Fantastically beautiful and famously scenic, Aotearoa New Zealand could be described as having erupted into existence: New Zealand is essentially a group of relatively young volcanic islands. Local lore tells a similar tale of the country being dredged up from depths below in the legend of Maui. One day whilst out fishing with his magic hook, Maui was in his waka (his canoe, the South Island) which was at anchor (punga, Rakiura/Stewart Island) when he landed an enormous fish: the North Island (Te Ika a Maui). A quick look at a map of New Zealand from above will show this.
Experts suggest that around 750 years ago the first settlers, the Maori, arrived in New Zealand and established a structured society of tribes and sub-tribes (iwi and hapu). Food sources were initially abundant with large flightless birds as easy prey, lush forests full of berries and expansive coastlines from which to fish. Internal conflicts were common however and violent tribal wars over resources, namely food and land, were frequent; whilst the inevitable threat of migrant invasion became a reality in the 1800s.
In 1642, following rumour and hunch, Dutchman Abel Tasman sailed from the Dutch East Indies (now part of Indonesia) to find land. His boats arrived on the northern coastline of the South Island but left soon afterwards. A century and a quarter later, in 1769, the British explorer James Cook charted and mapped New Zealand in full. Once on the map, interest grew in the opportunities New Zealand offered – firstly European whalers came, then prospectors from Britain, Asia and Australia making the most of the gold rush, followed by determined missionaries and brave pioneers.
In 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by Maori leaders and the British Crown which made New Zealand a British colony. However the Treaty was fraught with misunderstanding and miscommunications which are still debated today.
Today modern New Zealand reflects its history – many Maori, British, Asian and European descendents can trace their ancestral origins. A large migration from the Pacific Islands took place in the 1970s and more recently migrants have come from further a-field. Today’s kiwi society is truly multi-cultural. New Zealand has frequently been at the forefront of some progressive political concepts – it was the world’s first country to give: women the vote (1893), senior citizens a pension (1898), free education and a welfare state (1930s). Controversially, New Zealand is proud to be nuclear free – nuclear powered or armed ships are not permitted to dock here (1985).
The old joke that New Zealand has more sheep than people might still stand, however farming and agricultural exports are now joined by other industries to put contemporary New Zealand on the world stage – wine, wool, fashion, art, film and tourism are major players. With volcanoes, beaches, mountains, thermal springs, glaciers, national parks and modern cities within driving distance from each other, New Zealand attracts thousands of tourists per annum. As a southern hemisphere country, New Zealand has summer in December and winter in July; and has distinct seasons. Visitors are advised to keep aware of daily weather reports as temperature and conditions can change very quickly – you might literally experience four seasons in one day!
New Zealand remains a relatively small and isolated country which, harking back to the days of the courageous pioneers, still puts value on a “can do” attitude – an inventive, pioneering self-reliance and resourcefulness summarised as “kiwi ingenuity”.
Despite only being in the country for a short while, Abel Tasman and his crew assumed naming rights for the country, naming her Nieuw Zeeland after an area of the Netherlands. The Maori name for the country, Aotearoa, poetically means ‘the Land of the Long White Cloud’, whilst New Zealanders affectionately call their homeland ‘Godzone’ – a variation on ‘God’s own’, liking New Zealand to paradise!
Maori culture, integral to the identity of Aotearoa New Zealand, is a rich and diverse tapestry of art, craft, song, dance and story-telling. Ancestral methods and traditional arts are time honoured through reproduction, whilst contemporary expression is also very popular. A day exploring Maori art forms is just as likely to reveal kapa haka (dance and song) performances or meaningful carvings in native wood or pounamu (greenstone) or moko (tattoo) as it is modern paintings or avant-garde film or hip-hop!
Traditionally Maori used the spoken word as their means of communication, this oral culture placed – and still places- a great emphasis on songs, stories, poems and legends: it is here Maori recorded their history. Today Te Reo Maori, an official language of New Zealand, is spoken to varying degrees throughout the country; and many place names have retained, or returned, to their original Maori name. By learning a few basic rules of word formation and pronunciation, the language is fairly logical and consistent: give it a go!
Maori customs and traditions often prevail over occasions large and small – birth, life and death will bring ritual, whilst occasions such as a meal or gathering will begin with prayer (karakia), often involve songs (waiata) and speeches of welcome (whaikorero). Visitors to Maori meeting houses (marae) need to be aware that protocol often influences the way to behave and formal greetings (powhiri) between the hosts (tangata whenua) and guests (manuhiri) hold significance.
Rugby is extremely popular in New Zealand – both as a player and a spectator sport. On Saturday mornings up and down the country you will find 5 year olds through to much older men and women playing the game or its less rough derivative, touch rugby. The national rugby team, the All Blacks, is recognised worldwide as much for their raucous haka as for their formidable skill. The haka was originally a Maori war dance – a verbal and physical display of intimidation and provocation to the enemy. Needless to say All Blacks use their full-bodied haka to much the same effect – to taunt the opposition into easy submission!
Of course New Zealand offers – and New Zealanders excel in – many diverse outdoor sports such as sailing, rowing, surfing, tramping (hiking), biking, mountain climbing and skiing to name a few. New Zealanders are protective of their natural environment and often proud to be “outdoorsy” types – the nicknames for some of the major cities evidence this: “the City of Sails” (Auckland), “The Garden City” (Christchurch) for example.