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    New Zealand

    Heading South from the North Pole, Canada is the first country you would reach.   But if you keep heading south then what would be the last country you'd get to before arriving at the South Pole?   The answer's New Zealand, which is where I was born and grew up.   And in case this talk about the South Pole gives you the idea that New Zealand is a frozen wasteland, you should know that the southernmost town is nearer the equator than Paris, and the surrounding oceans give the country a very mild and pleasant climate!

    In the native Maori language, the two main islands of New Zealand are called "the fish of Maui" and "the canoe of Maui", after the Polynesian demi-god who was said to have brought the land into being.   Collectively they're called Aotearoa or "land of the long white cloud", because of the clouds which helped the Maori explorers navigate here about 800 years ago.   In English the two islands don't have names, which leads to one of the classic mistakes tourists make when they come here.   Visitors almost always talk about "North Island" and "South Island" as if these are the names of the two landmasses, whereas New Zealanders always say "The North Island" and "The South Island".   In the same way, at roughly the same size as Japan or the British Isles, New Zealanders think of their country as pretty large, so they say that something like a city is "in the North Island" rather than "on the North Island".

    Most flights to New Zealand arrive in the largest city, Auckland, which has a population of around a million and a half, the tallest tower in the southern hemisphere and two large harbours.   Waitemata Harbour in the East is dominated by the perfect cone of the offshore volcano Rangitoto, visible from the many sandy beaches on this side of the city.   As well as Auckland, the North Island has two more of New Zealand's four main cities, the capital Wellington (actually the southernmost national capital in the world), and Hamilton a little south of Auckland which isn't on this map because it's not much of a tourist destination.   Wellington is spread across steep hills picturesquely situated around a large harbor, and although it's much smaller than Auckland it definitely has more culture and, many would say, more character.   Wellington and Hamilton have populations of around 300,000 as has the fourth main city, Christchurch, which is in the South Island, along with Dunedin, which used to be the fourth largest city but is now falling behind.

    From a tourist point of view the North Island is pleasant without being spectacular, except for the attractions around Rotorua and Waitomo.  Rotorua is famous for its geothermal attractions similar to Yellowstone Park in the United States, but on a smaller scale.   Here you can see geysers throwing up fountains of superheated water and steam, boiling pools of water colored unusual shades by minerals, and bubbling mud pools.   The sulphur smells are a constant reminder of all of this activity, which is caused by New Zealand's position at the meeting place of two tectonic plates.   Waitomo is known for a different geological phenomenon, caves formed by streams running through thick deposits of limestone and a large but little-known natural bridge, however the real attraction is what lives inside the caves.   New Zealand doesn't have fireflies but it does have glow-worms, light-emitting larvae which live inside caves or forest grottos, dangling sticky threads from the ceiling to catch flying insects attracted to the light.   You can travel by boat on slow-moving streams inside the caves, in total darkness except for thousands upon thousands of glow-worms looking for all the world like some vast galaxy of distant stars.

    South Islanders sometimes jokingly refer to the South Island as "the Mainland", since it's a little larger than the North Island.   In terms of population the South Island is far emptier than the North Island, but it has much more of the spectaculary scenery which makes New Zealand such a great place to live in or visit.   The main feature of South Island geography is a mountain range called the Southern Alps, which stretch virtually along the entire western side of the island.   Like its European counterpart, the Southern Alps is a magnificent region of lakes, glaciers and, of course, mountains, with Mt Cook reaching a height of over 12,000 feet, making it 5,000 feet higher than anything Australia has to offer.   The scenery and adventure doesn't end with the Alps; the south-west corner of the island is home to Fiordland, a series of long valleys flooded by the ocean with high mountains plunging straight into the water and then continuing down for a thousand or more feet.   The largest and most scenic of these fiords is Milford Sound, which is also the endpoint of the world famous Milford Track, a hiking trail which goes over MacKinnon Pass, one of only four passes through the Southern Alps, and past the Sutherland Falls, which at 630 metres is one of the highest waterfalls in the world.   The other passes, the Haast Pass, Arthur's Pass and the Lewis Pass, are further north and provide great views of mountains and lakes right from the highway.   At the northern end of the island is another series of flooded valleys called the Marlborough Sounds, with high hills which can be viewed from the Cook Strait ferry which travels between the North and South Islands.   In the northwest is Nelson, which has a hot and sunny climate, limestone caves complete with the bones of giant moa birds and even tame eels which come to be fed beside a local river.   Abel Tasman National Park is also in this area, with pleasant beach after pleasant beach surrounded by thick forest, and a seal colony which can be visited on an island close offshore.   This park can either be hiked or kayaked even by those with minimal experience.   Another area with even more accessible wildlife is Kaikoura on the east coast, with high snow-covered mountains alongside a wild and rocky coastline, seals basking right beside the road and resident sperm whales offshore which can be viewed either by boat, plane or helicopter.

    As far as wildlife is concerned, New Zealand was a paradise for birds before humans arrived, unfortunately many of them were wiped out either directly or by the animals which were brought into the country, and many of the rest are nocturnal like the national bird the kiwi, making them difficult to see.   It's possible to see some of New Zealand's rarest birds on the island sanctuary of Tiritiri Matangi just north of Auckland.   Other less endangered species can be seen in different parts of the country, especially maritime birds like gannets, cormorants and penguins, and feisty forest birds like keas and wekas.   Underwater, New Zealand isn't as well endowed as its South Pacific island neighbours, however there are interesting diving spots like the Three Kings Islands and Goat Island, as well as oddities such as the largest freshwater spring in the southern hemisphere, unusual black and red corals living unnaturally close to the surface in the cold waters of Fiordland, and huge swarms of krill which occasionally drift in to shallow water like vast orange oil slicks.