No snakes just crazy kea and bubbling mud

The diversity of New Zealand's landscape and wildlife frequently astonishes visitors as they pass from glistening sand to primeval forests and bubbling mud, to snowy peaks and wild coastal stretches inhabited by singular and curious species.

From beaches of glistening sand with not a footprint in sight, to primeval forests where the trees are a thousand years old, ferocious cauldrons of bubbling mud in a geothermal wonderland, and green pastures where animals graze beneath snowy mountain ranges - the diversity of the New Zealand landscape frequently astonishes visitors.

Geologically, the land is remarkably young, with active volcanoes in the North Island, yet its flora and fauna are of an antiquity found nowhere else in the world. Some New Zealand natives are so primitive that they are described as living fossils.

Similarly, the giant lizard-like reptile 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 conservation preserves and on offshore island sanctuaries. The weta – a common garden insect the size of a mouse with spiny legs and giant jaws – is another creature of venerable lineage.

Kiwi – New Zealand’s national symbol

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 introduced predators such as feral cats and stoats now impacting dramatically on numbers. Populations of other birds, such as the flightless nocturnal kakapo – the world’s biggest parrot – have also suffered.

The natural forest habitat which harboured New Zealand’s prolific birdlife 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 in pioneer times.

Walking or following a zipline 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 some13.8 m, stands 51.2m tall and is estimated to be around 2000 years old. This tree is easily accessible to visitors and is so revered it has its own name, Tane Mahuta or God of the forest.

On and off-shore sanctuaries

Closer to Auckland, the country’s most populous city, visitors can take a boat trip to island sanctuaries such as Tiritiri Matangi, where volunteers have spent years replanting native vegetation and repopulating with species of endangered native birds. 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.

New Zealand has many wildlife sanctuaries both on and off-shore. Wellington, the country's capital, has a mainland eco-sanctuary within the city confines, and two other major sanctuaries just north of the city - Kapiti Island on the east coast, and Pukaha Mount Bruce in the Wairarapa wine region - all with populations of kiwi, takahe and tuatara, along with other species of curious birdlife.

The mountainous areas of the North and much of the South Island are still dominated by soaring beech forest and it is this spectacular landscape that attracts the adventurous visitors for hiking, rock and mountain climbing.

In the North Island, three mountains - Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe - rise magnificently from the central volcanic plateau. Above the tree-line, their rocky slopes offer bounties of alpine plants amongst the tawny tussocks of alpine grass.

In the South Island, the Southern Alps form a mountainous spine ending in the country’s most remote and least inhabited domain of Fiordland. The bleak slopes host an extraordinary 600-odd plant species, 93% of which are unique to New Zealand.

Visitors will also inevitably encounter the South Island mountain clown, 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 backpacks, or damage windscreen wipers and mirrors. Competition for food in their subalpine habitat has led them to become scavengers and even to attack sheep.  Until 1970, they were culled but now, as with all native birds, it is an offence to kill them.

Pesky predators

While the lack of snakes and venomous insects makes New Zealand’s wilderness areas a safe environment in which to walk and explore, these regions 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 95% 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 town of Kaikoura. Three-hour boat trips take tourists to view the giant creatures, which can be seen year round. Other species, orca, blue and humpback whales, 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 led to a decrease in activity, but much of its dramatic intensity remains.

Summer sights

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. On the west coast of the North Island, a pohutukawa 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.