10 Reasons Living in New Zealand is AWESOME

I moved to New Zealand with my family twelve years ago. At first, I hated my parents for wrenching me away from Mother England, but now I wouldn’t have it any other way. New Zealand is a great country to live in and here’s why:

1)      Nice weather

Somewhere Over the RainbowIt’s common for New Zealanders to complain about the weather. The phrase ‘four seasons in one day’ is used annoyingly often, yet while it can be gloriously sunny in the morning, fooling you into leaving your jacket at home, and then bucket it down in the afternoon, it’s rarely bad for long. Coming from Britain, I can confidently say that New Zealand’s weather is better. It is warmer, drier, sunnier and generally more cheerful. There’s a reason New Zealand’s famous for barbecues and Britain’s not.

2)      Beautiful beaches

Beach 1Nearly three-quarters of all New Zealanders live within five kilometres of a beach, most of which are ten times more beautiful than any beach that Britain has to offer. They are less spoiled for starters, boasting not only pristine sands of the yellow and white variety, but luxurious soft, black volcanic sand. They range from wild, rugged surfing beaches to relaxing swimming and sunbathing beaches, all with picturesque geological features. In Britain, going to the beach was a rare treat; now I can walk to one whenever I want. New Zealand’s beaches are truly a wonder.

3)      Lots of green countryside

In Britain, one of the main things you hear about New Zealand is how green it is. Mostly, this is meant in the sense of the ‘clean, green’ environmentally friendly image, but New Zealand is also green in a literal sense: there is a great deal of protected, unspoiled countryside. Kiwis seem to have an innate appreciation for nature – the great outdoors; God’s own – and pursuits such as camping and tramping are very popular. New Zealand’s native bush is incredibly special and the ‘bush walk’ is something you cannot escape if you come here.

4)      Unique wildlife

New Zealand Tour 2003 003Contained within New Zealand’s bush is a collection of endangered birds that exist nowhere else in the world, the most famous of which is the kiwi. I have never encountered a kiwi in the wild, but seeing a mating pair at Auckland Zoo was an enchanting (and highly amusing) experience. I’ve seen plenty of other examples of New Zealand’s unique wildlife actually in the wild, though. My two favourite native birds are tuis – songbirds with shining plumage adorned by a duet of white baubles at the throat – and keas – alpine parrots with devilish intelligence and barefaced cheek. New Zealand is also the best place in the world to swim with dolphins.

5)      Exotic volcanic activity

White Island 018Depending on your point of view, an abundance of volcanic activity may not seem like a reason to live in a country, but everything – the threat of natural disaster included – is relative, and I for one love living within easy driving distance of the utterly magical sights of geysers, hot pools, mud pools and lava flows. Britain seems boring by comparison. There’s something mysteriously exciting about the eggy smell; the steam rising around you; the thought that the hidden underworld is close at hand. Places like Rotorua and White Island are literally on the edges of the earth.

6)      Small population

Culture 3New Zealand is famous for being a small country – its population has only recently broken the four million mark. Compare that with Britain’s excess of sixty million. But what many people don’t realise is the actual land area of New Zealand is larger than the land area of Britain. No wonder it seems like Brits are perpetually elbowing each other out of the way to get to where they want to be. The people of New Zealand actually have space to breathe. To be individuals. To live.

7)      Friendly people

armageddon 13 001croppedKiwis are an undeniably friendly race. When I first moved to New Zealand, it was almost disconcerting how interested in me strangers were. Brits are so cold by comparison. They also whinge while kiwis maintain a more positive attitude. The people of New Zealand are not so judgemental – image is less important to them – and anything goes. New Zealand has no class system. People from all walks of life end up here. To me, it’s always felt like a safe place, but I didn’t realise how much I’d come to take that security for granted until I returned to England for a visit a few years ago. Kiwis smile at you in the street. If there’s anywhere in the world you can rely on the kindness of strangers, it’s New Zealand.

8)      Laid-back lifestyle

I was a child when my family immigrated to New Zealand, so while I can confidently say that school in New Zealand is easier than school in England, I have never experienced the demands of working life in any country other than New Zealand. However, every adult I’ve talked to who has tells me that life in New Zealand is far simpler than elsewhere in the western world. The wages may be lower, but the quality of life is definitely higher. Life is lived at a slower pace. There is a healthier work-life balance. In New Zealand, expectations are lower – in a good way. There is less pressure. Good enough is good enough. Go with the flow. She’ll be right.

9)      Multicultural society

Montana walkNew Zealand is a country of immigrants – even the Māori, the native inhabitants, are relatively recent arrivals. It is nice to live in a place where tribal culture and the values that go with it are still in evidence. The presence of Māori names, art, customs and tourist experiences make New Zealand unique in the world, not just another European/Americanised western country. Of course, New Zealand is a Europeanised country, but it has so many influences from so many places around the world, especially Asian countries, that it’s a complete melting pot. It has an abundance of wonderful and, compared to Britain at least, relatively cheap restaurants that serve delicious fusions of tastes. Since moving here, I’ve become a real foodie.

10)   It’s already the perfect place for a holiday

dunedin3 027New Zealand is the ultimate holiday destination – even if you already live in it. The country is so varied you can never tire of exploring it, so buy a campervan in New Zealand and get out there! Seriously, you can’t drive anywhere in New Zealand without passing at least one campervan on the road – and it’s easy to see why. This is not a country you can experience from one spot. The North Island is so different from the South; the east coast so different from the west, and it’s down the side roads that the special places lie. So my advice would be to hire a campervan in New Zealand when you come, be it to live or just for a holiday. One thing is guaranteed either way: you’ll never want to go back. Life in New Zealand is AWESOME.

P.S. – This is a list from my new website, NZ Top List. Check it out to browse more lists about life in New Zealand and the many fantastic places to go.

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Land of the Ice Dragons

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I was sorting through some old files on my computer the other day when I came across a poem I wrote when I was thirteen. Reading it for the first time in years, I was overcome by a surprisingly visceral memory: I wrote the poem after visiting the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers with my family while we were on a campervan tour of the South Island and, setting aside the cringeworthiness of the words, they capture the experience of walking down a valley towards the foot of a glacier fairly well… the cold, refreshing wind coming off the ice like it’s the glacier’s breath… The photographs do not do it justice, so here is the poem, for which I apologise in advance… it’s called Disturbing a Dragon

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Jagged crown of gleaming white

Cold heart of blue

Retreating slowly, night by night

’Cross the mountains through

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I approach the icy fortress

Asleep for a thousand years

The great dragon, the mountain’s mistress

Suddenly she rears

 

Ghostly breath so deathly cold

(Bare arms in the chill)

An ice-formed dragon in the valley old

The sun hides behind the hill

 

I see the ice queen study me

Crystal eyes a-glare

Cathedral wings, she hauls them free

Slicing fangs a-flare

 

My frosted hand grips my sword

I raise my shield in fear

The time comes, the dragon roars

And then she sheds a tear

 

The tear drips down her shining snout

And crashes to the dirt

Something stirs in me, I shout

“Great dragon, are you hurt?”

 

“Why seek you to destroy me?

There really is no need

The warming world does that, you see

Watch how I recede

 

“It does not matter what you wield

I’ll soon meet my end

Put down your sword, put down your shield

Stop playing pretend”

 

The dragon lowers her melting wings

Lamenting her defeat

A piece of ice falls as she sings

Rolling to my feet

 

I pick it up, the chunk of ice

A silver witch’s orb

153 Abigail with icecroppedBut now my jacket does entice

I feel the cold absorb

 

One last look at the glacier

Before my mum says “Come

Put that down, it’s freezing here”

My hands are going numb

 

Visiting the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers was one of the highlights of that South Island campervan holiday. I would recommend it to anyone travelling around New Zealand. There’s a variety of guided tours that take you onto and around both glaciers, with activities including ice climbing and helicopter rides, but these are quite expensive. Happily, you can walk up to both glaciers by yourself on easygoing tracks for free – just make sure you don’t cross the safety barriers!

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Fur Seals on the Otago Peninsula

New Zealand fur seals are really cute. They’re small and brown with pointy noses and long whiskers. They also have an uncanny ability to look dead when they’re just resting.

Fur Seal 3croppedYou can find them in abundance all around New Zealand, wherever there happens to be a rocky shore. You can get right up close to them too, like I did on the Otago Peninsula.

I was twelve years old when we went there on our South Island campervan holiday. The Otago Peninsula is absolutely wonderful for observing wildlife in a dramatic setting.

Not only did we see plenty of fur seals, we saw snowy white, fluffy albatross chicks being nurtured by their parents in the world’s only mainland royal albatross colony.

Fur Seal 2croppedI loved getting close to the seals. (If I look miserable standing next to my little sister in that photo, it’s because it was quite a cold day.) I was wary about getting too close in case it made the seals uncomfortable, but they didn’t seem to mind. They must be well used to tourists.

Other popular places to see New Zealand fur seals are around Wellington, Kaikoura and the Catlins. Supposedly the best, or at least the most accessible, place to see them is Ohau Point, just off State Highway 1 between Kaikoura and Picton, which is perfect if you’re doing a self-drive tour of New Zealand. And if you do the Ohau Waterfall Walk – a few minutes along a picturesque boardwalk – you might be lucky enough to see seal pups swimming up the creek and playing around the waterfall.

Now that would be amazing.

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Karangahake Gorge

An hour and a half south-east of Auckland, on State Highway 2 between Paeroa and Waihi, lies one of my favourite places in New Zealand to go walking: Karangahake Gorge. And last week I was lucky enough to go there again.

The reason I like Karangahake Gorge so much is its variety. The gorge itself is spectacular, the frothing Ohinemuri River snaking between towering walls of jagged rock crowned by trees and sunlight, but there’s a lot more to it. There are long walks and easy walks, walks through bush and walks through abandoned mines and railway tunnels, walks along the river and walks along old train tracks; it’s a tramp through history and a tramp through nature of the awe-inspiring kind. And it’s beautiful.

I once went on a class trip that involved the school minivan driving through Karangahake Gorge early on a biting winter’s morning, when it was swathed in frost and pure white mist, and the trees at the river’s swollen edge were like sharp, black hands reaching for the cold sun. I’d never seen anything so lovely.

I never tire of driving through the gorge, (which is fortunate because it’s on the main route between my parents’ house and university,) because the river is always at a different level, gambolling between the boulders, hiding and revealing secrets. It can be scary driving along the tightly winding road, towering rocks on one side, a nasty drop into the water on the other, but it’s always breathtaking.

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Last week the sunlight was incredibly bright – so bright I didn’t manage to get any particularly good photos, but oh well. It was still cold. Five of us went: me, my mum, my dad, my sister and my boyfriend, and we left the house only half an hour after we’d said we would, so it was a good start. The drive was pleasant, apart from my sister getting sick on the windy road, and when we arrived we found that, despite it being the middle of winter, there were lots of people there.

As usual, the car park was full of campervans. Karangahake Gorge is obviously a very popular New Zealand campervan destination. I saw at least three holiday parks leading up to it and at least two Freedom Camping spots, and the campervan park close to where the walking tracks begin didn’t have a single vacancy – I wouldn’t have thought that would be the case in the middle of winter, but there you go.

We couldn’t decide which track to take at first. Should we visit the historic ruins of the Victoria Battery, climb the mountain, do the long walk to the waterfalls, hug the river, or explore the old tunnels by torchlight? I was keen to walk to the waterfalls, but this is best done in summer, as it’s hard to resist jumping into the picturesque pool. It’s the perfect spot for a picnic. You can swim under the little waterfalls and climb into the little tunnel… just make sure you have insect repellent. We didn’t go there this time.

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We started by crossing the big swing bridge – always fun crossing a big swing bridge, but last week we were greeted by the spectacle of hundreds of fantails swooping and spiralling over the water, no doubt hunting insects. I’ve never seen so many fantails at once – not even close – it was an absolute frenzy! What a wonderful start to the tramp.

I stopped to take my first photograph of the day. As it turned out, this was a mistake. While I was taking the photograph, my dad and sister went ahead without me, leaving me with no idea which path they’d taken! Neither of them had a mobile, so me, my mum and my boyfriend were left wondering what to do. In the end, we decided to just choose a path and go, hoping to meet up with them later, which we did, thankfully. But before we did we encountered the tunnel, the kilometre-long former train tunnel – echoing, dripping and very eerily lit.

Right before you enter the tunnel at the end we were at, a side path disappears into the bush, accompanied by a sign saying that there’s a winery just two hundred metres away. I wonder how many people have given in. We didn’t, but we were tempted. Instead, we stepped into the dragon’s mouth.

The tunnel wasn’t as dark as I remembered it being, but it was still mildly frightening. The ground was uneven and streams ran down either side, and even gushed from cracks in the brickwork at a couple of places. There were a few creepy nooks in the wall, sanctuaries where workers could run and take cover if a train came. It took just that little bit too long to reach the other end.

Karangahake Gorge 011After that, we found the others again. We decided to do the Windows Walk, which is a track that leads through the remains of an old mining operation. You start off going through the bush, and you begin to notice rusted hunks of metal at the side of the path, maybe a cogwheel or bit of piping. My dad mentioned it felt rather post-apocalyptic. Then you come to a railway track, which would have supported the mine carts, and you start to walk along it like the kids in Stand By Me – it’s irresistible. Then you come to the tunnel. I was taken over by childhood memories of those ‘old, abandoned mine’ rides you get at theme parks. It was time to turn on the torches.

If you ever go to Karangahake Gorge, make sure you have a torch.

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The reason it’s called Windows Walk is there are ‘windows’ in the tunnel, windows you can look out of directly down at the river. By one of these is a side tunnel, so long and dark I’ve never been bothered enough (or brave enough) to go down it. There’s also an underground pumphouse you can explore, with old machinery in it.

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By the time we got back to the car park we were well in need of a hot chocolate, so we decided to check out the café across the road and – guess what? – it’s just about the nicest café I’ve ever come across! It’s not the food that makes it special, (and it did take an unreasonably long time to come,) it’s the way they’ve decorated the place. The garden is like Alice’s Wonderland, and inside there’s a fire, art and crafts, a fish tank, a bird cage and a play area for little kids. The Talisman Café, it’s called.

Unfortunately, it was the end of the day and the café only had one hot chocolate left, so we had to fight amongst ourselves as to who got it, and the rest of us had tea. Then we went home. It’s so nice to be able to have days out like this in winter.

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More awesome North Island day walks…

 

The Pinnacles, a.k.a. the Worst Experience of My Life

Wow – when I wrote this I didn’t think it would become one of the top hits for ‘the Pinnacles’! But as it’s getting lots of views now, I think I’d better state here, very plainly, that climbing the Pinnacles isn’t actually as bad as the title of this blog article implies.

When my family climbed the Pinnacles, over a decade ago, I was a teenager. At the time, I was extremely annoyed with my parents for forcing me to go and I told my mum, in a very teenage way, that it was the worst experience of my life. This article is written from the point of view of my whiny, teenaged self, with each of the complaints exaggerated for humorous effect.

I hope readers can see through the ‘unreliable narration’ and note that the Pinnacles DOC hut is, in reality, a great place to stay.

(You’d think I wouldn’t have to say all this, but, apparently, I do. Also, needless to say, I have since grown up and no longer consider this experience to be worst of my life. In fact I, along with the rest of my family, look back on it with laughter.)

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When I was a teenager, my family took a lot of trips around our adopted country, and I did my fair share of teenaged complaining. When we were travelling around New Zealand in a campervan, for example, I complained that I never got any sleep because of everyone else’s snoring and tossing and turning, and that I was going insane for lack of privacy and a proper bathroom. That was nothing, however, compared to how I complained when my parents dragged me up the Pinnacles.

According to the AA Travel website, climbing the Pinnacles is on the list of ‘101 Must-Do’s for Kiwis’. They’re in the Coromandel, up from Thames. We parked our car and set off into the wilderness. My little sister happily skipped ahead, wearing the new tramping boots she’d got for Christmas (– did I mention this was Boxing Day?) and I made my way in a more dignified manner, taking great care not to dirty my white trainers. Little did I know that by the end of this trip, I would be so far beyond caring about my trainers that I would wilfully wade into a river without first taking them off.

The first part of the trail was rather pleasant. The weather was perfect, if a little hot, and the going was good. The track was originally made in the 1870’s, for kauri loggers and their packhorses, and, after a while, I began to feel sorry for them. Most of the way up is rugged stone steps. Steps. Steps. Hours of steps. Being young and fit, however, and also a rock climber, I bounded up them, out ahead of the rest of my family. And, let me tell you, the views were spectacular.

Wilderness 3

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the views were almost worth it.

Wilderness 1

We made it to the top of the steps and up to the Department of Conservation hut, where we would be staying the night. Now I’d never stayed in a DOC hut before, but this was a lot more luxurious than I had been expecting. There was a massive covered deck with picnic tables that gave the feeling of being in a tree house, with a view that turned our meal of freeze-dried mash potato into a fine dining experience. The kitchen was really good, and we chatted happily with other trampers and the warden.

Now here’s where my complaints begin. Though the hut did have showers, they were cold showers. Still, I thought I’d brave one, until, that is, I washed my hands before eating and they almost froze solid. This was the middle of summer and washing my hands was a properly painful experience. Skip the shower, then. We were only staying one night. One thing you can’t skip, however, is going to the toilet.

Wilderness 5There were three long-drop toilets a short way away from the hut. And it’s lucky they were. Also, they had no lights in them. As soon as the door closed, not only was I plunged into darkness and set upon by flies, the smell was so bad I became dizzy and had to bolt outside before I actually went to the toilet, for fear of losing consciousness and falling down it. I spent the next few hours crossing my legs and trying to find the courage to go in the bush, but there was nowhere that was sufficiently out of sight and I knew how poor my aim was. Eventually, my mum had to stand holding the door of the end long-drop open while I went, so I could both see and breathe.

We later learned that the long-drops were emptied once a year: the day after we left.

Then there was the sleeping. Or lack of. There are a total of eighty bunks in the DOC Pinnacles Hut, and though there was nowhere near that many people the night we were there, the large bunking area echoed. Shivering in my sleeping bag on a hard mattress with no pillow, I was tortured all night long by other people snoring really loudly. In fact, at some point in the middle of the night, I jumped in my sleeping bag out onto the deck and read with a torch.

The next morning, me feeling not at all refreshed, my family wanted to climb the actual ‘pinnacles’ bit of the Pinnacles, which is a pretty much vertical ascent (with the help of ladders) that lasts for forty-five minutes. Not to mention climbing down again. The problem was, what with all the steps the day before, my thighs now screamed at me every time I lifted them. I knew I wouldn’t make that climb, so I stayed behind at the hut. So did my mum. So I can’t tell you what the view from the top was like.

After a boring wait for my dad and sister to get back, (at least I had my book, Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, if I remember rightly,) we had to repack our rucksacks for the descent. We each had a water bottle, but, of course, we’d drunk all the water from them on the way up. The only way to refill them was to boil water from the hut’s taps. And, I was horrified to discover, the water was still bright green after we’d boiled it. I stubbornly resolved not to drink it.

Wilderness 4

And so we started down the track, down the steps. And, as I’m sure you know, walking down steps is far more punishing than walking up them. Now imagine walking down large, uneven, loose-stoned, slippery steps with a sheer drop on one side. For hours. And not in tramping boots, but squeaky-soled trainers. I couldn’t even enjoy the view, as, the entire way, I had to keep my gaze absolutely focussed on my feet in order not to fall. I can’t tell you how frightening it was. With every step I felt like I was going to fall head-first down the rocky mountain. My ankles cried. Blisters formed. My legs shook. And there was no respite. No flat bits.

I told my mum that I was in the most physical (and mental) stress I’d ever been in my life and that if someone had offered me cocaine at that moment, I would have taken it. Anything. Soon, I was drinking the green water like it was the nectar of the gods. Then it ran out.

We got to the bottom, of course. After hours of relentless torture. I was so angry with my parents for putting me through it that I stomped ahead to get away from them. My sister, not quite so angry, walked ahead with me. Drenched in sweat, smeared with dirt, my trainers ruined, we came to a river. I dropped my pack on the bank, ripped my T-shirt off and plunged into the water. It wasn’t that deep and was full of rocks that could serve as stepping stones and sunbathing platforms. I lay on one, my legs trailing in the water, eyes closed and turned up to the sun.

Wilderness 2I was beyond caring about anything, which was lucky because out of the bush came a couple of German guys in their 20’s, who tried awkwardly not to look at the topless teenager as they crossed the river in full tramping gear.

So that was my experience of the Pinnacles: the worst experience of my life. Funny thing is, though, every other person I’ve talked to who’s also done the Pinnacles really enjoyed it.

Great Walks for Wusses: My Top 10 North Island Day Walks

The Magic of Waitomo Caves

Growing up in Britain, I visited some pretty magical places – the Lake District, Tintagel, Lindisfarne – but there’s one place in New Zealand that out-magics them all: Waitomo Caves.

Waitomo’s in the Waikato Region, south of Auckland. It didn’t look too exciting when we were driving up to it in our NZ campervan hire – just a lot of moist, green farmland, not dissimilar to views you get driving elsewhere in the North Island – and Waitomo Village isn’t that interesting either, being so small. There is, however, an old hotel on a hill.

As is the rule with old hotels on hills, Waitomo Caves Hotel is said to be haunted. Funny thing is, my house in England was far older – in New Zealand, ‘some parts of it are nearly a hundred years old’ is considered impressive. No. What’s impressive about Waitomo is the geology.

One of Waitomo's wonderful surface rock formations

One of Waitomo’s wonderful surface rock formations

I suppose the Waitomo i-SITE Visitor Information Centre is worth a mention. There’s an i-SITE in practically every town in New Zealand, but this one is quite good. It has a nice shop, and there’s a sort of museum dedicated to the caves. In this museum, if I remember correctly, there’s a pretend rock tunnel you can crawl through and, let me tell you, it freaked me out no end.

I used the word ‘crawl’ incorrectly. You have to pull your way through on your belly, just like those extreme cavers, and, even though this model cave was quite short, about halfway through I got scared I was stuck. My head started to spin and my heart was suddenly taking up so much room in my chest I couldn’t breathe properly. Plus, someone had stuck some chewing gum to the wall, which wasn’t nice.

Anyway, I got out eventually, but let’s just say that cave crawling isn’t for me. And the caves where you have to do that but underwater, not knowing when you’ll next be able to breathe – that’s the stuff of nightmares.

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Inside the mouth of a cave

Luckily, most of the guided tours through various sections of the Waitomo cave system don’t require any crawling. The only safety equipment you need is a hardhat, a head torch and covered shoes (and a jumper, unless you’re from somewhere like Newcastle.)

You can do the extreme stuff as well. There’s even an adventure attraction where you can go rafting on a rubber ring down an underground river.

Waitomo 5The caves are beautiful – not quite ‘magical,’ I haven’t got to that part yet, but they have a certain otherworldliness to them. There’s something in the cool, damp air. Your breath is hushed. You can hear a powerful waterfall somewhere behind the rock, but the echoing makes it impossible to tell exactly where. The torchlight gives eerie illumination to the stalactites and stalagmites. Some of the stalactites, over thousands of years, have formed fascinating structures that ripple like cloaks. They sparkle with minerals and moisture.You want to touch them – to stroke them – but it’s forbidden. You just have too look on in awe. And pay attention so you don’t bang your head.

In one of the caves, you can see the skeleton of a moa that fell through a hole in the forest floor to its death centuries ago, complete with the gizzard stones it had swallowed.

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I remember wondering if it broke its neck in the fall, or if it wandered around in the darkness, unable to find a way out, and starved to death.

The opportunity to see the bones of an extinct animal – not in a museum, but in the place where the creature fell – is fairly awesome, but what makes Waitomo magical is the glowworms.

Something you absolutely have to do if you come for a holiday in New Zealand is go on a Waitomo glowworm tour by boat. It. Is. AMAZING.

You’re taken into a cave, down into a tunnel that has a gentle river flowing through it, and helped onto a boat. You are told to be very, very quiet and to take no flash photos. Then the lights go out.

The boat floats away from the side and into the blackness. For a while, all that accompanies you is the breathing of the tourists in the boat, and the soft sloshing of the water. Then your eyes begin to adjust. Above you, and reflected perfectly in the water below you, are thousands of blue stars. You feel as though you are drifting in space, but you suddenly realise that you can’t be: you are merely in an enclosed passageway that feels as big as the universe. It’s unreal – dreamlike.

Each one of those blue lights is a glowworm. You have to be quiet not just to add to the atmosphere, but so you don’t scare them. If they feel threatened, their lights go out.

Seriously, that place was like Lothlorien. I felt my heart swell just being there. It was so inspiring, and I know I have to go there again before I die.

Glowworms elsewhere in the caves, with their silken, beaded threads

Glowworms elsewhere in the caves, with their silken, beaded threads

Waitomo Caves are consistently rated among the top tourist attractions in New Zealand and I completely agree. They’re one of the top tourist attractions in the world!

Walking in Waitomo

Flightless Birds and Flying Mammals: New Zealand’s Unique Wildlife

One of the first things you notice about New Zealand wildlife is a distinct lack of mammary glands. The only native land mammals are bats, and I’ve never seen one. They were apparently common in the nineteenth century, but now they’re almost extinct. Blame nasty humans cutting down trees and introducing foreign predators like rats and cats – although my cat would never be clever enough to catch a bat. Do cats eat bats?

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My little sister’s cat, unfortunately taken by cancer last year

The Maori call the bats pekapeka. They’re really tiny – barely bigger than your thumb – and can be found in very few places. One such place is Tongariro National Park, in the central North Island. There are three Department of Conservation campsites around the park, so finding cheap accommodation is easy if you hire a campervan in New Zealand, which I highly recommend. Obviously the bats only come out at night, so there’s another good reason for sleeping out in the wilderness.

Another native New Zealand creature that only comes out at night is the kiwi, the country’s most famous and special bird. It can’t fly; evolution has reduced its wings to stumps, hidden beneath feathers that are more like fur. Like the bats, kiwis are endangered and so rarely seen in the wild, but there are plenty of places throughout New Zealand where you can see them in captivity, such as Auckland Zoo. I saw a couple of kiwis mating there once. They looked like two tribbles stacked one on top of the other. I had to stop myself laughing, especially when a small child standing next to me exclaimed, “Mum, look, that one’s jumping on the other one’s back!”

For non-Trekkies, this is a tribble, an alien ball of fur that purrs endearingly and multiplies voraciously. Also, it is a mortal enemy of the Klingon Empire.

For non-Trekkies, this is a tribble, an alien ball of fur that purrs endearingly and multiplies voraciously. Also, it is a mortal enemy of the Klingon Empire.

Kiwis, scientists have found, are closely related to emus, but not to ostriches. There was a New Zealand bird closely related to the ostrich, but it was hunted to extinction by the Maori long before Europeans arrived in New Zealand with their foreign predators. It was called the moa, and it was huge. I remember the skeleton in Auckland Museum – some species could reach a height of over three-and-a-half metres, more like dinosaurs than birds! The only animals big enough to take them down (before the blundering arrival of human beings) were Haast’s eagles.

No, they weren’t eagles owned by some guy named Haast – he was just the first European to describe them. They’d been extinct for centuries by this point, but they must have been terrifying creatures to behold. They were the largest birds of prey ever known to have existed, and may well have hunted humans together with moas. Maori legend speaks of a monstrous, man-eating bird. Did Haast’s eagles snatch children and carry them off to their nests to devour them? It’s a scary thought.

The mysterious West Coast (Bethells Beach)

The mysterious West Coast (Bethells Beach)

New Zealand no longer has any particularly dangerous animals. Someone was killed by a shark off the West Coast of the North Island recently, but things like that don’t happen very often. There have only been about a dozen deaths by shark in New Zealand in the last two hundred years. Australia’s the death-trap. New Zealand doesn’t have any killer spiders, (although the weta can give you a painful nip,) or any deadly snakes – in fact it doesn’t have any snakes at all. It has a few other reptiles, though: frogs, geckos, skinks and, most importantly, the tuatara.

Like practically every other native New Zealand specie, the tuatara is endangered. Most people think it’s a lizard, but it actually belongs to a far older family, older than most dinosaurs, of which it’s the only surviving example. It has a lower body temperature than any other type of reptile and can live well over a hundred years. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to see a tuatara in the wild, as they can only live in areas devoid of rats, which pretty much limits them to a handful of sanctuary islands that tourists aren’t allowed to trample on. I’ve seen one at Auckland Zoo, though, and, to be honest, it was rather boring compared to the mating kiwis!

A tui, a common sight in our garden

A tui, a common sight in our garden

Not all New Zealand animals are so elusive. There are eels in the estuary, pukekos in park, and a whole array of native birds in most people’s back gardens. I’ve often gone to sleep hearing the sweet yet haunting howls of the onomatopoeically named morepork, an incredibly cute little brown owl, and woken up in the morning to the idyllic tune of a tui. My parents get lots of silvereyes in the tree outside their kitchen window, and it’s always entertaining to watch the fantails flitting about the lawn, flicking their tail feathers.

An absolutely incredible place to go to observe native New Zealand birds in their natural habitat is the visitor-friendly island sanctuary of Tiritiri Matangi. You can take a ferry there from either downtown Auckland or Gulf Harbour, but Gulf Harbour’s cheaper and has free parking, so good if you have a New Zealand rental car. Make sure you book, though, and make sure you take food with you, along with sunscreen, a hat, a raincoat, comfortable walking shoes, binoculars and – if the weather looks particularly nice – swim stuff. You’ll be doing a lot of bush trekking, and it’s nice to jump in the sea afterwards. There are lots of little blue penguins around the shore of the island. If you’re lucky, you’ll even see them in their nesting boxes.

In the bush on Tiri Tiri Matangi

In the bush on Tiri Tiri Matangi

Tiritiri Matangi is a very special island, because it is free of predators such as the possum, which will eat the eggs and chicks of endangered native birds. Possums were stupidly introduced to New Zealand from Australia, and since then they have become hated to the extent that kiwis, (the people of New Zealand, not the tribble-like birds,) will deliberately try to run them over. Their one redeeming feature is their fur… so soft… but as soon as I moved to New Zealand, I had it drummed into me that possums are the spawn of Satan.

So, not having any predators to fear, the birds of Tiritiri Matangi have become bold around the island’s human visitors. One particular bird, a now-deceased giant takahe called Greg, became so bold that, for a time, I referred to the island as Jurassic Park. Takahe are like huge, blue chickens with big, red beaks. They can’t fly, but – Jeez – can they run! A few years ago, Greg chased me and my friends across half the island. When we stopped, it snapped at the bottoms of my shorts and kept leaping up to my crotch. I remember running for ages and, panting, stopping to look behind.

“I think we lost it,” I said.

Then it appeared over the crest of the hill, wings outstretched, legs working like the clappers, beak pointing straight at us.

A New Zealand fur seal (not dead, resting)

A New Zealand fur seal (not dead, resting)

But encountering nature in New Zealand isn’t usually as invigorating as that. The coast is a great place to head to see wildlife, and it begins to get more mammalian. New Zealand fur seals can be observed on many rocky shores around the country, such as the Otago Peninsula. We went there when we were on a campervan tour of New Zealand. It’s a Mecca for wildlife, including a magnificent colony of albatrosses. The very best wildlife encounter I’ve had in New Zealand, however, was just off the coast of Auckland.

One of the dolphins that was riding our bough wave

One of the dolphins that was riding our bow wave

There are a number of companies that take tourists out on ferries to see dolphins, and the tourists are rarely disappointed. My family and I have been on several of these New Zealand dolphin trips and we’ve never had a no-show. Whole pods of dolphins come right up to the boat and play in the waves around it, leaping, diving and engaging in light sexual activity. Once, I was sitting at the front of the ferry with my legs dangling over the edge. One of the dolphins rose from the sea and tapped my foot in a clearly playful way – so awesome! We even got to swim with the dolphins, although, for me, this turned into a rather traumatising experience.

Swimming with dolphins is an activity that tops bucket lists around the world. It’s known as an experience so peaceful and happy it can cure depression, bringing people back to nature and generally being as wonderful as a field of unicorns vomiting rainbows. For me, alas… I got into the water and swam around a bit. None of the dolphins seemed to want to say hello. Then I felt lots of small, solid things knocking into my body, up my arms and legs. I suddenly realised the water was pink, and I was floating in the centre of a massacre: pink chunks of dead fish. Being a squeamish teenage girl (and unashamed ichthyophobe,) I screamed and swam back to the boat, taunted by the laughter of my family.

The day might have been ruined, were it not for the whale.

Typical me, I was facing the other way when its head came vertically out of the water. My mum tells me it was fantastic.

A view from the port side of the ferry

Typical me, I was facing the other way when its head came vertically out of the water. My mum tells me it was fantastic. But more amazing still were the gannets.

Wildlife 1

Diving gannets

The sky was thick with them. They came because they saw the dolphins. Gannets have learned that their hunting technique compliments the dolphins’ perfectly. The dolphins gather deep down in the ocean, underneath a school of fish, and drive the fish upwards, trapping them at the surface – where the gannets can descend upon them from the sky. They dive into the waves like golden-headed missiles, so sharp and graceful… The whole boat was transfixed.

You can see a very impressive colony of gannets at Muriwai Beach, (which, coincidentally, is where that guy was killed by a shark,) just a short drive from Auckland City. I’d well recommend it – they’re absolutely beautiful birds – but seeing them out on the ocean, working together with a pod of dolphins, is a wildlife experience I’ll never forget.