New Zealand, the world’s biggest movie set and home to millions of hobbits and sheep. Throw in a bit of rugby, adventure sports and dedicated alcoholism and you’ll want to move there yourself.
Not many countries would be content to consider themselves one giant movie set. But subtract the digital enhancement and the annoying hobbits from the Lord of the Rings films, and you get a pretty good idea of what’s special about New Zealand. From the lush forests and bays of the north to the dizzying steep fjords of the southwest, the collision of sea and mountains creates an array of spectacular landscapes that change as frequently as the fickle weather.
For travelers, the best parts are all outdoors. Adventurous types can hike across volcanoes, swim with dolphins, and lie huddled in a hut sheltering from the torrents of rain that sustain the pretty waterfalls they saw during the day’s climb. All with the added bonus of not an orc, elf or hobbit in sight.
Keen not to outdo the natural world, New Zealanders have until recently maintained a culture with as little variety as possible: suburban lifestyles, meat and three veg, and rugby and beer on the weekend. Writers and artists have traditionally needed to be borderline insane to survive in a society where banging in a straight fencepost is considered the finest of crafts.
It’s the isolation that literally sets New Zealand apart. Its islands have been floating apart from other continents for so many millions of years that they evolved totally unique vegetation, and birds, many of which forgot how to fly in the absence of predators. When Polynesian voyagers arrived here about 1,000 years ago, catching edible fish and fowl was so easy that they promptly forgot how to build oceangoing vessels.
The British colonizers that pushed native Maori off all the best land during the 19th century had a better idea: clear large tracts of virgin forest and install millions upon millions of sheep, then export their frozen carcasses back to the UK.
With the economic benefits of lamb eventually wearing thin, New Zealanders came to reconsider their country’s natural advantages, and tourism is now one of the biggest industries. And what better way to enjoy the scenery than to plunge through it at high speed? Since bungee jumping was first made popular near Queenstown twenty-five years ago, New Zealand has become a mecca for adventure sports. If you’re in the mood for skydiving, white water rafting, or jet boating, competing operations will give you a brief adrenaline blast, then sell you the t-shirt and complementary video.
But the beyond the nests of intensive tourist activity like Queenstown and Rotorua (and the many, many boring sheep and dairy farms), much of New Zealand remains wild and empty. There are large areas of national park land, with a network of hiking trails and huts. Turn down a country road in New Zealand and it’s unusual not to find a deserted beach, idyllic lake, or dramatic mountain vista.
After a couple of hundred years of mainly engaging with ruminant farm animals, New Zealanders are a shy, insecure lot, now trying hard to become sophisticated citizens of the world. Maori culture was long marginalised, but is now becoming accepted as more than just a source of excellent tattoos. Most people who have watched the All Blacks rugby team’s pre-game haka assume it’s an incitement to violence, but visitors to a ‘cultural show’ will learn that a tattooed warrior waggling his tongue and waving a stick threateningly is just an extremely staunch formal welcome.
In general, New Zealanders are warmer to outsiders than to each other and will be determined to make sure you leave with a good impression – expect to be asked “so, what do you think of New Zealand” by almost everyone you meet.
Most of the population live in the north, with almost one third in largest city of Auckland, a disorderly sprawl of suburbs. The real attractions are out of town, where ferny native forests roll down to golden, often almost abandoned beaches and peaceful bays.
The centre of the North Island hisses and steams with volcanic activity, from the geysers and mud pools of Rotorua to the still-rumbling cone of Ruapehu. The Tongariro Crossing hike between volcanic craters is as close as you’ll get to tramping the terrain of Mars.
Wellington, the capital city, gives an honourable impression of urbanity, and with its quirky cultural scene and damn fine coffee, is one place that will grow on you if you stay around a bit longer.
Across Cook Strait on the iconic inter-islander ferry, the South Island is known as ‘mainland’ New Zealand. The mountains of the Southern Alps straddle the island with their jagged peaks and glacier-carved valleys. Off the east coast, you can get up close and personal with both whales and dolphins, opportunities that actually justify the price of the tour operations.
In the south, Queenstown and Wanaka sit amidst chocolate-box lake front scenery and form the epicentre of the adventure sport zone. Fjordland is dramatically beautiful zone of of bottomless lakes, crashing waterfalls, and mountains rising 10,000 feet straight out of the sea.
New Zealand is harder than less-developed countries to get by on a restricted budget. However, as it has got more expensive, it’s also got easier for many travelers to get work. For travelers between the ages of 18 and 30, it’s straightforward to get a Working Holiday visa that allows a year’s worth of casual employment.
Older age groups have a chance of getting some sort of working visa if they commit to staying on. With New Zealand’s almost limitless permutations of mountains, sea, and sky, those who get their inspiration from nature rather than culture might even find that a tempting offer.