Nearly a decade ago, I was offered a dream assignment explaining why New Zealand had become a heaven for adventure travelers. My Kiwi photographer (also dreamy) and I climbed craggy peaks, cannonballed into swimming holes, and paddled the Tasman Sea in kayaks, pursuing a rich diet of seafood and adrenaline. A week into the journey, while camping on South Island, I became aware of a strange, calming absence. What I was missing was fear. At that moment, it occurred to me that New Zealand is utterly devoid of bloodthirsty critters*. No hungry bears or toothy cats. No man-eating crocodiles or venomous snakes. Not a single deadly insect. In other words, it’s the complete opposite of neighboring Australia, where the cast of killers is so eclectic it includes a predatory snail with a harpoonlike tooth.
To check my facts, I recently emailed Herb Christophers, of New Zealand’s Department of Conservation. “Here is your list of native deadly animals,” he replied. “Nothing!” But Christophers did mention a few isolated incidents of death by sheep butting and forwarded a 2010 news story about a 22-year-old Canadian man who, while nude sunbathing at a North Island beach, was bitten on his privates by a katipo spider, an endangered, less venomous relative of the black widow. The guy’s member did swell horribly, and he contracted myocarditis, but he lived.1
It makes you wonder: is that famously fearless Kiwi spirit a product of ... boredom? Did New Zealanders turn their home into the thrill-seeking center of the universe2 because, when there’s nothing around to kill you, you crave risk? Was Sir Edmund Hillary—a beekeeper, perhaps the most dangerous career in New Zealand!—simply overcompensating?
Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, I can’t wait to go back.3
*OK, there are great white sharks, but they seem to be of less menacing stock. New Zealand has had 13 documented fatal shark attacks in the past 170 years; Australia has had 15 since 2000.
1. Enjoy a North Island beach (with no katipos) at Wharekauhau Country Estate, an iconic Kiwi lodge with three new cottages on 5,500 acres overlooking Palliser Bay just northeast of Wellington. From $531 per person.
2. The highest bungee jump in the country is the 440-foot drop over the Nevis River, near Queenstown ($212). The longest continuous mountain-biking trail is along the 47-mile Queen Charlotte Track, on the South Island, with an elevation gain of 1,300 feet. Expect a 13-hour ride ($6 per night at one of seven Department of Conservation campsites).
3. Note to my editor: I’d especially like to check out the Southern Alps’ Minaret Station, New Zealand’s first luxury tented heli-lodge (think wall-to-wall sheepskin). Suites, $2,850 per night (minimum stay, two nights).