A Very Short History of New Zealand

New Zealand consists of two main islands and over 700 smaller ones. They have the distinction of being the last large habitable landmass to be settled by humans. These were Polynesians, between about 1280 and 1350. A distinctive Māori culture then developed, naming the country Aotearoa.

New Zealand was first discovered by Europeans in 1642, when Dutch sailor Abel Tasman arrived, hence the Dutch name. Several of his crew were killed by Maoris and he left in a hurry. In 1769 Captain James Cook arrived and mapped the land and the British eventually staked their claim to the land, in 1841 (see Waitangi). The British monarch is still officially Head of State, represented in New Zealand by a Governor General.

Facts and Factoids

  • The Land of the Long White Cloud is the most common translation of Aotearoa – the Maori name for New Zealand. The legend tells that, Kupe (the first Polynesian to discover New Zealand ) realised he was approaching land when he saw the cloud hovering over it. His wife, called out “He ao! He ao!” (A cloud! A cloud!), It's not the most exciting story. And some Maoris argue that the description applies only to North Island.
  • More recently New Zealand's acquired another nickname - Middle Earth, in deference to the Lord of the Rings films, which Wellingtonian Peter Jackson filmed in the country. They showcased the beautiful mountain scenery perfectly. They even put Hobbits on their money.
  • Don't confuse your Kiwis. The people of New Zealand are called Kiwis, named after New Zealand’s native flightless bird. Kiwifruit grow here in bagfuls, but they are also known as Chinese Gooseberries. Until the First World War, the kiwi represented the country and not the people who were previously known by other nicknames, such as "Enzedder'.
  • New Zealand is famous for its sheep and cattle herds. The numbers of sheep farmed in New Zealand are falling. There are presently, about 25 million sheep. So the sheep, to human ration dropped below five to one in 2022, for the first time since the 1850s, when national sheep numbers were first recorded (human population about 4 million.)
  • Two major topics of conversation (other than sheep) are the national obsessions: rugby and cricket. Rugby is the national sport and the All Blacks, men's rugby team is often cited as the most successful sports team in history.
  • New Zealand also holds some world records:
    • It was the first country to give women the vote - in 1893.
    • New Zealand has the town with the longest name in the world - Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu. (The place where Tamatea, the man on the big knees who slipped, climbed and swallowed mountains, known as the land eater, he played the flute to his loved one.)
    • Wellington is the southern-most capital in the world.

What to See in New Zealand?

New Zealand is universally acclaimed as being gorgeous: Mountains, volcanoes, geysers, rolling hills, beaches, fjords. A third of the country is designated a protected national reserve.

I made two separate trips:

Christchurch, South Island, New Zealand

A side trip from Australia. Now I’m in Christchurch, the largest city in South Island (Te Waipounamu), New Zealand, about to embark on a tour of the island. Chch - as it is known here - has a river called the Avon (though they can't pronounce it properly) and punts poled by men with straw hats. It's a delightful city, ringed by mountains, with historic stone buildings, pretty craft shops and neat cafes.

The weather here has been far better than I could have hoped for and so I walk over a mountain pass (well the Port Hills) to the harbour town of Lyteltton today. It is an accident, I was just out for a stroll,  but the views are glorious, almost better than the Highlands, though it is a shame about the coal tip round the corner.  It's hot enough to doze on the beach at times, especially when I can find a little nook in the sand dunes. Then, off to eat scallops at the trendy café down the road from my hotel.

South to Queenstown

South Island is jokingly referred to as The Mainland by the Kiwis. It's a third bigger than North Island, but far more sparsely populated. A bus, mainly filled with Japanese tourists and commanded by Tom, the singing driver. He calls himself a steerologist. An American couple, delighted to find someone who speaks English,  talk at me incessantly, even though my eyes glaze over. We cross the Canterbury Plains,  with their 45 million sheep.  As well as sheep, the farms boast a range of exotica: deer, elk, alpaca and ostriches. It seems odd to suddenly be launched into spring after the autumn of Japan.  Lambs gambolling in the fields, bluebells, the odd surviving daffodil and lots of fluffy ducklings. 

The gorse and broom are in full flower, gorgeous against the beautiful blue skies, though the Kiwis call them noxious weeds. They haven't had much luck with introduced species.  Rabbits to eat grass, then stoats to eat rabbits, but the stoats prefer kiwis ( the birds that is). Then deer to hunt, gorse to keep the deer out, possums to eat the weeds. (And for fur).  But possums also like kiwis and all the native trees. Kea, intelligent large parrots, who have been observed using tools, roam the roads.

Snow-capped mountains, azure glacial water. Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki. Mount Cook, at 12,000 feet, fulfils its duty and is suitably magnificent.

Fjordland, South Island

The bright start is deceptive and its raining in the famous fjord country, towards the tip of South Island, at Milford Sound. The other main fjord in the Fjordland National Park is Doubtful Sound - it's a good name for today. But I struggle gamely on and make the boat trip into the mist nevertheless, vainly hoping that the cloud will lift. I'm sure the views of Mitre Peak would be great if I could see them for more than a glimpse.

Queenstown, South Island

Queenstown, The Adventure Capital of New Zealand, with its own lake, Wakatipu, is extraordinarily beautiful.  The original bungee is here, but I am not tempted.  You're supposed to do the Awesome Foursome (Bungee, helicopter, jet boat and white water rafting). The ski season has also just finished, much to my disappointment.

Dunedin and The Otago Peninsula

The first of two of the great little railway journeys of the world, over the Taieri Gorge into Dunedin  (the American couple buttonhole me again).  The line travels through bill hillsides across a dozen dramatic viaducts and through ten tunnels. At one point lambs are running in front of the train and have to be removed from the track, before they get squished.

There are minor adventures to be had in Dunedin (Gaelic for Edinburgh and very Scottish). This is the second city on South Island, the principal city on the Otago Peninsula. It's known for its Victorian and Edwardian architecture, including Larnach 'Castle'. It's billed as New Zealand's only castle, but I'm not sure it's old enough to count. Baldwin Street here, is billed as the steepest street in the country

On the peninsula I see albatrosses flying (huge), dusky dolphins leaping, fur seals basking and rare yellow eyed penguins on their nests.  All the other birds here are called shags for some reason.

I get into conversation with some of the Bay of Plenty First Division Rugby Union team, who happen to be staying in my hotel (they're playing Otago) and am invited down to the casino with them. Another first. but extremely boring.  It's very quiet and and there are no women in slinky gowns, just  lots of All Blacks in the bar, including the captain, Anton Oliver, being very loud.  They fulfil every stereotype by having brassy blondes draped all over them.  I chat to Brendan Laney who is coming to play for Edinburgh next year, but he seems to think it is in England.  Oh dear - that won't go down well.

The Bay of Plenty coach, Gordon Titchens, also coaches the All Black Sevens.  He sidles up to me at one point and asks for my number in England “to see me when he comes over with the New Zealand team".  'Oh brilliant', I respond naively before the penny drops that I'll be seeing him and not the New Zealand team. So I tell him all about the tabloid propensity for publishing details of the private lives of rugby coaches (he's married of course) and he sidles away again.

Then the chairman of the club offers to fly me up to North Island, for next Saturday's game.  He tells me to ring him on Thursday.  I think about it, but decide there is no such thing as a free lunch and stay where I am.

The West Coast of South Island

I do take a jet boat ride however. It is billed as a tame one, but I get the co-pilot’s seat and I end up with arms like Twizzle and a mass of bruises, after the pilot has finished demonstrating his ability to execute 360 degree turns, in four inches of water. The only other excitement has involved trying to avoid the advances of bus drivers who stand too close and ask me out for drinks. One - Dodgy Colin - sidles up close muttering, 'Are you ticklish?' He's the one driving the bus on the leg on my return journey from Queenstown on to to the Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers and my boat ride. They're disappointingly dirty.

Another bus. Sadly, it's Colin again. More stunning mountain scenery, Here, the beach is wild and covered in driftwood and I'm playing The Piano, as I look down from the clifftops. The music also has the advantage of drowning out Colin's voice.

Hokitika, a small port, was a gold rush town, developed in 1860 in 1860, after the discovery of gold on the West Coast of the South Island. Many ships were wrecked on the notorious ‘Hokitika Bar’ – a sandbar that shifts with every tide. Today, Hokitika is known as the Cool Little Town. There's a historic walk, with a mock shanty town and pretend gold panning. (And it's been written about in The Booker winning The Luminaries.) Also, art galleries and jewellery shops, of course. The local green stone, heavily promoted, naturally, is called pounamu.

Lastly, the Tranzalpine Express, another Great Railway Journey, across the Southern Alps from Greymouth back to Christchurch. It's a four and a half hour journey, past rugged peaks, and vast beech forests. of native beech.

Back across the straits to Australia.

To read more about New Zealand click here.

Auckland, New Zealand

The third stage on my Round the World Trip, flying in from Australia to Auckland, in North Island. It is the largest city in New Zealand, but not the capital, which is Wellington. It's an expensive, but enjoyable place to live - plenty of museums, galleries, shops. and a large harbour full of superyachts. It's known as The City of Sails.

I meet up with Raye, from who I had parted in Hong Kong and I'm lucky to stay with her brother and his family. A brisk tour of the city and trip to One Tree Hill Park, balanced on a volcanic peak. It's commemorated with an obelisk and it's definitely the place to go for views across town.

Then, an evening visit to watch the horse and cart racing. We end up sitting in the stands and drinking with the Australian rugby team, who are scheduled to play New Zealand in the Bledisloe Cup the following day. Campese is frolicking in the seats and John Eeles towers over me. The Kiwis win - by a small margin. It isn’t the best match ever. There aren't any tries.

Waitangi Treaty Grounds, North Island

Time to explore the North Island (Te Ika-a-Māui) of New Zealand, known for its volcanoes, mountains and geysers. A trip with Raye's family, up the northern finger of the island to Waitangi. In 1840, representatives of the United Kingdom and 500 Māori chiefs met here to sign the Treaty of Waitangi, which in its English version (only) declared British sovereignty over the islands. There are two museums, a treaty house (with a replica of the treaty), a carved Maori Meeting House, two huge war canoes and cultural performances in the grounds.

Bay of Islands, North Island

Waitangi is adjacent to North Island tourist hotspot The Bay of Islands. This natural harbour (mapped and named by Cook) contains 144 islands. There are plenty of gorgeous panoramas, Maori artefacts and, sporting opportunities. The main draw is big game fishing - apparently. This is where the early whalers came, but the game today isn't quite that size. In a 2006 study, the Bay of Islands was found to have the second bluest sky in the world, after Rio de Janeiro. It's not so azure in the winter. The picture is Manghawahi Heads, another scenic spot, two hours drive south of Bay of Islands, in what are known as the Northlands.

South of Auckland

Then south from Auckland, past Hamilton, the country's third city. then an urban sprawl, now a nightlife hub. Otherwise, it’s very quiet and sleepy. The weather is mild and the skyline is dotted with the ubiquitous and characteristic palm like tree ferns. They remind me of Jurassic Park. Sacks of kiwi fruit stand alongside the road. There's been a glut. It's important not to confuse your Kiwis. Kiwis are named after  New Zealand’s native flightless bird. Kiwifruit grow here in abundance, but they are also known as Chinese Gooseberries.

Rotorua, North Island

Rotarua, in the Bay of Plenty area, is another mandatory stop in New Zealand's North Island. The town is set on its namesake lake and is renowned for its geothermal activity and Maori culture. In Te Puia’s Whakarewarewa Valley, the geysers are prolific, exhilarating and stink of sulphur. The 30 metres tall Pohutu Geyser, happily, erupts many times daily. As in most of these volcanic sites, you can stand at the Gates of Hell watching pools steam and mud bubbling. Most of the motels here have hot spring fed Jacuzzis out back of each room.

Rotorua became stablished as a spa town in the late 1800s. The most magnificent building is the half timbered former Bath House (1908), later converted to a History Museum and Art Gallery. And this is where you get to see a proper kiwi. (There are some in the wild and various national hatcheries.)

Another highlight of Rotorua is the Agrodome, a working farm, where there are shows for tourists to learn about sheep and sheep shearing. There are presently around nine sheep to every human in New Zealand (human population  about 4 million). The show is extremely amusing. I’m not sure if this is intentional or not.

Back to Auckland via the Waitomo Glow-worm Caves. You can get a boat across its inky waters, to see the tiny creatures glow in the dark.

Next stop Hawaii.

To read more about New Zealand click here.

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