New Zealand (or Aotearoa – Land of the Long White Cloud), is truly one of the most picturesque and photogenic places on earth and has a special claim to being different from any other land. Indeed, it is unique.
A small island nation of just over 4.6 million people located in the south western Pacific Ocean, New Zealand is about 260,000 square kilometres (100,000 square miles) and has a reputation of having one of the most pristine environments on the planet.
New Zealand is made up of two major land masses, North Island and South Island as well as a number of smaller islands including Stewart Island . The two main islands are divided by a 22km stretch of water called the Cook Strait.
The North Island is known as Te Ika-a-Maui in Maori - the fish of Maui, from the story of Māui, who hauled up the North Island on his waka (canoe), and is the more populous of the two.
The somewhat larger but much less populated South Island is known as Te Waipounamu - the water(s) of greenstone but is also sometimes referred to as Te Waka a Māui - the canoe of Maui.
New Zealand is located approximately 1,500km east of Australia and about 1,000km from the Pacific Islands. Due to its relative remoteness and being water locked, New Zealand was one of the last land masses to be found and settled.
The country is made up of some of the world's most spectacular and varied landscapes. From vast mountain ranges, steaming volcanoes, primeval rainforests, glaciers to sweeping coastlines, New Zealand can be best described as a "pocket edition of the world"!
Geographically isolated from other land masses for at least 80 million years when it split off from the ancient super-continent Gondwanaland, New Zealand's flora and fauna developed species that are entirely unique and found nowhere else.
Ancient plant and animal species such as primitive pines, ferns, flowers, birds and reptiles evolved in isolation and the flightless kiwi and the tuatara can both trace their ancestry back to this long vanished world.
New Zealand is part of a continent called Zealandia, most of which is under the ocean. The country lies across two moving tectonic plates – segments of the earth's crust and as these plates collide, the rocks are being pushed up creating hills and mountains, including the Southern Alps.
Geologically, much of New Zealand is very young and in the last 1.8 million years, huge changes have created the landscape of today. Being geologically active, the Southern Alps have risen thousands of metres and volcanoes have violently erupted. In the ice ages, glaciers moved rock and carved out lake basins and valleys.
The first inhabitants were from Polynesia and the main wave of immigration by eastern Polynesians took place between 1200 and 1300 years ago. Legends tell of the early Polynesian navigators on their epic migration south to Aotearoa - Land of the Long White Cloud. These settlers developed their own distinctive culture called 'Maori'.
Barely 200 years ago, the Europeans arrived and the first European thought to have landed on New Zealand shores in 1642 was a Dutch explorer called Abel Tasman. However, it was a hostile and violent encounter between his crew and local Maori and Europeans did not come back until 1769. It was then British explorer James Cook explored and mapped the entire New Zealand coastline. During the early 19th century, conflict between Maori and the British was quite frequent.
British sovereignty was established under the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi - a pact between Maori chiefs and the British government over land rights. This resulted in many more predominantly British settlers making New Zealand their home but also contributed to more conflict resulting in the New Zealand Wars. These wars were primarily around land ownership and the settlers who occupied the disputed land.
Over two thirds of the population lives in North Island and the remainder in South Island. The majority of New Zealand's population is of European decent while Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand is the most ethnically diverse in the country. It has the largest Polynesian population of any city in the world and about one third of the population (over 1.3 million).
New Zealander's are affectionately known as "Kiwis" and the name derives from the kiwi, a flightless bird native to New Zealand. The kiwi first appeared as a symbol in the late 19th century in New Zealand army badges and soon after, the kiwi appeared in many military badges. In 1906 when Kiwi Shoe Polish was widely sold in the UK and the US the symbol became more widely known.
During the First World War, New Zealand soldiers became known as Kiwis and now New Zealanders overseas and at home are commonly referred to as "Kiwis".
The kiwi has also become the most well-known national symbol for New Zealand, and the bird is prominent in the coat of arms, crests and badges of many New Zealand cities, clubs and organisations.
New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy under England and the Queen is the head of state. New Zealand governs itself through its "Westminster" parliamentary system and currently there are seven political parties presently represented in Parliament by 121 members of Parliament. The public votes every three years and the two main political parties are the National Party and the Labour Party. New Zealand was the first country in the world to give women the vote in 1893.
The flag of New Zealand has been in its current form since 1902. Due to New Zealand's strong British ties at that time, the flag is the British Blue Ensign with four stars representing the Southern Cross. The Southern Cross constellation is one of the striking features of the southern hemisphere sky and the Southern Cross are the four brightest stars in the sky over New Zealand.
English is the predominant language in New Zealand. After WWII, Maori were discouraged from speaking their own language in schools and workplaces and it really only existed as a community language. By the 1980s, Māori leaders began to recognise the dangers of the loss of their language and initiated Māori-language recovery-programs. Now, it is has undergone a renaissance and is declared one of New Zealand's three official languages with involvement in schools and tertiary sectors. Many places throughout the country have dual English and Maori names.
New Zealanders new and old jokingly refer to this land as "Godzone", are quietly proud of their country and all prefer to be known as "Kiwis"!
Asking people what they like about New Zealand usually captures the same two responses...
Firstly, New Zealand has a stunning and diverse range of scenery. Within a short distance, the eastern plains changes to alps and ice and then to wild rainforests, glaciers and rugged coastlines with penguins, seals and dolphins.
And secondly, the people are so friendly...
Exploring New Zealand is like stepping back into 1950's America. People speak English, they say hello to you in the street and in the small towns you'll get talking and be invited in for a cup of tea. Away from the main tourist centres, shop keepers show a genuine interest in you and your needs and have been little influenced by the sales pitches of the cities.
This is what we call "The Real New Zealand".
Sadly, many travellers haven't had the opportunity to actually meet the local people and explore the magic of the country. Many travellers choose to experience New Zealand by way of a large coach tour or alternatively, they have chosen to "self-drive" with a GPS. It was for this reason we guide and host our own intimate small group tours of New Zealand's South Island.
The tragedy concerning the recent history of New Zealand's flora, fauna, the birds, reptiles and insects is the damage caused by humans and the predators they brought with them.
Before people arrived, New Zealand was a land of birds, an avian society and night and day the forests were alive with rustlings, calls, booms, whistles and hoots. Early explorers and European settlers noted that in particular, the New Zealand forest had a loud dawn chorus. This is no longer the case due to extensive loss of forests and the introduction of bird predators and competing species such as wasps. The bellbird and the tui are two of the birds that would have formed part of the dawn chorus since they have a vocal and melodious call. There were over 120 species of geese, ducks, rails, moa, parrots, owls, wrens and other perching birds. Around 70 of these were found only in New Zealand. Almost a quarter were nocturnal, and many were giants. The huge, flightless, foliage-browsing moa occupied niches usually the reserve of browsing mammals and the tiny wren scampered about on the ground like a mouse.
Birds such as the weka, kea and kākāpō evolved in isolation and they had few natural predators apart from the giant Haast's eagle, which swooped down on the very largest moa about 1,000 years ago. It is likely that it was still alive when the Māori arrived.
Many bird species became extinct after the arrival of Polynesians, who brought the kiore (Pacific rat) and the kurī (dog) from Polynesia. Flightless and ground-nesting birds proved easy pickings for Polynesians, who simply walked up to moa and clubbed them. While humans are the most likely cause of the larger birds' extinction, the kiore is the prime suspect in the disappearance of smaller birds and invertebrates.
By the 1900s Europeans had introduced other rat species, ferrets, weasels, stoats, cats, pigs and dogs, which further depleted New Zealand's birds and other animals. European settlement and the drive for pasture saw the forest cover reduce from an original 70 per cent to just 25 per cent which also reduced native bird numbers.
Now, research and management programs aid the recovery of species struggling for survival such as the kakapo, kiwi, kokako and tuatara. Time magazine once described New Zealand as "the ultimate storehouse for discontinued zoological models", and Professor Sir David Bellamy (acclaimed British academic, botanist and TV personality) produced a television documentary about New Zealand called "Moa's Ark – Invaders of the Last Ark".
New Zealand's cuisine can best be described as "Pacific Rim", gaining inspiration from Europe, Asia and Polynesia. This blend of influences has created a delicious range of flavours and food in cafes and restaurants nationwide. For distinctly New Zealand style dishes, there's lamb, pork and cervena (venison), salmon, crayfish (lobster), Bluff oysters, whitebait (smelt), paua (abalone), mussels, scallops, pipis and tuatua (both are types of New Zealand shellfish), kumara (sweet potato), kiwifruit, tamarillo and pavlova, the national dessert. There is also New Zealand's national icecream – Hokey Pokey.
Kiwis have always enjoyed their food and it is not only the hearty meal in which they now excel. There are many fine dining restaurants to compliment bistros, cafes, bakeries and a coffee culture
Its distinctiveness is more in the way New Zealanders eat, generally preferring as relaxed and unaffected as possible, in keeping with the laidback Kiwi psyche.
For some years now, New Zealand has had an excellent reputation for wines and in particularly Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Most wine is produced by boutique wineries so there is plenty to try. Beer is also popular and besides the large breweries there are many local micro-breweries producing more flavoured brews.