Monday, June 11, 2012

A brief look at New Zealand

We spent 17 days in New Zealand and would go back anytime. What a great country to visit and, i suspect, to live in. We flew from Brisbane to Dunedin which near the south end of the South Island. Remarkably there was a direct flight to this city of 130,000 people and it was full. Dunedin set the tone for our visit. There was lots to see and lots to do and it turned out to be great fun, if a little expensive. Dunedin is a university town (20,000 students) and someone described it as a perfect university town - 3 breweries and a chocolate factory. It is also incredibly hilly. Its downtown road pattern was created by an urban designer in Edinborough who had never been to New Zealand and it did not know about the terrain. BTW, the South Island is more Scottish and the North Island more English in heritage. While in the Dunedin area we got a chance to visit an albatross reserve and see these great birds soaring above the cliffs. Quite wonderful to watch. We started off travelling by bus but soon found that renting a car was much cheaper. Probably if we were to do it again we would rent a campervan because they were very cheap and you could sleep in the van most nights and only go to a hotel or backpackers every third or fourth night. We decided that we might never be back to NZ so were a little freer with the money to pay for activities than we normally might be. We did not do any of the activities that involve jumping out of perfectly good airplanes or off high bridges, although they were available everywhere. Some of the activities we did do: -- Took a helicopter to the top of the Franz Josef glacier. This killed two bucket list birds with one stone since I had never been in a helicopter and had never been on a glacier (other than at the snout of one in the Rockies). Incredible scenery and a terrific experience. -- Made a knife from a hunk of steel and a bit of wood. A man on the west coast of the south island has created a very nice business for himself and his wife with this one. There were about a dozen of us there at NZ$130 a person for the day. You start with a length of ordinary steel and put it into the hearth and shape it with a hammer on an anvil. Once you are happy with the rough shape you do fine finishing including adding a hardwood handle and end up with something remarkable at the end of the day. Each person's knife is a little different. -- Went caving which meant abseling 27 m into the cave and climbing through narrow spots (you could always walk around) and floating down a river in the cave on inner tubes. A highlight was seeing glowworms that lived in the cave that produced enough light that you could actually see. -- Went sailing on an America's Cup sailboat - one of the more recent 80 footers. Quite something to see what it is like to sail such a boat. Incredible upwind performance and relatively easy to sail since it was so precise. -- Spent a night a kiwifruit farm owned by a man we met at a boatyard in Connecticut. He was nice enough to invite us to visit and see the farm. Some general comments about NZ It is fascinating to visit a place that has a robust and successful economy based on farming. NZ is not getting out of the sheep business but they now have 32 million instead of 60 million sheep. This is because the market for beef and dairy products is much healthier than for lamb and wool. The economy is doing very well which as meant that the kiwi dollar is now worth about 85 cents US instead of the 45 cents as it was a few years ago. Minimum wage is $13 so everyone seems to be doing very well. The high local dollar is hurting the tourism industry since NZ is no longer a cheap place to visit. There were still lots of backpackers there, but that is because it is easier to getg work permits to help on farms or in other jobs, but the middle class travellers are staying away. Most of the activities we did were in the $130 to $200 range per person and it adds up in a hurry. There are some incredible good hostels in NZ. Our fave was one called Global Village in Greymouth. It was beautifully setup and run. The decorations were incredible with folk art from Africa and Asia everywhere - even carvings of snakes and lizards in the rafters of the rooms. Even the dishes in the kitchen all matched. In Picton, at Tombstones (across the street from the graveyard) they upgraded us to a little apartment with a kitchen. In Christchurch the hostel was in the old jail and the rooms were very quiet with thick stone walls and heavy iron doors. The country seems entirely civilized. People go at a slower rate than in Oz or North America and just seem to enjoy life. On the main highway between Wellington (the capital) and Auckland (the largest city) there is one section which has a 25 km/h turn and many 40 km/h turns and people just accept that that is the way it is. There are many universities, wonderful museums (the marine museum in Auckland and the national museum in Wellington are incredible), public art galleries are common. They seem to have their priorities straight - work enough to pay the bills but be sure you have time for the things you love - outdoors activities, the local rugby team or the farmers' market. It is a beautiful country with incredible variety. We drove from the west coast of south island to the north end of the island and started in glacier country, then drove along the ocean for a time (think Pacfic Coast Highway except you are closer to the water and the coastline reminded me of Oregon), then into an interior plateau area with thousands of cattle of and sheep and finally through a major vineyard area. A fun drive in the el-cheapo, gutless rental car we hadd, it would have been incredible in something like a Mini. In the mountainous part I estimated that there were probably 2000 curves with the slowest being 15 km/h - my arms were tired.

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