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ALL NZ
LOCATIONS

NORTH
ISLAND

SOUTH
ISLAND

NELSON

WESTLAND

QUEENSTOWN
& CENTRAL
OTAGO

FIORDLAND &
SOUTHLAND

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& OTAGO
PENINSULA

MACKENZIE:
MT. COOK &
LAKE TEKAPO

CHRISTCHURCH
& CANTERBURY

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 FOUR—
The Central & Southeastern

South Island

Choices, choices. But on the South Island, ultimately all roads lead to Christchurch Airport.
You take the high road, and I’ll take the low. And I’ll get to Christchurch afore ye.

 Choice 1: The Low Road Home to Christchurch —

-
FIORDLAND TO THE PACIFIC COAST AT DUNEDIN

The Otago Peninsula juts out from Dunedin into the South Pacific. The Otago Peninsula, a short drive from Dunedin’s city centre, is home to a colony of the world's rarest penguins and the only mainland breeding colony of the Royal Albatross. It’s also the place to find Larnach Castle and Glenfalloch Woodland Gardens. It’s easy to spend a day or more exploring the peninsula. Kieran Scott Photo, courtesy Tourism New Zealand.
The Otago Peninsula juts out from
Dunedin into the South Pacific.
The Otago Peninsula, a short drive
from Dunedin’s city centre, is home
to a colony of the world's rarest
penguins and the only mainland
breeding colony of the Royal
Albatross. It’s also the place to
find 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. It’s 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 Island’s 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 Invercargill, New

Zealand's southernmost 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 long.

-

SCOTLAND IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC
          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 beer.
          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,

Gingerbread George, Dunedin's Flemish Renaissance train station. Photo by Kieran Scott, courtesy Tourism New Zealand.
Gingerbread George,
Dunedin's flashy Flemish
Renaissance train station.

and both provide rail dramatic journeys into the remote

 

 

wilderness. From Dunedin’s beautiful Flemish

Flat Stream Viaduct on the scenic Taieri Gorge Railway. Taieri Gorge Railway Photo.
Flat Stream 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 offers

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 region’s 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 is probably the world’s rarest penguin. It lives along the wild south-east coast of the South Island and is best observed from a viewing hut. Around dawn the penguins leave their nests to enter the sea for a day’s fishing, returning during the last two hours of daylight. There are four viewing huts on the Otago coast. Tourism Dunedin photo, courtesy Tourism New Zealand.
The Yellow-Eyed Penguin is probably
the world’s rarest penguin. It lives
along the wild south-east coast
of the South Island and is best
observed from a viewing hut.
Around dawn the penguins leave
their nests to enter the sea for
a day’s fishing, returning during
the last two hours of daylight.
There are four viewing huts on
the Otago coast.

 

St Kilda Beach is just one of the coastal beauty spots in the Dunedin area. Only a short drive from the city is the Otago Peninsula, where you can see colonies of rare penguins, albatrosses and seals. North of Dunedin is Blueskin Bay, a place to watch wading birds and other types of aquatic life. Photo by Kieran Scott, courtesy Tourism New Zealand.
St Kilda Beach is a short drive from
Dunedin on the Otago Peninsula,
home of rare penguins, albatrosses
and seals. North of Dunedin is
Blueskin Bay, which attracts
several varieties of wading birds.

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

 

minor geological 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.

Moeraki Boulders -- like giant marbles -- a minor geological curiosity in a country full of such places. Photo © Home At First.
Moeraki Boulders — like giant marbles —
a minor geological curiosity in
a country full of such places.

 


-

 Choice 2: The High Road Home to Christchurch —

FIORDLAND TO THE PLAINS OF CANTERBURY

Before European settlers arrived, coastal Maori people used to migrate to the McKenzie Basin during hot summers. They quarried stone and hunted moa (a very large flightless bird that is now extinct). The basin, which is surrounded by mountain ranges, is more than 300 metres above sea level. Eric Napier photo, courtesy Tourism New Zealand.
Before European settlers arrived,
 coastal Maori people used to
migrate to the McKenzie Basin
during hot summers. They
quarried stone and hunted moa
(a very large flightless bird that
is 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 Queenstown, 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.
        Granted, 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 PIERCERS

          After 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. It’s 40 minutes or more up

Looking across Lake Pukaki toward Mt. Cook. Photo © Home At First.
Looking across Lake Pukaki toward Mt. Cook.

this valley to Mt. Cook town at the foot of
the 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.

 

LAKE TEKAPO

Church of the Good Shepherd on Lake Tekapo. Photo © Home At First.
Church of the Good Shepherd on Lake Tekapo.

          Thirty miles northeast of the Route 80 turn along Highway 8 is Lake 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 bronze 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 in this mountainous region would be impossible. Photo © Home At First.
Lake Tekapo is nestled in the northwestern
corner of the Mackenzie Basin, New Zealand’s
most famous sheep farming district. This
bronze 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 in this
mountainous region would be impossible.

romantic lifestyle of the high New Zealand

 

outback is dying, as the Mackenzie becomes a wasteland.

Rabbit infestation and disease have eradicated much of the natural tussock grass that has supported vast herds of sheep in New Zealand's Mackenzie Country. Photo © Home At First.
Rabbit infestation &
disease have eradicated
 much of the natural
 tussock grass that HAS
supported vast herds OF
sheep in New Zealand's
Mackenzie Country.

          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 for Earth.

 

CHRISTCHURCH, AUCKLAND, AND HOME

          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. Christchurch is still 90 minutes northeast along Route 1, but the scenic variety of upland Canterbury is now behind you.
          It’s 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: historic street car near Cathedral Square in central Christchurch. NZ Tourism photo.
Back to civilization: historic street
car near Cathedral Square in
central Christchurch.

and then eating at Pizza Hut and Mickey D’s may help
you begin your transition back to North America.

 

— End of Part Four —

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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