This land looks like being a very beautiful land and we trust that this is the mainland coast of the unknown south land.
– wrote the famous Dutch navigator, Abel Tasman in his diary when he first sighted the shores of New Zealand on a summer day in 1642.
However, he was wrong about the assumption he may have reached the Terra Australis Incognita.
New Zealand soon turned out to be separate islands from any major land and therefore the Dutch East India Company considered Tasman’s explorations a failure: he did not discover any land for trade or a new shipping route that could be useful for Dutch merchants.
In the times of rush for spice and gold, a beautiful land as such was not at all something of worth. Nowadays, however, one of New Zealand’s main assets is its stunning natural heritage, “New Zealand Beauty”—which is truly worth exploring.
As soon as we get to see the land of New Zealand – gazing curiously out the tiny window of the aeroplane – we can feel that there is something unique about this country.
The green pastures, rolling hills, breathtaking beaches, forest-covered mountains, tidy, little towns make the first impression as if we are looking down at a layout of a modelled landscape.
And, funnily, this is not changing very much even when we land…
It is no wonder that Peter Jackson, the Oscar winner New Zealand director, envisioned the scenes of his favourite book, The Lord of the Rings, in his beautiful native land.
The barren and rigorous landscape ruled by the volcanoes, the evergreen southern beech forests, the golden grassy hills, the snow-covered mountains, and the trembling rivers all offered a unique and “magic” setting to this grand film trilogy.
The major force that contributed to New Zealand’s natural uniqueness – which lies within its geographical location, climate, many different types of relief, and unmatched flora and fauna – is plate tectonics.
Some 85 million years ago, the landmass of New Zealand broke off from Gondwanaland, the ancient supercontinent of the southern hemisphere, and started drifting east away from Australia. It finally reached its present position about 60 million years ago, between the latitudes of 34–48 degrees south.
At that time much of New Zealand was a group of islands of swampy lowland plains. It was approx. 25 million years ago when the boundary between the Australian and the Pacific plates started to develop.
The crushing of these two plates resulted in forming the mountain ranges of both the North and the South Island. Sediments carried down from the heavily eroding mountains have contributed to the formation of lowland coastal areas.
The various climate zones are due to the roughly north-south orientation of the islands combined with significant contrasts in terms of terrain. It is amazing how we can meet different climates within relatively small distances.
For example, the South Island’s West Coast Region has an oceanic climate with an annual rainfall of 7000 mm (275 in) with no extreme fluctuations in temperature throughout the year.
Just 150 km (93 mi) away east, in Central Otago, we find continental climate with about 15 times(!) less rain yearly (approximately 400-500 mm / 16-20 in) and much hotter and colder temperatures in summer and winter respectively.
Being separated from any mainland for many millions of years, has led to the evolution of an “unearthly” flora and fauna.
New Zealand’s symbol, the flightless kiwi (Apteryx) has five species. This hair-like feathered, long-beaked bird is so extraordinary that when the first English explorers talked about the kiwi back in England, people did not believe such a creature could exist.
New Zealand’s endemic vegetation shows a great variety of species.
Tree ferns are the most outstanding among the more than 140 fern species. The mamaku (Cyathea medullaris) grows the highest reaching approximately 20 m (65 ft) with leaves of 7 m (23 ft) long.
The evolution of podocarp forests, found mainly in the lowland areas up to altitudes of 400-600 m (1300-2000 ft), date back to 200 million years comprising archaic trees with strange Maori names such as totara (Podocarpus totara), rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum), miro (Prumnopitys ferruginea), or matai (Prumnopitys taxifolia).
Evergreen southern beech (Nothofagus) forests replace podocarp forests at higher altitudes in both the North and the South Island. There are five known species of southern beech in New Zealand and several other species in South East Australia, Chile, and Argentina.
While making his journey around the globe in the 1830s, Charles Darwin noticed the similarity between the South American and New Zealand beeches and assumed correctly that these were related closely to each other.
Yet he could not explain why and how these species got separated and ended up on different continents. The theory of plate tectonics, developed much later, finally gave a possible answer.
The issue, according to most recent findings on the trees’ evolutionary relationships, however, is still at debate by scientists—some suggest that long-range dispersal in the case of some New Zealand Nothofagus species is more likely than vicariance (a mode of speciation that occurs when biological populations of the same species become isolated from each other).
Taking Care of Nature
Thanks to the relatively early efforts for environmental conservation, today there are still many places in New Zealand that kept their wildness and have changed little or nothing at all throughout centuries or even millennia.
The nation’s first – the world’s fourth – national park, the Tongariro National Park, was founded in 1887, and since then 13 additional national parks, a number of forest parks, marine reserves, and other protected areas have been established all over the country.
At the moment almost one-third of New Zealand’s territory is under protection including three world heritage areas: the previously mentioned Tongariro National Park, with its three volcanoes sacred to the Maori people, the New Zealand Sub-Antarctic Islands, and Te Wahipounamu, South West New Zealand, comprising four national parks.
Here the visitor can find the country’s highest peaks, immense glaciers, crystal clear lakes and rivers, magnificent fiords, and misty mountain ranges covered with untouched rainforests stretching out for hundreds of kilometres.
The New Zealand authorities are very committed to environmental conservation.
Since its establishment in 1987, the Department of Conservation (DOC) has been the government organization charged with conserving the natural and historic heritage of New Zealand. Its tasks also include encouraging recreational activities and promoting protected areas to be enjoyed by the public.
Throughout the country we can find a good number of DOC visitor centres.
For environmental reasons the number of visitors on these tracks needs to be limited, otherwise, they would be overcrowded and impossible to manage properly.
Wonders of the North
Probably the most eye-catching natural “monuments” of the North Island are the volcanoes. There are six volcanic zones in New Zealand—all are situated in and around the North Island comprising a number of active and dormant volcanoes.
Another Taupo explosion took place in 181 AD, which has been the biggest natural catastrophe in the history of mankind to date, spouting about 30 cubic kilometres (7.2 cubic miles) of ash into the atmosphere.
It was experienced even on the other side of the globe: according to contemporary Chinese and Roman records, the skies were darkened and the sunsets were exceptionally red.
South of Lake Taupo the Tongariro National Park comprises three spectacular volcanoes:
- Mt Tongariro,
- Mt Ngauruhoe,
- and the highest mountain in the North Island, Mt Ruapehu (2797 m / 9177 ft)
Cultural heritage and geothermal features
Rotorua is one of the most famous tourist attractions in the country, mainly because of the Maori cultural heritage represented in the Maori villages of Tamaki and Whakarewarewa where we can experience a sense of the spirit of the Maori people that canoed to New Zealand from Polynesia about 700-1000 years ago.
On the other hand, the area’s geothermal activity is remarkably intensive: Rotorua’s geothermal field includes erupting geysers, hot springs, bubbling mud pools, and silica terraces.
Northland features stunning subtropical bays, mangrove habitats, sandy beaches outstretching far out of view, many lovely islands, and kauri forests where we can find some of the biggest and oldest trees in the world.
The endemic giant kauri (Agathis Australis) – a kind of primitive pine of the family Araucariaceae – is found only in the northern parts of New Zealand.
Before the Europeans started to settle down in the 1800s, vast territories had been covered with kauri forests. Due to extensive logging and timber production in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, only some patches of these magnificent forests survived.
The Waipoua Forest Park is home to the largest kauri trees, of which Tane Mahuta (Lord of the Forest) is the mightiest with a height of 45.2 m (148 ft), 15.4 m (50.5 ft) in girth, and an estimated age of 2,000 years.
Magic of the South
The majority of the New Zealand national parks (9 out of 14) are found in the South Island and one is situated even further south, almost entirely covering Stuart Island.
In the South Island we can find the wildest landscapes along the western side where one of the country’s three world heritage areas, Te Wahipounamu, is situated including Fiordland, Mt Aspiring, Mount Cook, and Westland National Parks.
This huge territory (26,000 sq km / 10,000 sq mi) of wilderness could be described as a natural gem in the world with
- snow-capped mountains,
- lush rainforests of podocarps and southern beech,
- magnificent fiords and glaciers,
- stunning beaches,
- emerald streams,
- and trembling waterfalls.
The Southern Alps
The “backbone” of the South Island is a result of the collision of the Australian and Pacific plates, reaching its highest altitudes of over 3000 m (9800 ft) in the Southern Alps.
These young mountain ranges elevate some 7-10 mm (0.3-0.4 in) yearly, which is a rather fast pace in geological terms.
It was here where the New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary started mountain climbing—later to be the first man to conquer the Everest with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.
Places for recreation
Abel Tasman National Park on the Northern edge of the South Island is New Zealand’s smallest, but possibly the loveliest national park.
It is one of the sunniest places in New Zealand with over 2200 hours of sunshine yearly, offering stunning coastal scenery of golden beaches with turquoise waters, beech forest trails, and magnificent rock formations.
Just off the National Park we can find New Zealand’s deepest pit, the spine-shivering Harwood’s Hole with a vertical pitch of 176 m (577 ft).
Although not a national park, Catlins Forest Park can be regarded as a magnificent natural spot of the southern South Island. Podocarp forests, rivers, waterfalls, and a rugged, beautiful coastline make this wilderness sanctuary truly memorable.
One of the spectacular bushwalks leads to the wonderful sandy Waipati Beach where we can explore the impressive chambers of Cathedral Caves carved out by the sea.
At Curio Bay one of the most extensive fossil forests in the world can be seen at low tide. The 170 million-year-old petrified tree stumps and logs are evidence of New Zealand being a part of Gondwanaland in the Jurassic times.
The plant species identified here by scientists (e.g. cycads and tree ferns) are similar to those found in South America.
Close to Dunedin lies the most accessible wildlife area on the South Island: Otago Peninsula, which is home to many rare bird species.
Its major highlight is the only mainland albatross colony in the world. On the very tip of the peninsula, at Taiaroa Head, northern royal albatrosses (Diomedea sanfordi) started to land at the beginning of the 20th century.
Experts assume albatrosses appeared as a consequence of human destruction of shrubs and forests in the area, so as Taiaroa Head became a cleared spot, albatrosses found the place suitable for nesting.
The royal albatross is the largest seabird with a wing-span of over 3 m (9.8 ft). They regularly circumnavigate the globe and spend 80-90% of their lives at sea.
Otago Peninsula and Taiaroa Head is a unique and very special place. It is a place that every visitor to Dunedin should see.
– Sir David Attenborough, BBC
Another wildlife attraction of Otago Peninsula is watching yellow-eyed penguins (Megadyptes antipodes), the second-rarest of penguin species on earth.
They have distinctive yellow eyes and a yellow band running around the eyes and the head. Both parents share the duties of feeding the chicks.
The best time to watch yellow-eyed penguins is at sunset when the foraging adult, can be either sex, is coming back from the sea to return to the nest.
New Zealand is a miracle on earth.
It has such a variety of flora, fauna, and geographic features in a relatively small place that is unmatched in the world.
New Zealand is a land to explore and adore. For if one has even walked just one of its amazing tracks, seen just one of its purple sunrises, or herd just once the everlasting roar of the South Pacific Ocean, will never forget it.
At least I never will.
Text and photographs © Daniel Kerek
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