Land of the Lord of the Rings

New Zealand is a strange country: a very British land out in the Pacific Ocean about 1,600 kilometres southeast of Australia.

It surprised me many times, not only because of its striking landscape, but also because it wasn’t the haven of calm I had expected. The south island is stunning, with its brilliant blue lakes, age-old glaciers, beautiful fiords, ancient rainforests, and cascading waterfalls. However, in the north island I discovered serious racism against the Māori population and a level of gang robbery and violence in several places that clashes with the image I had of the country before I arrived.

I was also taken aback by the use of the chemical 1080 to kill rabbits; the chemical is banned in many other countries. (See text box.)

Earthquakes in Christchurch

Most traumatic for the country is the death and destruction suffered in Christchurch, which has been demolished by repeated earthquakes, the worst of which killed at least 182 people in February 2011. The city’s residents live under constant stress, with aftershocks a daily occurrence.
Over the 2011 Christmas period, there were multiple aftershocks reaching magnitude 6, and 2012 began with yet more quakes. People never have the breathing space to recover and, for many, the latest quakes must be the final straw that will drive them elsewhere.

A country of contrasts

Driving out from Christchurch, I at first found the landscape stark and uninviting, but exploring further, I discovered the colours and contrasts for which the country is famous. New Zealand, and the south island in particular, does have a certain magic. It is the land of the Lord of the Rings after all. I had no real interest in taking a film-location tour, but did see much of the countryside that was the backdrop to the movie trilogy.

The south island has a small population and few roads. You can drive for hours and hours and see just hills, fields, sheep, cattle, and a few horses. It’s the only place in the world where, after a few hours driving, I had to take a break because my eyelids were starting to droop.

Once you get to the north island, the atmosphere changes completely; it is much more populated. There is more poverty, and more gang violence.

Surprisingly, New Zealand is said to have more gangs per head of population than any other country in the world. There are about seventy major gangs and more than 4,000 patched members in a population of about 4 million.

There are frequent violent confrontations between the two main gangs, Mongrel Mob and Black Power, and gangs are present in both urban and rural areas. A recent attempt by one local council to ban the patches worn by gang members was declared illegal by the High Court of New Zealand.

The south island

The author Rudyard Kipling referred to New Zealand’s Milford Sound (Piopiotahi in Māori) as the eighth wonder of the world. It’s the country’s most famous tourist destination. I decided not to go to Milford; I knew there would be crowds of tourists and helicopters flying overhead. I took the road less travelled and went to Doubtful Sound instead. There is a quiet calm in the middle of this waterway that really does take your breath away.

In Te Anau, there is a cinema that shows only one film: Ata Whenua (Shadowland), a cinematic journey through fiordland, filmed mostly from the air. It gives the viewer an exhilarating glimpse of this far-flung wilderness that few people get the chance to see.

The vibrant turquoise colour of the lakes is also breathtaking. (The colour is caused by glacial rock dust carried along the rivers from the mountains.)

According to a recent study by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, the Blue Lake in the Nelson Lakes National Park, at the top of the south island, has some of the clearest water in the world. Visibility in the lake is up to 80 metres, and the water is considered almost as optically clear as distilled water.

New Zealand is a wonderful place to go hiking. The Fiordland National Park on the south island is a World Heritage Site and has three of New Zealand’s best-known walks, the Milford, Kepler and Routeburn tracks.Then, for rest and relaxation, there can be few more pleasurable experiences than soaking in a outdoor hot tub, chatting to the locals at Lake Tekapo.

Lake Tekapo

Overlooking Lake Tekapo is the Mount John observatory. The view is wonderful, and you can go on a stargazing tour at the main observatory or a smaller observatory at Cowan’s Hill. There are also Earth and Sky daytime tours. The darkness of the night sky has been preserved by the installation of street lamps designed to project light downwards to the ground.

Lake Tekapo is in the Mackenzie District, which was recently designated a gold-level International Dark Sky Reserve. Gold- level status means the skies in the designated region are almost totally free from light pollution.

The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, which comprises the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park and the Mackenzie Basin, is the fourth such dark sky reserve in the world.

“The concept of a dark sky reserve goes further than the mere protection of the site’s astronomical integrity,” says one of the initiative’s local organisers, Graeme Murray. “It aims to recover and identify values that relate to the night sky. Landscape, nature, opportunities for science, astrotourism, and cultural heritage all come under the umbrella.”

Church of the Good Shepherd, Lake Tekapo.

The Otago region

Queenstown, on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, is one of the liveliest places on the south island; people come from near and far to jet boat in the Shotover River canyons. It’s the place where A.J. Hackett pioneered the sport of bungy jumping.

Nearby Arrowtown is a very quaint town that developed during the Gold Rush in the 19th century. When gold became harder to extract, and goldfields opened up on the west coast in 1865, the local provincial government invited Chinese miners to come to the Otago goldfields.

According to census statistics, there were 3,564 Chinese in Otago in 1874.They were often discriminated against, and lived on the fringes of the European settlements and in isolated gullies near their mining claims.

The Cardrona Hotel is an interesting place to stop off. Built in 1868, it’s the most photographed pub in New Zealand. Its most memorable owner was James Paterson, remembered for refusing to serve women and rationing his customers. Patrons who were going to drive the Crown Range Road were allowed just one glass of beer, but those heading for Wanaka were permitted two.


The west coast of the south island is the place to buy pounamu (greenstone). The Māori name for the South Island is Te Wai Pounamu, in reference to the stone. In the town of Hokitika, you’ll also find Ruby Rock (goodletite), a mix of ruby, sapphire, tourmaline and fuchsite.

Be discerning in the jewellery shops in Hokitika and Queenstown, and check that the pounamu you are buying is genuine. The Te Waipounamu Maori Heritage Centre is a good place to go to browse, and they also offer tours.

I found my pounamu tiki necklace, made by local artist Andy Ruskin in an out-of-town gallery en route. It came with an artist statement. Tikis have a spiritual significance and are to be received as gifts. The Māoris hand them down from generation to generation.

The south island’s Ngāi Tahu Māori tribe have launched an “Authentic Greenstone” website where you can check the source and authenticity of greenstone articles bought in New Zealand.

“The origin of souvenir pounamu is often murky,” writes Sally Blundell in Te Karaka magazine. “Without labels, tags, or written information, customers have no way of knowing if the pendant on the shop counter has been made from cheap Canadian jade, illegally sourced pounamu from New Zealand, New Zealand pounamu carved in China or legally extracted, locally hand-crafted South Island pounamu.

“This uncertainty has a negative impact on the tourism industry and is especially bad for pounamu carvers, forced to compete with cheap imported stone. It is bad for buyers, who have no idea what they are buying.”

If you are in the west of the south island, don’t miss the Pancake Rocks and blow holes at Punakaiki.

Another main attraction on the south island is whale-watching off Kaikoura.

The north island

Arriving in the north island, I had to adapt to the traffic and faster lifestyle, but I found the same hospitality I had experienced in the south. In Rotorua, where my equipment was stolen from my car, a woman from the local victim support organisation invited me into her home; she even took me around a park where she thought my bag might have been dumped. It was found, in a pond there, a few days later. The thieves had just taken small change.


Rotorua is a peculiar place, with its stench of sulphur, its geysers, and its bubbling mud pools. There is a high level of crime, and a lot of “plastic Māori” attractions.

The hot pools have claimed several victims. In December 2010, an eight-year-old boy died from his injuries after he fell into one in Rotorua’s Kuirau Park. The number of warning signs has since been increased, but there have been calls for higher fences.

More recently, a 12-year-old girl slipped and fell into a 36°C mud pool. She managed to pull herself out, jumped into a river, and survived.

Art deco

Napier on the north island is known as the art deco capital of the world. It was rebuilt in art deco style after the Hawke’s Bay earthquake in 1931. Every February, thousands of people flood into the town for the art deco weekend summer festival.

Many arrive by steam train. The locals wear art deco attire and there’s a parade of vintage cars, motorbikes and bicycles. There’s an air display and dancing in the street.

Te Papa

New Zealand’s capital, windy Wellington lives up to its nickname, but is a very manageable city. I liked the national museum, Te Papa, and saw an interesting exhibition of work by New Zealand’s most famous photographer, Brian Brake. (Brake took the controversial “Monsoon Girl” shot of a Bengali girl holding her face up to what looks like monsoon rain, but was, in fact, water from a watering can.)

The Golden Days exhibit is fun. It’s an unusual “object theatre” show in which film, sound, synchronised robotics, and theatrical lighting are used to tell the story of New Zealand.

Visitor numbers to Te Papa have exceeded all expectations, but it has its critics. Some say it shouldn’t have been sited at the water’s edge on reclaimed land next to one of the world’s most active earthquake fault lines. Others have criticised the “sideshow” nature of some exhibits.
Denis Dutton, writing in The Weekend Australian a few months after Te Papa opened, called it a national embarrassment. “Most offensive of all,” he wrote, “a deeply patinated 19th-century kava bowl from Tonga is forced to share its glass case with a plastic ice cream container.”

People delighted by Kiwi nostalgia would love the museum, Dutton said, but the Maori collection was spread over a confused, badly lit space. “In the Pacific area, only a stunning Hawaiian red-feather cloak collected by Captain Cook receives display appropriate to its historic and aesthetic importance. The main Pacific exhibit is a simply a dog’s breakfast.”

Ans Westra

Another photographer I discovered in New Zealand was Ans Westra, a Dutch woman who immigrated there in 1957. She’s best known for documenting the lives of the Māoris during the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. Her semi-fictional photo-essay Washday at the Pa, published in 1964, was both attacked and defended. Critics said it was untruthful and an insult to Māoris. Others said it was an accurate portrayal of daily life for those living in poverty.

Westra has since produced the book and exhibition, The Crescent Moon: The Asian Face of Islam in New Zealand, which sheds light on the lives of Asian Muslims in New Zealand.

Wellington resident, Judith White, who offered me hospitality when I was in the city, said she feels privileged to live in such a remote country. “I am deeply proud to be a Kiwi, and want to fight to preserve its uniqueness, its isolation, and its strengths.” New Zealanders, she says, are “an independent, resilient, friendly, and generous people”.

Violent undercurrents

White, who, at 89, has retired twice, once from a career in music education, then from her work as a potter, says New Zealanders tend to be anxious to know whether visitors like their country. “It reflects, I think, the fact that we are a small country at the bottom of the world, insecure, and ambitious to be noticed.”

White points to the serious level of violence in New Zealand, particularly child abuse and domestic violence against women. “There is an appalling level of drunkenness,” she says.

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of child abuse in the world; there are at least 20 confirmed cases of child abuse and/or neglect every day. According to the Child Protection Services, about 15 percent of children in New Zealand are born at risk of abuse, and more than 80,000 witness family violence each year.

In 2011, the Global Peace Index ranked New Zealand second in the list of most peaceful countries. (In 2009 and 2010, it came top.) However, according to the London-based International Centre for Prison Studies, the country has the second highest rate of imprisonment in the western world; higher than countries with more violent crime, including Colombia.

Dairy farming

Dairy farming is New Zealand’s biggest export earner, but Judith White believes it will be the country’s downfall. “There is a terrible cost to the environment. What used to be pristine waterways are being polluted and demands for irrigation water are threatening our river flows and freshwater habitats.”

There are more than 6 million dairy cows in New Zealand, excreting the same amount of effluent as an estimated 84 million people, and New Zealand’s dairy industry consumes one quarter of the world’s supply of palm-oil based animal feed. (Intensive palm oil production has caused massive deforestation in several countries, including Indonesia and Malaysia. Natural habitats for endangered species including the orang-utan, are being rapidly destroyed.)

There is also concern about the number of dairy farms being bought up by Chinese companies.


New Zealand has a centre-right prime minister, John Key, whose popularity seems to be waning. Critics say he lacks vision and he’s earned the nickname “Teflon John” because nothing politically damaging seems to stick to him. In last November’s general election, he won a second term when his National Party swept back to power.

The Maori Party, which won three seats, signed up to support three more years of National-led government and its co-leaders Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia kept their ministerial posts.

Writing on the website Māori Law and Politics, lawyer and commentator Joshua Hitchcock said: “The Māori Party will elect to enter into an arrangement with the government to gain what they can for Māori, and those who identify with the left-wing of New Zealand politics will continue to call them traitors and attack every choice they make.”

Hitchcock said he felt despondent seeing the swing of Māori support back towards Labour and New Zealand First. “Māori continue to support Labour in large numbers, despite the Labour party’s continued disrespect of Māori tino rangatiratanga (self-determination). Neither Labour nor National can ever provide an independent voice for Māori, and neither party has the best interests of Māori at the core of their policy.

“If we want change and if we want control of our own destiny, then we need to support our own parties and give them the power to sit at the table of government and advocate our position.”

The Māori Party is no longer the only political party representing Māori interests; in February 2011 Hone Harawira broke away and formed a separate party, Mana; he has vowed not to support a National government.

Harawira, who retained his seat in the November election, is a controversial politician. He has, in the past, been accused of racism over his remarks about Pākehā (New Zealanders of European descent), but he has since said Mana can no longer be a party just for Māori.

The relationship between Māori and Pākehā is complex. There are Pākehā who embrace Māori culture and others who are openly racist and consider Māoris to be out for all they can get.

In contrast with Australia, New Zealand has a treaty with the earlier immigrants. The Treaty of Waitangi, signed on February 6, 1840, gave rise to land claims that culminated in the “New Zealand Wars”, a series of skirmishes between colonial forces and Māori in the north island.

The government awarded money and land in settlements during the 1990s, but the land issue remains controversial.

The disorganised nature of the treaty settlement has brought great wealth for some Māori groups. Among others, there is widespread poverty.

The main issues for Māori politicians are the poverty in their communities and laws about ownership of New Zealand’s foreshore and seabed. Legislation passed in March 2011 – the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Act – was supported by the Maori party, but was one of the reasons Harawira broke away.

Child poverty

A report on Maori and Pasifika child poverty, published by the Every Child Counts project in September 2011 shows that just over half of the 200,000 New Zealand children living below the poverty line are Maori and Pasifika (Pacific Island).

The report, “He Ara Hou – The Pathway Forward” shows that Maori and Pasifika children have worse living conditions and experience significantly poorer health, educational, and social outcomes than other groups.

Drug abuse

One of the burning issues for all political parties in New Zealand is the scale of alcohol and drug abuse. Addiction to methamphetamine, also known as “crystal meth” or “P”, is a growing problem; most of it is produced in illegal labs within the country.

There is heavy gang involvement in the methamphetamine trade, but there are gang leaders who are speaking out against drug abuse and have become involved in a programme aimed at reducing methamphetamine’s manufacture, distribution and use. The Mokai Whanau Ora programme comes under the umbrella of the health ministry’s CAYAD Project.

Youth suicide

Another major problem is youth suicide. While suicide rates have fallen dramatically over the past two decades, New Zealand’s female youth suicide rate is higher than in any other country in the 34-member OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). According to a report released in August 2011 and based on statistics gathered by the OECD in 2008, only Iceland and Finland had higher suicide rates for males aged 15–24 years.


New Zealand is strongly anti-nuclear. In February 1985, the country turned away a US ship and, in 1987, the Labour government declared New Zealand a nuclear-free zone. The United States refuses to state whether its ships are nuclear-powered or not, so New Zealand has refused entry to all of them. Tension between the two countries lessened in 2010 when they signed an agreement committing them to regular foreign ministry, trade and military talks.

New Zealand also has a nationwide “Zero Waste” policy and many local authorities have adopted zero waste targets, with a goal of meeting them by 2020.


New Zealanders from many sectors of society have gone to live in Australia, where there are more jobs and higher pay. In 2011, 35,000 more Kiwis emigrated to Australia than vice-versa; this was the first year since 2001 that more people emigrated from New Zealand than came there to live.

It’s all a very far cry from the days in the 19th century when immigrants from Britain and Ireland flooded into the country in search of a better life.
Tourism is still a booming industry, second only to the dairy industry for foreign exchange earnings. New Zealand’s international visitor arrivals have doubled since 1992, and have reached about 2.5 million per year.

However, for many New Zealanders themselves, not least those in Christchurch, the many attractions of the country are now outweighed by the stresses and strains of daily life.

Use of the chemical 1080 
“New Zealand is proud of its clean, green and pure image. However the use of 1080 poisoning as the main weapon in the war against animals regarded as pests is an extremely cruel practice,” says the animal advocacy organisation SAFE.
“1080 is not a humane way to kill any animal. Death is painful, torturous and slow.” 1080 is distributed in laced bait via ground and aerial application by the Department of Conservation and the Animal Health Board. It is mainly used to kill possums, but feral cats, rabbits, rats, and stoats are also targeted.
The British introduced rabbits into New Zealand for food, for sportsmen to hunt, and to establish a fur industry”. By the 1890s, the creatures were considered to be a plague. Ferrets, weasels, and stoats were introduced to kill them, but preyed on native bird life as well. Cats were released for the same reason, again with disastrous effects on the native wildlife.In 1997, Rabbit Calicivirus Disease (RCD or RHD) was illegally introduced into New Zealand to reduce numbers. Its use has since been legalised and local councils have released it in certain areas.
Thousands of rabbits, hares and possums are killed each year in the horribly named “Great Easter Bunny Hunt” in the Central Otago region. Defenders of the event say shooting them is more humane than other practices.

Sporting prowess

New Zealand is renowned for its sporting prowess: the national rugby union team, the All Blacks, is ranked first in the world and New Zealand currently holds the rugby union world cup. New Zealand’s men’s softball team has won the world championship five times and the national women’s netball team is ranked second in the world. In Rugby League, New Zealand are the current world champions and the reigning Four Nations champions. New Zealanders also excel in rowing and have won several world cup events.
Less well-known is New Zealanders’ prowess in hip-hop; the New Zealand dance teams won two silver and three gold medals in the 2011 World Hip-Hop Dance Championship in Las Vegas. The all-female crew ReQuest, who took silver in the main adult division, won gold medals in 2009 and 2010. Hip-hop is becoming increasingly popular in New Zealand, and even has its supporters in the government. Praising ReQuest’s win in 2010, the Minister of Māori Affairs Pita Sharples said the crew “represents the best of Kiwi cultures, including Samoan, Tongan, Rarotongan, Chinese, Japanese and European dancers as well as Māori and Pākehā”.

Facts and figures:

New Zealand lies between 37 and 47 degrees south of the Tropic of Capricorn.
It’s roughly the size of Great Britain, Colorado, or Japan.
It’s a constitutional monarchy (the head of state is Queen Elizabeth II).
It was the first country in the world to give women the right to vote (in 1893).
About 85% of residents are of British descent.
The indigenous Māori are the largest minority, followed by Asians, and non-Māori Polynesians.
More than half of the land area is pasture and arable land, and more than a quarter is under forest cover.
New Zealand has several species of flightless birds; the most famous is the kiwi, the national emblem. These birds were able to evolve and survive because the environment lacked predators.
There are more sheep than people.

Highest Mountain: Mount Cook, 3,753 metres
Largest Lake: Lake Taupo, 616 sq. km.
Largest Glacier: Tasman Glacier, 30km long, 3km wide
Deepest Lake: Lake Manapouri, 462 metres
Hours of sunshine: equal to those of Italy or Florida.
High average rainfall – between 640 millimetres and 1,500 millimetres – evenly spread throughout the year.
Principal exports: meat, wool, dairy produce, forestry products, machinery, fruit and fish. Food processing is the largest manufacturing industry

• New Zealand has the longest place name found in any English-speaking country (it’s the second longest place-name in the world):
(usually shortened to Taumata) is the Māori name for a hill close to Porangahau, in southern Hawke’s Bay.

Translation: The brow of the hill where Tamatea, the man with the big knees who slid, climbed and swallowed mountains, to travel the land, played his flute to his loved one.


Real Journeys

Fiordland Cinema

Earth and Sky astronomy tours

Authentic Greenstone

Art deco in Napier

© Annette Gartland