The Abel Tasman is the smallest of New Zealand’s national parks but one of its prettiest. It is popular for camping and sea kayaking, enjoying a mild climate all year round.
New Zealand – Long Read

Nature unchanged over millions of years

Photo by Frans Lemmens

New Zealand – Long Read Nature unchanged over millions of years

Hello New Zealand, described as “Too many sheep!” by George Bernard Shaw when a journalist asked him about his trip in 1934. It’s true there are nearly ten times as many sheep per square kilometer as people. But there’s something else that makes New Zealand special: wild, untouched nature unchanged over millions of years. Something Shaw had overlooked, surely.

Daphne Huineman
Daphne Huineman Travel Writer

Seven hundred years ago most of the birds in New Zealand couldn’t fly. Why should they? The ground swarmed with worms and insects, and there were absolutely no predators to be seen. Alas, along came man. First the Māori, and later the Pakeha (the Europeans) – and the party was over. For the poor birds much has changed, but for the rest of us, New Zealand still looks like the Garden of Eden, millions of years old. It seems to have what most of us miss these days: overwhelming nature, wilderness, empty space from horizon to horizon and a complete stress-free escape.

The Maori landed on the green and fertile North Island, poetically naming it “The land of the long white cloud”, and settled there. They crossed over the Cook Strait to the larger South Island but found it far too rough and inhospitable a place to live, give or take the odd coastal area. Only the whalers felt at home. Luckily. This great wilderness is the South Island’s great attraction. There are now roads and tunnels leading to those previously untouched regions, that’s true. But along these roads you seldom come across another living soul, excepting of course speed ticketing policemen and the opossum – the Australian mammal that is crazy about, yes, birds’ eggs.

In the countryside, it often seems the 1950s never ended. The small town petrol pump attendant tells a good-natured joke; in shops the small talk is more important than the sale; and a chat with a local quickly leads to an invitation to a barbecue. Although the prices aren’t quite the same as in the 1950s, they certainly resemble pre-millenium days. Two dollars for a cup of coffee, ten dollars for a delicious lamb chop with home-grown vegetables. Two decades ago it was hard to get a decent meal, but these days New Zealanders are all foodies. It’s about the quality of the ingredients, they explain – there is a growing organic food industry, and “organic” doesn’t just mean ‘“knit your own muesli”, it also means “flavor”.

One of them brought out his trumpet

Nature is the greatest actor on the stage of the South Island – wild, desolate, and yet more varied than the North. It begins sweetly, with the emerald green bays of the Marlborough Sounds, and the brilliantly golden, deserted beaches of Golden Bay. This is where the Dutchman Abel Tasman tried to land – after the Maori and before even Captain Cook, he was the next to “discover” New Zealand. His sailors jumped into their dinghies to explore the terrain, but they never made it. One of them brought out his trumpet. It was, after all, a ceremonious occasion. But the Maori interpreted the trumpet as a declaration of war. They rammed the boat and slaughtered the shipmates. Operation Disaster. The Dutch turned tail and made for the open sea.

Poor Tasman, he missed out on paradise. As I travel along the West Coast, I have to keep pinching myself to make sure I am not dreaming. The freakish Pancake Rocks that look like piles of crêpe suzette; the overwhelming Fox and Franz Josef glacier on the West Coast; the rain forest further down. The highlights keep mounting: Mount Cook, where Sir Edmund Hillary trained before his ascent on Mount Everest in 1953; the steep rugged cliffs and stunning fjords of Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound deep in the south-west; and then there’s the gigantic cascading waterfalls. This is wilderness you just don’t see anywhere else on earth.

No matter where I go I am surrounded by beauty and silence. New Zealanders are proud of their land and are very environmentally aware. Ten to fifteen percent of the country has been declared protected national parkland. And even the most right-wing politician wouldn’t dare put nuclear energy on the agenda. Even though New Zealand is not as highly placed on the economic scale as it once was, the Department of Conservation is still given higher priority than even Finance.

The wilderness is to be experienced

I soon learn that you cannot just watch the landscape from afar here. No, the wilderness is to be experienced. Activity Number One is “tramping”, the Kiwi word for hiking. Some routes in Fjordland are so impenetrable they have made it onto the map only in the last few decades. It’s still possible for a hiker to get that pioneer feeling.  Die-hards can tramp for days through the rain forests of the Milford Sounds. Luxury lovers can be dropped off by helicopter for a picnic on a mountain peak, to enjoy views of the fjords without breaking a sweat.

Mountain biking is a popular activity too.  You can tear along the hills of Hanmer Springs, or more sedately pedal though the wineries of the Waipara where the hosts are most hospitable when it comes to letting you sample their prized Pinot Noir, Reisling and Chardonnay wines. New Zealand is an upcoming wine country, focusing on high quality and value because of the underlying cost of transport to the rich but distant markets of Europe and North America.

“There are five national parks within an hour of us,” says my neighbour at a bar in Nelson, as we sit enjoying a beer from a microbrewery. This small city of 61,000 people sits at the northernmost tip of South Island, within spitting distance of the Marlborough vineyards. The sunny valleys and maritime climate have turned Marlborough into the world’s capital of Sauvignon Blanc wines and the area is dotted with boutique vineyards, though the quality varies so wildly that a beer is sometimes a safer bet.

Nelson is a quirky town that embraces food and drink, a southern outpost of the Slow Food Movement of Italy. Artisan producers of everything from bread and chocolate to chutneys and salami abound. The waterfront is lined with restaurants serving great seafood and imaginative dishes made from this fresh local produce. There are plenty of chances to work off the calories, though. I spend an afternoon mountain-biking high above the town center on trails maintained by the local government. The next day, I go sea kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park. At Waikaropupu, I see the clearest springs on earth, and at Farewell Spit, a beach of golden sand points toward North Island in the longest sand spit on earth.

The most beautiful beach on earth

More superlatives are spent on a horse ride around Golden Bay and Wharariki Beach which, with its sand dunes, lakes and eroded rock formations, has been called “the most beautiful beach on earth”. Seeing it at sunset, I can’t argue with that description.

For those who’ve hiked and biked, yet are looking for more, there is always ‘the adventure capital of the world’ – Queenstown. In the 1990s this town was the first to offer the modern version of bungy jumping (originating in the Polynesian Vanuatu Islands, where men still tie vines to their ankles and hurl themselves off man-made towers). The knee-trembling still line-up here in herds to throw themselves screaming over the edge, egged-on by the hundreds of spectators. Queenstown has countless activities for those with steel nerves, ranging from flying by microlight, to hunting by helicopter.

It was gold that first brought prospectors to the area in the 1860s when the Shotover was the world’s second-richest gold-bearing river. You can still visit a restored Chinese mining village at Arrowtown but the gold eventually ran out. However, many of those early pioneers stayed on and by the early 1900s a small tourism industry had started to form, with visitors attracted by walking trails. As with summer hiking in the more famous Alps of the Northern hemisphere, it was a short step to introduce skiing, which came in the 1950s, turning Queenstown into a year-round destination. But jetboating is what gave the town its worldwide reputation for adventure.

Bill Hamilton, a local farmer and engineer who built the town’s first ski tows, developed the shallow-water craft to help him get into remote areas of his sheep farm. Having perfected it, he started the world’s first commercial jetboat company, offering thrill rides on the Shotover River. That in turn was followed by the introduction of whitewater rafting, taking visitors to canyons of the Shotover and Kawarau rivers that the jetboats could not reach.

An industry where rampant inflation rules

The Kawarau offers some serious whitewater rafting indeed, with a huge volume of water and four sets of rapids, the last 400 meters long. Just before them, I pass under the 43-meter-high Kawarau Bridge, the home of the world’s first commercial bungy jump, where particularly brave jumpers can choose to plunge into the water before (hopefully) bouncing back out. Auckland-born AJ Hackett brought the “sport” here in 1988, a few months after he illegally jumped off the Eiffel Tower in Paris, simultaneously jump-starting worldwide interest in it. Demand was so great he soon opened another site on the 87-meter-high Skippers Bridge and then a third.

Now you can jump off in  tandem, or “enjoy” a bungy swing in a 300-meter arc across the dramatic scenery. Thrill-seeking seems to be an industry where rampant inflation rules and the next adrenaline adventure to come along was tandem paragliding, followed soon after by tandem skydiving. Luckily you can also choose from more sedate activities, such as horse-riding, golf, or even gold-digging – but those early prospectors were pretty thorough so don’t expect to make your fortune.

The first explorers did leave one very solid reminder of their impact on the environment, however: pigs. South Pacific explorer Captain Cook is said to have introduced these animals to New Zealand but it was common practice among early sailors to release animals to ensure a ready larder of familiar meat on return visits. With no natural predators, the pig population exploded to the point where the government paid hunters a reward for shooting them, as well as supplying rifle ammunition and a poison program was introduced in the 1940s. Pig hunting is now a traditional sport in New Zealand, with boars weighing as much as 100 kg. The tusks of such animals are a serious danger to the hunting dogs – not to mention the hunters who come from all over the world to shoot them with rifles or bows. That’s a thrill too far for me.

The elven archer Legolas stars in the Lord of the Rings trilogy gave international recognition to New Zealand’s remarkable landscape. The two-part Hobbit epic is another massive pair of adverts for the New Zealand tourism industry, just as the first three films have been. Queenstown is a central location for visiting many of the dramatic Lord of the Ring locations, such as The Remarkables (you have to love that name) mountain range and the native forests, lakes, Ice Age glaciers and plunging fjords that were stand-ins for Isengard, the Misty Mountains or the Ford of Bruinen.

Sometimes nature bites back

The closeness of unspoilt nature to accessible towns was the attraction for the film-makers, as is the lack of human activity: no farms, fence posts or even aircraft contrails to spoil the shot. Of course, sometimes nature bites back and the earthquake that hit Christchurch, the largest city of the South Island, in February 2011 showed the powers that sculpted these majestic landscapes are not done yet. It killed 181 people, toppled the spire of the cathedral and damaged about half the city center’s other buildings. Several of its tallest buildings had to be demolished.

This gateway city of 400,000 is slowly rebuilding and had a boost from the 2011 Rugby World Cup that brought a surge in visitors. Dunedin, the island’s second largest city and an architectural gem, was fortunately spared any damage. Home to the University of Otago, it has a young population but its Victorian and Edwardian buildings, legacy of gold rush prosperity, are architectural gems that have won it a Unesco World Heritage listing.

The astounding geology and abundant flora are apparent overall, but where are all the animals? Native birds seem few and far between, with the national symbol of the flightless kiwi almost extinct, as a relic from the ancient paradise. Imported animals, such as sheep, rabbits and deer, just can’t excite the imagination of the visiting tourist. But at sea there is another world awaiting  and on the wild and scenic Otago Peninsula you can see Royal Albatrosses nesting, Yellow-eyed Penguins and sealions.

The bay of Kaikoura on the East Coast of the island is the only place in the world where you can get close to a Wandering Albatross. This threatened species, with a wing-span of up to three meters, makes an annual journey right around the world to return to their only breeding colony, here in New Zealand.

Now they enjoy diving and playing with us

Just a little further along the coast from Kaikoura you can easily get close enough to see – and smell – thousands of fur seals sunning themselves on the rocks. They don’t seem to harbor a grudge against humans who tried hard to make them extinct a century ago. Now they enjoy diving and playing with us.

The animals that make it all happen on the Kaikoura Coast, however, are the whales. Kaikoura, a former whaling port, is one of the few places in the world where giant Sperm Whales can be seen year-round. They swim just offshore to harvest food from the strong currents of the 3km-deep Kaikoura Canyon and you can get as close as 10 meters to these majestic giants as they languidly dive into the deep. In winter, you can also see Humpback Whales performing their spectacular shows of breaching, flipper slapping, ending with that so-familiar image of the fluked tail fin disappearing beneath the waves. This experience alone would make a journey to the other side of the world well worth it for those of us living in the northern hemisphere.

For further inspiration, venture into the water off Banks Peninsula near Christchurch to swim along with hundreds of wild Hector’s Dolphins who adore showing off their spins, flips, turns and somersaults. These endangered but exuberant mammals seem to be crazy about close encounters with us strangely stiff human beings: they can play underwater tag and always win.

A trip to New Zealand is an endless stream of highlights like these. Those of you over whom nature has no hold, or who think, like Shaw, that it is all about sheep, had perhaps best stay home. For the rest of you, hotfoot it to this last bastion of paradise, a destination well worth the journey.

Other stories about New Zealand