The Water (and Does It Drain in the Opposite Direction?)

Water in New Zealand is plentiful. The snow on the mountain ranges that slice through the country northeast-to-southwest ensure a year-round supply. On our travel through the South Island, we saw countless snow-covered mountains. I wondered if it were ever possible to suffer a drought here.

Christchurch’s water supply is fed by aquifers under the city. Here, the water is pure enough to drink untreated, though routinely monitored. I’m betting the water becomes purified as it makes its way down from the mountains and through layers of soil and sediment. It tastes very clean and is the best-tasting water I’ve ever had. The water in the Pacific Northwest generally tastes good, too, but occasionally you detect off-flavors from chlorine treatment. The glacial melt is clean enough that we were encouraged to fill our water bottles in a melting stream on Franz Josef glacier.

So, does the water drain in the clockwise direction in the Southern hemisphere? Actually, the answer to that wasn’t so straightforward at first. The toilets here release tremendous amounts of water with relatively high water pressures that all you see is a lot of splashing. So we had to resort to draining a wash basin, which wasn’t conclusive. A little bit of research revealed that this is an old wives’ tale; the Coriolis force is not observable in a small experiment like draining a sink; it is simply too weak. It applies to much larger phenomena, like vast ocean currents or a storm system, where the Coriolis effect is much easier to see. People still claim that they can see the water draining clockwise—and counter-clockwise.

Mt. Cook National Park (NZ)

At a viewing area along State Highway 80, where the tour bus made a temporary stop, there was a breathtaking vista of a portion of the Southern Alps. Without a doubt, the snow cover made for a most dramatic effect.

The tallest peak is Mount Cook (Aoraki, in Maori), the highest in all of New Zealand, which distinction makes it a favorite destination for mountain climbers, the most famous having been Sir Edmund Hillary, a native Kiwi.

We made a brief stop at Mount Cook National Park to have lunch and admire the scenery, though any views of Mount Cook could not be equalled by what we saw earlier. Still, from the Hermitage Hotel, you could get a glimpse of this towering mountain, one of over 140 peaks in the park and a large number of glaciers. At this time of year, only the cafeteria was open for lunch. On the exit door, a sign read: “Please do not feed the kea.”

Mount Cook from the Hermitage Hotel

Our attempts to take a short hike along some the tracks near the hotel were thwarted by snow cover, except for one. Outside, the most beautiful and delicate ice crystals formed on the plants.

Ice crystals formed delicate patterns on the leaves of plants

The park would certainly be worth a return visit when the weather is nicer.

Milford Sound (NZ)

From Queenstown, it took the bus tour four hours to get to Milford Sound, reputedly the most visited tourist spot in all of New Zealand. The boat cruise, once we got there, lasted almost two hours, by which time we got a closer look at the majestic fjords that can tower out of the water almost 4,000 feet high. Unless you plan to spend the night at one of the very few accommodations there, this is all the time you can afford before boarding the bus to return. And herein lies the problem with these organized tours—the lack of freedom to explore, to linger and ponder the majesty of these geologic wonders.

Since it was winter, the sun hung low above the horizon and the peaks lay mostly in shadow. As the boat turned and positioned the sun to angle behind Mitre Peak, the effect was magical as if glimpsing a scene from The Lord of the Rings.

If you happen to arrive when it’s raining, which here at the wettest spot in NZ is quite often, you will obviously not be fortunate enough to experience Milford Sound in its picture-perfect pose, but you will be rewarded with perhaps a more spectacular sight—the production of hundreds of temporary waterfalls that come cascading down the cliff faces, as the following YouTube video shows:


Milford Sound and the vast area known as Fiordland surrounding it got their present form from repeated advances and retreats of glaciers that left enormous swaths of deep valleys in their wake. To the north are still the popularly visited Fox and Franz Josef glaciers. An aerial tour would provide the most spectacular visual evidence of the scale of geologic forces that have been at work to create this remarkable area.

We reluctantly boarded the bus for another 4-hour ride, but not before briefly entertaining an offer by an air tour operator for seats at half-price to fill vacancies. At $250 per person, we boarded the bus instead.

Lake Wanaka (NZ)

From Franz Josef, we hopped on another all-day bus ride to Lake Wanaka, a resort area that serves as the gateway to Mt Aspiring National Park. With an afternoon arrival, it was all we could do to check in to our hotel (Oakridge Resort Grand Mercure) and walk into town before sunset. It was the quiet season here since most outdoor activities take place when the weather isn’t so cold.

Glacial lakes are abundant in New Zealand. Situated in a broad valley carved out by a glacier during the last Ice Age and flanked by mountains on two sides, some over 6,000 feet above sea level, Lake Wanaka is the fourth largest lake in the country. On the day following our arrival, we took a private boat tour to Mou Waho, one of the islands in the lake, a nature reserve with a hiking trail to Tyrwhitt Peak. Along the way, our guide described the flora and fauna of the island, frequently pointing out many of the native plants, including the manuka bush, source of the prized honey. During tea break, a buff weka, one of the endemic ratites of NZ, approached us as our guide predicted it would.

A buff weka approached us during tea

With less than 24 hours to spend in Wanaka, we had to board another bus to Queenstown.

Lake Wanaka after sunset

Low-Salt Diet?

Salty foods are a rarity in New Zealand. It is almost certain that anything served here will not be salty. In fact, to an average American, the food could quite possibly seem under-seasoned. It’s more likely that a dish will be slightly sweet, as this was our impression of many dishes. A meat lasagne, for example, was topped with a sweet tomato sauce, a little off-putting for me who prefers a more zesty, spicy and seasoned sauce. Incidentally, the saltiest foods we had in NZ were served in Asian restaurants.

Franz Josef Glacier

If you’re not a diehard adventurer into extreme sports, one of the most extraordinarily exciting guided trips you can take is to Franz Josef Glacier along the west coast of the South Island. Available in half-day and full-day packages, the hike takes you onto the glacier itself, past crevasses and rivers of melting water pure enough to drink, and through excruciatingly beautiful and mysterious ice canyons and tunnels.

Weather in the middle of winter is so unpredictable that you’d as likely encounter rain as a clear day. To our relief and delight, we experienced the latter. The tour started out with an orientation and issuance of equipment (jackets, pants, mittens, boots and crampons), followed by a bus ride to the drop-off point. A half-mile hike through rain forest led to a broad, rock-strewn lateral moraine, stretching about one-mile in front of us, before we scaled the terminal moraine over an ascending path to the top of the glacier. The icescape changes so quickly because of the glacier’s rapid advance and retreat that tour guides are as busy preparing and grading the footpaths with axe and shovel as they are leading the tour. The passage through an ice tunnel was breathtaking, the walls of deep blue ice adding an element of mystery and magic. We also had an opportunity to walk through an ice canyon, in spots so narrow that we had to turn sideways to squeeze past. The sharply vertical walls reminded us of an American Southwest slot canyon.

Ice canyon

The glacier is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The terminal face is one of the lowest in elevation anywhere in the world, only 300m above sea level. Another unique feature is that it brushes up against a temperate rainforest, one of the strangest juxtapositions I have ever witnessed.

Tours can be arranged in the township of Franz Josef.

Franz Josef Glacier

Gluten and Gluttony and Other Food Observations

Venison meat pie

At first, I thought it was my imagination. I first noticed it in the local Christchurch supermarkets. Then, I noticed it even in small restaurants and bakeries … and then on our vacation in the Southern Alps. Gluten-free. Everywhere you go, menus offer gluten-free alternatives. Public awareness is obviously much higher here than in the States. Mind you, gluten-free baked goods are still not nearly as palatable as their gluten-y counterparts, but at least celiac customers have a choice.

We noticed this time and again: food portion sizes are very reasonable here. Never were we given enormous servings that are all too common in the U.S. Nothing was super-sized. Is gluttony passé? Although we rarely saw an obese Kiwi, statistics indicate that in the English-speaking world, only the United States has a higher obesity rate. So, something doesn’t jibe here.

I also had my first taste of venison in the form of a pie. It was actually quite good, a recommendation by a server at a Makarora cafe (“Are you game?”). The meat wasn’t gamey like I thought it was going to be; I later discovered that most elk in NZ is farmed. We saw large herds of them in pastures on our road trip.

Marmite is a product that I believe you can pick up in the States, if you look hard enough, though it doesn’t taste quite the same. This concentrated yeast spread is very common here. The most popular way of consumption appears to be as a spread on morning toast. To me, they look like thick fish fertilizer, very dark brown in color. They yield a very salty and yeasty taste that should be applied sparingly. Umami on steroids. Not too bad if you want a savory toast.

Do you like Ovaltine? Then perhaps you might savor Milo, a beverage made from chocolate and malt powder. It has health benefits since it contains calcium, iron and B vitamins. Though it was created by an Australian, it’s very popular here (owned by Nestlé), as well as in many parts of Asia and Africa. Milo breakfast cereals are also marketed in NZ. Visitors who first taste Milo are usually not impressed, in some cases appalled. In trying to be good Kiwis, Kathy and Chris bought a container, but no matter how much they tried, it was unpalatable. Ovaltine drinkers will find it much weaker and less sweet.

New Zealanders are very fond of savory breakfast options. Their breakfast baked items include muffins and scones that are just as likely to be savory as sweet. There is one breakfast here that was everywhere on our week-long vacation. I gather it’s called The Big Breakfast. It consists of scrambled eggs, lamb sausages, bacon or ham, grilled tomatoes, toast and fried potato patties. On our tour, we couldn’t order from a breakfast menu, likely because a buffet was easier for a trimmed-down wait staff to accommodate diners during the off-season. If we opted for the hot breakfast, The Big Breakfast items were what were served in the warming trays.

Finally, no discussion of NZ (and Australian) cuisine would be complete without talking about meat pies. Filled primarily with meat and gravy, they can also contain mushrooms, onions and/or cheese. These were in every bakery, bus stop café and cafeteria. Closely related to the meat pie is the sausage roll where ground beef or pork or both are encased in puff pastry. I’m guessing it’s the overconsumption of the pies and rolls that contribute to NZ obesity, similar to our insatiable appetites for burgers and fries and pizzas, which by the way are plentiful here, too.

Wines of New Zealand

Ever since we discovered NZ sauvignon blanc (SV), which was a few years ago, we were immediately drawn to its distinctive lime, grapefruit and tropical fruit flavors, backed by a crisp acidity. And, to make matters even better, they (along with Gewurtztraminer) pair well with seasoned, even spicy Asian food, of which we are very fond. So, it was not without anticipation that we looked forward to sampling the best NZ had to offer.

The selection was quite impressive no matter where SV was sold, in the supermarket or at a liquor store. It was akin to staring at a whole shelfful of Chardonnay in the States. Wineries are sprouting up everywhere. The recent expansion of acreage dedicated to Sauvignon Blanc has grown tremendously in the last few years, with the result that there is an enormous glut of wines on the NZ market. This is great for the consumer as prices are kept relatively low, but understandably challenging for the growers.

As anywhere else that grows wine, there are several wine-growing districts, each specializing in certain varieties of wine. For SV, the famed region of Marlborough is only a few hours drive north of Christchurch. Central Otago is the premier region for growing pinot noir. On our way to Queenstown, our tour went through this gorgeous area, also home to A. J. Hackett who started the bungee jumping craze. Chris and Kathy took us to Pegasus Bay Winery, one of the best in NZ and located in the Canterbury district, for lunch in their excellent restaurant and a bit of wine tasting. Their 2008 Aria (late harvest riesling) and 2008 Encore (botrytised riesling) were the only two bottles we brought back home with us.

At a bookstore in Christchurch, I picked up a copy of the highly regarded Buyer’s Guide to New Zealand Wines by Michael Cooper. Inside there are reviews of over 3000 wines. This is a great guide for anyone interested in NZ wines.

Without knowing anything about it, I happened to pick up a bottle of the 2009 Jules Taylor Marlborough, which Cooper raved about. It was immediately appealing, with flavors of grapefruit and lime, a definite minerality, and a mouth-watering acidity. And so it went, sample after delicious sample. We enjoyed many wines on our mini-vacation. Of the pinot noirs that I tasted, they seemed too fruit forward, almost juicy for me, but these were just the luck of the draw.

By far, the most interesting place we came across was a tasting room in Queenstown, Wine Tastes, where you can choose samples from over 80 different wines. The difference is that you can pour your own from machines that dispense pre-measured quantities. The wines ran the gamut of price points, so each sample was appropriately priced. You can, for example, pay NZ$ 12 for a small taste of very expensive pinot noir. Still, if you’re a wine lover, this is a great way to try premium wines before you buy.

I said no-ey

For the most part, there were no problems getting along linguistically with New Zealanders. After all, we do share the same tongue. Since the first European settlers came from Merrie Olde England only recently (in the nineteenth century), it stands to reason that the Kiwi tongue will be very much English in the pronunciation of words.

A lot can change in 100 years.

Was the dialect we were hearing a blend of British and Aussie English with some Maori words and phrases thrown in? Is there a distinct New Zealand accent that we could separate from English spoken anywhere else, even in Australia? The answer is yes.

It’s the vowels that distinguish the NZ speaker, I think. There is also a difference in how a Kiwi uses his tongue, but more on that later.

The influence of Maori is primarily in the names of plants and animals for which there are no English substitutes, and in the usage of some expressions. Many place names are also Maori.

What follows is not scientific by any means and would probably make a linguist cringe. Here goes.

The vowel that is most transformed in NZ English is “i.” What is pronounced as a short “i” comes out sounding closer to a synthesis between a short “i” and short “u.” Take the word “it.” It comes out sounding like “ut.” The phrase for which Kiwis are kidded (even ridiculed by Australians) is “fish and chips,” which emerges as something closer to “fush and chups,” though non-Kiwis tend to exaggerate the “u” sound.

Words ending in the sound “air,” as in “hair” or “there,” are pronounced like “ere,” as in “here.” So, “bear” and “beer” are homonyms in NZ.

Then, there is the inclination to pronounce words ending in “r” as “ah,” as in the word December, which is a very British holdover. Therefore, “bear” is not like “beer” as in American English, but sounds more like “beeah.” Furthermore, the second “e” in December emerges as a short “i” whose sound can only be made (by me, anyway) by pressing the edges of your tongue flatly along your upper teeth and pronouncing “cem” closer to “sim.” There are more tongue gymnastics involved, but I’m convinced that Kiwis employ a tight tongue when speaking, whereas Americans tend not to engage their tongues with their teeth as much (floppy tongue).

Words with a short “e” sound, like in “eggs” and “said,” come out like a short “i” with a tendency toward a long “e”: eegs and seed. Ask a Kiwi to pronounce the letters F, L, M, N, S and X, and you’re likely to hear eef, eel, eem, een, ees and eex.

Without question, the word that fascinates me most is the word “no,” or any word that ends in an “o” sound. Again, the principle of the tight tongue applies. Americans will pronounce the “o” with no teeth-tongue contact, shaping their lips like an “o.” Now, try clamping the lateral edges of your tongue along your upper teeth, forming a sort of barrel, then spread your lips slightly apart, and then say “no” while drawing the tip of your tongue upward into the barrel. If this is done properly, the word comes out sounding like “no-er-ey,” with no emphasis on the last two parts. It almost sounds like two, even three, barely detectable syllables. When I first heard Kiwis say “no,” I was amazed. I think some Brits pronounce it similarly, but nowhere with the same flair and exaggeration.

I noticed that I could fully understand older NZ’ers, whose dialect hadn’t evolved to the point where I was struggling to make sense of their utterances. Was there a generational drift in dialect, much as what’s happening here in America? Like, fer shur. Truth be told, there were some Kiwis whom we could not, for the life of us, entirely understand. And it would have been rude to say “excuse me” more than once.

Trundler Park

America and New Zealand share the King’s English, but it’s always interesting how we develop our own colloquialisms and expressions.

One of the first expressions we heard was “take-away,” where we’d say “take-out” here for food we want to take home.

What are called flip-flops, clickers or zori are called “jandals” in NZ. Yep, it stands for Japanese sandals.

What we call coolers here are “chilly bins.”

In a curious convergence of NZ and American English, “bro” is a brother or friend.

A “handle” is a pint of beer.

A speed bump is a “judder bump.”

If you’re really tired, you’re “knackered.”

You go “tramping” instead of “hiking.” A trail is a “track.”

If you want to tell a Kiwi he’s done a great job, you’d say, “Good on ya.”

I couldn’t resist a book by Justin Brown called “Kiwi Speak,” which records Kiwi expressions, polite and otherwise. Whether these are genuine or not, I could care less. They were funny. For example:

If someone is moving to the boonies, “He’s moving to the wop wops.”

If it’s cold outside, enough to freeze your extremities, “Bit nippy round the pipis.”

If a guy is looking a little scruffy, “Had a fight with the lawnmower, mate?”

“Wherever you be, let your wind go free.
For trying to hold it in will be the death of ye.”

So, any guesses as to what a trundler park is? It’s where you leave empty grocery shopping carts in the parking lot.