A quick week in New Zealand

Scroll down and look at the photos first. Then come back up here and read along. There’s no other way to talk about New Zealand without some kind of visual reference. It’s such an incredibly beautiful place, with its snow-capped mountain ranges rising up from immense green fields and azure blue lakes. I can’t tell you the most awesome views that I saw for a whole week, so I won’t even try.

I drove around New Zealand’s South Island together with Kelvin, and our car was probably the least appropriate vehicle to go up and down steep mountains for a week: a 1.3 liter Daihatsu that would make ominous sounds when creeping over 100 km/hour. We dubbed it Mitzy, The Little Engine That Could. It came with a couple of surprises because this car is built for driving on the left side of the road. As such, not only is the gearstick on the left, but the flippers for the windshield wipers and the indicators are switched! That meant that every time I wanted to make a turn I would start the wipers, and every time I wanted to switch gears my right hand would be groping the window.

Mitzy could go up any hill but one: the world’s steepest road in Dunedin. The incline is 32%, on average. The only way to get up it is to build up some steam on the ‘flat’ part (only 10%) and then race up in 1st gear. It’s awesome to watch cars do it, but I’m glad it was other cars attempting that kind of insanity.

In general, New Zealand seemed to be a bit of a thrill-seeker’s mecca. In one day you can go skidiving, bridgeswinging, racing jetboats through river gorges, luging off a mountain, attempting horizontal bungees, extreme sheep shearing, whatever floats your boat. Most of those things are not really my cup of tea, because I am absolutely certain that if the odds of death are 1/100,000, I will be that 1. Somebody has to be the statistic. We did however go racing in the jetboat – 360 degree turns at 80 km/hour while only a few feet away from the rock walls in a river gorge – awesome!

But the best excursion was the least physically exerting one. There’s a particular mountain, Mount John, where the view of the Southern sky is one of the best in the world. At night, we put on some ski jackets and went up to look through their telescopes. It was an incredible sight – tens of thousands of stars in all directions. We saw a galaxy so young that the stars in it are no more than one million years old. We saw another with our bare eyes, a wispy cloud hanging in the sky. It’s 20% the size of our own galaxy, which means that from their perspective we appear five times that big in their night sky.

We also did a Lord of the Rings excursion, which to be honest was actually a little bit lame. There’s so many special effects and composite images in those movies that it needed a lot of imagination to see the farmland as the Pelennor Fields, and the swords and banners we got to wield were replicas. Thankfully I have a lot of imagination and it was a lot of fun to run around a field for a few hours yelling ‘DEATH!’ and imagining myself to be an Orc. None of the locations of Lord of the Rings exist today, the closest is Hobbiton which is a sheep farm these days. Hopefully after they finish filming The Hobbit they will keep some of the locations intact.

It was a super quick visit, which definitely left me wanting more. I would have loved to have stayed for a couple of weeks, but there are other things to see. I’m happy that I visited it at all. Traveling with a good friend was a nice change, as well as having our own car. From here on out I have a few days left in Adelaide, sampling the local wine regions as well as the beaches. After that it’s off to Melbourne and Tasmania to get back into backpacking shape.

If you want to see the full photo album, click here

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