After a two day, thousand mile voyage from Tasmania, Australia across the Tasman Sea, with Albatrosses and Boobies trailing our ship, our first day in New Zealand was in Milford Sound. In addition to the 1,000 foot rock walls and 500 foot waterfalls, it was a great intro to the “Shaky Isles,” New Zealand islands which finally emerged from the sea only 25 million years ago. The 500 million years old gneiss, schist, and granite rocks formed deep in the earth as New Zealand split off what was is now Australia. As the Pacific plate split off from the Indo Australian plate, geologic forces caused what is New Zealand to rise and fall while it straddled the Alpine Fault which is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire.
Milford Sound was caused by 2 million years of glaciers coming and going. During the last 10,000 years, very heavy rain and snowfall in this southwest corner of New Zealand caused very fast moving glaciers. This area received up to 40 feet of snow and rain per year. The fast moving ice cut into weaknesses in the rock, causing 4,000 foot rock walls with 9,000 foot mountains covered with glaciers feeding hanging valley waterways leading to 500 foot waterfalls. The combination of narrow channels, sheer rock walls, mountains, glacier feed waterfalls, and the rainy mist made for a magnificent spectacle of nature.
New Zealand’s 1,000 mile separation and young geologic age results in no native mammals except bats, and no poisonous snakes or insects. The water in most of its rivers can be drank directly because of the limited amount of bacteria; there are no cockroaches, house flees, or mosquitoes. New Zealand is very aggressive in protecting its environment. We left Tasmania with New Zealand Emigration and Public Health officials on board. To reduce the chance of introducing dangerous agents, all of us who got off the ship and walked in a forest, farm, or anywhere there were wild animals had to have our shoes inspected. All meat, fruit, and animal products, including cheese and honey were confiscated. While we were going through Milford Sound, I met one of the health officers who had been a hiking guide in this area for eight years. He pointed out a crack in the rock that ran from the water to the top of the mountain. It was the Alpine Fault, and he said, “The rock formations you will find at the top of the southern island were right here millions of years ago. Those rocks moved north about 700 miles.” Geologist estimate that when the current stress between the two plates lets go there could be about 100 foot movement along the fault.
The Indo-Australian plate pushes northeast and under the Pacific Continental plate as it moves southwest in jerks and jolts. This seismic action continues today causing New Zealand to have many very destructive earthquakes. The fault cuts diagonally across the South Island and under New Zealand’s second largest city and its capital Wellington on the south end of North Island.
Our first steps on land in New Zealand were in Port Charles, gateway to Dunedin, with its historic buildings and the train tour of the Taieri Gorge. I was surprised to find on the dock enormous stacks of logs, each with a number. This scene was repeated in all the ports; New Zealand exports a variety of California pine tree that is harvested every 23 years to make paper, 2×4’s, tooth picks, and chop sticks.
Christchurch, the next destination, is still recovering from a series of major earthquakes: a magnituide 7 in fall of 2011 and a 6.3 in February 2012. Unfortunately, the city is now only reached by my favorite seaport, Akaroa. Access by the much closer port, Lyttelton Harbour is still restricted by earthquake damage. The epicenter was under the area of the road from Lyttelton to downtown. Instead of a 30 minute drive we had 2 hour trip around a mountain each way.
Akaroa is a small charming town with a French flavor on the edge of a caldera in the center of an ancient volcano. The town was settled by France in 1840 but was lost to England by the Treaty of Waitangi, which the indigenous Morai chief signed 13 days before the French arrived, but they stayed and left their mark.
The damage to Christchurch was and still is extensive; ten thousands of homes were destroyed and hundreds of central city buildings were destroyed or severely damaged. The water and sewer system had to be rebuilt. The ground under the buildings became like water. Most of the 181 people that were killed were in the Canterbury Television Building when it collapsed; the structure had been designed by a person who had given himself his own degree and license. Many more would have died except for the strict building standards that were initiated years earlier.
Almost all of the 181 deaths occurred in 5 story building designed by a guy who gave himself his engineering license. The families of the dead put their favorite chairs in the White Chair Memorial.
Next was my wife’s favorite port, Picton, because of its craft market and shopping. It was also one of my favorite New Zealand areas because of the Marlborough wineries.
The Marlborough area is the northern portion of the south island. They grow and we enjoyed the finest signature New Zealand wine, made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes. From there, we sailed from Picton to the north island and the Capital of New Zealand Wellington.