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.
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.