There is something deliciously decadent about having champagne for breakfast. It is part of the hot air ballooning experience in New Zealand, though. And why argue with tradition? New Zealand is a great country for doing things you have never done before. Like punting with the great Richard Hadlee while he imitates a Bollywood hero about to burst into song. But more of that later.
Catching a sunrise while floating gently — ‘effortlessly’ is the word Ballooning Canterbury uses in its brochure — in a balloon brings the clichés alive. Peace, serenity, tranquility, calm, harmony — a thesaurus of variations on the theme engulf you unbidden. Flat land below, the Southern Alps beyond: the combination threatens to make poets out of hacks.
As New Zealand prepares for cricket tourism — it co-hosts the World Cup in February-March 2015 — there is the real danger of fans flying down for the cricket, but missing the action on the field for adventures in the water, air, caves and roads, bridges and hillsides. It may have been a Polynesian voyager named Kupe who, according to myth, discovered New Zealand, but new generations from around the world are discovering the land afresh.
Cricket is not New Zealand’s primary sport — the All Blacks rugby team ensures that — but the Black Caps have been in six World Cup cricket finals; no team has been there more often in the ten editions of the tournament.
A couple of decades ago, when New Zealand last co-hosted the cricket World Cup, there was still an innocence about the game, and the tactics employed by their skipper Martin Crowe both surprised and ultimately, seemed inevitable. For one, he sent out Mark Greatbatch to open, and the baseball term ‘pinch hitter’ was absorbed into cricket. For another, he opened the bowling with the spinner Dipak Patel. For all the innovation, New Zealand was knocked out in the semifinals by Pakistan and its 22-year-old rising star Inzamam-ul-Haq.
John Wright, who opened the batting with Greatbatch (and was later India’s national coach), said in Christchurch recently while giving me a tour of the city, “We were stunned.” Pakistan was 140 for four chasing 263 before Inzamam hit a resounding 60. “There was little we could do,” said Wright.
The match was played at Eden Park, Auckland, a rugby ground which sometimes confused visiting bowlers because it was not shaped like a cricket Oval, causing fielders to be placed just that bit askew. It seemed to suit Mohammad Azharuddin in 1989-90 when he kept square-cutting his way to a 190-plus in a Test match. India plays Zimbabwe there in the 2015 World Cup. But India’s connection with Eden Park goes deeper than that. The ground has an intimate connection with Kolkata’s Eden Gardens.
George Eden, later Lord Auckland, was the governor general of India in the 19th century when the parkland that originally belonged to the Maharajah of Cooch Behar came into his possession. His sisters beautified it, and in time it was gifted to the citizens of Kolkata and named ‘Eden Gardens’. In New Zealand, Captain William Hobson, a protégé of Lord Auckland repaid his patron by naming various places after him including, in 1840, the city of Auckland. He also named a few places after Eden. Mount Eden, for example. And Eden Park, home of rugby and cricket. The All Blacks won the World Cup here in 2011.
Auckland is the most cosmopolitan of the cities in New Zealand. It is both the city of sails and the city of sales. The 328-metre Sky Tower is the tallest building in the country. Persistent rain and winds meant our scheduled Sky Jump had to be called off. Jumpers fall around 60 km per hour until near the ground, then decelerate to a safe landing speed.
The day we chose to walk across the Auckland Harbour Bridge was both cold and windy. Walking across iconic bridges can be liberating. My earlier favourites were the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge. Over them, you simply walked across. Here it is different. You are hooked to the side railing, just in case. Enhancing the user-friendliness of both natural and man-made attractions in New Zealand is the national mania for safety. Harnesses, jackets, helmets, caps and boots are all provided. You can bungee jump off the bridges; the only unexpected event was a loosely-tied shoe flying off a jumper’s foot. A photographer caught the moment — the jump, the thrill, the shoe — all in one frame!
The drive to Hamilton, where the Waikato River flows, lasts three hours. Hamilton, for Indian cricket fans, is where Rahul Dravid once made 190 and 103 in a Test match. The Seddon Park stadium is built for cricket — New Zealanders call these ‘boutique’ stadiums to distinguish them from rugby grounds where cricket is also played. Here, Craig McMillan once made a one-day century in 67 balls; unbelievable, till Virender Sehwag topped that with one off 60. India play Ireland here on March 10.
The call of the Waitomo Glowworm caves is strong. You can either walk through, taking in the glowworms and the natural formations, or you can do a wet trip, floating down the subterranean caves. This is black water rafting, and those who choose to remain dry are often treated to the blood-curdling screams of those who chose the braver but wetter path.
For those who prefer man-made beauty, there is The Hobbiton Movie Set, home of the hobbits in the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies. Guides everywhere are knowledgeable, subtle, trained in man-management (every group has its pain-in-the-neck), and have a sense of humour.
Breakfast at the Hamilton Gardens is for those interested in a quick botanical romp through Italian, American, Chinese, Japanese, Maori and Mughal Gardens.
For me, a highlight was the Clifton County Cricket ground, a clearing surrounded by hills, a community project with cricket, environment and charity as its themes. Sitting on the side of a hill you could easily imagine a match being played down below, witnessed by over a million people! Luckily, it stops with the imagination. For the ground and wicket on the Nilsson family farm is for families, especially children. Hundreds of native plants have already been bedded into the hills; much of the work is voluntary. It is one of the prettiest cricket grounds anywhere. “Whatever we plan,” said a member, “we ask ourselves one question: ‘How will it affect our children?” The club will host the World Cup Art Deco Legends cricket match; Ian Botham, David Gower, Allan Border and Greatbatch are expected to play. Of course, it is not the cricketers who are Art Deco, although Gower might come close.
Napier, one of the prettiest cities in the world, has been constructed in the Art Deco style — think Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, and you will get the idea. An earthquake destroyed the place in 1931, and it was rebuilt thus. There is art here, craft, and wineries like the Elephant Hill in Te Awanga, which looks across the Pacific Ocean. For cricket buffs, Napier is famous for Sachin Tendulkar’s inaugural almost-century: he was 16 years old and was dismissed at 88. He walked back to the pavilion in tears. Also playing that match was the man who in the previous Test had become the first bowler to claim 400 Test wickets: Sir Richard Hadlee.
That Test was held in Christchurch, Hadlee’s home town, and one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The 2011 earthquake destroyed the city centre, and a huge area was deemed uninhabitable. There was the debate over whether Christchurch ought to be rebuilt in its previous image or a new city put in its place. As businesses moved away from the affected central district, there were fears of a ‘doughnut’ city evolving. But as recovery continues, there is a sensible compromise — some heritage buildings will be restored, infrastructure put in place and modern buildings will replace some of the destroyed ones.
Reading about all this at The George Hotel, one is astounded by the scale of the work involved. And at the amazing fortitude of the locals, many of whom have built their lives around the new reality. The George is opposite the picturesque Hagley Park, home of the Hagley Oval, venue of the inaugural match of the World Cup between New Zealand and Sri Lanka. The Oval replaces the destroyed Lancaster Park where international cricket was played earlier. “This is important for us,” said Sir Richard, Ambassador for the World Cup. “It sends out the message that the city is in recovery mode.”
And then came the punt on the Avon River. Amazingly, Sir Richard volunteered to go with us, and one of the startling images of the trip surely was his reaction when asked if he knew about Bollywood. Sir Richard first came to India in 1976 and returned in 1988-89 to break the world record for the most wickets in Tests, so he could not have been unaware of Bollywood.
“Give my regards to Bishan,” he said, speaking of former India captain Bishan Bedi.
Christchurch has much to offer. The hot-air balloon ride apart, there is the jet boating. All goes well skimming the water at great speed till the driver puts his hands up and makes a circular motion. That is the signal to hold down both yourself to the boat and your breakfast to your inside as the boat takes a 180-degree turn and continues on its way. You get the hang of it quickly enough — once again, safety is the keyword. Jackets are supplied, and the only danger is the tendency to buckle once you are on land again! Everything is worth it, though, in that stunning Alpine scenery.
“Come for the cricket, stay for the adventure,” might well be the theme. You may not get to punt with Hadlee or be given a private tour of Christchurch by John Wright, but the Waitomo caves beckon, as do the Harley-Davidsons, which give you a ride around the cities at top speed.
And then of course, there is the champagne breakfast…
In his History of New Zealand, the late Michael King wrote, “Most New Zealanders, whatever their cultural backgrounds, are good-hearted, practical, commonsensical and tolerant. Those qualities are part of the national cultural capital that has saved the country from the worst excesses of chauvinism and racism.” He hit the nail on the head, although in New Zealand, for safety reasons, he would have merely tapped the nail on the helmet.
Quantas and other airlines have round-trip economy class tickets for convenient flights from Delhi to Christchurch from about Rs 92,000. Auckland and Wellington also have international airports with good connections. Air New Zealand (airnewzealand.com) is the leading local carrier within NZ, and Jetstar is another popular option (jetstar.com) for intra-country travel. Point-to-point buses (intercity.co.nz) and rented cars (acerentalcars.co.nz, apexrentals. co.nz) are other practical options, and camper vans (apollocamper.com, britz.co.nz, jucy.co.nz) are extensively used, flexible and affordable way to stay and get around.
If you are only travelling to New Zealand for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015, then apply for an NZ visa via the New Zealand embassy or consulate in New Delhi/Mumbai/Chennai (Rs 8,600; immigration.govt.nz and immigration. govt.nz/branch/India; 011- 46883170/022-61316668/044- 28112472). A Trans-Tasman visa arrangement is in place for the duration of the upcoming World Cup whereby people travelling to both Australia and NZ between 26 January and 5 April 2015 will only need to apply for an Australian visa (vfs-au-in.com/tourist), and they’ll be issued a visitor visa on arrival in NZ.
1 NZ$ = Rs 48
Where to stay
Auckland is among NZ’s most expensive cities so while you can’t go wrong with the splendid location and the spacious and elegant rooms at Sofitel Auckland Viaduct Harbour (from NZ$400; sofitel.com) you may prefer to settle for the reliable standards of Quality Hotel Parnell (from NZ$140; theparnell.co.nz) or the Quadrant Hotels and Suites (from NZ$170; thequadrant.com), which are much easier on the wallet.
Similarly, The George (from NZ$340; thegeorge.com) offers splendid, classic luxury at Christchurch whereas Premier Inn Christchurch (from NZ$100; premierinn.com/en) would be a more affordable and likeable enough option.
Napier pleasingly provides more for less, so you can pick the tidy, quiet and well-located Crown Hotel Napier (from NZ$200; thecrownnapier.co.nz) or the boutique experience of the Art Deco Masonic Hotel (from NZ$160; masonic.co.nz).
Money goes further in Hamilton too (by NZ standards, naturally), with reliable options like the Argent Motor Lodge (from NZ$140; argenthamilton.co.nz) or the Best Western Highgate Motor Lodge (from NZ$130; hygate.co.nz).
Things to see & do
Cricket is sports-crazy New Zealand’s national summer game and the scenic yet compact country of diverse attractions is co-hosting the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 in the 40th anniversary of the event along with traditional rivals Australia, from 14 February to 29 March (schedules and fixtures here: icc-cricket.com/cricket-world-cup/fixtures). The world’s top 14 One Day International (ODI) teams, including title-holders India, will play across seven Kiwi cities — Auckland (aucklandnz. com), Hamilton (hamiltonwaikato.com), Napier (hawkesbaynz.com) and Wellington (wellingtonnz.com/ discover) in North Island, and Nelson (nelsonnz.com), Christchurch (christchurchnz.com/new-zealand) and Dunedin (dunedinnz.com/visit/home) in South Island. There’s much to be explored at leisure between the electric highs of the games.
NZ is renowned for safe adventure holidays and you might like to try hot-air ballooning with Ballooning Canterbury (from NZ$365 for adults; ballooningcanterbury.com) and jet boating (NZ$90; jetthrills.com) at Christchurch.
Black water rafting at the Waitomo Glowworm Caves (from NZ$118; waitomo.com) and a day at the Hobbiton Movie Set (from NZ$75; hobbitontours.com) are very popular attractions in Hamilton; breakfast at Hamilton Gardens (entry free; hamiltongardens.co.nz) is a tranquil experience.
It’s exhilarating to SkyJump (NZ$225; skyjump.co.nz) from the tallest building in NZ and SkyWalk (NZ$145; skywalk.co.nz) 192 metres above Auckland with no railing. The winery and restaurant at Elephant Hill (elephanthill.co.nz) in Hawke’s Bay is a beautiful place for unwinding.