The New Zealand Special
The Youngest Country
New Zealand is oft called the most beautiful country in the world. It is. It’s the youngest too. Legend has it that it was fished from the ocean. About a thousand years ago, Maori paddlers left their Polynesian homelands in large voyaging canoes to discover the last major land mass on earth. By 1800, there were over 100,000 Maori on the north and south islands of New Zealand.
The first European explorer to sight New Zealand was a Dutchman by the name of Abel Tasman in 1642. He never went ashore. In 1769, Captain Cook landed at Gisborne. (The colorful Englishman James Cook was also the first European explorer to Australia, killed in a fight with Hawaiians on his third visit there in 1779.) This began the European migration to New Zealand. The earliest settlers were whalers and missionaries. By 1839 there were about 2,000 Europeans, and in 1940 they negotiated the Treaty of Waitangi making it a British colony. This became the founding document for the country and was signed between the Maori and the British Crown.
After that, the British offered paid passage to New Zealand and 40,000 British came to the country. Others migrated; there was the South Island Gold Rush in the 1860s. Dalmatians (now Croatians), Scots, Pacific Islanders, and Asians subsequently have made New Zealand their home.
The last census information shows that New Zealand had a population of just over four million in 2006, actually 4,027,947. Three million of these live on the smaller north island. The greater Auckland area has 1.3 million residents, by far the greatest population concentration. Only a million inhabit the south island, with 348,435 in Christchurch and 118,683 in Dunedin. But there is another form of highly prevalent life afoot!
In 1773 Captain Cook brought the first sheep to New Zealand. By 1982 the sheep population peaked at 70.3 million sheep. With more diversified agriculture – cows and domesticated deer – the population today is 43.1 million: about ten sheep per New Zealander. Some 36,000 flocks have an average head count of 1,400. They are mostly English-bred Romney, dual-purpose (wool/meat) sheep that produce coarser wool and 25% of global “strong wool” demand. Wool is measured in microns diameter; generally less than 25 microns thick for garments; greater than 25 microns for rugs, overcoats, etc. To be fair to their rival neighbor, Australia leads the world with the greatest share of the “global wool clip.”
A Solar Medley
We began in Dunedin on the south island, the largest city in the south, founded in 1848 as a Scottish settlement. I felt like I’d flown into the Aspen Airport, my transport hub for many years. The surrounding hills reminded me of the foothills of the Maroon Bells; greeting families are welcome to come directly to the gate. Driving into town, the countryside reminds me of Vermont. We begin to see sheep.
Dunedin is home of Otago University, founded in 1869, the country’s oldest and most prestigious bastion for higher learning. Otago has 20,752 students of which 2,352 are international exchange students, like my daughter Skye. They’re from many countries: the United States, Malaysia, and China send the most students. Skye’s an International Business major at University of Denver and has been in Dunedin for a semester. One of her courses was Maori culture.
What an experience she has had! Her flat mates at the beloved “480” housing complex are from Denmark, New Zealand, California, and North Carolina. They have clearly taken advantage of their time abroad, having criss-crossed the country and experienced the culture of this “adventure capitol of the world.” Bungy jumping, heli-touring the Milford Sound, canyon swings, camping at frigid beaches with great bonfires, etc. Her sister Sierra and I cleaned the apartment.
Things are known to get pretty wild in Dunedin. It’s known as “rugby city.” Try couch burnings, a lot of broken glass, and overflowing recycling caddies on the curb. Beater cars. The Undie 500 is an annual event when “the crazies” from Christchurch buy $500 cars, soup ‘em up, and drive them to Dunedin for a BIG party. “Hey Dad, check this out.” The links were horrific; rioters and revelers. Dunedin also boasts the steepest street in the world. We drove it. Held my breath up and down.
We visit gorgeous beaches in the area. Tunnel Beach and its sea-carved sandstone cliffs took our breath away. We’d never seen water so green. Sandfly Beach is known for sea lions. Sierra and I have lunch at St. Clair Beach. We visit Penguin Place, a privately funded yellow-eyed penguin reserve with a maze of blinds to observe nesting and penguins’ return from fishing at sea. This is the only mainland breeding ground for the Royal Albatross.
We explore the region. Along the coast and cliffs, it feels like southern California. Days later we’d be in the rocky mountains of Colorado. Then Hawaii! An island nation the size of Colorado, tucked low on the planet close to Antarctica, New Zealand clearly has it all!
Energy in New Zealand
Despite its combination of abundant renewable energy resources and a small population, New Zealand is still an energy importer. Why? Ah yes, oil for the transport sector. It accounted for 41% of energy use in 2008. There is limited oil and gas production in the Tarawaki Basin. Hydroelectricity provides 23% of the energy. Geothermal provides 16%. New Zealand is one of 13 OECD countries that have not adopted nuclear power. Coal from four underground mines and 21 “open-cast” mines that extract Southland Lignite provides 12% of New Zealand’s energy.
Energy is in the news. Government support for offshore gas exploration; controversy surrounding wind farms. We saw “heaps” of articles in the papers about siting wind farms, local opposition, etc. We read articles conveying the costs of greenhouse gas mitigation to the public. Other articles show the disparate estimates of these costs. Oh my, a massive iceberg headed their way! These are lower-latitude issues.
Wind generation is clearly on the rise in New Zealand. There are eight wind farms in New Zealand, with a couple dozen more in the planning stages. There is an installed capacity of 492 MW which generates 3% of the country’s electricity. When the Horseshoe Bend, Te Rere Hau, Te Uku, and Weld Cone farms come on line, total installed capacity from some 600 turbines will rise to 578 MW.
Queenstown: Aspen on Water
Day five and six and we are in Queenstown, a cross between Aspen and Interlaken. Like Aspen, it was a gold mining town in the 1860s. Across Lake Wakatipu is the aptly named, Remarkables Range. We take a tram high in the mountains, and hike in the forests.
A highlight is rafting the Shotover River. A potentially treacherous bus ride on a road barely clinging the canyon wall; we don full wet suits, safety vests, and helmets, far more than for any of my many rafting ventures in Colorado, Utah, and Idaho. Gold miners made fortunes in these waters years ago.
The water is frigid. It is a surreal teal color, an unreal grayish-green fluid unlike rivers I’d ever seen. Trained with paddles and emergency procedures, Adam is at the helm, I’m at his side, then plumber and carpenter from Calgary, Josephine and Jason (newlyweds from Hong Kong), Sierra and Skye at the bow positions. We shoot through rapids called “the Toilet,” the “Cascades.” Massive swells douse our raft; we’re drenched to the bone; what a thrill.
Franz Josef Glacier
In the 1980s, when last surveyed, there were 3,155 glaciers in New Zealand of at least one hectare (2.5 acres) in size. One hundred and sixteen of these were greater than 10 hectares, or 25 acres; only six of these were on the north island. Overall, more than 1,000 square kilometers of New Zealand is buried beneath slow moving masses of ice. This is unusual in the South pacific, but high mountains combine with abundant snowfall, as much as 30 meters a year.
Glaciers are huge rivers of ice, formed when snowfall exceeds snowmelt. At Franz Joseph, a 20 square kilometer snowfield serves as a catchment basin, then a 12 kilometer long glacier pours its way to the sea. Once Franz Joseph is believed to have reached the sea; today it drops from Southern Alps to temperate rainforest. The snow builds up for years, compacts into blue ice, recedes and advances at surprising rates, sometimes nearly a meter a day, ten times the average glacial clip!
We suit up, shuttle to the park, take a back trail reserved for expeditions, and begin a brisk trek to the base of Franz Josef Glacier. There we strap on 1.5 inch crampons and begin a steep ascent. At times we cling to ropes. Its spring in New Zealand and the glacier is melting. We hear water running deep beneath us. We hear and then see landslides on either side of the glacier. We pick our way up a dirty ridgeline, and then cross over onto the clean ice. I’m sweating heavily. The rain picks up. We hike the glacier, stop to hear our guide’s recent rescue stories, and feel the chill for days thereafter.
Nelson and Abel Tasman
We stop at a vineyard in Nelson. Patrick, our most gracious vinter and former Californian, explains that Nelson gets more sunshine than any other location in New Zealand. Its known for its year-round sunshine. Nelson is now New Zealand’s Solar City, with a special program to promote solar there. Patrick inspects solar thermal systems to augment his vineyard income.
Abel Tasman is New Zealand’s smallest, and favorite national park. It is a coastal wonderland of sea, golden beaches, rocky headlands, all perfect for hiking, camping, coastal kayaking. A famous “track” here follows the spectacular coast for four days. We take a water taxi to our hike. We learn that the tides there are up to five meters.
We meet Monique on the ferry, a three-hour crossing from Picton to Wellington and the Cook Strait. She’s a hospital worker from the Netherlands and visiting NZ for her fourth time. She can’t get enough of it and describes her recent “track” in the Milford Sound region. She chuckles about sleeping on the floor sandwiched between a large, snoring Czech and a couple from Australia! The crossing is relatively calm; we get a sense of the islands’ separation. This is the only commercial crossing; today most Kiwis take to the skies.
Thermal Fields and Rotorua
A man I respect warned us not to visit Rotorua. Too many tourists there, I can hear him say with a Missouri drawl. I learned years ago that tourists tend to visit the nicest spots. While not known for solitude, Rotorua is one of these. Despite its nagging smell of sulfur, its thermal fields are a must in New Zealand. This is where you get a sense of just how new this all is.
An eruption just over a hundred years ago? The world’s tallest geyser for four years – 1,000 feet, five times Old Faithful – shut down by a landslide. Steam venting throughout town; crude heating pipes strung in Maori ghettos. Spas for hire and mud pots in the public park next to the farmers market we visit. What’s next? We visit Waimangu, a volcano that last erupted in 1886, the Tarawera eruption spewed hot rocks, mud, and ash from a fissure in the Earth’s crust 3 * 15 kilometers in size, devastating 15,000 square kilometers, killing 153 and wiping out two Maori villages.
Today, New Zealand is a world leader with geothermal energy. The University of Auckland has 20 faculty devoted to geothermal research and teaching. While Italy developed the world’s first commercial geothermal power plant, the Ville del Diavolo in 1911 at Lardello, New Zealand christened its Wairakei plant in 1958. There are geothermal plants throughout the country with an installed capacity of 600 MW. Most of the high temperature fields are around the Taupo Volcanic Zone.
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” said the young gal at the tourism bureau. We’d heard that Kerosone Creek is about as rustic as the natural hot springs get in the area. Despite the name, we were determined to find it. And we did: putrid rusty brown, smelly water dumping over a waterfall into a pool. A brown foam gathers in an eddy. A German shows me how to dig my feet into the coarse gravel in the deepest part of the creek. My feet are burning hot. I worry about breaking through the Earth’s thin mantle.
The most “touristy” thing we did was to visit a “Maori village” and take part in a dinner and exhibition. The bus picked us up at 6:15; we arrive and quickly fall in with two Kiwis with comp passes. We take wine, there is a fun introduction of people’s “united from 20 countries around the world,” Chief Ted is anointed, and we’re off to see the tribe arrive in canoes and then dance with fierce looks and sounds. No giggling. I touch noses twice with the real chief, a large man with tattoos on his butt.
Rick Mansell is credited with leading the charge for energy and environmental reforms in Gisborne. He’s now in Rotorua. Clearly an expert, he relishes time to catch up on California energy news. He gives me an early morning tour and overview of geothermal in Rotorua, so ad hoc. Throughout town are vents and pots. We bathe our feet in thermal tubs in a park and talk about the plight of the Maori, the confluence between green energy and development. He stresses the need for efficiency in New Zealand, focusing on the demand side, the basics of saving energy at a fraction of the cost of new generation of any kind.
Auckland and Out
Auckland is a cosmopolitan city with a bustling waterfront, a tower. We jump on a ferry to taxi across the harbor; no wonder Auckland is known as the “City of Sails.” Back in town, we see hybrid buses, carbon neutral taxi fleets. We’re impressed by the international flair. There’s a good energy, but so different from the New Zealand we came to admire. Auckland is not a land of sheep, and winding roads and dramatic peaks, cascading falls.
The Air New Zealand 747 takes us home; just 11 hours. We reflect.
New Zealand is marked by unbelievable natural beauty, and really wonderful people. We know there’s lots more to see, lots more to experience. But we got it. We got the gist of what distinguishes this country. It’s alive. A confluence of nature and man, and very much in accord.