Illuminating New Zealand

Sheep. There, I mentioned it, and now it’s out of the way. It’s true to say that they aren’t as big a factor in New Zealand life as they were in the not too distant past – there are under 30 million sheep in the country today compared to the early 1980’s peak of over 70 million. However, they still outnumber the human population by a factor of around 6 to 1, so still worth a mention. In fact, dairy farming overtook sheep as the dominant agricultural sector in New Zealand around 30 years ago, but old stereotypes die hard.

Known by the Maori as Aotearoa – ‘the land of the long white cloud’ – New Zealand is not actually quite as near a neighbour of Australia as some think. At the closest point, it is as far from Australia as London is from Rome or New York from Orlando. A long narrow country, oriented roughly north to south around 250 miles wide and with mountain ranges running for most of its 990 mile length, New Zealand is divided into North Island and South Island (although South Island originally appeared on maps as Middle Island, before the rather sensible idea to rename the most southerly – tiny – island “Stewart Island” and letting the biggest of the three become South Island).
In the subtropical North there are areas of thermal activity that create bubbling pools and mist-shrouded forests and lakes. The North Island’s main mountains are all dormant volcanoes: Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro in the centre, and Taranaki to the west. Further down the North Island you’ll encounter rolling hills reminiscent of Southern England, heathland reminiscent of Scotland, white picket fences that might convince you that you are in New England rather than New Zealand, and some fabulous vineyards. On the South Island, there is immense rugged beauty especially Franz Josef glacier and Milford sound, the beautiful west coast (and rain forest) if you can see it through rain and low cloud on State Highway 6. And the roads near the very top of South Island are to die for if you love riding the twisties. There is also a somewhat cold southerly wind which comes as a surprise to the European visitor as you head down to Invercargill and E Haynes Hardware store on Dee Street… but more of that later.
Sheep are, as with so many things in New Zealand, an element introduced from outside. The Auckland Museum retains a quirky display of more of those imported items, the non-native fauna introduced (inevitably with often catastrophic impact on native species), together with the date and reason – for example stoats, which have wiped out a massive proportion of the five species of Kiwi, were introduced for “Pest Control” to control the rabbits which were introduced for “Recreational Hunting” and to make settlers feel at home. This same logic applied to hedgehogs, which we are informed were introduced for “Sentimental Reasons”.

The country has both benefitted and suffered from being somewhat isolated geographically – even human beings are relatively recent imports, with the first ancestors of the Maori arriving from Polynesia some time in the late 13th Century. The Maori lived a life in relative harmony with nature if not with each other, with tribal warfare becoming a fairly regular feature over the next few hundred years. This was a feature of life which became an even more serious issue after discovery by Europeans and the introduction of muskets. This suddenly gave a massive advantage to the first tribes to acquire them and led to the Musket Wars (1807-1842) in which thousands of Maoris died as old scores were settled and new ones raised, and led to the development of defensive forts. In 1840, the (not altogether honest) Treaty of Waitangi between British and several Maori tribes pledged protection of Maori land and established British law in New Zealand. This set the scene for centuries of disputes, and the New Zealand Wars of 1845-1872, during which the British discovered that the Maoris had developed an excellent system of building expendable forts secure from musket and artillery fire, but which could be easily vacated at no tactical or strategic loss. The legacy of the Treaty of Waitangi is very much alive today in the Waitangi Tribunal (Te Rōpū Whakamana i te Tiriti o Waitangi), a New Zealand permanent Commission of Inquiry established in 1975. It is charged with investigating and making recommendations on claims brought by Māori relating to actions or omissions of the Crown, that breach the promises made in the Treaty of Waitangi.
Rotorua in North Island is the main destination to explore the culture and influences of the Maori-people, set on a volcanic plateau in the heart of the North Island’s thermal belt, one of the world’s most active areas of geo thermal activity. Heading a little further north towards Auckland will bring you to Hamilton and the incredible Hamilton Gardens, which features 21 gardens representing the art, beliefs, lifestyles and traditions of different civilisations or historical garden styles. In typical New Zealand pragmatic “make the best of it” fashion, the gardens are on what was originally the city waste disposal site…
New Zealand pragmatism is one reason why Auckland is no longer the capital of the country – although three quarters of the population live on the North Island, there were concerns in the 1860’s that South Island might form a separate colony and so rather than try some bullying measures to keep them loyal, the Capital and Parliament were moved down to Wellington – as close the South Island as they could make it without crossing the Cook Strait, and a rather windy choice which has played havoc with the hair of politicians and civil servants ever since.

On South Island, Dunedin – a university town full of ‘alternative’ cafes, boasts Baldwin Street, which holds the World Record for steepest street. The street’s steepness was unintentional. As with many other parts of the British Empire, streets were laid out in a grid pattern with no consideration for the terrain, usually by planners in London. Other streets planned for Dunedin were too steep to build at all, and the steepest sections are surfaced in concrete rather than asphalt, to prevent gravity taking hold of the road surface in hot weather. You feel like climbing over the handlebars as you ascend, and we don’t recommend you attempt to emulate stuntman Ian Soanes, who in 2010 managed to wheelie down the street. According to newspaper reports he said at the bottom “Man, that was a whole lot harder than I thought it would be,” before proceeding to wheelie all the way back up…
He was fortunate that this daredevilry didn’t coincide with one of the 150-200 earthquakes big enough to be felt in New Zealand every year. The country is situated in the collision zone between the Indo-Australian and Pacific tectonic plates, part of the Pacific Basin Ring of Fire. The 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake prompted a thorough review of New Zealand’s then wholly inadequate building codes, meaning that even now only a handful of buildings in Hawke’s Bay are taller than five storeys, and as most of the rebuilding took place when Art Deco was fashionable, the area hosts one of the best collections of Art Deco architecture anywhere in the world.
New Zealanders are renowned for being pragmatic and progressive. As far back as 1893 they became the first country in the world to grant all women the right to vote and the following year pioneered compulsory arbitration between employers and unions. They are currently on their third female Prime Minister, who on taking office at 37 was also the world’s youngest ever female PM.
The pragmatic streak is expressed in “number 8 wire”, the ubiquitous gauge of fencing wire used to bodge repairs to everything you can possibly think of. It has not been sold under that name for three decades, since it was replaced with the equivalent 4.0 mm wire in the metric system, but the British standard name has stuck. Some of the repairs you come across are truly ingenious, but then being a remote country makes ingenuity a necessity. In 1911 the street lighting in the suburb of Brightwater was powered by a small hydroelectric generator in the hills above the city. To switch the lights on and off, a chicken run was added to the power plant. At dusk, the hens would go inside their coop and roost on a hinged perch. This sank under their weight and connected a switch which turned on the street lights. At first light the hens would leave the coop, the spring-loaded perch swung back and the lights went out again. That’s the kind of thing which only happens in a place like New Zealand.
As you head down to Invercargill it’s a must to visit the E Haynes Hardware store on Dee Street. As well as being a hardware store, the shop houses a ‘small’ vehicle collection which includes around 50 motorcycles and in particular Burt Munro’s ‘World’s Fastest Indian’, itself a tale of ingenuity and pragmatism. While you are there marvelling at the tale, you might even choose to buy a length of number 8 wire… just in case.
Sam Preus