Our tour of New Zealand's South Island took us from the flat agricultural land of the Canterbury Plains, west across the rolling foothills and rugged granite peaks of the Southern Alps, then down into the lush green rainforest of the wave-swept west coast, and finally to the ferry dock at Picton. In many ways, even in its European heritage, the South Island is a miniature replica of western Canada. But the North Island, across Cook Strait from Picton, is unlike anything back home a landscape dominated by volcanoes, a climate bordering on sub-tropical, and a society strongly influenced by Maori culture.
Two and a half hours out of Picton the motor vessel Lynx nosed through the narrow opening into Wellington's circular inner harbour and we were treated to a magnificent view of New Zealand's windy capital city. The harbour occupies the flooded crater of a long extinct volcano, and behind the docks and warehouses of the waterfront the city runs up the steep hillsides and curves around three sides of the harbour.
Clarke, our Coach Captain for the North Island, met us at the dock and immediately set out on a tour of the city the summit of Mt. Victoria, the houses of Parliament, and finally the famous Wellington Cable Car. Built at the turn of the century, when horse-drawn trams were the only alternative to walking, the tramway connected new suburbs to the city. Originally powered by a steam winch, it became an instant success, and today the upgraded tram continues to serve both local commuters and tourists. We rode it to the top and spent several hours exploring the trails and viewpoints in the Botanical Gardens.
From Wellington we travelled north along the Tasman coast to the town of Bulls, then inland to the "Desert Road" that skirts Tongariro National Park with its three active volcanoes. Mt. Ruapehu, highest mountain on the North Island, is a multi-peaked volcano with a hot, ice-ringed Crater Lake simmering near its summit. It is also the North Island's principal ski area. During a previous visit to New Zealand I climbed Ruapehu and watched steam curling off the glassy surface of the Crater Lake as I sat in the snow eating lunch.
That serene vista has been shattered several times since then, most recently in 1995 and 96 when violent explosions produced clouds of black ash and sent debris flows rushing down the upper slopes. The activity played havoc with skiing but the inconvenience paled in comparison to the disaster of 1953. In that year an eruption blocked the overflow from the lake and when the dam burst the resulting lahar, a slurry of water, ash, and rock, washed out a railway bridge moments before a crowded express train sped off the tracks killing 153 people.