Kiwis – the people, not the emblematic flightless bird – can’t believe their luck at being born in what they call “Godzone” (God’s own country). Year after year, travellers list New Zealand in the top ten of places they’d like to visit – and you never meet anyone who has been and didn’t love the place. And what’s not to like? With craggy coastlines, sweeping beaches, primeval forests, snowcapped mountains and impressive geysers, the scenery is truly majestic. The forests come inhabited by strange birds that have evolved to fill evolutionary niches normally occupied by mammals, while penguins, whales and seals ring the coast. Maori have only been here for 800 years but retain distinct and fascinating customs overlaid by colonial European and increasingly Asian cultures that together create a vibrant, if understated, urban life.
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Given this stunning backdrop it’s not surprising that there are boundless diversions, ranging from strolls along moody windswept beaches and multi-day tramps over alpine passes to adrenaline-charged adventure activities such as bungy jumping, skiing, sea kayaking and whitewater rafting. Some visitors treat the country as a large-scale adventure playground, aiming to tackle as many challenges as possible in the time available.
Much of the scenic drama comes from tectonic or volcanic forces, as the people of Canterbury know only too well following the Christchurch earthquakes of September 4, 2010 and February 22, 2011. The quakes, along with several thousand aftershocks, collectively devastated the city, which is slowly recovering.
Thousands of residents have left Christchurch, but it remains the second-largest city after Auckland, just pushing the capital, Wellington, into third place. Elsewhere, you can travel many kilometres through stunning countryside without seeing a soul: there are spots so remote that, it’s reliably contended, no human has yet visited them.
Geologically, New Zealand split away from the super-continent of Gondwana early, developing a unique ecosystem in which birds adapted to fill the role of mammals, many becoming flightless because they had no predators. That all changed about 800 years ago, with the arrival of Polynesian navigators, when the land they called Aotearoa – “the land of the long white cloud” – became the last major landmass to be settled by humans. On disembarking from their canoes, these Maori proceeded to unbalance the fragile ecosystem, dispatching forever the giant ostrich-sized moa, which formed a major part of their diet. The country once again settled into a fragile balance before the arrival of Pakeha – white Europeans, predominantly of British origin – who swarmed off their square-rigged ships full of colonial zeal in the mid-nineteenth century and altered the land forever.
An uneasy coexistence between Maori and European societies informs the current wrangles over cultural identity, land and resource rights. The British didn’t invade as such, and were to some degree reluctant to enter into the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document, which effectively ceded New Zealand to the British Crown while guaranteeing Maori hegemony over their land and traditional gathering and fishing rights. As time wore on and increasing numbers of settlers demanded ever larger parcels of land from Maori, antipathy surfaced and escalated into hostility. Once Maori were subdued, a policy of partial integration all but destroyed Maoritanga – the Maori way of doing things. Maori, however, were left well outside the new European order, where difference was perceived as tantamount to a betrayal of the emergent sense of nationhood. Although elements of this still exist and Presbyterian and Anglican values have proved hard to shake off, the Kiwi psyche has become infused with Maori generosity and hospitality, coupled with a colonial mateyness and the unerring belief that whatever happens, “she’ll be right”.
Only in the last forty years has New Zealand come of age and developed a true national self-confidence, something partly forced on it by Britain severing the colonial apron strings, and by the resurgence of Maori identity. Maori demands have been nurtured by a willingness on the part of most Pakeha to redress the wrongs perpetrated over the last 170 years, as long as it doesn’t impinge on their high standard of living or overall feeling of control. More recently, integration has been replaced with a policy of biculturalism – the somewhat fraught notion of promoting two cultures alongside each other, but with maximum interaction. This policy has been somewhat weakened by relatively recent and extensive immigration from China, Korea and South Asia.
Despite having and achieving much to give them confidence, Kiwis (unlike their Australian neighbours) retain an underlying shyness that borders on an inferiority complex: you may well find yourself interrogated about your opinions on the country almost before you’ve even left the airport. Balancing this is an extraordinary enthusiasm for sports and culture, which generate a swelling pride in New Zealanders when they witness plucky Kiwis taking on and sometimes beating the world.
New Zealand packs a lot into a limited space, meaning you can visit many of the main sights in a couple of weeks, but allow at least a month (or preferably two) for a proper look around. The scenery is the big draw, and most people only pop into the big cities on arrival and departure (easily done with open-jaw air tickets, allowing you to fly into Auckland and out of Christchurch) or when travelling to Wellington from the South Island across the Cook Strait.
Sprawled around the sparkling Waitemata Harbour, go-ahead Auckland looks out over the island-studded Hauraki Gulf. Most people head south from here, missing out on Northland, the cradle of both Maori and Pakeha colonization, cloaked in wonderful subtropical forest that harbours New Zealand’s largest kauri trees. East of Auckland the coast follows the isolated greenery and long, golden beaches of the Coromandel Peninsula, before running down to the beach towns of the Bay of Plenty. Immediately south your senses are assailed by the ever-present sulphurous whiff of Rotorua, with its spurting geysers and bubbling pools of mud, and the volcanic plateau centred on the trout-filled waters of Lake Taupo, overshadowed by three snowcapped volcanoes. Cave fans will want to head west of Taupo for the eerie limestone caverns of Waitomo; alternatively it’s just a short hop from Taupo to the delights of canoeing the Whanganui River, a broad, emerald-green waterway banked by virtually impenetrable bush thrown into relief by the cone of Mount Taranaki, whose summit is accessible in a day. East of Taupo lie ranges that form the North Island’s backbone, and beyond them the Hawke’s Bay wine country, centred on the Art Deco city of Napier. Further south, the wine region of Martinborough is just an hour or so from the capital, Wellington, its centre squeezed onto reclaimed harbourside, the suburbs slung across steep hills overlooking glistening bays. Politicians and bureaucrats give it a well-scrubbed and urbane sophistication, enlivened by an established café society and after-dark scene.
The South Island kicks off with the world-renowned wineries of Marlborough and appealing Nelson, a pretty and compact spot surrounded by lovely beaches and within easy reach of the hill country around the Nelson Lakes National Park and the fabulous sea kayaking of the Abel Tasman National Park. From the top of the South Island you’ve a choice of nipping behind the 3000m summits of the Southern Alps and following the West Coast to the fabulous glaciers at Fox and Franz Josef, or sticking to the east, passing the whale-watching territory of Kaikoura en route to the South Island’s largest centre, Christchurch. Its English architectural heritage may have been ravaged by earthquakes – and its people still reeling from the upheaval – but signs of normality are returning, and, as the rebuilding process picks up pace, the city looks set to become the country’s most exciting.
From here you can head across country to the West Coast via Arthur’s Pass on one of the country’s most scenic train trips, or shoot southwest across the patchwork Canterbury Plains to the foothills of the Southern Alps and Aoraki/Mount Cook with its distinctive drooping-tent summit.
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The patchwork-quilt fields of Canterbury run, via the grand architecture of Oamaru, to the unmistakably Scottish-influenced city of Dunedin, a base for exploring the wildlife of the Otago Peninsula, with its albatross, seal, sea lion and penguin colonies. In the middle of the nineteenth century, prospectors arrived here and rushed inland to gold strikes throughout central Otago and around stunningly set Queenstown, now a commercialized activity centre where bungy jumping, rafting, jetboating and skiing hold sway. Just up the road is Glenorchy, a tramping heartland, from which the Routeburn Track sets out to rain-sodden Fiordland; its neighbour, Te Anau, is the start of many of New Zealand’s most famous treks, including the Milford Track. Further south you’ll feel the bite of the Antarctic winds, which reach their peak on New Zealand’s third landmass, isolated Stewart Island, covered mostly by dense coastal rainforest that offers a great chance of spotting a kiwi in the wild.