Journey to a distant world: New Zealand

The poem Journey to the end of the night suggests that “To travel is very useful, it makes the imagination work”. Certainly, travelling around New Zealand with Derek (a friend from Cape Town) has given my imagination a serious workout and exposed me to a unique world. It was a fairly intense journey: we drove almost the entire lengths of both the North and South Islands in just under two weeks. We started in Auckland in the North and ended up in Christchurch in the South.

Pic. 1: Boiling mud-pools in Rotorua, North Island.
Pic. 1: Boiling mud-pools in Rotorua, North Island.

My overarching impression is that New Zealand is one of the most dramatic places to visit on earth: the natural scenery is spectacular and remarkably different to much of what I’ve seen before. It is a land of diversity, captured most noticeably by the array of geological formations of the two islands. Parts of both the South and North Islands have ancient landscapes, the oldest rocks dating from the Cambrian (~500 m ybp). The islands forming New Zealand originally formed part of the vast continent of Gondwana, which also explains the botanical affinity with Australia, Antartica and South America (but more on that later). Yet, the North Island also has plenty of volcanic and geothermal activity, which produce relatively recent, fertile soils and plains. On our way to Wellington from Whakatani we stopped off in Rotorua, where the volcanic activity is most noticeable through the sulphurous smell and the boiling mud-pools (Pic. 1).

Pic. 2: Kauri (Agathis australis) trees in Hunua Falls Reserve close to Auckland, North Island.
Pic. 2: Kauri (Agathis australis) trees in Hunua Falls Reserve close to Auckland, North Island.
Pic. 3: Southern Beech trees (Nothofagus) tend to dominate the forests of the South Island.
Pic. 3: Southern Beech trees (Nothofagus) tend to dominate the forests of the South Island.

The complexity of the geological history is reflected in an impressively diverse collection of plant communities. Some of the more ancient landscapes provide a refugia of sorts to ancient Gondwanan lineages of plants and animals. Many of these landscapes struck me as being a throwback to the time of the dinosaurs: I could imagine massive Brontosaurus browsing on the tall tree ferns (Cyathia and Dicksonia) and Kauris (Agathis australis) (Pic. 2). More recently exposed landscapes are dominated by angiosperms (flowering plants of more recent origin than gymnosperms and ferns), including the Southern Beech (Nothofagus) forests. A particularly striking example is Milford Sound in the south west, which is a staggeringly impressive sound with incredibly steep cliffs (Pic. 4). Here, most of the mountains rising straight from sea level are greater than 1500m and appear to be ancient landscapes. Puzzlingly, much of the flora associated with these mountains is of recent origin: Beech trees (Nothofagus) tend to dominate the forest (Pic. 3&4). The explanation is that the vast, tall mountain ranges of the west coast were only uplifted less than 10 million years ago by the action of the north island plate crashing into the southern island plate. Before that the land was submerged.

Pic. 4: Milford Sound in the South Island.
Pic. 4: Milford Sound in the South Island.
Pic. 5: A Kea (Nestor notabilis) on the South Island.
Pic. 5: A Kea (Nestor notabilis) on the South Island.

In contrast to the staggering diversity of plant life, we saw remarkably few animals. Although the fauna of NZ is nothing to write home about in terms of diversity of species, there are some interesting flightless birds and some magnificent parrots. We managed to spot a Kea (closely related to Australian lorikeets) on the South Island: it’s the largest parrot in the world and the only parrot found in alpine environments (Pic. 5). We also spent one afternoon in Whakatani in the North Island tracking Kiwis (Apteryx mantelli, a close relative of ostriches). Perhaps somewhat fittingly, although we managed to track a few down we didn’t actually see any of them (as they are nocturnal and incredibly shy).

Pic. 6: Water has the power to move mountains, as illustrated by The Chasm close to Milford Sound.
Pic. 6: Water has the power to move mountains, as illustrated by The Chasm close to Milford Sound.

Another striking feature of New Zealand is the impact of water on the landscape. I saw vast cave networks (the Waitomo caves), glaciers and deep water-carved chasms (Pic 6&7). Unfortunately, even the refugia of the South Island landscape are not impervious to the reach of human impact: climate change is threatening to vastly transform the landscape. The glaciers are retreating and new land is being opened up for recolonisation of vegetation (Pic. 7 gives a sense of this rapid change).

Pic. 7: Franz Josef Glacier on the West Coast of the South Island is retreating rapidly due to climate change.
Pic. 7: Franz Josef Glacier on the West Coast of the South Island is retreating rapidly due to climate change.

We spent very little time in cities, for two reasons: Although we intentionally avoided cities as much as possible, there also just aren’t that many people in New Zealand and distances between cities are quite large. City highlights for me included Queenstown (where we spent a relaxing day doing the luge and playing frisbee golf in the botanic gardens), Wellington (where we watched a rugby game…no trip to New Zealand would be complete without seeing the national sport) and Christchurch (where we spent an afternoon taking in the devastation of the 2011 earthquakes and walking around the museum).

All in all I had a great time. I’m not surprised that dramatic, fantasy films like the Lord of Rings were filmed in New Zealand. I would certainly love to return and do some more exploring: the natural beauty is something to behold more than once. But for now I think I’ll give my imagination a rest.

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