Just a 14-hour flight from the West Coast of the United States is the most beautiful and intriguing country I've ever been to. Geographical diversity is the name of the game in New Zealand, and the friendliness of the people is absolutely unmatched anywhere else on the globe I've ever been.
My daughter Amber and I landed before the sun came up in the morning and rented a car. New Zealand is the only place I've ever had the courage to try that on foreign soil. Then, in the dark, I tried to adjust to driving a vehicle while sitting on the right side, in addition to being on the wrong side of the road. I knew it would be a challenge when I tried to turn on the headlights and the windshield wipers started swiping back and forth.
Shortly after successfully managing to exit the airport, we crested a hill and were stunned to see the beautiful Auckland skyline below us, all lit up with the surrounding darkness as a backdrop. Most prominent was the Auckland Sky Tower, which was aglow in purple.
We drove through the city and crossed a bridge before turning off the highway and getting out of the car to look back across a portion of the bay and really enjoyed the lights of the city from a panoramic distance.
In addition to the buildings, we noticed the clean smelling, pristine quality of the air we inhaled. I've since tried to describe the air to friends and have never found the appropriate words to give the experience justice.
After several minutes, we crossed the bridge back into the city and found our base of operations at the base of the Sky Tower, the Crowne Plaza Hotel, and checked in. After a short rest, we set out to do what we had planned to do for weeks.
The first thing we wanted to see was New Zealand's answer to Yellowstone National Park just outside the city of Rotorua, 234 kilometers southeast of Auckland. Wai-O-Tapu is a thermal wonderland, and although much smaller than the acreage of the park in Wyoming, the thermal pools and mud pots were equally impressive and grouped closer together, making a day of sightseeing more convenient.
Like any other geothermal area, the prevailing minerals working together with other natural elements made the most unusual and interesting colors found in nature. Milky green pools, heated lakes, mud pots and craggy rock formations could be seen in all directions. We walked the paths and truly marveled at God's creations. After several hours, we still hadn't seen all there was to see.
I have to admit that while we were walking around Wai-O-Tapu, I had wondered about something we'd seen just north of Rotorua while still driving. I was a little anxious to go back and investigate what "Zorbing" was, which had been advertised on a billboard along the road.
New Zealanders have long been internationally known as daredevils and thrill seekers, continually inventing new ways to satisfy their desire for an adrenalin rush. Modern-day commercial bungee jumping was invented on the island by A.J. Hackett, who jumped from an Auckland bridge in 1986. We have all seen what has happened with bungee jumping since.
The Kiwis, the nickname for the people of New Zealand, also enjoy thrilling jet boat rides, white water rafting, jumping off the Auckland Sky Tower on a wire, catapulting themselves into the air in a capsule and "zorbing."
When we pulled into the parking lot, I noticed several transparent air-filled spheres, approximately 12 feet across, being transported up a grassy hill on a conveyor belt. At the top of the hill, Amber and I watched as a young couple manipulated their bodies into a small opening and into a second sphere encompassed by the first before the opening was closed. Once inside the contraption, they were then propelled down the hill, unencumbered by any obstruction, all the way to the bottom, where they dizzily squeezed themselves out again. We watched others roll down the hill over the next several minutes and thought how cool it must be to be a Kiwi.
We returned to Auckland sleepy and ready for bed. We wanted to get as much rest as possible before our next exciting day.
It was on our long drive south that Amber and I saw the rugged beauty of New Zealand. Abundant rolling green hills, bisected with craggy rock formations and hedges, seemed to be endless. Some of the scenery before us reminded me of the Shire from Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, which was filmed in the same general area. Sheep grazing in a glen by farmhouses gave way to spotted forests.
We were surprised by some of the man-made things we came across unexpectedly. For instance, not too far away from Rotorua, we could see a turboprop cargo plane sitting on a hill. Since there were no airports around, we investigated further only to find we could rent a room for the night inside the plane if we wanted.
The target of our second day of travel was the Waitomo glow worm caves located 200 kilometers due south of Auckland. The reward at the end of the drive was definitely worth the time spent getting there. The glow worm caves were something best seen to fully understand what is there.
After a short walk from the ticket booth to inside the cave entrance, we boarded a large boat that was propelled through the open space by a guide standing on the rear seat and pulling us along an overhead rope. When we were in the chosen location, the lights were shut off and nature offered the only illumination.
Thousands upon thousands of bluish glow worms hung from the roof of the cave. As we were pulled along from chamber to chamber, the creatures reminded me of the icicles that hung from the eaves of my roof while growing up during Utah winters. Unlike the fireflies of Texas, the worms did not blink on and off but consistently glowed in the stark darkness.
New Zealand is truly unique. The natural ruggedness coupled with the vivid greens and glow of the hills, the impressive blues of the sky and the Auckland Harbor and the pristine effect influencing everything is spectacular.
The people are among the friendliest I've ever encountered. In addition, there is so much to do and see even if you never leave Auckland.
There is the mammoth-sized Auckland Museum, where you can see anything from ancient Maori artifacts like a war canoe to a Japanese Zero from World War II.
Another stop we made was the Kelly Tarlton's underwater adventure. Not just another aquarium, but the structure is literally underground and was once part of the Auckland sewer system. Talk about adaptive re-use. Now there are rays, penguins and other sea life thriving in the converted habitat.
We miss Auckland and hope to someday return. The rewards at the end of the flight were well worth the effort to get there.
Chris Hale is an aviation maintenance technician for a major airline who has traveled extensively with his family. In his spare time he writes novels inspired by places he's been. Find out more about his books at www.Chrisahale.com