like a part of the herd so I enjoyed it. Moreover, Dunedin had a friendly cyber cafe where I was able to get in touch with my friends back in Montreal.
From Dunedin, I went back to Christchurch for one day and spent a couple of days in a friendly hostel called "Bumble's" in the small town of Nelson on Tasman Bay before taking the ferry from Pictou to Wellington on the north island. I got here on a Sunday when just about everything was closed and made the mistake of staying in the huge Downtown Backpackers which was comfortable but quite impersonal. I like to backpack alone because I can decide freely when and where I want to go. I also find it more stimulating than travelling with a friend because I can be completely available to the people I meet and completely free to engage in whatever adventure that might tempt me.
Solitary travel generally works out fine when there are interesting people to meet, exciting things to do and great sights to enjoy. The downside that it can leave you vulnerable to feelings of isolation and loneliness when the absence of these stimuli cannot be compensated by the presence of a congenial companion. I have indulged in several extended solitary trips in the past five years, Central America, South America, South East Asia, Africa... I must admit having had bouts with these negative feelings sometime or other during each of these adventures. On this one, it happened in Wellington and I felt miserable...
After two days in Wellington and two days in Taupo which I found lovely but touristy and moved on to Rotorua which is even more touristy but which I enjoyed anyway thanks to a friendly bunch of travellers at the Cactus Jack Hostel and to the good atmosphere of the Pig & Whistle Tavern. Rotorua is very much "a city that tourists made" just like Queenstown but it does offer a lot for gawking tourists, such as these unusual black swans on Rotorua Lake.
This lawn bowling green and the building housing the arts and history museum in the background would not be out of place in the English countryside were it not for the palm tree on the left. I can imagine that such a scene must be very exotic for the asiatic visitors who make up the majority of the tourists I have seen in New Zealand. The center of Rotorua is a very busy place, full of hotels of every class and description, of Maori souvenir shops, of restaurants, taverns and bars and of various tourist attractions such as Maori Hangi banquets, Maori culture shows and Polynesian Hot Pools.
The area around Rotorua is also well stocked with tourist attractions, there are parks and walks, gondola rides, tourist farms, mazes, geyser fields shown here and even a reconstructed Maori village at Whakarewarewa.
Generally I don't care too much for concentrated of tourist attractions as those found in and around Rotorua but I admit I did find the Maori village interesting and well presented even if somewhat artificial. I found that there seems to be a renewed interest for the Maori culture in museums and tourist centers all over New Zealand but have not been able to determine to what extent this interest went beyond the obvious commercial aspects.
Fine Maori carvings can be seen in museums and tourist centers like this one all over New Zealand but what is the status of the Maori people in today's white Kiwi society? From here I travelled to Paihia in the beautiful Bay of Islands region and spent a few days more in Auckland before flying to Melbourne in Australia. I did meet someone of Maori descent but did not get a clear answer to the above question so I guess I'll have to go back...