New Zealand is doubly blessed with spectacular natural beauty and some of the most fearlessly creative people ever to embark on careers in the tourism industry. These were a few of the most memorable places/adventures on my two-month trip to the islands down under.
1. Milford Sound
Only five places in the world have fiords – Norway, Greenland, British Columbia, Alaska and New Zealand. The most famous "down under" is Milford Sound. Sheer cliffs climb a mile into the sky; the water, too, is a mile deep. After a good rain, there are literally hundreds of waterfalls.
2. Swimming with dolphins
The waters of the small town of Kaikoura are home to large numbers of migrating whales, sea lions and dolphins. A company called Dolphin Encounters will take you several miles out in the Pacific Ocean to snorkel with a school of wild dusky dolphins. We even sighted a sperm whale on the way. Unforgettable.
3. The original bungee jump
New Zealand's A.J. Hackett invented the "modern ritual" of bungee jumping, inspired by an ancient Pacific Island manhood rite. We took the plunge off 145-foot-high Kawarau Bridge near Queenstown. This location has historical value as the first place in the world where people paid good money to dive off a really high bridge with nothing but a big rubber band attached to their ankles.
4. Jetboating the Dart River
Another Queenstown attraction, the Dart River features some of the most spectacular scenery in the country. Easiest (and most fun) way to see it is by jetboat, another Kiwi invention that basically lets a well-trained driver cruise at tremendous speeds in water only a few inches deep.
5. Kepler Track
Speaking of mountains, how about hiking up one? There are several famous hiking "tracks" in New Zealand; this four-day loop is one of the most recent additions to the country's "tramping" network. It takes you up 2,500 feet in elevation to the summit of Mt. Luxmore and back down again, through lush rain forest and narrow ridges and past alpine lakes and icy fiords.
This South Island city (pronounced "done-EE-den") is the departure point for two unique wildlife attractions. One tour takes you to blinds on a beach on the South Pacific to spy on the yellow-eyed penguin, the rarest penguin in the world. Or drive to the tip of the harbor for a tour at the world's only mainland royal albatross colony. Nowhere else do these huge sea birds (wingspan: 15 feet) nest so closely to civilization. Probably the only chance you'll ever have to see these two species in their natural habitat.
Destroyed by an earthquake in 1931, this small city on the Pacific Coast on the North Island was rebuilt mostly in the Art Deco style, making a stroll down its streets and oceanside "marine parade" feel more like a trip to a movie set than a real town. Close by at Cape Kidnappers, you can take a seaside hike to get an up-close view of a rare snow-white gannet colony.
8. Waitomo Caves
There are lots of scenic cave tours in the tiny tourist village of Waitomo, but my favorite was "black water rafting," in which you put on a wetsuit and miner's hard hat, jump on a truck-sized innertube and float down an underground river, marveling at narrow crevasses and towering walls dotted with glowworms – sort of like fireflies with no on-off switch.
9. Hot Water Beach
There are a number of geothermal phenomena on New Zealand's North Island. The most unique has to be Hot Water Beach on the Coramandel Peninsula. Time it right with the tides and you can dig into the sand to create your own hot spring-fed pool – with temperatures up to 147°F (64°C).
10. Whaririki Beach
You know you've found a special place when most of the natives you talk with haven't even heard of it. That was the case with Whaririki Beach, on the remote northwestern end of the South Island at a place called Cape Farewell. To get there you have to travel down a long gravel road, then take a 45-minute hike to reach rolling sand dunes, sea caves and surf-sculpted island reefs that are as likely to be populated by seals as tourists.
NOTE: This story is a companion piece to my article, Aotearoa: The Other Land Down Under, originally published in the La Crosse Tribune in 1995. So there's a good chance that some details of these attractions may have changed since then. Hopefully not too much! -Starling
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born in a small Wisconsin blue-collar town, Mike Starling ditched the assembly line for a long, sometimes circuitous career working with words, sound and images. His original music is heard on numerous recordings and soundtracks, and his stories and photos have been featured in books, films, mags and other media. Among his other interesting career moves, he has edited a beer magazine, played bass in a reggae band and sold potato chips door-to-door. Inspired by the life-altering events of 2020, he launched a year-long web-based project called I Remember Travel in January 2021.
more work samples
I REMEMBER TRAVEL
Journeys in sight and sound by Mike Starling
All text, images and music in the I Remember Travel weblog ©Mike Starling unless otherwise noted. Music published by Bean Hoy Music (BMI). All rights reserved.