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 new zealand

Week 1
After planning and revising my route many times, I finally decided to spend most of my two weeks driving the South Island, with an emphasis on sea and coast rather than mountains, where I live when I'm in the states. I started with just a day in Wellington, on the southern tip of the North Island.

In the fascinating Te Papa Tongarewa museum's Maori and Pacific Peoples exhibits, I learned about the island origins of its first inhabitants, and could see how well the Europeans and earlier groups have integrated. One village moved their traditional Maori meeting house, adorned with wood carvings, into the museum - in a video, the villagers told their story and showed children singing in the structure, which really made it come alive. The inviting Wellington city center was a fun mix of modern architecture and whimsical modern art, a polka dotted building and lots of sculpture along the sea front.

A cheery bloke at the ferry dock shuttled me to the entrance on a golf cart. I explained that I turned my foot falling off a curb in Melbourne, on a tram island in the middle of the street. He leaned in close, as if to impart a secret, and advised, 'You're quite safe here, there are no trams.' I found a spot by a big window as a voice announced: 'Get ready, crew, there are 800 passengers on their way.' A few minutes out, crossing the strip of ocean between the islands, the captain announced that we were on tsunami alert, due to the earthquake in Chile (the day before). We took a more protected route that added about 20 minutes to the three-hour ride. There were some rough parts, but the waves had lessened considerably by the time they reached around the world. I picked up a rental car on the other side and pulled out cautiously onto country roads, flanked by rolling hills, sheep and vineyards, to acclimate to driving on the left.

I had originally planned on doing a hike, or tramp as it's called by kiwis, along part of the Abel Tasman Coastal Track in the National Park but I was in no shape for tramping. I took a catamaran along the park's coast with a small group. A blue penguin, smallest penguin in the world, swam by; we mistook him for a duck. White and mottled shag birds perched on bleached limestone rock shapes, mother and baby seals sunned on the rocks on this cloudy day. We kayaked out to see them and paddled onto a beach littered with driftwood, a great spot for a swim. One island had been cleared of rats, mice and stoats, the invasive and pervasive species brought by immigrants to reduce the population of rabbits, brought by an even earlier wave of settlers. The birdsong was loud and melodic in that protected space - even kiwis, the flightless, endangered mascot, were thriving there.

The drive down the east coast was as beautiful as I had hoped. It reminded me of the drive along the coast of Ireland, a trip I took, oddly enough, with the friend I had just visited in Melbourne the week before. In Kaikoura, I was greeted by a spectacular sunset over the curved beach, and feasted on crayfish (a type of lobster), plump green mussels, and local wines.

Just off the coast near Kaikoura, the sea floor drops away into a deep canyon where mammals that usually stay out in the open sea come closer to land. The sperm whale blows for about five minutes, then arches his back and submerges, waving his graceful fan-like tail in the air, dripping, as if to say farewell. Two small boats cruised around looking for whale plumes, then converged at a safe distance to observe without disturbing.

The next day the seas were very calm and literally hundreds of dusky dolphins were out. The dolphins were not fed or enticed in any way; we were informed that this was an exceptional find. I slithered into a tight, heavy wetsuit, insulated for the colder waters of the southern Pacific. I felt like a dolphin, sleek and slippery. Playful, curious dolphins swam in circles around me, making eye contact, singly or in twos or threes, with faces that seemed to smile; I tried to mimic their behavior as they circled; then they leaped and moved on, diving deeper. It was a glorious day and a treasured experience to communicate in some small way with these gentle beings.

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