The Maori name for New Zealand is “Aotearoa” meaning “land of the long white cloud.” It is a small island nation with two main land masses creatively named North Island and South Island; Cook Strait lies between them. The nation is only about 990 miles long and about 250 miles wide at maximum. Its total land area is about 103,500 square miles, and the total population is about 4.7 million people. It lies about 900 miles east of Australia.
When we spent a year in Australia in 2014-15, we had every intention of spending at least a month seeing New Zealand, too, since we were so close. However, extra expenses encountered during that year ate up the funds intended for our visit to New Zealand. (Remember Winston’s broken transmission? If not, check out our web entries for that year.) This year we managed to save up enough pennies to get a wonderful sampling of New Zealand the easy way – on a 16-day guided tour called Pure New Zealand through Overseas Adventure Travel (O.A.T.). One advantage of this kind of travel is that our son Jon Jr. was able to go with us. Another advantage was having professionals make most of the decisions and arrangements for us!
We stored our motorhome in Tucson, Arizona, a few miles from Jonnie’s house. That way we could take advantage of his hospitality for a couple days before our departure. You know: use his laundry equipment, help him eat his perishables – stuff like that.
On February 12 the three of us embarked on the two-hour flight from Tucson International Airport to Los Angeles where we had about a three-hour layover before our thirteen-hour overnight flight to Auckland. We lost a day crossing the International Date Line, of course, so we landed at Auckland International Airport about 7:30 a.m. New Zealand time on February 14. This was one day before our tour actually began in order to allow our bodies to adjust to our new time.
Auckland, the “City of Sails” and New Zealand’s largest city, is a metropolis of about 1.4 million people, about a third of New Zealand’s population. It was established in 1840 when the first European settlers arrived on the North Island. The city contains some 50 volcanic peaks and is surrounded by 60 miles of coastline. It lies in the northern part of the North Island.
That first day/night, we stayed in a hotel near the airport, rented a car, and saw a bit of Auckland on our own. Jon had discovered just as we entered the security line at Tucson Airport that he had forgotten his good camera at Jonnie’s house – not enough time to go back for it. So in Auckland he bought a little point-and-shoot Nikon Coolpix camera to get pretty good pictures of NZ. He and Jonnie both purchased local SIM cards for their phones in order to have data to use and to keep in touch while we were there.
Then we headed for lunch at the Sky Tower in downtown Auckland. It stands over 328 metres tall (1,076 feet) with the Main Observation Deck on Level 51 at 186 metres (610’); the rotating Orbit 360º Restaurant on Level 52 at 190 metres (623’); and the Sky Deck on Level 60 at 220 metres (772’). We looked out every window on all three of those levels and got a good idea of the maze that is Auckland. Its streets wind around hills and between waterways creating spaghetti-like twists and turns that would be quite baffling without some kind of guidance. There are bays and inlets, peninsulas and islands everywhere. Even on this overcast day, the views on every side were spectacular, and it gave us a chance to get a bit of an idea of how the city is laid out. We even spotted the CityLife Auckland Hotel where we would be staying for the first two nights of our tour. And lunch in the Orbit 360 with the city rotating beneath us was pretty nice, too. We stayed up (mostly awake) until after dinner and then fell exhausted into bed to sleep well through the night and be pretty much back on schedule the next day.
On Tour Day 1 we turned in our rental car and rode a shuttle to the CityLife Auckland Hotel, where we and our luggage got settled into our rooms on the 21st floor of the hotel. We could see the top of the Sky Tower out our bedroom window. We found the Belgian Beer Café in The Occidental Hotel for some lunch. At 3:30 we met with our Trip Leader, Tracey, and the twelve other folks who made up our tour group. After introductions, Tracey showed us maps of the two large islands that comprise the largest part of New Zealand and marked our route for the next couple weeks. Now it really seemed real!
For dinner that evening, we walked as a group to the Ferry Dock and took a 10-minute ferry ride to Devonport, an affluent suburb on the Devonport Peninsula. We had more opportunity to get acquainted at our three-course “Welcome Dinner" in the elegant Esplanade Hotel just across the street from the Ferry Terminal. After dinner we walked at our leisure around the lovely Devonport waterfront area as sunset approached and then climbed on the ferry for the ride back to Auckland just as the sun set about 8:15. Back in our hotel room a glance out the window showed us the Sky Tower all lit in red to celebrate Chinese New Year. Thus ended our first full day of the tour!
Tour Day 2 began with breakfast at the hotel, catching a city bus with our Auckland Transport HOP tickets (which had also paid for our ferry rides the previous evening), and riding 35 minutes southeast to the Auckland Domain, a park where we met some friends of Tracey’s for an introduction to Maori history, culture, language, race relations, and spiritual stories. Our hosts, Prince and Kathy, are native “Kiwis,” a term used to identify all people who were born in New Zealand, no matter their race, national ancestry, creed, color, or gender. Prince is a local Maori tribal leader and a wonderful storyteller. To begin the event, Jon, representing our group, participated in a greeting ceremony with Prince. Jon introduced his group, told of our purpose for being here, and then while holding forearms, touched noses with Prince and then Kathy. It was quite a moving ritual and seemed to create an automatic bond between Prince and Jon.
After Kathy served us Morning Tea with fruit, crackers with cheese, and cookies, we settled in to listen to Prince tell us about how it was that the Maori emigrated to New Zealand from Polynesia some 600-1000 years ago. Several hundred years later, their lives changed drastically when European explorers arrived in the 1600s. We heard about the ups and downs of New Zealand’s race relations between the Maori and Europeans through the years. The Treaty of Waitangi – considered by many Kiwis to be their founding document – was drafted and signed in 1840 to establish fair practices between the British Crown and the Maori.
We learned so much about how the Maori were treated – too similarly to how our Native Americans and Australia’s Aboriginals were treated. Even though we had heard that the Europeans in New Zealand had actually upheld the treaties they made with the Maori, that wasn’t exactly the whole story. The Maori were mistreated in many ways – losing much of their land, their language, and their culture before they were allowed to regain much of that back in the past thirty or forty years. We were especially impressed with the differences that have developed in the fairly recent past. Prince is about 50; when he was in school in the 1970s, people were forbidden from speaking the Maori language. By the time Tracey was in school ten years later, Maori was taught in the schools and became an official language of New Zealand in 1987.
This “Learning and Discovery” session took place on the lawn in the Auckland Domain near the Auckland War Memorial Museum. It was followed by another opportunity to broach a controversial subject with a Greenpeace activist named Steve, who told us about New Zealand’s position as a nuclear-free nation under an act passed in 1987. We listened to his presentation in the shadow of the Cenotaph honoring New Zealand’s World War I dead.
We spent some time seeing the Auckland War Memorial (although we didn’t “do” the museum) and ate lunch there. Then we walked through the beautiful gardens of Auckland Domain back to our hotel.
Now you may ask why New Zealanders are called “Kiwis.” We heard a couple theories, both of which made some kind of sense. First, the kiwi bird has always been a symbol of New Zealand, since that is the only place where kiwi birds are found. A round, flightless bird about the size of a chicken, it is a distant, much-smaller relative of the Australian emu. Servicemen from NZ had the kiwi as an insignia on their uniforms during World War I. Soldiers from other nations picked up on that and gave the nickname Kiwi to those who wore the insignia. The second theory is that the nickname was put in place (again during WWI) because all the other soldiers envied the New Zealanders their shiny shoes, which were, of course, polished using New Zealand-made Kiwi Shoe Polish. However the nickname was acquired, New Zealanders have embraced it eagerly and proudly.
And everywhere, all Kiwis greeted us with “Kia Ora,” an all-purpose Maori greeting meaning, “Hello, Hi, be well!”