If Australia, as a nation, is negotiating late adolescence, cocksure but fragile, striving to establish its identity, then New Zealand is a child: clear-eyed, blemish-free, with a steady, candid gaze.
My introduction to this gigantic adult playground came by way of a promotional video, shown by Air New Zealand on the flight from London to Auckland and starring the country's Prime Minister, gutsy, trouser-clad Helen Clark. The no-nonsense name suits Ms Clark, who has the aura of a strict but fair headmistress. In an impressively gung-ho fashion, she tackles a series of stomach-churning activities available to visitors – a 100-metre abseil into the Lost World caves at Waitomo on the North Island, a ride on the Hamilton jetboat, complete with 360-degree spins, and an exhausting-looking glacier hike – that leave her male companion looking weak and almost tearful. The Kiwi experience offers endless scope to be scared witless, it seems: to the list endured by Ms Clark, add freefall parachuting, bridge-swinging, and bungee jumps of unimaginable horror.
Helen Clark comes across, as did all the Kiwis I met in the course of my trip, as infinitely approachable, so that had I encountered her on the street in Auckland, I might well have gone up to her and said, 'Hello. We met on the plane.' This openness may, in part, be a consequence of the fact that there is more than enough room for everyone: just 3.8 million Kiwis share land masses – the North and South islands – that together are roughly the size of Great Britain. For the solitude-seeker, then, there is ample opportunity to avoid seeing another person for long stretches of time; and on the walks (or 'tramps', as the Kiwis call them) for which NZ is renowned this engenders a sense of intimacy that is not normally associated with wide open spaces. There are as many tracks as you could ever want – from the Abel Tasman coastal track (two to three days), which follows the immaculate beaches and clear waters of the northern half of the South Island, to the world-famous Milford Track (four days), through staggeringly beautiful glacial scenery.
New Zealand's physical attributes have become well known, thanks to their exposure in Lord of the Rings, but still they merit listing: glacier-fed lakes of an indescribable shade of blue, craggy coastlines, glassy fjords, erupting geysers, smooth, buff-coloured beaches, subtropical forests and rolling green farmland dotted with cows that look contented to the point of smugness. For a traveller on the run from the rigours of urban life, it is tempting to project on to these isolated islands – even Australia is more than 1,000 miles away – clich