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New Zealand is an incredible place.

I had the most wonderful experience there, beginning with our stay on the North Island. We hung out in Auckland for a bit and rented a car to take us to the black-sand beaches. We drove to Rotorua to see the geothermal activity (even the hot water in our hostel was heated from steam in the GROUND) before flying to the South Island where we began our campervan journey. We lived in the campervan for seven days during which we drove the perimeter of the South Island (minus the Otago Peninsula, unfortunately) to see the fjordlands, glaciers, and incredible peaks of the Southern Alps.

The North and South Islands are literally two completely different places.

Here’s what I have learned: About 510 million years ago in a period of the geological time scale known as the Cambrian, aka the time of the explosion of multicellular life on Earth, the bedrocks of what would later become New Zealand began to form. Fast forward to the Mesozoic (so the time of the dinosaurs) and the plates of our planet’s crust are arranged into two continents that have recently split from the notorious supercontinent called Pangea. The continent occupying the southern hemisphere was Gondwana and included what would later become Africa, South America, India, Australia, Arabia, Antarctica, and, of course, New Zealand. This time was especially important in the formation of New Zealand as the breakup of Gondwana some 130 million years ago (these time estimates are really rough, mind you) resulted in what more or less is the New Zealand we know and love today. At least, that’s how I understand it to have happened.

Map of New Zealand geology
The North Island sits on the Australian Plate which is subducting under the Pacific Plate. The South Island on the other hand, sits mostly on the Pacific Plate with the Southern Alps marking the convergent/transverse plate boundary running through the island.

So we have the North Island and the South Island, sitting on separate plates that are and have been for a long time moving in relation to each other. This convergent-transverse boundary has created offshore trenches on the Zealandia landmass and a great, big scar running through the South Island known as the Alpine Fault, along which runs the Southern Alps mountain range. Plus, NZ’s subsequent susceptibility to earthquakes and volcanism has landed it a spot in the Pacific’s Ring of Fire.

The North Island features tender, rolling hills of pasture land mixed with volcanic remnants like black sand beaches, calderas, and glorious geothermal lakes. The South Island has developed a more dramatic backdrop consisting of mystical snow-capped mountains, foggy fjords, and glowing glacial lakes. The diversity of natural phenomena is incredible, especially over such a small landmass (the country’s total area is a bit more than that of the UK, as reported by Wikipedia).

The grassy, gentle hills of the North Island. I’m still wondering if the island is naturally so treeless or if its a result of the introduction of grazing farm animals…
The moutainous Southern Island, in contrast.
A volcanic igneous rock from Bethell’s Beach in the North Island.
I’m not too sure but I think this is the sedimentary greywacke popular throughout the South Island

There are no native mammals to New Zealand and its most abundant natural flora is unquestionably the fern, in all of its manifestations. Subsequently, the whole place feels like a prehistoric jungle-planet, akin to my notions of the Royal Botanic Gardens of Sydney but times a million. There were moments when I imagined I had stepped into a scene from Avatar, or, perhaps unsurprisingly, a scene from Lord of the Rings.

That’s not to say things haven’t come a long way since Gondwanaland and its eventual demise. At some point the Maori, probably descendants of a Polynesian peoples from the landmasses farther north, made New Zealand their home. Then, predictably, the Europeans came over.  Captain Cook was the first. Even after some of his crewmates were killed and cooked by Maori tribesmen, he regarded the Maori as an overall well-meaning people. His sentiments don’t differ too much from the current peaceful relations between the Maori and the Euro-Kiwis. The Maori do not share the same bleak fate as did the Aboriginals of Australia. True, there were some Maori-Euro issues, but the greatest Maori death tolls resulted from infighting during the Musket Wars of the 19th century. Today, the Maori continue to be proud of their land and their customs as they make a killing exploiting tourists by charging mad dolla dolla bills for viewings of traditional Maori cultural practices. Go Maoris.

Fern-trees during a walk in the North Island. NZ is home to the largest ferns in the world.
In Milford Sound in New Zealand
I truly felt like I had landed on Pandora during our cruise through Milford Sound in the Fjordlands. The nearly vertical cliff faces drop straight into the intruding fingers of the Tasman Sea. Milford Sound is a misnomer as a “sound” is technically carved by rivers while Milford is actually a fjord, carved by glaciers. The top 5-6 meters of water in the fjords is sediment-laden freshwater that has flowed down via the hundreds of waterfalls created by the receding alpine glaciers in the steep cliffs overhead. And underneath? Salty seawater from the Tasman.

There’s a large possibility that I’ve made some mistakes here, but these things happen, especially when one uses Wikipedia as a reliable source.

And now, a few words regarding safety:

You can’t go to New Zealand and not hear about the All Blacks. Rugby is the country’s collective pride and joy. Other NZ things? Well there are Kiwis (the people, the fruit, AND the bird) and there are sheep. Deer, cattle, and yes, the occasional alpaca are not uncommon sights.

Black sand beaches in North Island of New Zealand
We rented a car and took a daytrip from Auckland to see the black sand beaches (we visited Bethell’s and Piha) of the North Island.
Eating kiwifruit in New Zealand
You can’t go to New Zealand and not eat the kiwifruit. I’ve come to decide that gold is indeed better than green.
In Rotarua in New Zealand
The steaming geothermal lakes of Rotorua smell slightly of rotten eggs as a result of sulfur and other gases seeping to the surface from the depths of the earth.
Swimming in a geothermal river in New Zealand
Our Lonely Planet guidebook really took us off the beaten track for this one: Kerosene Creek is a river buried in the woods near Rotorua and happens to be the absolute best spot for a soak in a natural river-gone-hot tub. Slipping our toes into the sandy bottom reminded us the heat of this 103 degree F river emanated from the ground-up.
Peeling potatoes on a beach in New Zealand
Peeling potatoes on the beach for our sausage and mashed potatoes dinner. The spots in which we decided to park for the night were hardly formal camping grounds; they included this beach, a field of flowers, and a glacial lake, among others.
Encountering a kiwi bird in Queenstown in New Zealand
Clo and I just walked around in Queenstown while the others went to the wildlife park to see some real-life Kiwi birds. They are nocturnal and harmless. But hey guess what? They “lay the largest eggs in relation to their body size of any living species of bird in the world”.
Swimming in a glacial lake on the South Island of New Zealand
One of three glacial lakes we swam in on the South Island. I think this one was the coldest. I only lasted a few minutes in there but it was entirely worth it.
Going hiking in New Zealand
We did a bit of hiking on the South Island. This particular hike was through the rocky glacial till of an old end moraine in a glacial valley with our goal being the waterfalls in the distance. I had a some much-appreciated alone time with nature when everyone else decided to ascend the waterfall. I stayed behind and, sitting Indian-style on a boulder, marveled at the valley. The ultimate crunchy Mother Nature-y zen moment I had been waiting for.

Sooooo I hope that I have somehow managed to accurately represent my New Zealand adventure.

For now, Rebecca is kindly letting me crash at her apartment. Jordan and I went to Wattamolla today to cliff jump. I stood at the top of the 13 m (43 ft) waterfall for nearly 2 hours trying to unpsych myself out (in?) and jump off the damn thing. Meanwhile sunburnt bogan Aussies (their version of American trailer trash) cheered me on in between sips of their beers. I jumped. Finally.

I need to get souvenirs! I need to get started on the 2 liters of alcohol I bought in duty free in the New Zealand airport! Speaking of which, does anyone know if I can buy alcohol in Sydney’s airport and bring it in through customs at LAX?


  1. KimVo says:

    AWESOME! Loved every word and picture. Loved the safety trailer. Love you squinch and can’t wait to see your adorable face.

  2. Marlene Josephs says:

    Wow. Michelle, you describe this place beautifully. Maybe you should become a travel writer. Nobody could do it better. Love you. m

  3. It DOES look like Pandora. What an amazing adventure. New Zealand sure is beautiful, esp that glacial lake on the South Island. It reminds us of Lake Tahoe. Really enjoy your blog posts Michelle… keep ’em coming!

  4. david mccormick says:

    great effort!

    the north island was covered in kauri forests,about 90% of the native forests were logged ,and timber exported from 1800 ,logging stopped in the 1970s,the only kauri timber available now is from demolition of buildings and finding fallen logs in existing forests.

  5. onedayillflyaway says:

    Very interesting and informative, I would probably have done the same and not read a thing about it before I went (like I usually do) so thanks for the info! Great photos as well, NZ looks like an amazing place!

    • mishvo says:

      Yes – I remember getting entirely too tied up in researching the geology of it all when I was trying to write this post…I think I alienated most of my readers…but hopefully the photos make up for it cause my god New Zealand was so breathtaking!

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