When my dad first mentioned the possibility of attending a workshop in Auckland over the phone, I thought he meant “Oakland”, as in Oakland, California, and agreed immediately – I had an impending trip to the United States and what better opportunity to explore the West Coast which, until then, I had never set foot on? A few clicks later, I realised he meant Auckland, New Zealand, a large urban city in the country at the “bottom of the world”. Attend a workshop on a topic I’ve been interested in for a while and explore a country I’d never even thought of visiting? A country often ranked for its natural beauty and headed up by Jacinda Ardern who is not only the youngest prime minister in the world but also seems to be one of the most progressive? Heck, yes.
New Zealand: A Nature Lover & Explorer’s Dream
To cut to the chase, New Zealand is amazingly beautiful – and even that it putting it mildly. Although I had a bit of a hard time getting my visitor visa, once I did, I understood why it was such a hassle to get my foot through the door. I mean, if you have a country as beautiful as they do, you’d probably want to protect that as well. I’m not saying that Wakanda is not actually on the African continent, but maybe I’m saying Wakanda is not actually on the African continent.
New Zealand is an island country in the Pacific Ocean which was formed from a series of volcanoes and is comprised of about 600 islands. About 700 years ago it was discovered by the Māori people, later becoming a British colony. Since then, the 5 million or so people who live in New Zealand have diversified, with a considerable Asian population from China and elsewhere. As with most former European colonies, the process of post-colonial re-identification is not easy. Yet it seems the New Zealanders have succeeded in finding a good balance of sorts; at least where the British and Māori are concerned. Considered one of the best countries for preparing students for the future, New Zealand attracts many university and graduate students from across the world. It is often mentioned alongside countries like Canada and Finland for innovative education models. From what I gathered, many students and visitors to New Zealand end up living or working there – which probably explains why they were so fastidious with my visa application. New Zealand has three official languages, English, Māori and, get this, sign language. That said, you will see Mandarin etched on the signage of stores and so on when in Auckland; the Chinese influence also extends to their cuisine which features other Asian influences as well. As I quickly learned, New Zealand is one of those places with temperamental weather – you can literally have all four seasons in a day.
The Māori pay great homage to Mother Earth, who they call Papatūānuku, and believe she is the source of all life. Consequently, respect for the environment permeates literally every aspect of Māori culture and by extension, New Zealand. You’ll probably have an inkling of this before you arrive at immigration. The phrase Kia Ora which means “Have life. Be well / healthy” in Maori is etched everywhere; from the Air New Zealand magazine to the flight entertainment screen to the souvenirs. Their respect for environment also means New Zealanders are particular about what bio-organisms and food visitors bring into the country; they don’t want to upset the delicate ecological balance. If you’re thinking of entering New Zealand with some shito, dried meat, or whatever else it is you usually carry, you may want to reconsider.
It should come as no surprise that “eco-friendly” and “nature loving” are two of New Zealand’s biggest selling points. And boy do they have so much to offer across the two mainlands (the North and South Islands), and beyond – hiking, snorkelling, exploring caves, zip-lining, and so on. Did I mention the views? They are so photography worthy that Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and Narnia were all filmed there. Apparently, the movie Avatar was also influenced by New Zealand’s biodiversity and eco-friendly culture. While I only had three days after the workshop to play tourist, I was able to see a lot of the North Island and some of the South Island. Both the New Zealand capital Wellington and the central business district of Auckland are on the North Island; Auckland alone accounts for about 1.5 million of the 5 million people living in New Zealand. One curious thing I learned about New Zealand – or at least Auckland? They cross some streets diagonally. Why get stopped by the traffic light twice when you can just cut across, right?
The bulk of New Zealand is agriculture-focused with livestock (beef and lamb) and livestock products like wool being two key exports. Apparently, MacDonald’s Angus Beef is sourced right from New Zealand. Seafood didn’t seem to be a culinary mainstay, which I found surprising considering the country is literally in the middle of the ocean. That said, the local food I sampled during the workshop was generally healthy food (quinoa), balanced and fresh. New Zealanders also have a massive local coffee culture; one so big even Starbucks is having a hard time finding its footing in the country! The ‘Flat white’ is a local favourite which I got to sample at Auckland’s equally famous café Chuffed. Despite the fact that there is a ton of countryside on the North Island, the internet and wifi connection generally worked great with hotspots from providers like Vodafone NZ (which I used) in specific locations. Always great if you’re looking to capture your experience on the gram like I did.
My Itinerary for 72 Hours of Tourism in New Zealand
As I often do with most of my trips, I tried to factor in some time for exploration during my visit to New Zealand. My Sky bus ride from the airport didn’t offer much opportunity for sightseeing since I arrived in the early hours of the morning, but I did appreciate having free wifi on board to get a sense of my bearings. The event organisers had booked me for stay at the Waldorf St. Martins Apartment for the duration of the workshop; and thereafter I switched to an AirBnB private double room with a lovely elderly couple Ruth and Barry. Staying with locals on a short trip is another great way to gain an appreciation for a place – if you do end up booking with them, tell them Jemila their first African guest said hello. I had arrived earlier than planned, so while waiting for my accommodation to be setup I met up with a former SAIS Bologna classmate for a quick bite and stroll downtown. Because of the cold and jet lag I generally went to bed early, leaving me with about 72 hours to explore New Zealand after the workshop. So much to do in so little time. After scouring Yelp and TripAdvisor and getting input from my New Zealander workshop colleagues, I came up with an itinerary to maximise my time in New Zealand. It’s a bit intense, precisely because I have no clue if or when I’ll be heading that far East again.
Day 1: Exploring Auckland Central Business District (CBD) and Devonport
I had hoped to start the day with a walk up to Mount Eden, but never made it out of bed in time, so instead, I set off with a walking tour of Auckland’s central business district (CBD) About 30 minutes away by train (metro/subway) from my AirBnB, I soon discovered the local metro system is a bit different from others I’ve experienced in Europe. There are no payment terminals on board, so one has to ‘tap on’ before getting onto the train and ‘tap off’ after getting off. I eventually joined the walking tour group at Queens Wharf. As would soon be the norm, I was the only African in a group of folks from Australia, the US, South Korea, and China. While overcast, it wasn’t too cold and the tour guide shared a wealth of information about New Zealand and how Auckland came to be. The two-hour walking tour was free, but as with most complimentary tours, participants are encouraged to tip the tour guide for their time. Besides getting a better sense of the country and city, taking the walking tour allowed me to identify other potential tourist activities in the city like the Auckland Sky Tower, and the Auckland Art and History Museums.
Although it was my first time in New Zealand, I did know one Ghanaian living in Wellington and she introduced me to her friend who resides at the seaside village of Devonport. So, after grabbing some lunch at one of the many Chinese restaurants, I got myself a flat white at Chuffed while waiting for the 30-minute ferry from Auckland to Devonport. The ferry ride offered lovely views of the disappearing wharf and coastline of Auckland CBD with the occasional sprinkle of water on the deck. Once I arrived in Devonport, I walked around the village, taking in the local parks and atmosphere, admiring the artisanal work, and peering into the quaint shops.
I eventually made my way up to the 87 metre high Mount Victoria and later Mount Cambria. If you’ve been following my social media updates, you’ll know that I’ve been working out consistently for almost a year – climbing those mountains made me feel like I hadn’t done a single workout in my life! There are walks, and there are walks! Once I made it to the summit however, I soon forgot my panting and aches – the view of Auckland from both mountains was breathtaking as was the sunset! A few hours later, I ended up at my host’s house for dinner and a chat with her lovely family, leaving around 9pm back to Auckland and Eden Park. All in all, a refreshing day.
Day 2: Coromandel Day Trip: Mount Paku, Cathedral Cove & Hot Water Beach
Coromandel was a place that kept coming up in literally all my conversations with locals. Most described it as being “simply beautiful”, so I figured it was worth the day trip. I found a Coromandel Day Trip package deal to Mount Paku, Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach on Bookme.com (great for deals and recommendations) with Kiwi Day Trips and had to get up for an early start. Clay the tour guide was kind enough to pick me up from my AirBnB and the tour ended up being full of solo female travellers like myself from Canada, the US, Australia and South Korea – needless to say, we had a blast. Our first stop was Mount Paku which gave us a breathtaking 360 degree view of Coromandel.
From there, we made our way to Cathedral Cove, known for its feature in the movie Narnia, and were greeted by rolling hills, greenery for days, and an unadulterated view of the ocean; it was as beautiful as everyone said it would be. It also happens to be the perfect location for a marriage proposal; we were taking photos and realised a tourist was proposing to his now fiancée. After about three hours of exploring and hiking, we drove over to the Hot Waves restaurant where I had what has to be the best lamb burger ever. After some good food and conversation, it was time to unwind at the Hot Water Beach. Mind you, it was still winter, yet here we were in swimsuits lounging in hand-made jacuzzis – by we, I mean everyone but me. Remember, I thought it was winter.
Overall, Coromandel made me appreciate the wonder and creative genius of God and nature. After a few hours bathing in the natural hot waters, it was time to head back to Auckland; we’d had a lucky streak with the weather and the minute we got back in the van the rain started pouring. To wrap up the day, I sampled South Indian cuisine with my former classmate at the Satya Indian – a delicious experience in itself – and later nodded off to sleep under the gaze of the stars and planets during the StarShow at the Auckland Stardome Observatory and Planetarium. If you’re an astronomy fan like myself, you’ll love it. Just make sure you’re well rested beforehand so you don’t miss half the show.
Day 3: The Hobbiton Movie Set
I’d had grand dreams for my final day in New Zealand, including a trip to The Hobbiton Movie Set and Waiheke Island (another place that kept popping up in discussions). For Waiheke I’d considered doing one of the EcoTours which features zip lining around the island. But by the third day my body had had it with my gallivanting and sleep deprivation, so I ended up only visiting the Hobbiton movie set after my Coromandel day trip mates convinced me it was worthwhile. Located on the 1250-acre Alexander beef and sheep farm just outside the rural South Island town of Matamata, the Hobbiton movie set is a major tourist attraction in New Zealand. The majority of the 350,000 annual visitors haven’t watched or read any of J.R.R. Tolkein’s books or movies for The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, but still travel hours to see the set. The Alexander farm which is the setting for The Shire was first noticed by the film company and director in 1998 and by March 1999 construction of the set had begun with the New Zealand army pitching in to build a 1.5km road to the location.
Filming for the Lord of the Rings Trilogy commenced from December 1999 until the first quarter of 2000, after which the set was pulled down. With the impending filming of The Hobbit Trilogy, the set was rebuilt from 2009 over a two year period. The actual filming happened in 2011 and only took 12 days! This time, the Alexander family requested that the set be maintained to keep the spirit of The Shire alive, which the government and filmmakers agreed to. It was surreal to actually be there, to see Frodo and Bilbo Baggins’ Hobbit Hole and learn about what went into making movies of such global acclaim. A total of 39 Hobbit holes were built, including two versions of Frodo’s Hobbit Hole which were created to create the illusion of different sizes in the scenes featuring Gandalf at The Shire. The oak tree overlooking Bag End in the movie was entirely manmade – apparently someone noticed that the shade of green was wrong about a day or so before filming and the filmmakers had each leaf repainted by hand. Talk about dedication to craft! And it’s paying off too – The Hobbit movie set has raked in over $37 million in tourist revenue for the Matamata district since 2009 with millions more on the horizon over the next 40 to 90 years. It really put into perspective for me how unserious Ghana is about its tourism potential – I mean, if New Zealand could turn fields of sheep and cows into a world tourism destination, what excuse do we have as an “agricultural” nation for not doing similar?
Verdict: New Zealand is Bucket-List Worthy
All in all, my visit to New Zealand was a worthwhile, albeit tiring one. I do hope to visit again someday to take in the full breadth of its beauty and maybe jump off a plane or two. Have New Zealand on your bucket? Leave a comment and tell me which adventure you hope to take. Not yet convinced? Follow me and Circumspecte on Instagram for more photos in the coming weeks.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.