Travel: New Zealand

The reason why most Indians would instantly feel at home in New Zealand is because Kiwis are as crazy about cricket as are we. Sample this: a Kiwi cabbie inquiring about our team’s opener Shikhar Dhawan’s birthplace. Soon after this he started asking us about every member of our various IPL teams leaving us a bit embarrased. So if not for New Zealand, what could be a better place to co-host the ICC Cricket World Cup in 2015? The country, which has got an equal split of pool games, a quarter-final and a semi-final with its co-host Australia, will host two of India’s pool matches. Most of the cricket-crazy locals are also quite optimistic that since we are the defending champions, there is a high possibility that we will be playing at either the quarter final or the semi final which will be held here.

As a tourist destination, New Zealand will surprise you with the wide range of unique experiences it has on offer. From bungy jumping to rapid rafting, sea kayaking, zip lining, canyon swinging and skydiving, you name it and you have it at the adventure capital of the world. Blessed with spectacular landscapes, you are sure to be swept off your feet by an overdose of scenery. While the north island boasts the beautiful coastline and emerald blue waters, the south island is all about mountains and lakes. Therese Walsh, head of operations in NZ, ICC CWC 2015, advises that Indian fans can base themselves in Auckland, the biggest city in the island, and travel to other match destinations from there. Although India isn’t playing any match in the south island, it would be a shame if you do not visit at least Queenstown, the hub of adventure sports, and Christchurch.

After having roughed it out in Indian cities, we would be a bit surprised by the politeness and kindness of the Kiwis, who are extremely warm and go out of their way to help others. Their sense of humour is phenomenal and they are great storytellers, too. A case in point is the air sickness bag available on Air New Zealand flights which has the word vomit printed all over it in various languages with a tagline, “however you choose to call it, it all comes out the same.” The only disappointment was that apart from the heavy amounts of homegrown wine and cheese that the islands are known for, there is no authentic cuisine they can call their own. Most delicacies are borrowed largely from English cuisine, and you will be taken aback at the popularity of Indian, Thai and Sushi cuisine among the locals.

So for those of you who are planning to visit New Zealand to catch up on the Cricket World Cup frenzy, here is a list of the must-do and absolutely unmissable authentic Kiwi experiences.

On the Hobbit trail

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Never make the mistake of telling a Kiwi that you haven’t watched the Lord Of The Rings or The Hobbit films, because chances are that he/she will take it personally. The fact that the first big hoarding you will encounter at the Auckland International Airport is that of three hobbits dressed in Air New Zealand uniforms welcoming you to the city explains the country’s fixation with these films. It is a matter of national pride–something they love to flaunt and brag about. Locals speak of Gandalf (the character played by Sir Ian McKellen) and Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) so fondly that if you aren’t a fan you might mistake them for being their family or friends. Another favourite activity among the locals is pointing out to tourists that small cafe in Arrow Town where Orlando Bloom loved to have coffee from or that waterfall under which Wood and co-actor Sean Astin (who played Samwise Gamgee) stood during a particular scene.
Little would have Wellington-born filmmaker Peter Jackson known that his dream of filming J.R.R. Tolkein’s epic fantasy trilogy would turn out to be such a huge money-spinner for the country’s tourism industry. While you catch India’s game at Hamilton, you could drive down to The Hobbiton movie set in Matamata, a mere 30-minute detour from the city. The 1,250 acre sheep farm owned by the Alexander family was spotted by Jackson’s location scouts who was on the lookout for what appears in the films as The Shire, home to the hobbits. Shayne Forrest, marketing manager of The Hobbiton Tours, took us around the 12-acre movie set narrating to us funny facts and anecdotes about the filming process. He explained to us that the 37 hobbit holes in the site were erected at different heights so as to create a false perspective of the heights of the characters in the film. Forrest pointed to a massive oak tree standing right behind Bag End (the character Bilbo Baggins’s home in the film) and surprised us by revealing that it was made of steel. The leaves of the tree are specially imported from Taiwan every year as they do not stand a chance in front of the Westerlies and the fans who pluck them out as souvenirs. With many such interesting trivia strewn around, the picturesque movie set with a view of the Kaimai ranges in its backdrop, is an experience that must not be missed.

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You could follow this up with the Nomad Safaris tour in Queenstown to take a look at the dream-like landscape of The Remarkables ranges which embodied Middle-earth in Jackson’s films. On the way back, you could stop for a fun activity of gold panning in the Wakatipu river, one of the richest gold bearing rivers in the world. Trust me, it is not a hoax, because after a good 25 minutes of panning, under the able guidance of Nomad Safaris’ co-owner and guide David Gatward-Ferguson, I, too, managed to unearth a few specks of gold dust. Other LOTR attractions are the Weta Cave and mini museum tour in Wellington, which offers an exclusive insight into the behind-the-scenes stories of the films, and the Wellington Movie Tours, which will take you to the Hobbiton Woods, where many of the iconic scenes were shot, and to Miramar, the New Zealand equivalent of Hollywood.
Wine and wedding county

At Stonyridge Vineyard and Restaurant
At Stonyridge Vineyard and Restaurant

Take a day off after watching the Indian game at Auckland and head to Waiheke Island if you wish for a change of scene from the bustling city life. A 35-minute ferry ride away from Auckland, Waiheke is a quiet island in the Hauraki Gulf with only about 8,000 permanent residents. Nestling among some pristine beaches, the island boasts a diverse landscape and is a sought after wedding destination. Be prepared to get happy high as there are 19 boutique wineries in Waiheke, making wine tasting a must-do activity here. Olive groves and craft galleries are the other attractions in this island.
In Maori language, the word Waiheke means flowing water. Nigel Robinson, our tour guide from Ananda Tours, explained to us that Waiheke got its name as it was widely known among the tribals for its abundant water supply. “Look at the irony,” said Robinson, “that we now have to fight with each other for water.” The island has no regulated water supply system and the residents depend on rainwater and water tank deliveries for their daily needs. Unlike its neighbour Auckland, the island experiences quite a harsh summer during which there is severe water shortage. Having received very little rainfall last November, this summer has been particularly dry. The islanders narrated horrifying stories of delayed water tank deliveries that left them without water for almost a week.
Like every resident of Waiheke, Robinson, who is originally from Dunedin, is also a migrant. “I came here for a two-week trip with my brother Steve in 1973,” said Robinson, as he dropped us off at the Mudbrick Vineyard and Restaurant. “I haven’t gone back yet and I keep telling myself that there is still one more week to go!” An ardent Arundhati Roy fan, he claims to have read her Booker Prize-winning novel The God Of Small Things at least five times and longs to visit Kerala. At Mudbrick, we sampled the various wines vinted at their wineries and was treated to a delicious platter of meat and fish.
Not a wine and dine person? Don’t you worry as Waiheke offers something for everyone. The adventure junkies can try their hand at eco-friendly ziplining, stand-up paddle boating or mountain biking and the culture vultures can choose to drop in at the Church Bay Studio Gallery, Dead Dog Sculpture Bay or the Connells Bay Sculpture Park for their dose of art and crafts. Do not forget to visit one of the many sandy beaches here and make sure you pick up a bottle of fresh olive oil, too.
The Maori touch
“Kia Ora,” shouted Guy Ngatai, our guide at Te Puia, the Maori cultural centre at Rotorua. Given his big built and deep set voice, I (and some of my Japanese group members who, too, looked intimidated) mistook it for a Maori war cry till Ngatai told us that it was a greeting in their language. “Kia Ora means good morning, welcome and thank you,” he said. A direct descendant of the Maoris who were the original inhabitors of the valley, Ngatai then went on to explain to us the other peculiar form of greeting in their culture, the Hongi. “On meeting a friend or acquaintance, we Maoris rub our noses against each other’s,” he said, demonstrating it with the first person he could catch hold of. “It is our way of shaking hands or hugging.”

The Maori welcome dance
The Maori welcome dance

Apart from being a museum of Maori culture and school of carving and weaving, Te Puia also offers tourists a cultural capsule with its special concert cum dinner/lunch programme. Traditionally, Maoris cooked their food by burying them under the ground in ovens called hangi. Te Puia recreated a modern day hangi experience for us in which a huge wire basket sealed with aluminium foil was kept inside a deep pit lined with hot stones. “All kinds of meat, fish and kumara [sweet potato] make up our main course,” said Ngatai.
As we waited for dinner, Ngatai and his family enlightened us with some insights into Maori culture. Before we could enter the Te aronui a rua, the carved meeting house where the concert was to be held, we had to seek the permission of the tribals in a traditional way. “The powhiri or the ceremonial welcome is a custom which our ancestors followed to find out the intentions of a visitor,” said Ngatai. “If you come in peace, then you are welcomed with a prayer, else you will be intimidated by the haka [the war challenge dance].” The welcome ceremony involved a few Maoris (most of whom belonged to Ngatai’s extended family) dressed in traditional attire singing their traditional songs. The only instruments which were used were the Maori flute and a modern guitar, which Ngatai explained “was to make sure that our younger generations do not lose interest in our culture”. With love songs, games, the poi dance and the haka, the concert was an intimate cultural experience. Even visitors got to shake a leg with the Maoris and learn their traditional dances.
After our heavy hangi dinner, we set out to take a look at the world famous Pohutu geyser which Te Puia has special access to. The geyser, which erupts upto 20 times a day, was in full swing when we arrived, and even the stone ledges we were sitting on were warm. “Most Maoris now live in urban areas, which is why they are trying hard to make sure that the stories, culture and the language of our ancestors don’t become extinct,” said Ngatai. The night ended with his beautiful rendition of a Maori folk song, which we enjoyed as we sipped on the hot chocolate served there.
Motorcycle diaries

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Gone are the days of catching up on the sights of a city crammed into a bus or a car. How about riding around the city with the wind in your hair in a super cool Harley Davidson? Don’t know how to ride a bike? You could ride pillion with experienced riders and get a relaxed view along with some interesting nuggets of trivia about the city. The good news is that we could use our Indian driver’s license to ride in the streets of New Zealand.
As the team from Bularangi Harley Tours pulled up in front of our hotel in Auckland, a small crowd had already formed around the bikes, thanks to the loud rumbles of the engines. We were surprised as the bikers removed their helmets–all except one were above the age of 50. Dressed in leather jackets and boots, they were all Harley veterans.
“WL HOG,” read the license plate of the Fat Boy I rode pillion on with Will, my guide. “HOG stands for Harley Owner’s Group,” said Will, as he handed the leather jacket, gloves and helmet to me. The tour on offer is a scenic ride up to the second highest natural point in the city, Mt Eden, and back through Mission Bay covering important sights like the Waterfront and the Auckland Museum.
Although it took a while for Will to make sense of my accent, conversations between us were restricted to a bare minimum while on the road because of the engine sounds and the fast winds. The best part about the ride was how the locals and tourists, fascinated by the bikes, kept cheering for us whenever we passed them. One group of Japanese tourists even requested to get a picture clicked with us, making us feel as if we belonged to a Harley cult of sorts.
On similar lines is Queenstown’s FreemanX Experience which offers a chance to drive super-cars both around the city and on the racing tracks. Their fleet includes a dashing yellow Lamborghini Murceilago, a Ferrari F430 and a Lotus among other models. If you do not want to risk driving on your own, hitchhike a ride with New Zealand’s fastest man Eddie Freeman, who holds the record of averaging a speed of 355.485km/h and is the winner of The Castrol Trophy for the land speed record, on the race track like we did.
Beyond bat and ball
This one would be a favourite among the cricket buffs. Find time when you reach Wellington for the quarter-finals to check out the capital city’s heritage cricket museum. What started in 1986 as a table top exhibition of umpire Stanley Cowman’s personal collection of cricketing memorabilia is now home to rare treasures like the oldest cricket bat, 19th century jugs, bowls and bisque figures.
The museum, which is now under the New Zealand Cricket Association, is situated at the Museum Stand of the iconic Basin Reserve. It also has a large research section with a lending library that houses a wide range of books on cricket. A highly interactive touch screen experience called Power Play takes one through the chronology of cricket in the country through stories of players and commentators with music and poetry. The things to look out for when you are there are the cricketing gear used by legendary Kiwi players like Bert Sutcliffe, Sir Richard Hadlee and Stephen Fleming. The next thing that museum curator Jamie Bell has laid his eyes on is Brendan McCullum’s bat which made the record triple century against India possible. However the skipper doesn’t seem to share the same excitement about it and looks like the museum will have to wait.

Learn to fly
Pedestrians are a rarity in New Zealand. Yes, there would be a few senior citizens trying to make peace with their walkers and walking sticks, but most Kiwis who are 65 and below wouldn’t be wasting their time walking. They would either be speeding on their bikes or running. For every building or bridge that is taller than 10 metres, there would be a commercial jump or walk here. Ok, maybe not every building, well, most of them. “Adventure and sport are ingrained into our DNAs,” said Brad Gibbons, of Rotorua Canopy Tours, a tour company that offers ziplining through native Kiwi forests. “Walking is too boring. We prefer to fly and jump.”

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The best way to fly in New Zealand is to sign up for a tandem skydive at the country’s first operation NZONE Skydive, Queenstown. With 23 years of diving experience and about 2,50,000 tandem dives to date, NZONE is the place to go for your first skydive. Having jumped off their shark-toothed aircraft from 15,000 feet into thin air, I can safely say that this was the best experience I tool back from the land of the Kiwis.
Terrified at even the thought of it initially, the pep talks by the staff and a small trip that explained the kind of safety features and technology they boast, pushed me to agree to try this. So did the words of Derek Melnick, the business development manager at NZONE, who vowed to quit his job if he couldn’t convince me to jump. The posters that were splashed around the reception area gives a glimpse of the signature Kiwi sense of humour. “Be brave. Even if you are not, pretend to be. No one can tell the difference,” said one of them.
The only condition for skydiving is that you shouldn’t be more than 100 kilos heavy. Age is not a factor at all, with the oldest skydiver being a 96-year-old woman and the youngest a 12-year-old boy. NZONE offers jumps from three different heights–StratosFear (9,000ft), TroposFear (12,000ft) and the highest ExosFear (15,000ft). And don’t worry about not being able to watch what it looked like when you actually did jump off that plane because a photographer jumps with every person to capture those unforgettable moments in what they call “adrenaline shots”. Although it looks and sounds quite terrifying, it is one of the less scarier extreme sports, because there are two people, a tandem master and a photographer, accompanying you in the feat. Just a small tip: try to be the first one to jump off the plane as the sight of people flying off into thin air at lightening speed is not an encouraging one to look at when you are in line to go.
Leap of faith
This one is quite a no-brainer. If you have it in you to jump off a 47m high bridge with nothing but a few elastic cords to secure your feet, then you should might as well do it at where it all started. Yes, New Zealand is home to A.J. Hackett and Henry van Asch, the pioneers of one of the craziest extreme sport in the world, the Bungy Jump.
At the Kawarau Bridge Bungy site, the world’s first commercial site for the sport, there is a small crowd that cheers you before you take the plunge. The view is the best you can ask for with the emerald blue waters of the Kawarau river and the mountains that surround it. “The guys up there are so helpful in making you feel at ease before you jump,” said Naomi Lobo, our host, who had ‘bungeed’ from here last year. “My jumpmaster told me to keep looking straight at the bridge ahead and not to look down before I jumped. I took some seven minutes before I could bring myself to do it.” And, mind you, it is all on video. While we chatted an American couple jumped off the bridge tied to each other. The only place in New Zealand where you can do a tandem jump, the Kawarau Bungy also offers a cafeteria, where we saw a bunch of tourists trying to read only to be disturbed every ten minutes or so with the shrieks of the jumpers.
There is an interesting story that the locals narrate about the origins of the jump. Thousands of years ago, the people of Vanautu had a ritual in which the men of the tribe would ‘land-dive’ from a tall tree or ledge as a display and an affirmation of their masculinity. This was to ward off evil spirits that haunted the tribes and to usher the newly circumcised boys into manhood. Hackett, who watched a video of the Dangerous Sports Club (the pioneers of a lot of what is called extreme sports now), literally roped in his friend Asch to launch the commercial version of the sport.
Hackett jumped for the first time in Tignes, France from a ski area gondola from 91m above the snow. A video presentation at the lounge area also shows other famous places Hackett has bungeed from, with the Eiffel Tower topping the list. And if 47m sounds like child’s play to you, Hackett’s team, which has bungy sites in seven other countries, also has the highest jump in New Zealand, the Nevis Bungy at 134m, and the World’s Biggest Swing, which propels you from 160m above the Nevis River through a gorge in a 300m arc at a speed of 150kph. Too chicken to try it? Don’t worry, you can go up to the ledge and cheer the brave ones when they are at it.

The eighth wonder

View from the flight to Milford Sound
View from the flight to Milford Sound

Rudyard Kipling called it the eighth wonder of the world. Having caught a glimpse of the dramatic scenary of Milford Sound, I can’t agree more. A fiord in the the south island of New Zealand, this is what makes it an unmissable Kiwi destination. With the 1,692m high Mitre peak and the many waterfalls littered on the way, the fiord is also famous for its pounamo (greenstone) reserves.
We got to Milford Sound in the most exquisite way possible, in a tiny 10-seater aeroplane from Queenstown. This is a huge time-saving option and cuts down the trip by almost three and a half hours, the only drawback being that flights are weather dependent and the weather here is highly unpredictable. We had to call in an hour before our flight to check whether the weather was favourable for the flight.
In what is one of the most beautiful flights you would possibly ever be on, the pilot gives a commentary about the geography that we are flying above. After landing, you could choose to either lap it up with a scenic luxury cruise or get a bit wet sea kayaking. We, being the not-so-adventurous ones, went on the cruise to spot the fauna of Milford Sound that includes penguins, bottle-nose dolphins and seals. Other attractions at Milford Sound are the Discovery Centre (if you are keen on knowing the stories of the early Maori explorers who discovered the fiord), New Zealand’s only floating underwater observatory (to get close up to sealife) and the Fiordland National Park.

Culinary adventures

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After cricket, the next thing an Indian would adore in New Zealand is the fresh seafood that is available here. Almost every restaurant in the country uses fresh catch, the only drawback being that novelty and variety is limited when it comes to the options available on menu. The English influence in the food is so profound that the most loved dish here is fish and chips. Maori food is not available in restaurants and from locals we got to know that even Maori families only cook the traditional dishes for special occasions like festivals or childbirth.
The biggest highlight of Auckland in terms of food would definitely be Masterchef-fame celebrity chef Peter Gordon’s restaurant, The Sugar Club. Located at the highest floor of SkyTower, the tallest building of the country, the restaurant offers a 360 degree view of the city from a height of 192m. While you dig into your delicious entree choices of venison, octopus, lamb, fish or chicken, look out for those who are doing the SkyWalk, a harnessed walk around the tower to get a view of the city from the highest possible point. If you are looking for something cheaper, take a stroll on Federal Street or Queen Street and there are a variety of options that serve Thai, sushi, Indian and continental cuisine.
While in Wellington, do not miss the award-winning waterfront restaurant Martin Bosley’s. With the best views of the capital city, an everchanging menu that uses the freshest produce and an impressive wine list, the restaurant promises variety and taste. South Island also boasts a host of fine dine options like chef Josh Emett’s Rata in Queenstown and the rustic Fluer’s Place on the Moeraki Bay jetty.

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