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New Zealand's South Island

The otherworldly landscapes in Lord of the Rings are everyday pleasures on New Zealand's enchanted South Island.

Cows with mountain backdrop, South Island, New Zealand, image
Photo caption
Let's see, should we climb the Southern Alps today or just chew our cud?

You wouldn't be the first ones to drink a glass or two here and then decide to jump off the bridge," said our lunch waitress at the Gibbston Valley winery. I was still shocked to have uttered the words "Maybe we should bungee jump"— that being the one activity my wife, Pamelia, and I had agreed we would not try in our 10 days on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island. But here we were, scarcely a mile from the dramatic Kawarau Bridge— birthplace of big-time bungee— just outside Queenstown, extreme-sports capital of the world. And, of course, I was a little tipsy. "I suddenly have a knot in my stomach," Pamelia said. When you fly halfway around the planet on a jet bearing a Lord of the Rings mural and the words AIRLINE TO MIDDLE-EARTH, you can fairly assume that your trip will include a touch of adventure. And the truth is, if you don't try anything new while you're in a country as stunningly unique as New Zealand, you're missing a chance to feel more alive. The South Island— the larger, less populated, more rugged of the nation's two main isles— is approximately the size of Illinois. Even so, it offers far too much to absorb on a short visit: glaciers that descend through rain forest; the snowcapped Southern Alps; 3,000-foot-deep fjords surrounded by cliffs lush with plant life; crystal-clear streams that abound with trophy-caliber trout; and the world's southernmost vineyards, which yield acclaimed vintages like Gibbston Valley's 2000 Reserve Pinot Noir, named world's best pinot at the 2001 International Wine Challenge in London.

As we sat at the winery, we were just a Hobbit's cry from several of the more than 100 New Zealand locations where director Peter Jackson filmed his Academy Award–winning Lord of the Rings trilogy, which showcased the country's breathtaking scenery and helped turn Jackson's homeland into a hot travel destination. Of New Zealand's 4 million residents, some 70,000 had at least a passing involvement with the films (an estimated 40,000 cricket fans provided the yells and howls later transformed by computer into the battle cries of the fearsome Orcs). We were already booked to take one of the many Lord of the Rings location tours now available, a hiking-and-jet-boating package scheduled for the next day.

If we lived that long. An hour after lunch, despite second thoughts, we drove to the A.J. Hackett bungee center by the Kawarau Bridge. Hackett and fellow Kiwi, Henry van Asch, opened the world's first commercial bungee site here in 1988. Outside, a crowd was watching a succession of female college students jump, screaming, from the unused century-old span into the Kawarau River gorge, a fall of 142 feet. Our second thoughts turned into dread, but I mustered my courage. "I think we'd like to try jumping," I told a bungee-center staffer. "Is there a wait?"

I heard another scream.

"I'm sorry, we're all booked for today," she replied. Pamelia stifled a smile. The knot in my stomach eased. As we headed off for an evening in lovely Queenstown, we felt certain that the urge to jump from a bridge had passed forever.

The next morning we were up at 5, standing on our hotel balcony, which overlooked Lake Wakatipu and a jagged wall of mountains called the Remarkables. We were gazing up at the stars of the Southern Cross, the constellation that adorns New Zealand's flag. Scattered about our room were some distinctly Kiwi items that we had picked up since arriving: a bag of Squash'em Possums cookies to fuel us on the drive up the sparsely populated west coast; matching pairs of Thunderpants, cotton-Lycra underwear designed for adventure activities (THEY WON'T GO UP YOUR BUM, the label boasts); and scarves made of a mixture of New Zealand wool and hair from brush-tailed possums, the country's despised pest. We encountered these possums continually during our visit (usually on roads, squashed, as illustrated on the label of the cookie bag), and we learned early on that in a country where nature is treasured, killing one of these 70 million cat-size forest defoliators—or wearing clothing made from them—is considered ecofriendly.

This was confirmed by Leaf, the combination nature guide and Lord of the Rings expert who met us in Glenorchy, 45 minutes from Queenstown, and led us to our tour's jet boat via a valley called Paradise and a neighboring forest trail. "The possums were introduced from Australia in the mid-1800s to start a fur trade, but it didn't work out," she said as we hiked through dense, mossy woods, passing ancient beeches that resembled the walking, talking Ent creatures in the Rings trilogy. "There are no natural enemies for them, so they've multiplied uncontrollably. Stoats, a weasel relative, are another problem. They were brought in to control rabbits, but instead they've devastated our bird population." New Zealand existed in such extreme isolation that until various Maori tribes began canoeing over from other Polynesian islands 1,000 years ago, there were no mammals on the islands other than two species of bats. Having no predators on the ground, some of the unique native birds, such as the national symbol, the kiwi, never developed the ability to fly.

During our 20-minute stop in the broad meadows of Paradise, where Jackson had filmed several scenes, four rainbows appeared and vanished. Peaks rose on three sides of us, including the "Misty Mountains" seen in Rings and another cluster used to portray the Himalayas in the mountain-climbing movie Vertical Limit. "Film crews use this location all the time," Leaf said. "You know Coors beer? They made a commercial here: ‘No taste like the Rockies.' "

New Zealand's ever-fickle weather started to turn, and soon raindrops were pelting our faces as our jet boat roared up the Dart River at 50 mph, skidding around bends and zipping through patches of water as shallow as three inches. The 90-minute ride took us into the spectacular Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area and wound up with a celebratory 360-degree spin.

Had we wanted a quieter morning, of course, we could have stayed back in Queenstown and enjoyed the mid-April (that is, mid-autumn) foliage or taken a sightseeing boat across Lake Wakatipu. The South Island is rich with such milder recreational options. Its vast network of hiking, or tramping, trails includes some that any walker can handle, and it also boasts hot springs, horseback riding, winery tours, bird-watching, peaceful wilderness lodges, and plenty of golf (New Zealand has more courses per capita than any other country).

After our jet-boat trip, Pamelia and I took a gondola ride high above Queenstown and raced a bunch of 6-year-olds down a snaking, paved luge run in three-wheeled plastic cars. Next came miniature golf and a stroll through Kiwi & Birdlife Park, where we watched a pair of chicken-size kiwis poke their long bills (which have nostrils on the end) into brush, looking for insects and worms.

Hoping to see more wildlife, Pamelia and I took front-row seats the following morning for the 41/2-hour bus trip to Milford Sound. We passed through a constantly changing landscape—farmland, beech forest, rain forest, mountains, mirrorlike lakes, and Seussian fields of clumpy red tussock grass—on our way to Fiordland National Park, the largest of the country's 14 national parks. Much of Fiordland is accessible only by helicopter, kayak, or overnight hike, but Milford Sound welcomes boatloads of tourists, who crane their necks to look up at waterfall-spouting cliffs hundreds of feet high. The area receives more than 300 inches of rain per year, and our sunny ride aboard the Milford Mariner turned gray and cold as we neared rougher waters. "We're about to enter the Tasman Sea," came a voice over the loudspeaker. "There's a semi-inhabited desert island about 1,200 miles ahead. It's called Australia."

New Zealanders love to tweak their island neighbor, with whom they are so often lumped by the rest of the world. In truth, while the two former British colonies share catchphrases ("No worries!") and, to an untrained ear, the same accent, Australia is nearly 30 times larger in area and five times as populous. New Zealand takes satisfaction in being more beautiful, less boisterous, and politically more progressive. It was the first nation anywhere to grant women the vote, for example. And over the last two decades—in contrast to its repressive past—the government has taken significant steps to promote and celebrate the culture of the Maori, who were well established in the country they call Aotearoa (Land of the Long White Cloud) by the time the first European, Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, laid eyes on it in 1642.

The Maori are concentrated more on the North Island, but on our 400-mile drive up the little-trafficked roads of the South Island's west coast, evidence of their culture was everywhere. We shopped for Maori-carved greenstone (jade) and struggled to keep the similar-sounding place-names straight. (The Maori alphabet has only 14 letters, and thus a single area was dotted with towns named Motueka, Moutere, Mapua, and Marahau.) We also listened to Maori legends on our rental car's radio. This was made possible by a New Zealander–invented dashboard device called a Kruse system, which uses a transmitter and global positioning technology to play travelogues perfectly timed to match your automobile route.

And what a route it was. Along a field outside Wanaka, we saw the Bra Fence on which women hang old brassieres, creating curious art. Not far away at Puzzling World, an odd roadside attraction of optical illusions and human-scale mazes, we stood in a room with slanted floors—the type of room used to shoot some scenes in Lord of the Rings— that made Pamelia appear as short as a Hobbit. As we continued our drive, we marveled at the area's grandeur: the towering Southern Alps; the 20-foot-high walls of ferns lining roads in the coastal rain forest; the massive stacks of nature-formed limestone flapjacks known as the Pancake Rocks, on the coast north of a burg called Hokitika.

That town, it turned out, hosts the largest annual event on the west coast: the Wildfoods Festival, at which "bush tucker" such as roasted grubs, sphagnum moss candy, and possum burgers draws 20,000 visitors each March. We were a month too late for the festival, but we made a point of stopping at Porky's to try a more mainstream New Zealand delicacy, the whitebait patty. "I love woyt-bait!" a 3-year-old girl named Sarah declared when she saw us sharing a single, gently fishy-tasting pancake filled with what looked like two-inch-long white worms (that's the whitebait, or young river smelt).

A few hours later we found ourselves staring at real worms. We were in pitch-black woods across the road from our oceanfront cabin, visiting Hokitika's Glow Worm Dell, a damp nook inhabited by a type of larva common in New Zealand that emits a greenish light. The effect was mesmerizing; with thousands of twinkling worms, the dell resembled a star-filled sky.

To the north lie hilly farmland and the lovely Bay of Islands, perfect for a day cruise, as well as the Waipoua State Forest, home to 1,000-year-old giant kauri trees. South of Auckland are the boiling, spewing geothermal wonders of Rotorua, touristy but awesome. Rotorua also offers many Maori attractions: Attend a hangi to feast, amid tribal ceremonies, on a traditional meal steam cooked in the ground. Drop in on the idyllic town of Matamata to see the farm setting for the Hobbit village in the Rings movies. Or drive the Thermal Explorer Highway south to Lake Taupo for some of the world's best trout fishing.

At the bottom of the island, overlooking Cook Strait, is the nation's capital, Wellington, a hilly port city of cafés and a famous cable car (and Crowe's birthplace). Don't miss the fascinating Te Papa Tongarewa national museum. And if you're ready for adventure, the South Island is just a three-hour ferry ride away.

Northern exposure
So what's on New Zealand's North Island? Only the country's two most prominent cities, volcanoes, geysers, bubbling mud pools, wineries, spas, beaches, a wealth of Maori culture, excellent Pacific Rim–influenced restaurants, more Lord of the Rings sites, Russell Crowe's birthplace, and the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere, for starters. The latter is the 1,076-foot-tall Sky Tower in Auckland, the twin-harbored "City of Sails," where tourists can help crew an America's Cup yacht for fun (no experience required).

In the days that followed, Pamelia and I strapped metal crampons to the soles of our boots for a hike on the eight-mile-long Fox Glacier (that's GLASS-ee-er to New Zealanders) and sea kayaked in the calm waters off Abel Tasman National Park, paddling to within a few feet of a colony of playful fur seals. While driving one afternoon, we pulled off at a roadside kiwifruit stand and ended up spending an hour with the 72-year-old farmer who ran it, touring his orchards. He sent us off with five-pound bags of apples and kiwis, a typical South Island gesture of friendliness.

We ate the kiwifruit in the form of homemade sorbet at one of the two cozy lodges where we stayed during the final four days of our trip. Both were run by young couples who had emigrated from England, both served us fabulous breakfasts and dinners, and both left us with vivid memories. After awaking to a chorus of birdsongs and the sweet smell of honeydew on the beech trees outside the Korimako, a contemporary country lodge near Murchison, we discovered we'd slept through an earthquake that had registered 3.2 on the Richter scale. No surprise: New Zealand gets so many temblors (1,200 a year) that it's known as the Shaky Isles. At the Riwaka Resurgence Lodge, we had a splendid view of neighboring Kahurangi National Park and enjoyed a morning stroll that led us to the source of the Riwaka River: a submerged cave that, according to a nearby sign, scuba divers could explore.

That sounded a little too adventurous for us. A funny thing had happened, however, a few days earlier. As we were packing up to leave Queenstown, Pamelia looked over and saw me standing on our bed, falling face-first into my pillow. "What are you doing?" she asked.

"Trying to imagine what it would feel like to bungee jump."

"Oh, no."

Ninety minutes later we stood hip to hip on a wooden platform jutting from the Kawarau Bridge, our feet bound together and both of us attached to a single bungee cord. We had decided to do a tandem jump. "Wait, wait, wait!" cried Pamelia as a crew member pointed to her toes and told her to "hang 'em over the edge." A moment later the staffer counted down: "Five, four, three, two, one—"

Suffice it to say that we survived, the Thunderpants worked, and we will never forget that terrifying first moment of free-falling. As we dangled over the river at jump's end, hanging upside down like a pair of primordial New Zealand bats, I realized that this land of fantasy and fjords, of mountains and Maori, had given us the greatest of all travel rewards: a new perspective on the world.

Photography by Pamelia Markwood

This article was first published in September 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.