New Zealand: Kiwi, Maori, and The Misty Mountains

The kiwi is the national bird of New Zealand. Not to be confused with kiwifruit, of which there is also abundance in New Zealand, the kiwi is a flightless bird, surprising considering New Zealand’s soaring countryside, featured prominently in The Lord of the Rings movies. Not only is it the sight for the fictional Middle Earth, but the home of the Māori people and a diverse range of flora and fauna. Full of adventures, a vacation to New Zealand brings you into a world like no other that’s stranger than fiction.


Getting in, out, and about


US travelers to New Zealand only need a valid passport for entry, so long as they travel for purposes of tourism and their stay in the country is for no longer than 90 days. New Zealand does not have any vaccination requirements for entry, but the CDC recommends that US travelers be up to date on the common vaccinations, such as those against small pox, the measles, and tetanus. You may consider getting additional vaccinations such as those against Hepatitis A & B, but these are only necessary depending on your planned activities. Consult with your local doctor when you make your travel plans to determine if any additional vaccinations are necessary.


New Zealand is a gorgeous country with highly varied landscapes. Touring the country by car is a great way to experience its beauty. Foreign visitors can drive with a valid driver’s license from their home country for up to a year, after which you would have to get a New Zealand driver’s license. Keep in mind that driving is on the left hand side in New Zealand, so that the placement of steering wheels, blinkers, and the like are all reversed, as are such common practices in the US as being able to turn right on a red light and needing a green light or protected arrow to turn left. In addition, once you get out of the cities, the roads become quite narrow. Most highways are comprised of two lanes, and in some areas they can take much sharper turns or go up and down much steeper grades than you might be used to when driving on the US interstate highway system.


New Zealand is not the place to engage in “buzzed” driving. If you’re under the age of 20, there is a zero tolerance policy, which means you cannot have any percentage of alcohol in your blood. If you are over the age of 20, the legal limit (as of 2014) is .05%. The authorities in New Zealand maintain random sobriety checkpoints throughout both the cities and in the countryside to ensure the law is complied with. Additional laws that you need to know include a law against the use of cellular phones while driving and a law that requires you to stop no closer than 6 feet away from a crosswalk that is occupied by pedestrians.


Since New Zealand proper is composed of two islands, so if you are driving, it will become necessary to use a ferry to cross from one island to another. In addition to driving, you have other options for traveling around to various sites in New Zealand. Air travel is often worth looking into because many domestic flights end up being cheaper than taking a car, bus, or train to the same destination.


If you don’t want to rent a car, but want to take in New Zealand’s awesome scenery, one option is to take a train. Most rail services tend to move slowly, staying around the 50 mph speed. They also tend to be on the pricey side with few amenities. Another option for getting around in New Zealand’s countryside is to rent a bicycle. Since the entire country has a low population, you may not encounter many other drivers on country roads, however, most of the highway system in New Zealand does not maintain cycle trails (though this is changing somewhat). Consequently, you will have to share narrow roads with drivers going in both directions. A third option is to take a bus ride. Bus trips are fairly inexpensive, but limited to usually one trip per day to various destinations. Still, riding in a bus is another fantastic way to experience the New Zealand countryside.


The traveler’s tongue


New Zealand has three official languages: English, Māori, and New Zealand Sign Language (for the hearing impaired). English is universally spoken throughout the islands, so you don’t have to learn another language if you vacation here. Māori, the native language of the native people of the islands that makeup New Zealand, is spoken primarily in the northern part of the North Island, although English is also predominant here as well.


If you are hearing impaired and use American Sign Language, be forewarned that the New Zealand Sign Language is vastly different and more akin to British Sign Language than to the American variety. Consequently, much of the language will not be intelligible to American signers.


One aspect of New Zealand culture that may be off-putting is the fact that New Zealanders tend to swear a lot. If you find yourself being described with a slew of epithets, don’t take it to heart because it is likely that there is no offense intended. If you travel to Māori population centers, be very somber and respectful of their elaborate greeting rituals, which play a huge role in their culture. New Zealanders refer to themselves as Kiwis. This is not considered a racial slur at all, but more of a statement of national identity.


Money matters in New Zealand


The New Zealand form of currency is the New Zealand dollar, which is written exactly the same as it is in the US, with the $ sign in front, followed by the number. You can change your money at any designated booth or in most banks. You might not need to however, since New Zealand practices a high amount of electronic banking. Consequently, credit and debit cards are accepted almost everywhere, and ATMs are numerous, even in smaller towns.


New Zealand is not a tipping culture. Most service industry jobs have higher wages than what you’ll find in the United States. If you want to reward exceptional service, you can leave your change as a tip, but don’t be surprised if your server refuses the tip. As is the case in many Asian countries, people in New Zealand consider tipping to be a sort of bribe, so they are uncomfortable with the practice of either giving or accepting tips. In some of the more tourist oriented areas, tipping has become more accepted, but anything more than 10% is way too extravagant.


Food costs in New Zealand tend to be a bit higher than what you find in the US, but everything else is generally less expensive. A one night stay in a hostel will cost around $25 to $35 USD for one person, but this can vary depending on what part of the country you’re in. Budget travelers can expect to get by on around $100 to $150 USD a day. The more you make use of hostels, public transportation, camping, and free or low cost activities, the more you can make a daily allowance stretch.


Highlights of a vacation to New Zealand


Except for in the winter time in the extreme south of the South Island, New Zealand has fairly moderate temperatures year-round, averaging in the mid to low 50’s F in the winter time, which is June through August since the country is in the southern hemisphere, and in the mid 70’s in the summertime. Here are just a few of the numerous highlights:


  • Auckland. This sprawling metropolitan area is the largest in New Zealand. It covers a numerous bays, inlets, and islands and an isthmus, so that the plethora of sailboats that dot the area have led to it being christened the City of Sails. The whole area covers a volcano field of just under 50 volcanoes, all of which are inactive. The Waitakere and Hunua mountains, the Great Barrier Island and Hauraki Gulf provide a number of land and seascapes that allows for great hiking experiences. The city proper is difficult to get around via an under-developed public transportation system, but there are numerous scenic views if you have a car to get around in.
  • Queenstown. Dubbed the adventure capital of the world, this city of rivers, canyons, and mountains is the perfect embarkation point for numerous adrenaline inducing activities. The Kawarau Bridge is the site of world’s first commercial bungee jump. In addition there are parasailing, sky-diving, white water rafting, and zip-lining activities, and in the winter you can ski, snowboard, or ride snowmobiles. And if you like to go underground, you’ll find numerous caves to explore.
  • Rotorua. This town sits on the southern shore of a lake of the same name. It’s surrounded by lush forests and numerous hot springs and geysers, It’s a great area for mountain biking or hiking, and offers an opportunity to explore the indigenous Māori culture.
  • Westland National Park. This park is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. It features two glaciers and is great for some extreme hiking.
  • Tongariro National Park. Another UNESCO site, this park features a popular alpine crossing that takes you into the land of Mordor, or at least what Mordor was based on, with its active volcanoes and rugged landscape.


Regardless of what speed you like to go on your vacations, New Zealand has a bit of everything, from rugged outdoor experiences, relaxing spas and beaches to wine tasting and adventure sports. Start planning your vacation today, and be prepared to step into an entirely different world.