Category: New Zealand


Guest post courtesy of Jonathan … I’m sure the list will grow during our remaining weeks here.

  1. Chutneys. Rather like a savory jam, one of my favorite memories from childhood is my grandmother’s ‘apple and raisin chutney’, but despite much searching I’ve been unable to find the equivalent in any of our SF supermarkets, apart from the omnipresent mango chutney (it turns out chutney is of Indian origin). Imagine my delight when the first thing I saw in an NZ supermarket was a whole area full of chutneys of all shapes and sizes!
  2. Baked beans. It gets better … those who know me have heard me express my ongoing surprise that Heinz Baked Beans, a part of most breakfasts throughout the UK and a staple flavor, are not easily available anywhere in the US (the US equivalent is less common and understandably so to me since it tastes quite different). Four shelves full! Even a version with curry flavor!
  3. Supermarket selection generally feels more similar to UK. Not that I am wedded to UK foods by any means, having largely lived without them for more than 20 years, but there is a broad set of foods that are common in the English-speaking world generally, but for whatever reason have not made it to the US. In common with Australia, the NZ selection is much closer to the UK.
  4. Sandwich spreads! It amazes me that ‘English pate’ has not become a choice of discerning gourmands globally.
  5. The mountains!! Mountains everywhere!! I love mountains – in fact, the mountains of Japan were my original reason for going there. This country has the most attractive I’ve ever seen, and more of them.
  6. Really nice bacon. Time to mention another food item … Something I’ve never understood is why US bacon is so fatty compared to UK bacon, which is more a slice of meat with a bit of fat on the side. US-style bacon is available in the UK (as ‘streaky bacon’), but not vice versa, and asking for ‘UK-style bacon’ meats with looks of incomprehension (groan, sorry …) . Most people then say ‘isn’t it Canadian bacon’ (it isn’t) or smoked German bacon (nope) or back bacon (yes, this is the closest I’ve got, but it seems to be a certain cut).
  7. Service stations on motorways. Certainly beats a little cluster of fast food joints.
  8. Road widths more like US. None of that whizzing by each other at 160mph UK-style (no, we don’t drive at 160mph, at least not all the time, but if you have two cars each going at 80mph in opposite directions …). Actually, not a lot of whizzing goes on in NZ anyway, but if it did there’d be roads wide enough for it.
  9. Lots of trees, and a nice mix. What a verdant country!
  10. So green! So varied! The sheer range of green stuff (sorry mum for the lack of specificity) in the outdoors is just amazing. Individually all the various plants are things I’ve seen elsewhere, but in many different countries, and never combined.
  11. Sea color a lovely azure blue. The sea blue here is somewhere in-between the darker colors of the US or northern Europe, and the tropical colors I really love, but quite unique and appealing.
  12. Big waves on the east coast, especially the north of northland. Would be great territory for surfing! Makes for a spectacular coastline too.
  13. Fish and chips. England’s former national dish (before chicken tikka masala) is available everywhere!! And endearingly called ‘fish and chups’ (at least that’s how it sounds). No French fries here! In fact, there are no French fries anywhere – that’s just a strange US naming convention (apparently it originated from a US book called ‘Cookery for Maids of All Work’).
  14. Pubs / taverns. Yay!! Pubs are such a nice idea on so many levels. Much more friendly and welcoming than the more hard-core ‘bars’, more social, and with food. Your all-in-one pit stop.
  15. Freedom camping. Apart from the slightly odd term, this is such a great concept – formally allowing you to park your campervan anywhere. Of our 32 nights we spent 8 freedom camping, and they were easily the 8 most memorable nights – right above the cliffs of Cathedral Cove, in the howling wind of Mangawhai Heads, just feet from the raging such of the Meatpacker surf break, overlooking Lake Pukaki with a completely unobstructed view of Mt Cook, just to name a few).
  16. Little cafes everywhere. Seemingly in every little town and village there is an attractive little cafe which serves all day breakfasts, lunches and often dinners, as well as gourmet coffee. Awesome.
  17. High water pressure! One of my personal metrics for a high standard of living, the pressure here is universally high, even in the hole-in-the-wall campsites. Presumably something to do with lots of rain and lots of high mountains with fast-flowing rivers …
  18. Toasties. Toasted sandwiches with you-name-it in them. Great snack!
  19. Honor system honey shop. Ah, to live in a land where the debate is not ‘whether guns get more people killed’ but ‘do we actually need a lock on the door of our large supply of honey or should we just let people help themselves and pay for what they take’.
  20. Few chain stores in small towns. This is the opposite of the land of the brand – it’s not that brands are different here, which is also true, but that almost everywhere small local retailers are still thriving.
  21. So few people everywhere. It’s a truism that there are more sheep than people here, and while I didn’t personally do any counting, it’s extremely noticeable
  22. No ‘nanny notices’. On slides, playgrounds, high walkways above raging torrents, 600 feet canyons you can jump into, there are never any of the US-style liability disclaimers. Here, you are treated like an adult – if you choose to play on a slide and you fall off, it would be an unfortunate fact of life not cause to try and achieve early retirement through bankrupting the unfortunate maker of the slide.
  23. Give ways! Roundabouts! I’ve thought for years that it makes more sense and would save time to slow down but not have to stop if there are no other cars, not to mention the consequences for emissions etc from the extra revving needed to start from a stop … If there are hundreds of millions of cars on the road all the time and they are all stopping all the time, that’s got to add up … Just saying …
  24. Scotch eggs. Such a great concept; it’s a shame the Scottish haven’t caught on to the marketing yet. A hard-boiled egg inside a breaded sausage sphere. Yum.
  25. Super well signposted. Even signs for cycle tracks. The signage here is fantastic.
  26. Super friendly people. What a nice country. Maybe it comes from having low taxes, a high standard of living, a good self-deprecating sense of humor, and a fantastic place to live.
  27. Pies! Sausage rolls!! More awesome British yumminess.
  28. No hidden extras on bills (CA tax, ‘SF health tax’, tips). No tips as expectation, but as real reward. More common are contribution boxes for local charities. I’ve always hated the fact that when you are presented with the price in a store or restaurant in the US you have to add extra fees on in your head to get the real cost. Why not just present what it actually costs? Likewise if tipping is a standard percentage, rather than truly merit-based, why not scrap it and tack it onto the bill?
  29. Safe! See 7 year olds walking and cycling to school alone.
  30. The call of the Australian magpie. This has to be heard to be believed – it’s the most amazing other worldly sound. We were woken from a spectacular mountain-top freedom camp by a pair calling to each other, and luckily I was able to ask two local farmers what was making the noise.
  31. Efficient booking systems (toll road, inter island ferry). You pay online, before during or after you actually go through the toll booth. No people spending their lives in little cubicles taking your cash, which does not exactly seem like a 21st century occupation.
  32. Quality of footpaths (Abel Tasman, Rainbow Mtn, Key Summit just to name a few). Really nicely maintained – unbelievable given the huge distances they cover.
  33. Beer served cold! And some really nice craft ales (eg Monteith’s Summer Ale, Radler, Tuatara Ardennes) too. Sorry, I just can’t get with the English room temperature thing (yes, I know it’s cellar temperature, and England is a cold place, but semi-warm and flat is just not my thing).
  34. The accent. I really like the sound of this accent. It has the same musical lilt as South African English, which is my second favorite, and the same friendly aphorisms as Australian, which is my third. I always thought Murray in Flight of the Conchords was a caricature, but apparently not …
  35. Great visitor facilities. (Abel Tasman, Punakaiki, Milford Sound to name a few.) Every hike and park has fantastic signposts, loos, and other facilities.
  36. People can’t sue each other willy nilly for ridiculous amounts. Building on #22, but apparently here there are strict caps on the levels of damages you can get in the event of problems, and all liability issues are handled by a centralized body. Is it really sensible to have damages set by a 12 person body of completely untrained people, based on their wanting to be extreme in their fifteen minutes of fame, and the insane numbers they’ve heard elsewhere on the news?
  37. No deductibles on vehicle insurance. The system seems to be more similar to the UK, where insurance is required by law for rentals, and you can pay extra to eliminate the deductible.
  38. Public healthcare system. Does this need any explanation? You can walk into a medical facility and get treatment, and you don’t have to worry about your savings being wiped out. Sounds like the definition of a government’s responsibility to me.
  39. Yorkies! The best chocolate in the world, available in all major supermarkets …
  40. Visas. They actually have an entrepreneur visa here!! (Not what is referred to in the US as an entrepreneur visa, but is actually the million dollar investor visa …)
  41. NZ hikers say hello. Can get tiresome on crowded paths, but it’s nice to be friendly.
  42. Pork has crackling!! For some strange reason, the best bit of pork is cut off by default in US butchers, so you never get the delicious and satisfying experience of crunching the crackling …
  43. Can get a tan!! As in, there’s sun, and it’s bright … not exactly tropical, but quite different to the UK and (a lot of the time) San Francisco …
  44. People get my jokes! Possibly the most important thing on this entire list for me, it is wonderful to be in a place where my inane wisecracks are actually met with laughter rather than strange looks more deserved by a cat dragging a mangled bird in from the rain.
  45. NZ names are even better than English/Welsh/Scottish names to make jokes out of. Waikawa – be a man, I say! Why Otago? Because you really ought to go there … Oh to go to Otoko … Well, you get the gist. See #44.
  46. Can legally drink at any age!! (Yep, not kidding.) Nanny state US is one of the worst in the world … but that’s because it’s the land of the … ahem … free …
  47. Walking cities. Every city we visited was easily walkable, and designed with walkers in mind.
  48. People can walk barefoot! At first I assumed this was because New Zealanders are generally tough on the outside, but over time I’ve realized it’s because this place is so clean you can actually walk on the pavements without fear of treating on infected hypodermic needles or dog poo. What a different world to San Francisco …
  49. Wide streets – but with the extra room used for wider grassy areas not wider roads. In other words, leafy treelined streets are the norm, and towns look green not gray.
  50. Taverns with outdoor seating. I love having a beer (see #33) and watching the world go by, and you can’t beat doing that outside, where the world actually goes by. Taverns in New Zealand seem to have outdoor seating by default, despite all the dire warnings about the bad weather that people usually mention in relation to NZ (in fact we’ve had one day of rain in our so-far 45 days here, but this does seem to be unusual). I’ve never understood why SF doesn’t have more outdoor seating – the weather is really not that bad. Although it could possibly be partly #49 (or it could just be the really bad management).
  51. 2degrees 3G mobile broadband – 11Mbps downstream, faster than AT&T’s notional ‘4G’ in San Francisco, and over 2x faster than I was ever able to get AT&T to provide over a DSL modem to our SF home … And all this for less money than my US mobile plan: about USD 50 for 12GB a month. (Unfortunately, 2degrees is not available in many places yet, and the other options are not as good, and wifi in general is not widely available.)
  52. The post offices! Friendly, clean, not at all scary … quite the opposite of those in another country I’m familiar with …
  53. Green man is green. Ie, the little green man that says ‘go’ to pedestrians. What is it with having a green light for cars and a white man for walkers? Never understood the point of complicating things. Not to mention the fact that green is a completely non-racially-charged color, unless you’re an alien. (Actually, I am known as an ‘alien’ in the US; a very unfriendly thing to say I’ve always thought.)
  54. Sausage selection!! The list wouldn’t be complete without yet another food item. For some reason sausages are just not very exciting in the US, unless you really hunt. Here they are everywhere and really good. And no horsemeat! Well, I don’t know that for sure; I haven’t seen many horses. But why would you bother with horses when there are this many sheep ..
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New Zealand Tramping

Abel Tasman

Abel Tasman

Swimming at Apple Tree Bay

Swimming at Apple Tree Bay

Apple Tree Bay

Apple Tree Bay

Abel Tasman hike

Abel Tasman hike

Summit Track

Summit Track

Summit Track in Fiordland

Summit Track in Fiordland

We made it - Summit Track

We made it – Summit Track

Lunch (sans water) at Summit Track

Lunch (sans water) at Summit Track

Hooker Glacier

Hooker Glacier

Mt. Cook/Hooker Glacier walk

Mt. Cook/Hooker Glacier walk

J&ZHookerglacierwalkOne of the activities that Jonathan and I most missed in the early A.Z. (“after Z”) years was hiking. She just wasn’t one of those babies or toddlers who took to a sling, although we tried them all, so hiking was put on hold for a few years. Once we started planning this adventure, however, one of our goals was for her to be able to hike several miles without too much whinging.  Because she had taken to the colored ribbon achievement scheme at her swim school like a fish to water (couldn’t resist), we implemented a parallel hiking certificate system. Her initial rainbow ribbon was earned after a 3-mile hike at age 3 — fast-forward to age 6 and we now have a girl who (according to a close friend) could “probably hike competitively.”  Perhaps, but only if the route was lined with chocolate incentives.  As luck would have it, there IS a Cadbury factory in Dunedin.

For those who love hiking, NZ provides endless opportunities (just cover up on the S. Island if you are prone to sandfly bites!).  We only  touched the tip of the iceberg for hiking (although we did see several glaciers!) on our whirlwind camper van tour of both islands, but here are a few jaunts that are definitely worth checking out and fun for the whole family.

Abel Tasman to Apple Tree Bay:  As became our habit, we started the tramp mid-afternoon. (In the A.Z. world, we are no longer morning people and were unable to even once meet the 10am departure deadline from any campsite, which pained me each time but didn’t seem to ruffle Jonathan at all.)  Fortunately, the days still are long here but at first it was disconcerting to see people returning from their tramps as we were the lone ones setting off.  This one got off to a bad start. It was hot, and not just by NZ standards and yet, despite having packed enough food for 3 days and rain jackets when there was not a cloud in sight, 30 minutes in I realized that I’d left all of our water in the van due to a  misunderstanding about who was responsible for the drinks.  Jonathan had half a bottle of warm Grape Powerade and Z had a small amount of water in her pink thermos, but when I hike I sweat and need my water.  I spent a few annoyed minutes grumbling about needing to turn back but the day was ultimately too inviting for this to spoil our adventure.  When Z asked for water, I rationed out small sips accompanied by carrots on the theory that they were rehydrating and we powered on.  Fortunately, the track proved to be an easy coastal route, nicely shaded, and with gentle elevation gains and losses as we curved around the coast that regularly provided us with sparkling coastal vistas.  We stopped at Apple Tree Bay, a little over three miles in, for lunch and a bracing but gorgeous swim.  Except for the water’s temperature, we could have been in the Caribbean.  A handful of sailboats dotted the horizon, but the long, white-sand beach had only a handful of other visitors.  (Later I realized that some of those insidious sandflies first dined on me while I was eating lunch, but at the moment, I was blissfully unaware of these menaces.)  On the way back, Z serenaded us with songs from the Muppet Movie and we were fortunate to spot a family of Kiwis (the birds, not the people).  Total distance: 6.8 miles.

Key Summit Track: This track begins as part of the famous Routeburn Track, which is one of NZ’s Great Walks located within the Milford Sound region.  Once again, we hit the trail late, around 3pm.  It was a steadier climb, but mostly shady.  Unfortunately, we suffered another water supply mishap and this time only brought Powerade, which Z refuses to drink. Thus, there was some grumbling early on. Ultimately, however, her thirst prevailed and she was able to stomach (if not enjoy) the Powerade.  When we reached the summit we were rewarded with far-reaching views of the Fiordland mountains on another gorgeous day filled with blue skies (a rare occurrence in Fiordland) and we basked in the sun as we ate our late lunch at the top.  We also explored the self-guided alpine nature walk, which included beech forests, sub-alpine shrublands, alpine tarns and bogs.   Roundtrip around 3.5 hours.
Mt. Cook/Hooker Glacier Walk : This time, we remembered water. (We do learn, just not quickly.) We really hit the jackpot on this walk.  Although the morning broke with Mt. Cook being typically obscured by cloud, this was an instance where a 2pm departure worked in our favor.  As we departed, Mt. Cook was perfectly outlined against a crystal blue sky.  We began the walk at the Mt. Cook village campground and headed up the Hooker Valley towards Aoraki/Mt. Cook.  In the first half hour, we stopped at a memorial honoring Freda du Faur, the first woman to summit Mt. Cook in 1910 and also visited a memorial naming all of those who have lost their lives on Mt. Cook (of which there were an unsettling number). Shortly thereafter, we befriended a German family with a 6-year old and the girls were immediately off and running, no longer whinging about the distance or heat. The walk meandered up the valley hugging the Hooker River, which we crossed twice via swing bridges and ended at the Hooker Glacier terminal lake offering glacier views.  Highlights along the route included seeing a couple of minor avalanches in the distance.  My earlier blog post on “Spills and Thrills” talks about the other adrenaline rushes we experienced. This definitely ranks as one of the world’s top day hikes. Roundtrip: 6.5 miles.

J and Z on Buller Canyon Swing - whereas I had been left paralyzed with vertigo on  the other side of the longest swing bridge in NZ

J and Z on Buller Canyon Swing – whereas I had been left paralyzed with vertigo on the other side of the longest swing bridge in NZ

Tied to a chair - canyon swing drop

Tied to a chair – canyon swing drop

Summit Track

Summit Track

Summit Track

Summit Track

Shotover Jet

Shotover Jet

Gondola above Queenstown

Gondola above Queenstown

Luging above Queenstown

Luging above Queenstown

J and Z on Hooker Glacier Walk

J and Z on Hooker Glacier Walk

Zara near Mt. Cook

Zara near Mt. Cook

Before the fall

Before the fall

One of them just fell! shouted Jonathan and in the second it took for my heart to drop, Jonathan and Steffan were already shooting the 100-meters across the boulder-strewn landscape towards Zara and Ana-Marie.

Just minutes before we’d been watching Z and her new 6-year old German friend scamper up the boulders scattered along the shores of Lake Hooker and the banks of the rumbling clay-colored river that the lake fed, overlooked by the majestic Mt. Cook and the Hooker Glacier. As their confidence grew, the size of the boulders they tackled increased.  We had JUST expressed some minor reservations about their safety as we noticed them dancing upon the top of their largest boulder yet, but agreed that they were “cautious girls” and the day felt too perfect for worry.  It was a rare cloudless day for the region and the hot weather offered a picture perfect hike to the glacier view.  We even were fortunate enough to witness two minor avalanches in the distance, alerted to their presence by  cracking booms echoing across the valley.  I felt that the hike’s reputation as one of the world’s best was well-justified, even in a land where grandiose beauty seems a common commodity.
And yet now, in the mere seconds of unknowing even knowing which of the pink-clad girls had fallen, my mind went into full panic mode. There was a raging river to their left. The ground was littered by sharp rocks and edges.  We were a three miles walk from the trailhead and miles more from any real medical help. And for a few seconds, no sound was heard from either girl (which those of you who know Zara recognize is cause alone for worry)!  Then Zara shouted out and I realized it was Ana-Marie who had fallen and yet, by very good fortune, she had landed upright, and just narrowly missed a fierce-looking prickly plant and any major rocks.  She had a couple of minor scrapes on her leg but the tears came primarily from shock.  All the grown-ups breathed a sigh of relief knowing how much worse it could have been and within half an hour, both girls were happily singing and skipping their way back along the trail.  Ahh, the thrill of parenting.

Of course, we’ve also had our share of  manufactured adrenaline rushes in recent weeks. Queenstown is world-reknowned as the adrenaline capital of NZ, where bungy-jumping was born.  I guess being enclosed in a small camper van for several weeks with me and Z had pushed Jonathan over the edge, as he chose to celebrate Valentine’s Day by throwing himself off of a cliff 109 meters high (twice!) at Shotover Canyon.  His first jump he elected a forward dive so that he could have an unobstructed view of the fall (exactly the opposite of what I would have done if forced to dive off a cliff) and for his second “jump” he was strapped to a chair and pushed backwards over the ledge. Given my recent bouts of vertigo and height-induced panic attacks, I chose to abstain from the “fun”. Jonathan has a fabulous time, although Zara was bummed that the minimum age was 10.

Afterwards, in need of a mini-adrenaline fix of me and Z, we headed over to the Skyline Gondola luge above Queenstown.  The views overlooking Queenstown arguably surpass any other and we were again blessed with California-like skies, nary a cloud in a sight.  Zara was tall enough to ride the scenic luge route and after a couple runs as front passenger, she took control of a solo luge.  I rode as lead luge, with Zara as the middle of our luge caravan, so that, one of us could grab her if she got out of control.  Nice theory, but poor execution.  Two-thirds of the way down the track, as her confidence (and thus, speed) built, she careened out of control on a sharp bend.  Fortunately, she stayed astride the luge and was uninjured (except for her pride). To her credit, she decided to do another run and although it took her twice as long this time (so much so that Jonathan who was waiting at the bottom asked if there had been an accident on the tracks), she finished with her pride and confidence intact.
Still not satisfied that we’d exhausted Queenstown’s thrills, the following day we took the Shotover Canyon Jet Boat.  Despite having read the company’s literature  attesting to safely carrying over 3 million customers to date, this ride was the where I seriously questioned my fitness as a parent. The specially-designed boat jets down the Shotover River flying within inches of the canyon walls while performing multiple 360 degree spins.  After the fist pass,most of us were cowering towards the middle of the boat, the signs cautioning us to keep hands and fingers inside seeming woefully inadequate.  As we sat in the last row of the boat without any safety harness or helmets, I had to repeatedly banish thoughts of Z flying over the handrail and slamming against the canyon’s walls. (No, I’m not neurotic at all, really.)  Meanwhile, as we entered another 360 degree spin that sprayed us with river water, Z broke into a boisterous rendition of Sponge Bob’s “Round and round the record plays all day” at the top of her lungs, which seemed to break the tension and steady the nerves of the retirees in the row in front of us who cracked a smile.  After 20 minutes, I was relieved to be alive, so I guess you can call that exhilarated.  Only after getting off the boat did our pilot share that his nickname was “Newbie”, as in the least experienced pilot in the company.  Hmmm.  Verdict–the experience was pricey, but the rush was priceless.
(Stay tuned for pics)
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