Upon telling people my intentions to explore the South Island of New Zealand, I was met with the common remark of, ‘The place is beautiful. You’ll love it’. Though once asked about their personal experience, people seemed to stumble on what it is exactly that they love so much about this apparently beautiful place; leaving me with a certain sense that New Zealand had a sort of mystical appeal to it. A kind of beauty that isn’t really justified by my words or even by photographs. See what my experience of the South Island taught me was that this was a place that you truly had to see to believe. As much of a cliché as that is, there is not a phrase to describe what I saw any better. Endless ranges played as nothing more than observant lovers to secluded bays. Rocky headlands had been chipped away long ago—as if someone had decided that the waves deserved just that little bit more room to dance. While I could sit all day and tell you of the true wonder that is the scenery of New Zealand, I’d be neglecting what really makes this place so special. The real beauty of the land lies within the locals; their willingness to welcome complete strangers into their town as one of their own as well as their commitment to heritage.
Most of the South Island has been left in tatters at some point as a result of devastating earthquakes; leaving most families with nothing but photos. In talking with the beautiful family that put me up for my time in New Zealand, I was told stories of houses (including their own) being caught in the collapse of the hills they were built on reducing them to nothing but broken memories. The thing that I find incredible about the people of New Zealand is their response to such a crisis; they have every reason to be a broken community but choose not to. Instead, they choose to look at the situation as a rebirth of their town, or a chance to advance. One drive through the town centre of Christchurch proves just how committed they are. Roadworks take place in chaotic clusters and half-ruined buildings are being pieced back together in an attempt to preserve the foundations of the city. Yet amongst all of this commotion as well as the confusing sea of detour signs, there was no frustration, no frantic antics in an attempt to hurry the pace. It was almost as if everyone just appreciated that this is what had to be done. That being said, it seemed as though the further detached you became from the broken streets of Christchurch the more inviting and beautiful the people became.
Never have I come across a more tight-knit community than that of Sumner, a small beachside town located just outside Christchurch. When coming from a town that seems more focused on the increase of their funding than the idea of building a community feel, it was a welcomed change of pace to walk straight into a town where everyone has time for a chat. Moments after landing I was taken through the main strip where I was introduced and greeted as if I was an old friend finally returned home. The beautiful thing was that this was not isolated to Sumner, for it’s as if the whole island was just overrun with a sense of blissful welcoming. As I found on a venture south to the university town of Dunedin, no matter how far removed you felt there was always someone to strike up conversation. These conversations were never dull, everyone just as interesting as the one that preceded it. This kind of treatment goes well beyond your typical ‘welcoming of tourists’, and in my opinion, I believe it has to do with the effort in which New Zealand’s citizens go to ensure that those values are kept alive.
These values extend from the Maori culture, the indigenous heritage of Aotearoa New Zealand. While the ways of the people do not coincide with every traditional practice from their predecessors, what is truly at aglow is their sense of community; whether that be the welcoming of others or the celebration of those already with them. Through a traditional ‘Powhiri’ welcoming, hosts are able to celebrate the spiritual journey that both they and their guests go through acknowledging both heaven and earth. The ceremony concludes with a traditional Maori embrace to signify the unity of the once guests and hosts. I had the pleasure to be involved in such an intimate ceremony at the Single Fin Mingle, but long before that, I began to understand just how much this small country embraces and celebrates their heritage. Through speaking to locals, I was interested to find that the Maori language is taught in schools as well as integrated into general life. In all seriousness, this kind of unity should not come as a shock, but coming from a country where it seems as though every second headline is stained with the same racist undertone, one cannot help but become accustomed to a sadistic society. But this pride in their past has to lead the people of New Zealand to take great pride in their surroundings, again an idea that is so easily lost in the world.
On the back of this immense passion for keeping their heritage alive, New Zealand has been able to somehow maintain the beauty of their natural landscape intact in a lifetime where the notion of clearing entire forests or boring holes through mountain after mountain isn’t given a second thought. The idea that I’m even trying to describe the sheer beauty of the place is ridiculous to me. It’s as if the country has an unwritten law that infrastructure can only impede the natural landscape as a last option. Beaches 20km away take two hours to get to because the road bends around Great Lakes and scales the sides of mountains as to give you the ‘scenic route’ as an only option. The foreshores aren’t cluttered with desolate car parks instead, access to the most pristine is often partnered with walks through lush farmland as if you were the first to discover a little hideaway. The highways aren’t shrouded in a mindless commute like the ones of home. Your mind is drawn to the long rolling hills of farms that stretch as far as you can see making you believe that you are truly in the centre of the island with the ocean nowhere in sight. In beautiful contrast, the next turn finds you with nothing but 20 metres of untouched sand separating you from the cold sea. That specific drive was described to me as one of the ‘more boring’ ones on the South Island yet I was still completely enthralled in the landscape the entire way. Driving along the coast; transferring between heavy fog and blaring sunshine, through various mountain passes, was a serene experience. The drives considered more visually engaging still seemed to impress my local friends as if every daily drive was as awe-inspiring as the first. Whether this stems from a pure love affair that only the locals understood or just an appreciation for their surroundings is something I’m yet to determine.
It’s hard to pick exactly what it is about New Zealand that is so special, and I know if you were to ask me 10 times I’d give 10 different answers. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel like I still hadn’t seen the best this beautiful land had to offer; there’s so much more to this island that you won’t find with the help of any travel blogs or maps. Given the chance, I’d drive down every rocky road and walk through every foliage-ridden farm if it meant the chance to see more. And to me, that’s what makes this place so special. There is literally boundless beauty around every corner or in every town through both the people and their surroundings. The best way to enjoy this country to the fullest is to plan nothing. Once you aren’t looking for things or places or people, that’s when you seem to find the best of all three.
Words By Joshua Woollett