David Whitley takes on the Land of the Long White Cloud by car and takes in the wonders from Auckland to Queenstown.
It’s an abrupt change of pace. After a scenic ascent through venerable rainforest – some of the trees were standing long before even the Maori arrived in– the Waitekere Ranges suddenly stop. I’m faced with a screwdriver of a road, probably designed to terrify bus drivers as it navigates its way down to the coast. It twists pasts fern gullies that the set designers on Jurassic Park would have dismissed as being unrealistically decadent, giving chase to a narrow stream and a magnificently desolate black sand beach.
This is New Zealand’s North Island, supposedly the dull one. Heavens, I’m not even out of Auckland – notoriously a city gifted two glorious natural harbours but without a clue about what to do with them.
It soon emerges that the route to Karekare beach on the west coast is by no means unusual in this country. New Zealand is the geological equivalent of an explosion in a chemistry set. Volcanic cones pop up like acne, coastal strips back against mountains as if they’re the debris from an avalanche, and towns that look like neighbours on the map are kept hours apart by the insurmountable results of tectonic trickery. Finding a boring road really takes some dedication.
The stretch between Auckland and Rotorua is as close as you’re going to get to one, but it’s not long before you’re in a bizarre land where steam gushes from the ground and the stench is eggily apocalyptic. In Rotorua, parkland is roped off so that sludge-like water can bubble menacingly and the earth can indulge in sulphuric flatulence. Such oddities quickly become par for the course in a country that does hot water beaches just as easily as glaciers.
If there’s one drive that crams in the contrasts, however, it’s the route across the middle of the South Island from Christchurch to Queenstown. It starts off as bucolic countryside, as if viewed through a camera where the colour saturation has been turned up to the maximum level. The bright, green, rolling hills look like the model for Tellytubbyland; I end up with visions of cartoon sheep and Hobbits fighting for territory. It’s not long, though, before the road climbs up towards the skifields and a ribbon of lakes that offer a shimmering foreground for Mt Cook.
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New Zealand’s highest mountain is a looker – Sir Edmund Hillary’s training ground is a pock-marked, snow-dusted triangle that stands on the shoulders of its alpine cohorts. Pulling over at Lake Pukaki to just stare is an unquestionably worthwhile investment of an hour. The water looks unnaturally blue – the result of finely-ground rock particles on the lakebed.
But you don’t have to move too far on before you hit country that doesn’t look like it’s seen a drop of water. The Lindis Pass appears barren, although the slopes are covered with tussock grass. There’s a starkness that feels more Australian than Kiwi, but almost every turn or blind summit reveals a scene straight out of a car advert.
This gives way to a giant fruit basket. Driving through the towns of Central Otago, I feel as though every shop and shed is trying to flog me peaches, cherries or apples. It’s a gauntlet of chalkboards and whimsical fruit-shaped signposts, but it’s the grapes that I’m most interested in.
My last stop before hitting the lakeside resort of Queenstown is at the Bannock Brae Winery. It’s an indie operation in the world’s most southerly wine region. The pinot noirs coming out of Central Otago have steadily developed a world class reputation, and at Bannock Brae, former brewer Crawford Brown has created an exemplary drop. As Crawford says: “The general rule is that the best bottles to buy in these parts are the full ones.” He’s not wrong; those last few miles are driven with a tantalising clank coming from the boot.
This story originally appeared in National Geographic Traveller.
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