Hundreds of years ago groups of seafaring, adventure-loving Polynesian explorers set sail in canoes (or wakas, as they called them) and discovered an uninhabited group of islands in the South Pacific. They became the first settlers in the lush and green wonderland full of exotic birdlife. Many of them perished in the cold. But then they learned to heat up rocks to keep themselves warm at night, make tools out of sea shells, and make warm clothing from flax fiber, feathers, and fur. They carved out a niche for themselves in what they named Aotearoa, or the land of the white cloud, a place that was renamed New Zealand by the Dutch in the 17th century. Today, more than 75% of New Zealand's inhabitants live in the North Island. The South Island, to a large extent, continues to be nature's sanctum full of forests, mountains, volcanoes, lakes, fjords, glaciers, and more. In this travelogue, I will share my experiences as I traveled across the North Island from Auckland to Wellington and back.
We commenced our tour at Auckland (A) and then traveled through Waitomo (B), Rotorua (C), Taupo (D), and Napier (E) finally reaching Palmerston North (F). From there we visited Manawatu gorge and Wellington (G), the capital city. And finally we took the scenic Overlander train ride back to Auckland.
|Our route from Auckland to Wellington|
Fabulous Flora and FaunaAn interesting fact about New Zealand is that, before the arrival of the settlers, the only mammals there either swam (e.g. fur seals) or flew (e.g. bats). Due to the complete absence of terrestrial predators, many species of birds quit the very energy-intensive activity of flying. But the modern times ushered in human settlers, who brought with them predatory mammals that posed a serious threat to most flightless and many flying bird species. The nocturnal kiwi – the national bird of New Zealand – is critically endangered. The kakapo – a flightless, nocturnal parrot – is slowly rebounding from the brink of extinction. Currently, the 124 living kakapos in the world are being conserved in predator-free islands. The gigantic moa became extinct some 500 years ago. The threats are serious, but there is hope, thanks to the tireless efforts of passionate conservationists! Here are pictures of some plants and bird species endemic to New Zealand.
|This is a kiwi inside a dark room in Auckland zoo. This one was running around energetically. In the other two places we saw kiwis, they were either hiding or burrowing! Also, this was the only place that allowed photography (without flash).|
|Mamaku (literally king of the tree ferns) - New Zealand's tallest tree fern|
|A frond or a koru - a symbol of new life and energy in Maori culture|
|Flowers of the New Zealand tea tree (the manuka tree). It is the source of the famed Manuka honey.|
|Flowers of the pohutukawa - the New Zealand Christmas tree|
|A tui - colorful songbird - perched on a New Zealand flax (harakeke) plant ready to feed on its nectar.|
|The kereru or the New Zealand wood pigeon - a 20 inch tall spectacle of a pigeon. This chubby bird used to be an important source of food for the Maori. Sadly these birds are near-threatened today.|
Waitomo Glowworm GrottoThe most unforgettable experience I had in New Zealand was the boat ride through the Waitomo glow worm grotto. The boat there takes you through the still waters of an underground stream. Your eyes take some time to adjust to the pitch darkness, and your mind is soothed by the pervasive tranquility. And then, the boat enters the glow worm grotto - a cave chamber where the naturally sculptured ceiling is aglow with the luminescence of myriads of glow worms. The Waitomo glow worm, Arachnocampa luminosa, is unique to New Zealand. The larvae spin thread-like sticky feeding lines hanging from their little nests on the ceiling and use their light to lure prey, which get trapped in the threads. Something spectacular happened when our guide stamped her foot loudly on the boat. Suddenly the whole chamber seemed to light up even brighter. The greedy worms sensed the sound and took it to be a sign from potential prey, and started glowing many times brighter with hope of catching for themselves a hearty meal. Sadly (for us, and gladly for nature), photography is not allowed on this tour. But here is a second-hand snapshot of the pitch black cave interior illuminated by myriads of entomic lanterns (courtesy: Google).
Maori Cultural HeritageExperiencing Maori culture was probably the most entertaining part of my New Zealand visit. About 16% of 4.3 million Kiwi people today are Maori. They say that the average New Zealander these days is at least one-sixteenth Maori by blood. The Maori are a lively people adept at wood carving, music, and weaving. We visited a Maori village at Rotorua. Before we could enter their village our “chief” (a fellow tourist and a random scapegoat ;-)) was challenged to an open confrontation by the Maori chief. Once "peace was made", we were welcomed into the village, got to listen to their stories, got acquainted with their lifestyle – both past and present, attended a Maori concert, and finally joined them for their traditional Hangi feast. I would like to share with you a series of video clips from the welcoming ceremony and the concerts.
And a Lot of Other Great Things...The Kiwi countryside is gorgeous and green and spotted with grazing farm animals, mainly cattle and sheep. After all, it is a country where there are 10 times as many sheep as people. Some of the other great experiences included exploring the geothermal areas of Rotorua, sailing near Auckland, getting lost in the bush on a charmingly rainy day, and, of course, getting to spend some precious family time with my parents while the three of us continue to live in three different countries. :-) I will pause here and let the pictures tell the rest of my story. (For a complete coverage, you are welcome to visit the full photo collection from my Kiwi adventure.
|Sky Tower, Auckland|
|Pohutu geyser, Rotorua|
|The serene Napier coast|
|Vineyards at Napier|
|Manawatu Gorge (Note the freight train track emerging from a tunnel on the far side of the river)|
|A rainy day at Te Apiti Wind Farm near Manawatu Gorge|
|Entering the bush, where we got lost and had a thrilling adventure finding our way back!|
|Dewdrops on rose petals at Lady Norwood Rose Garden, Wellington|
|"My Precious!" whispers Gollum at the Weta Cave museum, Wellington|
|Green meadows spotted by grazing sheep - view from the Overlander train|