Monday, March 16, 2009

Random Thoughts on New Zealand

Typical New Zealand agricultural landscape

One of the downsides of visiting a country by means of a cruise ship is the superficial glimpse you get of that place, almost like a teaser so that if you find it really interesting you would want to come back again and explore it more thoroughly.

Somehow I thought that New Zealand would be different since it such a small country and one is never far from the sea, so even if you sail around it, as we have done, you would get to see a large part of it at the various ports of call.

But as we sail back to Sydney, having left New Zealand behind yesterday, while I have enjoyed it, I don't feel seriously tempted to come back again. Yes it is a wonderful landscape and the climate is pleasant enough. Like the Australians, the New Zealanders are very friendly and welcoming and we have enjoyed the visits we made to the various ports and surrounding areas. One of the things I have missed is a look at New Zealand's 150 plus mountains which are closer to the west coast and we have journeyed mostly up the east coast. Our visit to Fiordland, which is where the mountains of the South Island run into the sea was disappointing as the weather was bad and everything was socked in. We did go into several sounds including the Milford Sound, famous for one of the world's most spectacular hikes, the Milford Track but unfortunately we could not see very much due to the inclement weather. I am sure that we would have enjoyed visiting the Southern Alps which form the spine of the South Island as I saw some spectacular photos of them.

But let me tell you something of what I have learned about New Zealand on this trip. Quite a lot of it was ascertained in the wonderful Te Papa Museum in Wellington where we spent more than four hours and could quite happily spent several days.

Like Australia and Antarctica, New Zealand formed as a result of the breakup of the great continent of Gondwana between 80 to 100 million years ago and the two main islands and the subsidiary islands of New Zealand are still being altered as to the landscape since they are subjected to the forces where the two tectonic plates, the Australia and the Pacific, come together. While they have rocks which are over 600 million years old they also have mountains which are a mere 3 million years. They are situated on the very edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire, the volatile fault lines which surround the Pacific Ocean making New Zealand a constantly changing land with active volcanoes and earthquakes, with the active volcanic region mostly in the North Island. Although the islands seem small in fact the actual land mass is about half the size of Australia.

With a very high rainfall there are many fast flowing rivers and inland lakes and you are never far from water even away from the coast and this provides a very lush natural landscape.

The plant and wildlife native to the region are unique, with the only two land mammals, both bats, although many flightless birds evolved, with the largest, the moa, which was the size of an ostrich now extinct, while the kiwi, the takahe and others still exist although endangered. However many birds like albatrosses, gannets, muttonbirds, godwits come to New Zealand to breed and the seas abound with seals, dolphins and whales and even some species of penguin make their home in New Zealand. With its separation from Gondwana, came the tuatara, the sole remaining species of an order of reptiles which evolved about 220 million years ago and is still in New Zealand, Several ancient species of parrots, the playful but extremely intelligent kea and the flightless nocturnal kokako, are still found in this country.

Originally 80% of New Zealand was covered in forest, but today only 25% remains and it is heavily protected. Most trees are evergreens, including the giant conifers: kauri, totara and rimu. The kauri was once a very important resource although it is no longer logged, however any that fall naturally can be used. It was exported both as timber and as kauri gum which was used in the USA to make varnish and linoleum. All over New Zealand it was used to build bridges, wharves, houses, furniture, roof shingles and even tramway rails. The deforestation of New Zealand in a relatively short time has converted 51% of the country to grasslands and more than half the exports are agricultural in nature and it is often referred to as the world's biggest farm. A thriving forestry industry still exists but a lot of it is the "farming" of non native trees, like pines and redwood sequoias which grow to a harvestable size much more quickly in New Zealand.

One of the results of this change in the landscape is the extinction of so many of the native species of animals as well as some, like the moa, being wiped out by hunting and the introduction of other non native species.

While we think of New Zealand as a wool producing country, a country with more sheep than people and this is certainly true with a sheep population of 40 million rising to 76 million at lambing time (compare that to just over 4 million people), in fact the percentage of wool of the total exports has fallen from 35% in 1870 to 2.65% in 2005. So most of the lambs are sold and exported for meat.

Of course the dairy industry too is a very big part of the economy, forming 18% of exports and New Zealand is well known abroad for its fine cheeses and butter.

I can't fail to mention New Zealand's extremely successful wine industry which in two decades has moved from producing quite ordinary wine into the big time with over 400 wineries making first class award winning vintages and the old scientist has been busy sampling them.

Then there is the kiwi fruit or Chinese gooseberry, so called after its country of origin. The growing of this fruit developed into a very big industry for the area of Te Puke in the North Island in the 1960's as the kiwi became the trendy fruit of the time. While it is still a solid export for New Zealand other places like California and Chili now produce kiwi fruit in large quantities.

I'll talk about the Maori settlers in a separate post but what I consider one of the rather sad things is that, as they did in other countries too, the early settlers tried to transform New Zealand into a Southern Hemisphere pastoral version of Great Britain. Captain Cook introduced goats, sheep and pigs but only the pigs survived and they became wild and known as Cook's pigs and even today they are hunted in some areas of New Zealand although with dogs and knives as one is not allowed to shoot them. Of course they introduced the rabbits and when they became a problem they brought in ferrets and stoats which in turn became a problem for the kiwis thus their numbers have been severely reduced and they are a threatened species today.

Deer were introduced and they too soon became a pest and today are hunted and the meat exported. Possums became a huge pest after introduction as they caused devastation in the natural forest. All in all I would say the settlers did a number on the ecology in New Zealand, even the Maori with their introduction of the Polynesian rat or kiore which they originally prized as food but is now considered another terrible pest.

Trout too were brought into New Zealand but while they have been quite successful and they are often raised in trout fisheries and released into the lakes and rivers there is no commercial trout fishing and the only trout you can eat is one you catch yourself, with a fishing licence of course. You will never see trout on a restaurant menu but they will cook one for you, if you front up with a trout and a valid licence.

But today, although too late for many species, there is a growing awareness of promoting the health of the land for the needs of future generations and there is a large part of the land held in parks and reserves as conservation is now a core purpose of the parks system. New Zealanders make good use of the opportunities for outdoor "adventures" and there is plenty of choice of activity to get out there and enjoy the natural beauties of this small but very beautiful country. So yes, go there and maybe hire a car and drive around it and go where you wish to go, not where some cruise ship takes you. Frankly I think that would be a much better option.


Sean Jeating said...

Good read. Thanks. Keep on travelling, Mylady! :)

Carver said...

Interesting post JMB. Maori is one of the languages my daughter has studied and at one point she wanted to live in New Zealand. I don't think that's in her current plans but it was interesting reading about your trip.

Voyager said...

I so enjoy your travel tales. I have been lucky enough to go to New Zealand twice. Once on my own for a ski / adventure trip in New Zealand's winter, and again 5 years ago for my sister's wedding. She has married a Kiwi, and made N.Z. her home. It is a spectacular country, from the volcanic landscape in the north to the mountains and fiords in the South. Queenstown, with its huge lake is a beautiful town. My advice is, give it another chance and a little more time, I think you will love it. Enjoy the rest of your travels!

Crushed said...

Wasn't it devoid of Mammals until humans colonised it? Or did I just imagine that?

CherryPie said...

Interesting. Thank You :-)

Janice Thomson said...

Really enjoyed this fascinating info JMB - some of which I was unaware of.
Excellent post.

Nunyaa said...

Hope you are enjoying your holiday Jmb, and may you take back with you many fond memories :)

Colin Campbell said...

Very interesting JMB. New Zealand gets as much coverage in Australia as Canada does in the US.

jams o donnell said...

Wonderful post jmb

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Interesting. I know very little about NZ, although I have a cousin there.