Land Of The Long White Cloud
By Tobias Friedrich
New Zealand (or Aotearoa) is a popular destination for the adventurer. Hiring a car or motorhome and controlling where and when you move around is the perfect way to see the epic landscapes made famous by the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. The marine environment is home to more than half the world's cetacean population, unique sea birds breed here and you’ll also find an unrivalled number of penguin species.
New Zealand is made up of two main islands, North and South Island and numerous smaller islands. The closest neighbours, Fiji and Tonga are 1 000 kilometres away and Australia is 1 500 kilometres away across the Tasman Sea. North Island is approximately three hours by plane from Sydney. If you count all the islands, the country has a landmass a little smaller than Italy. So what makes millions of tourists take on a long and often exhausting journey to get to this remote destination each year? You do see the sun rise first every morning, and the people are relaxed and welcoming but the real drawcard is the incredibly diverse natural environment. You’ll find fjords like those in Norway, Alpine-style glaciers, rich grasslands like in Scotland, geysers like in Iceland and volcanoes like in nowhere else. If you enjoy outdoor activities you will be spoilt for choice, try a simple walk in the Abel Tasman Park, a multi-day trip across the fjords of the South Island or, if money is no object, bungee jumping, white water rafting or a stunning helicopter ride over a glacier. You can book all of these activities in most towns and cities. One thing is for sure: you won’t get bored in New Zealand. In strong contrast to these adrenalin-pumped activities stands the mascot, the Kiwi bird. It can’t fly and it’s not very mobile, which is probably why it’s almost extinct. There are breeding farms all over the country that are set up for visitors if you want a closer look at this strange creature.
Travel to New Zealand should not be a standard, short dive trip, the visit should be at least two weeks; three or four weeks if possible. If you are willing to drive a car, spending a couple of nights at selected stops, you can drive through both the North Island and South Island in a couple of weeks. If you want to explore the place in more detail it’s probably better to concentrate on one of the islands. The South Island attracts most of the tourists with its dramatic landscape. The majority of New Zealanders live on the North Island, which also has much to offer visitors. The ideal means of transportation is a motorhome - it’s easier taking your home with you and saves you packing up every couple of days. First time visitors should go to the well known spots, even if they are packed with tourists. Return visitors, or those avoiding crowds, should explore the lesser-known areas and plan their own excursions. And for divers there are a number of must-see destinations!
POOR KNIGHT ISLANDS - NORTH ISLAND
Two and a half hours north of Auckland, on the east coast, lies the town of “Tutukaka”. The town shouldn’t be judged by its name. National Geographic voted the coastline around Tutukaka one of the ten most attractive coastlines in the world. Tutukaka is the starting point for dive excursions to the Poor Knight Islands, one of the most popular dive sites in New Zealand. These islands, formed by the movements of a volcano some 4 million years ago, are about 25 kilometres off the coast. They sit in the middle of a subtropical current that moves down from the coral triangle bringing a large variety of life that would not normally be found at these latitudes. Large stingrays, up to two metres in diameter, cruise elegantly through the thick three metre high kelp forests. They are seen in their hundreds around the islands in mating season. The underwater landscape is made up of many caves, arches and tunnels, home to a variety of life from big schools of snappers to loads of nudibranchs. February and March offer the best diving, the visibility goes from 10-15 metres up to 30 metres plus, making it clear why these islands are rated as one of the top dive sites in the world.
KAIKOURA - SOUTH ISLAND
The small town Kaikoura, north of Christchurch, gets its charm from the beautiful peninsula in front of it and the 2 600 metre high mountains lying behind it. Kaikoura is a meeting place for people who are enthusiastic about marine life as it’s the base for many excursions to enjoy the attractions of the sea. The biggest stars, literally speaking, are the whales. A sighting of a Sperm Whale is almost guaranteed in season if the weather allows a trip out to sea. The coastline, which drops down to 1 600 metres near the shore, attracts the whales who come in to socialise and eat. The charters, professionally run on large catamarans, take the guests out to the open ocean to wait for the whales. The guides are well trained and can tell when a whale is about to dive or show a tail fin, which makes for a great picture. There is a dive centre, but if you have dived the Poor Knight Islands, the diving here may disappoint you as the visibility drops down to only about five metres.
A better option is the dolphin encounter. Rare dusky dolphins that only live in the southern hemisphere are found in a big bay just a few kilometres south of the town. The schools, often up to 100 individuals in number, are seen year round. The visibility may not be great but just being in the water with these elegant hunters is amazing, everybody on the boat has a smile on their face. If you don’t want to get wet you can still join the trip. The guides suggest that the divers make noises through their snorkels to attract the dolphins. This results in a very amusing snorkel concert. You can also swim with New Zealand’s fur seals, colonies are found all along the coastline. This is best done with a guide even if its a little more accessible than the dolphin trip. The seals hang out on the rocks checking out the curious swimmers.
MILFORD SOUND - SOUTH ISLAND
This spectacular fjord is one the top destinations worldwide. It’s definitely New Zealand’s most famous site. Milford Sound runs 15 kilometres inland from the Tasman Sea at Dale Point - the mouth of the fjord - and is surrounded by sheer rock faces that rise more than 1 500 metres on either side. Mitre Peak at nearly 1 700 metres, is the highest of the rock faces that looms out from the deep waters of the fjord. Dozens of waterfalls plunge down the densely forested rocks into the water, and the freshwater mixes with the saltwater from the ocean. The meltwater from the mountains forms a layer that is about 10 metres deep which darkens the water below. This means that below 10 metres an unusual mix of flora and fauna have started to flourish. You will see a very rare species of black coral that is usually found at much greater depths, as well as ghost pipe fish. The dives are organised by a dive centre in the nearby town of Te Anau.
Tackling the long journey to New Zealand is definitely worth the effort. The diving is well organised and good but the focus should be on a road trip allowing one to really explore the stunning, and varied environment. Not many countries offer so many different landscapes in a relatively contained area. You only truly appreciate the variety when you get home and start going through all your pictures.
Source: The Dive Site