New Zealand - Aotearoa - The land of the long white cloud

New Zealand, one of the most isolated countries, is also one of the great tourist destinations of the world.

New Zealand, one of the most isolated countries, is also one of the great tourist destinations of the world. Within its small compass it has an amazing range of scenery, a complete portfolio of every sport that you can think of, a  number of sophisticated cities, superb skiing and surfing and some excellent wines.

Many potential visitors have a distorted impression about where and what New Zealand is. Therefore, for the record, New Zealand lies in the southwest Pacific and has two large islands (North Island and the South Island), plus one smaller island, and numerous much smaller islands. Some think that New Zealand is an island just offshore of Australia. That is not the case. New Zealand is the same distance from Australia as London is from Moscow. And New Zealand is as close to the equator as Buenos Aires in South America.

New Zealand is a long narrow country, oriented very roughly north to south and with mountain ranges running for most of its length. It is a bit bigger than Great Britain, slightly smaller than Italy and the same size as Colorado. It offers the tourist as complete a range of scenic delights as you will find anywhere in the world.

North Island

The distance between the very north of the North Island and the southern tip of the South Island is 1 600 km. Within this range there is a tremendous geographical and geological variety. In the subtropical North there are areas of thermal activity that create bubbling pools and mist-enshrouded forests and lakes. The North Island’s main mountains are all dormant volcanoes: Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro in the centre, and Taranaki to the west.

We entered New Zealand via Auckland - modern, cosmopolitan, moving at a city beat, where the inhabitants are utterly obsessed with sailing. At the weekend it is a nautical traffic jam. This is a city of great restaurants, great parks, a swinging night life, within easy driving distance of much of the North Island.

Some of the suburbs of Auckland have distinct and very charming characteristics. Devonport, across the bridge in North Auckland, has a magic charm of its own. It is easy to explore at a gentle walk, and there are restaurants galore, all of which seem to have a wonderful view of the city of Auckland.

There is nothing more pleasant than driving out to Henderson or nearby Kumeu, visiting a vineyard and perhaps eating in a restaurant on the wine farm.

Harbour Bridge with Auckland
in the background

New Zealand not only takes care of its national natural heritage on land, but has the same attitude to the sea around its coastline. A drive north of Auckland will bring you to Russell and Cape Reinga, better known as Northland.

If you travel the Ninety Mile Beach to Cape Reinga, you will drive on the beach either going or coming back, depending on the state of the tide. It is one of the great journeys: the never-ending beach running ahead and the sea pounding in towards you, with a desert of sand dunes on the other side.

Russell, in the Bay of the Islands, is a short car-ferry ride from Paihia, and is one of the most interesting and elegant towns in the country. It is difficult to believe that Russell was once called the hell-hole of the Pacific, a place where the swearing sailors and whalers came ashore to get very drunk. Today it is a favourite weekend breakaway destination for many Aucklanders.

Only 90 minutes’ drive from Auckland lies the Coromandel Peninsula. In a sense it is a relief valve for Auckland, for it is clean, green and undeveloped. It is also a haven for people who live by art and craft.

The interior of the peninsula consists of a ridge crisscrossed with roads, some of them unpaved. The peninsula has no major town. Its centres are Thames, Coromandel and Whitianga, but these are small towns - little more than villages - which cater for the surrounding area, rather than for visitors.

Coromandel is near enough to Auckland to make it a day’s drive, although it deserves much more. This must rank as one of the great driving experiences of New Zealand and reason enough on its own for a visit to the Peninsula.

The city of Rotorua is the main centre for tourist wishing to experience the culture and influences of the Maori-people. Rotorua itself is a smallish town. The triangle formed by Rotorua, Whakatane and Tauranga encloses one of the world’s most active areas of geo thermal activity, as well as large tracts of forest, including the Kaimai-Mamaku Forest Park and the largest tree plantation in the world at the Kaingaroa Forest. As if that is not enough, the nearby Bay of Plenty coast has an amazing range of beaches, and dolphins that will come and swim with you.

The key to the city’s attraction is that it is set on a volcanic plateau right in the heart of the North Island’s thermal belt. The result is that around Rotorua there are extraordinary geysers and hot springs, boiling and bubbling pools, and general thermal activity. One of the great delights of a visit to Rotorua is a cruise on the lake. Hundreds of the famous black swans escort you on your sundowner cruise.

The area known as Waitomo (south of Hamilton and west of Rotorua) consists of a 45 km network of underground limestone caves and grottoes linked to the Waitomo River. Apart from touring the Glowworm and Aranui caves, famous for their glowworm grottoes and fantastic limestone formations, you can enjoy a range of cave-based adventure activities, including abseiling into a limestone shaft and cave system, and black-water rafting, an adventure sport unique to New Zealand.

A walk through the three levels of the cave - the Banquet Chamber, Pipe Organ and Cathedral - is capped by a tranquil boat ride through the magical Glowworm Grotto.

Mount Taranaki (Egmont) is one of the most beautiful mountains in the world. Certainly it is the most perfectly formed mountain in New Zealand.

South of Rotorua lies the Haku Falls and Lake Taupo, the largest lake in New Zealand. It was created by volcanic activity, but the lake is now fed by a series of rivers, of which the largest is the Tongariro. Amazing fishing is still available, either on the lake itself or in the many small streams that run into the lake. Anglers require a Taupo trout fishing licence, purchased for a day, week, month or season. Trout hatcheries are found throughout New Zealand because, while many of the lakes and rivers have plenty of food, many lack adequate spawning grounds.

At the southern end of Lake Taupo lies the magnificent Tongariro National Park. Three active volcanic mountains form its nucleus: Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro. The park, which is surrounded by access roads, serves as a winter playground for skiers and snowboarders and a year-round wilderness walking, tramping and mountain climbing area. The park was the first in the world to achieve UNESCO World Heritage status for both its natural and cultural value.

Hawkes Bay is one of the most attractive regions on the North Island and is greatly appreciated by wine lovers and lovers of art deco architecture. The twin cities of Hastings and Napier were flattened by a massive earthquake in 1931, but were rebuilt in a better and more elegant style. During rebuilding, an earthquake-proof building code was enforced and architects adopted the then fashionable Art Deco style. Today, the city’s Art Deco buildings, with their pastel colours, bold lines and elaborate motifs, are internationally renowned.

There are many vineyards within easy reach of Hastings and Napier, mainly dotted around the southern end of the Ngaruroro river valley. The success of the region’s wine is not only evident in its international awards, but in one of New Zealand’s most important wine events, the annual Harvest Hawke’s Bay, celebrated during the first weekend of February.

Early morning balloon flights are an unforgettable experience. One meets just outside Hastings and after assisting with the balloon’s inflation, you can enjoy an hour of tranquility over the winelands of this region. A picnic and capping with a certificate, round off a memory to take home.

A 5 hour long afternoon train journey between Hastings and Wellington takes you throughy the sheep country of the southern region of the North Island.

Harbour-fringed Wellington, the country's capital, is situated on the southern tip of North Island, and the centre of government, business and the performing arts. The area between Lambton Harbour and Clyde Quay Wharf on Wellington’s harbourfront, stands entirely on reclaimed land. It covers a site once central to Wellington’s waterfront industry, and can be covered on foot within an hour.

With exhibition space equivalent to three football fields, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (“Our Place”) is one of the largest national museums in the world. Committed to telling the stories of all cultures in New Zealand, home to the national Art Collection, and with ample gallery space for touring exhibitions, the museum opened on its waterfront site in 1998.

From Wellington you can cross over to the southern island, where you will find just as many exceptional attractions, like the mountains and glaciers of the most southern regions. Yes, New Zealand, or Aotearoa, as it is called by Maori, the "Land of the Long White Cloud", is surely a country that must be high on the list of tourists seeking a memorable experience.

- Johann BEUKES

View New Zealand Country Gallery