Home to hobbits and survivor of some of the world’s most recent natural disasters, Sally Hayden explores New Zealand’s South Island
Aristotle claimed that everything we see is an imperfect replica of a better version in a more perfect world. This is how Ireland compares to New Zealand. In our antipodean equivalent, every colour and contrast is enhanced. Visualise higher mountains, bluer skies, and countless waterfalls – though existing in a landscape that’s strangely reminiscent of home.
Cinematically, this country has worked as a canvas for Narnia, Middle Earth and Mordor. And business keeps booming, with Tintin, Avatar and Yogi Bear all recently calling it home thanks to the ‘Peter Jackson Effect.’ Far from being indie and claiming you had heard of this pair of islands before they were famous, embrace your inner hobbit. There’s nothing like cruising over New Zealand’s mountain roads with the Lord of the Rings soundtrack blaring.
The population’s identity is hard to place. Unlike their Aussie counterparts, New Zealand has, for the most part, accepted its indigenous, and the Maori culture is revered, respected and used to inspire fear in less worthy sporting opponents (Haka, anyone?). However, the historic British influence has not vanished completely. The South Island still boasts towns named Cromwell and Middlemarch, and discovering that locals had stayed up until 3am to watch William and Kate’s nuptials was certainly no surprise.
Yet your trip may start with a reminder of the fragility of nature. Christchurch is a broken city in the middle of paradise. A series of earthquakes have obliterated its heart, leaving only a shell of suburbs and memories. The city centre has been destroyed, and the locals pause while answering requests for directions to recall what still exists and what doesn’t. Surrounding rubble makes lingering houses appear prominent and guilty. But the unshakeable Kiwi sense of humour lives on, and the little the population say straight-faced to the unsuspecting tourist should be unquestionably believed.
The South Island is easily navigated. A functioning car and a group of people who you can put up with for long periods of time are the dream. Leave a week to see everything, or an eternity to take it all in.
Franz Joseph should be your next destination. There is nothing cooler than trekking on a twelve-kilometre-long glacier. Above you, on either side, is rainforest, shot down the middle with a broad frozen cascade. Spikes and waterproofs are provided. As you ascend, your able guide will hack steps for the less capable walkers, and possibly a table and chairs for lunch.
After the steady silence of ice, prepare for a shock. Queenstown is where adrenaline junkies come to get their fix, and hearts in this town beat faster than anywhere else in the world. Whoosh through the air upside-down on the world’s largest swing. Go skydiving and bungee jumping all in one day, and spend the night celebrating your survival. And if fear has you reverting to your childhood, get the gondola up to Bob’s Peak and go luging.
Dunedin hosts a beautiful university, and more importantly Baldwin Street, the steepest street in the world. San Francisco forgotten, this logic-defying climb will have you crawling up and rolling back down.
Rangitata, close by, is where the backpacker’s rite of passage, the ever revered “white-water rafting,” is waiting for you. The Rangitata hostel is also in the running for the record number of tourists that can be fitted in one room. Each bunk bed is three levels high.
Milford Sound is a highly publicised but unforgettable cruising spot, and Mount Iron in Wanaka is another hike worth sweating for. Meanwhile, Puzzling World is a shrine to the bizarre, and offers both a maze and a monetary prize to any psychic who can locate a hidden item, a challenge which six “professionals” have failed so far.
Supernatural activities aside, the allure of New Zealand’s base qualities is undeniable. The effect of your surroundings will alter even the most hardened urbanites, and soon you’ll find yourselves irresistibly drawn to previously unappreciated amusements like hiking, scenic cycling and bird watching. Aristotle also said that personal beauty is a greater recommendation than any letter of reference – so ignore this article and seize any chance to see for yourself.