A lay of the land; the wonder of New Zealand geography

March 17

There’s a reason why most people know about New Zealand’s landscapes, and it’s because they’re gangster AF. New Zealand, a little collection of islands, is found in the bottom corner of the world map (also known as the middle of the South Pacific), perched on the meeting place of two tectonic plates.

New Zealand, or Aotearoa in Te Reo Māori, is made of up of two main islands, the origins of which separated from Gondwanaland 80 million years ago, making for some of the most unique geography, birdlife and plants on the planet. Think ancient glaciers, miles of native forest and endless coastline of both golden and black sandy beaches.

Oh, and the tectonic plates thing? Not only does it mean New Zealand is covered in rolling hills and mountain ranges, but there’s a whole lot of bubbling, steaming active volcanic activity, too. The Auckland region itself has 50 dormant volcanoes – how’s that for a party trick?

So what’s unique about the geography of New Zealand?

New Zealand is pretty small, but ridiculously diverse. In the course of one day you can be exploring native forest, mountain ranges and wild coastline, with plenty still left to discover. For the nature-lover (and the yet-to-be-converted – this country will make one of any visitor), this place is a mecca. Most of its incredible features are thanks to its location as a volcanic hotspot, straddling the meeting point of the Australian plate and the Pacific plate. Probably the most dramatic expression of this is the Southern Alps, where the plates collide forming one of the world’s fastest growing mountain ranges. The Southern Alps are also pretty young as far as mountains go – spring chickens at under 5 million years old.

Aside from these soaring tectonic mountains, New Zealand is also home to wild black sandy beaches which get a lashing from the Tasman Sea, giant crater lakes and the active geyser country of the central North Island. Fiordland, in the southwest of the South Island is filled with glaciers and glacier-carved cliffs, while the top of both islands are sub tropical, carpeted with thick New Zealand bush. Off the bottom of the South Island you’ll find Stewart Island, with a booming population of native bird species, and a decidedly more humble one of humans (population around 400).

Is New Zealand remote?

Yes, in the best kind of way. Not so remote that you can’t charge your phone or buy food after 5pm, but remote enough that you feel a million miles from the world’s problems. As a cluster of islands in the south west pacific ocean, and only really near to Australia, New Zealand is home to some of the best spots to hide. For extreme hermits or fugitives, the wild west coast of the South Island is particularly dense – you could disappear forever, if that’s what you’re into.

While New Zealand is the perfect place to get off grid and into the wild, it’s also got some sweet urban spots, too. Wellington, New Zealand’s answer to San Francisco and Melbourne, is home to the best coffee in the country, with a hearty serving of arts and culture served up on the side. Located at the bottom of the North Island, the weather in the Wellington region (wild and moody) gives a certain grit to the character of New Zealand’s edgiest city. While Wellington may be the hipster capital of New Zealand, Auckland (further north) is home to a big chunk of the population, a bunch of active volcanoes and some great beaches.

What is New Zealand’s climate like?

New Zealand is a long and skinny country, and its geographic location means the climate can be pretty different from top to bottom. The far north region is hailed as being ‘winterless’, and while we can’t vouch for that, it’s a fairly safe bet for sunny days and warm weather year round. Winter on the coast of the North Island is generally pretty mild, with east coast spots like Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay boasting plenty of sunshine whatever time of year you visit.

For the true New Zealand summer experience, January and February are the best months to come. The weather is warm, the water is warmer and the pace is good and slow. With thousands of kilometres of coastline to explore across the east and west coast, it’s definitely nicer when the sun’s out and you don’t have to sit in the tent.

Meanwhile, the mountains of the South Island and the central North Island are snow playgrounds come winter, with heaps of character-filled ski resorts across Otago, Canterbury and Ruapehu. Places like Wanaka, Queenstown and Ohakune become lively little winter wonderlands, with plenty of mulled wine, hot chips and good chat to go around.

What are some classic New Zealand landforms?

It couldn’t get much more iconic than New Zealand’s highest peak, Aoraki Mount Cook. This mighty mountain is found at the pinnacle of the Southern Alps, the giant, beautiful fissure that splits the South Island down the middle. The tops of these peaks offer sweeping views both across the Canterbury plains to the east and over to the expanse of the Tasman Sea on the west coast.

The volcanic landscapes of the central North Island are pretty up there on the New Zealand classics list, too, with active volcanoes, spewing geysers and hot mud pools. Fiordland National Park is home to the Milford Track, which has been dubbed the ‘finest walk in the world’. It’s 54 kilometres of one jaw-dropping view after the next, with steep cliffs diving into deep fiords and ancient bush that feels older than life itself.

While a solid chunk of land has been protected in the form of national parks, New Zealand is a primarily agricultural country, with dairy being its main export. New Zealand is famous for its lamb, as well, and green pastures dotted with livestock is as common a sight as any through the plains of Canterbury and rolling farmland of Otago, the Waikato and Taranaki.

What is the land area of New Zealand?

New Zealand’s land area is about 270,000 square kilometres – around the same as that of Japan or the United Kingdom. The South Island is the largest island of New Zealand, at 150 square kilometres, but the North Island is home to over two thirds of the population.

How is New Zealand divided?

New Zealand is made up of two main islands, the North Island and the South Island, which are separated by the (often) treacherous Cook Strait. There are a handful of smaller islands scattered all around New Zealand, too, some of them especially magical – Great Barrier and Stewart Island, we’re looking at you.

What are the two main islands that make up New Zealand?

If you haven’t picked it up by now, they’re creatively named the North Island and the South Island. In Māori mythology, there’s a bit more flavor to it, though. The legend goes that Maui, a demi god and clearly a very talented fisherman, hauled up the North Island of New Zealand while out fishing with his brothers. It’s known as ‘Te Ika a Maui’, or Maui’s fish. The South Island is known as Te Waka a Maui, or Maui’s canoe.

How far apart are the North and South islands?

At it’s narrowest point, the Cook Strait is just 22 kilometres wide. Doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a notoriously wild stretch of water. That doesn’t stop people swimming it, of course – this strait presents the ultimate test for swimmers around the world, and it takes most of these crazy cats around 8 to 10 hours.

Where is the widest part of New Zealand?

The widest stretch of New Zealand is 450km, between New Plymouth and Napier. The narrowest point, meanwhile, is up in Auckland where it gets reaalll skinny. It’s 1km from harbour to harbour here, in Otahuhu.

Is New Zealand a good place to live?

New Zealand (and its other-worldy landscapes) is the kind of place that has the power to snap you out of any funk and remind you that we stand on a revolving ball in the middle of space that miraculously houses life. Convinced? If the geography isn’t quite enough to tempt you, there’s always the people. New Zealanders are friendly, relaxed and resourceful folks, and as an agricultural country, there’s a humble farming vibe, too.

As far as islands in the south pacific go, we know where we’d go first. In fact, as far as islands go, full stop.


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