Postcard from Auckland & Queenstown

January 10, 2018

We were received at the Auckland airport by Priya, Jyothi’s cousin who has settled down at Auckland with her husband, Naveen and their two sons, Vishwas & Taaresh for the last 12 years. Naveen’s mother also stays with them.

Vishwas had also come in the car to receive us at the airport and on the way home, he was acting as the Brand Ambassador for New Zealand in general, and Auckland, in particular. I just loved his knowledge and confidence.

Theirs is a large independent home at the elegant Mount Roskill suburb. A very tastefully decorated home split across two levels, it boasts of a large garden-backyard.

Naveen, who also owns a Ducati superbike, is a realtor while Priya manages her own commercial laundry business. Together, they are a wonderful couple and gracious hosts. Vishwas and Taaresh are very smart kids. Naveen’s mother, Subhalakshmi, is full of life and a great conversationalist. She also cooks very well. Knowing Sid’s preference, we came home from the airport to delicious vetthal kuzhambu (tamarind gravy) and urulakkazhangu curry (roasted spicy potatoes). The curry is my favorite.

Priya had already made plans for our Auckland tour. She was already complaining that we were hardly spending any time at Auckland. We were to fly out to Queenstown for 4 days out of a total of 7 days in New Zealand. Unfortunately, we could not help. There is so much to see and so little time. Even Shivakumar has been complaining that we were spending too little time in Sydney. I was thinking that if the hosts complain that the guests are spending too little time, in a way, it is a good thing.

At Auckland, we hit the ground running. We headed off to Mount Eden. We saw a volcanic crater that was now a grassy depression. Though it is quite tempting, no one is allowed to climb down the depression.

From the Lookout Point, we could get a bird’s-eye view of Auckland. Every where I looked, I could only see picture-postcards. From the top, Auckland is strikingly beautiful. We got to spot Devonport which we would visit the following day. We took some amazing pictures. We headed to Cornwall Park, a giant park, home to One Tree Hill and hundreds of grazing sheep. To imagine that the hundreds of grazing sheep were just a few kilometers away from the Auckland CBD, certainly tells us something great about New Zealand.

The next day, as per plan, we headed to the sophisticated neighborhood of Devonport. We walked around beds of colorful flowers along pedestrian paths and passed through the plush homes facing the water. Taaresh followed us on his scooter, giving me some anxious moments when he disappeared from our line of sight once in a while.

Like Mount Eden, we also went to Mount Victoria and got another set of picture-postcard views of Auckland. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words but the view from Mount Victoria is worth a million words.

From there, we went to Western Springs, popularly known as Duck Park. We crossed the tram track after the tram passed and walked to the large man-made lake on which hundreds of ducks happily floated along. It was a happy place. Families, specially with young kids, were around. The item of attraction was the Black Swan.

Honestly, I never knew a black swan existed which exposes my pedestrian knowledge of flora and fauna. I looked at it in wonderment but the swan never reciprocated – it went about its business, plucking lazily at its feathers.

We went to the Arataki Visitor Centre which is the gateway to the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park with more than 16,000 hectares of native rainforest and coastline. We had limited time and took a short walking tour through a designated track. The native kauri trees are suffering from the serious dieback disease and we cleaned the soil off our footwear and at every cleaning station, we sprayed disinfectant on the soles of our shoes to prevent any chance of external infection on the kauri roots. Even in that short a tour, we got a sense of how dense the forests were and how serious New Zealand was in protecting its endangered species.

We headed to yet another postcard locale, the black iron-sand Piha beach. We had been exposed to much beauty in the past few days and the Piha beach was no exception. Gathering rain clouds provided a stark contrast to the waters and the black sand.

The Lion Rock which is the neck of a volcano that erupted 16 million years ago, stood right there in its majesty. As we effortlessly climbed the Lion Rock, we got to see the Piha beach from different levels and angles. Both Jyothi and I were pleasantly surprised at our fitness levels. Our stamina seems to have vastly improved, thanks to the long walks in Sydney and the walks in Bangalore in preparation for the visit. We hope to continue building on our stamina when we are back home in Bangalore. I had a question, though: does walking on 16 million years of history make our climb a historic feat? Just checking…

We had just climbed down the Lion Rock and touched land when it began to rain. It was a light drizzle in the beginning. I looked back and saw the entire view of the Piha beach covered in fine mist. In just a few minutes, it rained like the Kerala monsoon. We were on flat land and ran to the car for cover. If it had rained like that an hour earlier, our Lion Rock and Piha Beach experience would not have been possible. What perfect timing!

On the way back, Priya pulled back the roof of the car and we got to see the heavy rain beating down on the glass roof, much like our trip from Blue Mountains in Shiva’s car. We happily munched on cookies and chips.

On the way back home, I converted some US$ to NZ dollars for our Queenstown trip the next day. The forex trader was an Indian friend of Priya’s. He looked so familiar to me, I was racking my brain to establish the connection. I got to know of his background but there was no way our lives would have crisscrossed – he was Mumbai-based and I had lived in New Delhi before moving to Bangalore about 13 years ago. He was in the travel business for a very long time at Mumbai but we had never used any travel agent from Mumbai. I know it is uncalled for but it bothered me a bit that I could not place him. 3 days later, in Queenstown, while I was having delicious jalapeno bagel with cream cheese for breakfast, my internal face-recognition software suddenly beeped – the travel agent bore a striking, almost uncanny, resemblance to a gastroenterologist that we know at Fortis Hospitals, Bangalore. I was finally at peace.

We landed at Queenstown on a strip surrounded by mountains at about 11 am the following day. We took a cab driven by Bret who chatted excitedly with us and gave us an idea of Queenstown.

Our Airbnb apartment was to be ready only by 2 pm. We were traveling quite light and we decided to explore Queenstown on foot. As we walked around a bit, all of us fell in love with Queenstown. It is infinitely beautiful. Extremely tourist-friendly, it is a tiny town with just a few criss-crossing streets. Many of the shops were dedicated to promote the outdoor thrills that Queenstown is known all over the world for. The rest of the shops were cafes and restaurants serving almost all world cuisines. Everything in the town revolves around tourist traffic. Free wi-fi is freely available all over Queenstown. Within an hour or so of our leisurely walk, we were back at the same place – Queenstown is so small.

I had done some research on Queenstown before making the bookings. I had chosen an exquisite Airbnb accommodation after consulting Sid. It was a first floor apartment facing the vast Lake Wakatipu. I had also identified some places of interest at Queenstown – the Fergburger at Shotover Street known for their famous Bun Laden veggie burger, the lake-facing Patagonia Ice Creamery and Chocolaterie, popular for their exotic ice creams, and fudge at the Remarkable Sweet Shop. In that short walk, we could locate all these places. We saved the directions for later.

Meanwhile I received room access instructions from Karen, our Airbnb host. The apartment seemed to have a sophisticated lock – it needed the palm to be placed on the lock to access the numbers and then we were to punch in the passcode to gain access into the apartment. We entered the apartment using the access instructions. The apartment was carpeted and appeared plush. I parted the curtains of the French windows in the Living Room and…ah!, we instantly fell in love with the spectacular view.

It was an uninterrupted view of the vast Wakatipu Lake against the backdrop of the mountains. It was a bright day. The main street ran in the foreground. Between the main street and the lake was a walking and cycle track. The track was busy. I saw a small procession of excited riders with colorful helmets on their Segways. Cyclists in bright clothing were passing by. A middle-aged couple was walking with a large but disciplined German Shepherd dog. In the skies, I saw orange parasails hovering over the lake. On the water, a very large ferry hooted for my attention as it passed along slowly. I spotted some bright speed boats smoothly zipping on the water. So much to see!

Inside, it was a squeaky clean 2-bedroom apartment and very well appointed. The compact kitchen was fully functional with an oven, a microwave, a refrigerator and a dishwasher. The Living Room had some informal cane sofas and a couple of bean bags thrown around. A glass-topped circular dining table and leather backed comfortable chairs with a large-hearted TV promised us a comfortable stay. Both the bedrooms had enough storage spaces. We unpacked our bags and settled down into what would be our home for the next 3 days.

The next day was to be a big day. We were to visit Milford Sound. We hopped on to the bus at 9 am for a fairly long drive to Milford Sound. As we settled down, the driver’s fun commentary and the slight rocking of the bus put us to sleep. We woke up to see the beautiful countryside, almost like miles and miles of an endless golf course. Thousands of sheep and cows were lazily grazing as we came across small colorful tents pitched in the middle of the pastures. As we went forward, we saw grey clouds descending from the sky as a light mist began forming. It started raining as we passed a tiny farming village. Now as the weather cleared, we passed smooth green hills on both sides dotted with short trees. The driver was now entertaining us with stories of New Zealand.

We stopped at Te Anau at a large cafe for coffee and to stock up our lunch supplies. We packed some sandwiches and some wraps. The drive continued and the driver’s commentary resumed. The topic turned to sheep and horses and their behavior. Some could relate to what he was saying and the others probably connected with his tone and fell asleep. Either way, depending on the inclination of the bus passengers, his commentary was useful.

We passed waterfalls and narrow streams. We stopped on the way to get a view of the glaciers. We saw avalanche sites.

It reminded me of the road from Bangalore to Kerala through Wyanad. As we reached Monkey Creek, we stopped for some pictures. We filled our water bottles dunking them into the narrow and clear stream.

I remembered my trip to the Valley of Flowers in Uttarakhand, North India and our road trip to Sikkim and onward to Bhutan – we used to fill our water bottles from the streams along the way. As the Queenstown bus moved on, the topography changed every few kilometers – rocky face to undulating pastures to tall trees to small farming villages.

We reached the point from where we were to board the ferry for Milford Sound. The blue waters and the surrounding green mountains and the white ferries and ships offered such a beautiful contrast. The queue was organized as we settled down in the ferry.

The experience during the 1.5 hour ferry ride is difficult to explain. The bright day, the cool breeze, a bunch of excited tourists, the ferry slicing through the water and leaving a column of white behind as we enjoyed the 360 degree view, taking pictures and videos, the thick green vegetation on the hills, the fun commentary of the guide, the spotting of seals drying themselves in the sun and the finale of being drenched under the waterfall is the best explanation I can provide.

We reached home a little tired. On the way back, like the rest of us, the driver was quiet and all of us in the bus had a good sleep – thankfully, not the driver. We reached our apartment at about 10 pm.

On the next day, we headed to Bob’s Peak on the cable car over Lake Wakatipu. The cable car is popularly known as gondola here. I had advance booked lunch for the three of us at Stratosfare, the restaurant at Bob’s Peak. The gondola ride was again spectacular – I realize that I am running out of adjectives through this trip.

It shows how much beauty we were exposed to every single day. The buffet lunch at Stratosfare was very good although we had limited options being vegetarians. We went back to the apartment and rested.

We went on long walks in Queenstown, along the lake and were back at Fergburger that serves the Bun Laden Burger. A queue forms here every day, irrespective of the time of the day. Being vegetarians, we had planned to buy Bun Laden veggie and Holier Than Thou burgers. The wait reminded me of a few weeks ago when we queued up for breakfast at Veena Stores, Malleswaram, Bangalore for hot idlis and vada. It was a king-sized burger. We took a good decision to pack it. Not sure how we would have looked opening our mouth so wide for each bite – it would have been impossible to look civil.

We sauntered around Queenstown dropping in at shops buying some knick knacks. Jyothi tried basil and orange ice cream at Patagonia and we bought some fudge from the Remarkable Sweet Shop. We had ticked off all the items on our list. It was a relaxed time. Queenstown was one of the highlights of our trip. The end of the Queenstown trip also signified the winding down of our vacation.

We came back from Queenstown to Auckland. Priya and Vishwas were there at the airport. There was no time to waste. We headed straight for some strawberry picking at Kumeu. It was a fun experience. We came back home to some great homemade food. I heard Vishwas’s recorded school speech on their TV and listened to him playing the piano live. Such a talented young man!

I was amazed at how good a salesperson 9-year old Taaresh was – the way he would argue his case to get his stuff done. He is extremely articulate and confident.

It was the last day at Auckland. We made best use of available time and headed to Westhaven to watch the yachts, went on a long walk at Mission Bay and has some delicious Nachos. We came back home, bid our grateful farewell to our hosts, Priya, Naveen, Naveen’s mother, Vishwas and Taaresh and left for the airport. We had had a splendid time at Awekland.

We were back in Sydney. Shivakumar and Malini picked us up and we came home. We wanted to relax on the last couple of days, buy those last-minute items and generally wind down. Both Shivakumar and Malini were not letting go. I guess they wanted us to get prepared for India. We headed to an Indian restaurant at Parramatta, The Kulcha House, to have authentic Amritsari Kulchas, Makke ki Roti, Sarson ka Saag and Dahi Bhalla. I was taken by surprise by the authentic taste. We don’t get such a Delhi-taste even in Bangalore.

Meanwhile three stone statues ordered by Shivakumar and Malini on their last visit to Bali, Indonesia arrived. They were brought into the house and set up by Victor, the handyman, Shivakumar and Sid. They looked very good.

It was time to pack our bags. Sid is an expert at this and he helped us. Whenever I watch him pack, I recall Hrithik Roshan’s suitcase in the Hindi movie, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara – neat, compact and elevated to almost a fine art.

Jyothi and I were discussing. Our Australia and New Zealand vacation has been one of the best vacations of our life. Like a well made Bollywood masala movie, it had all the right ingredients in the right proportion. Meeting with close family thousands of miles away, getting to spend time with our son, gracious hosts, lovely weather, beautiful lands, spectacular sights, fantastic food, efficient tourism infrastructure, excellent planning, and flawless execution.

We were fully at peace. I thought we displayed a similar countenance as one of the statues that had traveled a long way from Bali and was now peacefully settled in the Sydney garden of Shivakumar and Malini.

What a vacation!

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  • Shanker Subramanian says:

    Another gem of a travelogue!!! Absolutely beautiful and fascinating!

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