Your Tent is a Biohazard... least, it is as far as the New Zealand department of customs and biohazards is concerned.

(Ed Note: BACKPACKER web producer Katie Herrell is on a two-week surfing, hiking, and mountain biking jaunt through Middle Ear--, er, New Zealand. This is her dispatch from that other, cooler land down under.)

Per the norm when traveling to a foreign country, every air traveler to New Zealand receives tiny pencils and customs cards, all furnished with a certain amount of gravitas that transcends any language (or in this case, accent) barrier.

Alongside the declaration of any foods that may carry disease (meats, raw nuts, fruits, and vegetables), Kiwis are particularly concerned with any camping or fishing gear in your possession, and the sordid details of any recent hikes or camping trips you've used that equipment on.

The reason? On this isolated, 268,680-square-kilometer island, any outside pathogens or other microscopic enemies nesting on tent poles or embedded in boot soles pose serious threats to the native flora and fauna, much of which is unique to these two islands in the far South Pacific.

Our travel guide of choice, Insight Guides New Zealand, said:

Nearly all of the country's insects and marine molluscs (sic), 80 percent of the flora and 25 percent of the birds are found nowhere else. As such New Zealand flora and fauna -- and efforts to preserve them -- are gaining importance worldwide.

The threat of negative outside influences gets taken very seriously here--so seriously, in fact, that it inspires reality-show drama. One Cops-like television show features diligent customs workers at work, unpacking carefully stuffed tents with a flourish and dragging one weary traveler through the double doors of security to stomp her boots through some frighteningly toxic-looking cleaning fluid.

New Zealand is an extremely friendly country, but they are also extremely intent on preserving their land's natural beauty and heritage, and that begins with a thorough inspection of the many "travelers" who pass through. Scads of urban backpackers (more on them later) lug their immense packs filled with dirty t-shirts and well-used sleeping bags from hostel to campground and then back again, without a thought to what might've hitched a ride with them from the last country they visited. That's where New Zealand custom agents and inspectors swoop in to save the day from invasive species.

Luckily for us, we only had to toss a few apples and declare a fly rod upon landing in Kiwi-land for our two-week stay. More to come...

--Katie Herrell

(Photo: Just one example of the fantastically weird, Seussian plants that inhabit New Zealand.)