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HOME AT FIRST's

New Zealand

          Miles of wild open spaces. High desert plateaus extending from the horizons. Virgin forests of giant prehistoric trees. Grassy plains. Jagged granite rising almost 2.5 miles above the ocean. Glaciers descending into the jungle. Parrots and penguins in the same rain forest. A wild ocean crashing into footprint-free beaches. Boom towns. Ghost towns. No towns. Clapboard false fronts. Dusty main streets at high noon. Cowboys and sheepmen trading stories at the general store and the post office. Country fairs where lumberjacks saw and chop, shearers slice wool, and horsewomen debate Western vs. English, while all covet the prize-winning pies. Wyoming? Montana? Alaska? Mexico? Argentina? Australia? Nope, pardner, it's New Zealand: last frontier of the West and first frontier of the East, so far down under we Yanks stage there before departing for Antarctica. Do you think the pioneer spirit of the Wild West has gone the way of the moa? Nope — it's alive and well exactly where the moa used to live.

In Part One we gallop through the North Island, stopping to gawk at prehistoric trees, Maori fishing villages, clapboard towns, artist colonies, geothermal playgrounds, until we reached the San Francisco of the South Pacific, Wellington, and the end of the island.

In Part Two we fly to the South Island and explore the water wonders and wine lands of Nelson and Marlborough country, then head for bloomin’ Christchurch with a short stop to spot the whales off the Kaikoura Coast. We take a great rail journey from coast to coast, crossing the Southern Alps and arriving in wild Westland, where we see glaciers, go fishing, and visit frontier towns along the Tasman Sea. Finally, we cross New Zealand’s highest road pass, driving from the coast through the rain forest to the alpine heights and down into the arid rain shadow of Wanaka in Central Otago on the eastern slope.

In Part Three we explore some of New Zealand’s most famous, most majestic, most remote, and most touristed country, home of the bungy, the kea, the jet boat, and the great treks. We go back a century in Arrowtown, go extreme in Queenstown, and can't believe our eyes in Fiordland.

Finally, Part Four takes us in either of two directions back to civilization at Christchurch. One direction leads to Scotland on the Pacific Coast. The other crosses the great New Zealand Outback by way of the highest point in Australasia. Along the way we see penguins and albatross, lots of rabbits and a few sheep. Come with us as our Wild Frontier itinerary leads back to Christchurch by way of Dunedin and Mackenzie Country.

 

PART TWO—
North & West on

The South Island

MARLBOROUGH MAN
          Crossing from the North Island to the South Island, oddly, requires going west. It's 3.5 hours by boat ferry from Wellington across the often treacherous Cook Strait to Picton, in the district of Marlborough, or by a much simpler and more comfortable 35-minute flight to Nelson, capital city of its namesake region. Either destination puts you wonderfully close to New Zealand's burgeoning grape-producing area, home to some world class whites and some upstart reds. Remember Napa Valley 40 years ago? No? Hurry to the Marlborough and you can still find it.

          Just west of Nelson a couple of hours is Abel Tasman National Park, a region of rain forest,  

Murchison Rancher at play. Photo © Home At First.
Murchison Rancher at play.
Photo © Home At First

headlands, snowy white beaches and turquoise water that

 

 

has become the most-visited of New Zealand's natural

Golden Bay at Abel Tasman National Park. Photo © Home At First.

paradises. Diagonally across sheltered Golden Bay from the park is the long sand sickle called Farewell Spit, a thin barrier sandbar that with a name like an impudent good-bye.

          East of Nelson and north of Picton are the Marlborough Sounds, an intricate collection of inside waterways that would bring a smile to a smuggler's face. Leave the car at Picton docks for the mail boat ride through the sounds, the only way residents of these convoluted peninsulas and islands can get their L.L. Bean catalogues.

Golden Bay at Abel Tasman National Park.
Photo © Home At First

-

WHALES & CREAM TEAS
          Head due southeast, cutting the corner of Marlborough on Highway 1, skirting endless ranges of inland mountains, and reaching the Pacific near the Kaikoura Coast. Here the draw is big mammals, the only ones native to New Zealand, but not the kind with feet. This is whale watching and seal watching country, the former in close proximity by boat, and the latter on the rocks along the coast road. Oh, and for you who like to look out for monsters, this is where the giant squid live, in a deep canyon just offshore.
           Next it's
Christchurch, and New

Whale watching along the Kaikoura Coast. NZ Tourism photo.
Whale watching along
the Kaikoura Coast.

Zealand's special brand of culture shock. In a

 

country full of wide open spaces, geological oddities, cowboys, sheep men, and clapboard towns, Christchurch comes on like a lost city from England. Yes, you can still find lots of shops selling sheepskins and adventure clothing, but the natives seem

 

genuinely more interested in cream teas with

The 'TranzAlpine' train crosses from the East Coast (at Christchurch) to the West Coast (at Greymouth) via Arthur's Pass through the Southern Alps. NZ Tourism photo.
The 'TranzAlpine' train crosses from the
East Coast (at Christchurch) to the West
Coast (at Greymouth) via Arthur's
Pass through the Southern Alps.

the vicar. Christchurch, proof that the sun still hasn't quite set on the British Empire, also is a frontier town: it's from Christchurch that Americans shuttle to and from permanent bases in Antarctica, like staging at Skagway for the journey into the Klondike.
          Drop the car in Christchurch. There's a great adventure waiting to take you to New Zealand's wild west, a half-day cruise train across the mountains to Greymouth on the Tasman Coast in Westland. The Tranzalpine's journey through the Southern Alps via Arthur's Pass is New Zealand's best train ride, sort of a compact version of our legendary California

 

Zephyr.

 

WILD WESTLAND

 

          After the dry, sunny climes of Marlborough, and the tranquil, easy vacationland of Nelson, and the transplanted England of Christchurch, the region called Westland seems another world. This narrow strip of barely arable land is wedged between an often hostile Tasman Sea and a wall of still-growing mountains that already reach almost 13,000 feet above the ocean. The wild ocean brings the weather and the mountains block the clouds, making Westland the wettest part of New Zealand. Life is hard here. The 1% of all New Zealanders who have

The foothills of the Southern Alps holding the clouds away from Westland meadows. Photo © Home At First.
The foothills of the Southern Alps holding
the clouds away from Westland meadows.

Photo © Home At First

settled here are different from their country-

 

 

men — these are hardy loners: independent, no-frills

New Zealand cowgirl at an A&P show. Photo © Home At First.
New Zealand cowgirl
at an A&P sho
w.
Photo © Home At First

mavericks Americans might call pioneer stock. They are miners and ranchers and farmers and they must fight nature to scratch out a meager living by New Zealand standards. This is New Zealand’s last frontier, and those few frontiersmen and women who have made Westland their home cannot afford sophistication and complexity, and have little time for the Empire and old school ties. Instead, it's hard living, and all that means: hard work, hard play, and hard drink.
         
Westland is a paradise for the right type of individual: the streams are full of fish, and the ranches full of game, and the forests and mountains full of wild country. There are pristine looking-glass lakes, wispy waterfalls like liquid gauze, and glaciers descending sharply from the alps, melting into moraines in the jungle, coming within seven miles of the sea. It's easy to imagine that the Kiwis who populate Westland might fit right in Montana, Wyoming, or Alaska.

 

CROSSING THE DIVIDE —

THE HAAST PASS TO WANAKA, CENTRAL OTAGO

          Leaving Westland is, well, another great adventure. The drive begins in the flood plain of the Tasman Sea, in the wettest part of New Zealand, and climbs the highest, southernmost, and last paved of the three roads across the Southern Alps. The Haast Pass sees too much moisture and is too high to always be open to traffic, and its steep grades and countless hairpin curves ought to dissuade those driving campers and motor homes from using its through route, the ambitiously named National Highway 6.
          The ascent through the rain forest and into the clouds leads almost to alpine conditions and then, suddenly to a vastly different environment on the east side of the divide. Here in the rain shadow of the Southern Alps is the high plateau of southernmost Canterbury and northern Otago regions, an arid, barren land that, if not for all the water, would be a desert.
          The water is in the form of Lakes Wanaka and Hawea, glacier-fed and turquoise, part of the immense hydro-storage system feeding power stations throughout

 Wet Feet at the Franz Josef Glacier. The Franz Josef Glacier, Westland. Temperate zone glaciers are very rare. To find them ending in the rain forest less than ten miles from the open sea is virtually unheard of. Photo © Home At First.
The Franz Josef Glacier,
a rare temperate zone
glacier ending in the
Westland rain forest ten 
miles from the Tasman Sea.

Photo © Home At First

the Clutha River watershed, producing enough electricity

 

 

to permit the South Island to export wattage to the North

The torturous Haast Pass, which snakes steeply up this canyon to cross the Southern Alps well above tree line, is a challenging road in the best of weather. Photo © Home At First.

Island. At the southern end of the lakes is the frontier town of Wanaka, home of outfitters, adventure companies, last-chance gas stations, motels and hostels, and first town of any size since Hokitika in Westland, 265 rugged miles and almost 6 fascinating driving hours away. But the rugged fascination isn't over yet. Take on fuel in Wanaka, then leave town on route 89, the short cut to Arrowtown, a dusty, mostly unpaved crossing of the mountains south of town. At the arid high point of this crossing you suddenly see the promised land of green and blue far below, and the plunge into Arrowtown is both breathtaking and brake-testing. 

The torturous Haast Pass, which snakes steeply up
this canyon to cross the Southern Alps well above tree 
line, is a challenging road in the best of weather.

Photo © Home At First

 

Glacier-fed, turquoise Lake Hawea carries the water of the Southern Alps south across Central Otago to the Pacific. Composite photo © Home At First.
Glacier-fed, turquoise Lake Hawea carries the water of
the Southern Alps south across Central Otago to the Pacific.

Photo © Home At First 

 

— End of Part Two —

Exploration and discovery are what happens
during a visit to Home At First's New Zealand. Looking for new frontiers?
Lost worlds? New possibilities? Surprises? Geologic wonders?
Learn more about travel with
Home At First to NEW ZEALAND.
Visit more Wild Frontiers at: PART 1    PART 3    PART 4.

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