In the guidebook for Hawaii, I found these package bicycle tours listed. I got all excited and got Mom to agree that it sounded like fun, but by the time to commit came around, Mom waffled. I went ahead and made reservations for me, and told her that if she wanted to go, she needed to make her own reservations.
The next day, I went to where I was doing some timing analysis consulting, and mentioned this to Hala, one of the programmers there. "Yeah", I said, "I almost decided to blow Mom off completely and go to New Zealand instead, but I didn't." Hala basically twisted my arm behind my back, shook me in the air a few times, and slammed me into the floor until I agreed to go bike around New Zealand for a month with her.
So what else could I do? I cancelled the Hawaii trip (leaving me with a credit with the bike tour company that ended up turning into my Banff trip) and from Dec 12, 1993 to Jan 12, 1994, Hala and I toured New Zealand.
When you read this, it will sound like it was a bad trip. It was not. Yes, I was physically uncomfortable for large portions of the trip, but it was worth it. And you should not avoid NZ because of the weather: the rains were so heavy that there was flooding in Kaikoura, Milford, and Greymouth. (By contrast, my friend Amy went a month later and reported beautiful weather 80% of the time.) Furthermore, large portions of the discomfort could have been avoided if I had packed better wet-weather gear.
Kiwis also speak English. Never underestimate how much that can affect the character of your trip!
And as far as accommodations go, they have what they call "backpackers", which are commercial and one step above hostels. Hala and I almost always could get a room with two beds to ourselves (with a lock), and they all had communal kitchens/common rooms and laundry facilities. In the South Island, they frequently had a drying room as well. These backpackers cost on the order of NZ$12-NZ$20 per night, which turns into US$5-US$12 US. We did spend four nights in Nelson at a really nice B&B which was more expensive - NZ$30/night = US$18, oh no! If you want to go to NZ, I really suggest you check out the Guide to New Zealand Hostels.
[My friend Amy stayed twice with hosts that she contacted through WWOOF (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) and SERVAS (the Esperanto word for "serves"). WWOOF basically gives you lodging in exchange for your manual labor; SERVAS is an international network of people who agree to host travellers in their homes for short stays. She really enjoyed having a break from the hostel scene and learned a lot from her hosts.] I should note that at most of the "Backpackers'" hotels, you can leave your gear for a day, two days, two weeks, six months, whatever for no charge. (One thing to be careful of, however, especially if you are biking, is that the population density of the South Island is very low. Towns are on the order of 30-50 km apart, and I am using a very liberal definition of the word "town". On the west coast, it might be wise to plan for hotels being 100km apart.)
Shipping our bikes by air was also pretty cheap. I think it was about US$30 to standby air-freight them around. Our plane tickets SFO<->Auckland were US$900. Our plane tickets inside NZ were another US$300. I changed US$1500 and spent MAYBE another US$500 on Visa. We also were not particularly thrifty. We did everything and went everywhere, and usually ate in restaurants. My trip to NZ was a LOT cheaper than my trip to Europe! [My friend Amy notes that new cars are more expensive then the US (so don't buy one there), and that houses are cheaper (but it is a hell of a commute to California!)]
Otira is so safe that the hotel rooms didn't even have locks on the doors.
The big news in the newspapers was usually traffic accidents.
And despite there being little shoulder, and despite Hala falling off, I consider biking to be very safe as well. There is so little traffic in the South Island that cars could almost always go hang out in the opposite lane when they overtook us.
They also were very happy to talk to travelers and hear where we were from, where we were going, what we liked, how NZ is different, etc.
I had in my mind that New Zealand was a tiny little country, and with that I had this sense of compactness. It is a small country (about the size of Colorado) but there is nobody in it. (Colorado is also a relatively small place on a global scale, but there are large pieces of it that have a terrible, vast majesty.) The NZ terrain and the climate together are VERY reminiscent of the western coast of the US: either Oregon or California, depending upon what the climate at that point is.
NZ lies on the "ring of fire", at the junction of some massive
geological plates. This means that there are lots of big pointy
mountains in NZ, as well as quite a bit of volcanism, earthquakes,
and other geological activity.
I also wasn't prepared for the weather. It rained and
rained and rained for pretty much our first three weeks. "It doesn't
usually rain this much", we were told, but that didn't make it any
I found, much to my dismay, that the word "waterproof" has a different definition in NZ than it does in California! Also, I like to travel light. I took two changes of clothes (plus warm stuff to put on top). You just wash out what you aren't wearing and leave it to dry overnight, no problem. This works fine in a hot, dry climate. It doesn't work nearly as well in a cold, wet climate. My poor feet have never been so wet for so long!
[Note: I do believe the natives were telling the truth about the weather being unusual: we missed flooding in three different cities, in Greymouth by only one day. Furthermore, a friend of mine went to NZ about a month after we got back, and she says she had warm, sunny weather 80% of the time.]
The flora and fauna of NZ are very interesting. NZ split off
from Gonwandaland on the order of 100M years ago, and thus the fauna evolved
completely separately (except for flying things) until the Maoris
showed up about 1200 years ago. As a result,
there are no indigenous mammals except for bats. There is very
little mobile ground life except for introduced species and wingless
There used to be these HUGE flightless birds called moas, which stood about eight feet tall. LARGE. They got pretty easily picked off by the first Maoris and are now extinct. Before you come down too hard on those Maoris, realize that there wasn't a whole lot else they could eat, especially in the interior. No squirrels, no deer, no possum, no cows, no pigs.
When the giant moas died out, their main predator, a giant hawk with a 9-ft wingspan(!) died out as well. (I read somewhere that the Maoris didn't let their kids play outside in feathered cloaks because they'd literally get carried away.)
This hawk was one of the only indigenous predators in NZ. There were so few predators that the native birds had basically no defenses. This means that introduced mammals - dogs, cats, possums - just clean up. The local fauna just can't compete. A lot of the flightless birds are now near extinction.
There also seems to still be a great paucity of carrion eaters. We rode by road kill that had been there a LONG time. In the mountains, I even passed a rabbit that had been mummified.
[I saw a TV show that showed some unusual (and BIG!) insects, saying that these large insects took the niche usually filled by rodents. That may be true, but I personally never saw one of these big insects.]
I saw very very very few mosquitos in NZ (I got one bite in Auckland), though I have been told by one Ani Pahuru that you can find kamikazi mosquitos by the forkloads on the Eact Cape of the North Island. What I did see in the South Island are little bugs called sandflies. I had been told that they were the worst cross between mosquitos, ticks, and no-see-ums, but found them wildly overrated as a beast of prey. You can literally walk away from them (even slowly!), they won't bite through clothes, insect repellent does, and they are also repelled by bright colors. [Hala, who is quite a bit darker than I, had much more trouble with them than I.] However, if you do stop for even 15 seconds, they will find you.
flightless birds under Dec 23.)
The flora is also unusual. Ferns, ferns, ferns, ferns! Lots
of ferns, including fern trees. There are also a number of more
familiar-looking trees, with really nice wood grains and colors. I fell
in love with a particular type called "rimu" (also called red pine) which is a
very pretty and quite hard coniferous wood.
Moss in the rain forests is also omnipresent. In the South Island, it is like a carpet covering EVERYTHING: trees, rocks, small dogs, my shoes, you name it. Forget about telling north by the moss: in NZ every direction would be north.
Not just the fauna, but the flora also have problems with "exotics" (i.e. introduced) plants. My take on this is that as the local flora evolved, parasites and predators evolved to take advantage of them. They aren't much interested in the introduced plants, so the introduced plants have nothing to slow them down. One interesting note: Pinus Radiata, a pine native to California, takes about sixty years to grow to maturity in California. In NZ, it takes only twenty.
An interesting thing about forests in NZ is that they are cultivated. (They are also big business, #2 behind sheep farming and ahead of tourism.) The companies take great pains to replant the lands. My sense is that most clearcut in the US is left as such - perhaps because so much of the logging in the US is on public, not private lands. Hmmm. I also learned that clearcutting is not necessarily the product of laziness or waste. Pines really need sunlight to grow, much more so that beech or other trees. Thus to promote pine growth and discourage the growth of other species, they chop down all the other trees that provide shade. If they want to grow other trees, then they leave the unharvested trees standing.
A quick note on outhouses: thanks in part to giardia and in part to the lack of homeless people, NZ has LOTS of public restrooms. Because NZ is about the only place in the world that does not have giardia (or very little), they try very hard to make sure that they don't get it. The best way, they feel, to avoid contaminating the waterways, is to encourage people to not shit in the woods. In the whole time I was in NZ, I only once urinated in the great outdoors, and that was on a two-hour day hike. If I had planned a little better, even that would have been unneeded.
As you know, New Zealand is in the southern
hemisphere. This means that there are a few things that they do
differently from Up Over:
Cars (and bikes) drive on the LEFT. The lights come on when the wall switch is flipped DOWN. The cold water is on the LEFT. The salt shaker has ONE hole, the pepper shaker has MANY holes.
They are also a former British colony, and as such have a number of expressions that are very British: WC (or toilet) instead of bathroom, meat pies, chips instead of french fries.
On the other hand, I was quite surprised to find a number of instances where the American and NZ were the same and different from the British. They say truck instead of the British lorry, sausage instead of banger, and potato chips instead of potato crisps, for example. (And yes, if you were paying attention, french fries and potato chips are not uniquely identified in NZ.)
One thing that is NOT different between the northern and southern continents is the direction that water flows down the drains. That is a MYTH. Hurricanes and so on do go in different directions because of the Coriolas effect [which results from the latitude lines being shorter the farther away from the equator that you go], but they have a north-to-south span of several hundred miles. A drain has a a north-to-south span of oh, two inches at the biggest, which is absolutely insignificant compared to the radius of the earth. If you don't believe me, this is one experiment that you can try yourself. Go look at all the drains in your house (except the toilets, which are sometimes designed to jet the water in one direction or another) and you will find random swirling.
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