New Zealand is a land of contrasts, variety and diversity. Lush rainforests meet glaciers and magnificent fjords, there’s world-class surfing, heaps of gorgeous sandy beaches, deserted bays, the Southern Alps and active volcanos. The country has a strong arts scene and a vibrant film industry, being the setting of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films; New Zealand has given the world Peter Jackson, Hayley Westenra, and the Flight of the Conchords, just to mention a few very famous public figures. If you haven’t heard of any of these, then where have you been?
New Zealand oddities: an introduction to the country’s quirks
No one will blame you if you haven’t heard of any of the following though… So, to get you up to speed with a few other things that are peculiar to, trendy or happening in New Zealand, or just unknown to anyone outside the country, here’s a small list of things from Aotearoa that will surprise you. From the weirdly wonderful to the outright hilarious and everything in between, a random collection of noteworthy peculiarities. They’ll come in handy at your next pub quiz, and prepare you for your next trip (you know you want to go!):
1. Hokey Pokey
Forget the Ben & Jerry’s or Häagen-Dazs of this world, Hokey Pokey is the real deal. This is New Zealand’s number one ice cream flavour. It is basically vanilla ice cream with bits of soft caramel or toffee. You can get it in any supermarket, and it is every kiwi’s favourite ice cream flavour. Yes, every.
2. Flat whites
Granted, this terminology is also found in Australia. The flat white is somewhat akin to a latte and usually comes with fern-themed foam art.
3. Clever branding
New Zealanders seem to have a knack for marketing. Bulls, a fine example, is a truly unforgetabull town near Palmerston North, on the North Island. They love their puns, and what they come up with is really admirabull. Lyttelton, near Christchurch on the South Island, is another place with a funky vibe and interesting branding:
They don’t let just anyone in, those kiwis. At least they’re being honest and upfront about it. And they take their business very, very seriously:
Brides and grooms, you’re guaranteed to have a “Special Day” there.
Have you heard a New Zealander refer to his home country as godzone before? Apparently kiwis have been using this name for their homeland for over 100 years (says Wikipedia). It’s derived from God’s Own Country, the title of a poem about New Zealand, published in 1890.
Jandals are Japanese sandals. Other cultures call them flip-flops, slippers, or even thongs. While the latter may lead to misunderstandings, the word jandal, although perhaps lesser known, is only dedicated to the famous footwear.
6. Kiwi, the bird
The kiwi is an endangered, flightless bird and is indigenous to New Zealand. There are a few traits that make this little fella quite an oddball. It gets about as big as a chicken and has tiny wings that don’t allow the bird to fly. However, the kiwi has a very good sense of smell and can run very fast. Its feathers are almost hair-like and it lays eggs that are up to half of its own body weight. The kiwi is also a national symbol of New Zealand, lending its name to the country’s currency (the kiwi dollar) and New Zealanders themselves.
7. Keas, alpine parrots
The kea is an alpine parrot and is unique to New Zealand’s South Island. If you’re lucky you’ll meet this cheeky creature during your hike on Franz Josef glacier. If you’re unlucky you’ll see its (damaging) work on your car’s rubber parts, your hiking boots or parts of your tent as you return from your hikes around Mt Cook. The curious bird is partial to soft rubber and will take anything apart that crosses its path.
8. The Beehive
No idea whether this is an allusion to busy bees or the bee’s knees, but kiwis are definitely industrious folks. The Beehive is actually one of the Parliament Buildings in Wellington (also known as the Executive Wing)!
9. Strange traffic rules
You probably know that in New Zealand, you drive on the left side of the road. As if that wasn’t confusing enough for the average visitor, there used to be a special rule until recently that car rental agents must have been so tired of explaining to tourists: the give-way-to-the-right rule.
So, you’re at a crossing and want to turn left. There’s oncoming traffic that wants to turn right, i.e. go where you want to go. In that situation, you had to give way to them. In New Zealand, the car turning left used to give way to the vehicle turning right. If you want to visualise this even more, imagine what car rental agents used to tell their customers: “Just think of it this way: if the oncoming traffic were able to hit your car on the driver’s side, you have to give way to them.” This is how it was explained to me! If it’s still not clear, watch this video:
10. The longest place name
Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu is the Maori name for a hill near Porangahau in Hawke’s Bay. It is the longest place name found in any English-speaking country, and it is the second longest place-name in the world. The name indicates the hill on which a chief, warrior and explorer by the name of Tamatea, sat and played a lament on his flute to grieve for his brother, who was lost in a battle.
11. The world’s steepest street
Baldwin Street in Dunedin is the world’s steepest residential street. At its steepest point, the slope is 19°, or 35%. That means the street has a gradient of 1m in 2.86m, or simply: you walk 2.86m horizontally and climb 1m vertically. Baldwin Street is host to a special event during the Cadbury Chocolate Carnival in July every year, when thousands of “Jaffas” (candy) are released at the top of Baldwin Street and bounce their way to the bottom of the street.
12. The world’s southernmost McDonald’s
Sticking with the world record theme for a moment, New Zealand is also home to the world’s southernmost McDonald’s restaurant. It is located in Invercargill, at the very southern end of the South Island.
13. Snowboarding on an active volcano
Mt Ruapehu is a great place to ski on the North Island. That is, when it’s not erupting. The active volcano, neighbouring Mt. Doom (or Ngaruhoe), has some great slopes at its Whakapapa and Turoa ski fields. The last time the mountain erupted was in 2007, and some ski lodges had to be evacuated.
14. Strange rock formations
Some rocks and rock formations in New Zealand are really quite odd, from the Pancake Rocks to the Elephant Rocks and Moeraki Boulders, all of which are located on the South Island.
15. The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra
The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra has been around since 2005. The orchestra’s players are Age Pryor, Andy Morley-Hall, Bek Coogan, Bret McKenzie (of Flight of the Conchords), Carmel Russell, Daniel Yeabsley, Francis Salole, Gemma Gracewood, Megan Hosking, Nigel Collins, Sam Auger, and Stephen Jessup. They have an interesting repertoire and are playing in Wellington on September 9th, in case you’re there, or follow them on Twitter to get their latest news and gig announcements.
Also, Ukulele seems to be all the rage in New Zealand right now; see this ukulele flash mob in a Palmerston North mall in July 2011.
16. O for Awesome!
You’ll hear this expression when locals express their enthusiasm about something they feel strongly about. It’s an expression that originated on the TV show “Wheel of Fortune” on New Zealand television in the mid 90s. David Tua, a professional heavyweight boxing champion and guest on the show, famously asked for an ” ‘O’ for awesome”. Here’s the moment that went down in New Zealand TV history:
As you see, New Zealand has got some really astonishing sights and very cool quirks. I’d give it an O for awesome any day!