New Zealand's landforms have a diversity that you would expect to find across an entire continent: snow-dusted mountains, drowned glacial valleys, rainforests, dunelands and an otherworldly volcanic plateau. Straddling the boundary of two great colliding slabs of the earth’s crust – the Pacific plate and the Indo-Australian plate – NZ is a plaything for nature’s strongest forces.
New Zealand is a young country – its present shape is less than 10,000 years old. Having broken away from the supercontinent of Gondwanaland (which included Africa, Australia, Antarctica and South America) some 85 million years ago, it endured continual uplift and erosion, buckling and tearing, and the slow fall and rise of the sea as ice ages came and went.
Evidence of NZ’s tumultuous past is everywhere. The South Island’s mountainous spine – the 650km-long ranges of the Southern Alps – grew from the clash between plates at a rate of 20km over three million years; in geological terms, that's a sprint. Despite NZ’s highest peak, Aoraki/Mt Cook, losing 10m from its summit overnight in a 1991 landslide (and a couple of dozen more metres to erosion), the Alps are overall believed to be some of the fastest-growing mountains in the world.
Volcanic New Zealand
The North Island's most impressive landscapes have been wrought by volcanoes. Auckland is built on an isthmus peppered by some 48 scoria cones (cinder cones, or volcanic vents). The city’s biggest and most recently formed volcano, 600-year-old Rangitoto Island, is a short ferry ride from the downtown wharves. Some 300km further south, the classically shaped cone of snowcapped Mt Taranaki overlooks tranquil dairy pastures.
But the real volcanic heartland runs through the centre of the North Island, from the restless bulk of Mt Ruapehu in Tongariro National Park, northeast through the Rotorua lake district out to NZ’s most active volcano, White Island, in the Bay of Plenty. Called the Taupo Volcanic Zone, this great 350km-long rift valley – part of a volcano chain known as the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’ – has been the seat of massive eruptions that have left their mark on the country physically and culturally. The volcano that created Lake Taupo last erupted 1800 years ago in a display that was the most violent anywhere on the planet within the past 5000 years.
You can experience the aftermath of volcanic destruction on a smaller scale at Te Wairoa (the Buried Village), near Rotorua on the shores of Lake Tarawera. Here, partly excavated and open to the public, lie the remains of a 19th-century Māori village overwhelmed when nearby Mt Tarawera erupted without warning. The famous Pink and White Terraces, spectacular naturally formed pools (and one of several claimants to the title ‘eighth wonder of the world’), were destroyed overnight by the same upheaval.
Born of geothermal violence, Waimangu Volcanic Valley is the place to go to experience hot earth up close and personal amid geysers, silica pans, bubbling mud pools and the world’s biggest hot spring. Alternatively, wander around Rotorua’s Whakarewarewa village, where descendants of Māori displaced by the eruption live in the middle of steaming vents and prepare food for visitors in boiling pools.
The South Island can also see some evidence of volcanism – if the remains of the old volcanoes of Banks Peninsula weren’t there to repel the sea, the vast Canterbury Plains, built from alpine sediment washed down the rivers from the Alps, would have eroded long ago.
Not for nothing has New Zealand been called ‘the Shaky Isles’. Earthquakes are common, but most only rattle the glassware. A few have wrecked major towns. In 1931 an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale levelled the Hawke’s Bay city of Napier, causing huge damage and loss of life. Napier was rebuilt almost entirely in then-fashionable art-deco architectural style.
On the South Island, in September 2010 Christchurch was rocked by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake. Less than six months later, in February 2011, a magnitude 6.3 quake destroyed much of the city’s historic heart and claimed 185 lives, making it the country’s second-deadliest natural disaster. Then in November 2016 an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale struck Kaikoura – further up the coast – resulting in two deaths and widespread damage to local infrastructure.
Flora & Fauna
New Zealand's long isolation has allowed it to become a veritable warehouse of unique and varied plants. Separation of NZ's landmass occurred before mammals appeared on the scene, leaving birds and insects to evolve in spectacular ways. As one of the last places on earth to be colonised by humans, NZ was for millennia a safe laboratory for risky evolutionary strategies. But the arrival of Māori, and later Europeans, brought new threats and sometimes extinction.
The now-extinct flightless moa, the largest of which grew to 3.5m tall and weighed more than 200kg, browsed open grasslands much as cattle do today (skeletons can be seen at Auckland Museum), while the smaller kiwi still ekes out a nocturnal living rummaging among forest leaf litter for insects and worms. One of the country’s most ferocious-looking insects, the mouse-sized giant weta, meanwhile, has taken on a scavenging role elsewhere filled by rodents.
Many endemic creatures, including moa and the huia, an exquisite songbird, were driven to extinction, and the vast forests were cleared for timber and to make way for agriculture. Destruction of habitat and the introduction of exotic animals and plants have taken a terrible environmental toll – and New Zealanders are now fighting a rearguard battle to save what remains.
Native Birds & Animals
Pause in any NZ forest and listen: this country is aflutter with melodious feathered creatures. The country's first Polynesian settlers found little in the way of land mammals – just two species of bat – and most of NZ's present mammals are introduced species. New Zealand's birds generally aren't flashy, but they have an understated beauty that reveals itself in more delicate details: the lacy plumage of rare white heron (kōtuku), the bespectacled appearance of a silvereye or the golden frowns of Fiordland penguins.
The most beautiful songbird is the tui, a nectar-eater with an inventive repertoire that includes clicks, grunts and chuckles. Notable for the white throat feathers that stand out against its dark plumage, the tui often feeds on flax flowers in suburban gardens but is most at home in densely tangled forest (‘bush’ to New Zealanders). The bellbird (korimako) is also musical; it's common in both native and exotic forests everywhere except Northland (though it is more likely to be heard than seen). Its call is a series of liquid bell notes, most often sounded at dawn or dusk. Fantails (pīwakawaka) are also common on forest trails, swooping and jinking to catch insects stirred up by passing hikers.
At ground level, the most famous native bird is of course the kiwi, NZ's national emblem, with a rounded body and a long, distinctive bill with nostrils at the tip for sniffing out food. Sightings in the wild require patience and luck but numerous sanctuaries allow a peep of this iconic bird. Look out for other land birds like pukeko, elegant swamp-hens with blue plumage and bright-red beaks. They're readily seen along wetland margins and even on the sides of roads nearby – be warned, they have little road sense. Far rarer (though not dissimilar in appearance) is the takahe, a flightless bird thought extinct until a small colony was discovered in 1948. It's worth seeking them out at Te Anau's bird sanctuary.
If you spend any time in the South Island high country, you are likely to spot the kea (unless it finds you first). A dark-green parrot with red underwings and a sense of mischief, its bold antics are a source of frustration and delight to New Zealanders, who crowned the kea 'Bird of the Year' in 2017. Kea are particularly common in car parks along the Milford Hwy, and in the West Coast's glacier country, where they hang out for food scraps or tear rubber from car windscreens (we've also seen them nibbling at ski bindings in winter sports resorts around Queenstown: consider yourself warned). Resist the urge to feed them, as it's hugely damaging to their health.
And what of the native bats? Populations of both short-tailed and long-tailed bats are declining at frightening speed, though Kahurangi National Park and Nelson are believed to be home to small populations. DOC (Department of Conservation) is hard at work protecting bats, including ambitious plans to resettle them on predator-free islands. If you spot a bat, count yourself lucky – and consider telling DOC.
As New Zealand's avian icon, the flightless kiwi is the most prized sighting for birdwatchers. There are five species dotted around NZ but only 68,000 birds in total. Spotting this rare nocturnal bird in the wild requires patience and good luck, though numerous bird sanctuaries enable a glimpse of kiwi in captivity (usually young birds being readied for re-release in the wild, once they're large enough to defend against predators). On the Coromandel Peninsula, the Firth of Thames (particularly Miranda) is a haven for migrating birds and there are popular trips to observe pelagic birds out of Kaikoura. To get a feel for what birdlife in the bush was like before human interference, take a trip to Tiritiri Matangi Island, north of Auckland. This regenerating island is an open sanctuary and one of the country’s most successful exercises in community-assisted conservation.
It's worth seeking out the following bird encounters on your travels:
- Royal albatross The world's only mainland colony is reachable by tours on the Otago Peninsula.
- White heron Their only breeding site is in Whataroa, accessible by guided jetboat tours.
- Fiordland crested penguin Keep a lookout on cruises and kayak trips in Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound, or coastal tramping on Stewart Island.
- Yellow-eyed penguin Bring snacks and stake out Roaring Bay's bird hide in the Catlins or Shag Point in Dunedin.
- Dotterel The Wharekawa Wildlife Refuge at Opoutere Beach is a breeding ground for this endangered bird.
- Gannet There’s a very accessible Australasian gannet colony at Muriwai, west of Auckland, and one at Cape Kidnappers in Hawke’s Bay.
A threatened species, the kiwi is also nocturnal and difficult to see in the wild; the odds are best in Trounson Kauri Park in Northland and on Stewart Island. If you are patient and can step lightly on a multi-hour evening guided walk, you have a good chance of seeing them with Okarito Kiwi Tours on the West Coast. They can also be observed in many artificially dark 'kiwi houses':
- Auckland Zoo
- Kiwi North, Whangarei
- Rainbow Springs, Rotorua
- Otorohanga Kiwi House & Native Bird Park
- National Aquarium of New Zealand, Napier
- West Coast Wildlife Centre, Franz Josef
- Ngā Manu, Waikanae
- Pukaha Mt Bruce National Wildlife Centre, near Masterton
- Wellington Zoo
- Orana Wildlife Park, Christchurch
- Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, Christchurch
- Kiwi Birdlife Park, Queenstown
- National Kiwi Centre, Hokitika
Kaikoura, on the northeast coast of the South Island, is NZ’s nexus of marine mammal–watching. The main attraction here is whale-watching. The sperm whale, a toothed whale that can grow up to 18m long, is pretty much a year-round resident here. Depending on the season you may also see migrating humpback whales, pilot whales, blue whales and southern right whales. Other mammals – including fur seals and dusky dolphins – are seen year-round.
Kaikoura is also a hotspot for swimming with dolphins, with pods of up to 500 dusky dolphins commonly seen. Dolphin swimming is common elsewhere in NZ, with the animals gathering off the North Island near Whakatane, Paihia, Tauranga and in the Hauraki Gulf, and off Akaroa on the South Island’s Banks Peninsula. Seal swimming also happens in Kaikoura and in Abel Tasman National Park.
But these kinds of wildlife encounters are controversial. Whale populations around the world have declined rapidly over the past 200 years: the same predictable migration habits that once made the giants easy prey for whalers nowadays make them easy targets for whale-watchers. As NZ’s whale-watching industry has grown, so has concern over its impact. At the centre of the debate is the practice of swimming with whales and dolphins. While it’s undoubtedly one of the more unusual experiences you can have on the planet, many observers suggest that human interaction with these marine mammals has a disruptive effect on behaviours and breeding patterns. Taking a longer view, others say that given humanity’s historic propensity for slaughtering whales by the tens of thousands, it’s time we gave them a little peace and quiet.
The Department of Conservation's guidelines and protocols ensure that all operators are licensed and monitored, and forbids swimming with dolphin pods that have vulnerable young calves. If it's truly a bucket-list essential for you, give yourself a few days to do it so that there is no pressure on the operator to 'chase' marine mammals to keep you happy. And if you feel your whale-, dolphin- or seal-swim operator has 'hassled' the animals or breached the boundaries in any way (like loud noises, feeding them or circling them), report them to DOC immediately.
NZ's Ancient Lizard
The largest native reptile in NZ is the tuatara, a crested lizard that can grow up to 50cm long. Thought to be unchanged for more than 220 million years, these endearing creatures can live for up to a century. Meet them at Auckland Zoo, Invercargill's Southland Museum, Hokitika's National Kiwi Centre, and other zoos and sanctuaries around NZ.
No visitor to NZ (particularly Australians) can last long without hearing about the damage done to the bush by that bad-mannered Australian import, the brushtail possum. The long list of mammal pests introduced to NZ, whether accidentally or for a variety of misguided reasons, includes deer, rabbits, stoats, pigs and goats. But by far the most destructive is the possum. At their height, 70 million possums were chewing through millions of tonnes of foliage a year. Following efforts by the DOC to control their numbers, the possum population has almost halved but they remain an enormous threat to native flora (and to bird life...possums prey on chicks and eggs).
Among favoured possum food is the colourful kowhai, a small-leaved tree growing to 11m, which in spring has drooping clusters of bright-yellow flowers (informally considered NZ’s national flower); the pohutukawa, a beautiful coastal tree of the northern North Island that bursts into vivid red flower in December, earning the nickname ‘Christmas tree’; and a similar crimson-flowered tree, the rata. Rata species are found on both islands; the northern rata starts life as a climber on a host tree (that it eventually chokes).
The few remaining pockets of mature centuries-old kauri are stately emblems of former days. Their vast trunks and towering, epiphyte-festooned limbs reach well over 50m high, reminders of why they were sought after in colonial days for spars and building timber. The best place to see the remaining giants is Northland’s Waipoua Forest, home to the largest swath of kauri in the country. These mighty trees are under threat from fungus-like kauri dieback disease, so be diligent about following signs that direct you to clean your boots to stem the disease's spread.
Other native timber trees include the distinctive rimu (red pine) and the long-lived totara (favoured for Māori war canoes). NZ's perfect pine-growing conditions encouraged one of the country’s most successful imports, Pinus radiata, which grow to maturity in 35 years (and sometimes less). Plantation forests are now widespread through the central North Island – the southern hemisphere’s biggest, Kaingaroa Forest, lies southeast of Rotorua.
You won’t get far into the bush without coming across tree ferns. NZ has an impressive 200 species of ferns, and almost half grow nowhere else on the planet. Most easily recognised are the mamaku (black tree fern) – which grows to 20m and can be seen in damp gullies throughout the country – and the 10m-high ponga (silver tree fern) with its distinctive white underside. The silver fern is a national symbol and adorns sporting and corporate logos, as well as shop signs, clothing and jewellery.
More than 85,000 sq km of NZ – almost one-third of the country – is protected and managed within parks and reserves. Almost every conceivable landscape is present: from mangrove-fringed inlets in the north to the snow-topped volcanoes of the Central Plateau, and from the forested fastness of the Urewera ranges in the east to the Southern Alps’ majestic mountains, glaciers and fiords. The 13 national parks and more than 30 marine reserves and parks, along with numerous forest parks, offer huge scope for wilderness experiences, ranging from climbing, skiing and mountain biking to tramping, kayaking and trout fishing.
Three places are World Heritage Areas: NZ’s Subantarctic Islands; Tongariro National Park (on the North Island); and Te Wāhipounamu (Southwest New Zealand), an amalgam of several national parks in southwest NZ that boast the world’s finest surviving Gondwanaland plants and animals in their natural habitats.
Access to the country’s wild places is relatively straightforward, though huts on walking tracks require passes and may need to be booked in advance. In practical terms, there is little difference for travellers between a national park and a forest park, though pets are generally not allowed in national parks without a permit. Disability-assist dogs can be taken into dog-controlled areas without a permit. Camping is possible in all parks, but may be restricted to dedicated camping grounds – check with DOC first.
Feature: Environmental Issues in New Zealand
New Zealand's reputation as an Eden, replete with pristine wilderness and ecofriendly practices, has been repeatedly placed under the microscope. The industry most visible to visitors, tourism, appears studded in green accolades, with environmental best practices employed in areas as broad as heating insulation in hotels to minimum-impact wildlife-watching. But mining, offshore oil and gas exploration, pollution, biodiversity loss, conservation funding cuts and questionable urban planning have provided endless hooks for bad-news stories.
Water quality is arguably the most serious environmental issue faced by New Zealanders. More than a quarter of the country’s lakes and rivers have been deemed unsafe for swimming, and research from diverse sources confirms that the health of waterways is in decline. The primary culprit is ‘dirty dairying’ – cow effluent leaching into freshwater ecosystems, carrying with it high levels of nitrates, as well as bacteria and parasites such as E. coli and giardia. A 2017 report by the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics showed that nitrate levels in water were worsening at 55% of monitored river sites, and that urban waterways were in an especially dire state – with levels of harmful bacteria more than 20 times higher than in forest areas. A government push to make 90% of rivers and lakes swimmable by 2040 was met with initial scepticism about the metrics involved, but it's hoped that it will provide an impetus to make NZ's waterways worthy of the country's eco-conscious reputation.
Another ambitious initiative is Predator Free 2050, which aims to rid NZ of introduced animals that prey on native flora and fauna. The worst offenders are possums, stoats and rats, which eat swaths of forest and kill wildlife, particularly birds. Controversy rages at the Department of Conservation's (DOC) use of 1080 poison (sodium fluoroacetate) to control these pests, despite it being sanctioned by prominent environmental groups, such as Forest & Bird, as well as the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. Vehement opposition to 1080 is expressed by such diverse camps as hunters and animal-rights activists, who cite detriments such as by-kill and the potential for poison passing into waterways. Proponents of its use argue that it's biodegradable and that aerial distribution of 1080 is the only cost-effective way to target predators across vast, inaccessible parts of NZ. Still, 'Ban 1080' signs remain common in rural communities and the controversy is likely to continue.
As well as its damaging impact on waterways, the $12 billion dairy industry – the country's biggest export earner – generates 48% of NZ’s greenhouse gas emissions. Some farmers are cleaning up their act, lowering emissions through improved management of fertilisers and higher-quality feed, and major players DairyNZ and Fonterra have pledged support. But when it comes to contributing to climate change, the dairy industry isn't NZ's only dirty habit. New Zealand might be a nation of avid recyclers and solar-panel enthusiasts, but it also has the world's fourth-highest ratio of motor vehicles to people.
There have been fears about safeguarding the principal legislation governing the NZ environment, the 1991 Resource Management Act, in the face of proposed amendments. NGOs and community groups – ever-vigilant and already making major contributions to the welfare of NZ's environment – will find plenty to keep them occupied in coming years. But with eco-conscious Jacinda Ardern leading a coalition government from 2017, New Zealanders have reason to be hopeful of a greener future – Ardern has pledged an ambitious goal of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. More trains, 100% renewable energy sources and planting 100 million trees per year – goals worthy of NZ's clean, green reputation.
Sidebar: Birds of NZ
B Heather and H Robertson’s Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand is a comprehensive guide for birdwatchers and a model of helpfulness for anyone even casually interested in the country’s remarkable bird life. Another good guide is Birds of New Zealand: Locality Guide by Stuart Chambers.
Sidebar: Nature Guide to the New Zealand Forest
Nature Guide to the New Zealand Forest by J Dawson and R Lucas is a beautifully photographed foray into NZ’s forests, home to ancient species dating from the time of the dinosaurs.
Sidebar: Department of Conservation Website
The Department of Conservation website (www.doc.govt.nz) has useful information on the country’s national parks, tracks and walkways. It also lists backcountry huts and campsites.
Sidebar: Sustainable Tourism Operators Info
Travellers seeking sustainable tourism operators should look for businesses accredited with Qualmark (www.qualmark.co.nz) or those listed at Organic Explorer (www.organicexplorer.co.nz).
Sidebar: NZ's Geysers
New Zealand is one of the most spectacular places in the world to see geysers. On the North Island, Rotorua’s short-lived Waimangu geyser, formed after the 1886 Mt Tarawera eruption, was once the world’s largest, often gushing to a dizzying height of 400m.
‘Māori’ once just meant ‘common’ or ‘everyday’, but Māori today are a diverse people. Some are engaged with traditional cultural networks and pursuits; others are occupied with adapting tradition and placing it into a dialogue with globalising culture.
Māori are New Zealand’s tangata whenua (people of the land), and the Māori relationship with the land has developed over hundreds of years of occupation. Once a predominantly rural people, many Māori now live in urban centres, away from their traditional home base. But it’s still common practice in formal settings to introduce oneself by referring to home: an ancestral mountain, river, sea or lake, or an ancestor.
The Māori concept of whanaungatanga – family relationships – is central to the culture: families spread out from the whānau (extended family) to the hapū (subtribe) and iwi (tribe) and even, in a sense, beyond the human world and into the natural and spiritual worlds.
If you’re looking for a Māori experience in NZ you’ll find it – in performance, in conversation, in an art gallery, on a tour…
Some three millennia ago people began moving eastward into the Pacific, sailing against the prevailing winds and currents (hard to go out, easier to return safely). Some stopped at Tonga and Samoa, and others settled the small central East Polynesian tropical islands.
The Māori colonisation of Aotearoa began from an original homeland known to Māori as Hawaiki. Skilled navigators and sailors travelled across the Pacific, using many navigational tools – currents, winds, stars, birds and wave patterns – to guide their large, double-hulled ocean-going craft to a new land. The first of many was the great navigator Kupe, who arrived, the story goes, chasing a giant octopus named Muturangi. But the distinction of giving NZ its well-known Māori name – Aotearoa – goes to his wife, Kuramarotini, who cried out, ‘He ao, he ao tea, he ao tea roa!’ (A cloud, a white cloud, a long white cloud!).
Kupe and his crew journeyed around the land, and many places around Cook Strait (between the North and South Islands) and the Hokianga in Northland still bear the names that the crew gave them and the marks of their passage. Kupe returned to Hawaiki, leaving from (and naming) Northland’s Hokianga. He gave other seafarers valuable navigational information. And then the great waka (ocean-going craft) began to arrive.
The waka that the first settlers arrived on, and their landing places, are immortalised in tribal histories. Well-known waka include Tākitimu, Kurahaupō, Te Arawa, Mataatua, Tainui, Aotea and Tokomaru. There are many others. Māori trace their genealogies back to those who arrived on the waka (and further back as well).
What would it have been like, making the transition from small tropical islands to a much larger, cooler land mass? Goodbye breadfruit, coconuts, paper mulberry; hello moa, fernroot, flax – and immense space (relatively speaking). New Zealand has more than 15,000km of coastline. Rarotonga, by way of contrast, has a little over 30km. There was land, lots of it, and flora and fauna that had developed more or less separately from the rest of the world for 80 million years. There was an untouched, massive fishery. There were great seaside mammalian convenience stores – seals and sea lions – as well as a fabulous array of birds.
The early settlers went on the move, pulled by love, trade opportunities and greater resources; pushed by disputes and threats to security. When they settled, Māori established mana whenua (regional authority), whether by military campaigns or by the peaceful methods of intermarriage and diplomacy. Looking over tribal history it’s possible to see the many alliances, absorptions and extinctions that went on.
Histories were carried by the voice, in stories, songs and chants. Great stress was placed on accurate learning – after all, in an oral culture where people are the libraries, the past is always a generation or two away from oblivion.
Māori lived in kainga (small villages), which often had associated gardens. Housing was quite cosy by modern standards – often it was hard to stand upright while inside. From time to time people would leave their home base and go to harvest seasonal foods. When peaceful life was interrupted by conflict, the people would withdraw to pā (fortified villages).
And then Europeans began to arrive.
Today’s culture is marked by new developments in the arts, business, sport and politics. Many historical grievances still stand, but some iwi (Ngāi Tahu and Tainui, for example) have settled major historical grievances and are significant forces in the NZ economy. Māori have also addressed the decline in Māori language use by establishing kōhanga reo, kura kaupapa Māori and wānanga (Māori-language preschools, schools and universities). There is now a generation of people who speak Māori as a first language. There is a network of Māori radio stations, and Māori TV attracts a committed viewership. A recently revived Māori event is becoming more and more prominent – Matariki (Māori New Year). The constellation Matariki is also known as the Pleiades. It begins to rise above the horizon in late May or early June and its appearance traditionally signals a time for learning, planning and preparing as well as singing, dancing and celebrating. Watch out for talks and lectures, concerts, dinners and even formal balls.
Christian churches and denominations are prominent in the Māori world, including televangelists, mainstream churches for regular and occasional worship, and two major Māori churches (Ringatū and Rātana). But in the (non-Judeo-Christian) beginning there were the atua Māori, the Māori gods, and for many Māori the gods are a vital and relevant force still. It is common to greet the earth mother and sky father when speaking formally at a marae (meeting house). The gods are represented in art and carving, sung of in waiata (songs) and invoked through karakia (prayer and incantation) when a meeting house is opened, when a waka is launched, even (more simply) when a meal is served. They are spoken of in the marae and in wider Māori contexts. The traditional Māori creation story is well known and widely celebrated.
Arts & Media
There are many collections of Māori taonga (treasures) around the country. Some of the largest and most comprehensive are at Wellington’s Te Papa museum and the Auckland Museum. Canterbury Museum in Christchurch also has a good collection, while Te Hikoi Southern Journey in Riverton has riveting displays on early interactions between Māori and Pākehā.
You can stay up to date with what's happening in the Māori arts by listening to iwi stations (www.irirangi.net) or tuning into Māori TV (www.maoritelevision.com) for regular features on the Māori arts. Māori TV went to air in 2004, an emotional time for many Māori who could at last see their culture, their concerns and their language in a mass medium. Over 90% of content is NZ made, and programs are in both Māori and English: they’re subtitled and accessible to everyone. If you want to really get a feel for the rhythm and meter of spoken Māori from the comfort of your own chair, switch to Te Reo (www.maoritelevision.com/tv/te-reo-channel), a Māori-language-only channel.
At the time of research, production of Māori lifestyle magazine Mana (www.manaonline.co.nz) had stopped, but there were hopes of a relaunch down the line.
Tā moko is the Māori art of tattoo, traditionally worn by men on their faces, thighs and buttocks, and by women on their chins and lips. Moko were permanent grooves tapped into the skin using pigment (made from burnt caterpillar or kauri gum soot) and bone chisels (fine, sharp combs for broad work, and straight blades for detailed work). Museums in the major centres – Auckland Museum, Te Papa (Wellington) and Canterbury Museum (Christchurch) – all display traditional implements for tā moko.
The modern tattooist’s gun is common now, but bone chisels are coming back into use for Māori who want to reconnect with tradition. Since the general renaissance in Māori culture in the 1960s, many artists have taken up tā moko and now many Māori wear moko with quiet pride and humility.
Can visitors get some work done? The art of tā moko is learned by, and inked upon, Māori people – but the term kirituhi (skin inscriptions) has arisen to describe Māori-motif-inspired modern tattoos that non-Māori can wear. Kirituhi can be profoundly meaningful and designed to fit the wearer's personal story, but there's an important line in the sand between kirituhi and tā moko.
Traditional Māori carving, with its intricate detailing and curved lines, can transport the viewer. It’s quite amazing to consider that it was done with stone tools, themselves painstakingly made, until the advent of iron (nails suddenly became very popular).
Some major traditional forms are waka (canoes), pātaka (storage buildings) and wharenui (meeting houses). Along the greenstone-rich West Coast, numerous workshop-boutiques double as galleries that showcase fine examples of modern pounamu carving (particularly in Hokitika). You can see sublime examples of traditional carving at Te Papa in Wellington, and at the following:
Auckland Museum Māori Court
Hell's Gate Workshop where you can try your hand at woodcarving; near Rotorua
Otago Museum Impressive waka taua (war canoe); Dunedin
Putiki Church Interior covered in carvings and tukutuku (wall panels); Whanganui
Taupō Museum Carved meeting house
Te Manawa Museum with a Māori focus; Palmerston North
Waikato Museum Beautifully carved waka taua; Hamilton
Wairakei Terraces Carved meeting house; Taupo
Waitangi Treaty Grounds Whare Rūnanga and waka taua
Whakarewarewa The ‘living village’ – carving, other arts, meeting house and performance; Rotorua
Whanganui Regional Museum Wonderful carved waka
The apex of carving today is the whare whakairo (carved meeting house). A commissioning group relates its history and ancestral stories to a carver, who then draws (sometimes quite loosely) on traditional motifs to interpret or embody the stories and ancestors in wood or composite fibreboard.
Rongomaraeroa Marae at Te Papa in Wellington, carved by pioneering artist Cliff Whiting, is a colourful example of a contemporary reimagining of a traditional art form. The biggest change in carving (as with most traditional arts) has been in the use of new mediums and tools. Rangi Kipa uses a high-density plastic to make his hei tiki (traditional pendants). You can check out his gallery at www.rangikipa.com.
Weaving was an essential art that provided clothing, nets and cordage, footwear for rough country travel, mats to cover earthen floors, and kete (bags) to carry stuff in. Many woven items are beautiful as well as practical. Some were major works – korowai (cloaks) could take years to finish. Woven predominantly with flax and feathers, they are worn now on ceremonial occasions – a stunning sight.
Today, tradition is greatly respected, but not all traditions are necessarily followed. Flax was (and still is) the preferred medium for weaving. To get a strong fibre from flax leaves, weavers scraped away the leaves’ flesh with a mussel shell, pounded it until it was soft, dyed it, then dried it. But contemporary weavers are using everything in their work: raffia, copper wire, rubber – even polar fleece and garden hoses!
The best way to experience weaving is to contact one of the many weavers running workshops. By learning the art, you’ll appreciate the examples of weaving in museums even more. And if you want your own? Woven kete and backpacks have become fashion accessories and are on sale in most cities. Weaving is also found in dealer art galleries around the country.
Haka can be adrenaline-pumping, awe-inspiring and uplifting. The haka is not only a war dance – it is used to welcome visitors, honour achievement, express identity and to put forth very strong opinions.
Haka involve chanted words, vigorous body movements and pūkana (when performers distort their faces, eyes bulging with the whites showing, perhaps with tongue extended).
The well-known haka ‘Ka Mate’, performed by the All Blacks before rugby test matches, is credited to the cunning fighting chief Te Rauparaha. It celebrates his escape from death. Chased by enemies, he hid himself in a food pit. After they had left, a friendly chief named Te Whareangi (the ‘hairy man’ referred to in the haka) let him out; he climbed out into the sunshine and performed ‘Ka Mate’.
You can experience haka at various cultural performances, including at Mitai Māori Village, Tamaki Māori Village, Te Puia and Whakarewarewa in Rotorua; Ko Tane at Willowbank in Christchurch; and Kiwi Haka in Queenstown.
But the best displays of haka are at the national Te Matatini National Kapa Haka Festival, when NZ’s top groups compete. It's held every two years (and heads to Wellington in 2019).
Contemporary Visual Art
A distinctive feature of Māori visual art is the tension between traditional Māori ideas and modern artistic mediums and trends. Shane Cotton produced a series of works that conversed with 19th-century painted meeting houses, which themselves departed from Māori carved houses. Kelcy Taratoa uses sci-fi, superheroes and pop-art imagery.
Of course, Māori motifs aren't necessarily the dominant features of work by Māori artists. Major NZ artist Ralph Hotere was wary about being assigned any cultural, ethnic or genre label and his work confronted a broad range of political and social issues.
Contemporary Māori art is by no means only about painting. Many other artists use installations or digital formats – look out for work by Jacqueline Fraser, Peter Robinson and Lisa Reihana.
Powered by a wave of political activism, the 1970s saw the emergence of many Māori playwrights and plays, and theatre remains a prominent area of the Māori arts today. Māori theatre drew heavily on the traditions of the marae. Instead of dimming the lights and immediately beginning the performance, many Māori theatre groups began with a stylised pōwhiri, had space for audience members to respond to the play, and ended with a karakia (prayer or incantation), or a farewell.
Taki Rua is an independent producer of Māori work for both children and adults and has been in existence for more than 30 years. As well as staging its shows in the major centres, it tours most of its work – check out its website (www.takirua.co.nz) for the current offerings. Māori drama is also often showcased at the professional theatres in the main centres as well as the biennial New Zealand Festival. Look out for work by Hone Kouka, Briar Grace-Smith and Mitch Tawhi Thomas.
Contemporary Māori dance often takes its inspiration from kapa haka (cultural dance) and traditional Māori imagery. The exploration of pre-European life also provides inspiration.
New Zealand’s leading specifically Māori dance company is the Atamira Dance Collective (www.atamiradance.co.nz), which has been producing critically acclaimed, beautiful and challenging work since 2000. If that sounds too earnest, get acquainted with the work of musician and visual artist Mika Torotoro, who happily blends kapa haka, drag, opera, ballet and disco. You can check out clips of his work at www.mika.co.nz.
Although there had already been successful Māori documentaries (Patu! and the Tangata Whenua series are brilliant), it wasn’t until 1987 that NZ had its first fictional feature-length movie by a Māori writer and director, with Barry Barclay’s Ngati. Mereta Mita was the first Māori woman to direct a fiction feature, with Mauri (1988). Both Mita and Barclay had highly political aims and ways of working, which involved a lengthy pre-production phase, during which they would consult with and seek direction from their kaumātua (elders). Films with significant Māori participation or control include the harrowing Once Were Warriors and the uplifting Whale Rider. Oscar-nominated Taika Waititi, of Te Whānau-ā-Apanui descent, wrote and directed Eagle vs Shark and Boy.
Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision (www.ngataonga.org.nz) is a great place to experience Māori film, with most showings being either free or relatively inexpensive. It has locations in Auckland and Wellington.
There are many novels and collections of short stories by Māori writers, and personal taste will govern your choices. How about approaching Māori writing regionally? Read Patricia Grace (Potiki, Cousins, Dogside Story, Tu) around Wellington, and maybe Witi Ihimaera (Pounamu, Pounamu; The Matriarch; Bulibasha; The Whale Rider) on the North Island’s East Coast. Keri Hulme (The Bone People, Stonefish) and the South Island go together like a mass of whitebait bound in a frying pan by a single egg (ie very well). Read Alan Duff (Once Were Warriors) anywhere, but only if you want to be saddened, even shocked. Definitely take James George (Hummingbird, Ocean Roads) with you to Auckland’s west-coast beaches and Northland’s Ninety Mile Beach. Paula Morris (Queen of Beauty, Hibiscus Coast, Trendy but Casual) and Kelly Ana Morey (Bloom, Grace Is Gone) – hmm, Auckland and beyond? If poetry appeals, you can’t go past the giant of Māori poetry in English, the late, lamented Hone Tuwhare (Deep River Talk: Collected Poems). Famously sounding like he’s at church and in the pub at the same time, you can take him anywhere.
Feature: How the World Began
In the Māori story of creation, first there was the void, then the night, then Ranginui (sky father) and Papatūānuku (earth mother) came into being, embracing with their children nurtured between them. But nurturing became something else. Their children were stifled in the darkness of their embrace. Unable to stretch out to their full dimensions and struggling to see clearly in the darkness, their children tried to separate them. Tāwhirimātea, the god of winds, raged against them; Tūmatauenga, the god of war, assaulted them. Each god child in turn tried to separate them, but still Rangi and Papa pressed against each other. And then Tāne Mahuta, god of the great forests and of humanity, placed his feet against his father and his back against his mother and slowly, inexorably, began to move them apart. Then came the world of light, of demigods and humanity.
In this world of light Māui, the demigod ancestor, was cast out to sea at birth and was found floating in his mother’s topknot. He was a shape-shifter, becoming a pigeon or a dog or an eel if it suited his purposes. He stole fire from the gods. Using his grandmother’s jawbone, he bashed the sun so that it could only limp slowly across the sky, so that people would have enough time during the day to get things done (if only he would do it again!). Using the South Island as a canoe, he used the jawbone as a hook to fish up Te Ika-a-Māui (the fish of Māui) – the North Island. And, finally, he met his end trying to defeat death itself. The goddess of death, Hine-nui-te-pō, had obsidian teeth in her vagina (obsidian is a volcanic glass that has a razor edge when chipped). Māui attempted to reverse birth (and hence defeat death) by crawling into her birth canal to reach her heart as she slept. A small bird – a fantail – laughed at the absurd sight. Hine-nui-te-pō awoke, and crushed Māui to death between her thighs. Death one, humanity nil.
Feature: Visiting Marae
As you travel around NZ, you will see many marae complexes. Often marae are owned by a descent group. They are also owned by urban Māori groups, schools, universities and church groups, and they should only be visited by arrangement with the owners. Some marae that may be visited with an invitation include: Koriniti Marae on the Whanganui River Rd; Mataatua in Whakatane; and the marae at Te Papa museum in Wellington.
Marae complexes include a wharenui (meeting house), which often embodies an ancestor. Its ridge is the backbone, the rafters are ribs, and it shelters the descendants. There is a clear space in front of the wharenui, the marae ātea. Sometimes there are other buildings: a wharekai (dining hall); a toilet and shower block; perhaps even classrooms, play equipment and the like.
Hui (gatherings) are held at marae. Issues are discussed, classes conducted, milestones celebrated and the dead farewelled. Te reo Māori (the Māori language) is prominent, and sometimes the only language used.
Visitors sleep in the meeting house if a hui goes on for longer than a day. Mattresses are placed on the floor, someone may bring a guitar, and stories and jokes always go down well as the evening stretches out…
If you visit a marae as part of an organised group, you’ll be welcomed in a pōwhiri (welcoming ceremony).
Outside the marae, there may be a wero (challenge). Using taiaha (quarter-staff) moves, a warrior will approach the visitors and place a baton on the ground for a visitor to pick up, to demonstrate their peaceful intent.
There is a karanga (ceremonial call). A woman from the host group calls to the visitors and a woman from the visitors responds. Their long, high, falling calls begin to overlap and interweave and the visiting group walks on to the marae ātea (meeting house courtyard). It is then time for whaikōrero (speechmaking). The hosts welcome the visitors, the visitors respond. Speeches are capped off by a waiata (song), and the visitors’ speakers present a koha (gift, usually an envelope of cash). The hosts then invite the visitors to hariru (shake hands) and hongi. Visitors and hosts are now united and will share light refreshments or a meal.
To perform the hongi, press forehead and nose together firmly, shake hands, and perhaps offer a greeting such as ‘Kia ora’ or ‘Tēnā koe’. Some prefer one press (for two or three seconds, or longer), others prefer two shorter (press, release, press). Men and women sometimes kiss on one cheek. Some people mistakenly think the hongi is a pressing of noses only (awkward to aim!) or the rubbing of noses (even more awkward).
Tapu (spiritual restrictions) and mana (power and prestige) are taken seriously in the Māori world. Sit on chairs or seating provided (never on tables), and walk around people, not over them. The pōwhiri is tapu, and mixing food and tapu is right up there on the offence-o-meter. Do eat and drink when invited to do so by your hosts. You needn’t worry about starvation: an important Māori value is manaakitanga (kindness).
Depending on area, the pōwhiri has gender roles: women karanga (call), men whaikōrero (orate); women lead the way on to the marae, men sit on the paepae (the speakers’ bench at the front). In a modern context, the debate around these roles continues.
Sidebar: Relationship Between Land & People of the Land
The best way to learn about the relationship between the land and the tangata whenua (people of the land) is to get out there and start talking with Māori.
Kupe’s passage is marked around NZ: he left his sails (Nga Ra o Kupe) near Cape Palliser as triangular landforms; he named the two islands in Wellington Harbour Matiu and Makoro after his daughters; his blood stains the red rocks of Wellington’s south coast.
Sidebar: Pohutukawa Tree
Arriving for the first time in NZ, two crew members of Tainui saw the red flowers of the pohutukawa tree, and they cast away their prized red feather ornaments, thinking that there were plenty to be had on shore.
Sidebar: Māori Legends
Māori legends are all around you as you tour NZ: Maui’s waka became today’s Southern Alps; a taniwha (legendary water being) formed Lake Waikaremoana in its death throes; and a rejected Mt Taranaki walked into exile from the central North Island mountain group, carving the Whanganui River.
Sidebar: Books on Māori Customs
Read Hirini Moko Mead’s Tikanga Māori, Pat and Hiwi Tauroa’s Te Marae, and Anne Salmond’s Hui for detailed information on Māori customs.
Sidebar: Māori Arts Website
For information on Māori arts today, check out Toi Māori at www.maoriart.org.nz.
Sidebar: All Blacks Success
A conversation starter for your next New Zealand barbecue: would NZ's 2011 and 2015 Rugby World Cup–winning All Blacks teams have been as unstoppable without key Māori players such as Dan Carter, Piri Weepu, Nehe Milner-Skudder and Aaron Smith?
Sidebar: Dalvanius Prime’s 'Poi E'
The first NZ hip-hop song to become a hit was Dalvanius Prime’s 'Poi E', which was sung entirely in Māori by the Patea Māori Club. It was the highest-selling single of 1984 in NZ.
Sidebar: Mau Moko: The World of Māori Tattoo
See Ngahuia Te Awekotuku’s book Mau Moko: The World of Māori Tattoo (2007) for a close-up of Māori body art, including powerful, beautiful images and an incisive commentary.
Sidebar: Iwi Websites & Map
Wikipedia has a good list of iwi websites and a map showing iwi distribution (www.wikipedia.org/wiki/list_of_iwi).
Sidebar: Māori Heavy Metal
Could heavy metal be the newest form of expressing Māori identity? Singing (and screaming) in Te Reo Māori, Waipu guitar trio Alien Weaponry thrash out songs that narrate the battles of their ancestors.
Arts & Music
Māori music and art extends back to New Zealand's early, unrecorded history, but its motifs endure today in diverse forms. European settlers imported artistic styles from back home, but it took a century for postcolonial NZ to hone its distinctive artistic identity. In the first half of the 20th century it was writers and visual artists who led the charge, but in the decades that followed, music and movies catapulted the nation's creativity into the world's consciousness.
In 2013 New Zealanders rejoiced to hear that 28-year-old Eleanor Catton had become only the second NZ writer to ever win the Man Booker Prize, arguably the world's most prestigious award for literature, for her epic historical novel The Luminaries, set on the West Coast. Lloyd Jones had come close in 2007 when his novel Mister Pip was shortlisted, but it had been a long wait between drinks since Keri Hulme took the prize in 1985 for her haunting novel The Bone People.
Catton and Hulme continue in a proud line of NZ women writers, starting in the early 20th century with Katherine Mansfield. Mansfield’s work began a Kiwi tradition in short fiction, and for years the standard was carried by novelist Janet Frame, whose dramatic life was depicted in Jane Campion’s film of her autobiography, An Angel at My Table. Frame's novel The Carpathians won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1989. A new author on New Zealanders' must-read lists is Catherine Chidgey, whose heart-rending novel The Wish Child (2016) won the country's top fiction prize at 2017's NZ Book Awards.
Less recognised internationally, Maurice Gee has gained the nation’s annual top fiction gong six times, most recently with Blindsight in 2006. His much-loved children’s novel Under the Mountain (1979) was made into a seminal NZ TV series in 1981, and then a major motion picture in 2009. In 2004 the adaptation of another of his novels, In My Father’s Den (1972), won major awards at international film festivals.
The late Maurice Shadbolt also achieved much acclaim for his many novels, particularly those set during the New Zealand Wars. Try Season of the Jew (1987) or The House of Strife (1993).
Cinema & TV
If you first became interested in New Zealand when watching it on the silver screen, you’re in good company. Sir Peter Jackson’s NZ-made The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies were the best thing to happen to NZ tourism since Captain Cook.
Yet NZ cinema is hardly ever easygoing. In his BBC-funded documentary, Cinema of Unease, NZ actor Sam Neill described the country’s film industry as producing bleak, haunted work. One need only watch Lee Tamahori’s harrowing Once Were Warriors (1994) to see what he means.
The uniting factor in NZ film and TV is the landscape, which provides a haunting backdrop – arguably as much of a presence as the characters themselves. Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) and Top of the Lake (2013), Brad McGann’s In My Father’s Den (2004) and Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994) all use magically lush scenery to couch disturbing violence. It’s a land-mysticism constantly bordering on the creepy.
Even when Kiwis do humour, it’s as resolutely black as their rugby jerseys; check out Jackson’s early splatter-fests and Taika Waititi’s Boy (2010). Exporting NZ comedy hasn’t been easy, yet the HBO-produced TV musical parody Flight of the Conchords – featuring a mumbling, bumbling Kiwi folk-singing duo trying to get a break in New York – found surprising international success. It’s the Polynesian giggle-factor that seems likeliest to break down the bleak house of NZ cinema, with feel-good-through-and-through Sione’s Wedding (2006) enjoying the biggest opening weekend of any NZ film at the time.
Also packaging offbeat NZ humour for an international audience, Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) and What We Do in the Shadows (2014) have propelled scriptwriter and director Taika Waititi to critical acclaim, while Thor: Ragnarok (2017) made him a household name – though many argue that the director's star turn as a softly spoken rock creature is the movie's highlight.
New Zealanders have gone from never seeing themselves in international cinema to having whole cloned armies of Temuera Morrisons invading the universe in Star Wars. Familiar faces such as Cliff Curtis and Karl Urban seem to constantly pop up playing Mexican or Russian gangsters in action movies. Many of them got their start in long-running soap opera Shortland Street.
The NZ ‘can do’ attitude extends to the visual arts. If you’re visiting a local’s home, don’t be surprised to find one of the owner’s paintings on the wall or one of their mate’s sculptures in the back garden, pieced together out of bits of shell, driftwood and a length of the magical ‘number 8 wire’.
This is symptomatic of a flourishing local art and crafts scene cultivated by lively tertiary courses churning out traditional carvers and weavers, jewellery-makers, and moulders of metal and glass. The larger cities have excellent dealer galleries representing interesting local artists working across all media.
Traditional Māori art has a distinctive visual style with well-developed motifs that have been embraced by NZ artists of every race. In the painting medium, these include the cool modernism of Gordon Walters and the more controversial pop-art approach of Dick Frizzell’s Tiki series. Likewise, Pacific Island themes are common, particularly in Auckland; look out for the intricate, collage-like paintings of Niuean-born, Auckland-raised John Pule.
Charles Frederick Goldie painted a series of compelling, realist portraits of Māori, who were feared to be a dying race. Debate over the political propriety of Goldie’s work raged for years, but its value is widely accepted now: not least because Māori themselves generally acknowledge and value them as ancestral representations. In 2016 Goldie's last work became the first NZ painting to be sold for more than $1 million.
Recalibrating the ways in which Pacific Islander and Māori people are depicted in art, Lisa Reihana wowed the Venice Biennale in 2017 with her multimedia work In Pursuit of Venus.
Depicting the Land
It's no surprise that in a nation so defined by its natural environment, landscape painting constituted the first post-European body of art. In the late 19th century, John Gully and Petrus van der Velden were among those to arrive and capture the drama of the land in paintings.
Colin McCahon is widely regarded to have been NZ’s most important artist. Even where McCahon lurched into Catholic mysticism, his spirituality was rooted in geography. His brooding landscapes evoke the land's power but also its vulnerability. McCahon is widely quoted as describing his work as a depiction of NZ before its seas become cluttered with debris and the sky turns dark with soot.
Landscape photographers also capture the fierceness and fragility of NZ's terrain. It's worth detouring to a few of the country's resident photographers, many of whom have their own gallery (sometimes within, or adjoining their own home). Westland is home to the gallery of exceptionally gifted photographer Andris Apse and to the Petr Hlavacek Gallery, which showcases some of NZ's finest landscape photography.
New Zealand music began with the waiata (singing) developed by Māori following their arrival in the country. The main musical instruments were wind instruments made of bone or wood, the most well known of which is the nguru (also known as the ‘nose flute’), while percussion was provided by chest- and thigh-slapping. These days, the liveliest place to see Māori music being performed is at kapa haka competitions in which groups compete with their own routines of traditional song and dance.
Classical & Opera
Early European immigrants brought their own styles of music and gave birth to local variants during the early 1900s. In the 1950s Douglas Lilburn became one of the first internationally recognised NZ classical composers. More recently the country has produced a number of world-renowned musicians in this field, including legendary opera singer Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, million-selling classic-to-pop singer Hayley Westenra, composer John Psathas (who created music for the 2004 Olympic Games) and composer/percussionist Gareth Farr (who also performs in drag under the name Lilith LaCroix).
Rock & Metal
New Zealand's most acclaimed rock exports are the revered indie label Flying Nun and the music of the Finn Brothers.
Started in 1981 by Christchurch record-store owner Roger Shepherd, many of Flying Nun's early groups came from Dunedin, where local musicians took the DIY attitude of punk but used it to produce a lo-fi indie-pop that received rave reviews from the likes of NME in the UK and Rolling Stone in the US. Many of the musicians from the Flying Nun scene still perform live to this day, including David Kilgour (from the Clean) and Shayne Carter (from the Straitjacket Fits, and subsequently Dimmer and the Adults).
Want something heavier? Hamilton heavy-metal act Devilskin's 2014 debut album hit the top spot on NZ's charts, as did their punchy 2016 follow-up Be Like the River. Beastwars, a rasping, trance-inducing sludge metal band from Wellington, is another stalwart of NZ's heavy-metal scene. Meanwhile, hitting the big leagues during tours of North America and Europe, technical death-metal band Ulcerate have risen to prominence as NZ's best-known extreme metal act. We're not worthy.
Reggae, Hip-Hop & Dance
The genres of music that have been adopted most enthusiastically by Māori and Polynesian New Zealanders have been reggae (in the 1970s) and hip-hop (in the 1980s), which has led to distinct local forms. In Wellington, a thriving jazz scene took on a reggae influence to create a host of groups that blended dub, roots and funky jazz – most notably Fat Freddy’s Drop.
The local hip-hop scene has its heart in the suburbs of South Auckland, which have a high concentration of Māori and Pacific Island residents. This area is home to one of New Zealand’s foremost hip-hop labels, Dawn Raid, which takes its name from the infamous 1970s early-morning house raids that police performed on Pacific Islanders suspected of outstaying their visas. Dawn Raid’s most successful artist is Savage, who sold a million copies of his single ‘Swing’ after it was featured in the movie Knocked Up. Within New Zealand, the most well-known hip-hop acts are Scribe, Che Fu and Smashproof (whose song 'Brother' held number one on the NZ singles charts for 11 weeks).
Dance music gained a foothold in Christchurch in the 1990s, spawning dub/electronica outfit Salmonella Dub and its offshoot act, Tiki Taane. Drum ’n’ bass remains popular locally and has spawned internationally renowned acts such as Concord Dawn and Shapeshifter.
Movers & Shakers
Since 2000, the NZ music scene has developed new vitality after the government convinced commercial radio stations to adopt a voluntary quota of 20% local music. This enabled commercially oriented musicians to develop solid careers. Rock groups such as Shihad, the Feelers and Opshop thrived in this environment, as have a set of soulful female solo artists: Bic Runga, Anika Moa and Brooke Fraser (daughter of All Black Bernie Fraser). New Zealand also produced two internationally acclaimed garage rock acts over this time: the Datsuns and the D4.
Current Kiwis garnering international recognition include the incredibly gifted songstress Kimbra (who sang on Gotye's global smash 'Somebody That I Used To Know'); indie electro-rockers the Naked and Famous; multitalented singer-songwriter Ladyhawke; the arty Lawrence Arabia; and the semipsychedelic Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
R&B singer Aaradhna made a splash with her album Treble & Reverb, which won Album of the Year at the 2013 New Zealand Music Awards. When the title track of her album Brown Girl was awarded a gong for 'best hip-hop' in 2016, she turned it down saying she'd been placed in the wrong musical category because of the colour of her skin.
Feature: Māori Voices in Print
Some of the most interesting and enjoyable NZ fiction voices belong to Māori writers, with Booker-winner Keri Hulme leading the way. Witi Ihimaera’s novels give a wonderful insight into small-town Māori life on the East Coast – especially Bulibasha (1994) and The Whale Rider (1987), which was made into an acclaimed film. Patricia Grace’s work is similarly filled with exquisitely told stories of rural marae-centred life: try Mutuwhenua (1978), Potiki (1986), Dogside Story (2001) or Tu (2004). Chappy (2015) is Grace's expansive tale of a prodigal son returning to NZ to untangle his cross-cultural heritage.
Feature: Middle-Earth Tourism
Did the scenery of the epic film trilogy Lord of the Rings (LOTR) lure you to Aotearoa? The North Island has most of the big-ticket filming locations but both islands have knowledgeable operators that can take you set-jetting on foot, horseback or by 4WD. Dedicated enthusiasts can buy a copy of Ian Brodie’s The Lord of the Rings: Location Guidebook for detail on filming locations and their GPS coordinates. Online, DOC has a useful primer (www.doc.govt.nz/lordoftherings).
Matamata, aka Hobbiton Peter Jackson’s epic film trilogy LOTR put this town on the map and after the filming of The Hobbit, the town wholeheartedly embraced its Middle-earth credentials. Hobbiton Movie Set Tours allows you to pose by hobbit holes and enjoy a drink at the Green Dragon Inn.
Mt Ngauruhoe, aka Mt Doom Turns out the one ring to rule them all was forged in Tongariro National Park, in the North Island's youngest volcano. Stickler for detail? A few Mt Doom scenes were filmed at Mt Ruapehu (best take a look at both).
Putangirua Pinnacles, aka Paths of the Dead An eerie landscape resembling giant organ pipes, the pinnacles were an obvious fit to portray the spooky passage through the White Mountains in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.
Southern Alps, aka Misty Mountains Peter Jackson made the most of this untamed landscape, choosing Mt Cook Village as the setting for Minas Tirith.
Feature: Offbeat Galleries
Not all the best galleries are in Auckland or Wellington. The amazing Len Lye Centre – home to the legacy of sculptor and film-maker Len Lye – is worth a visit to New Plymouth in itself, and Gore’s Eastern Southland Gallery has an important and growing collection. Some of the most interesting galleries have a makeshift, multi-use vibe: part-gallery, part-museum of curios, part-cafe, designed for road trippers to pull over and marvel, like the Catlins' Lost Gypsy Gallery, which showcases a bamboozling collection inside a bus.
Major-league NZ music festivals include Rhythm & Vines in Gisborne and sister festival Rhythm & Alps (www.rhythmandalps.co.nz) in Wanaka. The international alt-rock fest St Jerome’s (http://auckland.lanewayfestival.com) heads to New Zealand in late January after touring Australia. On Wellington’s waterfront in April is Homegrown (www.homegrown.net.nz) where you’ll catch local talent on five stages. World-music fans flock to the local version of WOMAD in New Plymouth, which features both local and overseas acts.
For traditional Māori song, dance, storytelling and other performing arts, mark Te Matatini National Kapa Haka Festival in your calendar; it takes place in late February/early March in odd-numbered years at different venues (it's in Wellington for 2019). In a similar vein, Auckland's Pasifika Festival represents each of the Pacific Islands. It's a great place to see both traditional and modern forms of Polynesian music: modern hip-hop, throbbing Cook Island drums, or island-style guitar, ukulele and slide guitar.
Feature: The Brothers Finn
There are certain tunes that all Kiwis can sing along to, given a beer and the opportunity. A surprising proportion of these were written by Tim and Neil Finn, many of which have been international hits. Tim Finn first came to prominence in the 1970s group Split Enz, who amassed a solid following in Australia, NZ and Canada before disbanding in 1985. Neil then formed Crowded House with two Australian musicians (Paul Hester and Nick Seymour) and one of their early singles, ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, hit number two on the US charts. Tim later did a brief spell in the band, during which the brothers wrote ‘Weather with You’ – a song that reached number seven on the UK charts, pushing their album Woodface to gold sales. Neil has also remained busy, organising a set of shows/releases under the name 7 Worlds Collide – a collaboration with well-known overseas musicians. Tim and Neil have both released a number of solo albums, as well as releasing material together as the Finn Brothers.
Feature: Good Lorde!
The biggest name in Kiwi music is Lorde, a singer-songwriter from Devonport on Auckland's North Shore. Known less regally to her friends as Ella Yelich-O'Connor, Lorde was 16 years old when she cracked the number-one spot on the US Billboard charts in 2013 with her magical, schoolyard-chant-evoking hit 'Royals' – the first NZ solo artist to top the American charts. 'Royals' then went on to win the Song of the Year Grammy in 2014. Her debut album Pure Heroine spawned a string of hits and sold millions of copies worldwide, while moody follow-up Melodrama instantly topped charts in NZ and the US upon its release in 2017.
Sidebar: Kiwi Oscar Movies
Jane Campion was the first Kiwi nominated as Best Director for the Academy Awards and Peter Jackson the first to win. The Return of the King won a mighty 11 Oscars in 2004.
The TV show Popstars originated in New Zealand, though the resulting group, TrueBliss, was short-lived. The series concept was then picked up in Australia, the UK and the US, inspiring the Idols series.
Sidebar: Live-Music Resources
For more on local hip-hop, pop and rock, check out www.thecorner.co.nz and the long-running www.muzic.net.nz.
Sidebar: Cultural Events
A wide range of cultural events are listed on www.eventfinda.co.nz. This is a good place to find out about concerts, classical music recitals and kapa haka performances. For more specific information on the NZ classical music scene, see www.sounz.org.nz.
Sidebar: Kiwi Oscar Actors
The only Kiwi actors to have won an Oscar are Anna Paquin (for The Piano) and Russell Crowe (for Gladiator). Paquin was born in Canada but moved to NZ when she was four, while Crowe moved from NZ to Australia at the same age.
Sidebar: Gig Guides
Tickets for most events can be bought at www.ticketek.co.nz, www.ticketmaster.co.nz or, for smaller gigs, www.undertheradar.co.nz.
Food & Drink
Travellers, start your appetites! Eating is a highlight of any visit to New Zealand. You can be utilitarian if money is tight, or embrace NZ’s full culinary bounty, from fresh seafood and gourmet burgers to farmers market fruit-and-veg and crisp-linen fine dining. Eateries range from fish and chip shops and pub bistros to retro cafes and ritzy dining rooms. Drinking here, too, presents boundless opportunities to have a good time, with Kiwi coffee, craft beer and wine at the fore.
Vegetarians & Vegans
More than 10% of New Zealanders are vegetarian (more on the North than the South Island), and numbers are rising. Most large urban centres have at least one dedicated vegetarian cafe or restaurant: see the Vegetarians New Zealand website (www.vegetarians.co.nz) for listings. Beyond this, almost all restaurants and cafes offer some vegetarian menu choices (although sometimes only one or two). Many eateries also provide gluten-free and vegan options.
Once upon a time (yet not so long ago) NZ subsisted on a modest diet of ‘meat and three veg’. Though small-town country pubs still serve their unchanging menu of roasted meats and battered fish, overall NZ's culinary sophistication has evolved dramatically. In larger towns, kitchens thrive on bending conventions and absorbing gastronomic influences from around the planet, all the while keeping local produce central to the menu.
Immigration has been key to this culinary rise – particularly the post-WWII influx of migrants from Europe, Asia and the Middle East – as has an adventurous breed of local restaurant-goers and the elevation of Māori and Pacific Islander flavours and ingredients to the mainstream.
In order to wow the socks off increasingly demanding diners, restaurants must now succeed in fusing contrasting ingredients and traditions into ever more innovative fare. The phrase 'Modern NZ' has been coined to classify this unclassifiable technique: a melange of East and West, a swirl of Atlantic and Pacific Rim, and a dash of authentic French and Italian.
Traditional staples still hold sway (lamb, beef, venison, green-lipped mussels), but dishes are characterised by interesting flavours and fresh ingredients rather than fuss, clutter or snobbery. Spicing ranges from gentle to extreme, seafood is plentiful, and meats are tender and full flavoured. Enjoy!
Cafes & Coffee
Somewhere between the early 2000s and now, NZ cottoned on to coffee culture in a big way. Caffeine has become a nationwide addiction: there are Italian-style espresso machines in virtually every cafe, boutique roasters are de rigueur and, in urban areas, a qualified barista (coffee maker) is the norm. Auckland, Christchurch and student-filled Dunedin have borne generations of coffee aficionados, but Wellington takes top billing as NZ’s caffeine capital. The cafe and bean-roasting scene here rivals the most vibrant in the world, and is very inclusive and family friendly. Join the arty local crew and dunk yourself into it over a late-night conversation or an early-morning recovery.
Pubs, Bars & Beer
Kiwi pubs were once male bastions with dim lighting, smoky air and beer-soaked carpets – these days they're more of a family affair. Sticky floors and pie-focused menus still abound in rural parts of NZ but pubs are generally where parents take their kids for lunch, friends mingle for sav blanc and tapas, and locals of all ages congregate to roar at live sports screenings. Food has become integral to the NZ pub experience, along with the inexorable rise of craft beer in the national drinking consciousness.
Myriad small, independent breweries have popped up around the country in the last decade. Wellington, in particular, offers dozens of dedicated craft-beer bars, with revolving beers on tap and passionate bar staff who know all there is to know about where the beers have come from, who made them and what's in them. A night on the tiles here has become less about volume and capacity, more about selectivity and virtue.
But aside from the food and the fancy beer, the NZ pub remains a place where all Kiwis can unite with a common purpose: to watch their beloved All Blacks play rugby on the big screen – a raucous experience to say the least!
Like the wine industry in neighbouring Australia, the NZ version has European migrants to thank for its status and success – visionary visitors who knew good soils and good climate when they saw it, and planted the first vines. New Zealand's oldest vineyard – Mission Estate Winery in Hawke's Bay – was established by French Catholic missionaries in 1851 and is still producing top-flight wines today.
But it wasn't until the 1970s that things really got going, with traditional agricultural exports dwindling, Kiwis travelling more and the introduction of BYO ('Bring Your Own' wine) restaurant licensing conspiring to raise interest and demand for local wines.
Since then, NZ cool-climate wines have conquered the world, a clutch of key regions producing the lion's share of bottles. Organised day tours via minivan or bicycle are a great way to visit a few select wineries.
Marlborough New Zealand's biggest and most widely known wine region sits at the top of the South Island, where a microclimate of warm days and cool nights is perfect for growing sauvigon blanc. You could spend many days touring the many cellar doors here (and why not?).
Hawke's Bay The North Island's sunny East Coast is the cradle of the NZ wine industry and second-largest producer – chardonnay and syrah are the mainstays. The Gisborne region a bit further north also produces terrific chardonnays, along with great pinot gris.
The Wairarapa Just an hour or two over the hills from Wellington, the Wairarapa region – centred on boutiquey Martinborough – is prime naughty-weekender territory, and produces winning pinot noir.
Central Otago Reaching from Cromwell in the north to Alexandra in the south and Gibbston near Queenstown in the west, the South Island's Central Otago region produces sublime riesling and pinot noir.
Waipara Valley Not to be left out of proceedings, Christchurch has its own nearby wine region – the Waipara Valley just north of the city – where divine riesling and pinot noir come to fruition.
Auckland & Around Vineyards established in the early 1900s unfurl across the countryside around Auckland, producing swell syrah and pinot gris to the north and chardonnay to the west. In the middle of the Hauraki Gulf, a short ferry ride from Auckland, Waiheke has a hot, dry microclimate that just happens to be brilliant for growing reds and rosés.
Of course, New Zealanders have a sweet tooth! Inventive desserts crowd the menus in city restaurants – dessert pizzas, deconstructed lamingtons, vegan cheesecakes – but most Kiwi sugar rushes originate in childhood comfort foods. Well suited to all those road trips are tooth-gripping Pineapple Lumps, a chocolate-coated chewy sweet that dates back to the 1950s. Equally likely to rouse childhood nostalgia in Kiwis is hokey-pokey ice cream (vanilla with chunks of honeycomb). Some sweet treats are disputed territory: the queen of Kiwi desserts is the pavlova, a meringue base heaped with cream and berries, kiwifruit or passion fruit, often served at Christmas. Aussies also claim to have invented this cream-crowned wonder...we respectfully disagree.
Feature: To Market, To Market
There are more than 50 farmers markets held around NZ. Most happen on weekends and are upbeat local affairs, where visitors can meet local producers and find fresh regional produce. Mobile coffee is usually present, and tastings are offered by enterprising and innovative stallholders. Bring a carrier bag, and get there early for the best stuff! Check out www.farmersmarkets.org.nz for major market locations, and ask locally about smaller, and seasonal, markets.
Sidebar: Online Restaurant Reviews & Listings
For up-to-date online restaurant reviews and listings around NZ, see www.menus.co.nz.
Tipping is not mandatory in NZ (staff are usually paid adequately) – but feel free to tip up to 10% of the bill if you've had a positive satisfaction reaction.
Sidebar: Your Shout!
At the bar, ‘shouting’ is a revered custom, where people take turns to pay for a round of drinks. Disappearing before it’s your shout won’t win you many friends. Once the drinks are distributed, a toast of ‘Cheers!’ is standard practice: look each other in the eye and clink glasses.
Sidebar: Local Delicacies
Touring the menus of NZ, keep an eye out for these local delights: kina (sea urchin), paua (abalone; a type of sea snail), kumara (sweet potato, often served as chips), whitebait (tiny fish, often cooked into fritters or omelettes) and the humble kiwifruit.