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New Zealand

Text by John Sherman Mills

Photographs by Thomas I. Petersen


The Bungee Jump at the Kawarau Suspension Bridge

Queenstown, New Zealand

"5.. 4.. 3.."  The countdown begins and there's no turning back.  The swirling waters of the Kawarau River directly below me give me an instant case of vertigo.   The 143-foot drop suddenly smacks of being infinitesimal.  My jittery knees rattle uncontrollably and I have more goose bumps than good sense.  I'm jolted by an electrifying flashback to those petrifying moments when as a kid I’d get stuck climbing too high in trees.


I try to reassure myself with the fact that some 30,000 thrill-seekers have safely taken this very leap ever since 1987.  It was then and here that New Zealander A. J. Hackett originally concocted this harebrained sport. Echoing an ancient Polynesian ritual, Bungee Jumping seems now to be the national pastime in this corner of Oceania.

Sitting back home a few days ago, I never dreamed I’d be doing something crazy like this, much less finding myself starting to really enjoy it.  But here in New Zealand, one unexpected surprise delightfully follows another.  Everywhere in New Zealand daring excitement entices you.

Thousands of tourists flock to New Zealand each February when Auckland hosts the HERO Festival, the nation’s largest annual celebrations.   Lasting over two weeks, the festival honors achievements in film, theater, cabaret and sports. The Kiwi’s, as New Zealanders call themselves, think it’s definitely a good reason to party and partying is something they do extremely well.  But you needn’t wait for February to roll around to come here.   Auckland is a fantastic vacation destination all year long.  For one thing, it’s always easy to meet people.  Kiwis are good humored and fun loving.

Approximately a third of New Zealanders, a little more than a million, call Auckland their home.  Its sleek, classy skyscrapers create a modern skyline with the gleaming Sky Tower as its centerpiece.  Tom and I scamper to get a bird’s eye view from its observation deck, 1,076 above the bustling streets below.  This is the best place to soak in commanding views of the city and its breathtaking backdrop of ancient volcanoes, deep-water harbors and verdant hillsides. 

White umbrellas shade the countless sidewalk restaurants that grace Auckland’s squiggly shoreline.  Skirting the waterfront and slicing across the bay, bazillions of sailboats jostle agilely with one another.   Known as “The City of Sails,” Auckland is the home to the America’s Cup Race.  Every year determined competitors and their buffed crews venture here from all over the world with aspirations of the capturing the coveted prize.  And if you want to appreciate a fish’s perspective of all this maritime commotion, you have only to wander through the awesome sea floor aquarium at Kelly Tartan’s Antarctic Encounter and Underwater World on Mission Bay.

Impossible as it may be, Auckland’s nightlife is surpassed in Wellington, New Zealand’s capitol city and unquestionably the premiere disco playground of the South Pacific.  It’s a sizzling party town, the one preferred by Australians seeking its uninhibited pleasures.

A great area for your accommodations is in the Thorndon District, Wellington’s timeless neighborhood. Alongside the Botanical Gardens, this part of town gains its charm and ambiance from its hundreds of restored Victorian homes and turn of the century lampposts.  The specialty shops, sidewalk cafes and coffeehouses along Tinakori Road are excellent spots for some serious people watching. A couple of the little bakeries here serve up “chocolate fish,” a scrumptious marshmallow-centered treat that Kiwi’s love with their afternoon tea.

Wellington’s business district, Performing Arts Center and government buildings are tightly networked around the waterfront.  Antique trolley cars provide a nifty way to get around here.  Newly opened is the Lambton Quay, a stunning arcade of upscale restaurants and retail stores.  Footsteps away is Wellington’s crown jewel, the Te Papa, a high-tech museum featuring interactive, hands-on exhibits about Polynesia’s natural and cultural history.

Tom and I start our exploration of New Zealand’s hinterlands in the South Island’s town of Queenstown.  A former magnet for prospectors during the gold rush days of the 1860’s, Queenstown today is a fashionable year-round resort.  The rustic waterfront hugs the central shoreline of Lake Wakatipu.  Luxury hotels and sumptuous health spas lay secluded amidst the evergreen hillsides.  The serrated tops of the mountain range known as “The Remarkables” rise some 6500 feet above the lakeside, enveloping the area like a frosty granite fortress.

One of these snow-covered pinnacles is New Zealand’s favorite ski area, Coronet Peak.  Four of its six runs are nearly a mile in length with vertical drops averaging whopping 4000 feet.  A full spectrum of chutes, bowls and cross-country trails challenges both intermediate and expert skiers alike.  Winter season lasts from July until October (remember we’re in the Southern Hemisphere).  Considered by some to be an Extreme Sport, Luge is all the rage now.  With little or no protection, fearless alpine crackerjacks plummet feet first down the irresistibly treacherous terrain.  Some reach speeds in excess of 180 mph!  For the less experienced, a gentler course exists at the top of the Skyline Gondola.  Here too is the chance to try an inviting variation of parachuting.  Fitted with an oversize rectangular chute, you spring from an edge of Bob’s Peak, then drift slowly in a silent, gradual descent over the city of Queenstown.

Along the valley floors below, jet boats zip along at thrilling high speeds down the Dart, Kawarau and Shotover Rivers.  Highly trained, the pilots of small eight passenger speedboats execute daredevil maneuvers, averting collision courses with jagged rock obstacles at the last split second.  Your ride climaxes with a white-knuckling series of hairpin spinouts that are guaranteed to pump anyone with the adrenaline rush of a lifetime.  

At night an amiable group of vacationers like us unwinds in front of the crackling fireplace at the Lagos Bar, one of several bustling pubs a couple blocks from the Steamer Wharf Village.   Despite the fact the people here come from the world over, there’s an easy going, welcome home feeling. We chat with Daniel Senez, who’ll pilot us in his three seat Cessna 185 over to Milford Sound tomorrow. 

We’re up at seven to meet Daniel at the airfield in Glenorchy.  Once airborne, our flight path soon follows the rugged route of New Zealand’s most popular hiking trail known as the Milford Track. The 33-mile pathway below twists from the town of Te Anau over the 3,400-foot summit of McKinnon and down into the east end of the Sound.  Along the way is the awe-inspiring Sutherland Falls.  Plunging a total of 1904 feet, this dramatic series of three thunderous cascades is the fifth highest waterfall in the world.

Upon landing, we scurry to board the waiting “Milford Mariner,” the newly commissioned cruiser that will glide through the ten miles of this spectacular saltwater channel.  Granite walls jut abruptly upward from the deep blue waters.   You sense the tremendous glacial forces that sculpted this wonder of nature long, long ago.  Hector's dolphins frolic before the ship's bow, as if joyous to have the pleasure of our company.  Milford Sound guards the northern boarder of New Zealand’s vast majestic wilderness area called Fiordland.  Some 3 million acres in area, this treasured parkland stretches far to the south, almost touching the Antarctic icecap.

The ultimate ski adventure, however, awaits us on the angular face of Mt. Cook.  Clustered amidst 17 other peaks over 10,000 feet high, Mt. Cook rises to 12,349 feet.  We charter a single engine ski plane to whisk us near its summit.  You can’t help but feel pins and needs as the wings nearly brush the monstrous snowcapped mountaintops.  With expert precision our pilot executes a perfect landing on a crunchy snowfield of the Tasman Glacier.  Alert to the cues of personal guide, we jump-start our sensational downhill run.   After six hours we finally shake off our skis and enter our room at the Hermitage Hotel poised in the heart of the Mt. Cook National Forest.   We’re just in time to witness a dazzling crimson-orange phenomenon of “Alpen glow,” as Mt. Cook reflects the brilliant pigments of a fiery winter sunset.

But New Zealand’s wondrous natural beauty is by no means limited to its mountainous regions.  Its unspoiled coastline features mile upon mile of pristine sandy beaches and wide-open spaces.  The diversity is truly staggering; from the golden, palm lined beaches of the North Cape to contorted cliffs of southern Stewart Island.  New Zealand’s coast is the home to a number of exotic animals and plants seen nowhere else on earth.  The Otago Peninsula, for example, is a magnet for Eco-tourists.  Here along the Taiaroa Headlands you can observe close-up the sensitive habitats of albatrosses, penguins, cormorants, fur seals and sperm whales.  The Yellow Eyed Penguins living here are the world’s rarest.  We are fortunate to arrive during the albatross-nesting season in July.  A docent from the Royal Albatross Interpretative Center sneaks us into a blind atop a windswept hill for an intimate view of the newly hatched chicks and their devoted parents.

Yet another pleasant surprise is to discover Lanarch Castle, standing proudly on the highest point of the peninsula.  Built in 1871, this stately home with all its marble fireplaces, vaulted ceilings and European antiques, is preserved just as it was when its Scottish owner lived here.   If you snoop around diligently, you’ll uncover a dark, creepy stairway.  Its steps descend into a musty, dimly lit dungeon that once confined poachers who were captured on the estate.  The property is open daily to the public and bed and breakfast is available nearby.  Tom and I opt for staying in picturesque hamlet of Dunedin.  A focal point for Dunedin is the magnificent railway station, nicknamed “Gingerbread George” after its architect, George Troup.  Constructed of Oamaru Stone in 1907, the exterior’s ornate stain glass windows and dominating copper-capped tower contribute to its notoriety as the “most photographed rail terminal in the world.”

New Zealand's most famous rail line, however, is the TranzAlpine Express.  Chugging from Christchurch to Greymouth, its 145-mile long track connects the east and west coasts through a contortion of sixteen tunnels, six viaducts and innumerable bridges. Skirting glaciers and weaving through the summits of the Southern Alps, the train completes its round trip journey once a day.  This scenic route makes for a topnotch day trip through the heartland of New Zealand’s South Island.

Founded in the days of Queen Victoria, Christchurch retains much of its original English flavor.  Cobblestone streets, half-timbered buildings and practically an excess of formal gardens perpetuate the original serenity of this university town.  Christchurch is a cultural hub with its Canterbury Arts Center and acclaimed School of Art beckoning a talented set of painters, poets and sculptors.  Not to be missed is the International Antarctic Exhibition and its gigantic simulation chamber that virtually duplicates the spine tingling feeling of being at the South Pole.

New Zealand’s most visited area is in the northern central territory.  The Waitomo Glow-worm Caves here are world renown. In the ceilings of these underground limestone caverns millions of tiny larvae emit a bluish luminous signal.  The effect is as if you’re looking upward at a star filled sky.  Not far way, the land becomes a stage for an array of bizarre geological mysteries.  It is here that the Earth’s crust is the thinnest of any place on the globe.  Heat radiating from mantle close below the surface creates a surreal tropical climate supporting a primordial tropical landscape.  As you enter the Rotorua basin, you sense yourself plunging backwards to the advent of time.  The major attraction here is the Whakarewarwa Reserve, 300 acres of whistling geysers, steaming craters and spurting mud pools.  The Pohutu Geyser releases its ninety-eight foot plume faithfully every hour.  The adjacent Maori Arts and Craft Institute has an eye-catching gallery of intricate wooden carvings and green jade ornaments, chiseled in the tradition of the native Arawa people.

Tom and I favor a smaller, more volatile park, duly named “Hell’s Gate.”  Frequented mainly by residents, its vigorous hiking trails snake their way beside boiling, sulfuric streams and waterfalls in a forest of Gargantuan tree ferns.  Just as we’re feeling comfortable with all these boisterous geothermal antics, the artifacts of the nearby “Te Wairoa Buried Village” unnerve us.  Here, in 1886 Mt. Tarawera erupted without warning, quickly covering three settlements in 9 feet of burning ashes and molten lava, a scenario much like that of ancient Pompeii.  A walk through the remnants of this cataclysmic event is a somber reminder of Nature’s capricious and volatile personality.

To ease away our tensions we head down to Rotorua’s famous Polynesian Baths.  Soaking in the effervescent mineral waters completely rejuvenates you.  30 different thermal pools and hot springs, some delightfully private, make up this luxurious spa. Afterward we venture off to RJ’s on Fenton Street for a drink and some camaraderie.   A unique city, Rotorua has several luxurious bed and breakfasts, such as the Ascot Villa next to the Whakarewarwa Reserve.

As our two-week vacation draws to an end, Tom and I are determined to return to this South Pacific paradise as soon as we can. This is truly a special country, packed with outdoor adventure, fun people, a ton of outdoor activities and …unlimited opportunities for me to satisfy my new passion, Bungee Jumping!