New Zealand is "small" only when viewed from as far away as Europe! Its land area is 103,700 square miles, comfortably bigger than the U.K. It is more than three times the size of the island of Ireland, or six times as big as Switzerland. All but a thousand or so of those square miles are taken up by the two main islands. The North Island is the smaller, at about 44000 square miles and the South is about 58000, roughly a sixth bigger than England.
There are hundreds of islands lying just off the shores of the two main islands, but New Zealand's outlying islands are far less well known. The Kermadec Islands lie midway between Auckland and Tonga. They have a subtropical climate and no permanent population, due to the existence of an active volcano on the main island of the group, Raoul, (29½°S). which as recently as 2006 killed a Department of Conservation worker on duty there. Like the Kermadecs, the Chatham Islands lie in the Western Hemisphere, but are much further south. They are inhabited, and you can fly there from Christchurch if you really want to; it's a distance of about five hundred miles. Back in the Eastern Hemisphere, the Bounty Islands are too low and spray-swept to have any vegetation and the Antipodes Islands are so named because they are as near as you can get to being directly opposite London on the globe without getting your feet wet. South of Stewart Island lie the Snares Islands. Wilder still, Auckland Island (51°S) lies about three hundred miles south of the South Island. It's a sizeable island (plus a couple of outliers) with scientific bases and a rugged coastline. Yet further south lies Campbell Island (52½°S). With no Gulf Stream to warm them, these subantarctic islands have a stormy climate, and sleet is possible at any time of the year. You can visit them, but only by taking an Antarctic Cruise which includes them, a very expensive option.
The New Zealand Sun
Long ago, when I visited the country, New Zealanders occasionally boasted to me that the sun here was the strongest in the world. I used to dismiss this as small-country talk from people who didn't get much opportunity to travel, but later on I came to see what they meant. It's not that the sun shines harder here, but that New Zealand is surprisingly temperate for its latitude. It needs only a breeze to keep your skin cool, and you are well burnt before you realise it. The baking heat of summer at equivalent latitudes in Europe or North America is absent. Add to this the fact that, except when the Australians are burning down their forests or Ruapehu is going off, there is no pollution haze. Add also the fact that there is at times an Ozone Hole lurking nearby. Pile on top of it all that the earth is at perihelion in the first half of January, so that the sun is about seven per cent stronger than at the corresponding latitude and season in the Northern Hemisphere, and you have a recipe for really serious sunburn. If you don't fancy the agony (and possible skin cancer in ten or twenty years time), wear a wide-brimmed hat and use high protection factor sun cream on summer days.
You may get a feel for the strength of the summer sun from the following list of cities in Europe with latitudes corresponding to places in NZ.
- Dunedin (46°) Geneva
- Christchurch (43½°) Marseille
- Wellington (41°) Barcelona
- Hamilton (38°) Athens
- Auckland (37°) Malaga
- Cape Reinga (34½°) Fès (Morocco)
The fact the sun has the same elevation in both places does not mean that, e.g., Hamilton and Athens have similar climates!
The first fact of relevance to a European, one which may not be noticed at first due to the fickleness of the weather, is that the summer is, by and large, the dry season here. In the North Island at least, the heaviest rainfall is in the middle of the winter. In a poorer spring, it will be some time around Christmas before the seemingly endless parade of wet days gives way to settled warm weather. In a good summer, this can then last well into autumn.
NZ's "banana belt" might well be defined as those areas where frosts are absent or uncommon. These are Northland, Auckland, the Coromandel and the western parts of the Bay of Plenty, and the Hawke's Bay coast. New Zealand's northernmost town Kaitaia, for example, has an average of one frost per year.
Wellington has a somewhat unfortunate location in that it is subject to very changeable weather and has a great deal of wind. The wind can easily cause cancellations in the ferry service to the South Island, something to remember when making journey plans. In fact, Wellington manages to get the worst of both worlds, in that there are years such as 2005 where it manages despite all that wind to have fog as well, so that the airport can be closed occasionally for a day or two.
The climate of the South Island is more given to extremes than that of the North Island. The Southern Alps run the entire length of the island and cause a marked "Föhn" effect when the wind is from the W or NW. The Nelson area has the highest number of hours of sunshine in the whole country. The highest rainfall occurs along the western coast from the glaciers southwards. The highest and the lowest recorded temperatures in NZ were recorded in the South Island, as indeed were most other weather records.
Snow is commonplace in much of the South Island, with quite substantial falls possible in Dunedin and Christchurch. As you proceed up the North Island, the amounts and likelihood drop rapidly. Snow fell in Auckland once in recorded history. That was in 1939, when unusually widespread cold weather brought snow to every corner of the country, with flakes falling even at a lighthouse near Cape Reinga1.
The Weather Forecast
“Prediction is very dif ficult, especially about the future.” --- Physicist Niels Bohr
“If you have to forecast, forecast often” --- Economist Edgar R. Fiedler
Well, the NZ Meteorological Service weather forecasts certainly illustrate the truth of the first of the above quotes, and they do, of course, adhere to the advice in the second. New Zealand lies in the middle of the ocean at a latitude affected by trade winds. It just not possible to make reliable forecasts in such a location. The main TV stations make a brave show of forecasting the next few days at the end of their main evening news bulletins, but the usefulness of such efforts is limited. Certain kinds of cloud don't seem to show up on their satellite weather pictures, even though they obscure the sun just as well as the ones that do. Wild errors occur. On February 7th 2008, TV1's forecast predicted a day's high of 22°C for Dunedin; in the event, it was 32. Two days earlier, the forecast for Hamilton was 28° and the actual high was 23. A few rules of thumb seem to apply:
- If, in a period of settled fine weather, they forecast another fine day, they are usually right.
- Same goes for bad weather.
- If they forecast an extreme value (of temperature or rain or wind) for your area, it is seldom reached.
You can also try something I call "differentiating the forecast". Note the forecast for the day you are interested in as soon as it appears, and then on successive intervening days. If, as you approach the day itself, the forecast is trending better or worse, it's a relatively strong indicator that the day is going to be fine or bad respectively.
The Natural World
The salient feature of New Zealand's biosphere is its sheer inoffensiveness. A bit like the people, really. There's one common spider called the whitetail with a bite which can turn septic in some people. Another, the Katipo, lives mainly near beaches and is uncommon, so is unlikely to trouble you. The tree nettle or ongaonga grows up to ten feet tall on the edge of forests and could make you seriously ill if you touched it over large areas of your skin; they're supposed to be common in some parts of the country, but I don't know that I have ever seen one. Sometimes polluted waterways grow algal blooms which can kill dogs and make you sick if you swim. That's about it as far as dangerous, rather than merely poisonous life forms are concerned. No scorpions, no snakes, no crocodiles... you must be thinking of Australia!
New Zealand's Birds
Do you want to come to New Zealand to see its extraordinary, nay unique, birds - its giant eagle, the largest known, big enough to kill children, its flightless wren occupying the niche filled by mice in regions with mammals, its ten-foot tall flightless Moas? Well, you're too late! They're all gone. The arrival of the one true plague species spelt their doom. I refer of course to Homo Sapiens. At least we still have the Kiwi. Fat chance of seeing one of these in the course of your ordinary life, though. For a start, they're nocturnal, but they're very scarce on the mainland anyway now, due to pressure from stoats and dogs.
It isn't all gloom, though. At least one genuinely extraordinary species has made it this far, the Kakapo. Mind you, when every living individual of a species like this has its own proper name, you know it's in trouble. This parrot (a) weighs three kilos, (b) can't fly, (c) has head feathers like an owl and (d) tries to attract a mate by "booming", making noises like those you get by blowing across the top of a glass bottle. You've got essentially no chance of seeing one, since they have all been moved to closed islands where the predators that raid their nests have been eliminated. Their numbers have gone up from a low of about sixty to more than a hundred recently, so people are guardedly optimistic.
The fate of species like these is a major issue in NZ now, and DOC, the Department of Conservation, plays a major role in public life here. When three Kakapo caught an infection and died during a resettlement in 2004, it was headline news on TV and in the newspapers.
These island sanctuaries are something of an NZ specialty, by the way. To be suitable, they need to be far enough offshore that rats etc. can't swim to them. DOC prepares them by exterminating any feral sheep, goats or cats and using poison to remove rats and stoats. When staff are confident that the pests are gone, the birds (or other species) are transferred from other sanctuaries or threatened locations on the mainland. A spectacular example was the operation to free Campbell Island (see above) from rats. This island of 44 square miles is the nesting place of large numbers of albatrosses, so the work had to be carried out during the summer while they were roaming the Southern Ocean, and long enough before they returned that uneaten pellets would have dissolved by then. The 1080 poison pellets had to be scattered uniformly over every cliff and mountain so that no rat would be missed. They had to be distributed by helicopter, so several weeks of safe flying weather were needed, no small requirement in a place like Campbell Island. GPS and a computerised database were used to ensure that every acre of those 44 square miles was covered. In the event, the weather played ball, and Campbell Island is now thought to be rat-free.
You probably won't get to visit any of these sanctuaries. Some of them are quite remote, and even many close to the mainland are closed to casual visitors. There is one big exception, however. In the Hauraki Gulf, just a short distance by ferry from Auckland's northern suburbs, lies the island of Tiritiri Matangi. It's open to all visitors, although you have to reserve to stay overnight in the lodge. Even a day visit is most rewarding, You can walk through native bush with large numbers of the birds which have been absent from the everyday lives of New Zealanders for more than a century now. You can wander around freely during the day, but a guide is necessary at night. On our overnight visit in 2002, the guide showed us nesting Blue Penguins and Petrels, but what really made an impression was the time he found us a sleeping saddleback. This bird, the size of a blackbird, had chosen a hole in a tree, and didn't seem concerned when a flashlight was trained on it. The thing was, the hole was at the base of the trunk, right at ground level. You could see why species like this didn't last long when Man and his camp followers arrived on the scene.
Such has been the success of the island sanctuaries that the first "Mainland Island" sanctuary is now being created. The Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust is in the process of creating a sanctuary on Maungatautari mountain southeast of Hamilton by surrounding the native forest with fifty kilometres of predator-proof fence. Trapping and poisoning have been carried out, and the last few mice were being hunted down by early 2008. Rats, stoats and the rest are already gone. The result is 34 square kilometres of healthy NZ forest now receiving Kiwi and all the other native birds which are essentially extinct on the NZ mainland at the moment.
The naming of common birds may be a bit confusing for those arriving from the British Isles. While, say, the rook is the same one so widespread in Ireland, the Magpie is completely different from the bird of the same name in Europe (...but has just the same bullying demeanour). The starling is the one from the Northern Hemisphere, but the wren and the robin are not. They have these names only because they occupy similar niches. Our kingfisher has the familiar silhouette, but it is bigger and its colours are matt. The sparrow is the same one, and sadly is here in large numbers. The goldfinch is also the UK bird, and in a nice development is probably even more common than the sparrow. Even quite a specific name is no guarantee of identity... the spur-winged plover is not the European bird. Lastly, there are no crows in New Zealand; what is now called the New Zealand Raven used to be called the New Zealand Crow, but in any case it went extinct centuries ago.
The overwhelming preponderance of houses in New Zealand are constructed around a wooden frame. This is not just because this a cheap way to build, but also because the country is an earthquake zone. In the event of a big quake, a wooden house is much less likely to collapse in a heap and kill the occupants than one made of bricks. The wooden frame is then clad with a choice of materials. Polystyrene foam covered with reinforced stucco is one choice. A layer of bricks (not load-bearing) is another.
The trouble with modern housing in New Zealand is that too many New Zealanders insist on building as if they were living in a warm, dry climate. They select Spanish or New Mexico styles without eaves, then omit to seal the tops of the walls well enough against moisture, so that the wooden frames rot when the rain gets in. The government did its bit some years ago by removing the requirement to use treated timber. When the extent of the problem was suddenly made public in 2002, a major scandal erupted and the hunt began for somebody to take the blame.
People tend to put in vast panorama windows if there is a view to enjoy. Indeed, if the view is really good, they may design the whole view side of the house to be one giant window. But they use single glazing, so the temperature plummets when the sun goes down. As yet, double glazing is an uncommon luxury here. The problem is exacerbated by the importance attached to "indoor-outdoor flow". This trend towards providing direct access from as many rooms as possible to the garden or a wooden deck means yet more glazing in balcony doors and french windows.
By the standards of the First World, New Zealanders live in below-average, damp and draughty conditions. In winter, too many of them light the fire, then huddle around it in an effort to catch some of the heat on its way out the windows. A recent survey done in Auckland and Hamilton found that a third of the houses there have evening temperatures in winter below the WHO recommended minimum for healthy living of 16°C. One result of the failure to insulate houses properly is mould; more than half of all NZ houses have a serious mould problem. In our own searches for a house, we had plenty of opportunity to verify this for ourselves, with blackened curtain bases and window frames not uncommon. The problem is not restricted to the less expensive end of the market; we saw several quite grand houses affected. It is exacerbated by reliance on portable gas heaters. These are reasonably effective in warming a room, but at the expense of filling it with water vapour from the burnt gas.
When considering what to bring with you, you might keep in mind that the aforementioned sun will fade colours rather more speedily than in, say, the UK.
When you first tour the suburbs of a New Zealand city, you may think economic disaster has struck, so numerous are the "For Sale" signs, but the reason is quite different. Those government rip-offs which so poison the experience of moving home are absent here; there is no capital gains tax, no stamp duty or transfer tax and no wealth tax either. The estate agent charges the vendor a fee depending on the purchase price and there are fees to be paid to the inevitable lawyers, but that's it. Note to parasitical European governments: Don't lecture your workforce about flexibility and going where the work is if you're not prepared to adopt the NZ approach.
Living in the Country
One of the dreams of many an immigrant to NZ is to have his own piece of land in the country and live on it. Especially for people from Europe, the still comparatively low cost of land can make the dream seem very attainable. When the property is no more than a few hectares with a house on it, it is called a lifestyle block. Many people underestimate the work involved in maintaining such a block, particularly when they also want to keep a job in the nearest town.
If your property is not connected to any town water network, it is likely that it will rely on rainwater collected from the roof into a tank, and fed into the house by an electric pump. Some 400,000 Kiwis get their home water supply this way. Water from roof water collection systems is "almost universally of very bad quality" with 30% showing heavy faecal contamination, according to microbiologist Stan Abbott of Massey University's Institute of Food, Nutrition and Human Health after a five-year study on the issue. Causes include the outputs of birds, frogs, rodents and possums, plus dead animals and insects, salmonella, campylobacter, giardia and cryptosporidium. One step you can take is to install a so-called first flush diverter, which pours away the start of each shower with the very worst of the contamination.
You need to ask yourself what you will do with your lifestyle block. If you would like to keep animals, does the property have the required outbuildings? Fencing may be a not inconsiderable cost, and any income you might get from, say, rearing sheep or calves will not be dependable. A long gravel driveway comes with maintenance costs too. And you can't just leave the land to grow thistles. Quite a few people fence off the area around the house and let a local farmer pay to graze his stock on the rest of the block. In any case, it would be a good idea to talk to an expert in this kind of property purchase, rather than just listening to the first estate agent with a lifestyle block on his hands!
Rules of The Road
Most of the rules of the road are those you would expect to find anywhere in the world, but there are some worth pointing out to visitors. I mention them here because, as in every other country where I have hired cars or mobile homes, the hire companies here made no attempt to ask me where I came from and point out road rules which might catch me out. Perhaps their insurance policies don't give them enough incentive?
- If a school bus has stopped to let children on or off, you must slow down and drive at 20 km/h or less until you are well past the bus, no matter which direction you are coming from.
- An astonishing number of country roads reduce to a single lane on bridges over rivers or railways. As some of these bridges can be quite long, avoid embarassment by paying attention to the special traf fic signs indicating whether you or the oncoming traf fic have priority.
There was another one:
- New Zealand drives on the left. If you are turning *left* at an intersection, you must give way to an oncoming driver who is turning *right*.
This rule was no longer practised anywhere else in the world, and NZ finally consigned it to history early in 2012. Now the give-way rules are more or less what a reasonable person would expect.
There is an unfortunate use of rather coarse chips in a thin layer of tar, at least around the Waikato. This results in an unpleasant degree of tyre noise when driving even at quite modest speeds. If you encounter a stretch of clear tar cover, the sudden relative silence is striking.
A Sad Story
When it comes to overland travel, NZ's hemipygous2 passenger rail network can be dismissed out of hand. Fit only for one-off tourist trips now, the trains in NZ have reached a truly sorry state. You might be surprised to see how extensive the rail network is, at least in the North Island, but's that's only if you could find a map which bothers to show the tracks. They still exist to Napier and Gisborne from Wellington, and to New Plymouth, Rotorua and Tauranga from Auckland, but in such a poor state of maintenance that only goods traf fic uses them, and then only at very modest speeds over much of the way. Incidents where wagons fall off the tracks are not that unusual, and in 2005 a bridge on the line to Gisborne collapsed, depositing a sixty-ton rail crane into the Nuhaka River. Ripping the rails up and demolishing the permanent way has not been widely done yet.
To take the example of Hamilton, there were at the turn of the millennium passenger services to Auckland, Wellington, Tauranga and Rotorua. The schedules were next to useless, but at least the possibility to use them existed. They all closed soon after, except for the Overlander between Auckland and Wellington, whose daily service was cut back to just thrice a week outside summer. Hamilton is a city of 140,000 only 120 Km from Auckland, with its million-plus population. Similarly-placed cities in Europe would have an hourly train service all day. Not to have the option to jump on a comfortable train here and go shopping in Auckland isn't just annoying, it's downright primitive.
“Internationally recognised tourism product”... “high-value, must-do tourist experience”... “creating an international-standard travel experience rather than simply getting people from one place to another”... “leverage off this new service”... These are all phrases from the KiwiRail press release of April 2012 announcing the upgrading of the Overlander service to the "Northern Explorer" with new carriages which are undoubtedly smarter, but permanently reduced to three times a week and much more expensive. In reality, such managementspeak announces the final divorce of the service from the people of the land it operates in and their replacement by an alien class of once-off tourists from whom they hope there is more money to be extracted. The press release also contains this gem of condescension: “It will be easier for customers to plan their journeys as the six day a week schedule will operate year-round rather than changing for peak and off-peak seasons.” Yes, if you add the three day a week schedule from Auckland to the three day a week schedule from Wellington, you get a six day a week schedule, don't you? And the poor customers no doubt have their hands full with a schedule which runs three days a week each way all the time; one which ran three days a week each way for part of the year and every day for the rest really would be a bit of a challenge, wouldn't it?
There has never been a rail connection to Auckland Airport.
Two NZ cities have metropolitan rail networks which might be worth taking into account when you are deciding where to live. Wellington has always had a fairly well-developed passenger service, and moves have been made to upgrade the one in Auckland recently. These include constructing an attractive new city rail terminus in a far better location than the old one. Given Auckland's serious traf fic problems, choosing a location which has a rail station nearby could be a good move, especially given the fact that proximity to the railway doesn't yet seem to have the explosive effect on house prices that it does in some European cities.
The Mundane Option
The larger NZ towns have a bus service. In Hamilton's case, there are about twenty routes, most of which run every 30 minutes all day. It used to be the case that there was no service at all on Sunday, but now about half of the routes run then too. The buses are clean and modern, though diesel powered and therefore environmentally unsatisfactory. The service has been on an improving trend over the last decade, and is certainly an option for those who don't drive. Auckland's buses are prone to the traf fic jams that plague the city, except where dedicated lanes have been reserved like the one running up the North Shore.
There are overland bus services between all the major towns in both islands. I have no experience of them, but the vehicles appear to be of First World quality. The Ryanair pricing strategy has taken root, with fares of $1 offered for the first few seats on buses for those who can book far enough ahead. Of course, the concomitant "booking fee" promptly makes a nonsense of a fare like this, but at least the true Ryanair rip-off, the multiplication of the fee for the one booking by the number of passengers involved, has not happened yet.
Astonishingly, there are no direct bus services from Hamilton to Auckland Airport; you have to change in Auckland, so buses clearly aren't a serious option for those with luggage. Only the so-called "airport shuttles" remain as a choice, minibuses which take half a dozen people at a time and have to be booked in advance, but most people heading overseas drive themselves or get a friend to take them when the parking fees would be onerous. Time to get out that word "primitive" again!
If you've just spent many years living in close proximity to the Bernese Oberland, most parts of NZ are bound to seem a little tame in comparison. Of course, there are parts of the South Island which come close, but glacier panoramas are mostly a long way from anywhere you are likely to want to live. On the North Island, only the tallest peak Ruapehu has permanent ice. As long as it isn't currently erupting, you can walk to its highest point at 2797 metres. The most straightforward way is from the Turoa Skifield above Ohakune. You need to orient yourself carefully, however, as there is no marked path across the volcanic debris which is deposited afresh with every eruption (and these are not uncommon - there was a big one in 1995). The view from the top is as good as you would expect, with green country to the south and the (sometimes boiling) crater lake to the north. There are well formed paths just to the north, in the vicinity of Mount Tongariro, where there are more fine volcanic panoramas.
Walking a local hill like Pirongia is quite a different experience from walking in the Alps, where you may spend the whole time surrounded by a magnificent panorama. The typical track to the summit of Mount Pirongia has perhaps three decent viewpoints on the way, where you emerge briefly from the forest and see the horizon. The rest of the time, you are surrounded by greenery, and the interest lies entirely in the variety of experiences along the path. At lower levels especially, the forest is of a lushness quite unfamiliar to European eyes. Ponga ferns as tall as trees are common, and supplejack hangs down from the taller trees like electric cables in a building under demolition. You have to clamber under or over fallen trees, negotiate near-vertical tree roots and occasionally use a chain for help on a more exposed rock section.
The tracks through such forest parks are very easy to follow, being usually marked with orange blazes nailed to the trees. The markers are close enough that you are hardly ever out of sight of one, so it is quite hard to get lost. It's a different matter in the Southern Alps, where you may need some routefinding skills and fording fast-flowing streams can be a significant part of the journey.
These are a wonderful way to see New Zealand. Freed of worries about finding accommodation, you can drive each day as the fancy takes you. Except at the most extreme peak times, you will be able to find a place in the campsite of your choice.
The one aspect where you cannot afford a carefree attitude, however, is the Interislander car ferry. If you are travelling during the peak season, you would be well advised to book this months in advance. It's not a problem with ordinary hired cars... you just return one and pick up another on the other side, but this isn't an option with mobile homes.
Get one big enough. The giant US types, forty-footers and pickup and trailer arrangements are not available here. The "pull-through" sites they need are not provided in NZ, and the roads here are often too narrow for them anyway. But the best choice for two people (perhaps with one or two children) are the ones advertised as "suitable for four or five adults". If you can keep the double bed over the driver's cab free for suitcases, there is less need to play Tower of Hanoi with your luggage every day.
Most of what you want to know about the interior of the mobile home will be clear from the renter's brochures. It might be worthwhile to ask about the ceiling cupboards which run along the sides in the medium and larger vehicles, and whether they have proper internal dividers. Without them, anything stored there charges from one end to the other and crashes into the end wall whenever you accelerate or brake. Might also be a good idea to keep a reserve day in your schedule, as in our experience mobile homes are not as reliable as rental cars.
Because of the cost of this type of vehicle, the hire companies are careful not to overstock. This means that their entire fleets are booked out well in advance for the peak season (Christmas until the end of January), and they can afford to charge high rates. Your mobile home will be a lot more expensive at this time than in, say, October or May.