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And, of course, there’s the land. Whether it’s the Maori earth-spirit influence or the simple fact that the country is home to the full gamut of Lord of the Rings landscapes, geography is a fixation that trumps even religion. Discontent over the piety of the national anthem, "God Defend New Zealand," inspired a movement for a new state song, "My Own Land." It didn’t work—it’s tough to change anthems, after all—but it was a powerful reminder that what Kiwis value most is right under their feet.

As you drive across the country, you see that nearly every patch of farmland is manicured, orderly, and thick with sheep. Yet the wild places—the mountains, deserts, and fjords—have been purposely kept that way. It’s true that New Zealand trailed the U.S. in conservation, but not by much: Its first national park, Tongariro, was created just 15 years after Yellowstone. And some of its routes for hut-to-hut trekking (called tramping) are routinely praised as the world’s best. Kiwis take great pride in the irascibility of the bush and the fact that Hillary trained for Everest on Mount Cook, a glacier-clad peak that despite its fickle weather still attracts visitors to climb, hike, or bomb around in bush planes. They even express glee that one of the most visited sights in the country, the renowned Milford Sound, doubles as one of the wettest places on Earth. One suspects that the worse the conditions, the happier the New Zealander.

When we first met kayaking guide Rosco Gaudin, it was at the edge of Milford Sound and he was covered in biting sand flies. All of us were, but while we swatted and cursed, Rosco went on prepping the kayaks. As we headed onto the water and neared a massive, 450-foot waterfall, he warned a first-time kayaker in our group, Linus, not to get too close. Later, though, when Linus proved to be a quick learner, Rosco couldn’t help but urge him closer, shouting into the rushing spray. Our rookie paddler headed straight for the tumbling pillar of water, and Rosco turned to me. "Aw, I wouldn’t mind it if he tipped and went in . . . have himself a bit of fun," he said.

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