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I was still getting my bearings. Three days earlier, my group of five had arrived for an 11-day photo shoot that would take us from Auckland to Te Anau, covering as much of New Zealand as possible. We had just bunked in a luxury tree house at the Hapuku Lodge in Kaikoura, a corner of the South Island seldom visited even by locals. That morning one of the staffers, an enthusiastic American transplant named Mark, ran us through the area’s attractions. Whale-watching, helicopter trips, hut-to-hut treks—he had leads on every imaginable adventure. But first he offered a cryptic smile and suggested we hike a certain little trail.

Before I could even work up a sweat, the path petered out in a grove of trees, then ended at the base of a large waterfall, where a chill mist clung to the air. Thirty feet of crashing water: no Niagara, but impressive enough. Then I looked down. In the pool below, an army of slick black heads bobbed in the foam. Fur seal pups. Dozens of them. They roiled the water, squirting between boulders, leaping like dolphins, chewing on each other’s tails.

I stared down at the clear-water pool. It was too small to hold enough fish to draw fur seals up from the beach. Instead, these animals had clambered half a mile, flipper over flipper, to reach the waterfall—seemingly for the pure, raw fun of it.

With none of the brashness of Australia or the exoticism of South Africa, New Zealand can appear rather staid compared to its former colonial companions. That’s plain wrong. This is the country whose most famous and revered citizen, Sir Edmund Hillary, was a mountaineer, where they invented jet boats, commercialized bungee jumping, and turned helicopters into backcountry taxis. A South Canterbury farmer, rumor has it, flew a homemade airplane before the Wright brothers flew theirs. And do you know what Hillary drove 1,200 miles across Antarctica to the South Pole after he summited Everest? A South Island farm tractor. Random facts, perhaps, but they reflect the distinctly Kiwi spirit: clearheaded determination, ingenuity born of extraordinary isolation, and an unbridled and creative approach to adventure.

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