As New Zealand hikes go, the trail to Ohau waterfall was short, less than half a mile. It started the way things often do in that part of the world, at a deserted gravel pullout next to a deserted black-cobble beach. A microscopic trail sign pointed up a hill. A small dark path, a mix of packed earth and rock, ran next to a boulder-strewn stream. We began to walk.
The going was flat enough, but within a hundred yards the trail ducked into the thorny and dyspeptic jungle that Kiwis call "the bush." The sun vanished, leaving the world mossy, ferny, Jurassic.
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.
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.
A lot has changed in New Zealand since the isolation of earlier days. It used to be that you couldn’t find a decent cup of coffee on either island; today you can’t pass a village without an espresso stand. Kiwis used to head out on walkabout and see the world. They still do, but now they actually come home. On one list of the world’s most livable cities, New Zealand has two in the top 15: Auckland and Wellington. (The U.S. has none in the top 25.) The draw is so great that some towns are plagued with housing shortages, and prices have increased 83 percent in the past seven years.
How all this will affect the Kiwi character, one can only guess. Personally, I doubt much. Heading back to the car after the waterfall and the fur seals, we reached a small wooden bridge. From its edge I could see down to the beach. Coming up the creek all alone was perhaps the littlest pup of all. Whether a runt or a particularly young one, who knows, but it gamely made its way up the streambed, cresting rocks, sometimes toppling, sometimes slipping backward, but always determined. I can’t be certain, but it sure seemed like he was having himself a bit of fun.