Story: Landscapes – overview

Snow-capped mountains, lush rainforests, golden beaches, dramatic geothermal areas – New Zealand’s diverse landscapes have been described as the world’s biggest film set.

Story by Eileen McSaveney
Main image: Whangaroa Harbour

Story summary

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Films are often made in New Zealand, because the landscapes are so varied and beautiful – there are high snowy mountains, green forests, sandy beaches, active volcanoes and more.

Formation of landscapes

The landscapes were formed by:

  • the Pacific and Australian plates (huge, slow-moving blocks of the earth’s crust) colliding and pushing up mountains
  • erosion caused by rainfall and ocean waves
  • volcanic eruptions building cones, and leaving depressions which now hold lakes
  • glaciers in the ice ages, which dug out valleys and lake basins
  • rivers cutting into the land.

Northern New Zealand

  • Northland has sandy beaches, rocky islands and giant kauri trees.
  • Auckland is built around two great harbours. Its many volcanoes have formed cones, craters and lava flows.
  • The Coromandel Peninsula has a dramatic coastline.

The volcanic region

  • The Taupō Volcanic Zone is an area of active volcanoes – Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngāuruhoe are the largest cone volcanoes. In the past, volcanic eruptions created lake basins, and there are geothermal areas with geysers and hot pools.
  • Taranaki is dominated by Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont), a beautiful dormant volcano.

Central and southern North Island

  • Mountain ranges form a barrier between the east and west sides of the North Island.
  • Flatter areas such as Wairarapa are used for farming.
  • Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, is built on hills around a harbour.

Top of the South Island

  • The Marlborough Sounds have steep ridges, islands and waterways.
  • The north-west corner has dramatic limestone landscapes and caves.

Central South Island

  • The Southern Alps are New Zealand’s highest mountains.
  • On the West Coast, Franz Josef and Fox glaciers reach almost to sea level.
  • The Canterbury Plains are a huge flat area, crossed by braided rivers.


  • In the west, lake basins were dug out by glaciers in the ice ages.
  • Central Otago is New Zealand’s driest area.
  • The coastal area gets more rain, and is much greener.

Southland and Stewart Island

  • Eastern Southland is rolling country, mainly used for farming.
  • Fiordland is a huge area of wilderness, with lakes, fiords and mountains.
  • Stewart Island (Rakiura) is mostly a forested wilderness.

Offshore islands

  • The Kermadec Islands, more than 1,000 kilometres north-east of New Zealand, are part of a chain of volcanoes.
  • The Chatham Islands, 800 kilometres east, are low-lying and windy.
  • The five groups of subantarctic islands, south of New Zealand, are nature reserves.
How to cite this page:

Eileen McSaveney, 'Landscapes – overview', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by Eileen McSaveney, published 24 September 2007, updated 1 July 2015