Even with knowledgeable advice of a native, it can be difficult to plan a holiday and get things right. My good wife (partner, in Australian terminology) had given me a window of exactly twelve days when she could take a break from her academic workload to get away. Twelve days seems appropriate for Christmas, but it was not nearly long enough to visit the places I wanted to see in New Zealand. The whole idea of going there had been triggered by a desire to do some sea kayaking on the North Island, a trip that would end up taking one week. It seemed like a journey to the South Island could be squeezed in before we headed North. That was my first mistake. Doing too much driving was the second.

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Christmas is a tricky time to visit the country. Unlike Australians, who seem to flee to foreign shores at the first opportunity, Kiwis are inveterate travellers in their own country as well as regular visitors abroad. My only previous visit to the country took place during the same holiday period eighteen years ago, before internet bookings. We were lucky to find passage for four of us on the ferry between the two islands. This time we were going to fly, so that bottleneck would not be a problem.

Unlike Australia, New Zealand’s geology is very active. Set on the collision zone of the Australasian and Pacific plates, there are significant earthquakes and active volcanoes as well as fast-moving rivers, glacial lakes and the famous fiords. The mountains are young and still growing. It is a land that is more like Western Canada than Australia. The hospitality of the inhabitants remind me of our own Maritimers of Nova Scotia. Tourism is an important part of the economy, of course, but that only goes so far in explaining the Kiwi instinct to welcome and engage with the visitors who arrive in droves on aluminium wings or steel ships. Our first taste of this gracious hospitality was at Centre Hill Farm near Pleasant Point.

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We had taken a late flight from Melbourne to Christchurch, sacked out at a motel near the airport, then picked up the rental car and driven south on Highway One. One is not the most scenic route in the world, descending through irrigated pastures toward Dunedin. But the farm stay was tucked away among pretty rolling hills and our cottage was utterly charming. Shortly after we arrived, Henry the cat dropped over for a visit. Our host followed soon after, and we had a chance for a nice long chat the next morning after a leisurely, delicious breakfast. We were made to feel right at home.

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We had only four full days, but the route I had picked out took us on a long loop that put about 850kms (500 miles) on the rental car. All of it on two-lane roads that were often interrupted by the ubiquitous Kiwi invention, one-lane bridges. I did manage to do one thing right, allowing enough time for one glorious day at Aoraki/Mt Cook. The weather gods were favourable to the outing, and everything from the informative and beautiful visitor centre to the well-marked trails are worth a week or more. It is truly spectacular. Fiordland will just have to wait.

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Mt. Cook is sacred to the Ngai Tahu tribe of the South Island. The Maori legend has it that the mountain and its companion peaks were formed when a boy named Aoraki and his three brothers came down from the heavens to visiting the Earth Mother in a canoe. The canoe overturned and the brothers moved to the back of the boat and turned to stone. Edmund Hillary earned his spurs on these peaks before tackling Everest. Highway 8 hugs the the southern tip of Lake Pukaki, offering gorgeous views of Cook and its sister peaks in the distance. The lake is fed by the Tasman River, coming off the Tasman Glacier, a block of ice that is rapidly melting away, creating a brand new lake.

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The South Island is an adventurer’s paradise, providing adrenaline sports junkies every opportunity to jump out of planes, leap off platforms, glide over mountains, shoot up and down rivers on jet boats, mountain bike, ski, kayak, hang glide, scuba dive etc. The downside of this fixation on providing risky activities to people from all over the world is that the government felt it had to put in place a no-fault accident insurance scheme. In other words, there is no one to sue if something goes wrong.

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I suspect that most of my fellow Americans believe that the right to sue is woven into the constitution. An Australian documentary I saw suggested that the liability regime provided an opportunity for some rogue outfitters to set up shop and put tourist lives in jeopardy, but I doubt if New Zealand is any more dangerous than the U.S. There have been fatalities from activities which seem like they should be safe, like hot-air ballooning. One very experienced pilot and ten clients died when his balloon drifted into high-tension wires on January 7, 2012. Bungee jumping, on the other hand, has a perfect safety record.

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And if you really want to take it easy, a whole new market in movie-related tourism has taken off, thanks to Sir Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit empire. If you need a respite from tramping in the mountains, shooting through gorges or leaping off cliffs, you can always head for the latest attraction in Kiwi Land designed to empty your pockets– hobbit tours. Discover Middle Earth and hole up with hobbits. Precious.

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