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Landscapes – overview

by  Eileen McSaveney

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.

Formation of landscapes

Described by the Lonely planet guidebook as the world’s biggest film set, New Zealand has diverse landscapes that attract several million tourists each year.

In just one day you can see the sun rise over Christchurch and the Canterbury plains, drive over an alpine pass with towering beech forests, walk on the Franz Josef Glacier, and watch the sun set over the Tasman Sea.

Middle Earth down under

J. R. R. Tolkien’s The lord of the rings trilogy was filmed in New Zealand in 1999–2000 by director Peter Jackson. Many Tolkien fans worldwide now have a vision of his fictional Middle Earth based on New Zealand landscapes.

‘A large land, uplifted high’

In 1642, Dutch explorer Abel Tasman arrived off the South Island’s west coast and saw ‘a large land, uplifted high’. His impression was accurate – New Zealand is mountainous, with a long narrow shape and rugged terrain.

Colliding plates

New Zealand lies on the boundary between the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates. In the north, the Pacific Plate is bulldozing its way under the eastern North Island. This is pushing up a central backbone of mountains and shelves of sedimentary rock. Rivers have cut through these softer rocks, creating the steep, easily-eroded hill country of much of the North Island.

Molten rock welling up from the colliding plates has produced a zone of active volcanoes in the central North Island. The most obvious are the cone-shaped volcanoes that form Ruapehu, Ngāuruhoe and Whakaari (White Island). Large pumice eruptions have left behind depressions (calderas), now filled with lakes, notably Lake Taupō. Near Christchurch and Dunedin ancient volcanoes form hills, and the harbours around which the cities are based.

In the South Island, two sections of continent are colliding along this plate boundary – the Alpine Fault. East of the fault, land is being forced upward to produce the remarkably straight rampart of the central Southern Alps, which is visible from space. The uplifted bedrock has become the South Island’s mountainous terrain, with 20 peaks over 3,000 metres high.

Forces changing the landscape

The details of New Zealand’s landscapes have been etched by erosion and weathering from running water, ocean waves and glaciers, as well as by the catastrophic effects of landslides.


The central mountains force moist winds blowing from the Tasman Sea upward, to form clouds that rain heavily on the western side of the country. Parts of the South Island’s West Coast, deluged by up to 15 metres of rain each year, are some of the wettest places on earth.

Eastern regions get only 10–20% as much rain. Central Otago is the driest part of New Zealand, but is not a true desert, as all areas receive some rain every year.


In the higher Southern Alps much of the precipitation falls as snow, which turns into glacier ice covering over 1,000 square kilometres. Much of the South Island’s landscape was shaped by massive ice-age glaciers.

Life’s a beach

New Zealand has a remarkable amount of coastline – about 18,000 kilometres, the seventh longest of any country. Nowhere is more than 130 kilometres from the sea, so it usually doesn’t take long to get to the beach.

Rivers and coastline

Rivers have carved into the hills and mountains, sometimes forming deep gorges and flights of terraces. Many New Zealand rivers have shallow channels flowing over gravel beds, and move vast amounts of rock debris to the sea.

New Zealand’s dramatic coastline ranges from southern glacier-carved fiords to the sweeping sandy beaches of the far north.

Vegetation – the green mantle

New Zealand was one of the last major land areas to be settled. Before humans arrived, more than 80% of the country was covered in evergreen forests, consisting mainly of plants found nowhere else in the world.

Most of the forests were a conifer–broadleaf mix, found mainly at lower altitudes. Conifer–broadleaf forests have a layered canopy, with large species such as rimu towering over smaller trees and shrubs. Giant kauri trees grow only in the subtropical north. New Zealand beech (Nothofagus) forest can be found from valley floors to alpine regions.

The treeline is often sharply marked, at around 1,450 metres above sea level in the North Island, and as low as 500 metres on Stewart Island. Seen from a distance, the colour changes sharply at the treeline, from dark green forest to brownish grasses and alpine plants.

Remaking the landscape

After Polynesians arrived in New Zealand around 1250–1300 CE, they burnt large areas of forest.

European settlers arriving in the 19th century destroyed more forest, clearing both lowlands and steeper hillsides. In the early 2000s, about 30% of New Zealand was covered in introduced pasture grasses. There are also large areas of exotic forest, mainly radiata pine (Pinus radiata), which grows much faster than native trees.

Painting the landscape

In 1956, Auckland businessman Sir Henry Kelliher set up annual awards of up to £500 for traditional and realistic paintings of New Zealand landscapes. The awards drew criticism from some in the art community, who saw them as a bulwark against modernism. But there was widespread public support, and landscape painters appreciated the funding.

Preserving scenery

As more forest was cleared, there were calls to preserve distinctive landscapes. The Scenery Preservation Act of 1903 signalled government acceptance of the need to protect areas of natural beauty.

Some smaller areas became scenic reserves, and a number of larger regions have been protected by law as national parks. In 2006, there were over 1,700 scenic, historic, nature and scientific reserves, and 14 national parks covering a third of New Zealand – mainly mountainous areas. Although lowland New Zealand is intensively farmed, large areas of the country remain roadless and uninhabited, the domain of only hardy outdoor enthusiasts.

Northern New Zealand


Northland, New Zealand’s far northern peninsula, is largely hill country, mostly less than 700 metres high. Volcanic rocks form striking peaks in some areas, such as around Whangaroa and Whangārei harbours.

Northland’s east and west coasts are very different. On the western side, surf from the Tasman Sea has made a long straight coastline, with sandy beaches, harbour bars and dunes. New Zealand’s northernmost points – Cape Rēinga and North Cape – were once islands. They are now connected to Northland by the low-lying sandy Aupōuri peninsula, with its sweeping Ninety Mile Beach – actually only 60 miles (96 kilometres) long.

Northland’s eastern side is much more ragged, with many rocky islands, bays, inlets and mangrove-fringed tidal flats.

When the sea level rose after the last ice age, Northland’s valleys were partly flooded. This created dramatic harbours, including Kaipara and Hokianga on the west coast and Whangaroa and Whangārei in the east. Hokianga Harbour extends more than 50 kilometres inland.

In the Bay of Islands, the rising sea surrounded hills of greywacke and volcanic rock. These now form almost 150 islands – some large enough to farm, others just wave-battered rocks.

Northland was once covered in dense kauri forests. European sawmillers plundered them for timber, leaving only patches of forest by the end of the 19th century. Today Waipoua Forest is a protected area of giant kauri trees.

Hot spot

Tāmaki-makau-rau, the Māori name for Auckland, literally means ‘Tāmaki of a hundred lovers’ – or ‘Tāmaki desired by many’. Auckland has a warm climate, fertile soils and two excellent harbours, so land ownership has often been contested by both Māori and Pākehā.

Auckland – city of sails and volcanoes

Auckland is built around two great harbours – Waitematā to the east, and Manukau to the west. The city sprawls across an isthmus at the narrowest point of New Zealand. Residents are never far from the sea, and their boats have earned Auckland its nickname, ‘city of sails’.

Auckland’s dozens of hills are basaltic volcanic cones, and much of the city is built on lava flows. The volcanoes have formed, one by one, over the last 50,000 years. Some eruptions blasted out low-lying craters, such as Panmure Basin. Others produced fountains of molten rock, forming cones of lava flows and scoria, such as One Tree Hill, Mt Eden and Mt Wellington. Rangitoto Island, in Waitematā Harbour, is Auckland’s youngest and largest volcanic cone – Māori saw it form about 1400 CE.

West of Auckland, the bush-clad Waitākere Range is made of older volcanic rocks. It provides the backdrop for popular west coast beaches such as Muriwai and Piha.

Vanishing volcanoes

Māori built on the summits of Auckland’s volcanic cones, and terraces and defensive earthworks on their slopes. European settlers used the volcanoes for earthworks of a different kind – they quarried them for building stone and road aggregate. Many larger cones are preserved in public parks, but some smaller scoria cones are completely gone, removed by the cartload and truckload over the last 150 years.

South Auckland and Waikato

South of Auckland, urban sprawl gives way to the hills and lowlands of South Auckland and the Waikato. The fertile lowlands around the lower Waikato River are some of New Zealand’s best farmland. Raglan and Kāwhia harbours are on the Waikato west coast, and the region has several extinct volcanoes, including Pirongia, Karioi and Maungatautari. To the east are the low Hūnua and Hapūakohe ranges. The Firth of Thames and the low-lying Hauraki Plains separate the ranges from the Coromandel Peninsula and Kaimai Range, further east.


Bush-clad remnants of ancient volcanoes form the dramatic skylines of the Coromandel Peninsula. Some of the most distinctive peaks are volcanic plugs – solidified magma that filled the central vents of volcanoes.

Wave erosion of volcanic rocks on the eastern side has produced a striking and varied coastline, with spectacular headlands, rock arches and sheltered bays. At Hot Water Beach, if you dig a hole in the sand it will fill with geothermally heated water, bubbling up from below.

The volcanic region

Bay of Plenty

Known to Māori as Te Moana a Toi (the sea of Toi), this wide, northwards-facing bay was named by British explorer James Cook in 1769. Its long sandy beaches are broken by Tauranga and Ōhiwa harbours and several estuaries. The bay’s main islands are volcanoes: Mayor Island (Tūhua), Moutohorā (Whale Island) and Whakaari (White Island).

The Taupō Volcanic Zone

The Taupō Volcanic Zone is a region of active volcanoes, large and small lakes, and steaming geothermal areas, stretching 300 kilometres from Ohakune to Whakaari (White Island). Its landscapes have been fashioned – and sometimes destroyed – by volcanic activity over the last 750,000 years.

The southernmost part, in Tongariro National Park, is crowned by three large cone volcanoes – Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngāuruhoe.

  • Ruapehu, which last erupted in 1995–96, is the North Island’s highest mountain and has its only glaciers.
  • Ngāuruhoe is a symmetrical cone that last erupted in 1975.
  • Tongariro is a sprawling complex of volcanic vents of varying ages. Its irregular summit has varied and colourful craters, including Red Crater, the Blue Lake and Emerald Lakes craters, Te Maari craters and North Crater with its solidified lava lake.

East of the three volcanoes, the Desert Road crosses the Rangipō Desert. This region lies in the mountains’ rain shadow (an area of reduced rain to the east) – but gets about a metre of rain a year, so it is not a true desert. However it has poor soils of ash and scoria, and is swept by drying winds, so it has unique alpine desert plants and bare areas.

Overnight sensation

On 10 June 1886, starting around midnight, Mt Tarawera erupted and transformed the landscape. In less than six hours, a series of craters were blasted, a colourful rift opened at the top of the mountain, and the world-renowned Pink and White Terraces were obliterated.

Ignimbrite volcanoes

North-east of the large volcanoes are a series of low-lying volcanic centres – Taupō, Maroa, Rotorua and Okataina. These serene landscapes were the site of catastrophic eruptions in the past, which blasted out vast amounts of debris and built broad plateaus of ignimbrite (a volcanic rock). The Kāingaroa plateau is now covered by one of the world’s largest man-made forests, mainly Pinus radiata (radiata pine).

Calderas – huge volcanic basins created by the eruptions – are filled by lakes, including major ones such as Taupō and Rotorua. There are also many smaller volcanic peaks, such as Tarawera, which erupted in 1886, and Tauhara. On the edges of the calderas, powered by their underground heat, are New Zealand’s famous thermal areas, with their geysers, hot springs and mud pools.

Bush sickness

The flat plateaus of the volcanic region look ideal for sheep farming. But early farmers found that stock died from a wasting disease they called bush sickness. Agriculture was abandoned and the area was planted in exotic forests. The illness was later found to be caused by a lack of the trace element cobalt, easily corrected with fertiliser.

Taranaki and the King Country

Taranaki is dominated by the majestic 2,518-metre volcanic cone of Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont). East of the mountain is the King Country and inland Whanganui, a region of steep hill country, deeply dissected by rivers.

Mt Taranaki is dormant – it last erupted about 200 years ago. It is the latest of several volcanoes on the site in the last half-million years. The eroded remnants of earlier volcanoes, the Kaitake and Pouākai ranges, lie north-west of Taranaki’s summit. Around these peaks are extensive lowlands, made of volcanic mud flows and lumpy rock debris, left when parts of the volcanoes collapsed.

North Island main ranges

Greywacke mountains

Stretching from East Cape to Cook Strait is the rocky backbone of the North Island – a series of ranges made from greywacke (hard grey sandstone with layers of mudstone). The Raukūmara, Huiarau, Kaimanawa, Kaweka, Ruahine, Tararua, Remutaka and Aorangi ranges are the northern continuation of the Southern Alps, but are rarely higher than 1,500 metres. They form a barrier across the North Island – the Manawatū Gorge provides the only low-level access between east and west.

Most of these ranges were too low for ice-age glaciers to form, and only the Tararuas have a few glacier-smoothed upper valleys.

The North Island’s largest wilderness area is in Te Urewera. Forested ridges of the greywacke Huiarau and Ikawhenua ranges form the western part of the area. Lake Waikaremoana, in the east, is flanked by dramatic bluffs. The lake is dammed by a large prehistoric landslide from the end of the Ngāmoko Range.

Eastern hills and lowlands

Some of the North Island’s hilly eastern regions are made from soft sediment, laid on the sea floor and later raised above sea level. The material is geologically young, and was never highly compacted.

Stripped of forest and turned into pasture by settlers, these hill slopes of blue-gray siltstone (‘papa’) are prone to erosion. During storms such as Cyclone Bola in 1988, coastal hill country from East Cape to Hawke’s Bay can be devastated by landslides.

From Hawke’s Bay to Cook Strait, there are a series of lowland areas between the mountain ranges and eastern coastal hills. Bordering south-west Hawke’s Bay are the Heretaunga plains – rich river flats that are home to orchards, market gardens and vineyards.

The largest of the lowland areas is the Wairarapa, stretching northward from Palliser Bay. Sheltered from rain by the Remutaka and Tararua ranges, the grazing country is prone to drought. Vineyards now dot the Martinborough region. North of Eketāhuna the lowland narrows, then widens into the Ruataniwha plains at the foot of the Ruahine Range.

Western lowlands

In the south-western North Island, the Tararua and Ruahine ranges rise sharply above a coastal plain that includes Horowhenua and the Manawatū and Rangitīkei lowlands. The sea has formed terraces at different heights, as the sea level changed during glacial and interglacial periods. Some are now up to 100 metres above the sea.

Between the mouths of the Manawatū and Turakina rivers is New Zealand’s most extensive area of sand country. The dunes, now covered in plants, reach up to 20 kilometres inland. Rivers emerge from the mountains and cross the region, cutting terraces and building flood plains.

From urban to jungle

New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, has a mountain wilderness – the Tararua Range – within sight of its downtown buildings. The range remains remote, and can be crossed only on foot. It has claimed many lives – usually because of unexpected bad weather and fast-rising rivers.


New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, clings to the greywacke hills that surround its superb harbour. Its narrow business district lies on flat land uplifted from the sea by a magnitude 8.2 earthquake in 1855. The city is hemmed in by the southern end of the greywacke ranges and by Cook Strait, and routes in and out are restricted.

The nearby urban areas of Lower and Upper Hutt are on the flood plains of the Hutt River, which flows along the depression created by the Wellington Fault.

Top of the South Island

The top of the South Island is a maze of hills and mountains. Split by the Alpine Fault, the rocks are more varied than anywhere else in New Zealand. There is little flat land suitable for agriculture, which led to conflict between European settlers and Māori in the early 1840s.

Marlborough Sounds

The South Island’s north-east corner is the Marlborough Sounds. This labyrinth of steep ridges, islands and river-carved valleys has been invaded by the sea, not just by rising sea levels after the last ice age, but because the area is sinking – tilting to the north-east. On the coast’s exposed outer edges, the waves of Cook Strait have cut dramatic cliffs. In the sheltered waterways within the Sounds, the hillsides slope more gently to the water’s edge.

Marlborough mountains and plains

South of the Marlborough Sounds, blocks of land have been raised and tilted along major faults. These form a series of ranges, including the Seaward and Inland Kaikōuras, and the Richmond Range.

Major rivers, such as the Wairau, Awatere and Clarence, flow through the long, straight valleys at the foot of each range. They carry gravels, which have formed large alluvial plains.

The Wairau plain is the largest flat area in the northern South Island. Grapes grow well on the free-draining gravels, and much farmland is now being turned into vineyards.

Moutere depression

The Moutere depression is a north–south belt of gravel and sand, more easily eroded than the ranges around it. The hill country is too steep for farming, and has mostly been cleared and planted in Pinus radiata. Near the coast is a relatively small area of flat land, the Waimea plains, which is intensively farmed.


Most mountains are pointed and spiky, but the north-west South Island has some unusual flat-topped summits. Originally under the sea, the ranges have been uplifted over the last million years, but did not erode into peaks because of their very hard, flat rock layers – limestone in the Matiri mountains, and sandstone in the Denniston–Stockton plateau.

North-west Nelson

Rugged and isolated, this corner of the South Island lies on bedrock of various ages and types, leading to diverse landforms.

The coastal Abel Tasman National Park has granite headlands and golden beaches, very different from New Zealand’s many grey-sand beaches. On the western edge of the park, Tākaka Hill and Canaan Downs are made of marble bedrock. This has dissolved to produce a network of deep caves, topped by a landscape of fluted rock, sinkholes, and pits such as the 176-metre-deep Harwoods Hole.

The remote Tasman Mountains largely lack road access, and are mostly part of Kahurangi National Park. A 30-kilometre-long expanse of sand, Farewell Spit, extends eastward from the park’s northern tip. The Heaphy Track provides an easy route for walkers from Golden Bay to the West Coast. In contrast, the Tasman Wilderness Area has deliberately been left without tracks and huts.

Buller River

The Buller River follows a tortuous 180-kilometre route from Lake Rotoiti westwards to the sea. It cuts through three granite mountain ranges, forming spectacular steep gorges. A road has been cut along the river, so the route that took early explorers several weeks now takes only several hours.

Westport is a port and mining town at the river’s mouth. The surrounding area is simply known as Buller. The Paparoa Range towers over the coastal area, forming part of Paparoa National Park.

Central South Island

Southern Alps

Stretching more than 500 kilometres from Mt Aspiring (Tititea) to the Nelson lakes, the Southern Alps are being raised along the Alpine Fault and many smaller faults to the east. The main divide and the Southern Alps’ highest peaks are near the mountains’ western margin – the top of Aoraki/Mt Cook is less than 35 kilometres from the Tasman Sea.

The mountains are largely greywacke – hard grey sandstone with layers of mudstone, often turned on end. West of the main divide is a thin band of schist – a shiny, layered rock.

A bit off the top

Until 1991, New Zealand’s highest peak, Aoraki/Mt Cook, was 3,764 metres high. Shortly after midnight on 14 December 1991, a large landslide destroyed part of the High Peak, eventually leaving the mountain 40 metres shorter. It is still several hundred metres taller than its closest rival, nearby Mt Tasman.

The Southern Alps are a major barrier to travel. Only a few roads link the east and west coasts, leading along deep gorges and over passes – Arthur’s Pass, Lewis Pass and the Haast Pass.

Beech forest once covered much of the Southern Alps. Large tracts remain near the main divide, but much of the eastern mountains was cleared for grazing. Their slopes are largely treeless, with extensive areas of scree. Broad gravel-bed rivers wind along flat valley floors and through interior basins, such as the Castle Hill and Mackenzie basins. Large alluvial fans spread out at the base of mountain valleys.

On the western side, lushly forested mountains rise abruptly from the coastal plains. Rivers cascade down the steep slopes, fed by the high rainfall.

Mountain namesakes

Geologist Julius Haast, who founded the Canterbury Museum, explored the Southern Alps in the 1860s. He named many peaks after British and European scientists – then wrote to introduce himself and tell them about it. He took the chance to build up networks – and the new museum’s collections.

Glaciers and glaciation

New Zealand’s biggest glaciers are clustered about the highest peaks. On the West Coast, Franz Josef and Fox glaciers descend almost to sea level from high-altitude snow basins. East of the divide, the 29-kilometre Tasman Glacier, New Zealand’s largest, flows past the foot of Aoraki/Mt Cook.

Glaciers were much bigger during the ice ages, and shaped much of the Southern Alps. They flowed from the main divide through valleys to the top of the Canterbury Plains and into the Tasman Sea, gouging basins now filled by lakes such as Tekapo, Pūkaki and Ōhau.

Canterbury Plains

Rivers such as the Waimakariri, Rakaia and Rangitātā have left sloping fans of greywacke gravel as they emerge from the mountains, creating the Canterbury Plains. This is New Zealand’s biggest lowland – 180 kilometres long and up to 70 kilometres wide. Over many glacial and interglacial periods, the plains have built up into the sea. They reached the huge basalt island volcanoes of Banks Peninsula only relatively recently, in geological terms.

Christchurch is on the coastal fringe of the Waimakariri River fan, just north of Banks Peninsula. Some suburbs spread up the volcano flanks, but much of the city is built on old river channels, with the river held at bay by stopbanks.


The narrow belt of lowlands on the West Coast, northward from Jackson Bay, are made of hard, often crystalline rocks. The land is relatively low because it lies on the west side of the Alpine Fault, where there is little uplift. These lowlands are covered with huge ridges of moraine – debris from ice-age glaciers that flowed westward from the mountains to the Tasman Sea.


Mountainous western Otago

Otago spans the widest part of the South Island. In the west, it includes the glaciated schist mountains of eastern Mount Aspiring National Park. Mt Aspiring (Tititea), known as ‘New Zealand’s Matterhorn’ because of its shape, is the highest peak outside the Aoraki/Mt Cook region, and there are many glaciers on the park’s mountains. To the south and east, lakes Wakatipu, Wānaka and Hāwea fill deep basins dug by ice-age glaciers. Queenstown, on the shore of 80-kilometre-long Lake Wakatipu, is known for its mountain views, especially the jagged outline of The Remarkables.

Central Otago

The landscapes of Central Otago are austere. Broad, rounded summits are covered in tussock and separated by wide basins. The region lies on schist, a flaky, layered rock. The range crests are studded by tors, huge castle-like columns of rock up to 20 metres high, and some of the uplands have mazes of rock outcrops. The terrain is reflected in the names of ranges – Knobby, Raggedy, Rock and Pillar, Old Man, and Pisa.

Sheltered by mountains on all sides, Central Otago is New Zealand’s driest area, and is a major fruit and wine-growing region.

The broad basins between the ranges contain plains, including the Maniototo and Strath Taieri, which are drained by winding rivers such as the Taieri and Manuherikia. Larger rivers such as the Kawarau and Clutha cross the region, flowing from Lakes Wakatipu and Wānaka. The rivers were there before the ranges were uplifted, and have maintained their courses, carving deep rocky gorges through the rising mountains. Terraces along these rivers show that their valleys were alternately filled with gravel and then gouged out, as ice-age glaciers waxed and waned.

Mind the gap

Māori routes between Wānaka and Southland met at one point – a ‘bridge of stone’ where the Kawarau River could be crossed. The entire volume of the river thundered through a narrow rock slot, 10 metres deep but just 2 metres wide at the top. In 1853, with a Māori guide, farmer Nathanael Chalmers was the first European to leap across.

Eastern Otago

Towards the coast, rainfall increases and the landscape becomes much greener. Cape Wanbrow, near Ōamaru, was part of an undersea volcano. At Moeraki, the beach is strewn with spherical concretions – the Moeraki Boulders – which have fallen from the surrounding mudstone cliffs.

The city of Dunedin lies on the fringes of an ancient volcano, extinct for about 10 million years. The volcano has been deeply eroded by streams, and as the sea rose at the end of the last ice age, it flooded a valley and formed Otago Harbour. The city lies at the head of the harbour.

Some of Dunedin’s western suburbs are built on soft, unstable sedimentary rock. In 1979 a huge landslide in one suburb, Abbotsford, wrecked 69 homes.

Southland and Stewart Island

Eastern Southland

The green landscapes of eastern Southland reflect the region’s high rainfall. The main ranges, including the Takitimu Mountains, Longwood Range and Hokonui Hills, run from north-west to south-east. Several ranges meet the sea at the Catlins coast, a scenic area of forested hills, rocky headlands and sandy bays.

Four main rivers – the Waiau, Aparima, Oreti and Mataura – drain Southland’s plains. Some of New Zealand’s richest farmlands are on these alluvial plains, as well as on rolling hills and lowlands.

Top track

Fiordland’s Milford Track has been called ‘the finest walk in the world’. Taking three to four days, the trip is so popular that the number of walkers at any one time has had to be restricted. From the head of Lake Te Anau, the track follows the Clinton River, then zigzags up and over the Mackinnon Pass and down the Arthur River to Milford Sound.


The vast wilderness of Fiordland, over 10,000 square kilometres, occupies the south-west corner of the South Island. Glacier-carved mountains, lakes and fiords combine to produce astonishing scenery. Fiordland is New Zealand’s largest national park, and one of the largest in the world. Only a fraction of its landscapes are regularly seen by visitors – mostly around Milford Sound or on the Milford Track.

Fiordland’s mountains are higher in the north, and most of the glaciers today are in the Darran Mountains, north of Milford Sound. The landscape, however, was created by glaciers long ago. In the ice ages, Fiordland was capped by ice that flowed into the Tasman Sea, carving valleys well below present sea level. Glaciers also flowed eastwards, digging basins now filled with large, deep lakes such as Te Anau, Manapōuri, and Monowai.

After the ice ages, the sea level rose and flooded the western coastline, creating 14 major fiords. Extending up to 40 kilometres inland, these arms of the sea are several hundred metres deep, and can accommodate ocean liners. Milford Sound, overlooked by famous Mitre Peak, is the best-known.

Soaked by 7 metres or more of rain each year, Fiordland’s mountains are clad in lush greenery and its valleys teem with waterfalls. Sutherland Falls, New Zealand’s highest waterfall, cascades 580 metres in three stages.

Bright skies

Rakiura, the Māori name for Stewart Island, can be translated as ‘land of the glowing skies’. This might refer to the spectacular summer sunsets – or to the night-time displays of aurora australis, the southern lights.

Stewart Island (Rakiura)

Separated from the South Island by windswept Foveaux Strait, Stewart Island (Rakiura) is largely wilderness. Its only settlement, Oban, lies near the entrance to Paterson Inlet (Whaka a Te Wera), a drowned river valley that cuts more than halfway across the island. At the head of the inlet are the swampy flats of the Freshwater River.

On the western coast, Mason Bay has an expanse of unusual dune fields. The central lowland divides the island into two mountainous areas of forested granite with barren summits. Mt Anglem (Hananui), on the island’s north coast, is its highest peak at 980 metres.

Offshore islands

As well as the three main islands (the North and South islands and Stewart Island), New Zealand's territory includes three remote groups of offshore islands: the Kermadec Islands in the north, the Chatham Islands to the east, and the subantarctic islands in the south.

Kermadec Islands

The Kermadec Islands are the only part of a chain of huge volcanoes that have emerged above the sea, more than 1,000 kilometres north-east of the North Island. From north to south, they are Raoul (or Sunday) Island, Macauley Island, Curtis Island, and L’Esperance rock. The largest, Raoul Island, has erupted several times within the historic record, most recently in 2006.

All the islands are scientific reserves, and have restricted access. Raoul Island has New Zealand’s northernmost meteorological station. It is covered in broadleaf forest, mainly pōhutukawa.

Goats were released on Raoul and Macauley islands in the 19th century to feed shipwrecked sailors, and have badly damaged the vegetation – Macauley Island now resembles a grassy meadow. Goats were eradicated at the end of the 20th century, and the plants are slowly recovering.

Chatham Islands

The Chatham Islands are geologically part of New Zealand, but are 800 kilometres east. They lie on a long finger of continental shelf that reaches eastward from the South Island. Low-lying and windswept, the islands’ traditional Moriori name, Rēkohu, means ‘misty shores’.

There are four main islands – Chatham, Pitt, Rangatira (also called South-East Island) and Māngere – as well as many small rocks and reefs. Only Chatham and Pitt are inhabited.

The largest island, Rēkohu or Chatham Island, has long sandy beaches and a flat or rolling landscape, covered in thick peat. Nearly a quarter is occupied by shallow lakes and lagoons, and the central Te Whanga lagoon looks like an inland sea. Formerly a deep bay, it has been enclosed by sand dunes on the eastern side, but occasionally opens to the sea. Its water is brackish. Conspicuous volcanic cones and plugs dot the north end of the island, and the southern end is formed of ancient volcanic rock.

Pitt (Rangiauria) Island is much smaller than Chatham, but more rugged. It is ringed with cliffs. Rangatira and Māngere islands are free of introduced mammals, and are important sanctuaries for threatened species.

Subantarctic islands

The subantarctic islands consist of five island groups (the Snares, Bounty, Antipodes and Auckland islands, and Campbell Island) scattered over the ocean south of New Zealand. The Auckland Islands and Campbell Island are remnants of ancient volcanoes, but the others are made of granite that lies under the huge submarine Campbell Plateau.

There were several unsuccessful attempts to settle the islands for sealing and farming. They are now nature reserves and a World Heritage Area. The United Nations Environment Programme has described them as the most diverse and extensive of all subantarctic archipelagos, and they have a wide range of wildlife, especially birds. Landing on the islands is strictly controlled.

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How to cite this page: Eileen McSaveney, 'Landscapes – overview', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Eileen McSaveney, i tāngia i te 24 o Hepetema 2007, updated 1 o Hūrae 2015