The country comprises two main islands—the North and South islands—and a number of small islands, some of them hundreds of miles from the main group. The capital city is Wellington and the largest urban area Auckland; both are located on the North Island.
New Zealand administers the South Pacific island group of Tokelau and claims a section of the Antarctic continent. Niue and the Cook Islands are self-governing states in free association with New Zealand.
New Zealand is a land of great contrasts and diversity. Active volcanoes, spectacular caves, deep glacier lakes, verdant valleys, dazzling fjords, long sandy beaches, and the spectacular snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps on the South Island—all contribute to the scenic beauty.
The country also has a unique array of vegetation and animal life, much of which developed during the country’s prolonged isolation. It is the sole home, for example, of the long-beaked, flightless kiwi, the ubiquitous nickname for New Zealanders.
The ascent of Mount Everest by New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953 was one of the defining moments of the 20th century. “In some ways,” Hillary suggested, “I believe I epitomise the average New Zealander: I have modest abilities, I combine these with a good deal of determination, and I rather like to succeed.”
Despite New Zealand’s isolation, the country has been fully engaged in international affairs since the early 20th century, being an active member of a number of intergovernmental institutions, including the United Nations.
The social and cultural gap between New Zealand’s two main groups—the indigenous Maori of Polynesian heritage and the colonisers and later immigrants from the British Isles and their descendants—has decreased since the 1970s, though educational and economic differences between the two groups remain.
Immigration from other areas—Asia, Africa, and eastern Europe—has also made a mark, and culture today reflects these many influences. Minority rights and race-related issues continue to play an important role in New Zealand politics.