A land of contrasts
The islands of New Zealand lie in the Pacific Ocean, south-east of Australia.
Although the land is narrow, there is plenty of variety – volcanoes and glaciers, beaches and forests, open plains. Running the length of the South Island is a mountain range called the Southern Alps. The North Island is mainly hill country with the great expanse of Lake Taupō at its centre.
The coastal climate is mild to cool – it rarely gets very hot, but inland regions can be very cold. Most places receive their fair share of sunny and cloudy days. Winds come mainly from the west and they can be very strong. There is generally plenty of rain, and everywhere rivers and streams twist to the sea.
Swimming in the seas around New Zealand are penguins and seals, whales and dolphins. Sand and pebble beaches, estuaries, peninsulas and fiords are features of the long and winding shoreline.
Bush, tussock and farmland
Dense native forests once covered the land, but most of it has been chopped down or burnt to make way for farmland, which covers almost half the country. But forest still covers much of the hills and mountains. High above the forests, tussock grasslands stretch out, dotted in spring and summer with bright alpine flowers such as mountain daisies and giant buttercups.
New Zealand has been isolated from other lands for millions of years. This allowed some animals and plants to develop into fascinating forms, such as giant land snails and flightless birds, including the famous kiwi. Birds, with their distinctive calls, are the most noticeable form of native wildlife. Most are unique to New Zealand.
These plants and animals evolved with few browsing animals to compete with, and no predatory mammals. The early Polynesian settlers killed the moa – a large flightless bird – and in the 19th century many other bird species were killed by rats, cats, stoats and other predators that came with the European settlers.