I remember growing up watching those milk powder commercials on television in the 1990s that featured dairy farm scenes in New Zealand. That planted a desire in my heart to visit that country one day. Clichéd, yes, but dreams do come true – when I was offered a media trip there in late July.
No more hot and humid weather, and hello winter (yes, winter in July because it’s in the Southern Hemisphere). Shopping for winter wear added to the excitement of experiencing the cold season for the very first time.
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After a long flight of about 12 hours with AirAsia X Fly-Thru option to connect seamlessly through the Gold Coast, Australia, the Nau mai, Haere mai ki Aotearoa (Welcome to New Zealand) signboard told me that our media group had finally arrived at my dream destination. I also heard my first kia ora (hello in the Maori language) from a lovely Immigration officer at the Auckland Airport, who welcomed me with a sweet smile.
I had imagined blues skies and fluffy clouds greeting me when I stepped outside. Unfortunately, when I arrived at 4.10pm local time (Auckland, in the North Island, is four hours ahead of Malaysian time), it was a bit gloomy after a shower. No lush greenery and flocks of sheep just yet but heavy traffic and skyscrapers instead on my way to the Auckland central business district (CBD).
Our driver-cum-tour guide Greg James was a ray of sunshine. He turned out to be really friendly, like all the other Kiwis we would meet in New Zealand. He took us on a tiki tour (Kiwi slang for taking the scenic route to a destination), and was very patient and accommodating with our group. We also enjoyed his sarcastic sense of humour.
My vision of New Zealand was realised at that gem of a place called Rotorua, some 240km away from Auckland. The picturesque scenery throughout the three-hour drive heading south-east was just awesome. We passed a lot of farmland and saw dairy cows, lining up at the meadow, ready to be milked. Although I was tired, I made sure that I stayed awake throughout the journey. Sleeping to me at that time felt like a waste of time as I might miss out on a lot of nice views.
We also saw many other mammals such as sheep, deer, alpacas and horses grazing on farms on both sides of the motorways. But the camera-shy cute furry sheep walked away or turned their butts towards us when we got near. Tip: to take photographs or selfies with them, walk slowly and quietly up to them.
What caught my attention were the horses that looked like they were on a higher status with those “winter jackets” on their backs. Greg said the horse blankets were to ensure that their coats could be kept shorter and nicer during winter, as many of the horses were kept for horse-racing – a major activity in New Zealand – and for shows.
The ferry tour to Waiheke Island in Auckland and cruise tour on the Great Lake Taupo in Rotorua were also unforgettable experiences. During the ferry ride to Waiheke Island, I understood why Auckland is called the City of Sails, after seeing the number of yachts anchored by the water. I also tried their locally made olive oil and avocado oil; had the best oysters ever, fresh from the unpolluted Te Matuku Marine Reserve, which were perfectly paired with wine from local vineyards; and tried the trout which you can’t buy in restaurants (they’re not allowed to be sold there), freshly caught from the waters of Lake Taupo.
This was followed by cruising on Lake Taupo, a caldera of a volcano and the largest lake by surface area, in New Zealand.
It was also where I sighted, for the first time, snow-capped mountain peaks – part of the World Heritage Tongariro National Park.
Another attraction in Rotorua that I would revisit in an instant is the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. It is New Zealand’s most colourful and diverse geothermal tourist attraction, which TripAdvisor listed as one of the 20 most surreal places in the world.
You will also be amazed with the unique geothermal elements that have been shaped by the volcanic activities over thousands of years. So much so that I could forget about the not-so-pleasant sulphur smell.
Another must-visit in Rotorua is the Te Puia Maori Village. My heart skipped a beat at the Maori welcome ceremony, known as powhiri, which started with a Maori warrior challenging one of the visitors to see if we were friend or foe.
Adrenalin junkies will not be bored at the Skyline Rotorua complex, as there are opportunities to take a gondola ride up to Mount Ngongotaha, and go on luge ride, skyswing and zipline.
One piece of advice if you are planning a trip to Auckland: Do pack for four seasons as you might experience all those seasons in one day.
I would definitely head back to New Zealand in a heartbeat. And hopefully get to explore South Island, too.
This media trip was sponsored by AirAsia X. There are daily return flights from Kuala Lumpur to Auckland via the Gold Coast. For more information, go to www.airasia.com.