A fantastic pilgrimage -- Long since the Maori have first learnt the myths of their realm, the haunting beauty of New Zealand has been featured in several films and television series, including The Piano, Hercules, Xena: Warrior Princess, The Last Samurai and most notably The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
More than perhaps all else, I attribute the works of Tolkien for my lifelong wanderlust. Middle-Earth may only exist in the imagination, but its awe-inspiring powers are very much based in our world.
As filmmaker Peter Jackson saw all too well, nowhere else on earth do verdant pastures, volcanic springs, ice-capped mountains, misty fjords, pristine lakes and mysterious forests converge in such a miniature continent all its own.
With a car, a boat and a helicopter, I had the chance to see them all.
[May-June 2004] An austral winter -- The second trip began as the first, a survey of new vistas and roads not yet driven. From Auckland, I toured the volcanic pools between Rotorua and Taupo, then pressed further south to the great volcano of Ruapehu, where the stately Chateau Tongariro welcomed me for the night amid torrential downpour that changed into snow.
Past the capital port of Wellington, the ferry voyage across the Cook Strait and the Marlborough Sounds brought me deja vu. I was back in Norway, cruising along my beloved fjords, but here in En-Zed, fiords are spelt with an "i" and pronounced "fee-ORDS."
[November 2004] Kiwi adventuring -- This could be my last trip to New Zealand for a while; I intended to make the most of it.
The most famous of all walks, the Milford Track, was fully booked for months before I made my first inquiry, but there were other Great Walks in the same surreally beautiful region of lakes, fjords, waterfalls and rainbows.
Along the 60km Kepler Track, I was truly humbled by the experience of braving the rain, sleet, snow and mud in the beech rain forest and over the alpine tops. My fellow trampers -- Kiwis aged at least a decade older than I, and young backpackers from all over the world -- cheered me along, and gave me a hero's welcome at the Iris Burn Hut towards the end of the second day when I, wet and hobbling, became the last to arrive.
Just after my walk, uncannily "good" spring weather -- intense sunshine that toasted mosses and ferns brown -- prevailed over the Milford Sound. Here, I slept soundly aboard the MV Friendship, a boat the size of Gilligan's and the Skipper's SS Minnow, in the calmest water I could ever remember. A light paddling session over the still, glassy inlet brought back happy memories of Blackstone Bay, Alaska, and reminded me why there are two kayaks docked in my garage.
As if that weren't enough, I had to hop aboard a helicopter once again, and jump onto a glacier.