If there is too much planning something inside us gets suffocated. There are occasions when we need a huge place where time and space are measured out by natural rhythms and where we see, hear, taste, and smell only what we may never create.
—Craig Potton, New Zealand landscape photographer and environmentalist
Ordinarily few daily inconveniences are more annoying than losing internet connectivity. But when you’re traveling through a largely rural country a quarter of a world and 21 time zones away, finding yourself unplugged and offline is more than a respite—it’s a reward. Being exiled from the digital world, even temporarily, welcomes you back to the real world.
New Zealand is unlike any other place I’ve visited. Imagine half the population of Los Angeles County spread out across a region larger than the whole of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland). Ribbons of two-lane highways wind leisurely through vast tracts of farmland, pastures and forests which together constitute nearly 75 percent of the landscape.
As an island nation, New Zealand has developed an environmental consciousness that puts us to shame. Home to only one indigenous mammal—the bat—the nation has embarked on an aggressive campaign to reduce the population of non-native animals like possums, stoats, and rats that denude the foliage and prey on the indigenous bird population, many of which are considered threatened or endangered.
According to Forest & Bird, the Sierra Club of New Zealand, the country is home to more than 200 bird species, many of which are found nowhere else on earth. When we hiked into Maungatautari, or Sanctuary Mountain, we passed through an elaborate double-doored gate in a 28-mile perimeter fence surrounding one of two fully enclosed areas. They are designed to completely exclude and eliminate all ground mammals and recreate the forest that existed before the arrival of Maori settlers in the fourteenth century and European colonists a few centuries later.
To protect indigenous forests from plant pathogens that are thought to cause diseases like “kauri dieback,” an infection that can sicken and kill kauri trees, visitors must clean and disinfect their boots at trailhead entrances and exits to areas like the Waipoua Forest, where we visited Tāne Mahuta, “The Lord of the Forest” in the Maori language, a magnificent kauri tree towering nearly 150 feet and estimated to be 1250-2500 years old. And let me tell you that you haven’t seen anything until you’ve taken a zipline “canopy tour” flying through the treetops 120 feet off the forest floor!
New Zealand’s agricultural economy, rural lifestyle, and geographical isolation, however, did not protect her from the violent impositions of the twentieth century, which, like the rest of the United Kingdom, suffered horrific losses in the First World War. More than 100,000 soldiers and nurses served in the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces, their overseas fighting contingent, fully 10 percent of the entire population and 42 percent of draft-age young men. They suffered a 58 percent casualty rate. Their participation in World War II was even higher, where they sustained the highest fatality rate of all commonwealth countries.
Their pride in service, and their trauma of loss, are still very much in evidence throughout the country, where monuments and memorials can be widely found. It was deeply moving to visit the Auckland War Memorial Museum, built in 1920, which bears this inscription over its majestic neoclassical entrance:
The whole earth is the sepulchre of famous men
They are commemorated not only be columns and inscriptions in their own country
But in foreign lands also by memorials graven not on stone
But in the hearts of men
Ironically, the First World War memorialized not only the dead, but the living as well: we learned from our Maori guide, Hinauri, that New Zealanders are called “Kiwis” not for the cherished and iconic little flightless birds, or the fruit of that name, but for the Australian brand of shoe polish with which New Zealand soldiers in WWI polished their boots.
After a week of exploring the North Island by car, our adventures will continue with a cruise around the South Island and day trips to Maori villages, active geothermal areas and more.
It’s impossible to overstate how therapeutic it’s been to tune out the clamor of the presidential campaign and our ongoing political nervous breakdown back home and escape to this green and pleasant land thousands of miles away.
By the way, not only do they drive on the opposite side of the road down here, but the water really does swirl down the drain in the opposite direction. Take it from me!