Ancient Maori myths place volcanoes at the very core of New Zealand’s identity and are as much a part of the uniquely New Zealand way of life as they are a fiery force in its landscape. New Zealanders’ innate sense of environmental sustainability and inner spirituality is manifested in the numerous towns making claim to zero waste and their pride in their ‘greenness’ awards. If it is a love of nature that is drawing you to New Zealand you will be delighted by the myriad of opportunities that present themselves.
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New Zealand, or Aotearoa (‘Oh-Tear-Roa’ – The land of the long white cloud), lies in the South Pacific, 1200 miles South-East of Australia. An archipelago with a total land area of 103,700 square miles, the North (Te Ika a Maui) and the South (Te Wai Pounamu) are by far the largest islands. Despite it being significantly smaller than its neighbour Australia, New Zealand is an impressively diverse and exciting country, and this is primarily due to its location.
The country sits on both the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates. It is the movement of these against each other that has shaped a varied and dramatic landscape and continues to do so with frequent large earthquakes and constant geothermal activity. With this unique geography there is the cultural duo of the indigenous Māoris and the Europeans, along with growing influence from New Zealand’s surrounding nations – the Pacific Islands, Asia, Australia and the USA.
In contrast to its Aussie neighbours, white New Zealanders hold a considerably more respectful attitude towards the indigenous Maori culture: many government signs are bilingual and Maori language is widely taught in schools. The Māori first arrived in Aotearoa around a thousand years ago from ‘Hawaiki’ – their ancestral homeland in Polynesia. Here they lived as expert hunters and farmers frequently engaged in inter-tribal warfare.
The first European explorers – Abel Tasman and James Cook – came across New Zealand in the 16 and 1700s, and in the late 1800s an agreement was negotiated with the natives for the country to become a British colony. After the British government and Māori Chiefs signed this iconic ‘Treaty of Waitangi’, land disputes and wording misinterpretations led to conflict between the two groups of early settlers. Since 1975 the Waitangi Tribunal has attempted to rectify claims that Māori rights were ignored. Despite some ongoing friction and social problems, Māori culture and heritage is celebrated and visible across the country.
The modern-day New Zealanders – the self-dubbed ‘Kiwis’ – are typically proud, easy-going and adventurous types, and migrants from around the world are attracted to its pace of life, and healthy economy. The majority of the 4.5 million inhabitants (2014) live in Auckland, towards the North of the North Island. A large, metropolitan city, Auckland is the biggest transport hub in the country and is within easy reach of the main points of interest on the North Island. Wellington is New Zealand’s petite-yet-vibrant capital, and it lies on the south of the North Island. Wellington harbour is the start or end point of the 3.5 hour Cook Straight ferry journey which connects the islands.
Where the North Island is recognised by its beaches, towns, Māori history and volcanic activity, the South is much more sparsely populated and it is the Southern Alps and Lakes which give the country its glistening crown. Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island. Despite slow recovery from the devastating 2011 earthquake due to continuing aftershocks, a visit to the city remains a very popular for starting or finishing a journey, and it has an exciting future. Further southwest, the ‘adventure-sport capital’ of New Zealand, Queenstown, is a hot spot for anyone with an interest in water or alpine-based activities.
Ethical Travel Issues and advice
Respect Maori People and the importance of Marae:
74% of the population of New Zealand regard themselves as being primarily of European descent, 14.9% are Māori, 11.8% Asian and 7.4% originally Pacific Islanders. These different ethnicities have spread throughout the country, and are visible in most parts of the towns and cities. However, the majority of the Māori population continues to reside to the Eastern side of the North Island, and those with Asian and Pacific heritage are mostly in Auckland. The Kiwi spirit all over New Zealand is easy-going, outgoing and fiercely proud, and so most people someone will experience on a trip to Aotearoa will be welcoming, chatty and versatile. These traits tend to rub off easily on visitors, but it is always worth arriving with some knowledge of how New Zealand has got to where it is today.
The 1975 Waitangi Tribunal was set up to tackle the long-running disputes from the Waitangi Treaty and resulted in compensation payouts and the return of land to Māori tribes. However, the country’s western politics and values mean that the Māori are, in large part, unable to, or uninterested in living as their highly respected ancestors did. Communities are very tight and protective over their heritage and identity, but statistics from studies measuring quality of life – based on western expectations – often come out lower than average. The average income and life expectancy of Māori and Pacific Islanders is lower than those with European heritage, and these people are over-represented in poorer parts of cities and in data on homelessness. As with any part of the world, if you are keen to help out any person on the street, by all means have a respectful (not patronising) conversation with them, and then look to support a charity or organisation that tackles the causes of homelessness.
If exploring the country independently, you may travel through Māori communities and come across Marae. These are the traditional community hubs for the iwi (or tribes) consisting of a fenced area of land and communal buildings featuring intricate carvings located around a main central meeting house with a sacred area outside its entrance. If you wish to interact with a Māori community member there is no problem with this, but Marae are not the places to do so unless you are pre-invited. A visit to a Marae requires preparation, and participation in the extended welcome ceremonies is expected.
The most common places to learn about and experience traditional Māori life on a trip in Aotearoa are Rotorua – where visitors often take part in re-enactments of traditional dance, games and warrior chants and enjoy native cuisine – and the celebrated and architecturally iconic Te Papa Museum in Wellington. However, all over the country one will notice the influence of aspects of Māori culture because maintaining its key elements is of central importance to a majority of Kiwis. The term ‘Kiwiana’ refers to an unofficial collection symbols and objects that are typical to and representative of ancient and modern New Zealand. All Kiwis know about Kiwiana and the word oozes with passion.
Māori-style tattoos are very fashionable and the national Rugby team famously kicks off every match with the ‘Haka’ war cry and dance. However, despite their popularity in the global public domain, the designs and chants are extremely symbolic and so imitating them without prior research may lead to offence. Additionally, if purchasing any souvenirs, ornaments or jewellery, it is always worth finding out where they were made, and who benefits from the sale.
All types of art and design are abundant in New Zealand. Visitors will find small studios and galleries in the most unassuming of towns. There are evening unfurling fern-shaped traffic bollards in central Wellington. In fact, native wildlife, plants and trees appear regularly in artworks, as well as in traditional songs and stories. New Zealanders are known for their ‘outdoors’ lifestyle, and appreciation for nature and the natural world is an integral part of Kiwi culture. Hence, a tourist that shows disregard for the environment will also appear to disrespect the values of locals.
Ethical Photography: Travelling presents an opportunity to photograph in lots of different destinations and situations, but sometimes there may be culturally sensitive issues to think about before reaching for the camera or other photo-taking device.There are lots of people in the world who do not have clean water, electricity, schooling or enough to eat, let alone access to mobile telephones, the internet and printed media, so they have no idea where their photograph may end up or how it could be used. Sadly, in this day and age, child prostitution, child trafficking and other crimes against children are facilitated via the Internet, and photography can play an unwitting and innocent role. Photography and its use is no longer straight forward, so perhaps it is time to stop and think a little about the ethics of photography.
New Zealand has a remarkable array of unique species of bird, but unfortunately their numbers are dangerously low – including the symbolic Kiwi bird. The only mammals native to Aotearoa are bats and marine-dwellers such as seals, whales and dolphin. When the Europeans arrived, they brought with them mammalian predators and scavengers such as rats. These had a devastating impact on a lot of the original bird (and plant) life, and possum, deer and cats in particular are still a major problem.
The wild population of possum appears out of control, and as the Kiwis recognise them as being so threatening to native habitats, they are considered pests in most areas – possum roadkill is a common sight along with possum clothing (such as socks). Deer also have been an ongoing problem, and in some parts of the country people are encouraged to hunt them – albeit responsibly and with a permit. It is strongly advised that visitors do not treat these animals with anything but respect; however, it is important to ensure that they are not fed.
Another species that does not require encouragement is the native and colourful parrot – the Kea. In some places Kea seem to be in abundance – they are playful, confident and very intelligent. Often found in outdoors eating areas and rural car parks, they can be difficult to resist feeding. However, as the cheeky Kea get more and more comfortable with humans, some people may come to see them as pests and thus not worthy of protection.
Other types of bird unique to New Zealand are not so easy to spot. The best places to experience them are eco-sanctuaries dedicated to conservation. Equally, observing whales and dolphins can be a popular activity on a New Zealand holiday. It is essential to choose a company offering such excursions that has the wellbeing of the animals and their habitat at the centre of their operations. Whales are very sacred animals to Māori – the enormity of this reverence is depicted in the film Whale Rider.
Unique Ecosystems & Custom restrictions:
Having been split off from all major continents for so long, New Zealand developed an extremely unique ecosystem with thousands of native species of birds and plants. These species bring to life the country’s enchanting landscapes, but they survive on an extremely fragile ecosystem. There are strict airport restrictions for people arriving into the country with any type of natural product – this includes wood, mud on shoes and all food. Contamination by foreign microbes can have a devastating and long-term effect on the treasured environment.
Litter & Waste Management:
Recycling is common in public places, but, if ever unsure of the destination of waste disposal, it is advised to carry the rubbish to somewhere it can be disposed of appropriately. The same applies to liquids, contaminated water and food scraps when camping, BBQing or picnicking. Purchase or bring with you organic and bio-degradable cleaning products and toiletries (including suncream if you will be swimming). Surfactants and oils in man-made items can be extremely toxic when it ends up in the sea and waterways. Equally, many areas such as national parks and marine reserves operate strict ‘no take’ policies. An interestingly shaped rock or colourful shell may be tempting to take home – but it is much more useful as part of a delicate and ancient habitat.
Aotearoa’s fertile land and temperate climate supports an abundance of produce. It also has a healthy manufacturing industry. However, being an island nation, New Zealand relies a lot on imports for certain types of goods. This means that some products a visitor is inclined to purchase – such as foods or gifts – may have a high number of air miles under their belt, as well as packaging chosen for its weight and cost rather than its eco-credentials. It is also likely that out-of-season fruit and veg will have travelled a long way to arrive on your table. Keep this in mind and consider locally sourced produce when possible.
Most of New Zealand has a mild climate and experiences the four seasons – with January and February being the height of summer, and July being the coldest. However, Northland, which is the region north of Auckland, can feel quite tropical, and Invercargill down south rarely makes it to 20 degrees Celsius in the summer. Low levels of air pollution and lesser atmospheric ozone protection, means that the sun’s damaging UV rays are very strong, even on cloudy and cold days (SPF30+ sunscreen is recommended). Rainfall is most common in the centre of the south island, but in the winter, snow on the Southern Alps means great snow-sporting conditions. Further north, Nelson is blessed with having the most hours of sunshine, while Wellington is known as ‘the windy city’.
Approximately 50% of New Zealand is farmland, it has around 30,000 square kilometres of national park and 15,000km of coastline. The country relies primarily on non-renewable energy sources, with local production of Coal, oil and gas, along with an additional import of oil (petroleum). However, almost a third of all consumed energy comes from renewable sources – most commonly hydro and geothermal. An impressive 70% of electricity is generated by renewable energy forms, which indicates that New Zealand is doing well in comparison to other developed nations. With its ecosystem so vulnerable, and its natural beauty so valued by residents and enchanting to visitors, Aotearoa’s environment needs a lot of support. There is a great deal of broad-ranging legislation in place, and the Ministry for the Environment established under a 1986 Act, monitors all major environmental areas.
Due to its low population density, New Zealand’s air is classed as being particularly clean in comparison to other developed countries. Pollution can build up in cities but coastal winds (sometimes extensive) encourage fast dispersal. Central heating has only recently been installed as standard in new homes and so wood or coal burning fires and electric heating systems are common.
Global warming is acknowledged as a known scientific fact, and the government produces reports and resources for local authorities, stakeholders and residents to ensure greenhouse gas minimisation it is at the forefront of national awareness. Being a global issue, climate change must be acknowledged by all, even when on holiday.
New Zealand’s fresh, clean water is abundant and readily accessible, however it’s economic and spiritual value mean it still requires careful management and protection. 200,000 of New Zealand’s jobs in the horticulture, tourism and dairy industries rely on the country’s fresh water. Water also holds great significance in the Maori belief system, with many specific lakes, springs and rivers given strong spiritual and cultural regard.
Aside from tourism and fishing, the main industries operating in New Zealand’s marine territories are deep sea drilling, seabed mining and seismic surveying. Each of these are managed and monitored in close detail by the Ministry of the Environment, in cooperation with many other government bodies, including the Ministry for Culture and Heritage and Te Puni Kōkiri which leads Māori Public Policy.
With the government keen to minimise the effects of soil erosion and contamination, and flooding, several large areas have been designated as conservation and control reserves. Re-vegetation – planting of trees and native bush – is happening where de-forestation and farming have made the land vulnerable over the years. Suffering from severe erosion, the East Coast is being given significant funding as part of its Forestry Project. Landowners are given financial incentives to retire farming land and to plant for conservation and remediation instead. Aside from land protection, this scheme no doubt has much wider environmental and educational benefits.
In 2008 New Zealand introduced a waste disposal levy with the intention to minimise waste sent to landfill. As well as signifying the costs of waste on the environment and economy, the levy creates funding opportunities for schemes that encourage reduction, recycling and reuse in households, businesses and councils.
With the friendly and easy-going Kiwi demeanour, it is difficult to go out and not, at some point, get chatting to a stranger in New Zealand. It is common for any person who is providing you a service to engage in conversation and they may go out of their way to give you advice or assistance. Kiwis are typically quite open, and opinions are not always kept hidden.
Given the outdoorsy barefoot lifestyle and safe neighbourhoods, children are given a lot more freedom to explore, but they are also taught to speak to adults with respect.
A handshake is the usual greeting, but people of Māori descent will often do a ‘Hongi’ instead – where a pair gently touch their noses and foreheads together with eyes closed. Although talk and dress can seem quite casual – the affectionate term ‘Bro’ is used in abundance – polite gratitude and manners go a long way.
Good quality fresh food and produce are easy to find in New Zealand. New Zealand has a world-renowned wine industry, especially famous for its sauvignon blanc grown at the top of the south island – various wineries in the growing region provide a world-class culinary experiences. The country’s biggest export is of dairy products, and of course its Lamb is world famous. However, branded, preserved and packaged foods are also stocked in all supermarkets and small corner shops – known locally as a ‘dairy’. In smaller towns fresh vegetables and meat are only available in grocers or butchers, with all other types of food in the store.
The traditional Māori ceremonial meal is a ‘Hangi’. Fresh cuts of meat, potatoes and vegetables are part-steamed, part-smoked together in a hot earth oven for a few hours. Given the intense geothermal activity in the area, Rotorua is often the place to try a Hangi.
In the main cities it is possible to find cuisine from all over the world, however Asian food, particularly Malaysian, has the most spread throughout the country. The New Zealanders also refer to some familiar foods as different names. The Kumara is a sweet potato, a Capsicum is a red, green or yellow pepper, and Hokey-pokey is the nation’s favourite ice-cream flavour: honeycomb.
English is spoken by a vast majority of New Zealanders. Only an elderly Māori person or recent migrant may not be able to speak fluent English. However, the Māori language, Te Reo Māori, is visible all over the country on most public signage. Māori words are also often used in English conversation. The most common is ‘Kia Ora’ (pronounced ‘key-Ora’ with a rolled ‘r’) which will be heard everywhere and is a warm version of ‘Hi’. A lot of places take the official full or shortened Māori name, and so knowing the pronunciation is useful – for example the ‘Wh’ pairing makes an ‘F’ sound.
Between the 1930s and the 1960s, the number of Māori who could speak the Māori language had dropped from 96.6% to only 26%. Māori-medium education was started in the 1980s, and today the focus is still on revitalizing the language in schools.
New Zealand is a predominantly Christian country, with just over 50% of the population affiliating themselves with a denomination of the Christian religion. However another large proportion claims to have no affiliation. Other major religions are represented, but largely by people born overseas. The Māori belief system is centred on the reverence and faith in genealogy, or ‘Whakapapa’. However, there are a couple of Māori strains of Christianity which came about after the arrival of Anglican missionaries at colonisation – the Ringatu and Ratana churches. Most cities and towns are particularly liberal, however in smaller or more remote areas religiosity is more pronounced.