Getting to Know New Zealand: An A-Z Guide
A is for……
Aoraki – aka Mount Cook
Aoraki (cloud-piercer in Maori) is Australasia’s tallest mountain at 3,754m. Set in a UNESCO World Heritage Area, it is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful sights you’ll ever see – particularly at sunset, as its crown is washed in a rosy palette. The classy Hermitage Hotel offers fabulous views and there are several easy hikes to bring you in closer. The adventurous can climb, kayak or even take a scenic flight to land on the top. The Mt. Cook National Park has 140 peaks reaching skyward above 2,100m, ensuring full-on fabulous panoramas.
B is for ……
What is there to say? If you fancy leaping off a bridge with nothing between you and the river but a huge rubber band, go ahead! The idea originates from Vanuatu – where young studs launch themselves from towers, attached to vines, to prove their manhood. Oxford University’s Dangerous Sports Club began to experiment with the idea in the 70s and, soon after, a certain Kiwi called Mr. Hackett was inspired to throw himself off the Eiffel Tower. He went on to set up the first bungy site in Queenstown. There are now five located around the adventure capital – practice your yodeling as you descend. In fact, why not go the whole hog and jump from a helicopter at 1000 feet – it’s all the rage.
C is for ……
The Coromandel Peninsula
Spectacularly rugged, densely forested and with a coastline of such beauty it will bring tears to your eyes. Scoop out your own spa on Hot Water Beach or lay back and admire Cathedral Cove’s famous gigantic limestone arch. Don’t miss the award winning Rapaura Watergardens – a great spot for lunch and a walk, or to stay overnight.
D is for ……
With eerily quiet fiords, abundant waterfalls and towering mountains, the waters seem fathomless, still as they are in this sheltered spot. Day and overnight cruises can be picked up from Manapouri (a cracking place to stay, with stunning views over its lake). Doubtful Sound actually boasts the deepest of NZ’s fiords – at 421m.
E is for ……
Located where two tectonic plates meet, NZ is called ‘the Shaky Isles’. Small tremors are not uncommon. The last big quake was in 1931, levelling Napier on Hawkes Bay (East coast of the North Island). Many lives were lost. However, the town was rebuilt in the Art Deco fashion of the time and now attracts large numbers of visitors to its elegant streets.
F is for ……
Nothing short of spectacular, this sandbar arcs out 35km into the sea – making it the longest in the world. Its huge dunes create a protective coastal barrier, in the lee of which, migratory birds from Siberia and Alaska annually take refuge. 83 species of wetland birds have been recorded. On the side open to the ocean, waves crash dramatically against the ‘never-ending’ shore line and seals often lollop onto the sands for a short sojourn. Drive a couple of miles down the road to Wharariki Beach (accessible via a 20 minute path through paddocks and coastal forest). It’s littered with caverns and arches along its long stretch of sand and is another top seal-spotting location.
G is for ……
Outside of the Polar Regions, no other glaciers come as close to the coast as do NZ’s Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier on the South Island. Both are viewable from walkways near their feet but, from here, they appear rather dirty and disappointing. True enthusiasts take a heli-hike to see them in all their snowy glory further up. Franz Josef is, unenviably, the wettest town in NZ; in 1982, a staggering 2m of rain fell within 3 days. The Fox Glacier settlement has a prettier aspect and is a short drive from Lake Matheson (which mirrors Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman in its still waters).
H is for ……
Loud chanting, aggressive arm gestures, stomping of feet and bizarre tongue waggling: it’s the haka! NZ’s All Black rugby team is famous for preceding each match with a rendition of this Maori war dance; it’s enough to have their rivals on the field quaking in their boots and the females in the stadium swooning in delight. Foreign visitors can easily seek out a night of haka entertainment, with local Maoris donning traditional dress and performing with zest – since their tribal reputation is closely linked to their ability to perform the haka well.
I is for …..
The International Antarctic Centre
Located close to Christchurch airport, it’s not to be missed. Recreating the atmosphere of Antarctica with video, interactive features and a replica of the Scott Base, it’ll have you hooked. There’s even a room of real snow and ice, with a constant temperature of minus 5 Celsius. You can slide down an icy slope, shelter in an ice cave and brave the wind chill machine’s frosty minus 18. Experience an Antarctic storm – with stunning light and sound effects and 40 km/h gusts. Luckily, warm jackets and overshoes are provided.
J is for …….
You can buy jade amulets from the South Island’s Hokitika or from the North Island’s Rotorua. The Maoris traditionally carved the green stone into stylised figures with tongues sticking out fiercely in a warlike challenge – representing power and fertility. Other motifs include monsters. A perfect souvenir for the mother-in-law.
K is for ……
About the size of a chicken and, despite being flightless, able to outrun humans, they are ever alert, with a super acute sense of hearing and smell. They can use their sharp, three-toed feet to kick and slash enemies – but still make cute cuddly toys in NZ’s many gift shops. The men folk are in charge of incubation and nest maintenance for around 10 weeks, leaving them rather slimmer and hungrier by the time their chicks are ready to scamper off. In fact, the babies pop into the world as chips off the old block, ready to lead their own little kiwi lives after just 2 weeks. It’s no surprise that New Zealanders are happy to have the kiwi as their national symbol: the birds are independent, tough and like to be left to their own devices. Sadly, possums and stoats are doing a good job of hoovering up unattended eggs and young chicks, leading to a dramatic fall in the number of birds making it to adulthood: from 12 million to less than 80,000 this year. One of the best places to see them in the wild is Stewart Island, which has the most diverse bird population in NZ. Watch out for kiwis which stray onto the beach – much easier to spot on the white sands than foraging among the trees.
New Zealanders have been calling themselves Kiwis since the First World War and the NZ dollar, which depicts this spunky bird on one side, is often just referred to as ‘a kiwi’.
L is for ……
Lake Tekapo has been blessed with a beauty found in only a handful of places around the world. Its dazzling turquoise hue is framed by thousands of lupins growing wild around its shores (dust from glacial rocks travels down to lend it this unique colour) and the Church of the Good Shepherd – built in memory of early pioneers – stands picturesquely beside its stony beach. Your camera will be beside itself with pleasure.
M is for …….
The Moeraki Boulders
Hundreds of giant spherical stones litter the windswept beach – looking rather like meteorites or the eggs of some wayward sea-monster. Maori legend has it that they are food baskets swept from the canoes of their ancestors. Some are an immense 4m in circumference and around 65 million years old. These larger than life boulders have a curious geological history: created on the sea floor by a layering process similar to that seen in oyster shells, they became part of the coastal cliffs when the seabed rose. As the cliffs eroded, the balls of ‘crystal’ tumbled down onto the sands. They’re definitely worth a look. Moeraki also boasts its own yellow-eyed penguin sanctuary, a seal colony and a lighthouse.
N is for ……
Ninety Mile Beach
Actually, it’s more like 56 miles – but it’s a sight to be seen nonetheless. With so much open beach, it’s not difficult to find a spot to call your own. On windy days, the sand moves rhythmically before your eyes with a mesmerising rippling motion; on clear ones, the water-washed beach mirrors the blue of the sky so effectively it’s as if the earth has disappeared altogether. This northern-most tip of NZ is home to varieties of plants and trees found nowhere else on the planet and certainly has a landscape that stands alone. The eagle-eyed may see a northern green gecko or a rare flax snail. A trip to Cape Reinga lighthouse is a must but, if you have time, why not try dune surfing, blo-karting (using a lightweight micro land-sailor), horse riding or surf casting (throwing your line straight over the lively waves).
Although it’s a designated highway, driving your rental car along the sand isn’t recommended – unless you are happy to brave unexpected waves, hidden holes and quicksand while voiding your insurance; corpses of wayward vehicles can be seen half-buried in the dunes along the top of the beach. Luckily, it’s easy to join a bus group or a small 4×4 excursion for the day. If you do want to drive up, stick to the main road – which is unsealed for the last 12 miles.
O is for ……
The Otago Peninsula
This slice of NZ in miniature is home to rare yellow-eyed penguins, Hooker sea lions, albatrosses and the ubiquitous fur seal as well as a host of birdlife – waders in particular: herons, spoonbills and plovers. Cape Saunders headland’s 250m high cliffs are romantically dubbed Lovers’ Leap and The Chasm and stunning, windswept beaches are found on its Pacific side; there are very few visitors – even in mid-summer. Victory Beach has ‘The Pyramids’ – rocks resembling the ancient Egyptian monuments – while Sandfly Bay is named for the sands which are blown up by the wind; the path takes you through banks of wild flowers, down 100m sand dunes (among NZ’s tallest). The panoramas along this picturesque coastline are unforgettable. Stay at Larnach Castle or rent a cottage with its own sea view.
P is for ……
The Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki
Strangely enough, lots of rocks stacked upon each other like pancakes: 30 million years old and fabulous. An easy pathway takes you through this amazing phenomenon by the sea. Either side of high tide, water arcs up through the blowholes, giving you even more to oooh and aahh about. Utterly unmissable.
Q is for……
Otherwise known as Thrill City, it plays host to all those mad young things queuing up to cheat death. Living on the edge is a full-time occupation and, after a day spent simulating suicide, everyone heads to the bars to celebrate being alive with a cocktail or two. Not a place for quiet contemplation or anyone who likes wearing a suit. Middle aged visitors tend to escape to the restaurant atop Bob’s Peak for an all-you-can-eat buffet extravaganza – reachable from town via a rather quaint gondola which carries you up 450m. Views of the Remarkables compensate amply for the brain damage you may sustain from being trapped with the live band – old Elvis numbers a speciality.
R is for ……
If you fancy being propelled round and round at 106mph in a rocket attached to a circular steel cable, there’s probably something wrong with you. The innovative Kiwis have created yet another bizarre way to scare themselves silly: the Fly By Wire. The rocket is made of premium grade aircraft material and is located in a spectacular canyon near Queenstown – the cables bolted into the gorge walls. Anyone over 15 can sign up to experience the latest in extreme sporting madness: head-turning red ‘flying’ suit and goggles supplied at no extra charge!
S is for …….
With ten sheep to every New Zealander, it’s not hard to find a rack of lamb on the menu. 48 million of them freely roam the hills and dales, munching on lush green grass; it’s a sheepy idyll. To see them in action, visit Rotorua’s Agrodome – the bleating stars strut their stuff on the woolly catwalk as we learn who produces the best wool for carpets, wigs, suits or sweaters and who gives us the tastiest chops. One hapless sheep delivers itself to a public shearing, leaving it looking like a skinny supermodel sans fur coat. Don’t forget to swing by the gift shop – you’ll be grateful for a nice lambs’ wool polo-neck once you hit those mountains; it might even put an unexpected spring in your step.
T is for……
Often likened to Japan’s Mt. Fuji, it sits broodingly at the centre of beautiful Egmont National Park, dominating all around it. Most of the time, its peak is shrouded in cloud. On the rare occasions that it’s revealed in its full glory, it exerts such magnetism that it can be hard to look away – after all, where else should one look when a 2518m dormant volcano rears up before you?
U is for …….
It does rain quite a lot in New Zealand – especially during their winter. Fiordland sees the greatest volume of rainfall and the West Coast the greatest number of rainy days. So, don’t forget your umbrella!
V is for ……
Rotorua sits on the edge of a volcanic crater. It may smell foul but this mud-spewing gate to hell may be your idea of heaven. Dipping a toe in the Devil’s Bath isn’t an option – unless you want to cook yourself like a lobster. Steamy lakes of killer stew seethe and simmer, so keep carefully to the paths or you may find yourself the final ingredient in the acidic broth. Some like it hot – scaldingly hot. It’s not all demonic though; the greens, yellows and oranges of the sulphuric mix are deliciously jewel-like. Don’t forget to pop along to watch the Lady Knox Geyser erupt each morning – at 10.15am, courtesy of a dose of washing-up liquid.
W is for ……
NZ’s Sauvignon Blanc is well-known as the world’s finest but there are plenty of other varieties to take your palette to new heights of ecstasy. The Hawke’s Bay Region boasts 75 wineries (34 with open cellar doors). Designate a driver and start your tour with the aid of a Wine Trail Map. Early February is a great time to go – during Harvest Festival.
The South Island’s Marlborough Region is also a prime spot for indulging. Wine buffs will be in 7th heaven. Visit the country’s northern-most vineyard on the Karikari Peninsula, just down the road from the Carrington Resort’s top golf course, 5 star luxury and a Michelin starred chef. Buy your bottles and drink them en-route or have them shipped home; just remember, it’s all for the greater glory of NZ.
X is for ……
The NZ TV hit Xena: Warrior Princess may have ceased production in 2001 but its memory lives on. It ran for six seasons and left fans in mourning when feisty Xena hung up her leather bodice and booties. Athletic Auckland-born Lucy Lawless played the lead with gusto, enchanting viewers in more than 115 countries. Decades of re-runs are no doubt ahead.
Y is for ……
Penguins may teeter along like tipsy olde-world butlers on land but the little cuties sure can swim. Our love affair seems to be going from strength to strength, fuelled by regular offerings from the film industry. Of the world’s 17 species of penguin, 6 live and breed in NZ, with rare yellow-eyed penguins easily viewable along the South Island’s east coast. Blue (aka Fairy) Penguins are found at Oamaru, Doubtful Sound and on the Banks Peninsula near Christchurch while the Erect Crested Penguin is sometimes to be seen off the Otago coast in the late summer. The Fiordland Crested Penguin is among the most timid; it breeds along the rugged coastline of New Zealand’s Fiordland and on Stewart Island. The Eastern Rockhopper is more difficult to spot, as it lives on New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic islands: Campbell, Auckland and the Antipodes. Enthusiastic youngsters are occasionally seen swimming around NZ’s mainland. The Snares Crested Penguin has a distinctive yellow crest from the base of its bill which extends over its eye and droops down the back of its head. It only breeds on Snares Island and no tourist landings are permitted; however, you can watch the penguins swimming and waddling onto shore from your boat.
Z is for ……
To zorb or not to zorb, that is the question. Moreover, do you get wet ‘n’ wild with a squirt of washing-up liquid and a bucket of water inside your personal bubble or do you opt for the dry run. The latter involves strapping yourself into the giant plastic ball and tumbling head over heels down the slope; weigh your chances of emerging covered in vomit. The slippery option allows you to slide around the zorb; bring your friends and share the laughter.