New Zealand’s popular Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been in the news lately. Recently, the country’s charming sheepherder-in-chief was turned away while attempting to enter a cafe in the nation’s capital, Wellington, where somewhat ironically the seating was limited due to her own social distancing recommendations for businesses.
However, the incident generated no drama, no hissy-fits, no Twitter-bitching, no claims of conspiracy theory. The PM was reportedly courteous, gracious, and friendly - you know, demonstrating how a mature, rational world leader should behave when circumstances don’t go their way.
Her attitude will come as no surprise to anyone who’s visited the dual North Island/South Island country with a land area of Colorado and inhabited by 5 million amiable people and 30 million sheep, mostly destined to succumb to the world’s appetite for lamb.
I spent a week in New Zealand some years ago and everything about the country - the scenery, the food, the people - was spectacular. Really. You can drive from the beach to the mountains, then up to a volcano, around a geyser, into a rainforest, or through a desert within minutes. Well, almost.
The people are overwhelmingly welcoming, too, and I especially recall one bus driver.
During a day excursion to Cape Reinga at the top of the North Island, we traveled by bus along 90 Mile Beach. And when I say along the beach, I mean just yards away from the South Pacific Ocean actually ON the beach - hurtling toward our destination at what seemed (appropriately) near 90 miles per hour. How this massive vehicle failed to sink into the soggy wet sand still baffles me.
Half-way through the trip the driver turned to our 10-year-old son and to his astonishment asked, “You want to steer?” The driver scooted over and our wide-eyed child took his seat, gripping the giant wheel and navigating the 40-foot bus loaded with fellow tourists mostly too enthralled with the ocean scenery to notice their new chauffeur. Only a handful appeared to hastily compose their last will and testament on used napkins.
As for New Zealand food, the Kiwi’s - as they are fondly known - love their fresh, abundant seafood and, not surprisingly, their lamb: roast lamb, lamb shanks, racks of lamb, leg of lamb, lamb chops, lamb kebabs, Irish stew, shepherd’s pie (made with, umm, lamb) - almost as many lamb recipes as there are sheep. Did I mention NZ has a lot of sheep? A 6:1 ratio in favor of the tasty four-legged fleece balls with the luckier ones ending up as sweaters rather than on menus.
New Zealand is also home to some beautiful birds including the well-known flightless kiwi, the rare yellow-eyed penguin, and the colorful takahe with its brilliant scarlet beak and legs.
One critter you won’t find in New Zealand is snakes - another reason to love the country. By contrast to their larger neighbor some 1,200 miles (as the seagull flies) to the west, Australia is home to some of the world’s deadliest reptiles, spiders, jellyfish and more (the centipedes are so long they could probably kill by strangulation). But New Zealand has few malicious animals eager to bite, sting, or poison you.
For instance, most of the country’s 1,000 spider species are harmless, although I still had no desire to come face-to-face with the 6-inch leg-span Nelson cave spider. Nor its main prey - the cave weta, a giant flightless cricket and one of 70 weta species that can grow to 4 inches which probably could kill you - by heart attack! Needless to say, it was a spelunking-free vacation.
With the exception of the rare katipo, a small poisonous spider related to the black widow of North America and for which no deaths have been reported in over 100 years, the fauna of New Zealand is as cordial as its human population.
Of course, no country is perfect. But if there is a slice of heaven on earth, it might just be New Zealand - unless, of course, you’re an anxious sheep contemplating its future.
This nation of stunning natural beauty populated by congenial people and fauna could be the perfect escape for anyone eager to flee their recent home confinement in search of a truly grand adventure.
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 800 newspapers and magazines. See www.getnickt.org.