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From New Zealand

By Sahand Rabbani

from New Zealand I (North Island: Auckland, Rangitoto, Waitomo, Taupo, and Tongariro)

Dear Friends,

I write to you from the very edge of time. Indeed, from my vantage point, New Zealand Daylight Time UTC+13, nearly the entire world is in the past. After departing Chicago aboard an Air New Zealand flight on Friday evening, we arrived in Auckland on Sunday morning having slept little on what was otherwise a very comfortable ride. Immigration and customs were smooth; I had cleaned my hiking shoes in anticipation of the strict biosecurity measures on entry, and the officers approved of my work.

With the entire day ahead of us, we took a bus into town and dropped our bags at the hotel. We enjoyed an excellent breakfast at an artisanal eatery called Chuffed and then rode a ferry to the nearby island of Rangitoto. This volcanic island offers hiking paths and a summit with a clear view of the Auckland skyline. It is perhaps a less popular day trip than Waiheke Island, which reports seem to suggest is a boozy country club, an experience that would have surely knocked us out as we could barely stay awake even without sedatives. We enjoyed about 12.4 kilometers of hiking before taking the ferry back and arriving at the pier at around four thirty in the afternoon. Our hotel room was ready, so we washed up and grabbed an early dinner at a phenomenal restaurant, Depot, where the cumin-rubbed lamb ribs and kingfish belly stood out among many other great dishes.

Auckland was a sleepy town that Sunday. Many shops were closed and the ones that were open seemed seldom to draw any traffic. At times, the city felt like a miniature San Francisco, with a quaint harbor, a ferry building, a somewhat awkward skyline, and temperamental weather alternating between sun and cloudy mist. At other times, it felt a bit like Seattle, also for its weather but mostly for its Space-Needle-like Sky Tower. Then again, at other times, Auckland felt like a miniature London in its general color scheme and infrastructure and for the ubiquitous construction with apologetic signs promising a better tomorrow.

The next morning, we had planned to pick up a rental car and spend a day in and around Auckland to see some of the more hard-to-reach sites, but torrential rain at five in the morning and a forecast of more rain to come urged us to reconsider. In a last minute change, we chose to check out of the hotel in Auckland a day early and head to Taupo ahead of schedule. By the time we obtained the car, the weather in Auckland had improved, but we were committed to Taupo by evening and had already moved up arrangements for the demanding day-long Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike for the following morning. On our way out of town, we stopped by Mt. Eden and climbed to its vista point, from which we enjoyed a different, and stunning, perspective of the Auckland skyline.

In time, I became accustomed to the left-side drive configuration, and after a few instances of signaling my turn with the windshield wiper, I had finally gotten the hang of it. All this in a car that was perhaps near the end of its tour of duty (and therefore an unbelievably good rental deal!). Indeed, the more time we spent with the car, the more of its charming shortcomings we discovered.

After departing Auckland, we drove about two and a half hours south to the village of Waitomo to see the fabled glow-worm caves. We joined a tour that took us on a small boat into the dark caverns where the ceilings teemed with specs of light, a colony of illuminated glow-worms. It felt as if gazing into the night sky in another galaxy, one much denser than ours. We learned that these unique creatures emit a soft light to attract insects who become entangled in their dangling webs, providing nourishment for their ultimate metamorphosis.

From Waitomo, we drove two hours to the picturesque Lake Taupo and the eponymous town on its shore. Many retreat here for the spas, but we used it as a launching point for the next day's masochistic undertaking. In anticipation, that evening, we collected fruits and vegetables from a local supermarket (unflatteringly named Pak'n Save) and fulfilled a craving for a fresh, herbaceous feast back in the hotel room.

This morning, we awoke before four AM to embark on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing day hike, regarded as the best day hike in New Zealand. It is also a logistically complex one. First, we drove an hour in twilight to the end point of the hike at Ketetahi. We parked our car on the side of the state highway and boarded a shuttle that carried us to the starting point of the hike at Mangatepopo. From there, we set off on the hike of 19.4 kilometers, reaching a maximum altitude of 1,886 meters after fighting cold, wind, and a narrow ascent of ice-laden rocks. The views were well worth the ordeal: otherworldly landscapes, pristine azure lakes, and rolling green hills. We completed the hike in just under six hours and, after an hour's drive back, arrived in Taupo by two in the afternoon. After limping around the eerily quiet downtown area, we rewarded ourselves this evening with a fine dinner of lamb and steak at the Bistro.

Tomorrow, we depart Taupo for the seaside town of Napier, a new addition to our itinerary made possible by the extra day we gained from departing Auckland early. Although our forgone day in Auckland was not nearly as rainy as forecast, our early departure proved fortuitous as it salvaged our Tongariro hike. Indeed, the advisory is calling for cancellations tomorrow due to inclement weather, and had we adhered to our original plan we may have been sorely disappointed. Instead, we will depart Taupo victorious and content, eager to continue our discovery of this beautiful and hospitable country.


from New Zealand II (North Island: Napier and Wellington)

Dear Friends,

On Wednesday morning, we packed our bags, loaded the car, and checked out of the hotel. We enjoyed a leisurely morning, sampling a few coffee shops and walking along Taupo's stunning lakefront. Just as the drizzle rolled in, we set off by car for the town of Napier. The two-hour drive took us through the expansive pastures of a verdant countryside, an unscheduled delight afforded by our last-minute change of plans.

We arrived in Napier shortly before noon. Napier was remarkably different from what we had already seen in New Zealand. Rebuilt after an earthquake in 1931, the town is dominated by its well manicured art deco architecture. The waterfront and central business district admit an alluring palette of pastels. On this particular day, the sun bore down forcefully and warmed the air from the sea. Palm trees dotted the parks and flanked boulevards in a manner reminiscent of southern California. Steep cliffs supported winding neighborhoods consisting of avant garde houses in strikingly different styles, united in their singular views of Hawke's Bay.

After a brief stroll, we enjoyed a lunch of eclectic dishes at a restaurant named Mister D. From there, we drove fifteen minutes inland to our accommodations for the evening, which I was lucky to secure at the last minute when we changed our plans two days earlier. The motel was situated conveniently close to the Mission Estate Winery, which claims to be New Zealand's oldest winery and the birthplace of New Zealand wine. I partook of their generous and delicious wine tasting and twisted about the estate grounds until my early afternoon stupor ran its course. To keep with tradition, we stopped by the Pak'n Save grocery store in the neighborhood to stock up on fresh produce before we headed back downtown for a second look at the picturesque town.

In fact, we adhered to the meandering dotted line that appeared on the promotional map that we had picked up at a tourist information stand. The suggestion, as it turned out, proved to be exceptionally inspired. It took us up along the cliffs, through several elevated residential neighborhoods, around the botanical gardens, and along the pier and seaside promenade. As night fell and we grew weary, we had to abbreviate the walk ever so slightly so that we could return to our car and drive back to the motel.

The next morning, we feasted on a breakfast of Pak'n Save produce before setting on the road to Wellington. The four-hour drive again took us through green pastures and mountains, but this time the drive felt interminable. The highway turns into main street at each town along the way. Unable to complete the journey in one shot, we pulled over at one such town to fuel up with a long black coffee. I am a strong proponent of the long black, a style of coffee specific to New Zealand and Australia that is essentially a less watery americano.

We arrived in Wellington before two in the afternoon, where I topped off the car's petrol and ditched it with the hotel valet in advance of its final use to get us to the Wellington airport the following morning. On foot, we climbed the summit of Mount Victoria, easily accessible from the city center, to enjoy panoramic views of the complex surrounding landscape. I never did grasp the chaotic geography of the area. Every angle seemed to feature some paradoxically twisted knot of water and land as if from an MC Escher drawing.

We descended the summit to enjoy a delicious dinner of fish and the local bivalve specialties of tuatua and green-lipped mussels at the Ortega Fish Shack. Our nightcap was a ride on Wellington's famous cable car, offering us views from a summit opposite that of Mount Victoria for a different perspective. We could not endure much outside while the city was earning its name as the world's windiest, so we retreated to our hotel room and retired for the evening, concluding our program of New Zealand's North Island.

Wellington, it seemed, had an especially cosmopolitan feel to it in comparison not only to the smaller towns that we had visited but also to the larger city of Auckland. Wellington felt young, active, and trendy. Perhaps this was so because we caught the city during its Thursday evening post-workday revelry, whereas we had only seen Auckland on a sleepy Sunday. Focusing on the country's natural beauty as its primary draw, we have had only limited exposure to its urban culture, but we have enjoyed it nonetheless.

Today, we departed the hotel in the morning and returned the rental car at the airport in a condition equally precarious as when we acquired it. Domestic air travel in New Zealand is refreshingly simple. The security check was quick and could be completed fully clothed. I am sitting at the gate and there has not yet been any identification or boarding pass check.

Our flight will take us from the southern tip of the North Island to Queenstown in the southern part of the South Island. Smaller in land area but much more populous, the North Island is the commercial heart of New Zealand, containing both its most populous city, Auckland, and its political capital, Wellington. The South Island, however, is often regarded as the primary attraction for its diverse terrain and, particularly, its southern fiords. In my view, the North Island can stand on its own as a worthy destination. I look forward to what will surely be a memorable second half of our trip.


from New Zealand III (South Island: Queenstown, Te Anau, Milford Sound, Wanaka)

Dear Friends,

We boarded the Air New Zealand flight to Queenstown without ever presenting identification, though we eventually produced our boarding passes at the gate. The flight itself was surprisingly memorable, with unobstructed views of some of the country's most celebrated sites visible from the starboard side. We were fortunate to have been seated there unintentionally and unaware of the delightful treat that awaited us. First, we saw the steep cliffs on both sides of Cook Strait. Then, we flew along the South Island's eastern coast before turning inland and passing Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, their sapphire waters veering between dramatic snowcapped peaks. Fighting strong winds, the flight concluded with an exhilarating and treacherous descent into the airstrip at Queenstown airport. While Queenstown is known for its adrenaline sports, this one was an unadvertised special.

Outside the airport terminal, we boarded a shuttle for the offsite car rental agency. The journey lasted longer than anticipated. We eventually pulled up by what seemed like an abandoned storefront when I began to wonder for the first time whether we had been abducted. The interior of the building provided no further comfort. On one side, piles of old electronics were strewn about. On the other side, a few uniformed employees stood by some ancient desktop terminals awaiting their next customer. They had my reservation, it turned out, but they did not admit it right away! When we were presented with our car, I found myself singing the praises of our North Island rental, which suddenly seemed luxurious in comparison to this poor vehicle. It was clearly from another generation with its CD slot and its broken LCD display. The buttons and signage were in Japanese. At first, the car was shy, and it wouldn't speak, but after a few days of driving, it opened up to us and started to ramble in Japanese from time to time. By now, I have grown accustomed to it, even charmed by it, to the extent that I am anxious of the day I must inevitably return it.

We set off again (first on the wrong side of the road but with a quick correction thanks to a reminder from oncoming traffic) and headed into Queenstown for lunch. The fabled Fergburger had an impossibly long line so we opted instead for Pedro's House of Lamb. A mostly take-out and catering place, Pedro's House of Lamb has a single item on its menu: slow-roasted lamb shoulder with scalloped potatoes. The portion is large, but we managed to eat the entire thing between the two of us as we sat on the picnic table outside for the rare customer who eats his lamb on the spot. The more we ate, the lighter became the aluminum dish and the more vigilant we became to secure it from the gusting wind.

After lunch, we drove the two hours south to Te Anau, itself a beautiful lakeside village but prominent as a point of departure for Milford Sound, the South Island's crown jewel. Along the way, we encountered several electronic displays warning of a road closure, but we did not know how to interpret it. When we arrived at our accommodation in Te Anau, our hosts informed us that a portion of the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound had been closed for the evening due to the risk of avalanche. An assessment was to be made again in the morning to determine whether the road would be suitable for travel during the day.

We were saddened by this news, for we had booked a Milford Sound cruise for the following day and we did not have much flexibility with this portion of our trip. We thought that our extraordinary logistical fortune in the North Island was due for a reversion, and we were getting our lot. We spent the remainder of the afternoon and evening walking along the lake at Te Anau, fighting the same strong winds that we had experienced in Queenstown. We stocked up on groceries and ate a light dinner in our room as we headed to bed under lingering uncertainty.

The report came in the next morning at 7:45 indicating that the road had been opened! It was due again to close at 17:30 that evening, late enough, we were told, that we could still take our cruise, which was scheduled to conclude by 16:40. We called the cruise operator, who confirmed that our cruise would proceed as scheduled and that they would ensure all passengers would be out in time to depart Milford Sound before the closure.

We began our drive that morning feeling ever more fortunate. We stopped along the way for a demanding hike to Lake Marian. The grueling and technical ascent was well worth the prize at the top, a serene lake in an elevated valley covered in just enough mist to give it a mystical aura without obstructing its beauty. By the time we arrived back at our car, three hours after we had started the hike, we were soaked from sweat and the persistent drizzle and our fingers numb from the cold. The car's heat felt nice on my hands.

In under an hour, we had arrived at the Milford Sound cruise terminal. Only then did I realize how sparse it was. With so much talk of Milford Sound, I had envisioned a small village with coffee and souvenir shops to entice those departing for the cruises. No such thing! There is little more than a small dock and a few vending machines. Nor is there any cell phone reception, something I had not anticipated. Fortunately, the cruise company did not need to see my electronic proof of purchase as they had a printed manifest.

The cruise took us through the narrow sound flanked by the majestic fiords, reminding me in many ways of a similar cruise through Norway's Lysefjorden (see "from Norway"). The fog cleared enough as we worked our way through the sound, admitting some satisfying views of Mitre Peak and the many waterfalls. It was cold, and no amount of complimentary hot water and tea could warm my hands beyond discomfort. In this regard, I welcomed our return to the dock. With no time to spare, we bolted for the car and zoomed out of there, taking no chances with the road closure.

I am happy to report that we made it back to Te Anau that evening, celebrating with some excellent fish and chips in town. The next morning, we packed our bags and set off for the lakeside town of Wanaka, the same one we had seen from the plane just two days earlier.

Wanaka's lakefront is especially appealing for its curved perimeter of verdant pastures and towering mountains. Understandably, it is a popular resort town. The gravel beaches were packed with vacationers and their campervans. We arrived in the afternoon under an intense sun that seemed to please the crowds but was a bit too much for my taste.

I had reserved a wine tasting experience at the nearby Rippon Vineyard, an iconic winery in New Zealand's Central Otago region that is famous for its pinot noir. The vineyard itself sits atop a hill overlooking the lake and the village. We walked to the vineyard along a less pleasant road only to learn of a better path for our return journey that took us through rows of grape vines and along a lakefront path. For dinner, we enjoyed Mediterranean-inspired dishes at Kika, a delicious meal that rivaled our first night's dinner in Auckland. The lemon and herb lamb shoulder tasted good even when microwaved the following day.

The next morning, I embarked on a solitary excursion to hike Roy's Peak. I knew that the 1.3-km ascent is a popular hike, but I was still surprised to find the parking lot at the base nearly full before eight AM. I snagged one of the few remaining spots and set off on a low-gear steady climb along the gravel path. The hike was not as technical as the Tongariro Crossing or the Lake Marian trail, but it was probably more demanding. I pushed through, motivated by promises of a singular view from the summit. Short of the summit, there is a viewpoint that is popular among the Instagram zealots where weary hikers had queued for an opportunity to capture the iconic pose where one seemingly teeters on a needle-point rock at the edge of the universe. I admit that I, too, succumbed to this tempting opportunity on my way back down. Few, it seemed, bothered to complete the journey from the lookout to the actual summit, so I enjoyed a more private setting when arrived at the peak. I spent the greater part of an hour recovering from the fast climb and gazing out over the mountain range, the lake, and the lush valley beneath. Having seen the lake from 30,000 feet and from the shore, this intermediate perspective rounded out my Lake Wanaka experience.

I would never tire from the view, but I had to get on, so I tumbled back down the mountain to the car park and drove myself back with great difficulty in keeping a steady foot on the gas peddle. I arrived in town just past noon and in time for microwaved leftovers. Afterwards, we spent a lazy afternoon consisting of some walking but mostly driving, visiting various viewpoints indicated on the tourist map without much insight into what they were. Notably, however, we drove a bit out of town to a magnificent cliff overlooking Lake Hawea. Similar to Lake Wanaka for its sapphire waters and mountainous perimeter, it felt somehow more secluded and offered a sufficiently distinct experience to justify the visit. We concluded the evening with a casual dinner along Wanaka's lakefront.

Tomorrow, we depart Wanaka for Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park and then on to the town of Tekapo. The anticipation of what awaits us is tempered by the knowledge that on the other side of it is the end of our trip. If this fact alone does not draw a bittersweet tear, then the thought of parting with our trusty and garrulous Japanese steed surely does. Stay tuned for my fourth and final installment.


from New Zealand IV (South Island: Aoraki Mt. Cook, Tekapo, Christchurch)

Dear Friends,

On Tuesday morning, we departed Wanaka. The first segment of our journey was needlessly exhilarating. I judged that the remaining fuel in the car would carry us at least as far as the town of Omarama, but the margin was slimmer than I had anticipated. We found ourselves revving along a rather prolonged uphill stretch with the car issuing dire warnings. Omarama was on the other side of this mountain, and while in the end we made it to the oasis of fuel, my Garmin watch would later inform me that my heart rate during those last thirty kilometers was higher than it was during the demanding hike to Roy's Peak.

From Omarama, we continued with a full tank and the false sense of invincibility that arises from skirting disaster. Our next stop was Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park. Called Aoraki in the Maori language and Mt. Cook in English, the mountain is New Zealand's highest peak, and it dominated the landscape for the last hour of our highway approach. We parked in a crowded, dusty lot and embarked on one the most popular hikes in the South Island. The Hooker Valley Track is favored among tourists of all abilities for its relative ease. As such, we found the path to be crowded. Despite the constant backdrop of the beautiful lush valley blending into rock and white peaks, the trek itself was uncomfortable. The sun bore down relentlessly and strong winds whipped up endless clouds of dust from the gravel trail. We rushed through the ten-kilometer round-trip hike and set back onto the road toward Tekapo.

Tekapo is yet another picturesque lakeside town. It is famous for its unpolluted nighttime sky and, during this fleeting season, for its pervasive lupines that paint its shores and hills a bright purple. We checked into our accommodation, a small yet luxurious bed and breakfast located a few blocks uphill with expansive views of the lake. The establishment seemed new, and the hosts were an affable Shanghainese husband and wife who had immigrated to New Zealand and did not speak any English. The hostess conveyed logistical details to us through her phone's translator app, but otherwise spoke primarily through a universal language of extravagant generosity.

On ample recommendation, we tried our luck at a homestyle Japanese restaurant by the lakefront. We were fortunate to be accommodated amid several waves of Japanese tour groups that stopped in for a quick bento box meal while many other unaffiliated aspiring patrons similar to us were turned away. In such a small town, dining options were limited. We witnessed others resign to carrying out from the Japanese restaurant, braving a picnic on the shore while fighting off hungry and unwary seagulls. On the other hand, we enjoyed our meal in the birdless confines of the restaurant's interior with marvelous New Zealand king salmon done three different ways.

The next morning, we joined our hosts in their magnificent dining room for a communal continental breakfast before hitting the road for the last time. After a judicious refueling in Tekapo, we drove three hours nonstop to Christchurch. The largest city in the South Island with its best-served international airport, Christchurch is an important transit hub, but prior literature was noticeably silent on the city's attractions per se. The city is still in a state of repair, having been devastated by a series of earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. It would be insensitive to comment too critically on its appearance for what it has endured.

The English influence is pronounced in the architecture of some of the older buildings that have survived and in the city's primary green space, Hagley Park. The park and the adjacent botanical gardens are redolent of the Royal Parks of London. We spent most of our afternoon and evening wandering aimlessly through this vast park, sluggish at first until the sun and heat subsided. We enjoyed our final dinner in New Zealand at the upscale Inati. Seated at the bar overlooking the kitchen, we beheld the formation of numerous innovative and manicured dishes including some we ate ourselves (such as smoked mutton tartare and coconut-poached John Dory) and others that I wanted to try but could not (such as tuatua crudo and a doughnut filled with beef cheek). Overall, we felt that an afternoon and evening in Christchurch was ample.

This morning, I awoke to what will be the longest day of my life. November 28, 2019 is Thanksgiving Day in the US. For me, it began at midnight New Zealand Daylight Time and it will end forty-five hours later at midnight US Pacific Standard Time.

We packed our bags again, more thoroughly and carefully this time around for their impending journey across the Pacific Ocean. We tearfully deposited the car at the airport and boarded our scenic flight from Christchurch to Nadi, Fiji. I conclude this letter in transit during my five-hour layover in Nadi where my ambitious plan of a tropical excursion into town was thwarted by the airport authorities who advised that if I exited the airport, our checked luggage would be ejected.

Thus, I salvage these few hours from my uniquely protracted November 28th to compose this bombastic soliloquy. We leave New Zealand with fond memories, dirty clothes, and two stuffed animal souvenirs that were made in China. We are grateful to have narrowly skirted poor weather conditions several times, allowing us to thoroughly experience the itinerary that I had carefully crafted. While we reflect on the marvels that we saw in this beautiful land, we also recognize the many unique places that we could not experience during our short trip.

In consulting with friends and colleagues who have visited New Zealand, I have encountered no two itineraries that are substantially similar, for despite this nation's relatively small landmass, its diversity of themes means that in a higher-dimensional space, New Zealand occupies much greater volume. In our trek from the north end to the south end, we crossed paths with innumerable tourists each in their unique pursuit of the New Zealand experience. It felt as if most vehicles on the roads that we traveled were rented. At every gravel bay off the side of the state highways, we would inevitably see cars, campervans, and tour buses paused, their passengers wielding cameras at nature too vast to be tamed by a two-dimensional frame. Not to mention that in over two thousand kilometers of driving, we must have swerved around hundreds of mysterious roadkill carcasses. We wondered whether their prevalence was due to the animals lacking a sense of urgency for having evolved in an ecosystem without any major predators.

We traveled in relative comfort, no doubt, staying at international hotel chains, boutique accommodations, and motor lodges, which can be surprisingly luxurious and well equipped unlike their American counterparts. Perhaps my favorite element of hospitality in New Zealand has been the two-cup coffee press and perfectly measured daily packet of fresh grounds that seems standard in every local accommodation. New Zealand respects its coffee.

I must admit with some shame that aside from a few trivial glimpses, I do not feel that I truly engaged with the local culture. I wish I could have gained a finer appreciation for New Zealand's ongoing quest for its national identity. Having assumed full legislative powers from British Parliament as recently as 1947, New Zealand is a relatively young country. Its colonial past is well embedded in its present, the names Cook and Victoria prevalent in its geography and the Union Jack still on its flag after a failed referendum to change it. Nor did we observe much of the Maori culture except for a fleeting moment at Waitomo and, more generally, the dual nomenclature on the signage of notable sites. Then again, perhaps to understand the culture, one must begin with an understanding of the nature that is so highly valued here. From its grandeur and bounty do we derive the role of man, both its servant and the beneficiary of its fruits.


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