Story: Natural environment

Page 1. Geography and geology

All images & media in this story

Remote in the Southern Seas

New Zealand lies about 1,600 km from both Australia and Polynesia. Its three main islands are the North and South islands and Stewart Island, or Rakiura, which is due south of the South Island. The South Island (150,437 sq km), often referred to as ‘the mainland’ by its inhabitants, is one-third larger than the North Island (113,729 sq km). Stewart Island is much smaller, at 1,680 sq km.

The terms ‘deep south’ for Southland and ‘far north’ for Northland hint at the length of the main islands. The Māori names also signify the country’s long, narrow shape – the North Island is Te Ika a Māui (the fish of Māui, a legendary character), and the South is Te Waka o Māui (the canoe of Māui). The three main islands stretch 1,500 km between latitudes 34° and 47° south.

New Zealand is an archipelago with more than 700 offshore islands. Most are small and lie within 50 km of the main islands. These islands are the visible surface of an extensive submarine plateau, and enable the country to enjoy a huge exclusive economic zone (fishing grounds).

The Chatham Islands are 800 km east of the South Island; the Kermadec Islands (which host a Department of Conservation field station) lie about 1,000 km north-east of Auckland. The uninhabited Bounty, Snares, Antipodes, Auckland and Campbell subantarctic islands lie south of the mainland.


The North Island is mainly rolling hill country, much of which is farmed. A series of narrow ranges (Tararua, Ruahine and Kaimanawa) form a roughly north-east/south-west belt of higher country that rises up to 1,700 m. Much of the surviving forest cover is found here and in other mountainous areas. In the central North Island, volcanoes that have been active over the past million years jut up several thousand metres near Lake Taupō. This is the country’s largest lake, formed by water filling a volcanic crater. Nearby, Rotorua’s mud pools boil and geysers erupt.

Two countries

While the North and South islands are separated by only 20 km of water, they have quite different landscapes. Mountaineer T. H. Scott found this when he moved south. In 1950 he wrote:

‘I felt immediately and overwhelmingly that I had come to a quite different country …. Here then was a vast kind of land, whatever its size on the map, giving a sense of great distance where herds of grazing animals might roam, where grain plants might grow and a people wander. This had always been for me the meaning of continents.’ 1

The South Island is divided by the Southern Alps, which traverse most of its length and rise over 3,000 m. To the west of the alps lie rainforests. To the east are the farmlands of the Canterbury Plains, formed by rivers flowing from the mountains. In the south, a series of large lakes formed in depressions that were scoured out by huge glaciers.

Stewart Island is mainly low rolling hills. Unlike the two main islands, it remains almost entirely covered in native vegetation.

Geological origins

New Zealand is a sliver of the supercontinent Gondwana. The islands are only the visible part of a much larger submerged subcontinent that separated from Australia, on the eastern margin of Gondwana, around 85 million years ago.

Since the Cambrian geological period (over 500 million years ago), sea levels and the land have risen and fallen many times. Periods of mountain building have been followed by epochs when mountains eroded away. Huge volcanoes erupted and massive earthquakes and landslides ravaged the earth. Great glaciers have overlain much of the land, melted away and then returned as the climate has repeatedly cooled and warmed over time spans hard to comprehend.

Earthquakes and volcanoes

Landslide lake

When the climate warmed about 13,000 years ago, the glaciers retreated. In the Monowai Valley in Southland, a glacier that had been propping up the side of a valley melted. A nine-km stretch of mountain range collapsed, generating a massive landslide. Over time large landslide ponds, including Fiordland’s Green Lake, formed in hollows in the rumpled terrain of this landslide. When the next big earthquake occurs on the Alpine Fault in the Southern Alps there will be many catastrophic landslides, cutting road links. It is unlikely they will be as big as the Green Lake landslide, although geologists tell us that you never know.

After drifting to its current position over millions of years, New Zealand now sits on the boundary of the Indo-Australian and Pacific tectonic plates. Much of the history of mountain building, earthquakes and volcanic activity is due to its location on the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’. The Southern Alps are the result of two massive plates meeting and sliding past each other along the Alpine Fault.

Māori oral traditions refer to earthquakes and tsunamis. In the mid-1400s a tsunami more than 10 m high is thought to have swept over many Māori coastal settlements. Sometimes known as ‘the shaky isles’, New Zealand experiences severe earthquakes in most centuries. The long gap since the last large earthquake on the Alpine Fault suggests that a major quake of magnitude 8 or more is overdue.

  1. Quoted in Philip Temple, ed., Lake, mountain, tree: an anthology of writing on New Zealand nature & landscape. Auckland: Godwit, 1998, pp.150–1. › Back
How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Natural environment - Geography and geology', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 May 2024)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 8 Feb 2005