13 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 41

A bit too perfect

Lucy Vickery

If Australia, as a nation, is negotiating late adolescence, cocksure but fragile, striving to establish its identity, then New Zealand is a child: clear-eyed, blemishfree, with a steady, candid gaze.

My introduction to this gigantic adult playground came by way of a promotional video, shown by Air New Zealand on the flight from London to Auckland and starring the country's Prime Minister, gutsy, trouser-clad Helen Clark. The no-nonsense name suits Ms Clark, who has the aura of a strict but fair headmistress. In an impressively gung-ho fashion, she tackles a series of stomach-churning activities available to visitors — a 100-metre abseil into the Lost World caves at Waitomo on the North Island, a ride on the Hamilton jetboat, complete with 360-degree spins, and an exhausting-looking glacier hike — that leave her male companion looking weak and almost tearful. The Kiwi experience offers endless scope to be scared witless, it seems: to the list endured by Ms Clark, add freefall parachuting, bridge-swinging, and bungee jumps of unimaginable horror.

Helen Clark comes across, as did all the Kiwis I met in the course of my trip, as infinitely approachable, so that had I encountered her on the street in Auckland, I might well have gone up to her and said, 'Hello. We met on the plane.' This openness may, in part, be a consequence of the fact that there is more than enough room for everyone: just 3.8 million Kiwis share land masses — the North and South islands — that together are roughly the size of Great Britain. For the solitude-seeker, then, there is ample opportunity to avoid seeing another person for long stretches of time: and on the walks (or 'tramps', as the Kiwis call them) for which NZ is renowned this engenders a sense of intimacy that is not normally associated with wide open spaces. There are as many tracks as you could ever want — from the Abel Tasman coastal track (two to three days), which follows the immaculate beaches and clear waters of the northern half of the South Island, to the worldfamous Milford Track (four days), through staggeringly beautiful glacial scenery.

New Zealand's physical attributes have become well known, thanks to their exposure in Lord of the Rings, but still they merit listing: glacier-fed lakes of an indescribable shade of blue, craggy coastlines, glassy fjords, erupting geysers, smooth, buff-coloured beaches, subtropical forests and rolling green farmland dotted with cows that look contented to the point of smugness. For a traveller on the run from the rigours of urban life, it is tempting to project on to these isolated islands — even Australia is more than 1,000 miles away — cliched fantasies of what life might have been like in some sort of age of innocence. None of these attributes is unique to New Zealand, but what is unusual is that they are in such close proximity to one another and therefore accessible in a relatively short space of time. It is possible to get a decent overview of both islands in three, or even two, weeks. And if the air ticket seems expensive for a trip of relatively short duration, such is the country's diversity that the experience has a sort of gratifying buy-oneget-one-free feel to it.

Getting around is straightforward and affordable, be it by rental car, train or shuttle bus. I travelled on a backpacker bus, which is cheap, reliable and flexible. And if the drivers had something of the holiday rep about them — upbeat yet slightly strained commentary that speaks of having been delivered thousands of times before; an insistence on a chirpy chorus of 'Good morning' from their passengers before leaving each day; and a fondness for group-bonding exercises: quizzes, singsongs, etc. — they were cheerful and obliging none the less.

If! had to find fault with New Zealand, and inevitably I did, it might be excessive perfection and a consequent lack of edge. It is essentially a benign place (in contrast to Australia, most wildlife is harmless, and even shark attacks are rare), and from the moment I arrived in Auckland to be greeted by complimentary tea and coffee dispensed by a woman who was the epitome of benevolent helpfulness, and enough free luggage trollies for all (no fumbling for change, which you've never got anyway when you first arrive in a country), everything was easy and everything worked. I don't subscribe to the view that 'real' travel should entail a degree of struggle, and it would be overstating things to say that I missed flicking frantically through phrasebooks and encounters with obstructive officials or surly, unhelpful keepers of important snippets of information, but from time to time I did find myself seeking refuge from flawlessness in memories of those places that are deeply frustrating but perhaps all the more enchanting for that.

Come to think of it, one of my fantasies did fall somewhat short of expectations. I had been brimming with excitement at the prospect of swimming with the dusky dolphins that are to be found along the northeastern coast of the South Island; of frolicking with one of the world's most playful and acrobatic species in a warm sea, filled with a sense of wellbeing and possibly even spiritual regeneration.

Instead I found myself, on a chilly and overcast morning in Kaikoura, two hours north of Christchurch, grappling with a foulsmelling wetsuit in a cramped room at the headquarters of Dolphin Encounter. It was tempting to back out and slope off for breakfast on the seafront, but I was bolstered by the enthusiasm of a company representative who gave us an introductory talk about how to behave with the dolphins. I shuffled on to the bus with my rubber-clad brethren and we were ferried to the boat. Only a few miles offshore and bingo: hordes of dolphins. We leapt obediently into the dark, icy waters, where we thrashed around as instructed, making high-pitched squeaking noises which were supposed to attract our playful friends. It worked. Before I knew it, I was surrounded by so many psychopathic-looking dolphins that I began to feel intimidated and panicky. My mask filled with water and I flailed towards the boat, gasping.

At times, dolphins notwithstanding, my cynical mind wondered whether it might not all be too good to be true: on a particularly perfect day the chalk-white-weatherboard picket-fenced bungalows seemed reminiscent of the stage-managed world of The Truman Show, and the luminous green that surrounds them brought to mind the false island paradise stumbled upon by Pi Patel in Yann Martel's novel Life of Pi — 'This is green. In fact, it was chlorophyll heaven . . . a green to get drunk on' — or the images in pamphlets distributed by the Jehovah's Witnesses that depict the cleansed and beautified world of the Thousand Year Reign of Christ. With a characteristic absence of self-deprecation, the Kiwis refer to their country as `Godzone' (God's own country). Does it live up to this sobriquet? I'd go there and find out, if I were you.