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THE WANDER YEAR

New Zealand's Clean, Green Tedium Machine

WEEK 6: NEW ZEALAND. A yearlong series following one couple's journey around the world.

March 12, 2000|MIKE McINTYRE

FRANZ JOSEF, New Zealand — New Zealand has no edge. It's like a beauty queen--gorgeous but dull.

This is not a problem for the short-term sightseer. But travel the country for five weeks, as we're doing, and the ceaseless beauty becomes a beast.

New Zealand is so breathtaking you could suffocate. As we drove south from Auckland, each bend of the road revealed a vista that elicited an oooh and an aaah. Now, 2,000 miles later, it's ugh, not another rain forest, not another snowcapped peak, not another waterfall.

"I can't take any more scenery," Andrea said during a long day of nonstop clean and green.

Traveling in New Zealand is like eating in a restaurant that serves only dessert. After your umpteenth chocolate mousse, you start craving lima beans. Each day, we push back from nature's table, stuffed, unable to consume any more sights. And Mother Nature scolds: "Finish your scenery. Don't you know there are tourists starving in China?"

Physical perfection looks great on a supermodel, but it glazes the eyes when draped over a 104,000-square-mile country. We yearn for a pimple on the landscape. Nothing too severe. No toxic waste dump or open-pit mine. A cigarette butt, perhaps, a gum wrapper, anything to relieve the monotonous natural wonders.

We are trapped inside a postcard, and we are not alone. It is the high season, summer Down Under, and everyone is here, delivered by Lonely Planet to this not-so-lonely corner of the world. We all circle the island nation like baggage on a carousel, engaged each night in a game of musical hotels.

Kiwis raise sheep, but they cultivate tourists. Government road signs announce every upcoming B&B and cafe. Tiny towns without service stations are sure to have visitor centers wallpapered with brochures. You may run out of gas, but you'll have plenty to read when you do.

Pretty hamlets transform into parking lots. Tourist buses, camper vans and rental cars vie for patches of asphalt as cyclists and hitchhikers pick their way through the pileup. Overhead, whirlybirds whisk shutterbugs to loftier sights.

Some of the hiking trails are so packed that we shuffle along like a chain gang. The steady flow of oncoming traffic prompts me to vary my greetings, like a flight attendant greeting boarding passengers: "Hi," "Hello," "Hello," "Howdy." Then my voice goes hoarse, and I get by with a nod. At Tongariro National Park on the North Island, we hiked the Tongariro Crossing, a 10 1/2-mile trek billed as "the finest one-day walk in New Zealand." The climb took us past volcanoes, craters and emerald lakes. The view was spectacular--for the few brief moments I could see around the ascending path of rumps.

By the time Andrea and I arrived here in Franz Josef, on the west coast of the South Island, we were ready to form a tourists' union and declare a strike. Instead, we each paid $19.50 to walk on some ice.

The Franz Josef Glacier, like the nearby Fox Glacier, is one of the world's few warm-weather glaciers. Storms from the Tasman Sea dump huge amounts of snow in the coastal Southern Alps. The resulting ice pack descends the steep valley at a rapid rate--up to 21 feet a day--allowing it to tumble nearly to the beach. Picture a river of ice flowing down Topanga Canyon and you have the idea. That said, we still felt like passengers on a busy theme park ride as the shuttle bus approached the attraction.

But once I laced up my rented ice boots and stepped on the glacier, something strange happened. The glacier spoke to me.

"Forget the 500 other tourists around you," the glacier said. "Forget the guides and their tired jokes. Forget the helicopters hovering above. Forget all that and just look at me."

And I did.

And it was awesome.

A mountain of ice had melted my heart. I was shocked by my own surprise. How did something so magnificent sneak up on me?

OK, New Zealand, I'll love you.

NEXT WEEK: Nothing prepares you for India.

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