Australia & NZ Iceland

Why Iceland and New Zealand are twins separated at birth

December 8, 2017
Iceland is very sparsely populated.

Two countries at opposite ends of the earth. New Zealand, our near neighbour just ‘across the ditch’, and Iceland, almost as far away as you can travel from Australia.

Who would have ever thought they could be twins separated at birth?

It didn’t cross my mind until our Icelandic mountain guide revealed he’d recently been in a ‘boast-off’ with a Kiwi client about which country has the best or most impressive natural features.

Iceland seems to be flavour of the month at the moment so I can understand why New Zealanders might feel a little put out. Once I got thinking about it, I realised there are plenty of similarities.

So, here are 11 reasons why I’m sure Iceland and New Zealand were separated at birth:

#1. Iceland and New Zealand are both top of the travel pops

Both countries are hot travel destinations and tend to be high on travellers’ bucket lists. Both have experienced strong growth in international visitor numbers in recent years. Everyone I chat to about travel seems to know someone who’s just been or is about to go to Iceland.

Iceland is certainly riding a wave of popularity. The number of foreign visitors has quadrupled since 2010 from just under half a million to 1.8 million travellers in 2016. New Zealand welcomed 3.6 million international visitors in the last year.

In the same way that Iceland is a weekend away for Europeans, Australians can duck over the Tasman to New Zealand for a short break.

Walkers on the Milford Track

Walkers on the popular Milford Track in New Zealand.

Thingvellir National Park is part of the Golden Circle and is where the European and American tectonic plates have collided to create a massive fissure in the earth.

Thingvellir National Park, part of the popular Golden Circle of attractions in Iceland. This is where the European and American tectonic plates have collided to create a massive fissure in the earth.

#2. Sparsely populated small, remote islands

You can drive for miles in Iceland without seeing a soul and when you do come to a village, there are often only a few hundred permanent local residents.

Iceland is a small island and 80 percent of its 103,000 square kilometres are uninhabited. To give you some idea, two-thirds of its 330,000 population live in the capital Reykjavik.

New Zealand has quite a few more people, 4.69 million, and is more than double the size of Iceland at 268,000 square kilometres, so it’s not quite as sparsely populated as its sub-Arctic ‘twin’. It’s made up of two islands – north and south – and there’s plenty of open landscape where you can be on your Pat Malone and practice some mindfulness.

A lone house enjoys stunning views in the fjords of northern Iceland.

You can drive for miles in Iceland without seeing a soul.

#3. Sheep outnumber people in Iceland and New Zealand

Australians have been cracking jokes about New Zealanders and sheep forever.

The fact is, in both New Zealand and Iceland, there are way more sheep than people. (Funnily enough, the same is true in Australia!)

There are 29 million sheep in NZ, that’s a sheep to person ratio of seven to one. In Iceland, there are more than two sheep for every human (800,000 sheep).

Sheep roam all around the country in Iceland – grazing grass on the roadside or standing smack bang in the middle of the road. In NZ, they tend to be contained on farms behind fences.

All those lambs and sheep aren’t just for eating – Iceland and New Zealand both create great wool products and exceptional outdoor clothing.

Sheep in Iceland.

Sheep in Iceland.

#4. The big (and small) screen has brought fame and fortune to Iceland and New Zealand

Thanks to their stunning, dramatic and otherworldly natural landscapes both Iceland and New Zealand are sought-after filming locations.

Iceland really hit the big time when it played a lead role in the hit movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, plus it’s featured in the phenomenally popular TV series The Game of Thrones. There are now tours visiting some of the most memorable GoT filming locations. The Icelandic crime series Trapped and Fortitude are also filmed locally.

New Zealand found fame with Peter Jackson’s blockbuster movie series, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, which were filmed in various locations on the north and south islands. The movies have been extremely influential in enticing travellers to the land of the long white cloud (The Maori name for NZ is Aotearoa which translates to the land of the long white cloud).

#5. Iceland and New Zealand are extremely volatile

Before its starring role in movies and TV series, Iceland came to the world’s attention when its unpronounceable volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, erupted in 2010 and caused travel chaos across Europe. Some predict the next Icelandic volcano to ‘blow’ will be Hekla in the south which last erupted in 2000. Iceland has a long history of major volcanic eruptions.

New Zealand sits on similarly volatile earth. Just off Auckland, you can hike up the volcanic Rangitoto island while Mount Ruapehu, also on the north island and made famous as Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings, is the largest active volcano in New Zealand. It stirred to life again last year (2016) with warnings an eruption was imminent. It’s a popular skiing and hiking area so is closely monitored.  

One of New Zealand’s worst natural disasters was the devastating earthquake in the city of Christchurch in 2011. The quake crippled the city and claimed the lives of 185 people. The rebuilding continues today.

The Hekla volcano, which is due to erupt any day, was very eerie.

We drove up to the Hekla volcano, which is due to erupt any day, and it was incredibly eerie.

View of Auckland from Rangitoto island.

View of Auckland from the volcanic Rangitoto island.

#6. Mud baths, geysers and hot springs

Both countries boast hot earth where geothermal activity results in steaming hot springs, boiling mud baths, stinky sulphur gases and erupting geysers.

Geysir in Iceland and Rotorua in New Zealand are the most famous geothermal areas.

The stunning Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa of warm, milky blue water rich in minerals is one of the most iconic images of Iceland. Nature baths like these are said to be therapeutic and good for your skin.

Iceland has channelled all that geothermal activity into energy which now provides about a quarter of Iceland’s electricity and almost 90 percent of hot water. Would you believe that pavements and some streets in Reykjavik are heated in the winter?

The Hverir geothermal area in north Iceland.

The Hverir geothermal area in north Iceland.

#7. From fire to ice

Iceland is often referred to as the land of fire and ice because of its volcanoes and glaciers.

Tourists are drawn to its impressive glaciers, ice caves and glacial lagoons. Glacier hikes, ice climbs and snowmobile tours are popular. The Vatnajökull glacier, the largest in Europe, is the most popular and the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, with icebergs that have broken off from the glacier, is stunning. We did a hike up Snæfellsjökull glacier in west Iceland and it was the highlight of our holiday.

Sometimes you don’t take much notice of what’s right on your doorstep so while I’m familiar with New Zealand’s glaciers I’ve focussed more on the country’s hiking trails and if I’m honest, its world-class wine! But New Zealand’s glaciers are spectacular too.

The Tasman glacier, below Mount Cook in the south island, is the largest and has a beautiful glacier lagoon with floating icebergs.  The Fox glacier and Franz Josef glaciers are well-known and popular with adventurers.

Fjallsárlón glacier lagoon in south east Iceland.

Fjallsárlón glacier lagoon in south-east Iceland.

#8. Cascading waterfalls and deep fjords

To the volcanoes and glaciers … add waterfalls and fjords.

Cruising around the coast of Iceland and parts of New Zealand is a journey alongside steep, jagged, high cliffs and mountains, and the aqua blue waters of the fjords.

The Fiordland National Park in New Zealand’s South Island is a World Heritage site and includes Milford and Doubtful Sounds. The main fjords in Iceland are in the east and west of the country.

While there are some stunning waterfalls in NZ, Iceland is famous for its waterfalls. There are hundreds of them. If you drive around Iceland’s Ring Road there are heaps of ‘must-see’ waterfalls such as Gullfoss, Seljalandsfoss, Skogafoss, Dettifoss, Svartifoss and Godafoss to name just a few. There are fossar big and small, everywhere you go. It’s not hard to get a little ‘fossed out’!

One of the many waterfalls along the Milford Track.

One of the many waterfalls along the Milford Track in New Zealand.

Godafoss waterfall in north Iceland.

There are waterfalls – foss – all over Iceland, some of them very large and famous. We visited a lot of the big ones and I particularly liked Godafoss in North Iceland.

#9. Iceland and New Zealand – paradise for adventure lovers

All this rugged landscape makes both countries an adventure lovers’ paradise. They’re magnets for active travellers and outdoors addicts.

Iceland is an adventure. Its extreme, changeable weather means there’s a limited window to do a lot of activities and the long summer days mean you can pack a helluva lot into your day. In New Zealand where the climate’s a lot more temperate, Queenstown is the country’s adventure capital.

If you’re into hiking, biking, ice climbing, kayaking, boating, fishing, surfing, whitewater rafting, skiing, then with Iceland and New Zealand, you’ve met your perfect travel match.

Cold and windy whiteout at the Mackinnon Memorial, the high point of the Milford Track.

Cold and windy whiteout at the Mackinnon Memorial, the high point of the Milford Track.

Hiking up the famous Snaefellsjokull glacier in West Iceland.

Heading up on the famous Snaefellsjokull glacier in West Iceland.

#10. Black sand beaches

One of my most enduring images of Iceland are the black sand beaches near the coastal town of Vik. They’re incredibly dramatic with the white surf foam rolling in over the rich black sand, especially for an Australian beach girl who’s used to golden sands and deep blue ocean.

You’ll find black sand beaches near Auckland on the west coast of the north island, a popular surfing area. That one’s on my bucket list.

The black sand beach at Reynifjara in south Iceland.

It was pouring rain the day we visited the black sand beach of Reynisfjara which only enhanced the black, white and grey colour palette. This is the view from Dyrholaey

#11. Epic island road trips

Driving Iceland’s ring road, the route that circles the island is an epic road trip. It’s by far the best way to see the country. Same in New Zealand, hire yourself a car or campervan and head off. Public transport’s not your best friend if you want adventure and freedom to explore in these two countries.

Be warned, roads in Iceland are challenging. The ring road, Route 1, is a single lane each way, it’s narrow and there’s generally no shoulder. If you veer off, you’re in strife. Off the main ring road, roads are generally gravel.

In New Zealand, outside the main cities the roads are generally undivided with a single lane in each direction. Kiwis drive on the left which can be a challenge for many tourists.

So, what’s missing?

One thing New Zealand has an abundance of and Iceland needs desperately is decent wine!

NZ is a wine lovers’ paradise, Iceland a wine lovers’ idea of hell.

What do you think?

When it comes to natural beauty, New Zealand is hard to beat. Yet Iceland, as one of the most exotic destinations on the planet, sure gives them a run for their money.

What do you think? Have you visited both countries? Do you think they’re very similar? Is one more beautiful than the other? Share in the comments below.

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