New Zealand: Beautiful views and friendly people

New Zealand: Beautiful views and friendly people

By Ashley Beitel

Although it is 5/9ths of the way around the world, New Zealand is a little like California, but 5/9ths the size and without all the people. Rolling vineyards, a beautiful coastline, mountain vistas, dense rainforests, whales, dolphins, seals and the constant threat of earthquakes. Why, New Zealand even had a gold rush.

After eight days in Sydney, we flew to New Zealand for the final 5/9ths of our trip. Our overly ambitious attempt to sample all of the South Island began and ended in the English city of Christchurch. Unfortunately, since the devastating earthquake in 2012, parts of Christchurch looked more like bombed-out London in 1945. A structural engineer I met expressed frustration with the government's inability to move ahead with important infrastructure projects. Sound familiar?

At $2.22 and the exchange rate favoring the U.S. dollar by 10 percent, gas was only $8 a gallon. Yeah, prices were in liters not gallons. Making conversions on the fly was important and eventually became second nature. Do you remember how to convert from Celsius to Fahrenheit using the 5/9ths or 9/5ths multiplier? It's easy down under. Your serving sizes are 5/9ths of what you expect and you pay 9/5ths more than you are used to. Ah, but we weren't there for the English-inspired food (lamb and beef dishes) it was because it was 9/5ths warmer than back home (and 9/5ths more beautiful).

Everywhere you go in New Zealand, you see spectacular views and meet friendly people, like at the Good Shepherd Church on the shores of Lake Tekapo in view of Mount Cook. This scruffy octogenarian was shepherding boulders up from the lake on a slab of sheet metal and a pickup truck as old as the rocks. Should have known the blue coveralls were a giveaway. He did his graduate work in botany at Duke. Hint: If you get married at this drop-dead gorgeous location, 5/9ths of your relatives won't be able to come.

In the old days, the really old days, New Zealand was part of Antarctica and Australia. But those yearly millimeter moves added up, leaving New Zealand 2,000 kilometers ESE of Australia across the Tasman Sea (1 kilometer is about 5/9ths of a mile).

New Zealanders make fun of their big brother to the west, savor their rugby and cricket victories and blame them for exporting pests who lack predators. The Aussies seem to consider the Kiwis rather eco extreme, but neither country will let you enter with any piece of the farm between your toes. New Zealand customs had the cutest dogs sniffing us upon entry — not so much for drugs, but for unwanted threats to their agriculture. So, no whaling, no nukes and no BYO honey, Honey.

New Zealand produces fine wines, as well as the best honey. They may be strict at the border, but they have successfully avoided importing colony collapse disorder. They've also tightened up their immigration standards, so seeking asylum from a bankrupt state no longer qualifies. Maybe corrupt and bankrupt will make the cut. I'll have to ask.

To get from Christchurch on the east side of South Island to beautiful Fiordland on the southwest coast, we needed to cross the Southern Alps — while driving on the LEFT side of the road. Remember what it was like to drive when you had your learner's permit? That's what your first week on the roads down under feels like. Just practice at home in the mirror before you leave. It's the walking that's hard. One time off the curb looking left and you're toast.

And if you do have an accident? No worries. At least for the guy who hit you? New Zealand has a "knock-for-knock" policy of letting everyone pay for his or her own damages, regardless of responsibility. No joke, knock-for-knock. That latte stop was totally worth $1,500. I hope that was in New Zealand dollars. New Zealanders are very friendly and for the most part trusting. The teenager who hit our car left us his name and number after waiting an hour for us to return. Great kid; lousy insurance.

Although we rented apartments in Australia through Airbnb, we did fine calling from the road for hotels while in New Zealand. With an unlocked off-contract phone and an inexpensive New Zealand sim card, you can add minutes from companies like Vodafone. The hotels came with Internet access, but limited amounts of data, so do your downloading before you leave the U.S. or stick with text. The Galileo app allows you to download maps and view them offline. The Triposo app also has good trip advice and maps you can view offline. If you don't leave your iPhone in airplane mode or do the sim card switcheroo, you'll make your domestic carrier very happy upon your return.

Many frugal visitors to New Zealand rented mini-RVs because campsites were not your clear-view-of-the-highway KOA. More likely than not, you would be awakened by diving ducks, black swans, white heron, penguins or seals. Just download Lonely Planet New Zealand and off you go. It will lead you to opportunities such as Whale Watch Kaikoura.

New Zealand is a geological wonderland. Tectonic shifts and the consequent earthquakes and volcanoes shape much of New Zealand, while glaciers from the Ice Age dug deep valleys and lakes and smoothed many of the rough edges. The southwestern coast of New Zealand's South Island, known as Fiordland, is a showcase for what water can carve given time. I could easily have repeated the three-hour Mitre boat tour of Milford Sound many times over, each time in different conditions with different light. It's a little like Glacier Bay in Alaska. You leave with your eyeballs hurting from too much beauty.

Next trip, I think, will be in the spring so there will be some snow to make the mountains pop against the blue sky. Remember, chances are pretty good it will rain on the day you picked too far in advance. And, the smaller the boat, the closer your view. Yes, there were kayaks for those who liked getting wet in all the waterfalls. Our boat pilot even knew where to find the dolphins and how to play with them. A pod of (adolescent?) dolphins surfed in the boat's wake, caught some serious air and repeatedly buzzed the boat.

New Zealand had abundant opportunities to view wildlife in their natural habitats. Our Elm Wildlife Tours at Otago Peninsula were reasonably priced and provided access that would have been difficult to create on our own. Our up-close-and-personal visits with penguins, sea lions, seals and albatross made the challenging hikes up and down steep sheep-decorated paths worth the effort.

From a blind on the cliff at the albatross research center, we literally had a bird's-eye view of their ability to glide effortlessly with their 9-foot wingspans. Another blind at beach level afforded us great views of the rare yellow-eyed penguins coming ashore. No speed dating or male dominance hijinks with these two species. They both mate for life.

Not so with the sea lions. Rather than mix it up with the heavyweights, the section of beach we visited was the hangout for a fella hoping his true love would just wash ashore. This big guy may not have been the prom king, but he could move. What do you do if a sea lion charges? Be prepared to outrun the person next to you.

Instead of expensive restaurants, we preferred the stop-a-little, eat-a-little, talk-a-little approach. Can't beat smoked salmon, crackers and a good chat at a picnic table across a lake from Mount Cook (at 5/9ths the cost).

Everywhere we went, people were friendly and willing to talk. And if you are into photography, make sure your partner shares your passion, because it's painful to leave one behind. A good photo that is.

Ashley Beitel, a clinical psychologist, lives in Champaign.

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Topics (1):Travel