Backpacking in Middle Earth

New Zealand is the closest country to Antarctica in the eastern hemisphere. It consists of 2 islands made out of fire and ice. The northern island has active volcanoes, while glaciers and mountains cover the southern island. Also, both islands are directly over a fault line making earthquakes a daily reality.

Before I travelled to Australia and New Zealand, I could not understand why they were not one country. Unlike Canada and the US, they both are still part of the British Commonwealth and have English as their predominant language. However, I quickly discovered they were two distinct peoples. First, both countries indigenous peoples are different because they came from different places. Australia's aboriginals came from Asia when the continent was connected to Asia and have the continent about 100, 000 years ago. The Polynesians of the Pacific, or the "Maoris" who discovered the untouched islands by boat unlike Australia settled New Zealand under 1000 years ago. Second, unlike Australia its settlers occupied New Zealand by choice and were not convicted felons. The New Zealanders were more tolerant and greeted the aboriginals as equals and made Maori the second official language of New Zealand. Without a convict and anti-aboriginal past New Zealand developed into one of the most tolerant societies in the world. New Zealand was the first country to give women the right to vote in 1893 decades before the rest of the world. New Zealanders are a unique people and are not hobbit-sized Australians. New Zealanders see the world globally contrast to Australia that views itself as a regional power. One example is Antarctica scientists. The Aussie scientist stated Australia viewed Antarctic as its own while the Kiwi viewed New Zealand as a global partner that shared Antarctica.

My journey through New Zealand resembled a backward six. I flew into Christchurch, headed west to Franz Joseph, then made a southern loop to Queenstown, and then up to Northern Island up to Whangarei. New Zealand has re-energized its tourist industry with the movie trilogy Lord of the Rings and extreme sports. Lord of the Rings has highlighted New Zealand's natural beauty but ironically, the most beautiful sports in New Zealand (Milson's Sound and the Bay of Islands) were not seen in this movie.

New Zealand is also home to A.J. Hackett the inventor of the bungee jump who made Queenstown, New Zealand the world capital for adventure sports. With the low New Zealand dollar, it also makes it the cheapest place in the world for many extreme sports. But be careful with all the activities because like anything it adds up. Originally, I thought Australia was a lot like Canada because they both are big counties with concentrated populations in a few cities with wide-open spaces. Compared to Canada and the US, Australia is more like the US and Canada more similar to New Zealand. Australia like the US is the major superpower in the South Pacific, New Zealand has resented their arrogance, and their government has adopted several social democratic policies to differentiate from its dominating neighbour. They infuriated the US by adopting an anti-nuclear policy by forcing all ships to declare that they are not carrying nuclear weapons.

Ironically, a New Zealander Alexander Rutherford invented the atomic bomb. Despite only covering two islands with 4 million people, New Zealanders have made their mark on the globe. Recently in movies, Peter Jackson and Russell Crowe stick out as prominent New Zealanders. New Zealand also has the first man to climb Mount Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary. It is weird how they are for nuclear proliferation but still immensely proud of Alexander Rutherford.

1. Christchurch

My first stop in New Zealand was Christchurch that is New Zealand's largest city in the southern island. It only has 330, 000 people and models itself after a small English town. Its main attractions are the International Antarctica Centre and the Wizard. The International Antarctica Centre has a room with a simulated temperature of -20 Degrees Celsius and Christchurch is a major home to Antarctica scientists because it has the closest major international airport to Antarctica. The Wizard is the local town crier who is brazenly anti-American. Its centre includes gardens, grand churches, and a statue of Captain Cook. Christchurch has a major airport where fly into the southern island to head to Queenstown making Christchurch the gateway to better places.

2. Franz Joseph

The Franz Joseph glaciers are one of the wonders of New Zealand. They contain the world's fastest melting glaciers in the middle of a rainforest. The glaciers are part of the Southern Alps mountain chain in New Zealand. It is definitely worth the visit and has the best place in the world where you can skydive while taking a view of Mount Cook while you descend.

3. Wanaka

This somewhat unknown tourist spot is one of New Zealand's hidden gems. It has Lake Wanaka but more exhilarating is Puzzle World. It contains a giant 2-storey human maze, and a giant glowing Albert Einstein head whose entire face follows you. (Take that Mona Lisa) It also has a room with a low ceiling that makes one person look a midget. This is how Peter Jackson filmed the hobbits in Lord of the Rings. It has an entire room with famous heads and room slanted at a 45-degree angle. Basically, it is an amusement park of illusions.

4. Queenstown

The United Nations has New York as its capital. Catholicism has Vatican City, sin has Las Vegas, and religious conflict has Jerusalem. Adventure sports have Queenstown as its global capital. Queenstown is the number one reason why the stars of the Lord of the Rings keep coming back to NZ. Queenstown is also probably the most infatuated Lord of the Rings place on the planet. Here Lord of the Rings stars are glorified and other celebrities are just tourists. That is why Shania Twain chose to live in Queenstown. Why does everyone go to Queenstown? It is paradise on Earth. With the Remarkables in the background of the city, canyons, waterfalls, and fast-flowing rivers, this city is perfect for extreme sports. In the late 1980's, A.J. Hackett made the bungee jump popular and chose Queenstown to be the first major site. First came the bungee jump, then white-water rafting, jet boating, paragliding, skydiving, canyoning, mountain biking, and more. Queenstown also has an active nightlife with such bars as the World Bar.

5. Milford Sound

To put it clearly, Milford Sound is the most beautiful place on Earth I have seen. It is similar to Norwegian fjords but surrounded by majestic mountains in a heavenly bay. The major drawback to the sound is that it rains every 2 out of 3 days. But I was fortunate to take a cruise on a crystal clear day. Besides the natural beauty above ground, Milford Sound also has black coral at the lowest depths in the world 10m below the sound. It can be easily viewed from the underground observatory but ironically, the coral is a pasty white.

6. Kaikoura

From Queenstown I travelled north back to Christchurch then to Kaikoura that ranks just after Milford Sound as the second most beautiful spot in New Zealand. Kaikoura is right by the ocean and close proximity to whale watching and dolphin swimming. I was able to go whale watching but a storm cancelled the dolphin swimming. The Maoris operated the whale watch described their closeness with the whales and other interesting facts. It was my first whale watch and all I was able to see was the whale's flipper. To my disappointment, it was not like Free Willy with the whales leaping out of the air. However, it was still great to see.

7. Wellington

The nation's capital is the cheapest tourist spot in the country. It is about a 4-hour ferry ride from the southern island to reach it. It is Peter Jackson's hometown and a Gollum statue welcomes you at the airport. They have a brand new museum, Te Papa which is a spectacular free exhibit showcasing New Zealand's people and their land. As the capital, it houses the parliament buildings and I took the free tour but was astonished that half of the tour was about the design of the building. However, after the tsunami I found it relevant because it explained how the building is earthquake proof up to 8.0 on the Richter scale. Wellington also has a nice harbour to walk around and YHA Wellington has a great kitchen.

8. Lake Taupo

Lake Taupo is home to New Zealand's largest lake. They have the cheapest skydiving in New Zealand but no mountains to view. Some early morning walks are good to take if you have an extra day to spend. Do not stay at Tiki Lodge because they shut down the hostel at nine if you want to party.

9. Auckland

I covered a lot of ground this day as I skipped Rotorua and Waitoma and wanted to get the Bay of Islands in. Along the way, we stopped at Matamata, where they filmed Hobbiton in the Lord of the Rings and have the sign "Welcome to Hobbiton". Finally, I did arrive in Auckland, the "City of Sails". Auckland is New Zealand's answer to Sydney in Australia. It has almost half the population of New Zealand and the home to more Polynesians than anywhere else in the world. Auckland like the rest of the north island does not have the same activities as the southern island because it is a major city. The hostels are in Auckland are the best in the South Pacific. X Base even has TV's in the washrooms. The biggest photo-op in the city is of their sky tower and they have a large suspension bridge that is far cheaper to climb than Sydney's is. The main activity I landed up doing in Auckland was souvenir shopping. In addition, many tour companies offer free day tours for backpackers.

10. Bay of Islands

As with Milford Sound, the weather is British in this area. I was not able to make it to Paihia but Whangarei was a great place to spend a full day. Whangarei was where New Zealand was founded as a country and home to Maori heritage sites. Whangarei is also home to dolphin swimming and kayaks are able to rent to paddle around the Bay of Islands. The Bay of Islands is an ideal place for an aerial tour. The Treaty House Park includes a Maori house, war canoe, and a flagpole where the treaty was signed. It was an unexpected gem and I enjoyed the early history of New Zealand and the Maoris.

Top 10 Things I wish I could have done

1. Swim with the Dolphins- I could have jumped into the water, bounced up and down, and made noise like a dolphin.

2. Jet boating in Queenstown- Another weather dependent activity that was cancelled. 360 degree turns in a class 4 river. I doesn't get any better.

3. Bungee Jump the Nevis- 150 plunge in the unknown.

4. Sea Kayaking Milford Sound- It would have been great to paddle around the fjord myself.

5. Hang Gliding in Queenstown- So many adventure activities so little time.

6. Bushwalking in Nelson- For bushwalking you really need at least a whole month in Queenstown.

7. Waitomo Caves- I had the pass to go but there was no time to see the limestone caves.

8. Dolphin Kayaking in Paihia- I could have paddled with the dolphins.

9. Rotorua- Could have soaked up some aboriginal culture.

10. Sand boarding in Paihia- Could have road down a sand dune on a board.


Related Links:

New Zealand Pictures



Top 10 Greatest Movies of All-Time



Top 100 Greatest Places to Visit in the World



Updated: January 2, 2011

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