New Zealand. The land of the giants.

I think it was 2009 when Sue and I decided to visit her brother Bill and his family in New Zealand. He had left Canada many years ago and settled there with his common-law wife. They had two children, a boy and a girl. Beowulf, as in the dragon slayer, and Cedar.

GLACIER VALLEY, NZ
Franz Josef, Glacier Valley, New Zealand. The land is so big down there! Photo by Sue Vaile

They had actually initially considered calling Cedar Casiopia. The family joke quickly became “You’ll have a Wulfie and a Peepee.” They own a hostel and tour company at the north end of the south Island in Arthur’s Pass with their main residence being outside of Christchurch in Darfield. In early February of that same year,  Christchurch had suffered a devastating few earthquakes which demolished the downtown core. In November when we attended, most of it was still under debris and out-of-bounds to people.

Sue planned our month long trip, starting with flying into Auckland on the north island and driving down and around the south island. Sue showed the itinerary to her brother, who is in the business, and said it could not be done. But we are not average persons and not only did we do it, we actually felt it was a nice pace for us and accomplished fairly easily. My only problem was the start in Auckland. Besides learning to drive for the first time on the left side of the road, Auckland and much of New Zealand, is built on a volcano. They could not level it for roads or buildings. Everything appeared to be built upon precarious angles and slants, sometimes seemingly impossibly and defying all laws of gravity. Walking proved to be just as awkward, as the sidewalk often angled in four or more directions at once as it meandered its way over the buried lava.

Everything in NZ is very expensive. I don’t know how people feed themselves. Bill and his family grow their own veggies and fatten sheep every year for their table. At restaurants there is very little vegetables because of the expense, and lamb, even though their principal crop, was the most expensive of all! So beef with fries seemed to be the main stay. But when you order a burger and fries, the price of the burger at $19.00 ND (about $1.7 exchange CND) does not include the drink nor the fries! One place had a sign, ‘Yes you can eat lunch for $20 here.’ I took a photo of it. That’s how rare it was to be able to get a meal for under $20 that it was advertised! And when you order the burger, be careful of saying yes to everything on it. We found out the hard way that in NZ, everything includes shredded carrots and beets and a fried egg. Are you serious? However, it was the only vegetable we were offered in a month and by the end of the trip, the shredded carrots and beets became slightly tempting to try.

A couple of simple stapes in North America are like gold down in NZ. Cream, ketchup and coffee. No one drinks cream in their coffee there. I couldn’t understand why until in Bill’s home and I went to the grocery store to get cream. A little container, like that of the small serving size of milk, was the equivalent of about our $10. Wow, ouch! And then there was ketchup. Many North Americans just couldn’t handle it down there. Ketchup is more like a garnish, a taste or a tease, one which you must pay for. A serving, about half the packaged  size you get at McDonalds, cost about 50 cents.  I guess they don’t have a lot of tomato crops there. You’re hard pressed to have ketchup with those fries. After paying more than $20 for lunch, who wants to spend another $5 just for enough ketchup for the fries? But the worse of all was coffee. I’m a big drinker of coffee and Sue was also back then. It was $5 for each cup of coffee. That’s because they don’t have brewed coffee, only the barista press coffee. Now we had not budgeted that much for food and when you factored in such expensive coffee, we were quickly down to only two coffees a day each, lest we starve to death.

As we made our way around the country we discovered both islands were essentially volcanoes and the land was very mountainous. And no where else in the world can you find so many ways to travel downhill on the sides of mountains at break-neck speeds. Once you get to know the people, you start to understand why and how they can think this way. Lets see, get in a plastic ball, like the blow up beach ones, and travel down a mountain in one. Can you say I never knew how a hamster felt until that day? Take a pair of roller blades, attach bigger wheels and skate down a mountain.Not good enough you say? Okay, add an engine to it for some added speed! Yes, a place where many adventure sports are borne and where many youth from across Europe come for adventures and to face their fears.When there, you can just see a bored Kiwi looking up the hill and asking himself, “How can I top the latest decent?” Yes,  NZ is considered the play land for the young. We were later to find out that they have no fault insurance there. What that means is that any tour operator, once warning you of the risks, is free from any lawsuit should you die from the activity. In fact, in the month before we arrived, Bill had been at a tourism summit with the Minister of Tourism as the keynote speaker. In his address, he implored that in order to keep tourism alive, they needed to stop killing the tourist! Hummm. Makes you think twice don’t it?

But the landscape is truly stunning. I have been out to Canada’s west coast and have been among the Rockies. ND looked just like Canada to me most of the time, except it was bigger and it became bigger every day. I couldn’t understand that.Just when I thought I had seen it all, seen the most beautiful, seen the biggest, been overwhelmed, grateful or feeling small, along comes another jewel of beauty the next day, even bigger and more breathtaking. It is truly a land of awe and beauty with its different regions and zones and vegetation. There was one day when we went for a boat tour of the the fjords in  Milford Sound. It was raining like crazy and there was a total of six tourist on the ship. I went up to the top deck, which on a bright sunny day would be full of people clamoring to see the views of the fjord and waterfalls., I carefully crossed my way to the front as it was not only slippery in the rain, but it was cold and ice had formed on the deck. It was there as we sailed down the inlet between majestic walls that were once forged by a fjord, the rain pounding on my face, I raised my arms and spread them out, much like in the movie Titanic. I was mesmerized, overwhelmed, at peace and at one with the surroundings around me. The staff just kept coming up to check on me, uttering something about a crazy Canuck. But this is a land and country that you do not just look at, but rather one that you experience, with your eyes, your heart and your soul.

In the next part, as we travel further on the south island and to the home of Sue’s brother Bill and his family, we are introduced to the people and their customs and cultures. I will continue this story there the next time.

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