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Trail Walk, Tongariro National Park | © Thomas Schweighofer/Unsplash
Trail Walk, Tongariro National Park | © Thomas Schweighofer/Unsplash

13 Things You'll Only Learn if You Visit New Zealand

Picture of Thalita Alves
Updated: 5 December 2017

The only way to truly understand what makes New Zealand tick is to actually go there. Whether that means shedding some long-held stereotypes or simply gathering a bit of local wisdom, there’s lots to learn as you venture into the ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’. In fact, here are 13 tidbits of knowledge you’ll likely pick up during your travels.

1. New Zealand is quite different from Australia.

New Zealand and Australia have their similarities but, like any other sibling, they have distinct personalities too. Obviously you can’t compare them in size, and both countries have their fair share of spectacular attractions, but cultural differences stand out too: from lifestyle and local demographics to indigenous rights and even political systems.

2. Māori culture is intertwined with everyday life.

Every town and city has its own Māori nomenclature — some don’t even have an English name. If you’re an avid rugby fan, you’ll have seen the national All Blacks team performing a haka before every game. Signs on public buildings are often bilingual; many Māori phrases have come into everyday parlance and traditional ceremonies like a Pōwhiri (a welcoming ritual) are common in meeting spaces.

3. New Zealanders love their sports.

Kiwis are a sports-mad bunch, and not just when it comes to rugby. In fact, one of the best ways to connect with locals is to get involved in some kind of sporting activity. Also, if you go to a stadium to watch any kind of game, like cricket, basketball or hockey, you’ll be amazed by the energy and enthusiasm of each team’s supporters.

4. Kiwi ingenuity is a way of life.

When New Zealanders talk about ‘Kiwi ingenuity’, they are referring to the ability to problem solve with very little resources — like some ‘Number 8 wire’, which tends to be the official symbol for this cultural characteristic. True to their innovative nature, there are many cool start-ups propping up all the time. The country has also exported some prominent figures who have made their mark in history, including Ernest Rutherford and Sir Edmund Hillary.

5. Sitting on tables is a cultural taboo.

It is a huge taboo in Māori culture to sit on tables — a sacred notion that has been in place since well before English colonisation. Even European New Zealanders are known to find it extremely offensive and jarring to see someone put their posterior where food is meant to be served. Tables are for eating, not for sitting, and you should respect that during your travels.

6. Even on a cloudy day, the sun can be incredibly harsh.

New Zealand is quite close to a hole in the ozone layer. This means that even on a cloudy summer’s day you’re likely to get singed by the intensified sun rays, and the risk of skin cancer is much greater than in many parts of the world. The best advice for those travelling in the late spring-summer months is to apply sunblock generously if you’re spending most of your time outdoors.

7. You can have four seasons in a single day.

This trend is specially true in winter: You might be walking around Auckland city during the day and experience a quick rotation of rain, sunshine and wind within a few minutes. Add some strong gusts of wind, and you’ve got Wellington covered too. Not that New Zealand weather is bad — it’s actually quite pleasant year-round, despite being a bit volatile at times.

8. There’s so much geographical diversity.

For a country that seems so tiny on a world map, New Zealand packs a lot of punch when it comes to the sheer diversity of its landscapes. For instance, you’ve got a mix of national parks flanked by forests, beaches, waterfalls and lakes. You’re also never too far away from the seaside, even when you’re making your way towards the alps and snow.

9. In fact, everywhere looks like a postcard.

There’s no such thing as a bad picture of New Zealand. You can try to take one, but it’s nearly impossible. Everywhere, from north to south, is filled with an unmatched photogenic beauty. These views are best enjoyed on a hike, scenic train ride, road trip or by simply by pedalling your way across the country.

10. Great coffee is never too far away.

New Zealand lays claim to inventing the flat white, though that idea is still widely contested. One thing you can be certain of is that local cafes take their coffee very seriously. A strong caffeine fix is always a given, no matter where in the country you end up.

11. In the ice cream realm, Hokey Pokey is king.

Hokey Pokey ice cream is a must-try for sweet toothed travellers. The unique New Zealand creation is a combination of plain vanilla ice cream with crunchy pieces of honeycomb. It’s one of the country’s most popular flavours and is sold in just about every supermarket and ice cream shop around.

12. Driving takes longer than you think.

With an assortment of tightly winding roads, one-way bridges and hilly terrains, travel time in New Zealand can be quite variant. Even a place that looks really close on a map might take a little longer to reach because of the different road conditions. If you’re hitting the highways, make sure to allow for plenty of time in order to avoid any impending delays.

13. You’re never too far away from an adventure.

Even urban landscapes like Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch are quite handy to some epic hiking and cycling expeditions. Whether you’re keen on doing a bungy, heli-skiing or even surfing, this is a land of outdoorsy adventures — and you should definitely make the most of that while you’re visiting.