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New Zealanders - or 'Kiwis' - represent a surprising melting pot of nationalities and cultures and are broadly categorised as either Maori or Pakeha. Maori are the indigenous people while Pakeha is a term originally used by Maori to describe outsiders but which in modern usage tends more to refer to a white skinned person with other nationalities referred to according to origin as Asian, European or Pacific Islander, etc.

The native Maori people are of Polynesian origin, whose arrival is still the subject of much debate. Evidence suggests they may have visited as far back as 2000 years ago, though nothing points to a specific start of continual residence. One thing that is sure is that New Zealand was one of the last major land masses to be inhabited on earth, leaving us with much fascinating flora and fauna which remains wonderfully unmodified by human influence. Maori history is the subject of richly woven myths and legends as their language was only spoken until the first decades of the 1800's when a written form was developed by early Pakeha settlers. Once in written form, the various legends were further 'averaged' to arrive at the popular story telling of an initial mystical migration arriving aboard a Great Fleet of six ancestral canoes about the year 1300. Maori who are interested in their cultural heritage, and there are many who are, can trace their tribal origins back to one of these canoes and further still to Hawaiki, the traditional homeland of all Polynesian peoples. Any visit to our shores is enhanced by the opportunities which Maori proudly provide to learn about this past and their unique tapestry of explanations for every facet of nature's blessing of their land.

Captain James Cook wasn't the first European to sight the land Maori called Aotearoa, but his favourable reports after HMS Endeavour's famous voyage of 1769 heralded a new era. Pakeha settlers first arrived in the last light of the 1700's as opportunist traders and were followed by missionaries in the early 1800's. New Zealand's national day on the sixth of February celebrates the 1840 signing of a treaty between the 1000 or so settlers and chiefs representing as many as 100 000 Maori. Organised settlement quickly followed with packages of land and passage marketed in London. By 1900 the 'new' socially progressive nation was already a mix of Germans, French, Scots, Irish, Scandinavians, Dalmatians, Lebanese and Jews. Population reached one million by the time of World War One and two million during the 1950's when a new wave of encouraged immigrants arrived from Britain, Holland, Hungary and Poland. Pacific Islanders, who today comprise one of the most significant groups of migrants, began arriving in the 1960's and now represent 6% of the population. Auckland, where some areas can boast almost 50% of inhabitants as originating from the Pacific, is widely regarded as the largest Polynesian city in the world. By 1973 there were three million Kiwis and early in 2003 we reached a population of four million after immigration policies designed to attract investment during the 1990's appealed to Chinese, Koreans and South Africans. Today, as the country's population approaches 4.5 million, 20% of residents were born beyond our own shores - though this varies widely from 30% in urban centres like Auckland to 6% in the rural heartlands.

New Zealanders possess a quietly reserved sense of patriotism for a nationality which has provided pioneers in many fields. It was a Kiwi who was first to split the atom and Sir Edmund Hillary's ascent of Mt Everest in 1953 similarly stirred the imagination of the world. Initiatives such as retirement pensions and the right for women to vote also claim New Zealand as their birthplace. In battle both Maori and Pakeha have won Britain's highest gallantry awards - with one even becoming the only combat soldier to ever win the Victoria Cross twice. Most Kiwis know they live in one of the most fortunate countries on the planet and that they are considered friendly by outsiders. By international standards New Zealanders are fit, healthy, well educated and independent. Levels of smoking and alcohol consumption are relatively low and over three quarters of school children are involved in organised sport. More than 60% of adults continue to participate in regular physical activity, producing many world champions. Of the 87 Olympic medals that hang in New Zealand homes, almost half are gold. Literacy runs at 99%, while 30% of adults have qualifications gained since leaving school and more than 80% of the population have access to the internet. About 20% of the workforce are self employed and, even during the current global recession, less than 7% are unemployed. 68% of people own the home they live in, the highest rate in the world.

Kiwis are not deeply religious people with the three main religions of Anglican, Presbyterian, and Catholic holding a declining 50% of the population's faith. The Maori people were enthusiastic converts to Christianity and its peaceful ways by the early missionaries and their own religion is represented by a rich mythology. Numerous other religions enjoy strong followings among the Polynesian, Chinese, Indian and other communities.

Although 85% urbanised these days, even our largest metropolitan centre can only claim a little over a million inhabitants. Many people choose to live in smaller towns where individuals make important contributions to the community. Most Kiwis have time to stop and talk and pass on that natural smile which may well be a product of Polynesian influence. You can be sure of meeting one or two on a leisurely tour of our back-roads!

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