It was an all-day drive from the base of Mount Cook, at 12,349’, the highest peak in New Zealand, to Queenstown. You cannot imagine a more scenic route almost anywhere in the world. The route goes along a river and through lush, green rural countryside. New Zealand has 60 million areas of parkland, which is 20 percent of the country. No wonder it remains so beautiful and pristine.
Located 1,200 miles southeast of Australia and 6,500 miles southwest of California, New Zealand is part of Polynesia. It is a stepping-off place to Antarctica.
Queenstown is on the southern part of the South Island. There is a refreshing breeze even in summer. No place is more than 80 miles from the coast and nowhere are mountains out of view. Queenstown is not flat; it sits on the shore of a lake, and homes are on the sides of hills. There is a British air about all of New Zealand, as at one time it was part of the British Empire, and now it is an independent member of the Commonwealth. On the walls in government buildings you will find a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II as their monarch.
As I drove closer to Queenstown, the river funneled into a narrow gorge. I stopped in a small parking area and walked across a high suspension bridge over the gorge, where there once had been gold mines. Further along our drive, I saw another higher bridge, being used now for bungi jumping.
As the gorge opened up to a slightly hilly valley, there were vineyards along the roadside. Another day, I visited two of the vineyards on a wine tasting tour. One had a deep natural cave, a perfect natural refrigerator for storing barrels of wine for aging. The vineyards produce good wines and some are being recognized internationally.
On the highway were a few dead stoats and possums; these two animals were both introduced to New Zealand and have caused native land birds to become extinct. Others are endangered, like the national bird, the kiwi.
A kiwi is an interesting bird to see. It lives in forests, and it is very shy and nocturnal. It is the size of a chicken, covered with shaggy dull brown feathers. It has a small head, short neck, and a long, flexible bill. It is the only bird that has nostrils at the tip of the bill, which it uses to find food: earthworms, berries, and insects. The female lays one to two big white eggs. The male sits on the nest for 75 days or until they hatch.
While I was in Queenstown, I went to a bird preserve in the center of town, where there were only two kiwis to see. They are kept in a building with a dark enclosure where visitors walk along a dark corridor, adjusting to the darkness before the door of the viewing room is opened. We are asked to be silent with little movement, as the kiwi is very shy.
After a few minutes, one of the kiwis came out from behind a small shrub, walking slowly on short stout legs, and I could see its long narrow bill and small beady eyes. You can’t come to New Zealand without seeing a kiwi. The kiwi is so rare now to see in the wild, as are so many other species of birds, amphibians, and animals. People are taking more and more space on the earth. What are you doing to make a difference?
I arrived at my destination in Queenstown before nightfall, and I was excited to begin my stay here. What adventures would happen next in this beautiful place?
(posted May 3, 2016)