The Greenwood Guide to New Zealand
New Zealand

To browse our Nature and Activities recommendations click on one of the following areas:

Auckland (Auckland & islands, West Auckland coast) :: Bay of Plenty (Rotorua, White Island) :: Canterbury (Christchurch, Kaikoura) :: Central Plateau (Taupo, Tongariro Nat Pk) :: Coromandel (Coromandel Town, Whitianga) :: East Coast (Gisbourne) :: Hawke's Bay (Napier, Hastings) :: Marlborough (Picton, Blenheim) :: Nelson (Nelson, Abel Tasman Nat Pk) :: Northland (Bay of Islands, Whangarei) :: Otago (Queenstown, Dunedin, Wanaka) :: Southland (Fiordland Nat Pk, Stewart Island) :: Taranaki (New Plymouth, Mt Taranaki) :: Waikato and King Country (Waitomo, Raglan) :: Wairarapa (Martinborough) :: Wanganui and Manawatu (Taihape, Palmerston North) :: Wellington (Wellington, Kapiti Coast) :: West Coast (Fox & Franz Josef glaciers, Greymouth)

Nature and Activties

New Zealand is a living natural history museum. Some 85 million years ago it was isolated from the rest of world after its split from the ancient super-continent of Gondwanaland. Whilst some of its rocks are more than 500 million years old, the age of others can be counted in mere days. Sitting on two tectonic plates, New Zealand lies on the Pacific 'ring of fire' and owes much of its famed geo-thermal activity, its fiords, mountains, volcanoes (and the very occasional earthquake) to this fact. Rotorua, for example, has long attracted visitors to its mud pools, geysers and hot springs. The Maori first came here to bathe and to cook, and then the Europeans arrived to avail themselves of its reputed health benefits. Just because some volcanoes are active, it doesn't mean that they can't be skied on (Mt Ruapehu and Mt Taranaki), walked across (Tongariro and its famed crossing) or even inspected closely through gas masks (offshore White Island). All this underground activity makes New Zealand a good place to hunt for local greenstone rock… and even more popular gold!

Other geographical anomalies to look out for are the layered pancake rocks and blowholes at Punakaiki, the mysteriously-formed Moeraki boulders on Otago's eastern shores and Curio Bay's amazing petrified forest whose origins lie millions of years back in the days of Gondwanaland. For a bit of pampering au natural, stop of at Coromandel's hot water beach where you can dig a hole in the sand and sit in it as it fills with water warmed from below.

It is the mountains here that most made me gawp and that give the land its shape. Over a fifth of the North and two thirds of the South Island are covered by them. They join to form a narrow spine that connects the north of the North Island to the south of the South. Over millions of years, rivers have eroded deposits from the mountains to form Canterbury's vast alluvial plains, now some of New Zealand's most fertile and productive land. If you get the chance, I can wholeheartedly recommend the drive across the Southern Alps where you can take in the snowy peaks of Mt Cook/Aoraki and the coloured mineral-rich waters of Lake Tekapo.

In the southwest of the country, the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers and the subducted mountains that form the base of Southland's famous fiords are just two must-see geographical goodies. Ice-picking your way like tiny ants over the huge blue-hued surfaces of the world's lowest lying glaciers is incredible, and the kayaking and boating opportunities on the pristine fiord waters are spectacular too.

Much of the flora and fauna of New Zealand is unique, a product of its isolation. Amazingly, before the arrival of man, only two mammals existed on these shores, both species of bat. Instead, it was teeming with birds, many of them flightless. Free from natural predators flight had just not been deemed evolutionarily necessary. Time magazine once called New Zealand "the ultimate storehouse for discontinued zoological models". Among the direct descendents of prehistoric wildlife are giant snails and the tuatara lizard. Undoubtedly you'll be aware of the kiwi, although these very shy nocturnal birds are only rarely seen and are particularly vulnerable now that predators have been introduced to the islands. The Otago Peninsula in Dunedin, Golden Bay's Farewell Spit and the Miranda Shorebird Centre in Coromandel are great places to spot geese, gannets, albatrosses and birders. Don't miss out on the glowworms whilst you're in New Zealand. You'll find them in caves throughout the country but they're an especially spectacular sight in the caves of Waitomo.

As befits a land surrounded by ocean, marine life flourishes off the New Zealand's 15,000km of varied shores. Among the larger mammals are Hector's dolphins, sperm whales and Kaikoura seals, although there are plenty of others to be seen at all times of the year.

As an eco-system, New Zealand is extremely fragile and vulnerable to external and alien influences. This is why customs people are so vigorous at bag-checking and under-shoe-peeping when you arrive off the plane. Due to its isolation, there has been little need for defence mechanisms to be built by birds and plants. Before the arrival of man, there weren't even mice or hedgehogs, let alone the possums, cats and rabbits who are slowly reeking havoc on their adoptive landscape today. A good recent example is the unpleasantly-nicknamed 'rock snot' that was brought to NZ on the fishing lines of American tourists, and which is now destroying the delicate eco-systems of the country's rivers and lakes.

Although the islands were once covered in kauri forest, there are sadly now only pockets of these mighty giants left. The Southland parks still contain great swathes of protected ancient beech forest, sadly at the mercy of the merciless possum. One group of plants that is in no danger of extinction are ferns, of which there are many species arranged in vast numbers throughout New Zealand.

In all, fourteen national parks cover over 20% of the land. Two of them, Tongariro and Te Wahipounamu (which encompasses several national parks in southwest NZ, namely Aoraki/Mt Cook, Fiordland, Mt Aspiring and Westland), have been recognised by UNESCO as world heritage areas. As well as the parks, there are plenty of other forest areas and reserves that add to New Zealand's amazing variety of unspoiled landscapes and vegetation. You are never far from tramping (the local word for hiking) territory and many parks are especially well kitted out with excellent tracks, camping facilities and huts. A number of superb and aptly named 'Great Walks' dot the country but be sure to book a place well in advance as there are very limited numbers allowed on the tracks at any one time.

Apart from the odd sandfly bite, there is little to be found that's menacing in this country, to the human that is. In a land so unusually varied and underpopulated, where you can dip a bottle in any stream for a refill or sleep out wherever you may choose, it is easy to see New Zealand as one big, adventure playground. There are an enormous number of outdoor pursuits that await you, whatever your threshold for adventure. You would be forgiven for thinking New Zealanders entirely action-mad when you consider the bewildering variety there is on offer. There are even a few that they have made up themselves, bungy-jumping for example and newer inventions like golf-cross.

When you can swim in open water with dolphins, raft down pristine valley rivers, fish for trout in glistening mountain streams, surf some of the world's best breaks, sail in Auckland's Hauraki Gulf on an America's Cup boat, or just take to one of the country's many (last count 385 - highest per capita in the world) golf courses, boredom is the one thing you'll find hard to come by.

The Mighty Kauri

With trunks as wide as a two-lane road, the New Zealand kauri is an arborial Behemoth. Growing to more than 50m tall and with trunk girths of up to 16m, they covered much of the top half of the North Island before the first people arrived 1,000 years ago.

The Maori, who used their timber for boat building, carving and housing, and their gum for starting fires and chewing, first began felling them. Then, the arrival of European settlers saw the decimation of these magnificent forests. Sailors were quick to realize that young kauri trunks made ideal ships' masts and the settlers who followed discovered that the more mature trees yielded timber of unsurpassed quality for building. The gum, too, became essential in the manufacture of varnishes.

The exploitation of forests increased with the demand for more and more cleared farmland. Whereas kauri forest once covered 1.2 million hectares of land; now they have been reduced to just 80,000 hectares.

Revered by the Maori people, who believe the trees possess their own spirit, they have named several individual trees, including Tane Mahuta or 'Lord of the Forest', which has been standing for 2,100 years in the Waipoua Forest in Northland at a breath-taking, neck-aching 51.5m. Saved from destruction by their remoteness, the Waipoua forests are also home to the second and third largest kauri trees, Te Matua Ngahere and the McGregor kauri. If you are driving down to or up from Auckland via the west coast then you simply must take the time and trouble to walk into the forest and see these giants. They are magnificent beyond imagining and it is awe-inspiring to visualise what it must have been like when there were entire forests full of such giants spaced wide apart with just moss and twigs able to grow at their feet.

Auckland: a city of sails and sailors

No explanation is really needed to describe why Auckland has acquired the moniker 'city of sails' - just take a look at all those lovely sailboats jammed into its Waitemata Harbour, all bobbing neatly into line. With a population of just over one million, Auckland is said to have more boats per capita than any other city in the world. With its temperate, sea-faring-friendly climate and the stunning island-speckled Hauraki Gulf off the end of the deck, it is abundantly clear why yachting is such a hugely popular pastime here. One of the highlights of the city's year is the Auckland Anniversary Regatta at the end of January, with over 600 vessels taking part.

Exploring the Hauraki Gulf

The gulf around Auckland is dotted with lots of lovely islands. There are 65 of them in all, some within minutes of the city, others a little further offshore. Many are easily accessible on ferries from central Auckland. For more information on times of crossings visit www.fullers.co.nz.

Here's a bit of info on some that you might like to visit:

Waiheke gained a reputation in the 1960s for the 'alternative' lifestyles of its residents and its artisan culture, though now it has now become more like a dormitory suburb of the city. With white sand beaches, vineyards and olive groves, this is still a great place to visit and is easily accessible at less than half-an-hour's ferry journey from downtown Auckland.

Rangitoto is the youngest island in the gulf. It emerged from the sea just 700 years ago in a series of volcanic explosions. Its wonderful volcanic landscape supports over 200 species of moss, plants and trees including tree daisies, manuka, orchids and the largest pohutukawa (also known as the 'NZ Christmas tree' due to its flaming red flowers over Dec/Jan) forest in the world! There are some 10 or so short and long walks around the island and from the summit there are magnificent views over the Hauraki Gulf, the Waitemata Harbour and Auckland City.

Tiritiri Matangi in Maori means 'wind tossing about'. As its name suggests this is an island of dramatic, steeply rising cliffs and, despite extensive planting programmes attempting to return the forest to its original glory, it remains largely bare. 25km north of Auckland, it is an open sanctuary and the public is free to visit and venture down the five main walking tracks to enjoy some of New Zealand's more unusual and rare fauna and bird life.

Great Barrier Island is decidedly remote. It is the largest island in the gulf, about half the size of the city's metropolitan area, and lies 90km north-east of Auckland. Very rugged with narrow ravines, steep cliffs, jagged pinnacles and a deeply indented coastline, the 1100 residents live the type of alternative and artsy lifestyle of the former residents of Waiheke. The island is a real haven of peace and tranquility, wilderness and rare birdlife. Scenic drives, wonderful walking tracks among native forest and bush, long white surf beaches, fishing and good diving all make this a great destination. Catch a ferry from the city or alternately take a 30-minute flight. 

Kawau Island can only be reached from Sandspit in Warkworth, a little further up the coast, although if you stay at Kawau Lodge, Dave will happily come and meet you on the mainland with his boat to take you over. It is best known for Mansion House, built in 1846 and home of former New Zealand governor Sir George Grey. He turned the island into a zoological park importing a variety of animals including kookaburras, peacocks and parma wallabies which, thought to be extinct in Australia, can sometimes still be seen.

Curiosity at Curio Bay's petrified forest

Deep in the South Island, hidden under the waves at high tide, lies a clue to New Zealand's birth - a petrified sub-tropical forest of stumps and trunks dating back 160 million years (give or take 20 million). This is one of the most extensive fossil forests in the world and the cycads, tree ferns and kauri here are similar to South American species - evidence of New Zealand's place in the ancient super-continent, Gondwanaland. Try as I might, I couldn't quite fathom just how geologically ancient were the tree-like swirls in rocks before me. It is quite extraordinary and definitely worth a peek.

Kauri 2000

The Coromandel was once home to magnificent forests of kauri. However, after years of logging during the 19th and early 20th centuries, very little of it now remains. Kauri 2000 is a very special organisation that seeks to organise and encourage re-planting. For just $10 you can have a kauri seedling planted on your behalf by volunteers and you'll receive a certificate giving you your tree's exact location. A great excuse for returning to the beautiful Coromandel, to see your little tree grow big. For further information contact Kauri 2000 Trust, T/F 07-866-2656, www.kauri2000.co.nz

Waitomo Caves and its Glowworms

These cave-lurking, occasionally cannibalistic, creatures are another unique feature of New Zealand. They can only survive in dark, damp and still places where their light will shine uninterrupted and no wind will tangle their sticky lines. Waitomo Caves provides the perfect habitat. Glowworms are technically glowing maggots but it was felt that 'glow maggots' didn't have quite the same romantic and tourist-friendly ring. The cyclic worms spend most of their lives feeding; attracting flying insects with their light, catching them in their sticky threads and reeling them in. When they finally pupate and become an adult fly, the fungus gnat, they survive for only a few days, just long enough to mate and lay a batch of eggs. In short glowworms spend their lives fishing, eating and mating. I know quite a few people living in similar fashion.

Vital statistics:

They glow to attract food and burn off waste. Chemicals in their tail react with oxygen to produce light - bioluminescence.

Glowworms are sensitive to vibrations so the more noise you make the brighter they will glow.

The larvae are about the size of a matchstick.

If a fellow worm or glowworm fly gets caught in another's thread they will be eaten (hence they are cannibals).

The adult fungus gnats have no mouth and starve to death after a couple of days.

En masse in the dark glowworms are one of New Zealand's most stunning sights but pick them out with a torch individually and they'll gross you out. Both ways they are utterly incredible and a must-see feature.

The kiwi, a flightless bird

Kiwis are endemic to New Zealand and belong to the family of flightless ratite birds, which includes emus, cassowaries, ostriches, rheas and the now extinct moa. This is a peculiar little bird with shaggy hair-like feathers, cone-shaped body and primitive claws.

Vital Statistics:

Kiwis are nocturnal, hence the fact they are pretty damn hard to spot in the wild (especially when you consider their dwindling numbers).

Their wings are only between 30 - 50mm in length and end in a primitive dinosaur-style claw.

They are the only bird whose nostrils are arranged at the tip of their beak (and a hugely long beak at that).

Their sense of smell is so acute they can sniff out a worm 3cm under ground.

There are 4 species and 6 varieties/taxa of kiwi: the northern brown, okarito brown, southern tokoeka, Haast tokoeka, little spotted and the great spotted.

The females lay eggs proportionally larger to their body than any other bird (roughly ¼ of her size!).

They have cat-like whiskers to aid movement in the dark.

Due to the country's isolation New Zealand's lack of predatory mammals has previously allowed for the kiwi's chilled out ground-dwelling lifestyle. Unfortunately, with the relatively recent introductions of rats, possums, dogs and cats the kiwi has had a bit of a hard time trying (and usually failing) to hide or outrun his new aggressors, and their eggs have made many a possum breakfast. Their noisy rummagings also make them easy prey. Many conservation schemes are now set in place and areas are pest-proofed to save New Zealand's heritage bird.

Surfing at Raglan

The Raglan coast is one of the world's surfing hot spots and, although I'm not actually into surfing, I'll attempt to direct you in the right direction from what I've been informed.

Word on the street has it that Manu Bay has the longest, most consistent "left-hand break" in the world which means, if you catch a colossus of a wave, you can cruise for a massive distance with "guaranteed nice lines and perfect peelers", according to one surfer in the know. This surf spot is also known as 'The Point' and was featured in the 1966 cult surfing film 'Endless Summer.' Whale Bay, renowned for an "awesome left point break", offers great surfing on all tides. It's particularly good if you're after a hollow wave - sounds a little scary to me!

Be warned. Raglan may excel in its surf conditions but rocky ledges and reefs command respect and require a certain level of skill to overcome. "This is not grommet territory", i.e you need to know what you're doing in the water.

Raglan has attracted the likes of musical surf lover Jack Johnson to its wave-washed shores and has a fantastic laid-back vibe. If you're not up for floating on a board, boogie-, surf- or otherwise. you'll love the tiny seaside town and can happily frolic in the action-packed waters.

Geothermal Rotorua and Mt. Tarawera's Big Bang.

Rotorua is renowned for its lively geothermal activity. You will be easily distracted from the eggy odour of the sulphur by the sight of billowing springs, sputtering geysers, bubbling mud and simmering puddles. It was the vibrant colours that took me by surprise. lime green lakes, ever-changing bright orange and yellow residue and turquoise waters. The thermal parks can be relatively commercial but are still definitely worth a look. Waiotapu Thermal Park is the most colourful geothermal area and houses the Lady Knox geyser who blows her stack daily at around 10am. Freebie parks include the mud-bubbling Kuirau Park (the boiling lake emits continual clouds of steam that roll out over the highway) and Craters of the Moon on the way into Taupo.

On June 10th 1886 Mt. Tarawera erupted in a violent shower of red-hot volcanic bombs and buried the Maori villages of Te Ariki and Te Wairoa under 20m of mud. The noise of the explosion was so loud it was heard in Christchurch. The Pink and White Silica Terraces, a fan-like geological marvel considered the eighth wonder of the world, were completely annihilated. You can visit the buried village of Te Wairoa, learn more about the 1886 eruption and wander the park and excavation sites.

White Island

The lunar landscape of White Island that looms above the surface of the sea is something I've only ever touched upon in fantasy or science fiction novels. Here, vivid beds of yellow and white sulphur crystals grow alongside effervescent fumeroles and towering crater walls shelter a spectacular lake.

Aside from being a site of continual scientific intrigue the volcanic peak was previously farmed for sulphur. In 1914 part of the western crater rim collapsed creating a lahar that killed all 10 workers. Supposedly only Peter the Great, the camp cat, survived. The ruin of the old factory can still be seen on the island. White Island may be moody, but the level of volcanic activity is always closely monitored. The opportunity to don a hard-hat and gas mask and tentatively step into such a surreal landscape is a one-off. PeeJays run a superb guided tour from Whakatane to White Island's highly protected shores. They provide all safety gear, in-depth knowledge and lunch aboard the PeeJay herself. You'll need a full day and a good camera. They also have a great café back at base where you can exchange the lingering hint of sulphur for a far more pleasurable smell of coffee and freshly-made snacks. Dolphins and other marine life flourish in the surrounding fertile waters (which are incredible for fishing and diving) so keep your peepers open on the boat trip over.

PeeJays White Island Tours: 15 the Strand East, Whakatane. www.whiteisland.co.nz. Tel: 07-308-9588 or freephone 0800-733-529, Fax: 07-308-0303.

Another excellent way to see White Island is by air. Enquire about scenic flights with Air Discovery (224 Aerodrome Road, Whakatane Airport 07-308-9558).

Mt. Ruapehu and Tongariro National Park

There is nothing quite as novel as skiing or snow-boarding on a strato-volcano, particularly when it's still active. Mt. Ruapehu and its three main peaks demand respect from skiers, hikers and onlookers alike. Tahurangi (2,797m), Te Heuheu (2,755m) and Paretetaitonga (2,751m) surround the brooding (lake-filled when it's not erupting) crater and are a formidable sight.

Ruapehu has the largest developed ski area in New Zealand, made up of two main ski fields. Whakapapa (pronounced 'fakapapa') spans the northern side and Turoa the southern. The season runs roughly from July to October unless volcanologist mountain monitors advise otherwise.. When volcanologist mountain monitors advise otherwise do something else!

The 1995-96 eruptions (yup, that recent!) meant skis and snowboards remained safely packed away and powder-lovers were sorely disappointed. The 1995 season ended abruptly when the Department of Conservation issued hazard warnings advising people to stay off the mountain. Activity on the mountain had been closely monitored since 1994 and there have been a number of episodic eruptions and lahars (mud slides) since. The experts are always one step ahead of Ruapehu's internal churnings and they serve up warnings accordingly. Heed their advice and take the opportunity to ride on this remarkable mountain if the all-clear is given.

Tongariro National Park is a great park for trekkers. The Tongariro Crossing passes between Mt. Tongariro and Mt. Ngauruhoe, rumbling past cold mountain springs, lava flows, steam vents, an active crater, deep-green lakes and wonderful views. The terrain is steep and frequently difficult, so a decent level of fitness is essential. Ensure sturdy footwear, equipment and clothing and be aware of the weather.

An earthmoving change of style

On 3rd of February 1931 a massive earthquake hit Napier and flattened it. The quake was so violent it raised 40 km2 of submerged land and caused the area to grow considerably. Sadly 258 people died in the destruction and fires that raged in the aftermath. Although devastated, the area picked itself up, dusted itself off and began to rapidly rebuild. As Art Deco was the trend of the time it was Art deco that inspired the new elegant structures. The city is now a national monument and a joy to explore.

To commemorate the incident and celebrate the Art Deco style The Brebner Print Art Deco Weekend is staged every year on the third weekend in February by the Art Deco Trust. The 'not-too-serious' festival is a flurry of fancy dress, jazz, wining, dining, classic cars, twilight toe-tapping and picnics a la Great Gatsby. Ensure you have enough 1930s dress-up to last the whole 4 days as you'll feel wildly out of place in regular clothing. I'm assuming that most overseas tourists to New Zealand would pack several days' worth of 1930s fancy dress just in case..

If you can't make the Art Deco weekend keep an eye out for Bertie. Fresh from the 1930s, this local character is always happy to stop and chat.

A Gaggle of Gannets

Cape Kidnappers fits the long pointy bill when it comes to providing a rocky breeding location for gannets. In this particular spot you can get relatively close to these wonderful seabirds as they have a strange tolerance when it comes to tourists. Sometimes you might even think they were diving for the camera. It is quite something to see the gannets plummet from great heights into the sea and chase their prey underwater. They come to Cape Kidnappers to nest from August to early May.

Vital statistics:

They have no external nostrils which means they don't have to purchase a nose-clip for diving.

They have protective air sacks in their face and chest which acts like bubble wrap as they impact with the sea.

They eat a whole lot of fish, and so 'gannet' has become synonymous with a certain type of voracious eater.

At only 13-16 weeks old the chicks make their first solo flight to Australia where they take 5 years to mature.

Whoa Nelly!

Rivers are classified or graded dependent on their rate of flow, turbulence and difficulty. Although this can vary if increased rainfall or a new obstacle (i.e. a tree has toppled into the water) alters the flow, you can still get a general idea of just how challenging your white-water experience will be from its grade.

Grade 1 - This river is as relaxed as they come. Any rapids are small, regular and pose little difficulty. You'd probably be okay sprawled on a lilo with a cocktail in hand (although don't test that theory. any unexpected obstacles in the water would still need to be negotiated).

Grade 2 - Still relatively laid-back and suitable for the more cautious of white-water babies.  Waves stay below 1m and eddies and bends pose the odd challenge. This is a comfy ride with a bit of a kick.

Grade 3 - Okay, now things are hotting up. Broken waves and considerable obstacles make for a fun and thrilling water romp.

Grade 4 - Woo hoo! Hold onto your protective helmet people, we're going in! The water is now, most definitely white. Boiling eddies; drops and rocks make for serious buzz-worthy action.

Grade 5 - Whoa Nelly! Stomach churning, knuckles white, teeth gritted. determination is what's needed here. There are very few places in the world that raft novice groups on this grade, but it's the biggest adrenaline rush I've ever had. Gather your wits about you and expect a 'big swim' at some point.

Grade 6 - Unless you're hardened to the ways of the raft and paddle or the sensation of being in a washing-machine on maximum spin-cycle intrigues you, then forget it. You need some serious skills to even consider Grade 6. Virtually impossible to navigate in a raft and potentially deadly to swimmers. sound like fun? You should leave this one to the few extreme experts.

Mt. Taranaki or Mt. Egmont

The perfectly shaped 2518m volcanic ash cone of Mt. Taranaki dominates the region with its impressive form. It's a pristine replica of Japan's Mt. Fuji and was used as a backdrop for 'The Last Samurai' (although filming of the Last Samurai became controversial with the Maori who believe the mountain is sacred).

'Taranaki' was the name given to the mountain by the Maori and Captain Cook named it Mount Egmont after John Perceval (2nd Earl of Egmont) who promoted Cook's first voyage. The surrounding Egmont National Park retains the title given by Cook while the mountain continues to be known as both. I rather like 'Taranaki' - 'tara' meaning 'mountain peak' and 'naki' or more likely 'ngaki' meaning 'shining', a reference to the mountains normally snow-capped peak. The lush green fertile slopes can be explored in a whole manner of ways from driving, hiking, climbing (although do be careful) and skiing.

Farewell Spit

Farewell Spit sweeps from the northenmost tip of the South Island forming a protective shield to the curve of Golden Bay. It was the last part of New Zealand watched by Captain Cook as he drifted out to sea - hence the 'Farewell' (although Maori know it as Tuhuroa).  The spit stretches for roughly 26km above sea level and a further 6 km underwater and is made of fine, mineral-packed golden sand. Strong currents running through Cook Straight whip up material and deposit it on the stable southern side (that faces Golden Bay) while the northern side is continually stroked by high winds and the Tasman Sea, causing it to lick round into a thin arc. The sand bar is constantly dynamic and is expected to grow a further 2km in the next 5 years! It seems most bizarre and anomalous land formations are usually rife with wonderful wildlife and Farewell Spit is no exception. Designated a wetland of national importance, the restricted access wildlife reserve is teeming with black swans, Canada geese, Australian gannets, oystercatchers, Caspian terns and an umpteen-thousand strong squad of migratory waders. It has also been occasionally problematic for the odd whale.

The only way to visit the actual spit is via guided tour with one of Collingwood's licensed tour operators. Farewell Spit Safaris run a good selection of eco tours. Allow a whole day as trips are between 3 and 6 ½ unforgettable hours long. Expect to jump off dunes, drop in on the gannet colony and check out the lighthouse.

If you don't have time to go the whole hog it is possible to drive yourself as far as the Farewell Spit visitor centre. The scenic route passes through rural farmland and ends at the visitor centre, Paddle Crab Kitchen (incidentally a great spot to refill whilst pondering views of the worlds' biggest sand bar) and Puponga Farm Park, which is crisscrossed with walking tracks and dotted with viewpoints.

Rock Snot

Didymosphenia geminata or 'rock snot', nicknamed for its slimy bogey-like appearance, is a mysterious, problematic algae found in some of the South Island's braided rivers. The algae attaches itself to plants and stones forming strands of yellow-brown goo that are like cotton wool to touch. One of the worst hit waterways is the Buller River (loved by didymo, people and fish alike for its beautifully clear, fresh and shallow water) that runs through the Nelson Lakes region. This is white-water-heaven Murchison's main kayak spot and is fantastic even with the rock snot. Dydimo spreads on footwear, fishing gear and boats, which must be cleaned between rivers with saline solution to avoid further contamination (morning sessions rolling kayaks in a chlorinated swimming pool works wonders). Make sure you do your bit.

Try the Rock Snot Café in Murchison. They're proud of their Buller-side location and great for cheap eats (they do a mean pizza which goes down a treat after a hard day on the water).

Hector's Dolphins

Endemic to the coast of New Zealand, not only are these rounded little chaps the smallest sea-living dolphins in the world, but sadly they also happen to be the rarest of all oceanic species. Threatened by set nets and a low birth rate, there are only 2,000 - 2,500 individuals left, broken into two distinct populations off the South Island coast and another tiny group of 100 dolphins off North Island shores.

Much smaller than other species, Hector's dolphin adults grow to a length of 1.2m to 1.4m and their calves are like little sea-faring rugby balls at just 50 - 60cm at birth. With foreheads that curve down to the mouth's tip, small rounded dorsal fins and a well-defined colour scheme it is not just their petiteness that makes them distinctive. Their bellies are white, bodies grey, flippers, fins and tails black and they are all marked by a jazzy swoosh of white that extends from the belly along the flanks towards the tail.

Hector's dolphins are really sociable types and usually swim in groups of 2 to 12. They are particularly friendly towards humans and will often swim to investigate you, your kayak or your boat.

Dolphin Experience,
61 Beach Road, Akaroa;
Tel:03-304-7726;
dolphins.akaroa@xtra.co.nz;
www.dolphinsakaroa.co.nz

Lake Tekapo

Whatever the weather, the turquoise waters of Lake Tekapo are startling. Its remarkable blueness is caused by 'rock flour', which is made up of finely-ground rock particles held in suspension in melt water that is brought down from the glaciers at the head of the lake. It is worth stopping off at the Church of the Good Shepherd, a peaceful spot despite the tourists, and a lovely place to take a picture.

Kaikoura Seals

I was amazed by just how close you can get to these sleek critters at the Kaikoura seal colony. Just follow the signs from the town, wander out onto the rocks and you're there. Be aware, however, that the seals are also there and they have teeth. I almost tripped over a snoozing rock-shaped one. On account of my stealth, my nimbleness and the seal's forgiving nature, I narrowly avoided getting bitten - or was it just yawning?

Sperm Whales in Kaikoura

The nutrient-rich waters of Kaikoura are a thriving marine playground full of whales, dolphins and seals. In fact nearly half of the world's 76 species of whales and dolphins have been spotted frolicking offshore. Hector's and dusky dolphins are the most common to skim the water's surface while sperm whales haunt the depths, surfacing intermittently for air and to wave a friendly flipper or tail. Feeding on a seafood cocktail of groper, shark and squid, the sperm whale is the largest toothed creature in the sea (they are HUGE!) and a year-round feature in Kaikoura's waters.

Its unusual box-like head contains the largest brain in the world and accounts for over a third of its body weight.

They store a liquid called spermaceti in their heads which helps control their buoyancy - When the liquid cools it becomes denser and creates negative buoyancy allowing the whale to dive down and vice versa.

They can dive up to 2500m but only head to depths of 1000m in Kaikoura (still mighty impressive considering I laboured at 35m).

Their steel-grey skin is ribbed and shrivelled with white patches around the lips, tail and flank that grow, as they get older.

Their flippers are 1.5m long and are used for breaking and steering.

3 tonnes of blood pump through their massive veins.

Marine conservation is so strict in Kaikoura that only one company is permitted to run whale-watching tours and the numbers of boats are very limited. Due to this you should try and book up well in advance and perhaps allow a couple of days leeway in case your trip is cancelled due to bad weather. Call 03-319-6767 to book a boat trip or opt for a bird's-eye viewing from a helicopter or plane. If you're extra lucky you may very well catch a glimpse of the massive sea-dwellers from the shore. I was chuffed to catch a cheeky whale-burst plume of water through a pair of binos.

The Bungy

When AJ Hackett dived off the Eiffel Tower back in 1987, suspended by a rubber cord strapped to his ankles, the bungy legend was born.

It all started with the people of Vanuatu in the Pacific who have been throwing themselves from huge towers for centuries, with nothing more than a few vines tied to their feet.

It was this ancient ritual that inspired the Oxford University Dangerous Sports Club to try a few experimental jumps in the late 1970s.

And then, seeing the club's video, New Zealander AJ teamed up with fellow speed skier (and adrenaline-junkie) Henry van Asch to develop the bungy into the ritual it is today. Kawarau Bridge outside Queenstown was the world's first full-time site.

So, go ahead if you've the stomach for it. It is very safe, I'm told. And you will not regret it. I'm told. I, for one, am just too busy to quite get round to fitting one in. shame. But even if you don't get to do the jump you can still find out what happens behind the scenes. A 45-minute interactive 'Secrets of Bungy Tour' at the original Kawarau Bridge will take you on a fascinating cinematic adventure and then give you exclusive access to the bungy viewing deck.

And if this is ample time to justify the decision that taking the leap is maybe not for you, you can head over to the lovely Winehouse & Kitchen Restaurant and Wine Cellar down the way for some far more refined tippling, followed by lunch. A morning's 'bungying' never sounded so pleasant.

Secrets of Bungy Tour: $40 pp, includes transport from Queenstown.

Off State Highway 6, Gibbston.

T 0800-286-493 www.bungy.co.nz

Golf-Cross

Trust New Zealanders to come up with another opportunity to play rugby; this time whilst playing golf. Golf-Cross, otherwise known as 'the game played with the oval golf ball,' is not just a gimmick. Conceived back in 1989 by New Zealander Burton Silver, this game is great for those who can't quite decide where their sporting allegiances lie. It's basically golf played with goals instead of holes, and with an oval instead of a round ball. You use the same rules as golf and the same clubs - though you won't need your putter. It's simply that the target is now suspended in mid-air and every shot is pretty much going where you want it to, or so one hopes. There are currently four courses in New Zealand, one of them at Rippon Vineyard in Wanaka. Another is being constructed at Nokomai Station on the highway between Queenstown and Te Anau.

The birds of Otago Peninsula

Royal albatrosses

The sight of a soaring albatross is unforgettable. With wings up to 3m across these majestic birds can swoop to speeds of more than 70 mph. Usually albatrosses breed on remote, storm-bound islands, but the mainland colony on the Otago Peninsula at Taiaroa Head is the only one of its kind in the world.

Though graceful on the wing, albatrosses are distinctly clumsy on the ground. The social and family life of the breeding colony is fascinating. From the moment the eggs, weighing up to 500 grams, are laid during the first few weeks of November, a pair of albatrosses will nurture the egg and chick for a period lasting some 300 days. Despite long separations at sea, these 'marriages' normally last for life, and they are long ones too. One bird was known to lay its egg at the grand age of 62! It is not until the following September that the young albatross wanders from its nesting ground to test its outstretched wings and eventually take off with the aid of a strong wind.

The Royal Albatross Centre at Taiaroa is a great place to learn more about these intriguing birds and to see the colony in action from the observatory. The centre is open daily all year except Christmas Day. Prior bookings for tours are essential. Contact them on 09-478-0499 or email reservations@albatross.org.nz.

And yellow-eyed penguins.

'The birds made a wet day sunny,' says one happy visitor to the albatrosses' neighbours on the peninsula, the world's rarest penguin. The Yellow-Eyed Penguin Reserve offers the best viewing in New Zealand with over 1km of tracks and underground walkways that link 15 viewing hides. Professional guides with the very popular Twilight Wildlife Tours in Dunedin will explain the scenic beauty and wildlife of the area and get you in the right places at the right time for photographic opportunities. Contact Wild South on 03-474-3300 or at wildsouth@clear.net.nz. www.wilddunedin.co.nz.

Moeraki Boulders

Moeraki is renowned for the intriguing, spherical boulders found strewn along its beach. They can be seen emerging from cliffs and slowly disappearing into the sand and the sea, the most perfect examples of their kind found anywhere in the world. Scientific history says the boulders were formed over many, many years, somewhere in the region of 65 million in fact: starting off as lime crystals underground, they attracted other minerals around them eventually to form the boulder shape. Then, crystallisation of calcium and carbonates changed particles in the muddy undersea sediments gradually forcing the rounded boulders upwards and onto the surface, where you'll find them now.

But they also have a human history that is only a few hundred years old: some 1,000 years ago, whilst searching for precious stones, the great voyaging Arai-te-uru canoe and its crew were shipwrecked. The boulders represent the traditional food baskets onboard containing kumara, gourds and calabashes (traditional Maori food) that were washed ashore. Some of the crew reached safety, but others were overtaken by dawn and turned into hills nearby that bear their names.

Whichever is your chosen version, do stop off to break up your journey, walk along the beach to have a look and, most importantly, work up a hearty appetite for lunch at the fabulous Fleur's Place, five minutes away in the village's harbour.

Pamper yourself at a Hot Water Beach

Dig yourself a hole in the sand on Hahei's Hot Water Beach and sit in your very own natural spa pool, heated by thermal waters that brew just below its surface. If you want to cool off in the sea, do be especially careful - the waters here have currents and are dangerous for swimming.

A litany of (introduced) disasters

Many of the park's threatened species owe their demise to predators such as possums, deer and stoats and, in turn, to humans who first introduced these pests to these peaceful green isles.

Possums were introduced in the 1830s to establish a fur trade and have adapted to NZ conditions so well that they are now considered a major threat not just to the forest greenery but to the bird and insect life as well. They browse heavily (an estimated 22,000 tonnes (!) of leaves being devoured every couple of nights) in the forests and grasslands and have been seen to take insects, birds' eggs and chicks. The threat they pose to eco-systems explains why these creatures have the unenviable reputation as New Zealand's public enemy number one. Several initiatives to control possum numbers exist throughout the country and there are increasing numbers of commercial ventures into possum fur and even possum meat! The hope is to provide lovely natural products and to throw the rescue of their threatened forests and birds into the bargain as well.

Also introduced to the forests back in the 1800s were deer. By the 1940s their numbers were also so out of control that the government had to employ deer cullers, paid on a bounty system, to shoot deer for a living. While they were reasonably effective in some places, it wasn't until helicopters were used as aerial gun-ships from the late 1960s to the early 1980s that the forests were freed from the threat of over-grazing by deer.

And as if that's not enough, yet another introduced species, the stoat was introduced to New Zealand in a foiled bid to control rabbits (which were also introduced!). Instead, these natural-born survivors shifted their feeding habits to the country's native birds..

Tragically, in an island environment isolated from the rest of the world for more than 80 million years, and free of mammal predators (the only mammals native to these shores are two species of bat), a number of birds developed flightlessness (simply because they didn't need to fly) and rather eccentric habits. Each of them evolved to fill different ecological functions, roles normally taken by mammals in other eco-systems. For example, takahe are grass eaters, and kiwis and wrens are ground insect-eaters. Stoats and possums simply couldn't believe their luck. Furthermore, many of the birds are unafraid of humans, a common characteristic resulting from the absence of predators, and which became a deadly one when human hunters arrived. Most famed amongst the birds that were driven to extinction by humans is the giant moa. This impressive creature was over 3m tall and weighed about 250kg - one of the biggest birds ever known to the world.

Fiordland National Park

Fiordland is a region dominated by forest and water. Its fourteen fiords and five major lakes are flanked by steep mountains clad with thick, temperate forest, making the interior virtually impenetrable except along its 500km of tracks. The isolation, variety of habitats and the incredible annual rainfall (ranging from a paltry 1m in the east to a massive 8m in the west) of the area allow a diverse flora and fauna to thrive and there are over 700 plants endemic to it.

Some of the best examples of plants that were once found on the ancient super-continent of Gondwana still exist here. The most prominent of these are the evergreen beech trees that make up about 80 - 90% of the forest. The two main types you'll see are the silver and the red varieties, though the mountain beech is pretty common too. The other main forest type is the mixed podocarp. This is an absolutely gorgeous mix of trees from beeches to a good collection of native pines such as rimu, kahikatea, matai, miro and other leafy trees like the kamahi and the beautiful rata, which produces lovely red flowers around Christmas.

Incredibly, much of the forest grows on virtually sheer rock cliff-faces, especially noticeable on the sides of the fiords. These trees survive with next to no soil and only moss holds the moisture and the nutrients around the shallow tree roots that cling to the rock. On some of theses cliff-faces only 5 - 10% of the trees will be anchored into a crack in the rock and all the other trees rely on those anchor trees for their very existence. Unfortunately this means that if one of the anchor trees lets go, then the rest all avalanche to the valley floor or into the waters of the fiord and leave huge, treeless scars on the mountainside that take many years to regenerate.

The National Park is also known for its wildlife and is, or was, home to some of New Zealand's strangest birds. The takahe, for example, is a large flightless rail related to the more populous pukeko, more commonly known throughout Australasia as the purple moorhen.  The bird is of ancient lineage and was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in 1948. Fiordland was also the final refuge for the world's only flightless parrot, the nocturnal kakapo. There are now a number of recovery projects for these unique birds on pest-free offshore islands.

In the absence of human activity, marine wildlife flourishes here as well. Bottlenose dolphins, New Zealand fur seals, little blue penguins and Fiordland crested penguins or tawaki are happy residents in the waters of the fiords.

The environment below the water is as fascinating and unique as its acclaimed landscape above. Run-off from heavy rainfall on the mountains creates a permanent freshwater layer on the surface of the saltwater that varies in depth from 5 cm to over 10 m. At the same time, tannins, washed out of the vegetation on land, stain the water the colour of weakly-brewed tea and create a dark layer on the surface. In turn, this cuts down the amount of light entering the seawater, restricting most of the marine life to the top 40m. This band (below the freshwater layer) is calm, clear and relatively warm and is home to sponges, corals (including one of the world's largest populations of black coral trees, some of which are up to 200 years old) and fish of sub-tropical, cool water and deep-water varieties. Amazingly the waters are also home to brachiopods, clam-like animals that have remained relatively unchanged for over 300 million years.

When sounds like a sound is a fiord.

Contrary to their names, Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, Dusky Sound et cetera are, in fact, fiords. Sounds are flooded river valleys whereas fiords are valleys carved by tremendous power and pressure of glaciers during successive ice ages and then, later, as the ice melts and the water-levels rise, they are flooded by the sea.

Sandflies

Sandflies, for those lucky enough not to have made their acquaintance, are nasty little biting insects with the dubious distinction of being New Zealand's only pest. Smaller than mosquitoes but with a similar (though actually slightly worse) bite, they appear in clouds around Milford Sound and along the West Coast's wild beaches. In fact, they are generally plentiful in most wilderness areas below 900m. They have a particular talent for driving you mad. Besides hoping for rain, frost or their early extinction, it is best to avoid hanging around in shady forests, their preferred domain.

In the olden days drinking paraffin was the preferred tonic, but nowadays a good insecticide should suffice as well as covering up. prevention always being the best cure. (Top tip: Avon's 'So-So Soft' moisture lotion has proven its worth midge-busting in Scotland, and works a treat on keeping sandflies at bay too. Bird's Ferry Lodge swear by the stuff and even keep supplies for grateful guests.)

Luckily, even sandflies have their weaknesses: learn them.

Firstly, they are slow; even when walking at a slow pace they cannot keep up and you will not notice them. This works even better if there is a wind.

And lastly (obviously not that many weaknesses then), they go away at night. As soon as it gets dark they will disappear, only to return at first light. This can be a trial in summer when it stays light until 10pm, but cover up and there will always be relief ahead if you can wait until dark.

New Zealand's Ferns

One of the most noticeable features of the NZ bush is the proliferation of tree-ferns. These evergreen plants are amazingly diverse and grow in a variety of habitats, though most are found in damp, shady pockets beneath tree canopies, thriving in well-drained, rich and loamy soils up the sides of gullies. One of my favourites is the largest of them all, the black tree fern or mamaku, which can grow to a whopping height of twenty metres and their fronds can extend to seven.

About 170 different species grow naturally here, 89 of which are endemic to New Zealand and grow nowhere else. Especially well known is the silver fern or ponga - the symbol of the nation. Growing to a height of up to ten metres they are hard to miss; the silvery underside of its leaves are most striking. Being the country's emblem you'll find it depicted on everything here from jewels to caps to cars to rugby shirts. They even called the national netball team after it.

Franz Josef and Fox glaciers

These massive rivers of ice that tumble down valleys towards the sea are unique, both in the speed at which they move and in the exceptionally low and temperate climate levels to which they descend.

There are two main reasons for this phenomenon: the climate and the shape of the glaciers. The southern part of the West Coast lies in the path of a band of wind known as the 'roaring forties'. The weather that flows onto the coast from the Tasman Sea is forced to rise up and over the Southern Alps, causing most of its moisture to cool and then drop as rain and snow. Every year, this process results in huge amounts of snow falling on the catchment areas of the glaciers, called the neves. These neves lie across exceptionally large, elevated blocks of land and so are able to collect enormous amounts of snow, often in piles of up to 30m in depth! When this snow is compacted, it forms blue glacier ice (due to the compression of water particles which forces out the oxygen) that is then funnelled down the glaciers' particularly steep and narrow valleys, ideally shaped for squeezing the ice down.

The sheer weight of all that snowfall, and the angle and size of the valleys, allow the ice to descend to the extremely low altitude of just 240m above sea level. Elsewhere in the world (except of course in the poles), glaciers barely reach the timberline; those in the European Alps for example do not run below 2000m. And, whereas these glaciers move very slowly, the rate of ice turnover for Fox and Franz Josef is about 10 times as fast, progressing up to 2.5 metres per day.

Unusually for glaciers, this makes Fox and Franz Josef particularly accessible. It's a terrific experience to walk upon the glassy snouts of these great blocks of ice or even just to stand up close and feel tiny and very weedy in their presence.

Many Maori stories are derived from the dramatic landscape that makes up New Zealand. The creation of the Franz Josef Glacier, traditionally known as Ka Roimata o Hine Huhatere, is one such tale:

Hine Hukatere, an adventurous Maori wahine (woman) who loved mountaineering above all other pastimes, frequently persuaded her lover Tawe to accompany her on her many journeys into the mountains. On one such expedition the unfortunate Tawe, who had never been as fond of climbing as his sweetheart, slipped near the top of what is now Franz Josef Glacier, and plunged to his death. Hine's tears, so great in their volume, were frozen by the gods as a memorial to her grief and formed the glacier that we see today.

A West Coast gem

Formed in alpine fault lines under intense heat and pressure, greenstone or pounamu boulders are eventually flushed from the eroding mountains into rivers all around the West Coast.

This hard, opaque, emerald-coloured stone holds great spiritual significance for the Maori people. Long before the Europeans arrived, tribes sent missions out to search for the precious rock that would later be bartered for food. As it was the hardest material known to Maoris, it was especially used for making tools, weapons and items of personal adornment.

On a visit to New Zealand, you'll see no end of brooches, earrings, ornaments and tiki carved from greenstone. The latter are the tiny, stylised Maori figures, usually depicted with their tongue stuck out in war-like defiance, worn on a thong around the neck. Watch out though, supposedly they have great mana, or power, and also serve as fertility symbols.

There are several operations in Hokitika where you can carve your very own piece of greenstone or even bone; notwithstanding artistic talent (I just call mine 'abstract'), these make great keepsakes of a trip to NZ.

Pancake Rocks of Punakaiki

Wander the track lined with native ferns, pongas and nikau palms until you reach Punakaiki's famous Pancake Rocks. Here, looking rather like a heaped pile of pancakes, corrugated limestone stacks and arches cluster by the shore weathering the thunderous attack of the sea. The ridges of rock evolved when alternate layers of softer mudstone eroded faster than the limestone.

On calm days water swills slowly through the many caves and chambers. However, on rough ones, geyser-like jets explode through blowholes forced by the hydraulic pressure of the ocean. this is noisy, exciting, and very, very wet!

Great Walks

The Great Walks are the Department of Conservation's finest walking tracks, through areas of some of the best scenery in the country. With a limit to the number of huts available to trampers, many have booking systems that fill up surprisingly quickly - so book as far ahead as possible to avoid being disappointed! For further information visit www.doc.govt.nz.

Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk, EAST COAST
Magnificent forested scenery and plenty of opportunity for swimming and fishing are great features of this walk.

Tongariro Northern Circuit, CENTRAL PLATEAU
The Tongariro Northern Circuit is a terrific one-day walk. It makes its way over Mt Tongariro and around Mt Ngauruhoe. This track passes through unique and incredible landforms including volcanic craters and stunning glacial valleys.

Whanganui Journey, WANGANUI
The Whanganui River winds its way from the mountains to the Tasman Sea through countless hills and valleys. Lowland forest surrounds the river in its middle and lower reaches - the heart of beautiful Whanganui National Park.

Abel Tasman Coast Track, NELSON
This is a 51km, easy to moderate walk that passes through a gorgeous landscape of coastal forests and golden sandy beaches. All streams are bridged and most people can walk it in 3 - 5 days with plenty of time to explore.

Heaphy Track, NELSON
Crosses a range of landscapes in Kahurangi National Park, from the junction of the Brown and Aorere Rivers, over expansive tussock downs to the lush forests and roaring sea of the West Coast.

Routeburn Track, OTAGO/SOUTHLAND
This famous 32km, 2 - 3 day, moderate tramping track links Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks via the Harris Saddle (1,277m). Waterfalls, forested valleys, rich birdlife, lakes and spectacular mountain scenery make this a real feast of a track.

Milford Track, SOUTHLAND
Described as 'the finest walk in the world', the track extends for 54km from the northern end of Lake Te Anau, to Sandfly Point near Milford Sound. It is renowned for its glacially carved valleys, alpine flowers and waterfalls.

Kepler Track, SOUTHLAND
A 60km, moderate walk that takes 3 - 4 days to complete. It traverses lake edges, beech forest, alpine mountaintops and a splendidly U-shaped glacial valley.

Rakiura Track, SOUTHLAND
This 29km, 3-day tramping track is suitable for anyone with moderate fitness. It's positioned in a remote part of the already remote wilderness of Stewart Island. It can be walked year round.

And finally, a handful of fantastic tracks that may not be 'Great...' in official DOC-speak, but that we think are great enough for this page:

Banks Peninsula Track, CANTERBURY
Kaikoura Coastal Track, CANTERBURY
Otago Rail Trail, OTAGO
Queen Charlotte Track, MARLBOROUGH
Tora Coastal Track, WAIRARAPA

Things To Do
and
Places To Eat

Or select Nature and Activities by area by clicking on the list below.

Travel Information

Here's some more specific information about travelling in New Zealand: when to go, getting around (car hire, inter-island ferries, train journeys) and distances.

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