HOME AT FIRST's
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.
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.
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 Zealands 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.
Three we explore some of
New Zealands 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.
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.
Central & Southeastern
Choices, choices. But on the South Island, ultimately all roads lead to
You take the high road, and I’ll take the low. And I’ll get to Christchurch
1: The Low Road Home to Christchurch —
FIORDLAND TO THE PACIFIC COAST AT DUNEDIN
Peninsula juts out from
Dunedin into the South Pacific.
Peninsula, a short drive
city centre, is home
to a colony of the
penguins and the only mainland
breeding colony of the Royal
Albatross. It’s also the place to
Larnach Castle and Glenfalloch
Woodland Gardens. It’s easy to spend a
day or more exploring the peninsula.
This is the low road from Fiordland to Christchurch and home. Begin by taking Route 94
east from Te Anau to Gore, then Highway 1 east and north to reach the southeast Pacific
coast of New Zealand at Dunedin. Its more than 170 miles across Otago to Dunedin,
the Edinburgh of the South, the University City of New Zealand, the Second City of the
South Island. The miles through Otago along routes 94 and 1 to Balclutha are pleasant, but
rather repetitious ranchland, farms, sheep, cattle, the occasional hill. At Balclutha, where you cross the South Islands longest river nearest its mouth at the
Pacific, the terrain becomes more coastal, but not necessarily more interesting, for the
last 50 miles along National Route 1 to Dunedin.
Alternatively, take N94 from Te Anau
to Rte. 6
at Winton, then head south toward
city. At Invercargill take the Gorge Rd.-Invercargill Highway east to
Fortrose and thence into the
Catlins, the under-visited,
scenic area of forest and coast that comprises the remote southeastern
corner of the South Island. Emerge from the Catlins at Rte. 1 in Balclutha, which you follow the final 50 miles to Dunedin. Just to drive
through the Catlins without stopping adds 80 miles to the trip to
Dunedin, but, with stops, add 3-4 hours to make the travel day 7-8 hours
SCOTLAND IN THE SOUTH
It’s never fair, but we do it anyway. We
humans cannot help but describe new experiences in terms of old.
Therefore, Wellington becomes San Francisco (Far) East, Christchurch
preserves a bit of Olde England in the South Pacific, and
Dunedin is the
antipodal Edinburgh. Well, regarding the latter, we’ve been to both
Dunedin and Edinburgh, and the big city of Otago ain’t Auld Reekie.
Still, Dunedin’s got some good golf, and miles of coastline, and a
masonry architectural style that wouldn’t seem terribly out of place in
Midlothian County, Scotland. Nor would the city’s fondness for rugby and
Two more things come to mind. Dunedin’s
great cultural contribution to New Zealand is doubtless the University
of Otago, certainly one of the great learning centers of New Zealand, as
the University of Edinburgh is for Britain. Finally, both cities have
remarkable landmark rail stations,
Dunedin's flashy Flemish
Renaissance train station.
and both provide rail dramatic journeys into the
wilderness. From Dunedin’s beautiful Flemish
Viaduct on the
scenic Taieri Gorge Railway.
Renaissance station — known
locally as "Gingerbread George" — daily 4-hour
round-trips depart into the Otago
interior on the Taieri Gorge Limited. Like Wellington and
Christchurch (and, for that matter, Kingston), Dunedin has a remnant of
the old narrow-gauge New Zealand Railways still in active operation. The
line proceeds northwest from the landmark Dunedin Railway Station along the Taieri River
deep into the sparsely inhabited Otago interior to the village of Middlemarch. During
most of the year, the specially appointed tourist train operates at
least one 4-to-6-hour-long round-trip
daily through the remote Taieri Gorge and into the
Central Otago highlands. Some trains go as far as the remote village of Middlemarch; others only as far as remote Pukerangi, an isolated turn-around
point where a bus connection is
offered to Queenstown. Middlemarch is not much of a village (pop. 250),
but it does have a museum, some historic farmsteads, three churches, and
horseback riding for the 1-hour layover before
returning to Dunedin.
Adventurers can ride the
Taieri Gorge Express train to Pukerangi or Middlemarch to reach the
eastern trailhead of the scenic
Otago Central Rail Trail, to begin cycling
any or all of the 90-mile-long cycle (horse & walking) track, the
abandoned extension of the railway from Middlemarch to Clyde. From Clyde
(a 3-5 day-ride from Middlemarch), buses connect on to Queenstown.
Like Wellington and Christchurch, Dunedin has a fine
peninsular drive. The drive on the low road and high road of the Otago Peninsula features
sweeping harbor views, important Maori sites, the relics of regions large whaling
industry, and rare animals and birds. Among these latter, the peninsula offers the great
contrast of its rare, flightless, yellow-eyed penguins living in close proximity to a
colony of Royal Albatross, the greatest of all flying birds.
The Yellow-Eyed Penguin
the world’s rarest penguin. It lives
along the wild south-east coast
South Island and is best
observed from a
Around dawn the penguins
their nests to enter the sea for
a day’s fishing, returning during
last two hours of daylight.
four viewing huts on
the Otago coast.
St Kilda Beach is a short
Dunedin on the Otago Peninsula,
of rare penguins, albatrosses
North of Dunedin is
Blueskin Bay, which attracts
several varieties of
DRIVING NORTH FROM DUNEDIN
After Dunedin, the trip north is occasionally
interesting in the way that a collection of minor ephemera can be, like sea flotsam, odd
stones, or souvenir spoons. Despite the minor attractions of the region, the coastline
here is largely under-visited, with long, flat beaches minus crowds and shabby seaside
resorts, without so much as a blanket or sand castle. Headlands, coves, beaches,
inlets natural and unspoiled. The beach at Moeraki mid-way between Dunedin and
Oamaru is best known in the region, not for sand and surf, but for its perfectly
spherical, dumpling-like boulders, strewn on the beach like giant marbles, a
curiosity in a country full of such places.
The coastal plain most of the way north to Christchurch is, well, coastal and plain. The small cities (their viewpoint) or large
towns (our viewpoint) of Oamaru and Timaru are speed bumps on the way north, albeit worth
waking up for as a change of scenery. Otherwise, the trip north on Highway 1 is noteworthy
for the series of broad, rocky, river deltas of numerous arteries emptying the snowmelt of
the eastern flank of the Southern Alps into the South Pacific. Christchurch is a welcome
oasis after this desert of humdrum scenery.
— like giant marbles —
a minor geological curiosity in
a country full of such places.
2: The High Road Home to Christchurch —
FIORDLAND TO THE
PLAINS OF CANTERBURY
Maori people used to
migrate to the
during hot summers.
quarried stone and hunted moa
(a very large flightless bird that
now extinct). The basin, which is
surrounded by mountain ranges, is
more than 300 meters above sea level.
Alternatively, this is the high road to Christ-church, and home. From
Te Anau in
Fiordland, drive Route 94 east to Lumsford, then
turn north on Highway 6, retracing your route back toward
and beyond to Cromwell. Here cross the bridge and turn left onto Highway 8 to begin the
climb north through Otago and onto the high plains of Canterbury.
the trip is risky. Not the driving, especially, although there are plenty of steep climbs
through winding canyons on roads that, while not heavily traveled, will have slow moving
campers and slower moving cyclists. No, the trip is risky because of the chances of
missing the Big Attraction along the way, the highest mountain of Australasia, 12,317
foot high Mt. Cook. How can you miss New
Zealand’s Everest? Does its Maori name, Aoraki — "Cloud Piercer" — suggest a possible risk factor?
MOUNT COOK AND OTHER CLOUD
passing through tiny Twizel town Mt. Cook and its extensive snowcapped range may or may
not come into view. At the turn-off for
Mt. Cook and its namesake
resort village at the junction with Route 80, you may not be able to see much of the
Southern Alps. But you will see the shocking turquoise of Lake Pukaki extending north
toward the glacier moraine of Mt. Cook. Its 40 minutes or more up
Lake Pukaki toward Mt. Cook.
valley to Mt. Cook town at
the foot of
mountain. Here you’ll find the usual assortment of
restaurants, souvenir shops, outfitters, and adventure tours ranging
from soft to extreme. There is a wide variety of walks, hikes, climbs,
scenic flights, and ski trips available. Don’t let the touristy village
put you off—it really is possible to get out among these impressive
mountains without great danger of breaking your leg or your budget. Warm
clothing and solid waterproof hiking shoes will come in handy for many
of these activities, as they have been for outdoor activities throughout
the South Island.
Church of the Good
Shepherd on Lake Tekapo.
Thirty miles northeast of the Route 80 turn along Highway 8 is
Tekapo, another remarkable lake reaching north from the dry Canterbury outback to
collect the glacial runoff of the Southern Alps. Highway 8 runs through the town of Lake
Tekapo like an out-of-control main
street strip in a
western U.S. frontier
town. But beyond the cluster of souvenir shops and
restaurants — none of them memorable for positive culinary reasons — is a
lake and mountain landscape that is truly sublime. Don’t let the
off-putting main street sprawl dissuade you — this locale offers great
scenery and a glimpse of one of New Zealand’s distinctive lifestyles,
that of the remote sheep/cattle stations of the high plains: Mackenzie
Country. Named after James Mackenzie, a local sheepherder who trained
his dog to help him rustle from his neighbor’s flocks. After stealing
some 1,000 sheep in lower Canterbury in 1855, Mackenzie absconded to the
previously unknown high plains in the rain shadow of the Southern Alps.
There he found more than a million acres of grazing land, and the region
that now bears his name.
MACKENZIE COUNTRY NEW ZEALAND'S GREAT OUTBACK
Mackenzie Country is New
Zealand’s big sky country. Its sheep stations (farms or ranches) are far
apart, requiring lots of this marginal grassland per animal. Drive some
of its long miles of unpaved roads that lead off Highway 8 toward the
mountains. You will see big scenery — wide open spaces, jagged snowcaps
sawing the horizon, stumbling, frothy shallow rivers full of trout, and
the occasional ramshackle cluster of buildings that announces a sheep
station. But you will see few sheep. Thanks to two infestations — one
plant (hieracium) and one animal (grey rabbits) — the fragile grasses of
Mackenzie are mostly gone. That means the sheep are mostly gone. And
that means that the grand,
Lake Tekapo is nestled
in the northwestern
corner of the Mackenzie Basin, New Zealand’s
most famous sheep farming district. This
statue of a sheep dog was erected
to honor the contribution of the region’s
four-legged heroes. Without the help of
sheepdogs, sheep farming
mountainous region would be impossible.
romantic lifestyle of the high New
outback is dying, as the Mackenzie becomes a wasteland.
Rabbit infestation &
much of the
tussock grass that HAS
supported vast herds OF
sheep in New Zealand's
The wasting of Mackenzie Country is the great modern environmental tragedy of New Zealand,
the cause of years of intense national political debate. It has resulted in acts of
economic desperation by Mackenzie men, acts other New Zealanders consider treasonous. It
has resulted in acts of ecological desperation by other New Zealanders, pushing this
otherwise politically conservative nation far toward the radical activist left on matters
of the environment. Rabbits may have turned Mackenzie Country brown, but they have turned
the rest of New Zealand green. Mackenzie Country is fragile, remote, unique land of
uncommon beauty and potential value despoiled by thoughtlessness or greed or both. For
many Kiwis, Mackenzie Country has become a metaphor for all of New Zealand, itself a
fragile, remote, unique land of uncommon beauty and potential value. New Zealanders
welcome visitors to show them the splendors and rarities of their isolated land, and to
warn them that the fragility of Mackenzie Country may also be interpreted as a metaphor
CHRISTCHURCH, AUCKLAND, AND
Highway 8 turns east, crosses the southern shoulder
of the Two Thumbs Range, and begins to plummet toward the Pacific. At Fairlie, take Route
79 east through pleasantly named Geraldine and to Highway 1 at Rangitata.
still 90 minutes northeast along Route 1, but the scenic variety of upland Canterbury is
now behind you.
Its not wholly inappropriate that
your last taste of the South Island is urban. Christchurch, despite its English hangover,
aspires to the fashionable Yankee-Pacific style so much in vogue in Auckland. Shopping one
last time for Maori jewelry, greenstone jade, and Mackenzie Country sheepskins
Back to civilization:
car near Cathedral Square in
and then eating at
Pizza Hut and Mickey D’s may help
you begin your transition back to
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?
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