Godzone Quest

There's something about New Zealand—and it's not just the soaring mountains, the red-hot culture, or the world-class Kiwi wines. STEPHANIE PEARSON goes in search of the adventure gene that inspires four million enlightened souls and makes NZ's islands a heaven for travelers.

Sep 1, 2004
Outside Magazine
New Zealand

Special effects not required: the Gates of Argonath, on the South Island's Hokitika River

New Zealand

"It's about our relationship to nature": Hugh Cameron shoes an Otematata SUV at his South Island ranch

New Zealand

I'll take you there: the ubiquitous Kiwi taxi

WE'RE SKIMMING A FEW HUNDRED FEET over the Hawkdun Range, on New Zealand's South Island, strapped into a 25-year-old Hughes 300 helicopter powered by a 190-horse engine more commonly found in small tractors. The chill autumn air blasts through the doorless passenger side as we swoop over cliffs and ridges, following the brown Otematata River Valley until we reach the top of the range. Hovering on high, cocooned inside the muffle of earphones, I realize that, like a kind of harmonic convergence, the stunning vista encompasses three icons of Kiwi civilization.

To the north is one of the most recognizable contemporary movie locations on earth: the wide-open, tussocky flats of Twizel, site of the climactic Battle of Pelennor Fields in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the final installment of Wellington native Peter Jackson's epic trilogy. (If we landed the chopper and went to the nearest pub, chances are the bartender would be an orc.) Beyond Twizel is the snowcapped spine of the Southern Alps, where Auckland's most famous son, Sir Edmund Hillary, forged his ambition on the unforgiving cornices and crevasses of 12,349-foot Mount Cook. And milling directly below us is a herd of 20 merino sheep—emblems not only of New Zealand's pastoral heritage but of the country's alchemical genius for spinning natural resources and entrepreneurial grit into gold. The sheep break into a jog when they hear the thwap, thwap, thwap of the helicopter blades.

These crumply-nosed, curly-horned, taupe-colored, kinky-haired merinos are the toughest of New Zealand's 40 million sheep, enduring high elevation, scorching summers, and brutal winters. (Last April, a wily merino the Kiwi media dubbed Shrek became famous when he was found hiding out in a cave, having evaded a shearing for six years. The woolly fugitive was lugging around 60 pounds of fleece—about 50 pounds extra—before he was apprehended and trimmed.) The reason I'm flirting with hypothermia in 46-year-old rancher Hugh Cameron's doorless helicopter is because the fleece of these Otematata Station merinos is destined to be raw material for some of the hippest technical garments of the new millennium. It was back in the mid-nineties that Jeremy Moon, a canny entrepreneur from Wellington, figured out that the soft, smooth merino wool could be transformed into the ultimate all-natural, insulated, breathable fabric. Today Moon's company, Icebreaker, is the largest manufacturer of outdoor clothing in Australia and New Zealand, and exports its all-merino products to 17 other countries, including the United States.

I first met Moon, 35, at a swank dinner celebrating the world premiere of The Return of the King last December, in Wellington's harborside Museum Te Papa Tongawera. He regaled me with tales of the wild, remote landscapes and rugged chopper-pilot farmers that produce his wool. Later I flipped through Icebreaker's catalog—a high-concept visual feast selling organic style and exploration—and opened it to a photo of a woman splashing under a waterfall and the words "100-percent pure" and "It's about our relationship to nature and to each other." It dawned on me that Icebreaker's alluring blend of authentic value and clever marketing is a remarkable reflection of what New Zealand has come to represent to the world.

If you've ever met a Kiwi, you'll understand. At the risk of stereotyping four million people, most Kiwis have a laid-back, endlessly optimistic "she'll be right, mate" way of attacking challenges. "We're mellow and down to earth, with a wicked competitive streak," Allan Uren, 40, one of the country's top mountaineers, told me. "And we're pretty nice, because you can't be an asshole in a country this size." Kiwis are game to give virtually anything a go, whether it's perfecting a grape varietal, climbing Everest, or taking a two-year OE ("overseas experience") hiatus in their twenties to see how the rest of the planet lives. From sport and travel to business and culture, New Zealand's traditional strengths have been infused with 21st-century verve and advertised with a global reach. Now everyone wants a piece of the Kiwi magic. I went on a monthlong mission to find out why.

"A CIVILIZED SOCIETY exhibits five crucial characteristics—peace, art, beauty, truth, and adventure," the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once wrote. "Without adventure, civilization is in full decay." By this logic, New Zealand must be the most civilized place on earth. In an atypical burst of immodesty, Kiwis call their two major islands, and the dozens of smaller islands that surround them, God's Own Country—usually shortened to Godzone. Since 1992, international visitors have doubled, and tourism has surpassed dairy farming as the number-one industry. Last year, New Zealand hosted more than two million foreign visitors, and its travel economy reaped US$4 billion.

You don't need special effects to see that the landscape is supernatural. The Colorado-size country is split into two mountainous islands of almost equal size, separated by 14-mile-wide Cook Strait. Three out of four Kiwis live on the volcano-peaked North Island, with one million concentrated in Auckland, the nation's biggest city and the planetary capital of open-ocean yacht racing. By contrast, the entire South Island is home to fewer than a million residents, and multisport hubs like Wanaka and Queenstown (site of AJ Hackett's famed Kawarau Bungy Centre) are jumping-off points to Class V rivers and all the Southern Alps have to offer trekkers, skiers, and climbers.

Taken together, the two islands have 125 prime whitewater rivers, ocean within three hours of anywhere, 27 peaks that soar above 10,000 feet, 14 national parks, world-class vineyards, and no large land mammals that can maim or kill you. (New Zealand's most intense wildlife encounters are found offshore: Last November, a fisherman pulled up an 18-foot-long great white shark with an estimated 3,000 razor-sharp teeth; it had drowned in his net off Waiheke Island.) Add every shade of blue and green on the color wheel and it's no wonder that everyone in Hollywood wants to work on Peter Jackson's next New Zealand–based production, a remake of King Kong.

New Zealand's earliest inhabitants carried the adventure gene to these islands a thousand years ago. The ancestors of the Maori were Eastern Polynesians who crossed some 2,000 miles of the South Pacific by outrigger canoe. After British navigator Captain James Cook landed on the east coast of the North Island in 1769, a slow but steady stream of settlers followed. By 1871, the British colony was populated by about 135,000 mostly English, Irish, Scottish, and German immigrants; men outnumbered women two to one, which goes a long way toward explaining the infamous Kiwi bachelor mentality, not to mention the plot of The Piano. Since New Zealand became an independent nation, in 1907, the male-to-female ratio has evened out, and today the citizenry is 75 percent pakeha (of European descent), 15 percent Maori, and about 10 percent expats from India, Asia, Europe, and America. These late arrivals have come for the lifestyle and to partake of one of the world's healthiest economies. Belying the nation's pastoral image, biotech-based businesses now produce more than 70 percent of New Zealand's export earnings. Meanwhile, wine production has increased by 300 percent over the past decade. Evidence of rapid globalization is cropping up everywhere as fish-and-chips take-aways and pubs are replaced by sushi restaurants and funky espresso cafés.

But to boil the country's essence down to statistics would be like describing Manhattan solely in terms of the height and breadth of its skyscrapers. Factor in the triple play of the current zeitgeist—bungee jumping, Hollywood hobbits, and sauvignon blanc—and you've only accounted for half the spirit of New Zealand.

Peter Jackson, 43, can help explain the other half: "Kiwis are fantastic at being organic and fantastic at collaborating," he told a reporter last December. "They're very compassionate people."

Traditional values like team play and pragmatism ("Anything can be fixed with a piece of number-eight wire," goes a timeworn Kiwi catchphrase) have helped supercharge New Zealand's newfound confidence and ambition. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, the world's largest survey of business launches, no other developed nation has a higher percentage of start-up ventures, almost all of which are owned by "opportunity entrepreneurs"—people who can spot a marketing niche and exploit it effectively. It's an epithet that describes not only Sir Edmund Hillary and Peter Jackson but a whole roster of overachievers: Sir Peter Blake, the late America's Cup–winning yachtsman; the All Blacks, rugby's perennial World Cup powerhouse; and actor Russell Crowe and director Jane Campion, both of whom were born here.

Even among the cream of the Kiwi crop, however, there's one caveat: Don't brag about your achievements to your mates—Kiwis don't do hubris. Kennedy Warne, 47, the founding editor of New Zealand Geographic, puts it this way: "If Hillary had summited Everest and come out with something lofty and rehearsed like ‘That's one small step for man ... ,' he would have been the laughingstock of his homeland." What Hillary said, of course, was "We knocked the bastard off"—the most telling quote in Kiwi history.

Hillary's 49-year-old son, Peter, has climbed Everest twice, swum with sharks off the Great Barrier Reef, and pulled a 400-pound sled across the Antarctic. I asked him why he thinks Kiwis are so keen for life on the edge. He laughed and said, "We want action for ourselves. We don't want to sit around listening to other people's yarns.

"We're a little country down at the bottom of the world," he added. "People have to be resourceful."

IN NEW ZEALAND, resourcefulness starts at birth—or pretty close to it. One night, just outside Auckland, I went to a small gathering at the house of Mark Jones and Sally Rowe, longtime friends of Graham Charles, the Kiwi photographer and adventurer who accompanied me on my 2,000-mile road trip throughout the North and South islands. To keep his smart and scrappy two-year-old daughter, Jessica, entertained, Jones took her upstairs to the two-story climbing wall and placed a colored pencil about eight feet up, on one of the holds.

"Go get it," he said to her.

In 30 seconds flat, Jessica threw from a crimper to a big jug and had the pencil in hand. She needed it to continue coloring.

At Hugh and Mandy Cameron's Otematata sheep station, their 17-year-old daughter, Olivia, kept a massive bale of surplus wool sitting on a blue tarp in the middle of the dining room; in order to earn the US$585 she needed to go to kayaking school, Olivia clipped off the usable portions to sell them for about US$2.75 a pound to a local trader.

"Kiwis grow up with space," says Dave Moore, 32, an adventure-sports instructor from Christchurch. "You don't feel like you're one of a zillion people. You can feel like you're quite good at something early on." According to Sport and Recreation New Zealand, a trade organization, the average Kiwi takes part in five sports and active leisure pursuits during the year, and the most zealous take part in a dozen such pursuits per year.

Five years ago, Lisa Shymkus, 45, moved from her home in New Mexico to a house on Tasman Bay, with her husband and two kids. "My kids can walk to school on the beach," she says. "They're expert boogie boarders and kayakers, and they start every day at school with fitness. That's unheard of in America."

The premier wilderness-skills school in New Zealand, a rite of passage for many North Island teens, is the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre. Set on 175 acres at the edge of Tongariro National Park and tucked away in the bush, the rustic OPC campus feels like a step back into simpler times. Its well-worn paths link basic student bunkhouses, seventies-era A-frame staff housing, an indoor pool for kayak-rolling classes, a sprawling ropes course, and a modern low-slung main lodge with picture windows overlooking 9,175-foot Mount Ruapehu. The students, ages 14 and older, learn far more than how to make a good s'more. Since it was founded in 1972 by mountaineer Graeme Dingle, about 100,000 students have passed through its program, fine-tuning their skills in everything from whitewater paddling to mountaineering. Instructors have gone on to guide Himalayan peaks, make first descents of South American rivers, and pull off the first sea-kayak traverse of the Antarctic Peninsula.

The latter feat—an insanely dangerous undertaking—is just one notch on Graham Charles's adventure résumé. The former head instructor at OPC is a lean six foot two and has pushed his luck innumerable times, including a near-fatal bike crash, a near drowning, and several other near misses. In addition to his 2002 Antarctic Peninsula expedition, the 38-year-old had a five-year career on the national K1 kayaking team, was a competitive multisport athlete, and paddled the country's gnarliest rivers for his 2002 guidebook New Zealand Whitewater.

His own bid to become an opportunity entrepreneur is a project called Adventure Philosophy, an ongoing series of hardcore expeditions that combine an old-fashioned DIY sufferfest ethic with an idealistic belief that adventure can promote personal responsibility, environmental protection, and inspirational education. The three-man Adventure Philosophy team of Charles and former OPC instructors Mark Jones, 40, and Marcus Waters, 38, followed up its Antarctic voyage with an equally hairy sea-and-mountain traverse of Tierra del Fuego; meanwhile, in conjunction with its sponsors, Adventure Philosophy has doled out thousands of dollars and tons of gear via Good for Life Scholarships, which are awarded to young Kiwis with their own expedition dreams.

When I visited OPC, a group of college students from the University of Waikato, in Hamilton, were taking a weeklong course. I watched five or six of them launch like monkeys from the Big Swing, part of a heavy-duty ropes course that looks like a cross between a medieval fortress and a Polynesian jungle. Scott Paterson, a lanky 19-year-old, had the proper Kiwi take on OPC. "Ah, it's really good, eh?" he shrugged. "It's basically life."

"Everyone's pretty much hard out here, so you just follow their lead," added Paul Ronevich, 20, an American exchange student. "In America, it's all about a faster car and a better job. I came here to get away from that mentality, and now I don't want to go back."

"Yeah, I've been to the U.S.," Paterson said. "And it's like all the kids are wrapped in cotton wool. They need to get release."

NEW ZEALAND'S WIDE-OPEN SPACES are the ultimate places to get release. Everywhere you look is Mother Nature's rendition of the Perfect 10. As I drove over Haast Pass and toward the west coast of the South Island, I saw grass so green that it looked like the fake stuff you put in Easter baskets. Imagining that California, with its ten-lane highways and strip malls, might have looked this way 40 years ago only increased my envy. While eating scrambled eggs one morning on top of 3,000-foot Lindis Pass, I was mesmerized by the way the golden poplars in the valley blended with the yellow tufts of grass in the highlands, which matched the reedy toi toi swaying in the breeze. One day I woke up to frost on the RV windows, and scraped it away to find the entire toothy range of the Southern Alps drenched in brilliant white snow. On a farm road outside Murchison, along the banks of the Matakitaki River, I rode my bike through a beech forest and onto a foot-wide swinging bridge suspended 30 feet above the water. I looked down at the rushing river that had eroded the mudstone into stunning, glassy curlicues and wondered if New Zealanders had somehow won a karmic lottery.

Shrewd Kiwis are quite aware of just how pristine their wonderland is—and they plan to keep it that way. They're also busy developing high-end alternatives to merely roughing it. "It's about quality rather than quantity," says Ron Peacock, proprietor of Te Anau's Fiordland Lodge. "We should have half as many tourists and charge them twice as much."

At Bellbird Lodge, a luxury resort near Christchurch, owner Brent Wallace told me that one American family of four had spent US$28,000 on a custom ten-day trip, taking Range Rover tours all over the South Island and helicopter flights over locations for The Lord of the Rings. "We use a lot of helicopters, sunrises, and sunsets," he said. "We also take people out of their comfort zone, but not so much so that they leave with a nervous disorder."

I plunged deeply into my own comfort zone at New Zealand's oldest and most renowned adventure resort—the North Island's Huka Lodge, just east of Taupo. Founded in 1928, Huka got its start as a four-hut fishing camp on a bend in the Waikato River. Today, the huts have been replaced by an elegant main lodge—overlooking a sloping emerald lawn that looks as if each individual blade has had a manicure—and 20 private cottages tricked out in Zen tones of cream. Along the lush path to the cottages is a wall full of fly rods, a nearly hidden pool surrounded by two hot tubs, and a court for the boccelike pétanque. The privacy and unpretentiousness appeal to guests like Britain's Queen Elizabeth, who stays here when she visits New Zealand. The mere commoners—like Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, and Barbra Streisand—come for the horseback riding, hiking, and fly-fishing, not to mention the daily pedicures. The lodge's motto is "You don't have to do anything, but you can do everything."

While dinners at Huka are exhilarating candlelit affairs where guests can choose an intimate table in the wine cellar or mingle with other diners at festive tables of ten, breakfasts are gastronomy gone wild. After downing a fruit plate, an assortment of meats and cheeses, a bowl of muesli, buttermilk pancakes topped with pan-seared plantains, plus two lattes and a glass of carrot juice, I decide that it might make more sense if the lodge's motto was "Eat everything, but don't expect to move anything afterwards."

Luxury resorts like the Huka Lodge, Blanket Bay on Lake Wakatipu, and Treetops Lodge near Rotorua, are the ultimate in Kiwi cush, but you don't need to take out a second mortgage to find your release in Godzone. I found mine while wading across the turquoise Fox River near Hokitika. I found it in Abel Tasman National Park, slicing in a kayak through the rolling Tasman Sea in search of the perfect campsite. I found it while drinking HEMP ("Highly Enjoyable Magic Potion"), New Zealand's answer to Red Bull, which tastes like liquid Sweet Tarts. I found it while listening to Wayne Firth, a sheep farmer and rugby player from Murchison, reel off a 22-line poem on hunting with his dog, while we got sloshed on Monteith's beer. I found it while sipping my way through the chardonnay, pinot gris, and sauvignon blanc of Grove Mill winery. I found it hovering in that helicopter above the Hawkdun Range. I felt like a spirit, detached from my body, floating above a world of endless possibility.

GETTING THERE: Fly round-trip on Air New Zealand (800-369-6867, www.airnewzealand.com/usa) direct from Los Angeles—and, starting this summer, from San Francisco—to Auckland for about US$1,600. Starting in November, hop on the first-ever nonstop flight from L.A. to Christchurch (round-trip, US$1,650).

PRIME TIME: During the autumn month of May, international visitor arrivals were up 29 percent over last year, so book well in advance for high-season travel between December and February, when summer temperatures typically reach 80 degrees.

GETTING AROUND: Renting an RV is a cost-effective way to cruise the country. Located in Auckland and Christchurch, Kea Campers offers new-model RVs from US$29 to US$195 per day (011-649-441-7833, www.keacampers.com/newzealand). Or rent a car from Thrifty at one of 22 locations, including most airports and ferry terminals (011-643-359-2720, www.thrifty.co.nz). For island hopping, make the two-to-three-hour crossing of Cook Strait on the Interisland Line's fleet, which runs between Wellington and Picton for about US$32 one-way (US$114 with vehicle; 011-644-498-3302, www.interislanderbookings.co.nz). Air New Zealand offers domestic flights to and from 25 cities for about US$70 one-way.

LUXURY LODGING: Huka Lodge, Taupo, North Island // Just upstream from majestic Huka Falls, this well-established lodge offers 20 elegant suites on the Waikato River. Dine in select spots on the 17-acre grounds, from the orchard to the wine cellar. Standard suites start at US$545 per night, double occupancy, including breakfast and a five-course dinner (011-647-378-5791, www.hukalodge.com). Treetops lodge, Rotorua, North Island // Surrounded by 1,700 acres of 800-year-old virgin forest, this playground has seven streams, four lakes, and 47 miles of hiking trails right outside your suite or villa. From US$1,027 per night for two, including meals and some activities (011-647-333-2066, www.treetops.co.nz). Fiordland Lodge, Lake Te Anau, South Island // Set in a World Heritage area overlooking the lake, Fiordland offers ten guest rooms and two private cabins. Double-occupancy rates range from US$139 to US$620 per night, including breakfast (011-643-249-7832, www.fiordlandlodge.co.nz). Blanket Bay, Lake Wakatipu, South Island // With its own jetty and rocky lakeshore beach, this resort accesses 65,000 acres of Glenorchy high country. Rates for its five guest rooms, three suites, and two chalets start at US$810 per night, including breakfast, dinner, and cocktails (011-643-442-9442, www.blanketbay.com).

EXPLORING: Sail the North Island // Site of former America's Cup races, the North Island has no shortage of navigable waters. Charter a bareboat or captained sailboat in the Bay of Islands or the Bay of Plenty with Pacific Charters (011-649-575-5158, www.pacificcharters.co.nz). Lord of the Rings Tours // Fly over locations like Mount Olympus and Harwoods Hole in a quiet, visibility-enhanced Eurocopter with Tasman Helicopters (011-643-528-8075, www.tasmanhelicopters.co.nz). Or plan a road trip with The Lord of the Rings: A Location Guidebook, by Ian Brodie (US$16, HarperCollins Australia). Discover Maori Culture // Immerse yourself in legends of the North Island's volcanoes, or in more typical New Zealand adventure like blackwater rafting in Waitomo, with Maori Journeys (011-646-751-3242, www.maorijourneys.com). Hike the Milford Track // Trek 33 glorious miles through the heart of Fiordland National Park, from Glade Wharf to Milford Sound, staying in huts along the way (011-643-249-8514, http://www.doc.govt.nz/templates/defaultlanding.aspx?id=34234). Sea-Kayak Fiordland National Park // Paddle pristine fjords on the western shore of New Zealand's largest national park with Fiordland Wilderness Experiences (011-643-249-7700, www.fiordlandseakayak.co.nz). Tour the Marlborough Wine Region // Seventy-four wineries dot the Wairau and Awatere river valleys, the South Island's sunniest region (Marlborough visitor center, 011-643-577-8080, www.destinationmarlborough.com). Bungee-Jump in Queenstown // The Kawarau Bungy Centre, located on Queenstown's historic Kawarau Bridge, officially opened this year as the world's first commercial bungee center. Experience a simulated jump, watch the real thing, or, for US$82, take the plunge from the 141-foot bridge (AJ Hackett Bungy New Zealand, 011-643-442-4007, www.ajhackett.com). Mountaineer in Mount Cook National Park // Alpine Guides Fox Glacier leads heli-hiking, mountaineering, and ski trips on massive Fox Glacier (011-643-751-0825, www.foxguides.co.nz). For the alpine veteran, Alpinism and Ski, in Wanaka, will guide you up the country's highest peak, 12,349-foot Mount Cook (011-643-443-6593, www.alpinismski.co.nz). Sea-Kayak the Abel Tasman Coast // Glide through the turquoise waters off Abel Tasman National Park while exploring a dozen golden beaches and 19 miles of coastal forest (Ocean River Sea Kayaking Company, 011-643-527-8266, www.seakayaking.co.nz).

OUTFITTERS: Butterfield & Robinson will offer three new biking and walking tours in 2005 (800-678-1147, www.butterfield.com). The Great Escape customizes Range Rover adventures that include activities like mountain biking (011-643-322-5265, www.thegreatescape.co.nz). Active New Zealand , in Queenstown, specializes in customized multiple-activity trips (800-661-9073, www.activenewzealand.com). The New Zealand Kayak School , in Murchison, offers custom trips and courses on 14 whitewater runs (011-643-523-9611, www.nzkayakschool.com). RESOURCES: Tourism New Zealand , www.newzealand.com/travel. —Sally Schumaier

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