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Okay, this one is a long time coming, but after a year or so of silence, we’re back and we’re on the road. Before I kick off, let it be known that I haven’t brought the upload cable for my camera, so pictures will arrive late October.

Over the past three weeks we drove a campervan through the astonishingly beautiful country of New Zealand. So blessed it is with rolling green hills, smoky mist-shrouded mountains, dense forest ever so green that were it located anywhere close to anything, it would be one of the world’s top destinations. As it happens, it’s not close to anywhere at all. The first thing that strikes you when flying here is how perfectly isolated and far, far away it really is.

After spending 11 hours couped up in a jet tin can, you’re only half way there. The closest city of any decent size is Sydney, a mere 3.5 hours flight away. It’s so far in fact that were we ever to get that long-promised apocalyptic nuclear war, New Zealand is definitely the place to ride it out. It’s pretty much self-sufficient in anything and who would go through the trouble of bombing it.

The country reminds you a lot of the United States. Driving down the wide streets, directions on green traffic signs, traffic lights raised like an inverted L over junctions, pick-up trucks and 18-ton semis straight out of Convoy; there’s the drive-in restaurants, the motorlodges with parking bays in front of paint-peeling cabins and an outsize sign proclaiming you’ve arrived at Cosy Cottages or the Pinewood Motor Inn; above all there’s the small towns laid out on a two-by-two grid of low-slung bungalows, with wide pavements, yes, but designed primarily for the automobile.

Another thing you notice quickly once you leave Auckland’s high-rises behind is how empty this country is. With a population of only four million, and 270k square kilometers to put them in, it can get lonely out here. Towns are few and far between, sometimes as much as a 100km apart, and ones you pass have an eerie abandoned feel to them. Saturday night in Rotorua with nary a soul in sight. Sunday brunch in Napier, capital of Hawke’s Bay wine district and not a single licensed restaurant is open. You begin to understand why so many young kiwis decide to leave for foreign, more exciting shores.

Speaking of excitement. With such a big place to look after, kiwis decided to entertain themselves by getting active. Starting with the clear skies, from which you can do some rather tame sight-seeing by helicopter or plane, though of course you’d much rather sky-dive (whatever happened to parachute jumping by the way?). Continuing on with the mountains, ideal for skiing, snow-boarding, para- and hangliding or climbing of course. On to bridges and the like, which are just made for bungy-jumping, anywhere from 40 to 130 meters, or the terrifyingly superswings of Queenstown: imagine being tied to a hundred meter long cable and then dropped into the ravine to rocket back and forth. What fun! Rivers are for rafting, kayaking or jetboating. The list goes on…

We drove our reconfigured VW stretch van, which boasted bathroom and shower (tiny, tiny) first along the North Island towards Wellington. Stopping along the way to burn our bums at hot water beach, where literally boiling water bubbles up through the sand and Rotorua, a volcanic hotbed (some of them are still active) of thermal pools and geysers, covered perpetually in rotten egg smelling fog. Then we passed through Napier, a town entirely built in Art Deco after being destroyed by a 1931 earthquake and made our way down to Lord of the Rings central windy welly.

It was here that Peter Jackson based himself for the trilogy’s filming and pretty much everyone has a story to tell. We were staying at the Harcourt Holiday Park, where in the adjacent Harcourt Park the Isengard tree-felling scene was filmed. A piece of the original tree which was brought down so cruelly by Saruman’s orcs adourned a notice board at the reception. The proprietor of the park, after asking if we were at all interested in the movie, launched immediately into a story of the shoot and pointed himself out in a framed copy of the Middle Earth news, a broadsheet that circulated during production.

Taking the ferry across the Cook Straight, we took a tour of the Marlborough wine region, white good – red bad, before heading down to Kaikoura, where we chased and watched whales. An exciting thing, tracked by sonar, jetboats powering through the seas, helicopters and planes circling above. All to capture a glimpse of the leviathan.

Then across the mountains through the old mining towns, through tropical rain forests (rains a lot there), which oddly enough are right next to glaciers and looping back up to Christchurch. Along the way not mentioned yet, we saw dolphins and seals, walked two hours to see some well hidden penguins (too well hidden for us in any case), and experienced the original bungy jump from the observation deck. Still working up my courage for that piece of simulated suicide, though Sujatha was rearing to go. We more or less agreed on a tandem jump one, hopefully far off, day.

Now it’s off to Malaysia!

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