I've been to New Zealand three times now, and yet I'm still constantly learning new things about it. Even though the country may not be as “exotic” as other destinations around the world, it still has characteristics and quirks that many people may not be aware of.
Sure, you probably know that Kiwis (AKA New Zealanders) drive on the left, love rugby, and have a lot of beautiful scenery to look at. But do you also know they have a unicameral government, or that the country only has one native mammal? I didn't.
So, allow me to shed some light on some things you may not know about New Zealand.
Fun Facts About New Zealand
1. There are no snakes here. Much like Hawaii, New Zealand is an island grouping devoid of snakes. It also has no poisonous spiders, killer jellyfish, or other deadly creepy crawlies. Australia is home to all of those. (Update — I'm told NZ does, in fact, have 2 or 3 poisonous spiders. But apparently they're so rare nobody counts them?)
2. New Zealand has only one native mammal. Before settlers began arriving, the country had only one mammal — a bat the size of your thumb. Most of the country's native fauna come in the form of birds, and many of the native bird species in New Zealand are flightless (like the kiwi, takahe, weka, and penguins) because there were, historically, no large land predators to endanger them. When Europeans arrived, however, they brought with them invasive species like possums, stoats and rabbits that threatened a lot of the native birds (which is why many of them are now endangered).
3. They farm deer. While sheep are clearly the livestock of choice here, farmers also raise deer. The deer are raised in paddocks just like cows, and are meant for eating. Apparently New Zealand venison is quite tasty.
4. There's a very high sheep-to-human ratio. There are roughly a little over 4 million people in New Zealand, and more than 40 million sheep. You'll find sheep farms all over the country, but the huge sheep stations (where they farm thousands of sheep) are concentrated on the South Island. Because of the large number of sheep, you can find lamb and mutton on just about any menu in New Zealand – including Subway.
5. Kiwis are very environmentally-conscious. Not only do they have an abundance of national parks, sanctuaries, and scenic reserves, but the cities have electric buses, there are perhaps more recycling bins than trash cans, and almost every toilet has a half-flush option that uses less water.
6. There's a range of climates. Want mountains? Beaches? Volcanoes? Rainforests? You'll find all of it (and more) in New Zealand. The country is amazing for the fact that you can drive for 4 or 5 hours and experience so many different landscapes and climates. There are deserts near snow-covered volcanoes, and glaciers that descend down through temperate rainforests. Crossing from one side of the Southern Alps to the other can mean the difference between 2 meters and 8 meters of rainfall per year.
7. New Zealand has 2 official languages. While English is the predominant language spoken in New Zealand, Maori is also an official language, in honor of the native people that originally inhabited the islands. When looking at the numbers, however, only about 3 percent of the population actually speaks Maori. (Update: NZ actually has THREE official languages — as of 2006, NZ Sign Language is the country's third official language. Way to go, NZ, being one of the first countries to do this.)
8. Drivers stop for pedestrians. I will never cease to be amazed by the pedestrian crossings in New Zealand. With no stoplights to force drivers to stop, they still stop to allow people to cross the street. Every time. Sure, there are probably laws saying they have to… but still. These would not work in the States.
9. New Zealand was home to Sir Edmund Hillary. Yes, the first man to summit Mount Everest was a Kiwi. Quite fitting, isn't it, considering New Zealand's claim of being the “adventure capital of the world”? Other famous people from New Zealand include actors Russell Crowe, Sam Neil and Anna Paquin, and director Peter Jackson.
10. Bungy jumping was born here. Even though some Vanuatu tribes have been jumping off high structures with vines tied around their ankles for decades, bungy jumping in its current form began in New Zealand in the 1980s. AJ Hackett designed the elastic bungy cord, and began bungy operations off the Kawarau Bridge in Queenstown, New Zealand.
11. The government is unicameral. New Zealand is run as a form of parliamentary democracy, and is part of the British Commonwealth, meaning it is technically still tied to the Queen. Unlike the British government which has two governing houses, however, New Zealand only has one – the House of Representatives. They have a Prime Minister, and also have a truly representative form of government, with all of the country's active political parties being represented in Parliament.
12. Milford Sound is No. 1. Milford Sound – the stunning fjord located in Fiordland National Park on New Zealand's South Island, is renowned the world over for being a must-see spot. In 2008, it was judged the world's top travel destination in an international TripAdvisor survey, and Rudyard Kipling even once called it the eighth wonder of the world. (Though I can now argue that Doubtful Sound is just as amazing, if not better.) This is one New Zealand cruise worth taking.
13. No tipping necessary. Going out for dinner in New Zealand? No need to leave a tip. Either it's not expected, or it will be automatically tacked on to your bill. This goes for taxi drivers, too, although none of them will turn down a couple extra dollars if you offer them in thanks.
14. You don't get a bill at your table when eating at a restaurant. Service in New Zealand eateries is very different from what I'm used to. Servers won't check on you 17 times, and they won't deliver a bill to you at your table. You have to go up to the register to pay, and some smaller cafes won't even keep track of what you ordered; they just trust you to tell them what you ate.
15. Forget the change. New Zealand phased out its 1-cent and 5-cent coins a few yeas ago, which means most prices either end in a 0, or are rounded up. But, this doesn't necessarily cut down on coins in your wallet, since NZ has $1 and $2 coins instead of paper bills.
Have you been to New Zealand? Did any of these things listed surprise you?
What to Pack
There are definitely a few things you'll want to make sure to bring in order to help you check off these bucket list items. Things like:
- A New Zealand guide book – or how about a Lord of the Rings-themed NZ guidebook?
- A travel adapter so you can easily use your electronics in New Zealand, and a power strip so you don't need multiple travel adapters.
- Good hiking boots so you can navigate the terrain.
- A GoPro so you can capture all the adventures.
For further reading, check out these top NZ posts:
- New Zealand Smackdown: North Island vs. South Island
- Things I Love (and Hate) About New Zealand
- Postcards from New Zealand
- Lupin-Spotting in New Zealand
- Visiting Hobbiton (Yes, This Place is Real!)