Monday, January 30, 2012

New Zealand offers a world of variety

   AUCKLAND, New Zealand – Don’t have the time or money to travel around the world?
   Just come to New Zealand, an outdoor paradise that’s essentially the world’s biggest national park.
   In the past few days, I’ve crossed the alps (Switzerland), hiked in a rainforest (Brazil) and on a glacier (the Arctic), gazed at granite cliffs lining a valley (Yosemite National Park in California), marveled at waterfalls (Niagara Falls and Hawaii) and cruised on a fjord (Norway).
   New Zealand, an extension for part of our tour group after Australia, is most comparable to California. They are remarkably similar in size, shape and geographical diversity.
   Both are long and narrow with majestic mountains, fertile valleys and stunning ocean coasts. There are at least three major differences:
   —New Zealand consists of three main islands.
   —Mountains, rather than a valley, run down the middle of New Zealand.
   —New Zealand’s population of 4.4 million is about one-eighth of California’s.
   While driving for about 20 hours on the sparsely populated South Island over three days, I saw about three cars and a million sheep and lambs. For much of that time, I couldn’t go 100 yards without crossing a one-lane bridge over a crystal-clear river. Other than in a few cities, I’m not convinced that anyone actually lives in New Zealand.
   I saw virtually no “BLT” on the South Island – and I’m not talking about sandwiches. I mean billboards, litter and traffic. What’s not to like? All I saw was beautiful scenery. No wonder “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy was filmed in New Zealand.
   The downside — according to Ben, the guide on our glacier hike — is one of the highest skin cancer rates in the world because of a thin ozone layer.
   New Zealand fiercely protects its otherwise pristine environment.
   “You can bring a bomb into the country, but if you bring in a rotten banana, watch out,” Ben joked.
   The fine for littering in a national park is $10,000, Ben said. Killing an endangered kea bird – a symbol of New Zealand, along with the omnipresent fern – is punishable by a $50,000 fine and six months in jail, he added.
   The kea, Ben said, is the world’s only Alpine parrot and the smartest. Although the kea doesn’t talk, it reputedly has the intelligence of a 4- or 5-year-old child. It can solve simple puzzles, such as putting different-shaped objects into corresponding holes.
   Saturday (Friday in the United States) – A few days after baking in the Melbourne, Australia, sun, three other members of our tour group and I went on a half-day hike on the Franz Josef Glacier on the western coast of the South Island.
   The Franz Josef Glacier and nearby Fox Glacier are unique because they descend to only 980 feet above sea level in a temperate rainforest. The area gets 260 to 280 days of precipitation a year and holds the world record of 2.4 meters (about 8 feet) of rain in 24 hours, Ben said.
   First, we were outfitted in rain pants, a raincoat, rubber boots, a ski cap, gloves and a fanny pack  with crampons inside. That’s CRAM-pons, metal contraptions with spikes that attach to the soles of the boots for walking on ice.  
   We were asked several times if we had any physical problems – including anterior cruciate ligament damage, to which I pleaded guilty – and I quickly discovered why.
   I had thought that glaciers (which Ben quaintly pronounced glay-see-ers) were flat sheets of white ice. Not so – at least not this one. It was labyrinthian with steep climbs and descents, crevices, caves, arches and holes.
   Steps had been carved in the ice and ropes attached to the side in the steepest areas. Periodically, Ben further cleared the path with his pickaxe. It was a good idea to keep your distance from him, unless you wanted to end up looking like Quasimodo.
   For much of the hike, it was – surprise – drizzling. When we reached the ice, we attached our crampons and split into two groups of 13 with one guide each. My group consisted of nine Europeans (from Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany), two Australians and two Americans.
   Much of the ice was dirty from falling rocks. Other parts were tinted blue. Ben explained the reason, which had something to do with short wave lengths. We didn’t see any chunks of ice fall, but when one does, it can sound like an explosion.
   I enjoyed the hike and, though I felt the steep areas in my right ACL, I managed fine. One Israeli women, though, recently “cried for two hours,” Ben said. “She had never seen snow or ice and freaked out when she put the crampons on. At the end, she said, ‘That was great.’ ”
   So now I have some mountaineering experience. I think I’ll hold off on climbing Mount Everest for a while, though.
   The four of us then drove five hours south to Queenstown, a resort town nestled in the – I’m not making this up – Remarkable Mountains on 52-mile-long Lake Wakatipu.
   Along the way, we made a stop for gas that almost caused cardiac arrest. The price meter moved at blinding speed, taking about three nanoseconds to reach 20 New Zealand dollars ($16.40 U.S.). When the pump mercifully stopped, my dazed friend staggered to the cashier to fork over 105 New Zealand dollars ($86 U.S.) for three-quarters of a tank in our rented Toyota Previa van.
   Sunday – I rode nine hours round-trip from Queenstown to take a 1-hour, 40-minute cruise on Milford Sound, but it was worth it.
   Milford Sound is the heart of 3 million-acre Fiordland National Park, more than double the size of the next-largest national park in New Zealand. Fiordland was designated a World Heritage Area in 1986 because of “its superlative natural features, its exceptional beauty and its role in demonstrating the earth’s evolutionary history,” according to a brochure by the tour group Real Journeys.
   Tree-covered mountains, most notably 1,692-meter (5,551-foot) Mitre Peak, rise straight out of the water in Milford Sound. It was named by a captain, John Grono, after his birthplace, Milford Haven in Wales.
   On our way back to the dock, the captain of our boat drove within a few feet of 146-meter (479-foot) Stirling Falls, soaking us on the deck.
   Monday – In the morning, we flew 90 minutes from Queenstown to Auckland on the North Island. Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand with 1.3 million people, has 31 percent of the country’s residents and the largest Polynesian population in the world. The Economist magazine ranks Auckland 10th on its list of the world’s most livable cities. Melbourne is No. 1 and Sydney, our first stop on this trip, No. 6.
   After checking into the Sky City Grand Hotel and having lunch on the pier, we rode up the Sky Tower, the tallest structure in New Zealand at 1,076 feet, for a breathtaking view of Auckland. The Sky Tower took two years and nine months to build at a cost of $85 million and opened in 1997. It can withstand an 8.0 earthquake.
   For a mere 220 New Zealand dollars ($180 U.S.), brave souls or lunatics – depending on your point of view – can jump 630 feet off the tower while connected to a wire. Call me a wimp, but you couldn’t pay me $180 to do it.
   On the last night of our two-week trip to Australia and New Zealand, we enjoyed a gourmet dinner on the pier. Before we leave, though, here’s a crash course on English in this part of the world:
    Motorway = freeway. Give way = yield. Car park = parking lot. Rubbish = garbage. Takeaway (restaurant) = take out. Mash = mashed potatoes. Chips = French fries.
   My favorite, though, is that "sultanas" means "raisins." I keep thinking of mini-Aladdins floating in my cereal.
    Australian Open – In an epic match, Novak Djokovic edged Rafael Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 in Melbourne for his third straight Grand Slam title and fourth of the last five. At 5 hours, 53 minutes, it was the longest Grand Slam men’s singles final in history.
    Belarus’ Victoria Azarenka, playing in her first Grand Slam singles final, crushed three-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova 6-3, 6-0 for the women’s title. Azarenka, who replaced Caroline Wozniacki at No. 1, won the last nine games.
   Azarenka also beat Sharapova for the title in the 2010 Bank of the West Classic at Stanford and was taught as a junior by current Sacramento State men’s coach Slava Konikov.
   Unseeded Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek upset top-ranked Bob and Mike Bryan 7-6 (1), 6-2 for the men’s doubles title. Bob’s wife, Michelle, was due to give birth to the couple’s first child the following day.
   Paes completed a career Grand Slam in men’s doubles, and Stepanek, who won the singles and doubles crowns in the 2009 SAP Open in San Jose, captured his first Grand Slam title.
   The Bryans were denied their fourth consecutive Australian Open title and sixth overall. They remain tied with International Tennis Hall of Famers Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde of Australia at 11 Grand Slam men’s doubles championships, the Open Era record.

1 comment:

  1. Paul, you got it right, NZ is the largest National Park in the world and Australia is right behind, of course OZ is huge in comparison. I'm convinced that everyone has to visit these two countries at least once in their lifetime.
    Good-onya Mate.
    Adolfo from Lincoln