New Zealand: Mystery, History, & Shear Pleasure

by Shelli

When people know you’re “well traveled” they make assumptions. Rather than ask you, “Have you been to a particular destination” they’ll ask, “How did you like a place?” I love when people ask about visiting New Zealand! I get to share stories from one of my favorite destinations. Spending weeks traveling around both the North and South islands was one of my most memorable adventures.

Due to the pandemic, travel is now pushed forward.  However, a return visit to New Zealand is always in the planning stages. Now, of course, until borders reopen, it’s on hold. However, my trip planning was done and my interest in history and culture never stops! As I learn, I share, so thought it would be fun to write about some of the fascinating things I learned about New Zealand and lead you on this armchair tour of this extraordinary culture and destination. You might just want to add New Zealand to your post-pandemic bucket list of places to visit. It will bring you shear pleasure, I promise!

Since the pandemic still limits our ability to mosey too far from home, we might as well think BIG in our world of armchair world travel. And what grander journey to take than to New Zealand?

We would expect nothing less from a small island with a big imagination and somewhat quirky personality. Have you ever wondered how New Zealand went from untamed wilderness to a thriving culture?

New Zealand: Fun Facts and Fascinating People

  • New Zealand is one of the least populated countries (+ 4 million)
  • Highest car ownership in the world 2.5 million cars for 4 million people
  • First country giving women the vote (1893)
  • Golf is most popular participation sport; more golf courses per capita of population than any country
  • More Olympic gold metals per capita
  • There are no snakes in New Zealand.
  • Country has only one native mammal: a small bat.
  • There are 3 official languages: English, Maori, and New Zealand sign language
  • Nobody in NZ lives more than 120 kilometers from the coast (which stretches more than 9,300 miles)
  • The word “kiwi” refers to three different things in New Zealand: 1) a nocturnal flightless bird with the long beak that’s one of NZ’s most famous native species; 2) nickname for people from New Zealand; 3) the kiwi fruit, which, grows over New Zealand
  • Bungee jumping originated in NZ in the 1980s.

It stands to reason then that New Zealanders have always been ahead with regards to things like inventions and politics…. New Zealand is the very first country to greet each new day!

Cape Reinga, New Zealand

Cape Reinga, north edge of New Zealand, Indian and Pacific oceans meet here

Famous New Zealanders: How many are you familiar with?

  • Kate Sheppard (1848-1934) Suffragette: New Zealand was the first country to give women the right to vote.
  • Sir Edmund Hillary (1919-2008). Explorer and mountaineer.
  • Hugh Walpole (1884-1941) Writer
  • Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) Writer

More current famous Kiwis:

  • Taika Waititi (Actor and Writer)
  • Lucy Lawless (Actress: Xena: Warrior Princess)
  • Jane Campion (Movie producer and director)
  • Peter Jackson (Film producer)
  • Kiri Te Kanawa (Opera Singer)

About This Small Island of New Zealand

You might not realize that New Zealand is no simple landmass. Two large islands make up New Zealand (North and South), as do hundreds of small islands in the South Pacific.

New Zealand is recognized for its incredible variety of landscapes. It is truly a land of extremes, featuring volcanic craters, rivers, and lakes. It is also an active earthquake zone.

Visitors can explore the Southern Alps on South Island, along with more than 350 glaciers and numerous national parks. South Island is home to Fjordland National Park, with hundreds of miles of coastline, fjords, and inlets. This large park contains Milford Sound, one of New Zealand’s top tourist sites.

You’ll find volcanic mountains on North Island (many are active). It’s common to encounter volcanic areas with hot springs, geysers, steam vents and mud pools.

Pro Tip: Be sure to get the best deals on hotels. If I’m paying cash for a hotel stay, I always use Pruvo to monitor for price drops!

New Zealand covers 268,000 square kilometers. Wellington is the capital of the country (and second biggest city). Auckland is the largest city (located on North Island), with a population of close to 1.5 million

According to WorldAtlas, New Zealand is positioned in both the Southern and Eastern hemispheres. It shares maritime borders with Australia, Tonga, Fiji, and other smaller island nations. The total population of New Zealand is estimated at 4.8 million. And as the saying goes, there are about 26 million sheep in New Zealand, or 5.4 sheep for every person.

As an aside, check out the Sheep Show at Sheepworld on North Island. You’ll be amazed at all the different breeds of sheep (and ways to shear a sheep!).

The First Arrivals to New Zealand: An Enduring Māori Presence

To understand the (human) nature of New Zealand, you must learn about the people who were indigenous to the area. The Māori were the first settlers, arriving hundreds of years before the Europeans.

Who are the Maori people?

The Māori are New Zealand’s indigenous population. Māori account for as much as 15% of the country’s total population: close to 600,000 people claim to be of Māori descent.

The Māori are native to the Polynesian Islands of New Zealand. Anthropologists believe they may have evolved from the aboriginal people of Taiwan. Early Maori sailed across the Pacific Ocean in large canoes (called waka), settling in Samoa, Hawaii, and Easter Island.

The Māori were originally accomplished navigators, fishermen, and hunters. They cultivated sweet potatoes from the rich land, as well as taro and gourds. They built their homes from timber and thatched grass. First arrivals in New Zealand date back to around 1000 AD.

Early in their arrival to New Zealand the Māori lived along the coast and fished, but they eventually moved inland. They created weapons and ornaments out of jade and other hard stone materials. They continued to refine their canoes to better travel the seas.

Māori Religion and Culture

Māori religious culture was organized into political units based on descendants of both paternal and maternal sides of a family. This was called an iwi. Communities of Maori were called hapu. These were groups that held land and consisted to large extended families.

When iwi fought each other in early New Zealand history, they fought over mana—the idea of a spiritual essence or sacred force. The Maori still believe that mana is a supernatural force that exists in all things, including animals, people, and objects. The Māori believe in many gods, and still pass on the myths and legends about their origins.

By the way, the concept of a haka has become synonymous with New Zealand. A “haka” is a Māori dance associated with battle preparations. The purpose is to intimidate one’s opponent by stamping, swaying, and slapping chest and thighs. Fierce facial expressions include sticking out the tongue and bulging one’s eyes. Many athletic teams from New Zealand begin a contest by performing a haka. This includes the All Blacks, the national rugby team (rugby is the country’s national sport).

The Māori welcomed the Europeans at first. But by the time New Zealand was joined to Europe by 1830, many factors damaged Maori culture. The 1800s were a time of violence and sickness for the Maori. The Europeans brought their diseases (influenza, smallpox, etc.) and also upset the balance of power of the Māori tribes. The Māori desired the luxuries the Europeans enjoyed, including muskets and other weapons.

Like many indigenous populations around the world, the Māori had their land taken by foreign settlers, and their customs were suppressed. The Māori are one of the poorest socio-economic classes in New Zealand, they are less educated, have higher suicide rates, lower life expectancy, and they account for half of the prison population.

Today the Maori play some role in the government of New Zealand. According to Britannica.com, 7 out of a total of 120 parliamentary seats are reserved for Maori members of the government.

Enter: European Settlers Arrive In New Zeland

When we look at human civilization around the planet, New Zealand is a relatively young country. In fact, New Zealand was the last large and livable place in the world to be discovered.

The Dutch were the first Europeans to colonize New Zealand. The name comes from an early Dutch mapmaker who inscribed “Nieuw Zeeland.” The Dutch explorer Abel Tasman arrived on New Zealand shores in 1642. Another 127 years passed before the British arrived, followed by the French. Captain James Cook of England came to the region in 1769.

As word spread about the bountiful whale and seal populations in the area, an increasing number of European hunters and traders arrived. The British government edged out the French settlers, and by the 1830s the islands were property of the Crown.

It’s interesting to note that the term ‘Māori’, which means “ordinary,” came about only after the Europeans arrived. The Māori used the word to distinguish themselves from the white foreign settlers.

The British colonists faced a formidable challenge in controlling the resistant Maori aboriginals. In 1840 New Zealand’s first governor, William Hobson, encourage more than 500 tribal chiefs to sign what is now called the Treaty of Waitangi.

Sheep in New Zealand

Sheep in green mountain meadow, rural scene in New Zealand

Unlike the conquering of indigenous people in many countries around the world, this one afforded some rights to native people. Two notable provisions were that the Maori tribes were expected to organize and protect their way of life; the government was also made responsible for ensuring that all New Zealanders were equal under the law. This is one reason why Māori representation is guaranteed in Parliament.

However, the European settlers continued to pressure the Māori to sell their land, which resulted in a series of wars in the later 1800s. During this time, the government bought or took a good deal of indigenous land.

Early Economy

While the North Island was slower to colonize, the South Island became a popular settlement area. Sheep farms were common, and gold was discovered. In the 1860s, Dunedin was the largest town.

Waves of British immigrants arrive in the late 1800s. Railways sprung up to connect vast expanses of forest. The forest was gradually cleared to make room for farmland. The development of frozen food meant that New Zealand could supply Britain with meat, cheese, and butter. Britain remained a central market for New Zealand farm products until well into the 20th century.

As the population of New Zealand grew, people harbored a strong spirit of nationalism. New Zealand gained independence in 1907.

Modern New Zealand

Today New Zealand is a parliamentary democracy, which means Parliament rules the country. However, Queen Elizabeth II is the constitutional monarch, the queen of New Zealand. She is the head of state, while the current Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, oversees legislative power.

New Zealand is considered one of the most prosperous countries in the Asian Pacific region. Deregulation and privatization have helped advance the economy. New Zealand relies on agriculture, but other resources that contribute to the economy are manufacturing, geothermal energy, and, until recently, tourism. New Zealand exports meat (particularly lamb), dairy products, vegetables and fruits.

In the larger communities (Auckland and Wellington, for example), there are universities, innovative industry, a thriving art/music/theater culture, and overall high standard of living.

Final Thoughts

Yet another part of what makes New Zealand so remarkable is how it has preserved its natural land and resources. Both North and South Island provide opportunities to enjoy the most beautiful natural sites on Earth.

It’s not too soon to contemplate your first post-pandemic travel destination……after all, we’ll be traveling again one of these days and hopefully sooner than later!

If this voyage has whet your travel appetite, you might start planning now. Whether New Zealand ends up on your “real” travel bucket list, or a virtual adventure, it remains a remarkable destination!

What’s not to love about New Zealand? If you’ve been, feel free to share your impressions.

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