New Zealand Feature

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New Zealand Today

Kia ora, or welcome, to the "Youngest Country on Earth." New Zealand's moniker may specifically reference its place as the last landmass to be discovered, but it speaks to the constant geological, social, and political shifts the country has undergone as it has tried to find its national identity. Tectonic hotbeds include three active volcanoes—Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu—on the Central Plateau of the North Island and the still-growing Southern Alps on the South Island. In a nation of farmers with frontier ancestors, Georgina Beyer, a transsexual former prostitute, won a rural seat against a conservative opponent in 1999. New Zealand's Ernest Rutherford was the first person to split the atom, but the country remains passionately anti–nuclear technology. And the All Blacks, the national rugby team, may have a historical 75% winning record, but New Zealanders still feel like underdogs. The result of all this is wild, rough-around-the-edges, utterly unique country.

A Tale of Two Islands

Together, the North and South islands make up the majority of Aotearoa—Land of the Long White Cloud. New Zealand is roughly the size of Colorado (with a slightly smaller population), but you are never more than 150 mi from the sea. New Zealand's two main islands are more than 1,000 mi long and together encompass nearly every environment on the planet: glaciers, white-sand beaches, fjords, rain forests, alpine forest and lakes, agricultural plains, and volcanic craters and cones.

The South Island is the stunner: the colorful beaches, inlets, and sunny vineyards of the north give way to the Southern Alps, a mountain range that can only be crossed in three places (Arthur's Pass, Lewis Pass, and HaastPass). Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park contains New Zealand's tallest mountain (Aoraki/Mount Cook, 12,316 feet) and another 19 peaks that are more than 10,000 feet. Forty percent of the park is covered by glaciers. On the West Coast, dense native forest, wild weather, and a sparse population provide a frontier feel. At the southern end of the West Coast is primeval Fiordland National Park, more than 1.2 million hectares of raw wilderness. Together, Fiordland, Aoraki/Mount Cook, Westland Tai Poutini, and Mount Aspiring national parks form Te Wāhiponamu, a UNESCO World Heritage site encompassing 2.6 million hectares, nearly 10 percent of New Zealand's total land mass.

On the East Coast of the South Island, sea life ranges from the giant 65-foot male sperm whale to the five-foot Hector's Dolphin.

Fourteen miles separate the North and South islands over the rough Cook Strait, but the two islands are worlds apart. Due to its volcanic origins, the North Island has fertile farmlands and rejuvenated native forest. More than three-quarters of New Zealand's 4.2 million people live on the North Island, which tends to have milder weather and a more forgiving landscape. Long beaches sweep up both coasts past small communities (many still predominantly Māori). Te Urewera National Park and two out of three of New Zealand's longest rivers (Waikato and Wanganui) are found near the Central Plateau. Here you'll also discover New Zealand's largest lake (Taupo).

A Tale of Two Cultures

New Zealand is 900 mi from the nearest landmass. Its relative isolation and geographical diversity has affected its population. On a whole, New Zealanders are genial, reserved, and friendly, but they don't suffer fools or braggarts lightly. An isolated past, when things were either unavailable or expensive, led to a nation of inventers: Kiwis invented the jet-boat, bungy jumping, and the electric fence, to name a few. They were the first to climb Mount Everest, and the first to give women the vote.

New Zealand is a bicultural nation. New Zealanders of European descent (Pakeha) make up 80% of the population, while Māori make up 15% (the rest is largely Pacific Islanders and Asian), and the future is still unclear. There are two camps: most New Zealanders want to move forward as "one New Zealand," but a significant portion still sees Māoridom as a culture set apart. Although many New Zealanders consider the reconciliation process to be labored and an impediment to forward progress, Māori is an oral culture, and many feel that continuing to discuss the past is a way of making certain it isn't lost in the present.

Kiwi Quality of Life

New Zealand is consistently rated as one of the best places to live and is one of the most active nations: Kiwis seem to be born with a love of the outdoors, and families tramp, caravan, sail, and play rugby, cricket, and netball together. Most New Zealanders are well educated. They value travel highly, with one-quarter of the population traveling overseas every year, often for their post-school O.E. (overseas experience). Kiwis don't tend to be religious, with two-thirds lightly following one of the four main Christian religions (Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Anglican). New Zealand isn't a wealthy nation, either: most Kiwis prefer a good work-life balance to an overflowing bank account.

100% Pure

Despite their quality of life, many New Zealanders express concern for the country's future. The Department of Conservation now focuses on environmental issues, reflecting the national love of the outdoors and the importance of the landscape to the country's burgeoning tourism industry. Although New Zealand is making great strides in sustainability, the country aims for a "100% Pure" lifestyle. New Zealand is also facing a challenge in rising obesity, a binge-drinking problem (especially among young women), youth gang culture and violent crime, and an increase in poverty. Basically, New Zealand is facing many of the same problems as the Western world—just on a smaller scale.

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