I’m breaking tradition a bit by publishing a post about a country while I’m still in it, which is risky for the obvious reason that if the locals get hold of this literature I may be tossed into a volcano faster than you can say “chur,” which is a phrase not nearly as widespread as people want you to think. Indeed, not once have I heard someone say that, and I’ve been here for almost two years. Nonetheless, now seems like a still moment in my pond of life, calm enough between the ripples of upheaval from the rocks 2020 has thrown at me to reflect (pun intended) on my very long Kiwi experiment.
New Zealand. Or, as it should be known: comic sans land. Yes, that font you haven’t seen since 2004, widely decried as the most hated typeface and deemed illegal in professional contexts, is everywhere, even on shop fronts, product labels and marketing literature. It is a country awkwardly situated between the progressive modern and an outdated yesteryear. The endless development littering its biggest city, Auckland, and rural hotspots like Wanaka in the south hint at its scramble to keep up with tourism demand, as well as a more ominous underbelly of property and infrastructure bought by foreign entities and controversial investment poured in from overseas – especially China. And, because I like not being spied on by the Chinese government, that’s all I’ll say on that issue. At the same time, you don’t have to venture far to see the veneer of modernity fall away into mullets, ramshackle corrugated iron housing, archaic bureaucracy and tech still in use from 1983.
New Zealand is so far away from everything that not even global superpowers Amazon and eBay have reached here. Even Australian companies don’t ship this far. To reiterate, it’s the year 2020 and the only option for 21st century e-commerce is a New Zealand-wide platform designed by the Flintstones they call Trade Me, which is about as useful as clogs in a snowstorm. In a world of giant international corporations wheedling their tentacles into all aspects of modern life, perhaps this strong stance against globalism sounds refreshing. It isn’t. The reality is, it’s really hard to get hold of stuff; not just frivolous items purchased while intoxicated to be regretted later, important things that I actually need. Further, because of the isolation and reliance on imports from overseas, anything that does finally reach here is devastatingly expensive.
Nonetheless, it is a country that is astonishingly empty. This small island nation is in fact slightly bigger in landmass than the UK, but has a meagre 5 million inhabitants compared to the cramped 68 million in my native Britain. With all this space, Kiwis are thoroughly spoiled for breathtaking feats of nature from the lush vegetation, iconic tree ferns and black volcanic beaches of the north to mountains, glaciers and impossibly turquoise lakes and rivers in the south. It is a country of epic road trips, van life and outdoor activities. I already covered the details of my legendary van life road trip in another post, so I’ll just put the link to that here.
The nature is so good, that anyone who doesn’t care for the outdoors should be deported from New Zealand immediately, given its place as a global mecca for adventure sports. Here, locals will pop out on a Sunday for a spot of paragliding, snowboarding, kayaking, mountain biking or, for a more sedate adventure, a gruelling 10-hour hike along some dangerous footpath.
Indeed, it’s safe to day that New Zealanders are as relaxed as their health and safety regulations. I mean, there is a certain thrill to the Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest approach to safety in this country, but statistics for both private aviation and car crashes confirm my alarm at the national ‘she’ll be alright’ nonchalant approach to danger. Nonetheless, the laid-back attitude of the locals is a pleasant change from the nation of repressed people I’m used to, and I get along well with the national sense of humour and polite demeanour.
New Zealand is the home of such culturally significant things as the All Blacks rugby team, Lord of the Rings and… no, that’s about it, actually. It is difficult to overestimate the impact those movies have had on NZ, people journeying here from all over the world for special LOTR tours. The jewel in the Tolkein crown has to be the immense tourist combine harvester that is Hobbiton, situated in Middle-Nowhere on the North Island. Despite being shepherded through the set in a dense group like a herd of skittish flamingos and goggle-eyed foreigners clogging up the place with unnecessary photo snapping such that a good view of the Hobbit holes was difficult, my visit to The Shire was one of the highlights of my entire New Zealand experience. The stunning attention to detail would delight even the fussiest of LOTR fans, but I loved Hobbiton for the more personal and nostalgic reason that it looks exactly like where I grew up in southwest England. Incredibly, 40% of visitors to Hobbiton have never even seen the Lord of the Rings or Hobbit movies, which is a fact so ludicrous that I repeat it often. Imagine doing something purely for the reason that it makes your friends jealous, even though at the time it gives you almost no enjoyment and costs $80.
Two years is a long time to compress into one blog post, but another highlight of my time in this country is the now much-mythologised Whanganui canoe expedition, which, I think all nine of us on the trip can agree, was a profound four days with life-threatening levels of fun. The birthday sombrero, the guitar, the goon bag, the torrential rain, the sketchy walk to the Bridge to Nowhere, the new friends, the old friends, the Christmas dinner and the endless laughter. Naturally, there was also drama; flooded tents, relentless sandflies, huge days of paddling, constantly being behind schedule, torrential rain and that barrel freeing itself from the grip of our drunk amigo, tumbling to its watery demise in the river. But what great story doesn’t have conflict?
Northland, the almost-sub-tropical area at the top of the North Island is still my favourite place in New Zealand, with its golden mellow surf beaches, warm climate, dramatic scenery and the hilarious, unorganised adventure I had up there. It taught me to to seize the moment, to live spontaneously and worry less about the details.
And finally, that scenic flight over the snow-topped Southern Alps my friends organised as a surprise for my milestone birthday this year was a spectacular way to soar into a new decade. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so loved, especially so far from my home country and after the crap 2020 has thrown at all of us.
I came to this country way back in 2018 on an impulsive, sparkling cloud of YOLO (You Only Live Once). I was a year deep into my six-month jaunt in Australia, and when life consists of just you and your suitcase, irresponsible decision-making is easy. The longer I was away the more I realised I actually had nothing to return home for, or even knew what home was any more. During that year my whole life was torched to the ground, a burning village of memories and identity out of which I crawled weak and featherless from the smouldering ashes like some sort of mystical bird. Thus began the process of trying to piece things back together; to rebuild a version of myself that is truer to who I always was, but never dared to be. And so I arrived in New Zealand, with no plan, no idea where I would pitch my metaphorical tent and not nearly enough savings.
Despite its awful selection of overpriced cheese, lack of housing insulation or heating, insanely high UV levels, weird names for supermarkets, and 1980s commerce, this is a country in many ways much like my own, and in other ways very different. The low population density, friendly locals and spectacular nature make it easy to see why so many people come here and never leave – though you have to cope with the serious isolation perched as it is at the edge of the world.
So cheers New Zealand for the epic adventures, things ticked off the bucket list, the opportunities to learn and grow, the girl time with my best friend and family time with my beloved brother. Thanks for being home for 23 months. I leave this place Bella 4.0 – the best version of myself so far.