Friday, January 29, 2010

New Zealand retrospective

So far away from Europe, yet so familiar - New Zealand tantalises with a beguiling combination of the familiar and the exotic. Blackbirds hopping across lawns vs arctic parrots (keas) tearing your car apart in the snows; driving on the left with all the usual rules except when you're turning left and the car opposite is turning right; finding towns with overly British names like Nelson, Hamilton, Dunedin outnumbered by Maori names like Motueka, Rotorua or Tauranga; crossing landscapes apparently Scottish - until a gaudy jetboat packed with thrill-seekers streaks past on the shallow stream; walking along a familiar track when you realise that the ferns are trees and the water is geothermal.

Now "back" (for me) in Bangkok, I'll have a go at summarising the experience this time. Having previously enjoyed all the variety of New Zealand and its changeability, I had to learn that some people have more selective tastes. Remember first that the islands are located, a little like Britain's, between a sea and a large ocean, only that in New Zealand's case the proportion of water to land is more heavily biased to the wet side. As a result, instead of a static or slow-changing weather pattern, NZ's is volatile and hard to predict much in advance. Secondly, the islands span climatic zones from the modestly temperate to the subtropical (south to north) and from the drenchingly wet to the semi-parched (roughly west to east, although this year it's the Northland's turn to suffer drought). Topographically, it's more mountainous in the south (but not exclusively) and more volcanic in the north.

For the visitor, there's a considerable range of activities on offer, with an emphasis on the outdoors and the edgy, and a similar range of places to stay, from tents and camper vans through backpacker hostels, lodges, motels up to the ridiculously pricy. And price-wise, certainly for us Poms with a weak pound, NZ is certainly rather expensive (apart from fuel) and some charging levels made us speculate whether they could be pricing themselves out of some markets. Many tourist destinations these days seem to dream of focusing on the high-spending short-term visitor, forgetting perhaps that, in a pattern of normal distribution, their numbers are limited. Having said that, the spectre of mass (mainland) Chinese tourism continues to approach and we even met a Beijing-based backpacker, complete with Lonely Planet in Chinese (a new LP venture) at our last stop in Mangawai Heads. [Recommended, incidentally, as an appealing and varied seaside location, close enough to Auckland to make it a jumping-off point for afternoon flight departures]. As we found at Luang Prabang two years ago, the influence of that still-dormant source of travellers is growing and one day could overwhelm certin areas of tourism entirely.

J would say that NZ got better from Hokitika northwards, with her high point being the overnight boat trip ["cruise"] on the Bay of Islands. I enjoyed it all, even the rain (quite dramatic at times) but my high point was also North Island-based - the Tongariro Crossing. We were lucky with the weather from Wanganui onwards, virtually throughout the North Island, in fact, with the best at Hahei (Coromandel Peninsula), Paihia (Bay of Islands) and especially Ahipara and Mangawai, saving the best till last. Reassuringly, things seemed to be deteriorating as we left!

For myself, even after two visits totalling over 10 weeks, with some repetitions, there are still many things still to see and do, including 3/4 day tracks, especially in the South, remoter Southern regions, remoter (or less frequented) Northern regions too. What remained the underlying appeal was the gentler pace of life and people's friendliness, due in part (surely) to absurdly low population density.

In planning an itinerary, I had tried to be comprehensive and cover as large a range of variety and distance as we could. In the event, navigator's preferences took us north earlier and gave us almost exactly 2 weeks in each island. We still covered a lot of miles and eventually settled on a policy of at least two nights in any one place - that way we could balance ranging with unwinding. Having come so far, we would have wasted our opportunity if we had visited only two or three places - I think, anyway - but maybe we tried to do too much. Or maybe not.

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