New Zealand (Aotearoa in Maori) is a temperate country located in the southwest Pacific. It is composed of two main islands and a number of smaller islands, some of which are quite distant. The South Island is the largest land mass and is divided along it's length by the Southern Alps, the highest peak of which is Mount Cook, at 3 754m. There are eighteen peaks of more than three kilometres in the South Island. The North Island is less mountainous than the South but is marked by volcanism. The tallest North Island mountain, Ruapehu (2 797m) is an active cone volcano. The total land area of New Zealand, 270 500km2 is somewhat smaller than that of Japan or the British Isles, and slightly larger than that of Colorado in the U.S.A. The country extends more than 1 600km along it's main, north-northeast axis. The climate throughout the country is mild, rarely falling below 0°C or rising above 30°C. Daily average temperature in Wellington, the centrally located capital, is 5.9°C in midwinter and 20.3°C in midsummer.
Because of it's relative isolation, New Zealand developed a unique ecosystem, the most distinctive feature of which was the absence, until Polynesian colonisation, of any land mammals except three species of New Zealand bat. Many of the niches that would normally have been occupied by mammals were occupied by birds, including the flightless kiwi and the moa. Moas, now extinct, could grow to a height of up to 3m. The kiwi and the fern fronds characteristic of New Zealand's native forests serve as national symbols. New Zealand is also home to the tuatara, an ancient form of reptile, and the weta, an insect that can grow to 8cm or more in length.
New Zealand is an independent parliamentary democracy governed by a Parliament of one hundred and twenty members, from which an executive Cabinet of twenty members is selected. This Cabinet is led by the Prime Minister, currently (May 2001) Helen Clark of the centre-left Labour Party. Five other parties are also represented, at the time of writing, in the New Zealand Parliament. New Zealand's head of state is Queen Elizabeth II, who is represented by the Governor General, The Honourable Dame Silvia Cartwright.
New Zealand is one of the most recently settled major land masses. Polynesian settlers arrived, probably some time between 500 and 1300 A.D., and established the indigenous Maori culture. The first European explorers to reach New Zealand were Abel Tasman, who arrived from the Netherlands in 1642, and James Cook, an English explorer, whose extensive surveys, which started in 1769, led to significant European colonisation from the 1790s on. As of the 1996 census, New Zealand's total population was approximately 3.7 million people. Although the majority of the New Zealand population is now of European origin, Maori and Pacific Islanders are the second and third largest ethnic groups, and Maori culture is a significant feature of New Zealand's public life. It is perhaps due to the mild climate and low population that outdoor recreation is very popular with New Zealanders. Rugby, cricket, netball, sailing, hiking and horse racing have enthusiastic followings.
New Zealand is a modern, industrialised country. It's primary export industries are agriculture, horticulture, fishing and forestry. New Zealand also maintains substantial manufacturing, tourism and service industries. The country's currency is the New Zealand Dollar.