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The natural charms of New Zealand’s South Island


A few weeks into our trip to the South Island of New Zealand, my traveling partner, Dorothy, and I met Manawatu Te Ra, better known as Maurice, in Kaikoura. A less than three hour bus ride from Christchurch delivered us to this picture perfect peninsula town. The town’s population dots a bit more than 4,000 locals, but tourists triple the size in the summer and shoulder months. Kaikoura astounds guests with its snowcapped peaks of the Seaward Kaikoura Range. It is as if the mountain peaks could easily bend down to kiss the sea and cradle the abundance of whales, dolphins, fur seals, penguins, and albatross. It is an easy place to let the majestic spell of nature bathe oneself. It is equally an easy place to let the essence of New Zealand capture oneself as Manawatu Te Ra (AKA Maurice) unfolds tales of Maori lore.

x1008141052-(3)Maoril Tours Waiata is a small family owned operation. Dorothy and I were fortunate enough to have its owner and his niece lead us on an afternoon tour that included storytelling, basket weaving, bush walking, ukulele playing, singing, visiting home of family members, enjoying snacks, tip-toeing over sacred grounds, and learning of present and past Maori ways. During our tour, Maurice taught our small group of eight a song composed by his ancestor. Its words rang true of not only Kaikoura but of the South Island in its entirety. Easily, I felt the beauty of New Zealand encircle me as I sang the lyrics then and as I often sing the lyrics now.

The song begins and ends with its plea, “Stand in the Heart of the Day.” Standing still presented a challenge in our first week in New Zealand. We soaked in the grandeur of Queenstown, but one rarely stands in Queenstown, a town of constant motion with its adrenaline-rushed atmosphere. The Skyline Gondola easily deposits one at the mountain top for walking trails that unfold views of the adjacent mountains and lake and town below. Queenstown Rafting will suit one up for white-water rafting on either the choppy Shotover or the calmer Kawarau. We rafted the Shotover, loved its twists and turns, and ended the trip to watch those in jetboats maneuver 360-degree spins. Flying, gliding, and skydiving, offered through Tandem Paragliding, are sure to get one’s heart pumping and placing one’s feet like an eagle’s wings, far from a standing position. A few milder activities can be had in Queenstown. A fun afternoon or evening trip can be enjoyed on the lake cruise offered through Real Journeys. The 100 year old plus steam-powered TSS Earnslaw churns across Lake Wakatipu to unfold sheep-shearing demonstrations, sheep-dog performances, and delicious barbecue feasts. A drive to nearby Arrowtown lets one wander the enigmatic Chinese settlement, trying one’s hand at gold mining or crafts’ buying. Standing will surely be done, and well worth it, as one waits in line to order a delicious meal at Fergburger, smack in the middle of Shotover Street in Queenstown. And one can either stand and gaze or take a dramatic plunge in an activity that Queenstown is known for: bungy jumping. Daredevils can leap off a bridge constructed in the 1880s, visit museums telling of the adventures, and even attempt plunges at nighttime. Swings and drops satisfy others, prompting spectacular views of the town, plenty of shouts, and hopefully no needed trip to the local chiropractor for neck adjustments. Surely, hearts pump away in Queenstown; they do not stand still.

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The second line of the song Maurice taught us reads, “Gather unto you the essence of nature.” Easily, we gathered nature’s essence at every turn in the South Island. In Wanaka, an hour’s drive from Queenstown, we hiked the groomed trail to Mt. Iron. We reached the top in about an hour, sitting for a spell to gather in the lakes’ beautiful views below. Another day, I booked a thirty minute U-Fly at the Wanaka Airport. The briefing was a snap, the controls felt like natural appendages to my own hands, and away I soared, above pristine lakes and valleys. Tiny islands ever so often dotted the lakes. Jagged shoreline gave rustic character to the geography below. And small boats bobbed up and down, nestled close to piers. The early morning flight proved a wonderful way to awake, to gather unto myself the essence of nature.

Returning to the Maori song, its third lines instructs, “Take to the heart its bounty.” Indeed, bounty seems like an understatement when describing one’s visits to Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound. On one long day we ventured from Queenstown to Doubtful Sound. Our excursion included a cruise across the island-studded Lake Manapouri, a coach trip over Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove, and another boat trip for inhaling Doubtful Sound. Combined, one engulfs wilderness, power station, lake, alpine pass, fiord, dolphins, fur seals, and blue penguins. Speckled granites and kindred igneous rocks enclose the beauty, and once in a while limestone and dark slate peak their heads, battling for contention in this beauty pageant.

x100814925Seals bark, dolphins clap, and rain descend, all to welcome their guests to Milford Sound. Cascading waterfalls add a shimmer of light, bouncing off the varying shades of blue water. Trees cling to rocky walls, ever so often uprooted to find a burial ground in the water below. A cruise on the Sound is shimmering, moody, and, no matter how many people are aboard the vessel, one feels alone in the splendor of nature’s bounty. In the middle of our cruise, the captain stopped the engine and requested that everyone remain silent for a few minutes. In this quiet time, the sounds of Milford spoke. Paradoxically, Nature voiced its power and its serenity, and I took to my heart its bounteous gifts.

Close to Milford Sound sits Te Anau, a peaceful, lakeside township. Once only known through Maori legends, now one can visit Glowworm Caves on the lake’s western shore. One should book ahead of time with Real Journeys to visit the 200 meter long system of caves in a magical place of sculpted rocks, waterfalls, whirlpools, and a glittering glowworm grotto in its inner reaches. Definitely, all who visit will take to their hearts the caves’ bounty of beauty and wonder.

Moving toward the end of the song, we sing, “Share with family—uphold its beauty.” Family takes on a new meaning when one stops at the Royal Albatross Centre, about a 40 minute drive from Dunedin. A one hour tour permits viewing from a glassed-in hut overlooking nesting sites. One parent will guard the young and the other parent will deliver food throughout the day. As the winds pick up, the birds catch the gales, twirl in acrobatic maneuvers, spread their wings in massive array, upholding and epitomizing beauty.

We felt as if we were joining in with other visitors, as if we were a welcomed family to the Centre. We also witnessed another kind of family, that of penguins. Just below the Royal Albatross Centre, blue penguins come ashore just before dusk. They waddle to shore, trudge up the pathway, and find their comforting burrows for the night. Usually they were in groups of about half a dozen. Even though it was the end of summer, the cold wind swirled. The penguins didn’t seem to be bothered by the wind and cold. They plodded ahead, rather methodically. One acted as a sentry, positioning himself at the curve of the trail, as if there to usher extended family members to safety. Less than a mile away, naturalists are busy at work to protect yellow-eyed penguins. They maintain breeding grounds, care for the sick and injured, and build nesting sites to preserve these precious families. Visitors can take tours and feel as if they too are guardians to these shy creatures.

Maurice’s song concludes with “Uphold its beauty. Stand in the heart of the Day.” Back in Kaikoura, this was a cinch. Whaling expeditions are abundant, both by boat and by small plane. We opted for a small plane. The two of us, under the expertise of the pilot from Wings over Whales, hovered over two sperm whales. Both raised mightily toward the heavens before descending. “There, she blows” took on new meaning. x1008141036-(3)Circling the peninsula walkway on foot brings one up close and personal to fur seals and red-billed seagulls, and dusky dolphins can be playful swim partners if one books ahead of time with Dolphin Encounter. And all along the South Island of New Zealand, one cannot forget the sheep. They dot the lush golden hills, as if balls of cotton on plush velvet drapes. The beauty of the South Island is spectacular, as if it upholds us to a new sense of awe and dedication to preserve Nature’s bounteous treasures.

In New Zealand, it was easy for strangers to become friends. And for friends to then become family. The country’s pristine beauty had a way of absorbing us into its heart. I returned to my homeland of southern California, often a hectic place with a chaotic schedule. Every so often I find myself reminiscing about my stay in New Zealand. My memories calm me and I find myself singing, “Stand in the Heart of the Day. Gather unto you the essence of nature. Take to the heart its bounty. Share with family – uphold its beauty. Stand in the Heart of the Day.”

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