Nuclear-free New Zealand takes the lead when it comes to conservation. Touring through the South Island, Casey-Ann Seaniger falls in love with a land that holds its natural beauty dear.
There is something about New Zealand that leaves Aussie travellers in awe of how our Kiwi cousins got it so right.
Within an hour of being on the road in the South Island, the landscapes merge from one stunning scene to the next.
I let my eyes wander into the distance where a moody grey mist descends down over the endless, rolling green hills.
We go past an abundance of free-range chook and sheep farms where the animals have hundreds of acres to roam free.
As dusk sets in, I spot a sole, forlorn-looking farmer, hunched over, herding his sheep out of sight.
Quaint old stone farmhouses flicker past the window as we pass vineyards, dense rainforests and waterfalls that thunder to the ground.
There are wind farms and hydro power stations, mountainous green humps, granite cliffs, towering snow-capped peaks and barren gullies.
I am travelling through the South Island by coach with Grand Pacific Tours along with 33 other travellers aged from 40 right up to 80.
We are interested to know how New Zealand became a leader in conservation. The reasons why they have not been lured into over-population or the politics of economic prosperity at any cost may be put down to a few things.
The Maori mantra of Nga Taonga Tuku Iho O Noa Tupana, roughly translated to "Treasures left to us by our Ancestors”, seems a force in national decision-making.
The commitment to farming, green-scapes and open spaces in favour of commercial projects is a binding thread linking this community and the tourist dollar.
A government-built nation-wide cycle track and a ruling that toppled trees in national parks cannot be removed or used for profit, are examples of this.
Other reasons may lie in history. New Zealand’s commitment to a clean, green image was signified internationally when it passed strong anti-nuclear laws in 1987.
When the Prime Minister at the time, David Lange, controversially told America it would remain nuclear-free, he said, “It is the price we are prepared to pay.” The story brings approving nods from my fellow travellers.
As we roll into in a new town, the mood on the bus is jovial. Driver Chris warns us to be careful as we troop down the steps of the coach. “Now - watch when you get off - there are hordes of people out there, you might get trampled on,” he yells.
I first notice the deafening silence, then, the ruby-stained wings of a butterfly fluttering above my head in the light spring breeze.
We soon realise Chris’s joke when he explains that the definition of traffic jam over here is considered seeing three cars up ahead.
South Islanders live peacefully, finding solace in salmon and cod fishing. They spend their afternoons enjoying BBQs in the mountains. In winter they grow kale and swedes for stockfeed, and when it’s all eaten, they turn it all over again for summer.
Outside Christchurch, locals have set up salmon farm cafes, which sell wood-smoked Rakaia salmon.
The next day I decide to go on a scenic flight in a glider over New Zealand’s highest mountain, Mt Cook.
Out of the window, I peer down crystal blue glaciers that seem almost close enough to touch. “I’m not flying over the mountains, I’m flying in the mountains,” says the lady beside me.
We later arrive in the historic Victorian town of Oamaru to see some of the best 19th century architecture in New Zealand. We explore museums, shops and galleries, and visit the local cheese factory. We watch a traditional limestone sculptor labouring over his craft. At a little bookshop, I stumble across $100 worth of rare, out-of-print books.
It’s not long before I meet Pat from Queensland, doting grandmother and the quintessential first-time traveller - wanting to step outside her comfort zone but not go too far.
After a three-hour international flight, picking up some different coloured currency to pop in her purse and a few days on the road, Pat seems content. “It’s so safe you could swim across here,” she bellows, elbowing me in my side.
We stop off to devour some freshly baked apple and strawberry jam scones at the Glenfalloch Gardens outside of Dunedin where rhododendrons are in full bloom.
Outside, an impeccable afternoon sun washes over our skin. We come across a pond where a log covered in thick moss has fallen over the water. Blood orange petals, rich purple azaleas and magnolias float peacefully, letting off a glittering reflection. If fairies existed, they would live here.
Back on the road, our driver offers up another quirky tale.
“The guy in this town…” says Chris… “Well, he used to sell possum meat pies but he got in trouble from the government so now he gives ‘em away for a $4 donation.”
On my final night we board one of the last original coal-fired passenger steamships, the 1912 vintage TSS Earnslaw.
As we cruise to dinner at sunset in Queenstown, with the opaque reflection of Lake Wakatipu shimmering in the background, I reflect on the last seven days.
We have had plenty to do. We visited the turquoise waters of Lake Tekapo, the glorious sights of Milford Sound and the glow-worm caves in Te Anau. In Dunedin we skolled whisky with a Scotsman at a traditional Haggis ceremony and visited the nearby Larnach Castle.
Once at the Walter Peak High Country Farm house, we chow down on a gourmet BBQ. No one eats alone, and our bellies are full.
A fellow passenger, Kevin, travelling with his wife Val, remarks “We now wonder why it took us 40 years to go to a country a mere three hours away which gave us so much joy.”
It’s a sentiment shared.
At almost midnight, the pianist begins to plays his last song for the evening, the famous farewell poem written by Robert Burns, Auld Lang Syne.
The melody casts a spell over the ship, and as we bid goodbye to new friends, it seems a fitting final song for this exact moment, depicting a wonderful, timeless trip that we’ve shared together.
This article originally appeared in the December 2014/January 2015 edition of 50 something magazine.