New Zealand holiday: Driving to the land most recently inhabited by humans

New Zealand: The uniqueness of the island country stems from the fact that it was the land most recently inhabited by humans. And though we have caused damage, it still remains unlike most other parts of the world

crown range summit and queenstown (Left) Landscape between Crown Range Summit and Queenstown

New Zealand is one of the most recently inhabited lands in the world with Eastern Polynesians reaching there in AD 1350. White settlers followed 450 years later. Ever since reading Yuval Noah Harari’s masterpiece Sapiens I had been wanting to tour this pristine land. The opportunity presented itself in June 2018 after I had completed a solo drive along Australia Highway1, the longest highway in the world. I flew into Auckland from Sydney and hired a car at the airport. After a few days of acclimatisation, I drove to Cape Reinga to start a north-south road trip in New Zealand.

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lake wanaka Lake Wanaka, the fourth largest lake in New Zealand

Cape Reinga-Wellington (1,700km, 6 days)

Cape Reinga is the northernmost tip of the North Island that one could drive to. The Maoris believe that Cape Reinga is the place from where the spirits of the dead enter the underworld. A clear separation of the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean can be seen from here. The Maoris believe it was a symbolic union of the male and female. The Cape Reinga headland, the Three Kings Islands and a spring in the hillside are closely interwoven into the Maori mythological belief of return of dead spirits to their traditional homeland, Hawaiki. The fully automated lighthouse with solar powered beacon at the Cape was built in 1941, replacing the old one. 

A few kilometres from the Tapotupotu Bay was a signboard that pointed to sand dunes about 5km away. How could there be sand dunes in such a vast area of verdant hills and grazing pastures? The Te Paki sand dunes constantly move and create new designs with the assistance of the strong winds that sweep the landscape. Blue skies, green forests, flowing rivulets and a moist sand dune! Later I learnt that the sand dunes are part of the Ninety Mile Beach which runs north from the town of Kaitaia. That explained that the moist sand was sea shells found atop the desert-like dunes. 

Coromandel Peninsula derives its name from a British naval ship, the HMS Coromandel, that had stopped there for supplies in 1820. Coromandel is a Portuguese version of Cholamandalam, the Tamil word that signified the realm of the ancient Cholas. In November 1779, Captain Cook had observed the passage of planet Mercury across the face of the sun at Shakespeare Cliff and named it Mercury Bay.

Rotorua is the world’s most spectacular geothermal wonderland, being part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone. Heat seethes from cracks in the streets, steam from hot pools burst through geysers in the area and bubbles in mud pools like festering wounds. The result of hundreds of years of volcanic activity in the region has created terraces, valleys and lakes beyond comparison. 

Gisborne Port handles three million tonnes of pinewood logs a year. A plaque beneath an obelisk provides details of the bicentennial of Captain Cook’s landing in Poverty Bay in 1769. I found a middle-aged woman at the beach picking shells in a plastic container. When I saw her struggling with her ‘finds’, I offered to carry the heavy container to her car. That supremely talented lady used the shells for craftwork, turning them into various priceless exhibits she sold on Extravaganza, the gypsy trail. That kept her and husband, Douglas, on the road for over seven months in a year. 

alpaca couple in a farm An Alpaca couple in a farm

I spotted a quaint coffee shop called Mumma G's in Waipawa town. It turned out to be a shop run by three elderly women. One of them welcomed me with a bright smile and a few words of greeting. The place had been done up artistically and in a small town such as that everyone seemed to know everyone else. Most people smiled and greeted one another with questions such as “How are the girls today?”, “Your husband’s at work?” and “How’s Mum feeling today?” Mumma G’s was run on credibility and acceptance. 

Wellington has been the national capital since 1865 and sits at the southernmost tip of the North Island; it is the world’s southernmost capital of a sovereign state. After dinner with my family in Wellington, I asked Raffael, the feisty son of Keerti and Reuben, to pose for a selfie with me. I told him that in 20 years the photograph would be invaluable to me because he would by then become the prime minister of New Zealand. The guy did not even pause before saying, “But, in 20 years you will be dead!”

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Picton-Slope Point (1,400km, 6 days)

Picton in Marlborough District is claimed to be the  “heart of sounds” and Marlborough is where the  “south begins”. I came across the term “sound” in New Zealand, like Milford Sound or Queen Charlotte Sound. A sound is a large sea or ocean inlet bigger than a bay, deeper than a bight and wider than a fjord, according to an internet definition.

The Buller River is one of the longest rivers in the country at 170km. The river runs through the Buller Gorge and the longest swing-bridge in the country, at 110m, spans the gorge over the river. With the river flowing across at high velocity, the walk on the narrow bridge is daunting. I took the Comet Line ride across the river on the return. The Cobden breakwater in Greymouth is unofficially known as Shipwreck Point as 50 ships had been wrecked at that breakwater point. 

bird's eyeview of queenstown from skywalk A bird's eye view of Queenstown

The magnificent drive to Franz Josef Glacier was through fern festooned mountain ridges. With rain pouring steadily it felt like in a rainforest, so thick was the vegetation on either side of the road. The mountain tops were all covered in thick blankets of mist with narrow slivers of waterfalls in the distance. One can trek to within 750m of the Franz Josef Glacier in about 90 minutes. 

On the way I crossed shallow rivulets, passed by small waterfalls, took in the sights of the wide drain of the glacier waters into the Waiho River and made the friendly ascent all the way to the tip of the glacier. The area around the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers is a World Heritage Site. The glacier is said to be the frozen tears of the beautiful, heartbroken Hine Hukatere when she lost Wawe in an avalanche according to Maori legend. The 12km-long glacier is one of the main attractions in the South Island.

The Haast Highway is a 120km stretch that links Fox Glacier to Haast. The scenic drive has been described as one of the most dangerous roads to drive on in the world because of the sheer drops and gravity defying curves. The forested portion passed through Mount Aspiring National Park. It was also reputed to be one of the most scenic coastal drives in the world. Lake Wanaka is New Zealand’s fourth largest lake and is over 1,000ft in depth. Lake Hawea is even bigger and deeper than Lake Wanaka. Together they provide the most glorious setting for the township of Wanaka. 

Milford Sound is 120km and three hours from Te Anau. The Mirror Lake is a popular stopover enroute where the Earl Mountains are perfectly reflected on the lake surface. Takahe, a flightless bird indigenous to New Zealand, which had been presumed extinct for nearly 50 years was rediscovered in 1948 in the area. The area also has Kea, the olive-green alpine parrot with brilliant orange under its wings is known for its curiosity and intelligence. They are reputed to destroy windshield beading and tyres of parked vehicles with their strong, curved beaks. 

Bluff is generally regarded as the southernmost point of the South Island and promoted as the  “place where the journey begins”, because SH1 starts from Stirling Point in Bluff and goes all the way up to Cape Reinga. The Stirling Point pilot station was established in the 1870s. It is a tradition to pick up a stone in Cape Reinga and throw it into the waters in Bluff, which is what I did from the platform of the lighthouse.

kea alpine parrot Kea, the curious and intelligent alpine parrot

From Stirling Point I drove up the steep Bluff Hill, called Motupohue. The circular viewing platform provides panoramic views of the city and the neighbouring waters and islands. Informative panels near the viewing platform mention that the area had not been inhabited by humans till about 1,000 years ago and how species of fauna and flora became endangered, and some like the flightless Moa extinct, with only the Kiwi surviving human assault that introduced pests and pestilence as well as hunters. I recollected Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens as I read the panels.

Slope Point lies about 90km east and further south of Bluff. The Slope Point signpost mentions that point as the southernmost place in South Island. There are numerous other viewing areas nearby that provide glorious views of the sea and beaches, but visitors usually give them a miss.  

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lighthouse in cape reinga A solar-powered lighthouse in Cape Reinga

Aide-mémoire

North Island route:  Cape Reinga-Whitianga-Whangarei-Coromandel Peninsula-Rotorua-Gisborne-Wellington

South Island route: Picton-Nelson-Greymouth-Wanaka-Te Anau-Milford Sound-Bluff-Slope Point

Cook Strait crossing: Three-and-a-half hours ferry by Interislander

Car hire: Toyota RAV4 from Apex Car Rentals, Auckland. A small car is adequate

Petrol cost: Around Rs110 per litre. Perhaps, a small price to pay for clean air and healthy life

stirling point Stirling Point, Bluff, known as the place where the journey begins, the start of SH1

When to go: Autumn is my favourite time of the year

Airline: Quantas.

Clothing: Even in summer one must be prepared with layered clothing as weather changes abruptly all through the year

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