Trip Start Dec 28, 2010
14Trip End Jul 15, 2011
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New Zealanders (Kiwis) are rightly proud of this country, and it is easy to understand why people from the UK emigrate to live here. Two things strike you wherever you are. Firstly, people's attitudes are totally laid back. Unlike Britain whereby the longer you stay at the office, the better (mentioning no workplaces!) - in NZ you're actually encouraged to get out and experience the countryside and the beaches, and spend time with family and friends
My introduction to NZ was Auckland, at the northern end of the North Island. Kiwis tend to look down on Auckland, viewing it as too busy and too commercial. Personally I thought this good looking city was both cool and cosmopolitan. Whilst there for a few days I managed to arrange my NZ travel. I've moved through the country by Stray bus - a flexible way to hop on and hop off where it suits, and this has allowed me to meet some cool people along the way. The coolest person (in name at least) was a Dutch guy called Bob Kool. What a great name! His credit card read : Mr B Kool. Excellent. Unfortunately, in Dutch, Kool translates as cabbage. Ok not so cool after all!
From Auckland, I travelled extensively through the North Island. To be honest I wasn't all that blown away by the countryside. Yes it was lush in vegetation and had plenty of sandy beaches, big lakes and mountains - but none better than you'd find in North Wales or Scotland, for example.
But the North Island did serve up some pretty cool activities. I went white water rafting in Rotorua, which included several sections of grade 5 (highest possible level) rapids and a 7 metre (23ft) drop from a fast moving waterfall. One guy in another boat cracked his head on this particular fall and spent a week in hospital suffering from a fractured eye socket
Rotorua is also the centre of the nation's geothermal region, where you can see bubbling mineral pools and spouting geysers. However, due to the high sulphur content of the boiling water and mud, it does stink like rotten eggs!
I also went underground water caving in the town of Waitomo. I had to crawl, jump and swim my way through an elaborate cave system; lit up along the way by tiny glowworms. They emit an illuminous green colour and the caves look like they've been decorated with Christmas lights.
To the east of the North Island, I found an area which was more concentrated with Maori people. Maoris are not to be messed with! These are people who originate from Polynesian islands to the east of the New Zealand and were the original founders of the country before Captain Cook turned up and brought NZ under British control. They're huge, tough looking and built like brick poo houses! And that's just the women. But they're also friendly and I was lucky enough to stay in a traditional Maori meeting place where I was taught the haka. The haka is the traditional war dance of Polynesian islands such as Fiji, Tonga, New Caledonia et al. It's the tribal challenge that everyone knows from when the All Blacks rugby team undertake it before every match. You have to really 'perform' it, as it is meant to signify ferocity and strength. A couple of beers and I got into it!
Next up was my first ever go at surfing
Before leaving the North Island I also walked across the Tongariro National Park, which is home to three active volcanoes, and is where the Lord of the Rings films were set. At the southerly tip, I found the capital, Wellington. A windy and busy city and the home of the national Parliament. You'll also find the only Welsh themed bar in the southern hemisphere apparently. Pretty strange hearing the Welsh accent so far from home. I shouldn't forget the Westpac stadium where Wales will play in the rugby World Cup in a few months.
The South Island of NZ is far more beautiful in my opinion and offers up bigger mountain ranges, massive glaciers, impressive national parks and an area with fifteen fjords.
The glacier region was by far the highlight for me. This is where I actually jumped out of a plane at 12,000ft and skydived! Oh yeah!
Ever since watching Point Break with Keanu Reeves, where these bank robbers get their kicks from surfing and skydiving, I've fancied having a go at both things! Surfing was no problem and was excellent. But I never thought I'd ever actually jump from a plane. The problem was, that the more I moved through New Zealand, the more I thought about skydiving.
On March 21st 2011, I jumped into a tiny Cessna, propeller driven plane. Secured to my skydive instructor, Rod, I climbed to a height of 12,000 feet above the coastline of western New Zealand. I was at Fox Glacier - one of the most stunning areas of natural beauty. I tried hard to appreciate the serenity of life above the cloud line, high above the southern New Zealand Alps. The view of NZ's highest mountains, Mount Cook and Mount Tasmin was spectacular. And the glacier itself was unbelievable.
However, I was severely distracted as the entire time my heart pumped so hard I could feel the blood rushing through my body. My adrenaline levels were maxed out and my mouth was dry with all the nervous anticipation. Rod was very reassuring though and even had me breathing like a woman in labour as we approached 9,000ft! I have never been so nervous!
At 10,000ft, Rod did his final checks. Yes we were definitely firmly attached, and yes, he did have a back up parachute
At 12,000ft, I had my final instructions from Rod. Goggles and gloves on. The side door was suddenly opened and the cabin filled with this tremendous noise of gushing wind mixed with aeroplane engine. Nicole was closest to the door and when she 'left the building' she disappeared downwards like a stone in water. I slid to the door and hung my legs under the plane. I could feel the plane's fuselage on the back of my feet as I got into position. I crossed my arms over my chest, and Rod hung me there, dangling outside the plane for what seemed like an eternity! I tried not to look down, and there was definitely no turning back now. He pulled my head back and rocked us out of a perfectly good plane into the blue sky. I distinctly remember the feeling of disorientation as we rolled through the sky. I saw the ground, then only the blue sky, then the ground again. But within seconds, Rod had 'righted' us and I was freefalling!
All the fear I had felt really quickly dissipated, and it turned into the strongest imaginable feeling of elation
From 12,000ft I freefalled with no parachute for 7,000ft. I'll never forget these 45 seconds of my life, travelling at 120mph and dropping an equivalent of a 20 storey building every one second. Then I suddenly felt a sharp jerking sensation and a rapid slowdown in speed. I looked up and I could see the parachute being deployed. One of the most obvious fears of a skydive is the chute not opening and I do recall feeling a huge sense of relief. The ascent from that point is surreal. There I was just 'floating' back to earth in silence. Time to try and take in the amazing 360 degree view. Seeing a huge glacier from this angle is pretty cool.
A graceful landing on my backside (!) and I felt a powerful sense of achievement. I guess alot of people do a skydive and even scarier things all the time. However, overcoming a pretty strong fear of heights and everything else did make me feel a little proud. What an awesome experience.
Following on my jump, I actually set foot on a glacier. I got to hike over Franz Josef glacier for the day. Not quite in the same league as a skydive, but a really good experience. Since the ice is constantly moving, the guide literally has to carve new paths each day with a huge icepick, and you're able to squeeze through crevasses and ice caves.
From the remote glaciers, I moved down to Queenstown. This is a lively and bustling place (by NZ standards!) and I got a real sense it was the sort of town you could easily live in. It's set underneath a mountain range called the Remarkables, and in the summer it offers tons of extreme sports from rafting to bungy jumping, and then flips to a ski resort in winter.
From here I took a day trip to New Zealand's fjord region. At Milford Sound I got to see these giant and picturesque fjords and see spectacular sights of waterfalls cascading down from sheer rock - all created millions of years ago by glacial activity.
And so I find myself in Christchurch now, the city fairly recently hit by a huge and fatal earthquake. Unfortunately, the city centre is still sealed off by the police because the structural damage was so extensive. I've seen media coverage of how people here have coped, and all over the country you see restaurants and cafes offering to donate tips, etc to the appeal to re-build the city. A bit of a weird end to a cool country, but I'm glad I came here.
Time to head off to Australia next.
But New Zealand has been, what New Zealanders say all the time.....Sweet As!