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Immigrating to New Zealand: The Lay of the Land

New Zealand tends to be pictured in the world’s eyes as a couple of islands just off the coast of Australia. In truth, Australia is more than 1,200 miles away, or a three-hour flight. Almost as far away are the nearest countries of the South Pacific, such as Tonga and Fiji. There is no doubt that New Zealand is geographically isolated from the rest of the world, and the first European settlers must have truly felt like they had arrived at the end of the earth! In today’s global village, communication with the rest of the planet is much easier, but the country remains physically distant from even its closest neighbors.

Aerial view of Queenstown, located on the south island of New Zealand. Photo © istockphoto.
Aerial view of Queenstown, located on South Island of New Zealand. Photo © istockphoto.

New Zealand’s two main islands, the creatively named North Island and South Island, cover roughly the same area of land as the United Kingdom, or slightly more than Japan. Stewart Island lies south of South Island. It is small, housing only 400 full-time residents, and is often forgotten even by New Zealanders. The Chatham Islands, several hundred kilometers to the east, also belong to New Zealand. If you truly want to live at the end of the earth, the Chatham Islands will fit the bill nicely.

Located toward the top of the North Island is Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city and the only city in the country with more than half a million residents. The Auckland region is home to over 1.4 million people, almost one-third of the national population. The vast majority of new immigrants settle in Auckland because of the work opportunities, which makes it the most ethnically diverse city in the country as well.

The North Island has an active geothermal area in its center. Boiling mud, hot springs, geysers, and active volcanoes are just some of the results of this underground heat. New Zealanders have put this natural source of steam to good use as a power generator. It’s one of the country’s many sources of “clean” electricity, combined with hydroelectric power and wind turbines.

The Hawke’s Bay region on the east side of the North Island is some of the most fertile land in the country; many of New Zealand’s fruit crops are grown in the region, and it’s home to a number of wineries with international reputations. Just north of Hawke’s Bay lies the easternmost city in New Zealand, Gisborne, the first city in the world to greet the new day.

The southern end of the North Island is home to New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington. Wellington is also the main transportation link to the South Island with flights and ferries leaving several times a day.

The northern regions of the South Island are prized agricultural land and home to some of the most successful wineries in the country. The island’s main geographic feature is a string of mountains running almost all of the way down its center. They are known as the Southern Alps and have rugged, picturesque peaks and spectacular glaciers. The South Island also features the only significant plains in the country, in the Canterbury region to the east of the Alps. The far south is home to a small but hardy population who put up with the country’s coldest conditions. Said to be similar in climate to Scotland, the far south attracted Scottish immigrants from the earliest days of European settlement.

Stewart Island is cool, rainy, and often covered in mud. The island is trying to turn itself into a popular holiday destination by attracting ecotourists with promises of unspoiled wilderness and rare wildlife.

Country Divisions

The main way New Zealanders divide up their country is by island: North Island, South Island, and Stewart Island. But there are official government divisions that break things down further.

Maps - New Zealand 3e - New Zealand islands
New Zealand

The country is divided into regions, run by regional councils. There are 11 regional councils plus 5 unitary authorities (which function as both regional and local governments) in New Zealand. These are more or less the New Zealand equivalent of states or provinces. They are the political boundaries that divide the country into manageable bits. The regional councils (going roughly from north to south) are Northland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Hawke’s Bay, Taranaki, Manawatu-Wanganui, Greater Wellington, West Coast, Canterbury, Otago, and Southland. The unitary authorities are Auckland, Gisborne, Tasman, Nelson, and Marlborough.

Regional councils are responsible for a number of local resources, including air and land (such as controlling building permits and zoning). They manage regional coastal areas, rivers, and other freshwater sources, and take responsibility for flood, erosion, and pollution control. They are also in charge of regional transportation planning, including the contracting of public transit services and harbor safety. In the event of a natural disaster, another regional council responsibility is regional civil defense preparation.

Regions are further broken down into local authorities, each with its own local council. There are 12 city councils and 54 district councils representing every part of the country.

National maps rarely show the regions marked as boundaries, instead highlighting natural features and specific towns and cities. It seems Kiwis are not all that interested in regional identities, unless there’s a rugby team involved! This may seem strange to anyone who grew up memorizing his or her state motto, state bird, and state flower, but bear in mind that New Zealand is small, and most of these regions have populations under half a million, with the smallest (West Coast) coming in at just over 30,000 residents.

However, as a potential immigrant you may find these regions useful in helping you to understand the differences between various parts of New Zealand, not to mention knowing where to go if you need to deal with regional government.


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