Far North in the South Pacific
|Auckland, New Zealand, and its landmark Sky Tower (courtesy, Tourism Auckland)|
Boy was I wrong about New Zealand. The sub-tropical North Island had none of the glaciers, peaks, or fissured fjords I'd always associated with the island nation. A mash-up of Hawaiian beaches and northern California wine country, the North Island is pastoral and green, and temperatures never dipped below 75 degrees during the 12 days I spent roaming about in February (austral August). Determined to see as much as possible during my short visit, I logged some 300 miles on two-lane country roads (complete with left-sided driving!) to the northern tip of the tail that is the stingray-shaped north island. The welcoming Kiwi spirit was ubiquitous. People called me "mate"and genuinely meant itand every day was a culinary adventure in fresh-caught seafood and distinctive local wines.
Dipping below the equator makes people do strange things to celebrate the achievement, and I was no exception. Just hours after stepping off the 12-hour flight from Los Angeles, I signed up for a cable-supported freefall off Auckland's tallest building, the 700-foot Sky Tower. New Zealand's largest city and home to about one million of the nation's four million people (and recognized as having the largest concentration of Polynesian people in the world), Auckland was built on 49 extinct volcanoes, spanning a seven-mile volcanic isthmus, separating two harborsthe Waitemata and Manukau. From above, the undulating landscape and water was arresting. In the Maori language, Auckland is known as Tamaki Makau Rau, or "the maiden with 100 lovers," a name it earned for being desired by all and conquered by many.
"Kia ora, mate," said Ki, my cheery Maori guide, before strapping me into a harness and leading me onto a narrow platform 630 feet in the air. "Here's where you jump!" Literally meaning "be well," kia ora is all-purpose Maori for hello, goodbye, and life is good. It's used much like aloha is in Hawaii. But truth be told, with my toes dangling above the gaping void, my being wasn't very well.
Seized by my fear of heights, I inched up to the edge, where pride finally forced me into space. (Heck, a ten-year-old girl and her grandmother had jumped before me.) Cable-supported freefalling is like bungee jumping lite and safer than crossing most city streets, but the 11-second, 45-mph drop was grueling. Feet on the ground, I felt like I'd completed a tribal initiation.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication