By Fred Delcomyn
When I saw the pukeko, a plump blue and green chicken-like bird with long legs and an enormous orange-red beak, on my first day in New Zealand, it was obvious I was no longer in Illinois.
My wife, my wife's mother, and I were visiting the island nation so we could see the place our daughter and granddaughter had adopted as home. And it was definitely not Illinois!
Forged by the collision of two tectonic plates millions of years ago and lying nearly 1,000 miles from the nearest land mass of any size, New Zealand is indeed an exotic place. Other bizarre birds, tropical tree ferns growing only a few miles from frolicking penguins, enormous mountains that look like a giant had pried up mile-wide slabs of the earth — these are all part of the landscape.
We flew from Chicago to Auckland via Los Angeles, then on to Palmerston North. After a few days to get acclimated, we headed down to the South Island. We took a ferry across the Cook Strait ($60-$70 U.S. one way; $200-$220 with a car), picked up a rental car, learned to drive on the "wrong" side of the road, and were on our way.
We started down the east coast, stopping in Kaikoura, a small tourist town with gorgeous views of both sea and mountains. Here and elsewhere we found that motels were plentiful and not too expensive. About $100 a night got us two bedrooms with kitchen.
The east coast is also home to many companies that offer visitors a chance to experience exotic New Zealand close-up. My wife and I opted for the Albatross Encounter ($95 per person), which was a two-hour trip on a small motor launch on the Pacific Ocean to see the plentiful seabirds: albatrosses, petrels, etc. Being close enough to touch an albatross was an unforgettable experience despite the cloudy weather.
The west coast shares sea and surf with the east coast, but that's about all. Here the mountains rise abruptly from the sea to form grotesque and fantastic rock formations. One site well worth a visit is Pancake Rocks, near Punakaiki. Limestone deposits there have been heavily eroded, giving an appearance of stacked pancakes, with an intermittent topping of dramatic sea spray that erupts from blowholes as the surf crashes in.
We took our time heading south, stopping for short hikes into the lush rainforest inland toward Fox Glacier and enjoying the breathtaking views from the scenic stops along the coast.
The interior of the South Island offers a stark contrast to the coasts, with its rugged mountains and twisting (and challenging) roads. You can experience the region up close by taking one of the many excursions available for the adventurous: guided fishing trips, scenic air flights, river rafting, and other adventures.
An excursion we took was a cruise along Doubtful Sound (Real Journeys, about $250 per person from Queenstown), part of the otherwise inaccessible Fiordland National Park. The impact of sheer mountains rising straight out of the sea, tree ferns clinging precariously to the steep slopes, and the silver threads of cascading waterfalls, is truly difficult to describe in words.
Fur seals and penguins seen as the sound opened into the Tasman Sea added to the experience.
Unfortunately, I don't have space to tell you about the hike around the Kaikoura Peninsula, the hot pools at Hanmer Springs, the scenic air flight around Mount Aspiring, or the many other adventures we had in this strange and wonderful land. You'll just have to visit yourself. Bring your adventuresome spirit, though, or you'll miss half the fun!
Fred Delcomyn is a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, where he taught biology and neuroscience. He lives in Urbana.