50 Shades of Green

Just how beautiful is New Zealand? Let me count the ways.

First, there’s the coastline. So far we have sailed past rocky cliffs and jutting peaks, shining bays dotted with islands and picturesque anchorages, pristine white-sand beaches, and swathes of forest right down to the shoreline. Long stretches are undeveloped, and those that are comprise only small communities of modest homes.

Coastline near Whangarei

Next, there are the rivers and waterfalls. As a mountainous country with abundant rain, New Zealand has no fewer than 249 named waterfalls. Some are free falling, others splash down in tiers over rock ledges, and you don’t have to hike for miles through the wilderness to reach one. Whangarei, where we’re berthed, has an 85’ waterfall just outside town. The same is true of the mountains. They’re right at the doorstep, they come in all shapes and sizes, and a great view can be had for even a modest climb.

Whangarei Falls

The abundant rain also makes New Zealand rich in forests and other vegetation. The magnificent kauri trees—the wood of which Corroboree is built—can grow to a height of 160’ with a girth of 45’ and live to be over 1,000 years old. The climate of northern New Zealand being subtropical, it also has palm trees and mangroves, while rolling green hills shape the countryside. In the cities, green takes the form of parks, botanical gardens, and footpaths hither and yon.

Footpath in the Bay of Islands and countryside near Whangarei

Mind you, my descriptions are based only on the small portion of New Zealand that Eric and I have seen so far. So you can imagine how much we’re looking forward to exploring the country’s other natural wonders: the stunning national parks and mountain ranges, the geothermal springs and marine reserves, the South Island fjords. If we discover areas that disappoint us, I’ll report that as well.

But what’s already most impressive to us about the environment here is the Kiwi attitude toward it. They know they have a treasure, and they are vigilant about protecting it. Sailboats entering from foreign waters, for example, must meet a long list of requirements to ensure no non-native animals, plants, seeds or pests enter the country. All fresh produce, fish and meat on board must be surrendered on arrival, along with popcorn (because it’s a seed) and honey (because it contains organisms). The boat’s bottom must be free of algae and marine critters and either have been cleaned and repainted recently or show proof that a haulout to do so is scheduled. It’s nerve-wracking but necessary, and most cruisers try hard to comply.

Biosecurity agent inspecting Corroboree’s bottom with an underwater camera

Or take the kauri trees, which are being decimated by kauri dieback disease, a microscopic fungus-like organism that travels via the movement of soil. It can be spread by animals, vehicles, equipment, running water and human footwear. To combat the problem, the New Zealand Department of Conservation has closed some of the forest trails where kauri has been affected and installed footwear cleaning stations at the entrance to other sensitive areas. Eric and I came upon one of these stations at a kauri park near Whangarei and later saw a variation of it on a mountain trail. The instructions are easy to follow: Brush your footwear on the bristle pad (red), wash it off with the water hose, then—and this is the really cool part—step on the green pad and presto! a mist of disinfectant is sprayed upward onto the sole of your shoe or hiking boot.

Kauri tree and shoe-cleaning station

How effective this will be in stopping or slowing the spread of kauri dieback disease, I don’t know. But in providing this measure the DoC obviously believes that visitors to the park, whether Kiwis or foreigners, will care enough to comply. We do, and I suspect most Kiwis do also. Because what’s really amazing is that whereas in the United States it so often feels as if those of us who cherish the environment have to fight against the government and the moneyed interests that seek to commercialize our green spaces, in New Zealand there doesn’t appear to be any such divide. Instead, it seems as if Kiwis are all fighting together to preserve and protect their environment while simultaneously keeping it open for visitors to enjoy.

Some examples:

When the stone quarry on the outskirts of Whangarei had served its purpose, instead of leaving an ugly pit in the ground, volunteers and generous sponsors, with support from the district council, supplied the labor and materials to turn it into a botanical garden.

Whangarei Quarry Gardens

In areas identified as kiwi habitat, no dogs are allowed. Along stretches of road where kiwis might venture into the traffic, signs featuring a fun illustration of the flightless birds alert drivers so they can slow down. Who wouldn’t? As for the dogs, they get a public dog park and plenty of other trails to trot along.

Kiwis protecting kiwis

At the beaches we’ve visited, there are neither concession stands nor rubbish bins. Whatever you bring in, from food to beach toys, you are expected to carry out. Everybody seems to find this doable. The beaches were all but spotless, and we’ve seen very little rubbish anywhere along the roads.

Ocean Beach, Whangarei Heads

Regrettably, there are instances where we humans haven’t lived up to our part of the deal. In trying to make its natural wonders accessible, New Zealand used to allow “freedom camping,” permitting those touring the country to pull onto public lands and sleep overnight in their vehicle or tent. Too many people took this to mean they could leave a mess behind. Now freestyle camping is becoming increasingly regulated.

That’s too bad, but when decisions like this need to be made, I’m glad they’re made in favor of the environment. Contrast this with Florida where, during our residence, the state government became concerned that the 150-odd state parks weren’t “paying their way.” In short, they weren’t generating enough income through entry and camping fees to cover their operating costs, and a threat was floated to close nearly a third of them. But no worries because the administration had a brilliant solution to raise revenues: open the parks to logging and cattle grazing. One senator seriously proposed  installing golf courses.

The ensuing uproar ended the discussion, at least at the time. Yet aside from the obvious damage to the environment such actions would have caused, the mindset that says a public park must justify its existence in dollars and cents is appalling. Public parks and forests pay their way every single day in the joy, recreation and education they bring to those who visit them.

The Kiwis get that, big-time.

Footbridge on the way to Whangarei Falls