Very Brief History and Geology of New Zealand

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New Zealand has been fascinating.

The natural beauty is one of a kind and is clearly breathtaking. Why has this relatively small island in the Pacific been able to be so amazing?


The answer is in its history and geology.

New Zealand is actually a very young place. Because of the relative remoteness of this pair of islands (North island and South Island), humans have not been here long either. Polynesians settled it sometime around 1200-1300 AD. The first settlers developed a unique culture known as Maori. The Europeans started coming much later. The first white man was Abel Tasman, a Dutchman who first arrived in 1642.

The British came later and began trading everything they could with the Maori inhabitants. They eventually signed a Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. This gave the British equal control with the Maori. It wasn’t long that things got fuzzy and eventually New Zealand became part of the British Empire. Queen Elizabeth II is the Queen of the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Geologically, New Zealand is also a very young place.

Long ago New Zealand was underwater. Much of the mountains at the highest elevation are made from sedimentary rock and were once underwater and formed from compaction of sediments. Fossils are present of sea creatures in the limestone.

New Zealand has mountains and hills over much of the landmass. The large range, known as the Southern Alps in the South Island, is responsible for much of the amazing sites. The North Island has a multitude of volcanoes and strange thermal features. The picture above tells why.

New Zealand straddles a tectonic plate. Whenever plates collide, several different things can happen. In the North Island, the boundary produces volcanoes, geysers, fumaroles, and other thermal features. In the South Island this plate collision is leading to massive and rapid uplift in the form of mountains.

The mountains in the south are being pushed higher and higher all the time. Interestingly, the Southern Alps aren’t rising in elevation much if any at all. This is due to the erosion and weathering, which is balancing out the rapid uplift. We saw evidence of this with massive rockslides and chunks of the mountains falling off all the time. The steady rains, glacier activity, and snow leads to fracturing of the limestone, which is common.


These are “young” mountain ranges and extremely rugged and steep. During the last Ice Age, much of New Zealand was covered in huge glaciers. These carved steep fjords from the tops of mountains down to the coast and left huge U shaped valleys with lakes and glacial morraines. The steepness of the mountain ranges leads to the plethora of waterfalls that we see everywhere we go.

The situation with animals in New Zealand is also interesting. Whereas Australia is famous for its deadly poisonous snakes and peculiar marsupials, New Zealand really has little in the way of famous animals. In fact, there are only two mammals native to New Zealand, and they are two bats. Mostly all they have are birds. This is again due to the short time that New Zealand has been a landmass.

We learned that the birdlife would have actually been amazing here. I say would have because humans have managed to mess it up considerably here. When the Maori first arrived, they would have seen large ground dwelling birds and a plethora of flying birds. There was a bird called a Moa that could be up to 510 lbs.

The Moa was subject to attack the Haast’s Eagle, a massive Eagle that was 15x smaller than the Moa, but could still take them down regularly.

The Maori hunted the Moa to extinction and the Eagle subsequently went extinct after this loss of food supply.

Next came the Europeans. When they arrived and they found no mammals, they decided to bring over some rabbits to give them a food supply and something to hunt. With no predators available and grass plentiful, the rabbits exploded by doing what rabbits do. Soon fields were over run by rabbits.

In England the rabbits are hunted by a weasel/ferret like predator called a stoat. Naturally they figured to bring over some stoats and they should quell the rabbits.

The stoats soon took over. We learned stoats breed up to 13 babies per year. They are extremely aggressive hunters. Now they are the top predator on an island full of birds who have never even seen a predator.

Many NZ birds are actually quite fearless. Commonly while we were hiking a bird would fly right up to you, look at you, and scamper along the trail with you for a bit. These guys are not used to predators. They were like sitting ducks. The stoats went mad.

Many species are endangered or extinct. The famous Kiwi is in danger in the wild. As we hiked there were wooden boxes every few meters–traps.

The hut warden at Lake Mackenzie where we stayed on the Routeburn Track is actually responsible for helping to start a program to trap the stoats. The plan is to create a corridor, sort of like a safe zone, where birds can flourish again along the popular trail so many visitors travel along. He’s trying to correct a wrong that humans introduced, not fully understanding the consequences of their decisions on the ecology of an entire ecosystem.

Kea, only Mountain Parrot in the world

New Zealand is quite serious about protecting what they have. Invasive and exotic species are a constant threat to an isolated region who only recently began getting flocks of tourists from around the world.

As we entered customs we had to declare which countries we visited and if we had muddy boots, for instance. One trail had brushes and disinfectant to clean our boots before and after the track. I saw numerous signs for fisherman to wash their boats if they were moving from one body of water to another.

New Zealand is progressive in protection of their natural resources. It is their main asset, I would say. But it can clearly be destroyed. I applaud their efforts at working to maintain what they have and even correct wrongs that were committed in the past.

The whole time we were exploring I thought this must be what it would be like to see a young planet. Volcanic activity, jagged precipitous mountain ranges, landslides, glaciers, fjords and danger. But oh what beauty. We loved New Zealand. We already have taken notes on places to see if and when we make our way back.



3 Responses

  1. Taryn Bolton

    I think this is the most beautiful place ever just from seeing your pictures. Thank you for sharing!!

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