Goodbye, Aotearoa!: Parting Thoughts on New Zealand

Okay, I’ll say it. Did I love New Zealand? Sometimes. Did I hate New Zealand? Sometimes. It’s sort of a hung jury — half of me passionately in love with so many aspects of the country and the other half firmly unimpressed.

Aotearoa (New Zealand) North and South Islands (basically the whole country, minus a few tiny outlying islands)

I’ll clarify the latter first so this entry ends on a positive note. New Zealand is a hard place to be as a budget traveler. Meager living is the order of the day, and to sustain it for an entire year is a bit rough on the spirit. Add to that the rampant, mis-directed discrimination against travelers in vans, and you have a recipe for a bad experience. The only way to stretch an already tight budget in this costly country is to eliminate additional accommodation costs by sleeping in your car. Unfortunately, the general public’s mis-informed vendetta against this group of people ruins many hours of otherwise potentially wonderful days. Having to wake up before the sun everyday to avoid the wrath of potential van-haters, feeling unwelcome everywhere we go in the van, waiting for the sun to set before finding a final resting spot for the night, feeling like we’re always sneaking around, and feeling unwelcome anytime I know someone sees I am a van traveler* — frankly, this all sucks. And it was part of at least half of our days in New Zealand.

*I am lucky that the discrimination stemmed from something I could often dissociate from, instead of something I couldn’t — like the color of my skin.

Mt. Pollux – probably my favorite backcountry view in all of NZ!

And so the roots of the half and half split are revealed! We spent the other half of our days backpacking and working on farms. Free from van discrimination, we had a fantastic time! I can still close my eyes and go back to moments I experienced months ago, standing on ridgelines, black, snow-covered peaks soaring up around me, wind howling, being joyfully overwhelmed by the furious majesty of mother nature. I can still quickly conjure up many breathtaking vistas that were my reward for pushing myself all the way up a mountain. The farm work-trade that started almost as an afterthought — a way to experience the culture — turned into the centerpiece of our trip. Pat and I both have dreams of a little piece of land where we can grow and make things (cheese, soap, etc.) and raise animals. Spending a year at different farms with varying challenges was the perfect way to begin pursuit of this dream. We saw different choices in different climates, how building sites were chosen and why, what breeds or varieties were chosen and why, water and waste systems, materials choices, land-development choices, and all means of country-living creativity.

Met the most condescending people (Kiwi’s) EVER in this hut! Mother/daughter farmers. Exception to the rule I am ranting about here!

Which brings me back around to the “unimpressed” half of things. Kiwi Ingenuity. This phrase is common enough to belong in any local dictionary. Every country has its loud, insanely patriotic bunch. No amount of logic, reason, or even solid factual information will convince this type of person to tone down their extreme pride. In the U.S. these Americans are generally of a very narrow demographic and tend to be encountered in pockets. In New Zealand, they hail from many walks of life and as such can easily appear when you least expect it. These Kiwis are very impressed with their country and the *VERY IMPORTANT* contributions it and its people have made to the world. They tend to make decadent claims not backed by any genuine knowledge in their ruthless pursuit to ensure that you become appropriately impressed by the sheer magnitude of life-changing contributions this small country has made to the world. In their mind’s-eye, the world would be a very different and much worse place if it weren’t for all the wonderful New Zealanders full of “Kiwi Ingenuity” running around out there. These folks tend to be

my favorite farm experience – love the lambs!

completely unaware that human creativity is found in every corner of the planet. A citizen of any first-world country could, upon adoption of this strange degree of self-obsession, come up with an endless list of amazing contributions his or her country has made to the world. I was usually too surprised by the rantings of these individuals to say anything more than, “Oh. Really? Hmm…”

It wasn’t until we’d been in New Zealand for about six months (four of them working) that this type of person really started to get on my nerves. Which brings me to our length of stay. In a moment of sheer thoughtlessness, once we received our one-year working-holiday visas we readied ourselves for a year in New Zealand. It took us about six months in Kiwi Country to realize that a year to explore a place the size of California is more than plenty. Especially when it’s an expensive place to be. Especially when it’s only one of dozens of countries I hope to visit.

Friendly Kiwis – Maori blokes who threw mussels up to us on the east cape pier – thanks guys!

Especially when the scenery can’t help but start to repeat itself. Gorgeous countryside abounds, especially in the South Island. Fiordland, The Southern Alps, Abel Tasman, the West Coast, and the East Coast provide experiences in paradise. The North Island has Lake Taupo, a few big mountains, lots of thermal activity, some amazing forests, and countless beaches. An average of two weeks in each of the above places — some less, some more — would be more than plenty to get a good, solid sense of the whole of New Zealand. I’ll do the math for you — that’s 20 weeks, or 5 months. So, even with 4 months spent working, 9 months total in New Zealand, especially in the context of a world trip, is more than enough. The 12 months we chose was overkill.

I wouldn’t make the same choice again. In fact, if I had to go back and do it over, I’d definitely make a much more Jema-esque decision. But I’m glad that could never happen. In fact, my lapse in typical Jema behavior has resulted in tons of experiences and lessons I wouldn’t have had otherwise. On a tighter schedule, I would have convinced myself that seeing ten geological wonders or “world’s-biggest” would be better than seeing one New Zealand farm. I wouldn’t have had so many opportunities to relax and reflect on life — to pay attention to the lessons of the world. I wouldn’t have spent as much time with awesome locals and gotten to know so many amazing people.

An awesome evening with a South Island family!

Which brings me to the finale — awesome New Zealanders. Yes, you did just read a monster paragraph ranting about one type of annoying person I often encountered in Kiwi land. But, it would take days to read the anthology of all the amazing people I met here. My last entry about the Smith sisters is just the tip of the iceberg. We have made so many friends, enjoyed the company of so many farm owners, and truly felt like a part of so many families on both the North and South Island. We’ve been invited home by strangers, given rides by lots of kind souls, and experienced the kind of generosity that makes the world a wonderful place. I’m already full of nostalgia for all the things that will probably never be a part of our daily lives again — driving on the left, shopping at Pak’n’Save, saying ‘reckon’ and ‘yeh, yeh, yeh, no.’ , drinking Tui, roundabouts in lieu of stoplights, flipping switches down instead of up to turn them on, hearing radio Djs swear, chugging slowly up hills in our lumbering Mazda Bongo, and seeing women in advertisements who represent the 99% of us who aren’t stunning, perfectly proportioned models.

So, with mixed emotions, I say, “Thank you New Zealand. For everything. And goodbye for now!”


Notes that didn’t make it into the blog: (If you’re not me, I don’t suggest you bother reading this. You’ll probably end up bored and confused.)

No food in tide pools!


hot water/cold water taps/always switching




“getting on with…” (fixing the road)

“now you’ve got it sorted…”

“full on” “flat out” (overwhelming, etc.)

“far out”




Two minute noodles

Z = zed


“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.” — Clifton Fadiman

heat gun

alsco door slam


top forks shin gouge

metal banding finger whip

south coast toe

bar fight back injury

(nothing on North! Water skiing in the states)

“tasty” cheese

smoking – cigarette graphics

shells as gravel

Dogs — “fouling, challenging, rushing, biting”

Swearing — tv & radio

Like Arcata, but tropical

Attractiveness in advertising

friends with me through music

anti-immigrant = racist

playground equipment – auckland

gas prices don’t change

diesel tracking

Shawn Barnett — Hiking Book Guy


  • November 16, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    Really loved the postcard we got from you the other day. Know you’re on the way to the Phillipines now. We’re headed to your Mom’s for Thanksgiving, along with Uncle Rick, Uncle Tim, Aunt Micki and their families. We’ll miss having you there, but we miss having you here, too. Love ‘ya, darling, and keep us posted.

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