Beaches of glistening sand with not a footprint in sight, primeval forests where the trees are a thousand years old, cauldrons of bubbling mud in a geothermal wonderland, and green pastures where cattle and sheep graze beneath snowy mountain ranges - the diversity of the New Zealand landscape astonishes visitors.
Geologically, the land is remarkably young, with active volcanoes in the North Island, but its flora and fauna are of an antiquity found nowhere else in the world. Some of its plants are so primitive they are described as living fossils. The giant lizard known as the tuatara is the world’s only living relative of the dinosaurs that roamed the earth 220 million years ago. The largest of these scaly beasts is 60cm long and 100 years old. Tuatara can be seen in sanctuaries and on offshore islands.
Of a similarly venerable lineage is the weta, a common garden insect the size of a mouse with spiny legs and giant jaws. The kiwi, New Zealand’s national symbol, a nocturnal, flightless bird with nostrils at the tip of its beak, is also a relic of the time, 70 million years ago, when the fragment of land which became New Zealand broke away from the southern supercontinent of Gondwanaland. With no native mammals (except one species of short-tailed bat) and no marsupials, New Zealand’s birds, reptiles and insects were left alone to pursue their curious lives and evolve unmolested by predators.
Like so many native birds, the kiwi is endemic to New Zealand’s islands but its survival in the wild is tenuous, with predators such as feral cats and stoats now impacting dramatically on numbers. The kiwi’s habitat has also been reduced. In the North Island only pockets of the original lush rain forests remain because the timber was sought after for ships’ masts, boat building and houses, and vast tracts were cleared for pasture. Walking through these precious remnants is an awe-inspiring experience, like being in a leafy, green cathedral, so high is the canopy. The understorey is a mass of ferns, tree ferns, vines, and palms, and delicate mosses and lichens carpet the forest floor. The tallest tree, known by its Maori name kahikatea, reaches 60m and is a type of conifer called podocarp. But the most famous tree is the kauri, one of the largest found anywhere in the world. A specimen in the North Island’s Waipoua forest has a girth of 17.2m, stands 51.2m tall and is more than 2100 years old. This tree is easily accessible to visitors and is so revered it has its own name, Tane Mahuta (God of the forest).
Sanctuary Near the City
Closer to Auckland, the country’s most populous city, visitors can take a boat trip to the sanctuary on Tiritiri Matangi island where volunteers have spent years replanting the native vegetation and where several species of endangered native birds have been successfully established. These include the takahe, the large, bright-blue flightless rail that was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in remote Fiordland in 1948, and the kokako, or blue wattled crow, whose haunting call is only rarely heard in mainland forests.
The mountainous areas of the North and much of the South Island are still dominated by beech forest and it is this spectacular landscape that attracts the more adventuresome visitor for hiking, rock climbing and skiing. In the north, three mountains - Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe - rise magnificently from the central volcanic plateau. Above the tree-line, their rocky slopes offer bounties of yellow ranunculus, white mountain daisy and the tiny sweet-scented pimelea amongst the tawny tussocks (alpine grass). In the South Island the Southern Alps form a mountainous spine ending in the country’s least explored domain, that of Fiordland. The bleak slopes host an extraordinary 600-odd plant species, 93percent of which are unique to New Zealand. Visitors will also inevitably encounter one of the South Island mountains’ clowns, a wily parrot called the kea whose antics can be both alarming and amusing. Kea appear unafraid of humans and will steal objects from cars, and damage windscreen wipers and mirrors. Competition for food in their subalpine habitat has led them to become scavengers and, more disastrously, to attack sheep and, until 1970, they were culled. Now, as with all native birds, it is an offence to kill them.
Predators Still a Pest
While the lack of snakes and venomous insects makes New Zealand’s wilderness areas a safe environment in which to walk, they are also home to wild goats, deer, rats, stoats, weasels and the ubiquitous Australian possum. These introduced animals were harmless in their original habitats, but have become noxious pests in New Zealand. They destroy native trees and other plants by eating new shoots and leaves, compete with native birds for food, and in the case of the kiwi, kill 95percent of kiwi chicks before they are six months old. They also eat the eggs and young of other native birds. Possums are the worst - their population is estimated to be about 70 million despite intensive eradication programmes and the presence of their formidable foe - the car.
Sea Life to See
For visitors interested in marine life, New Zealand’s extensive coastline is a rich environment. A pod of sperm whales lives off the east coast of the South Island near the small town of Kaikoura. Three-hour boat trips take tourists to view the giant creatures, which can be seen all year round. Other species, orca and the odd humpback, also make occasional appearances. Kaikoura’s rocky shore has a resident colony of fur seals and viewing platforms enable visitors to watch them cavorting in the sea. Dolphins are seen all around New Zealand’s waters, with the rare Hector’s dolphin, endemic to New Zealand, best seen in Akaroa, a small settlement near Christchurch in the South Island.
Eyes on the Geysers
Of all New Zealand’s natural splendours, nothing surpasses the geothermal wonderland at Rotorua in the North Island’s central volcanic plateau. Geysers of mineral-rich boiling water spout plumes metres high, mud pools plop in lazy circles, and steam rises from the shores of the area’s numerous lakes. Whakarewarewa is the traditional focal point for tourists and is also the sacred ground of the Ngatiwhakaue tribe of the indigenous Maori people. The Waimangu valley is another spectacular site and is significant as the only unmodified geyser field. Use of the thermal energy for electricity generation has lead to a decrease in activity, but much of its dramatic intensity remains.
Visitors to New Zealand during summer will see New Zealand’s Christmas tree - the pohutukawa, fringing northern beaches and clinging to seaside cliffs. The trees have masses of stunning crimson flowers and have cultural significance for Maori. At Spirits Bay in Northland, Cape Reinga (the far north of the North Island), an old pohutukawa is said to be where spirits leave on their journey through the underworld after death. One in Kawhia Harbour is said to be the tree the Tainui canoe tied up to after its voyage across the Pacific 1000 years ago. For New Zealanders today, the trees are synonymous with long, summer days (November-February) - of sun, surf and sand. They provide wonderful natural shade in the hot sun and you’ll always find someone picnicking under the umbrella shade of a pohutukawa or tucking into that favourite of kiwi takeaways (takeouts), fish and chips.