An Ancient Country
About 150 million years ago New Zealand was just a small part of the supercontinent called Gondwanaland, consisting of present-day Australia, Antarctica, India, Africa, and South America. About 70 million years ago, New Zealand separated from Australia and Antarctica. Geographically isolated and uninhabited by humans until A.D. 700 (at the earliest), New Zealand reveals its unique natural history in its unusual animals and plants, which have long since disappeared elsewhere.
The Pacific and Indian-Australian tectonic plates meet along a line of collision that runs through present-day New Zealand, producing the Taupo Volcanic Zone in the North Island and Alpine Fault in the South Island. A deep-sea survey has revealed that a new continent is gradually being created on New Zealand's east coast. As the Pacific Ocean crust plunges under the eastern North Island, thick slabs of sea sand and mud are scraped off in huge wedges and slowly pasted to the offshore edge, forming a series of ridges along the coast between East Cape and Kaikoura.
The North Island produces enough boiling water and steam to fill all the jacuzzis and saunas in the galaxy--or at least Los Angeles! Volcanic and geothermal areas smolder along the Taupo Volcanic Zone from the Bay of Plenty to the central North Island. Three volcanoes dominate this area: Mt. Ruapehu and Mt. Ngauruhoe, both active, and dormant Mt. Tongariro. Mt. Ruapehu erupted in September 1995, rocketing ash, steam, and car-sized rocks into the sky from the volcano's Crater Lake. About 50 km offshore from Whakatane in the Bay of Plenty lies White Island, an active volcano often obscured by clouds of steam. Discovered and named by Captain Cook in 1769, White Island erupts ash intermittently to this day.
On the west coast the dormant cone of Mt. Egmont/Taranaki towers over the Taranaki Volcanic Zone, and farther north, both Auckland and the Bay of Islands are classified as separate volcanic zones. The waters of Lake Taupo lie in an enormous deep crater in the center of the North Island--the area has a violent history of volcanic eruptions, though the last one was nearly 19 centuries ago. You'll find no volcanos active within the last 2,000 years on the South Island, but you can see remains of the colossal twin volcanos that formed Banks Peninsula, south of Christchurch.
Mountains, Glaciers, and Lakes
Although the North Island offers impressive volcanos and mighty Lake Taupo, the South Island is really the place to go for snowcapped mountain scenery and perfect lakes set in idyllic surroundings. Most of New Zealand lies at least 200 meters above sea level, but the tallest peak, Mt. Cook (3,744 meters), rises among the magnificent Southern Alps, spine of the South Island. Spectacular glaciers are scattered throughout the landscape--the mighty Fox and Franz Josef are still easily accessible from the main route down the West Coast. In other areas of the South Island are U-shaped valleys, moraines, and deep lakes left behind by glaciers of earlier ice ages. New Zealand's numerous lakes vary greatly in size and depth, many of the largest concentrated in the South Island and fed by glaciers and snow packs of the Southern Alps. Many fast-flowing rivers and meandering streams follow the contours of the land. Extensive flat plains of rich alluvial soil deposited by these rivers provide plenty of valuable agricultural land; vast gravel plains, such as those found in the South Canterbury region of the South Island, are predominantly used as sheep country.
New Zealand's coastline offers a bit of everything. Sand stretches as far as the eye can see in some areas, such as Ninety Mile Beach at the tip of the North Island; in other areas, such as the Bay of Islands in the northeast of the North Island and Marlborough Sounds at the South Island's northern tip, deep coves and sheltered bays dotted with tiny islands fringe the coast. The west coast of the South Island is lined with rocky cliffs, blowholes, caves, and rugged surf beaches where seals haul themselves ashore; in the far southwest corner, 14 magnificent fiords deeply indent the coastline, and along a small section of the east coast, several sandy beaches are strewn with large, perfectly circular boulders. For sandy beaches and warm, aquamarine waters, stay in the north; for rugged surf-swept beaches, intriguing rock formations, and deep, mirror-surfaced fiords, head south.
Covering more than 2.1 million hectares of the country, 13 of New Zealand's most beautiful areas have been set aside for total preservation in their natural state and designated national parks. They offer vast areas of untouched wilderness where hikers, mountaineers, anglers, hunters, and flora and fauna enthusiasts are in their element. In the North Island lie Te Urewera, Tongariro, Egmont, and Whanganui national parks; in the South Island, Abel Tasman, Kahurangi, Nelson Lakes, Arthur's Pass, Westland, Paparoa, Mt. Cook, Mt. Aspiring, and Fiordland national parks. Three maritime parks, Bay of Islands and Hauraki Gulf maritime parks in the North Island and Marlborough Sounds Maritime Park in the South Island, preserve some of the most spectacular and accessible coastal scenery, and 19 forest parks, used for conservation, recreation, and timber production, contain some of the best bush scenery in the country.
All the national parks, reserves, forest parks, and state forests are under the jurisdiction of the Department of Conservation, created on 1 April 1987 by the Conservation Act. The department manages the land and wildlife, promotes the conservation of natural and historic resources, produces educational and promotional material, and fosters recreation and tourism in conjunction with conservation. The best way to obtain information on a particular area or park is to contact the local Department of Conservation office.
New Zealand has an oceanic, temperate climate; although it varies from subtropical in the north to almost subarctic in the mountainous areas of the south, overall it's relatively mild. Seasonal variations are not pronounced: summers never get uncomfortably hot; winters are mild, with snow usually confined to the high country and southern lowlands. Rainfall levels vary throughout New Zealand; winter tends to be the wettest season--but not so wet that it should be avoided. If you're coming from the Northern Hemisphere, keep in mind that the seasons are opposite--spring is September through Novvember, summer December through February, autumn March through May, and winter June through August.
The North Island tends to be warmer and drier than the South Island, though the highest mountain peaks often have snow year-round. It has an average rainfall of 130 cm and prevailing westerly winds. Auckland (where most visitors enter New Zealand) averages a summer temperature of 23deg. C and a winter temperature of 14deg.. Wellington, perched on the edge of Cook Strait, generally receives slightly colder weather with temperatures ranging from 26deg. C in summer to 2deg. C in winter. The capital also has a reputation for windy weather, at times making the ferry trip between the two main islands unforgettably rough.
The differences in temperature and weather in each area are more pronounced in the South Island. The pressure systems travel west to east (the Southern Alps have a noticeable "wet" and "dry" side), the lows dumping considerable rain and cold temperatures on the west side of the mountains; snow is a permanent fixture on the highest peaks. On the east side of the Southern Alps the rainfall can be as low as 30 cm and temperatures are a good deal warmer. On the east coast, Christchurch averages temperatures in the low 20s C in summer and low teens in winter. Dunedin, farther south, averages 19 degrees C in summer and 10 degrees C in winter, and Invercargill, New Zealand's southernmost city, experiences slightly colder temperatures. Snow is relatively common in the southern lowlands as well as the higher hills, and occasionally falls even at sea level.
As the mountains generally run north-south and the pressure systems move west-east, the worst weather hits the highest barrier--the Southern Alps. Rivers and streams can flood rapidly from snowmelt and rain, avalanche risks increase dramatically, and temperatures drop quickly. Watch for an increase in wind strength and the formation of large sheets of cloud. Also watch for clouds gathering over the lee side of the ranges--and expect rain. Gale-force winds, snow, or blizzards can come with these storms at any time of year in the mountains. The New Zealand Mountain Safety Council suggests three important rules to follow: be aware of approaching bad weather (expect it in the mountains), be adequately prepared with warm, wind- and waterproof clothing, and don't cross flooded rivers--wait until they subside (generally as quickly as they flood). For detailed weather forecasts, check the newspaper or tune in to local radio or TV stations. If you're in a national park, park HQ usually has the latest local weather forecast.
Clothing to Suit the Climate
If you're traveling clear around the country you're sure to bump into most types of weather--and even if you're staying in one area, the weather still changes rapidly. The safest policy is to be equipped for everything, no matter the season. Wear layers of clothing (shirt, sweater, and windproof jacket) to strip off and replace as needed. Wet-weather gear, a warm windproof jacket, wool sweater or cardigan, bathing suit, and comfortable footwear (hiking boots if you're venturing off the beaten track) are essentials at all times of year. (For more clothing tips, see "What to Take," under "Services and Information" in the On the Road chapter.)
New Zealand's long isolation from other continents is responsible for some unique developments in plant and animal life. Before humans arrived, much of the country was covered in dense tangled forests and heavy undergrowth alive with native birds, many flightless. With the introduction of grazing animals, much of the undergrowth was thinned out; early settlers felled the forests, and introduced predators chased many unique birds into extinction. Today, the remaining native forests are lush wonderlands of subtropical appearance. Ferns, mosses, and lichens carpet the floor, tree ferns grow up to 10 meters high, and twining creepers, nikau palms, palm lilies, tree ferns, and many species of native trees intermingle to form a dense green canopy overhead--called "the bush" by New Zealanders. For fern lovers, New Zealand is a delight. Ferns (one of the country's national emblems) seem to grow everywhere--on trees, along rivers and streams, on hillsides, and in open areas, and the more than 150 species range in size from filmy two-cm ferns to impressive 15-meter tree ferns.
Altogether 112 native tree species grow in New Zealand amongst the dense undergrowth and large areas of scrub (mainly manuka or tea-tree). A few ancient kauri pine (Agathis australis) forests can still be appreciated on the North Island, growing naturally only north of latitude 39 degrees south. These magnificent trees grow up to 53 meters high, losing their lower branches to become long bare cylinders of intricate design with large bushy tops. They were the favorites of the forest for Maori war canoes--a vast canoe could be chiseled out of one tree trunk. Unfortunately, they were also the favorites of early shipbuilders and settlers, who rapidly depleted the forests without much thought to the future--the kauri takes about 800 years to mature. Nowadays, these impressive trees survive in relatively few areas, towering above the other trees in small groves or randomly in the bush. Two areas in Northland, northwest of Dargaville, are worth a special visit just to see these giants--Waipoua Forest Park, with two very famous trees (one is estimated to be at least 2,000 years old), and the small but beautiful Trounson Kauri Park.
Most of New Zealand's flowers are white or cream. However, native flowering trees and shrubs add red and yellow highlights to the evergreen flora of New Zealand. A few of the most spectacular flowering trees are the pohutukawa, rata, and kowhai. The striking pohutukawa (Metrosideros tomentosa), or New Zealand Christmas tree, is a mass of scarlet flowers in December. The rata (Metrosideros robusta), another vividly colored tree also covered in red blossoms, is initially a parasitic vine, growing up a host tree (often strangling it) until it has grown roots and become a tree in its own right. The bright yellow hanging blossoms of the kowhai (Sophora tetraphera) bloom in all their glory during spring. Large beech (Nothofagus) forests with little undergrowth cover upland areas, and vast areas of land throughout New Zealand have been planted with exotic trees for timber, thus saving the remaining indigenous trees. The most common nonnative tree is the radiata pine. It flourishes here, growing to complete maturity within 35 years--a popular tree with the timber industry.
At least three-quarters of New Zealand's flowering plants are endemic. Orchids are abundant, adding multihued splashes of color to the landscape. About 60 species thrive in the lowland forests and countless beautiful parks and gardens. The alpine flowers are vastly different from those of other countries, with about 500 species of flowering plants found only in New Zealand's alpine areas. Large, white mountain daisies (Genus Celmisia) are the most common; the beautiful Mt. Cook lily (Ranunculus lyallii) is the largest of the buttercups. A rather strange growth called vegetable sheep (Raoulia eximia), a large, low-to-the-ground, cushionlike plant covered in white hairs, grows only in the South Island and is easily mistaken for a sheep from a distance! Apart from the abundance of native wildflowers, New Zealanders also take great pride in their gardens. If you're a flower fancier, stroll through any of the suburbs (particularly of Hamilton, Cambridge, New Plymouth, Napier, and Christchurch) to see a great variety of both indigenous and exotic plantlife, tended with obvious TLC (most New Zealanders are born with green thumbs). Botanical gardens, reserves, and beautiful parks (called "domains") are found in most cities, and are highly recommended as part of any walking tour.
Until humans arrived these islands had no native land animals, except for two species of bat discovered by early settlers. However, the country was alive with birds, no fewer than 250 species. A perfect balance of nature existed between vegetation and birdlife, but when humans set foot on the islands they brought rats, cats, and introduced mammals and birds. Many native birds, unable to adapt to the foreign predators, became extinct. Native birds in the forest today include the tui (with its beautiful song), bellbird (its crystal-clear call is like the ping-pong of a door bell), fantail, kaka, kea, pukeko, morepork, and wood pigeon. The kaka is a shy, brown and green parrot. The kea, a dull brownish-green parrot with red underwings and a hooked beak, lives in the high country and is commonly seen in the Southern Alps as it scavenges around campsites. Cheeky and daring, it can cause a lot of damage to tents, boots, bicycle seats, or anything it can tear with its strong beak, and it has the reputation for sliding down the iron roofs of alpine huts in the wee hours of the morning.
The takahe, a rare bird unique to New Zealand, is found mainly in Southern Fiordland. Large, flightless, blue and green with red feet and bill, it was thought to be extinct until a small colony was rediscovered in 1948. Since then, 120 takahes have been found and are now protected in a restricted area in the Murchison Mountains. Probably the best-known creature of New Zealand is the nocturnal kiwi, a flightless bird found nowhere else in the world--the national emblem of New Zealand. It has a round body covered in dense, stiff feathers (looks like shaggy fur from a distance), strong legs (kicks out when frightened), no tail, tiny invisible wings, a long beak, and a piercing call--"ki-wi." It's not easy to find a kiwi in the bush, but you can see them in a simulated natural environment in the many excellent nocturnal houses throughout the country.
The weka, another flightless bird, is as bold as the kea but not as common. Found in the west coast forests of the South Island and the Gisborne area of the North Island, it also helps itself to the food and property of campers. Introduced birds include the blackbird, thrush, magpie, chaffinch, sparrow, skylark, myna, white-eye, and goldfinch.
Fish, Insects, and Reptiles
Known for its excellent fishing (fly and lure), New Zealand draws angling enthusiasts from around the world to dangle their lines in its lakes and rivers where fish grow to a healthy size and braggable weight and put up an admirable fight. Brown and rainbow trout, salmon, and char are the best-known freshwater fish. Brown trout are widespread and common; rainbow are more common in North Island lakes, but also live in many upland lakes of the South Island. Deep-sea fishing for marlin, sharks, and tuna is a popular sport in the Bay of Islands.
Of the numerous forms of insect life found throughout the country, one of the most audible is the cicada. Twenty or so species of cicada live in New Zealand, mostly above the timberline. Often mistaken for that of crickets, their song in the summer heat is an incredibly loud, raspy, clicking noise--one that seems to intensify in the evening--a distinct part of the summer atmosphere in New Zealand. The tuatara, a lizardlike reptile, now inhabits only about 30 islands off the country's coast (see live ones in the Southland Museum Tuatarium in Invercargill). It is believed to live at least 100 years, has a distinctly prehistoric appearance, and is often referred to as a "living fossil."
The wild animals in New Zealand are descended from pigs, goats, opossums, rabbits, weasels, ferrets, and deer released by European settlers. Some of these--especially deer, rabbits, goats, and opossums--adapted to their new environment so well that they rapidly became an environmental problem and had to be drastically hunted to control their populations. Many domestic animals also adapted well to New Zealand, and play a large part in the success of the country's economy. Sheep (more than 68 million of which dot the countryside--roughly 20 sheep for every resident), cattle, and poultry are of prime importance.
Of eight species of deer, the red deer is the most common and widespread. When first released it had an abundant food supply (rapidly destroying the native forest undergrowth) and no predators, and its numbers increased rapidly. Commercial hunting from helicopters began in the 1960s, followed by profitable heli-hunting with live capture for deer farms. Hunting is still encouraged, but in recent years controlled deer farming has become a valuable part of the economy. The deer are raised for meat, breeding stock, and for their antlers, which when in velvet are sold to the Asian market, crushed, and used as an aphrodisiac. The largest alpine mammals are tahr and chamois, distantly related to the goat. Excellent rock climbers, they are hunted for trophies.