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New Zealand was originally settled in the 1100s by the Maoris (pronounced MAU-rees), who called it Aotearoa (Land of the Long White Cloud). A tradition of oral history recounts how 10 great canoes arrived from an island near Tahiti to populate the islands. For more than 500 years Maori life went untouched by the outside world. They had spectacular zigzag tattoos; developed a culture of fishing, hunting and gathering. Rival groups warred with one another, and the battles often resulted in the losers being eaten or enslaved by the victors.
The next epoch in the islands' history opened in 1642, when the Dutch explorer Abel van Tasman sighted the land and called it Niuew Zeeland. He charted part of the coastline but left without officially claiming it. Some 130 years later Capt. James Cook claimed the islands for the British throne. He circumnavigated both main islands, which he mapped with an accuracy that is still admired (and used) today.
However, it wasn't until the 1830s that European settlement began in earnest. Conflict between the Maoris and the British settlers ensued until 1840, when a conditional peace was established with the Treaty of Waitangi. Another, bloodier war was fought in the early 1860s and ended with the uneasy coexistence that persists to this day.
From the 1860s to the 1880s, gold fever drew thousands of prospectors to New Zealand. About the same time, large sheep farms began to be established on land cleared from the native forests. The country became autonomous in 1907 and is today an independent member of the Commonwealth.
Since 1984 the government has accomplished major economic restructuring, moving an agrarian economy dependent on concessionary British market access toward a more industrialized, free market economy that can compete globally. This dynamic growth has boosted real incomes, broadened and deepened the technological capabilities of the industrial sector, and contained inflationary pressures. Inflation remains among the lowest in the industrial world. Per capita GDP has been moving up toward the levels of the big West European economies.
New Zealanders sometimes refer to their country as God Zone, a rather prideful twist on the phrase "God's Own." But if you like gorgeous scenery and gutsy people, you'll agree with them. New Zealand is blessed with some of the most varied and dramatic terrain in the world, from glaciers and fjords and beaches to mountains and meadows and rain forests. If you're so inclined, you can admire the breathtaking scenery while skiing, surfing, jet-boating, horseback riding, mountain climbing or hiking (which the locals call "tramping").
And if those pursuits aren't exciting enough, you can try some of the adventures the Kiwis (as New Zealanders are called) have invented to make your blood race: You can bungee-jump off cliffs or bridges; rocket through narrow caverns on jet boats; or strap yourself inside a giant plastic ball and roll down a hillside.
If you prefer more leisurely activities, you can still enjoy New Zealand's natural wonders by strolling along its pristine beaches, sailing on its picturesque bays or fishing in its crystal-clear rivers and lakes.