New Zealand is a country Cesca and I have longed to visit for many years. Tales speak of this island and its seemingly unique people – that they are more friendly than the most sociable of Australians, more “outdoors-loving” than even Scottish highlanders and more into extreme sports than anyone outside Cirque du Soleil. Moreover, all of the “Kiwis” I met have been the most persuasive of ambassadors as they have a deep and abiding love of their country, a great fondness for the sporting life and all of them stand a pint.
Then Lord of the Rings came out and that, as they say, was that. After watching the film the first time, I started a long journey of the heart. The first steps were the reading of the book itself, now and forever with the New Zealand landscape in my mind, followed by many years wondering if the real country actually looked like that. Many steps down this long road later, I actually stood on the Pellanor Fields. I can tell you that yes, in fact, New Zealand does look like Middle Earth. But it is also so much more.
Whatever it was that brought me here, I finally came to see this whole country and its people for myself. I did not rely on a vision encapsulated by a (albeit very good) series of movies. One of the main reasons is that New Zealand has finally awoken from defining itself in terms of the movies; it is now returning to some semblance of normality regarding its own identity. Indeed the Lord of the Ring tours and attractions have retreated firmly into their geek/AD&D, high-brow literary roots and everyone seems the happier for it. The movie makers have returned the countryside to its original form, apart from a few smaller operations, the whole “scene” is over – just in time for The Hobbit to start it all up again, of course.
In the political sense New Zealand has much to offer the refugee from Europe. It has told America to bugger off for starters by denying them the right to have warships in their waters. It thumbed its nose at the USA even when Uncle Sam subsequently threw it out of the southern version of NATO (ANZUS) and said that New Zealand was “a friend, but not an "ally". It has also relented from totally destroying its natives; the Maori. The Maori may not have their full rights yet, which they undoubtedly deserve, but they are not getting anything like the raw deal being handed out to the Australian Aborigines. I think it is due to the Maoris being a fairly up-to-date society/tribe and therefore, much better placed to integrate into modern western style society. The poor natives of Australia simply cannot integrate and at the same time keep their 40,000-year-old societal structure intact.
I feel at home. Kiwis may be more like the hardy South Africans in terms of their work ethic, but their country has the indelible thumb print of Britain on its structure. Road and town names hint at a deep fundamental connection with my home island. For example, we have been found driving out of the town of “Epping”, towards “Brighton”, clutching maps of “Chingford”, surrounded by Scottish architecture. This deep connection is also in the people who love the country, loath politicians and basically want to live in peace – all precepts you will find in the hearts of those dwelling in England.
Of all the “children” born by Britain’s empire, all the ones I have visited thus far, I sense that the Kiwis don’t hate England in the way the Australians do, nor have they grown into something else all together like the Americans. Rather they are quite comfortable, on the whole, to be part of the Commonwealth and rightly feel that they gain benefits from inclusion while avoiding many of the downsides by virtue of their far distance from their birth-mother. As you can tell, in my short time here, I have come to respect the people of this land.
Not that there are that many people here. The entire stock of Kiwis is less that the population of London and most of them are firmly situated in Auckland. Huge tracks of land are given over to the wilds, farms and mountains and are governed by the all powerful Department of Conservation. DOC is simply a moniker for the Government’s power, not like the Australian National Parks (the National Trust with more teeth). DOC is pure silent power as old as the hills, not taking any crap from anyone. Whatever DOC does is right.
It is this strength that stops the march of globalisation and tourism from squashing the inhabitants of the land. While the country has much more than its fair share of moneyed-tourism (coach companies, bungee jumps and lots of sell-sell-sell on the tours), the DOC simply undercuts the entire lot and offers a more “do it yourself” experience. Most walks start in a DOC campsite. DOC will let you walk into the mountains with nothing more than advice on equipment and a well thought out grading of tracks. A grading means anything from a wheelchair friendly waltz along a river bank to a 5-day long hike over mountains and up waterfalls a ninja would struggle with.
The grease between out and out commercialism and DOC is the excellent government run chain of iSight information centers that litter the islands. These are uniformly brilliant and something for lesser countries to adopt. Kiwis have developed a relaxed attitude to tourists in general. A great example of this is how they have dealt with a rampaging infestation of possums; they simply shoot them and make them into jumpers which are sold to tourists as a “fine wool”. Another example is the fact that you cannot buy trout in New Zealand. No, here you have to go catch your own. Everything is designed to take out of the towns and into the country.
Essentially then, New Zealand is made up of huge tracks of open wilderness – from beaches to mountains all sprinkled liberally with people, the occasional town and even – like the shilling in a Christmas pudding – the odd city. It is often said that there are more sheep than people here and frankly, it isn’t hard to imagine. There is more of everything than people; all to the good I say.
The series of articles about New Zealand will track our journey up and down this fair country – into its special nooks and crannies and past its sights. We will focus on high mountains, dangerous passes, isolated beaches, craggy cliffs, highly volcanic geysers and majestic glaciers. We will highlight the people we have met and divulge the nature of the canny Kiwis as best we can. We will to do this in an as entertaining a way as our meagre writing skills allow. We hope you will come along for the ride.
At the very least you will get to see me jump off a 145m high-wire bungee!
Our New Zealand adventure started in late August with our landing in the largest of the cities of the North Island and kicked off with a celebratory dinner of that most British of foods, curry!
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