Thursday, March 26, 2015

Castaway like a Hobbit

This is a travelogue on New Zealand based on our (my wife and I) trip over the holiday break. We spent close to 10 days (4 nights in the South Island and 6 nights in the North Island). This has been a long time overdue just like the trip was and would have been better off written right away, but god knows why I did not (most definitely not for the lack of time). Anyway, better late than never... 

Intro: New Zealand is a postcard-sized country, much like its cricket stadia, split into two halves. Nevertheless, a cursory search of the Internet throws up beautiful vistas in its broad diversity and lots of advise on must-not-miss places somuchso that an expa(e)nsive itinerary is always the first draft. When the rubber hit the road (literally and figuratively), we pruned the itinerary so much that a postcard would have been the best epithet for our plan. Our real trip took us to Christchurch, Mt. Cook-Aoraki, Queenstown and Doubtful Sound in the South Island, and Auckland, Tauranga, Rotorua, Waitomo and Hamilton in the North Island with multiple stops in between. We skipped places such as Wellington, Taupo, Nelson, Dunedin, Invercargill, Whanganui and Napier, reasons for which are very easy to figure (it is impossible to drive a large circuit in either the North or the South Island within a short time-frame and still see enough places). In hindsight, we would have spent more time on specific spots in the North (Bay of Plenty region and Wellington) and South Islands (Franz Josef glacier and Dunedin may be), cut short a few (Queenstown) and skipped a few altogether (Hamilton and Doubtful Sound). 

Broad Impressions: 
1) Our visit coincided with the Christmas-Boxing Day-New Year break, a peak time for tourism in New Zealand as it is summer time in the Southern hemisphere and coincides with the holiday season in the Northern hemisphere. In hindsight, we were lucky to find dinner on Dec. 24, a timely and well thought out booking at an Indian restaurant in Christchurch saved the day. We were extremely lucky to find ANY food on Dec. 25, a drive to Mt. Cook where a crowded Chinese-run sit-down place was still serving some food and some hoarding from a local Supervalue chain in Christchurch did help. That should reinforce the point that immigrants work harder in the so-called developed world, whereas the long-bygone-immigrants chill out and sport around whenever they can -- a point reinforced from my personal observations in Australia (cry me a river on the essential shutdown of most things from approx. Dec. 1 through Jan. 26, only the 7-11s run by Indian immigrants are/were open on Dec. 31 when some choose to work -- a blasphemy that, right in the heart of Melbourne CBD). Boxing day was nt too bad, but Dec. 31 in Hamilton was a disaster with the whole city essentially shutting down for god knows what reason. 

2) Boxing day in Australia is an even bigger disaster than it is in New Zealand. The trans-Tasman cousins are conjoined in many ways, yet different in many other ways. Love for and crowding at the beaches is a common theme in both places, but in-your-face-sporting culture is almost absent in New Zealand, as much as I saw it and people are more chilled out to be in all kindsa shapes and sizes without having to worry about that. That probably reflects on the cricket field too where the Kiwis are the last ones expected to stand in your face with aggression, while their Australian counterparts would be expected to be number 1 (make it number 0, if you can) in that list. Yet for all this, my understanding on counterfactual history is that the course of New Zealand as a nation independent of the Australian Commonwealth was just only a bit more than an accident in ~1895-96. 

That said, the Kiwis are more British than the British in many aspects and this facet of the Kiwis has been noted by many a cricket commentator-turned-sociologist (or vice versa), whereas the Australians love to love and embrace their British past when things matter (war, intel cooperation, politics, policies on handling China or India or even the US, visa issues, pom beanies and other Kangaroo route-type shenanigans, different education-sphere boondoggles) and yet disown it when it does nt matter (on the sporting arena). The Australians are broadly more racist (clarification: I believe that everyone is a racist, they just differ relatively speaking from each other) than the Kiwis and a good exhibit of this fact is that the aboriginals have been completely wiped out of Australia (except perhaps for Northern Territory) unlike the Maoris who reside prominently in the North Island (even if that is just an uneasy truce going by the considerably many Maori narratives and renditions of the Treaty of Waitangi that I found in a Whitcoulls in Auckland). That commentary also extends to many Kiwi names, which carry a hoary Maori attribution (even if in just name) including that for New Zealand itself (some long white cloud somehow embracing a hitherto unnamed South Island), unlike the Alberts, the Elizabeths, the Georges, and the Prince and Dame charmings of bygone-England. It was indeed fun to see a Bombay on the drive to Auckland, but funnier to see the expression that "New Zealand stops at Bombay Hills" (a contemptuous description of Aucklanders by non-Aucklanders). As a big city boy, I have seen and heard that before (Madras does indeed stop at Tambaram). 

3) It is common for Indians to be fooled into believing that every Australian and Kiwi must love their cricket and to pick a random conversation with a random Australian or a Kiwi, only to be rebuffed by their slight indifference and lack of a joie de vivre Indian style. Reality is far from that sentiment. A vast majority of the long-bygone-immigrant people who love their dose of cricket in Australia and New Zealand are the old, the white and the men -- those that can probably sip their tea with a stiff upper lip perhaps. As much as NFL is a water cooler conversation at work in the US, that role is played by Aussie Rules Football (which I must also admit is a more artsy, athletic, suspenseful and a fun game if not for the rampant racism by its fanatic fanbois like with European football) in Australia and Rugby Union in New Zealand. I myself am an All-Black fanatic with a craving for the Haka (not surpassed by many other war-cries barring the Gorkha), a deep love to bash both the Wallabies and the 'Boks in the Tri-Nations and beyond, and an ardent belief that black/gray is the best manly color ever, so I will not be surprised to see such a feeling from the aam aadmi Kiwi around. And trust me that the Kiwis (both the Maoris and the whites) love the All Blacks more than you can figure out. It is as embracing as cricket is in India and if not for the Gallipoli bruising, New Zealand identity formation would have had much to do with the Invincible tour of 1924. The point being, the Indian subcontinent and its expat population drives the love for cricket on a global scale and make no mistake about that. If it were not for the subcontinentals, cricket would have been cremated literally and figuratively and saved in the Ashes urn. 

4) Kia Ora is just a hallowed Bula! Just as Fiji has oversold and overmilked Modriki island (the "false" island location for the shooting of the Tom Hanks-starrer Castaway somuchso that the mere mention of Wilson, the volleyball that kept company with Tom Hanks, made us cringe), New Zealand has oversold its Lord of the Rings sceneries (making us cringe everytime we heard either Hobbiton or a LOTR/middle earth theme somewhere). Our personal impressions of Fiji were of a place with not much to do except support tourism, sugarcane plantations, and a bit of this and that. Relatively speaking, our impressions of New Zealand were pretty similar. There is really not much to do in New Zealand (beyond Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch perhaps) except support tourism in exotic locales and the businesses associated with tourism (tour-day operations, selling cheap memorabilia, restaurants on the way-side, supermarkets, ferries, skywalks, hotels/BnBs, etc.), sheep and woolen industry, and dairy farming. In contrast, Australia seems to have a more varied economic profile (some form of educational infrastructure, mining industry, etc.) and it reflects in the University profiles in Australia, things to do, and more. That is, there is a good reason why New Zealand and Australia do not fare well with the US economically speaking. It is not just the lack of a scale or a population, it is also that things are far more chilled out outside the US with only the people in the US basically killing themselves with work (take it from my 1 1/2 years in Australia and far more in the US). 

5) In my stay in Australia, I had an uneasy peace with the "Hai Maite" English not following many things spoken and heard. But the Kiwi English seemed more at home with the Indian and the US English, a lot straighter than Australian, a lot easier on the ear and a lot simpler. In fact, I found the "mate" stuff peddled only when the Kiwis met the Australians, and things did get a bit hairy then unlike what one would assume. Call it friendly competition or needling or banter or chit-chat, whatever suits you. 

6) Enough sociologizing. In terms of travel planning, plan the itinerary well ahead and book hotels far in advance, especially in the tourism season. Fiji is far better in its touristy credentials with visa-on-arrival for Indian citizens, but that is that. Unless one is a citizen of a predominantly white country or barring a few other exceptions like Singapore, Japan or South Korea, one needs a visa to enter New Zealand. Just as the case with Australian visas, the Kiwis are fairly well-organized and an email/phone call will push the status of the visa application in case the visa is not issued on their declared/advertised timeline (which is often the case). I did notice that the immigration desk at the airport seemed to be quite nosy on arrivals that had booked their accommodations in a hostel or a backpacker alley and there is the usual noise on fruits and food items (as in Australia), but in general, things are as expected. We did have the mistaken rush in transferring from the international terminal to the domestic terminal in Auckland due to change in time-zones, but New Zealand has a common time-zone, so no worries like the US. 

7) The domestic terminal in Auckland is quite a mess relative to the international one and people do look at you weirdly when you carry more than a small piece through the security line. The car rentals are randomly located relative to the baggage claim area, but right next to each other, and Christchurch seemed such a breeze relatively speaking. And since New Zealand is in the middle of nowhere (yes, it is), it is important to book inbound and outbound flights as well as all the connections on the same carrier. This helps with a uniform baggage allowance policy also. We had the most retarded scenario of an outbound connecting flight in Singapore pre-poned by an hour or so with no notice to us till the last few hours by either the carrier or Orbitz. Since the flights were on different carriers with noone clearly speaking (in English despite being in New Zealand, in facts or in details), it was indeed a horrid few hours that should have ideally been spent relaxing before the flight rather than Skype-ing to people and asking them to call and figure things out for us because you get only 30 minutes of free Wi-fi in the terminal per device. Indeed, Changi and its Wi-fi seemed to be far sophisticated relative to Auckland but deja vu again in Madras (which is another story, but Madras is still Madras -- you can talk in reasonably pure Tamil and you get a lot of help right from the policemen to the shop assistants to the security people roaming around, than if otherwise). In most of these places such as Auckland, its a chicken and egg where you need a phone connected to a local carrier to get a passcode before you can start accessing the Internet and you need Internet to pay for the local carrier because they are nowhere around. And this is in the international terminal, not the domestic one. In any case, a standard overnight stay in most places in New Zealand should be < 70-80 USD and most reasonable accommodations have free parking and wireless, but expect less and less of that in Auckland unless you choose to stay far away from the city center. Wireless internet speeds are as shoddy as in Australia, perhaps a little better, so do not go with too much hope. 

8) Do not take tour buses in New Zealand ever (especially if you can drive) for there are a plenty of them on a cursory Internet search. They are all safe, but they are all expensive, they go on the same beaten tracks that they irritate you seeing them when you drive alone, they follow a strict schedule with no control on anything in the bus, and they do not provide a good bang for the buck. If the lazy-me had to make a choice, it would have been a tour bus (99 out of 100 times), but I was correctly dissuaded by my wife. And thank goodness for that decision. The only times we actually regretted the whole trip was when we went on an organized tour of the Doubtful Sound, from out of Queenstown (a total disaster). The only forms of organized touring that I would recommend are things that require a motor/speed boat to either look at glacier spinoffs or high speed spin maneuvers or sophisticated equipment like hand glides, paraglides, sails, etc. 

9) Driving on the left is no different than driving on the right and it might be a small problem getting used to things as one heads out of the airport car rental, but once one heads out of the city center, you are pretty much lonely on the road with more leeway. This is true more so in Australia -- my prior drive from Sydney to Adelaide and back in 2005 was pretty much a lonely drive (not even a kangaroo or a wallaby in sight -- not even dead ones on the road, but with road trains, yes) except for a big speeding ticket in a village running short of resources to make their ends meet. In any case, it is always worth getting a liability insurance and unlike the US, the liability does not cover all of the damage(s) (if any). Depending on the daily rates, there is a certain uncovered amount of liability (could be 300$ or 3000$). We did not have any accident (good fortune that), but we did have a bird hit on the way to Waitomo (a disturbing incident even for someone well exposed to birds on the plate), which damaged the front grill. It could well have been far more than a damaged grill. 

10) New Zealand may seem like a postcard-sized country, but the moment you start driving, that impression comes to bite you back. Our drive took us around ~600 kms in the South Island and ~750 kms in the North Island (because of the circuit). Now that may seem short compared with the US roads and ridiculous to be nothing when one does that over 10 days, but being essentially lonely on the road is no fun thing. And doing that over ten days tires you out, even if it is the drive of a piddly distance. More so, enter a village and the speed drops from a coasting 100 kmph to a 40 kmph lest you want to share your savings in the form of a ticket (which you will get). In general, the South Island is more sprawled out than the North Island and that is seen in terms of the traffic patterns, the distance to destinations, the number of people as well as sheep density. It is clear that there are enough beautiful vistas in New Zealand, just getting to such vistas takes forever. Our oft-repeated statement over the whole trip was: miles and miles of nothingness leading to something pretty at the end. Things sure were pretty at the end with some blue lakes, glaciers, underground caves, geothermal outpourings, small mountain tops and some city views being the destinations. Initially strange are one-way bridges on the way to Mt. Cook with right-of-way for one side. The US-based GPS units do not work well (or at all) in New Zealand, and it is worth renting out a Navman or buying one outright (good luck with that chicken and egg problem). The Navman one rents is a crappy unit but does the job, except for one weird incident when it drove us into a closed road (locked with a grill and nowhere to go but backwards) near Tekapo, the Tekapo Twizel road, with water on both sides, noone in sight (not even a bird or an insect let alone people), and having to retrace the last 6-7 kms to the main road with an eerie feeling about the whole thing.

Other tidbits: 
1) Christchurch was knocked over by a few earthquakes in the recent past and it continues to be a place of seismic activity. We felt a minor tremor right after landing in Christchurch making us wanting to get the hell out asap. 

2) Gas is far more expensive than in the US and sometimes you have people helping with gas (much like in New Jersey). I have seen 100 and 110 kmph in Australia, but 100 kmph seems to be the universal maximum in New Zealand. Thats a piddly 62 mph for folks who drive at 70 or more in the US. Right after we landed, cops pulled us over for a customary pre-Christmas day alcohol test in Christchurch. Weird was that we were pulled over by the same cops on both directions even though we had to go through that point and turn back because we had come there by mistake. There are enough cops floating around and they come in different colors, sizes and shapes depending on where you drive, so it is pointless speeding past the 100 kmph mark anywhere any time. The speed limits make sense often because most of the roads do not have more banking. 

3) The long and lonely ride into Mt. Cook/Aoraki leads one to Lake Tekapo on the way. Lake Tekapo is beautiful with its brilliant azure blue waters, but after awhile it does get boring to see the same blue color sandstone from different directions and vantage points. Sad that we had to miss the North Island counterpart, Lake Taupo. 

4) After Tekapo, one sees the outline of Mt. Cook, but it does nt appear as majestic and before you as it is until you get super close. That said, Mt. Cook is even more awesome when you wake up to see the low hanging clouds right outside your hotel window. The glacier exploring at Mt. Cook was boring since I have seen far better glacier walks at Seward, Alaska. 

5) The long drive to Queenstown can be safely said to be one of the most unpleasant ones. Narrow roads winding up and down hillocks and valleys with big trucks and cars often tailing and goading you as the frontsman to hit way past the speed limit. Except for the Roaring Meg vantage point on the Kawarau Gorge, pretty much everything is a blur including the drive through Frankton into Queenstown. Queenstown downtown in itself is a messy mess with buildings packed like sardines on a death-wish and hotels are hard if not impossible to find that you end up with the least messy ones. 

6) That is because Queenstown is stated to be a good spot to take off into different directions: trekking, watching penguins and whales (penguins are easy to locate but for whales, one needs lady luck on one's side), coniferous trees (who cares?), just laying prostrate on the beachside, gliding, you name it. We tried to beat the beaten track (which is going to Milford Sound) and take a tour bus first into Te Anau, a boat on Lake Manopouri and then a bus ride into the accessible point in the Sound and a boat ride into the far reaches of the Sound. The rains did help bring out extinct waterfalls into action out of the hilltops, but spending the whole day (6 hour ride either way) and a whole lot of money with really pointless food on the bus on seeing this is taxing at best. It grates your senses after a few minutes and is a waste of time. Much ado about essentially nothing, but we did see a lot of locations that have been VFXed into Tamil movie songs and what not :). 

7) We returned the rental car at the Queenstown airport and took a flight to Auckland. Arriving after the sun had set (9ish), the most sensible thing we did in Auckland was to find a hotel very close to the airport. After the meandering drives in Christchurch and beyond, Auckland driving does shake you up a bit, especially late night. 

8) From Auckland, we headed to Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty region. We did a hike up Mt. Manganui (a small hillock) and it was a pleasant view from the top including watching someone trying to air glide himself into the seaside. The whole trip was ok except that we ended up picking a BnB without realizing it (excellent person hosting the BnB with spotless accommodation etc., just that it was odd in terms of privacy because it came as an unplanned surprise/shock). 

9) Happy to leave Tauranga, we did find the most brilliant fruit servings at Woodturners Cafe in Ngatea. Rotorua is just the stopping point to explore the geothermal wonders of this region. We were at Hell's Gate and Wai-O-Tapu. Both were brilliant beyond words, in color, activity as well as awe. If Hell's Gate was small and cool, Wai-O-Tapu was cooler. Skip the hot pool cooked food and the tinker bells. The only downside to these two places is the sulphur-rotten egg fumes and the heat that can potentially screw up one's contact lens. Even in Rotorua where we stayed, the restroom commode kept releasing gas endlessly (no pun intended) as did the mildly racist behavior from some Maoris. Of all the things in New Zealand, this short visit at the geothermal spots was really worth the cash spent. 

10) From there on to Waitomo Caves, we did the three cave Blackwater Company tour (Aranui, Ruakuri and the main cave). Aranui and Ruakuri are ok and they allow cameras inside, and after awhile one does get bored. How long can one watch stalactites and stalagmites? The most beautiful part of the whole cave thing is the boat ride in the main cave where you see a gazillion glowworms on the cave roof, which does wake you up if not anything else. Unfortunately, no cameras allowed at this point and even if they are, its almost impossible to get good shots unless one is a non-shaker with an SLR. The uneasy peace between the Maoris and the whites is visible at both Rotorua and Waitomo, but noone expressed it in so many words. 

11) On the way to Waitomo, we had the bird hit, which only re-emphasizes the point that the introduction of certain mammals has led to the extinction of certain predators and hence many birds have become flightless (with no fear of predators that are absent) and stay close to the ground. This point gets repeated so often on the boring bus ride into Doubtful Sound that it seems eerie when you face a consequence of this flightlessness. Australia and New Zealand, where nature has been skewed by man, seem to repent their innocent past with signs such as "dont bring fruits and food into New Zealand." That said, the whole ride into Waitomo caves seems like an endless series of deserted roads going from nowhere to nowhere, with only Navman to assure you that you are heading in the right direction and perhaps on time for your appointment. 

12) Hamilton seemed to be a short ride away from Waitomo, but except for the Waikato river (which we did not see and which seemed to be too close yet too far), nothing was great here at all. We did see the signs for the India-Ireland WC clash, but this place is so close to Auckland (2 hours and hence with no other way to access it than by bus), it must have been a pain ride into Hamilton for the Indian team. There is really nothing to do in Hamilton other than claim that one stopped here. 

13) The ride back into Auckland brought back civilization, so to speak, and with it all the parking and driving woes of being in a new country. Auckland downtown in itself is more livelier than much else that we had seen in New Zealand (even Christchurch) with even a book shop around. Our trip to Nadi in Fiji showed us that the main city bringing international flights into the country can be without a major/any book shop (perhaps there is something in Suva -- which we never visited -- given that the University of South Pacific is based there). I also did see the University of Auckland campus buildings right next to the CBD, which also assured me that there is indeed some life there. In general, Auckland mirrors Sydney -- the ferries to nowhere (at least ferries take one to nice beaches in Sydney), the bridges, Sky tower, the CBD layout, some reasonably questionable areas, the same George-Elizabeth-Victoria-Queen-Princes street names (the Swanson street reminds one of the Swanston in Melbourne, but yeah), high-end fashionista boutiques, and reminding one that New Zealand is as expensive as Australia is/was. 

With that uneasy number, let's close this travelogue. 

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