New Zealand: Introduction

  • © moonaana,

    © moonaana,


A word of advice to start with: don’t ever say that New Zealand is ‘somewhere near Australia’. Firstly, the two landmasses are, after all, separated by a more than two and a half hour flight. Secondly, the rivalry between the two nations can sometimes take on strange forms, even if it’s not always meant seriously. It’s bad enough that the kiwi (New Zealand’s emblem), of all creatures, is reputedly descended from the Australian emu rather than the long-extinct New Zealand moa. The Aussie, according to the mocking Kiwi (of the human variety), is the uncouth descendant of British convicts who settled on the continent in 1788. Kiwis on the other hand, replies the Aussie, are simply afraid that their island state could slip off the bottom right-hand corner of the map for ever. And their even greater fear is that nobody will notice.

4.4 million people share the country with 40 million sheep

Their existence on the fringe of world events is taken by New Zealanders with a bit of self irony. They call themselves Kiwis after the endemic, half-blind, flightless and rather plump bird. Some 40 million sheep and 4.4 million inhabitants share North Island, South Island and Stewart Island in the far south. The distance from top to bottom is approx. 1700km (1060mi); the surface area 103,500mi² – slightly larger than the UK which covers 95,000mi². If one were to dig a hole between France and Morocco through the centre of the earth, one would – theoretically – come out in New Zealand.

The wealthier, more densely inhabited North Island is worlds apart from the economically poor but, from a scenic point of view, far richer South Island. The metropolis of Auckland, where – statistically speaking – almost every third New Zealander lives, is on North Island. And so is the capital city, Wellington, even if it is on the very southern-most promontory. South Island, with its ‘major cities’ Dunedin and Christchurch can barely counter that.

Geologically speaking, New Zealand is a 'newcomer'

Geologically speaking, New Zealand is a ‘newcomer’, having risen from below the seas just 100 million years ago. The earth, by comparison, is some 4.7 billion years old. The fact that, deep down, powerful tremors are unleashed from time to time is due to the earthquake zone in which New Zealand is located. In 1931, seismic activity levelled the towns of Napier and Hastings, killing more than 250 people. An earthquake in early 2011 devastated the city of Christchurch. That there is still a lot going on in the centre of the earth can be seen in many places on the surface. Extensive geothermal activity can be found in and around Rotorua, and on the Coromandel Peninsula hot water even filters up through the sand on one of the beaches. The volcano Mt. Tarawera near Rotorua last erupted in 1886 and obliterated a whole village – now an open-air museum known as ‘The Buried Village’.

New Zealand is really a peaceful corner of the earth. There are no dangerous wild animals. You can hike through the jungle as safely as if you were taking a Sunday stroll through a public park anywhere else. Criminality may have increased over the past few years in major cities but, compared to the rest of the world, New Zealand is still a little bit of paradise.

Environmental awareness is still not part of the Kiwis' everyday life

The way they treat their environment, however, is not as it could be. The Kiwis limp along behind other western countries with regard to environmental protection. That’s surprising, especially considering that an environmental party was founded in Wellington way back in 1972 – at that time, it was the only one in the world. Since 1990 the Green Party that emerged as a result has been represented in parliament. Its fight for a clean, green environment in the South Pacific has not been without inconsiderable success, managing to put a stop to mining projects and extending the boundaries of nature reserves and national parks. It is only in everyday life that the Kiwis’ environmental awareness has not been given greater priority. Most simply do not have the money to buy a new reduced-emission car, or to install solar panels on the roof, or double glazing. As a result of prolonged dry periods during the summer, especially on South Island, however, everybody has at least now realised that the country’s energy supply – most of which is generated by hydro-electric plants – is not endless.

Most tourists to New Zealand do not expect large cities, culture or a rich history, but a natural paradise on earth – and they are seldom disappointed. Where else can you find that? Broad, white, South Sea-like sandy beaches where you can dream away all on your own, a luxuriant mixture of green and flowering vegetation, thrilling hiking trails through the mountainous Southern Alps, far from civilisation, and chirpy birds, some of which have lost the ability to fly through a lack of natural enemies, and whose song makes ornithologists’ hearts beat faster. Only the numerous sea creatures in the South Pacific need to fear over enthusiastic deep-sea fishermen.

Spring, summer, autumn, winter – New Zealand lives from season to season. In July, skiers take to the snowy slopes in the Southern Alps around Queenstown and Wanaka while the temperatures in the subtropical north of North Island are still pleasant. Summer, around Christmas and New Year, is the high season when Kiwis head for the water with children, charcoal, a boat and fishing gear in tow. Scenic stretches of the coastline change overnight into campsites – if holiday homes have not already got there first.

Another of the New Zealanders’ passions is caring for their recent history. A 150-year old house attracts amazed visitors who even pay an admission fee. Don’t be taken in by the use of the word ‘museum’. Sometimes this may be little more than a junk room with all sorts of different things that should really be turned out. On the other hand, some collections in tumble-down barns show a devoted attention to detail.

Christmas is high season when the Kiwis head for the seaside

In 1999, the election of the Labour Party under Helen Clark brought political change. The equal rights of the Maoris’ have since been established by law and the protection of their interests is given considerable importance – especially by the Labour Party but also by the conservative National Party that, with the support of Maori representatives among others, is now in power. Nevertheless, the number of Maoris on social benefits or unemployed is still disproportionately high.

It is a long time since New Zealand was considered one of the wealthiest nations in the world. An employee’s average annual income today is around NZ$30,000. Many New Zealanders have to take on second jobs. That makes it even more admirable how Kiwis cope with everyday life: with a lot of improvisation while still enjoying the natural paradise on the doorstep.

The intact natural environment is also the New Zealanders’ trump card. Almost 2 million tourists explore the islands at the end of the world every year – either by car or campervan, by mountainbike or on foot. And they are more than welcome!

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