The luxury of her location deep in the South Pacific sent Rudyard Kipling into raptures. Long ago the British author sang: “Last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart . . . the Happy Isles!”
Kipling’s paean, I have learned, still rings true except in one regard. Happiness, like time, is transient. New Zealand, one of the world’s first welfare states, practices a benevolent socialism. But these are hard times for many as the government performs drastic surgery on an overextended economy.
The nation has always depended on farm exports. When subsidies abruptly ended in 1985, hundreds of farmers had to give up, unable to meet loan payments. Land values dropped by half in some places. Severely depressed prices for sheep—upwards of 70 million huddle on the countryside—brought another large headache. Interest rates as high as 25 percent plagued city dwellers too, especially the owners of expensive, heavily mortgaged homes.
Anywhere I traveled, people were worried. Some were searching out new ways to make a living. Many fell back on inborn optimism. New Zealand was founded on hope: the hope of her Polynesian discoverers a millennium past and of British colonists in the mid-1800s. “She’ll be right,” I was often told. It will take time, but things will work out.
The country consists of two large islands, a much smaller third one, and numerous islets (map, page 663). The history and rugged independence of her 3.3 million citizens are shaped by the vast moat of open ocean that insulates them. Australia lies more than a thousand miles away; 4,500 miles of water separate the islands from South America. The closest neighbor, New Caledonia, lies some 900 miles northward. I SPENT WEEKS moving up and down this marvelous conglomeration of mountains and brooding volcanoes, green hills, plains, and sun-washed beaches. One constant kept me company: a pervasive sense of isolation.
It suffused subtropical North Island with hints of distant emerald isles, and whispered of Antarctic ice far across ocean wastes beyond the South Island’s heel. It nagged from a rampart of snowy, glacier-hung alps as awesome as Switzerland’s, and rode a deserted track to a sheep, cattle, and deer station remote enough that mail and supplies arrive only once a week. To me it was a haunting phenomenon. To the people of these places it is of no moment.
To be isolated does not mean isolationist. In every way New Zealand is a world citizen, relying on international trade, deeply concerned about disarmament issues and—like many other Pacific nations—strongly antinuclear. During my stay the government’s denial of port access to nuclear-armed or nuclear-powered ships led the United States to suspend its defense obligations to the country under the 35-year-old ANZUS alliance.
As you might expect, large areas of the country are virtually unpopulated, notably the mountain reaches. In surprising fact, though, considering New Zealand’s reputation as a land of lavish scenic beauty and huge sheep farms, more than 80 percent of the people live in urban-suburban settings along the coast and in the lower hills. A station in the outback can be run with few hands, and sheep farming generally is a family affair. The cities wear the stamp of assertive self-awareness, self-esteem. Their distinctive characters, I noticed, point up the sharp time lags between the North and South Islands. Broadly speaking, North is town, South is country. One is modern, the other old-timey.