Captain’s Log – Jan 2015 -New Zealand Auckland to Wellington

CAPTAINS LOG – January 22, 2015 New Zealand: Auckland to Wellington

We arrived back in New Zealand January 4 after a wonderful two and half months at home. It was a busy time; we started off with a one week trip to New York City for a wonderful visit with our daughter and son-in-law, followed by a lecture I presented at the University of Michigan to economics students on the subject of “What it took for me to attain success in business.” Next, Rebecca and I spoke over dinner to fellow boaters of the Power Squadron who invited us to present a talk on our transpacific voyage, which also was a lot of fun. One of the most rewarding events was our grandnephew Michael’s Eagle Scout Award presentation ceremony: when the young ones do well it is especially rewarding. We also had a wonderful time taking him on a day trip to look over Michigan State University. Rebecca and friends hosted a wedding shower at our home in the midst of an uncompleted refurbishment effort, which was absolutely a blast. We spent many delightful hours with family and friends in addition to all the other holiday festivities; I even got a chance to do a little pheasant hunting. At any rate, we returned to Argo refreshed and very happy to see our dear shipmate, Tyler. The next chapter of our adventure begins now with a 36 day drive around New Zealand.

While we were home we received an email from Loren Portnow, a fellow who grew up in Ann Arbor but now lives in Auckland. He had seen Argo in the harbor and contacted us. We had a most enjoyable dinner with him and his partner, Donna, when we arrived back in Auckland. 

While we were away, the boat in the slip next to us in Auckland provided Tyler with some humorous entertainment; one afternoon the Voyager 56 cruising yacht arrived back in the harbor after a week or so out in the islands fishing. There were two couples on board, one member of which was the owner/captain who was on the fly bridge running the boat. He spun the boat around in the harbor and began backing into the slip next to us. He was really moving the boat too fast. As the Voyager backed into the slip, engine roaring, smoke pouring from the exhaust, all hands took to their stations. However something seemed amiss: it appeared that the party wasn’t completely over and the crew seemed inebriated. Suddenly as it made its way halfway into the slip, the mate on the port bow fell off the boat into the frigid water. It was both dangerous and humorous. Tyler was ready to jump in and save the bloke, but fortunately he made it to the dock without further mishap. 

On another occasion I talked to the owner for a while as they packed up their fish and washed down the boat. He was so happy and proud; he just imported his dream car – a 2014 Corvette – and went on and on about what a fabulous car it was. As an American from the Detroit area, it was great to hear that our products are so well thought of. (An interesting factoid: only 550 left-hand drive vehicles can be imported here each year.)

Overview of New Zealand: New Zealand was formed by the upwelling of the Australian Plate as it overran the Pacific Plate about 30 million years ago. It lies on the “Ring of Fire” that encircles the Pacific Ocean and so the Islands are volcanic and prone to earthquakes, one of the most severe of which leveled Christchurch four years ago. New Zealand is the southernmost country in the world, lying between 370 and 470 south – right in the middle of the “roaring forties”, and is about 1,000 miles east of Australia and 1,000 miles south of Fiji. It is breezy here, if not downright windy. The air here is extremely clean and clear. The sun shines with particular brilliance, perhaps owing to the “hole” in the ozone layer that lies directly overhead; sunscreen is a definite necessity here. The islands are mountainous and temperatures range from subtropical in the far north to sub Antarctic in the far south. New Zealand enjoys four seasons, with summer occurring in January through March. The country is composed of two main islands that have a combined land area of 104,000 sq. miles and are home to a population of 4.5 million people. NZ GDP is about $125 billion or $30,000 per person. By comparison, Michigan’s land area is about 97,000 sq. miles with a population of 10 million, a GDP of $450 billion, and a $45,000 per person average income.

The islands were first inhabited around 800 AD by the Maori, an Indo-Asian people who probably sailed from Indonesia or The Philippians. The European discovery of the islands occurred 800 years later when Captain Abel Tasman of The Netherlands discovered them in 1631 and named them New Zealand ( in English it means New Sealand). Today the country has about 4.5 million inhabitants most of whom live in one of its cities; Auckland is the largest with a population of about 1.5 million, followed by the capital city, Wellington, with a population of 500,000; 72% of the population is white, 14% is Maori (indigenous people), with the balance made up mostly of Asians. New Zealand is a dominion of Great Britain and as such the Queen of England is the Chief of State with the Governor General her appointed representative. New Zealand has a parliamentary form of government with a unicameral legislature. The largest industry is agriculture, which is concentrated on sheep, cattle, wine and lumber, followed in importance by tourism. 

Traveling in New Zealand: To paraphrase Will Rogers, “NZ may be free, but it ain’t cheap.” Everything is a little more expensive here than in the U.S., food in particular, which is surprising given that agriculture is the biggest industry here. A bottle of New Zealand wine that we can buy in the U.S. for $20 costs about $50 here; a U.S. $200/night hotel room costs about $350 here. Gasoline is around $6 a gallon, and car rentals are about $80/day. Of course the near 20% sales tax doesn’t help to keep prices down.

January is a long holiday month for many Kiwis, so the roads are busy as are the hotels and tourists’ attractions. We made our hotel reservations months in advance on advice that many of the choicer locations could be sold out during our planned travel time. The roads are two lanes across most of the country and they don’t have shoulders, so if your left front tire rolls off the pavement you could be in serious trouble. The driver here is seated on the right side of the car and traffic is reversed in direction relative to the U.S.; this takes a bit of getting used to, particularly around rotaries and at intersections. There are huge tandem trucks traveling the roads here and they travel around the curvy, narrow roads at full speed. The result: NZ has one of the highest traffic fatality rates in the developed world. The posted speed limit literally means the maximum speed you are allowed to maintain, and they have hidden cameras placed about to take pictures of speeders. A person can get a ticket in the mail and not even know they have been caught until it is too late. Even 1 km over the speed limit can earn you a ticket, and 30 km over the limit is an automatic revocation of your driver’s license. But given the narrowness of the roads and the curvy nature of them, I am ill-disposed to speeding anyway. 

Auckland to Rotorua: We left Auckland January 9 and headed southwest toward the town of Ortorohanga and the Waitomo Caves. Once outside of metro Auckland, we had about a two hour drive on winding country roads to reach the caves. The scenery was spectacular: steep, high hills with sharp ridges and deep gorges bearing witness to their violent creation in past ages. Green grass covered most of the land, although stands of confers such as cedar, fur and pine were abundant. In some places stands of giant eucalyptus grew, but everywhere the trees seemed much larger than in North America. It could be the long growing season, moderate temperatures and brilliant sunshine, or maybe the rich volcanic soil. Who knows? But they certainly grow big trees here. Gradually as we traveled south the hills grew broader with large valleys. The valleys were green and lush and divided by tall (maybe 20-30 feet tall) hedges of an Arborvitae type shrub, in other places long wind breaks of Lombardy Poplars or pines were all about. The rich grassland provides fodder for the large herds of sheep and dairy cattle, the largest we have ever seen; we were told of one farmer who milks 3,000 head on his 5,000 acre ranch, and of another who works 30,000 acres!! Grassland here is cultivated like a crop. It is irrigated and fertilized to keep it green and full of nutrients for the grazing animals. There are no natural predators in New Zealand to harm the sheep or cattle. Everywhere there were beautiful stands of violet hydrangea, purple NZ phlox, and large orange flowers of a plant similar to an oversized Indian Paintbrush. 

As we drove westward across the North Island toward Waitomo, the flora became more verdant and lush with giant fern trees (Dicksoniaceae) abundant among the forests. These trees are about 20 feet tall with an umbrella like expanse of fronds extending about fifteen feet in diameter, with each frond being about six feet in length. They have existed for 300 million or more years and are thought to have been a primary staple of ancient herbivore dinosaurs. After a couple of hours driving we arrived at the Waitomo Caves, a limestone cave formation in the center of the North Island. The cave we explored was very large and contained both stalactites and stalagmites and a very large “cathedral room”. Further down the path inside the cave we came upon the “glowworms”. The glowworms live on a part of the cave’s ceiling above an underground river. The little worms emit a constant greenish light that makes the cave’s ceiling look like a starry night’s sky – pitch black with millions of little lights. To feed, the worms lower a thin strand of sticky, silky thread on which they hope to trap an insect that inadvertently wanders into the cave attracted by the worm’s light. The whole experience was absolutely fascinating and beautiful. As we wandered down the steps deeper in to the cave, we ultimately came to an underground river. There we boarded a small boat and made our way out of the cave, but not before encountering large concentrations of glowworms on the ceiling. It was dreamlike and otherworldly in both its beauty and its shear strangeness.

Once back in reality, we continued our drive toward Rotorua. Along the way we stopped at a bird sanctuary that had several captive kiwis among other specimens. These are very rare animals, with only about 30,000 thought to exist. We were able to see the Brown Spotted Kiwi (rarest of them all), which is a large bird about the size of a small turkey. It looks awkward as it has no wings or tail, and its legs are placed far back toward its ample rump. It walks quickly about poking its long beak into the soil in search of worms and grubs. A kiwi is agile, fast moving, and ill tempered. Its caretaker showed us a little scar she received while trying to care for it, confirming the fact that kiwis aren’t very friendly.

An hour later we made it to Rotorua, home of the Maori culture. Rotorua is located on the banks of Lake Rotorua, the largest lake in New Zealand. The main attractions here are associated with the Maori culture, including a village located in the heart of a geothermal field. The little village was very interesting, with geysers, steam vents, and hot pools of water circling the twenty or so houses and stores in the town. It was both picturesque and unusual. Our Maori guide showed us how they cook all types of food in a community steamer powered by the water vapor escaping from vent from the earth; a completely frozen chicken is ready for the table in just 20 minutes! Likewise they cook veggies in a bag immersed in a lovely aqua colored pond that is always at the boiling point. Around the corner from the village was a national park harboring a large stand of California Redwoods planted in New Zealand around 1900. It was lovely to be among those spectacular trees and walk in the quiet, cool beauty unique to a Redwood Forest, which, as far as I am concerned, is as close to the home of God as we are likely to encounter on earth. 

Rotorua is a fairly large country town, located on the shore of a lake in a flat, open valley. The town is based economically on agriculture and tourism. There aren’t any shopping centers or big retailers here or elsewhere outside of Auckland; instead there are local shops located on a Main Street like we used to have in the U.S.A. Our hotel was located on the lake, and although we carefully vetted it on the internet, we weren’t aware that giant busses filled with Chinese tourists arrived every morning and disgorged them into the lobby. They toured in groups, ate in groups, and crowded the elevators just like they do back in Shanghai or Beijing. 

The next day we drove to the Waimangu Geothermal Area. This was a never-to-be-forgotten experience. The entry to the park is situated on the top of a mountain, and seeing the geothermal features required walking ninety minutes down a trail and along a fault fissure toward a lake at the bottom of the gorge. It was a crystal clear day with brilliant sunshine and very warm temperatures. Our first stop was Frying Pan Lake (world’s largest hot spring: 36 ft. deep and 131 degrees Fahrenheit) with Cathedral Rock at its southern terminus. Then came the amazing aqua blue 176 degrees Inferno Crater Lake (intense aqua blue -2.1 ph. – largest geyser-like feature in the world although the geyser cannot be seen because it is 120 ft. under the surface of the water). Down the trail was Warbrick Terrace, a multi-colored, fast growing silica platform – colors originating from sulfur, copper, magnesium, iron and silica, all modified and tempered by algae and bacteria of various types, and all growing in boiling water. Bubbling springs were everywhere, steam vents and mud pools, small geysers spouting, and hot and steaming water flowing like an ordinary creek down the valley floor – fault floor – to a distant lake. It was a great day walking amidst the powers that created our beautiful world.

On our fourth day we drove 215 km to the town of Napier, located on the shores of Hawke’s Bay. As we drove east the grass changed from green to brown. The drive provided gorgeous vistas of flowering meadows, a distant snowcapped volcano, cultivated forest lands of giant pine trees, and rugged, steep volcanic hills on which trees such as oak, Lombardy Poplars, palmettos, and giant lilac trees grow. Very large dairy herds could be seen grazing everywhere. As we got close to Napier, we could see that it lay in the heart of the North Island’s wine and fruit growing region. Napier is foremost a tourist destination, but like all smaller towns in New Zealand it is also a center of agriculture. Following the 1931 earthquake, Napier was rebuilt in the Art Deco style. Today there are at least 100 beautiful Art Deco buildings in the district, and vintage cars of that era are available as an alternative to a walking tour. Floral gardens line the streets and the downtown shoreline. The residential areas of the town are either colorful seaside bungalows built along the shores of Hawke’s Bay, whose beaches are black volcanic sand, or larger homes of an older vintage perched precariously on the hillside prominence that defines the original town site, something like Sausalito on San Francisco Bay. The highway leading south to the wine growing areas is a boulevard lined on both sides with giant Norfolk Pines. On the outskirts of town near where we stayed is located the fishing port and yacht marina. The warehouse district adjoining the working harbor has been partially transformed into an interesting wharf side casual bar and dining area that attracts locals for their afternoon social hour. Our hotel was just a short walk around the harbor and across from one of the beaches on the north side of town. It was a chic, modern hotel with lovely rooms and a nice restaurant.

 We spent our first day in Napier enjoying the downtown and its Art Décor buildings. The next day we drove out to the Elephant Hill Winery, which offered fine wine and a gourmet lunch in a beautiful, artistic setting. A bottle of their featured La Phant Blanc (Pinot Gris–Voignier-Gewürztraminer) cost $50 (wow!) and accompanied our selection for lunch: John Dory with a shrimp mouse encased in tempura batter attached to a zucchini neck. All of this rested on a couple of mandarin orange sections, and a few thinly sliced pieces of cucumber and radish, along with vanilla pearls in a drop or two of pomegranate sauce. It was very good to say the least.

After a couple of days in Napier, we drove two hours south to Wharekauhua, a 5,000 acre ranch and lodge located an hour’s drive east of Wellington on the coast near Cook’s Strait. The drive was spectacular, with large herds of dairy cattle and sheep all along the way. The flora and topography was similar to that of beautiful Northern California. After about a two hour drive from Napier we reached the little town of Fairview and began looking for our turnoff. We soon found it; a narrow strip of asphalt leading from Fairview some 40 km of a winding one lane road and little bridges leading to Ocean Beach and the site of Wharekauhua. After an hour or so of gorgeous countryside vistas we turned onto a narrow one lane gravel road that descended 150 feet or more to a rock strewn riverbed at its base. Then we saw it; a magnificent country estate like one might see in England or Scotland, located there in the midst of wild New Zealand. As we turned a treacherous corner and continued our decent down the hill we became more and more excited with anticipation. We weren’t disappointed!

Wharekauhua Lodge has 13 cottages for guests and a main lodge used for dinning. William and Kate stayed there last year when they visited NZ. Cocktails and canapés were served at 7 PM in the library. Dinner followed at 8 PM and consisted of a five course gourmet meal exquisitely prepared by Marc Soper. Marc was so kind as to share a few recipes with us (although I doubt that we will be able to reproduce them). Arron (a Samoan immigrant who leaned recently that he had inherited a Royal Chief’s Title upon the death of his uncle) introduced us to a wonderful Pinot Noir (Pegasus Winery) that was as terrific as it was a surprise. For three days we feasted on the most fabulous food one can imagine.

Our first full day was occupied mostly by a farm tour. As I mentioned above, Wharekauhua is a 5,000 acre enterprise specializing in the raising of lambs for the table. They have about 10,000 sheep here during lambing season; 3,000 yews, 7,000 lambs and a 100 or so rams. Lambs are born in the spring, which is August and September in New Zealand. Lambs are sold for slaughter in December after shearing. The poor little things have a very short life. Almost 100% of the meat produced in NZ is sold for export, most of it to the U.S. market. Wharekauhua also has hundreds of head of beef cattle, mostly Spotted and Angus breeds. The Spotted are a fattier breed that when bred with Angus is intended to produce more tender meat then Angus by itself. In any case, all the animals are fed only grass, which produces a lean and almost tasteless (my opinion) product. The farm employs about 30 people in all, and most live in housing provided by the farm. Two men and several sheep dogs control most of the livestock. The hands demonstrated their sheep shearing technique and the deployment of their dogs to round up the sheep. It was very interesting.

Our tour guide, Roger, took us down from the plateau where the lodge is located to the gravel road and the black sand beach below. Here you could see the effects of the violent, giant winter seas from Antarctica that rip ashore and slam the plateau. At the base of the plateau, in protected areas, are little rustic fishing cabins called “baches” that sportsmen use mostly as fish camps during the summer months. Roger owns one and told us of the various fishing methods employed here, two of which demonstrate the inventiveness and originality of the New Zealand mind. He asked me if I had ever heard of a Kon Tiki. Of course…No. Roger’s Kon Tiki is a Rube Goldberg contraption –a little 3 foot catamaran fitted with an airplane type propeller, electric motor and battery, a fishing long-line with 25 baited hooks. The Kon Tiki itself is tied to a reel with a mile or so of line (to bring it back to shore). The idea is to propel it out to sea about a mile, release the hooked line, wait an hour or two, then pull it back to shore and hope something is on the line. The reason for all this is that it is very difficult to launch boats here. The sand is very soft and the beach very steep. Although boats can be launched few people do it because it takes a bulldozer and a boat launching apparatus with huge diameter wheels tethered to the tractor with about a 30 ft. steel arm to accomplish a launch. In this situation, the Kon Tiki has appeal.

After a few days at Wharekauhua we reluctantly moved on to Wellington, capital city of New Zealand. Wellington is a big, modern, high rise city located on Cook’s Strait about 12 miles above the South Island and situated in a relatively small notch in the mountains along the coast. The residential part of the city clings to the hill sides, and luxury seaside homes line the beaches and waterfront. The shopping district is located on Lambton Quay, a street that was once the waterfront before an earthquake created more land. In the center of the city stands the Beehive, the ruling party’s main office building and office of the Prime Minister. It is a very interesting building architecturally, a dome like structure reflecting the modern concept of a capital building. Next to the Beehive is the House of Parliament, a conventional 19th century classic building executed in grey marble and granite. Further down the capital campus stands the Library of Parliament, a beautiful deep yellow Victorian building that looks very much like a cathedral. Across the street, but in line with the government buildings, stands the rose colored concrete Anglican Cathedral. Wellington is quit lovely, with a mix of creative modern architecture and classic older buildings. The city has made considerable investment in converting its former wharf harbor front into a beautiful and entertaining parkland that preserves the feel of the historical waterfront with the vibrancy of an exciting meeting and entertainment area. It features a walkway that tracks the entire bay coastline from the cruise ship terminal to the airport, altogether about 20 km; a lovely, walkable downtown area, a cable car that can take you up to the botanical gardens or to the Campus of Victoria University, NZ’s largest. Charming little neighborhoods with their own distinct identity formed because of their separation by the hills or rivers from the others. We really liked Wellington and found it to be a very enjoyable and livable city.

After three days in Wellington, it was time to board the ferry for Picton across the strait and begin our tour of the South Island.

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