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New Zealand's Geography and History in a Nutshell

(Reprint from News: December 20, 2001)

December 20, 2001


I've been in New Zealand for almost a week now.  When I haven't been getting ready for my trip, I've been studying up on this country and poring over maps and photos, so I couldn't wrap this page up without a brief lesson on New Zealand's geography and history.  Being an American, Iíll probably mess this up a bit but here goes. First, the geography.  


New Zealand is a country about as large as Oregon with about as many people, around 4 million.  There are two major islands here that are named, not too imaginatively, the North Island and the South Island. 


The North Island, which is conveniently located north of the South Island, has about twice as many people as the South Island.  The North Island also has the largest city, Auckland, and the capital, Wellington.  The North Island is quite volcanic as opposed to the South Island, which has a lot of alpine scenery, farms, fields... and sheep.  Except in the mountains, the New Zealand climate on both islands is pretty mild with coastal high temperatures during the summertime (that's now) typically between 70 and 80 degrees.  I've worn shorts and t-shirts every day that I've been here so far, but I guess I didn't need to mention that for those of you Americans who are suffering through blizzards and ice storms.


Now for a little history.  The islands were settled by Maoris (pronounced "MOW-rees") who migrated here from the South Pacific, including the Cook Islands, where I had just come from.  I always figured the Maoris settled in New Zealand first and then moved on to the islands in the South Pacific but it was just the opposite.  The Maoris in general were (and are) a strong and independent people.  



Above:  Captain James Cook, the first European to explore New Zealand.


The first European to discover New Zealand was the Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman, who named it in honor of the Zeeland province in Holland.  Tasman discovered New Zealand in the 1600s but Europeans left New Zealand alone for the next hundred years when Captain James Cook, who made several remarkable explorations of the South Pacific between 1769 and 1778, explored the country and claimed New Zealand and Australia for England. 


I had stumbled across Cook's journals when I was in college several years ago and spent many evenings in the U.C. Irvine library reading about Cook's discoveries in New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere in the Pacific when I probably should have been studying for my midterms.  Cook was really a remarkable explorer and he even visited the Oregon coast once -- that was shortly before he was killed in Hawaii.  In fact, I had crossed paths with Captain Cook in June on my trip down the Oregon coast (see News: June 14, 2001).


Settlement in New Zealand began in the early 1800s, not by convicts as in Australia but mostly by farmers and miners, hence New Zealand's more genteel culture.  Although there were some conflicts with the natives, Maoris in general were assimilated into the white society here more smoothly than the aborigines were in Australia, and much more smoothly than the Indians were in the U.S. 


The Maori culture is still very strong in New Zealand, much more so than the Indian culture is in the U.S.  In fact, most place names in New Zealand seem to be Maori names, and you see Maoris all around the North Island and a bit less so on the South Island.  Most Maori names have three or four syllables, often alternating vowels with consonants -- and they really crack me up.  Unlike English place-names, though, I can't seem to remember the Maori place-names very well, probably because of the various combinations of puka's, rangi's, roa's, and papa's, like "Papakoura," "Paparoa," and my favorite, "PapaMurphy" (that's a pizza chain in the U.S. -- some culinary humor -- or "humour," as they say here in New Zealand).


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