New Year in New Zealand

New Zealand is the first place in the world to celebrate the New Year.

And we were in the thick of it in Queenstown, NZ on January 31st, listening to bands and DJs and watching the fireworks explode over the bay.  We got a jump start and rang in the new year ahead of the rest of the world.

Then we got to experience January 1st twice.  What better way to start the year than with a Groundhog Day all our own.  Katie (attached to her friend Marissa) and Jeff plunged 142 feet as they bungy jumped off the Kawarau Bridge on January 1st in Queenstown, NZ.

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We then became airborne in a more traditional way as we boarded our seemingly endless series of flights and crossed the international date line to land in the US on January 1st (once again).

Our New Zealand adventure took us from the tip of the North Island to the lower region of the South Island.  New Zealand is a spectacularly scenic country that is remarkably untouched by civilization.  The terrain is incredibly diverse, and we traveled by helicopter across miles and miles and verdant farmland, unscathed beaches, impressive mountains, lush rainforests, ancient glaciers, azure seas, crystal lakes, and beautiful waterfalls.

falls

The landscape was rarely corrupted by any signs of humanity.  The people we did meet seemed like pioneers in many ways: living off the land, traveling over one hour to visit the nearest neighbor, and rationing food between treks to the grocery store.

bay

This is not a place for the feint of heart, either for residents or visitors.  New Zealand is known as the adrenaline capital of the world, and every day brought a new adventure as we hiked, climbed, rafted, jumped, fished, helicoptered, swam, sand surfed, golfed, sailed, jetboated, and bungeed our way throughout the week.

We began at the trip in the North Island at Kauri Cliffs, near the Bay of Islands.

islands

The scenery here is breathtaking with a vast unspoiled coastline, miles of bush-clad hills, pink shell beaches, free flowing waterfalls, and sheep grazing pastures reminiscent of the English countryside.   On our helicopter tour, we encountered wild horses running along the dunes that seemed perfectly in place in such a natural landscape, uncorrupted by human sprawl.

The most adventurous thing we did on this part of the trip was surf down the giant Te Paki sand dunes.  It was as if we entered a small desert oasis located only a few miles from the coastline and the verdant landscape.  Jeff went from surfing a perfect roller wave in the Taputoptuto Bay to surfing a slippery slope of sand in Te Paki.

    

After several days, we ventured to Rotorua in the middle of the North Island.  This area is renowned for both the indigenous Maori culture and the geothermal activity.

Here, we experienced a traditional Maori powhiri (welcoming ceremony) in which we were beckoned to the Meeting House with ancient chants and, according to custom, crossed the spiritual threshold accompanied by our deceased ancestors.  We greeted the Maori people in their traditional fashion, touching noses so that our spirit could be inhaled and foreheads so that our thoughts could be read.  We then shared a traditional hangi (lunch slow-cooked in an subterranean oven).

maori

It was over lunch that our Maori host told me that he can see dead people and often viewed such spirits sitting on people’s shoulders.  So M. Night Shyamalan was onto something with his Sixth Sense!  I asked if he could see anyone sitting on my shoulder, and he coyly deferred the question, leaving me wondering….Frankly that unnerved me more than the waterfalls we later plunged down both in and out of rafts along the white water rivers!

raft

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We soaked in natural hot pools that reached temperature over 100 degrees and trekked through ancient rainforests where we learned the meaning of the word, inosculation.  This is when two things graft together and become one, as in this giant tree.

graft

Our next journey was to the South Island to visit Queenstown and Blanket Bay.  We traveled by jetboat deep into the World Heritage area of Mt. Aspiring National Park. The scenery was breathtaking as we flew down the braided, glacier fed rivers doing the occasional swift donut turn in the boat!  This was the Lord of the Rings territory used to illustrate Middle Earth in the movies.  It seemed to me that most of NZ could easily be inhabited by Hobbits since there were so few actual people out and about!

fjord

A highlight was a helicopter ride through the Alps and over glacial lakes, thundering waterfalls, and the majestic fjords of Milford Sound before landing on an age old glacier.  We stomped through the snow but did not stay long because threatening weather was impending.  My heart was in my throat as we flew in and out of the mountains with the storm chasing our propellers.

heli

We stayed in a lodge along Blanket Bay that reminded me of the rustic beauty of Jackson Hole, WY.  In fact, the whole NZ experience was similar to that of the American West where a pioneering adventurous spirit endures, fleece is a fashion statement, outdoor pursuits dominate, and spectacular scenery surrounds.

landscape

On the last day of 2013, we were greeted with this full rainbow in the morning, a reward for weathering the storm.

rainbow

It seemed symbolic as a harbinger for good things to come in the new year.

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