The several islands which make up New Zealand are distinctly isolated in the great expanse of the southwest Pacific Ocean. The greatest unit, South Island, is diametrically opposed to the Iberian peninsula; the Canterbury plains along its middle eastern shore are the antipodes of the northwestern corner of Spain. More precisely, the exact center of the island is not far from 45 degrees south latitude and 170 degrees east longitude. Together with slightly smaller North Island and Stewart Island off its southern flank, South Island is separated by long distances from the nearest inhabited Pacific islands and lies some twelve hundred miles from the Australian continent.
The significance of the isolated location can hardly be overemphasized. The highly individualized flora and fauna indicate a period of separation from other land masses which is long in the geologic time scale. The first men (of perceptible record) visited the present islands of New Zealand probably little more than a thousand years ago. These islands were the last considerable land areas, outside of the highest latitudes, to be visited by Europeans. Indeed, by past or present routes of travel, they are the farthest habitable parts of the world from northwestern Europe. It is barely four centuries since the first European brought even a vague report of the island. Known to an apathetic world in the nineteenth century as the most distant of the Australian colonies of Great Britain, New Zealand was literally at the end of the line, a modern Ultima Thule.
South Island's location relative to the Polynesian islands on the northeast and the Australian continent to the west has played a highly significant role in the development of its contemporary regional character. Effective European settlement began in Australia some decades before it was extended to New Zealand. Because of prevailing winds, the sailing routes, and indeed the chief steaming routes until the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, from any part of northwestern Europe to New Zealand ran around the Cape of Good Hope and past Australia. Thus, South Island, and thence the rest of the country, derived the most important elements of its early pastoral and agricultural complex from Australia.