Kiwis – the people, not the emblematic flightless bird – can’t believe their luck at being born in what they call “Godzone” (God’s own country). Year after year, travellers list New Zealand in the top ten of places they’d like to visit – and you never meet anyone who has been and didn’t love the place. And what’s not to like?
With craggy coastlines, sweeping beaches, primeval forests, snowcapped mountains and impressive geysers, the scenery is truly majestic. The forests come inhabited by strange birds that have evolved to fill evolutionary niches normally occupied by mammals, while penguins, whales and seals ring the coast. Maori have only been here for 800 years but retain distinct and fascinating customs overlaid by colonial European and increasingly Asian cultures that together create a vibrant, if understated, urban life.
Travel facts New Zealand
- At latitude 41° south, Wellington is the world’s southernmost capital city and shares the honour of being the most remote with Canberra, over 2000km away.
- Possums are the national pest. When seen on the road, these introduced marsupials turn normally mild-mannered folk into killers. Flattened examples are everywhere.
- Kiwis love foreign affirmation: Flight of the Conchords were turned down by domestic television and only became a local success after their HBO hit series.
- Maori ex-prostitute Georgina Beyer became the world’s first transsexual MP in 1999.
- There are no snakes in New Zealand, and only a few venomous spiders, rarely seen.
- The numerous Maori words that have crept into everyday conversation easily confound visitors: aroha is love; kia kaha means be strong; kia ora can be hi or might signify agreement; and koha is a donation or offering.
- New Zealand’s eels live to 80 years and only breed once, at the end of their life – and they swim all the way to Tonga to do it.
Where to go in New Zealand
New Zealand packs a lot into a limited space, meaning you can visit many of the main sights in a couple of weeks, but allow at least a month (or preferably two) for a proper look around. The scenery is the big draw, and most people only pop into the big cities on arrival and departure (easily done with open-jaw air tickets, allowing you to fly into Auckland and out of Christchurch) or when travelling to Wellington from the South Island across the Cook Strait.
Sprawled around the sparkling Waitemata Harbour, go-ahead Auckland looks out over the island-studded Hauraki Gulf. Most people head south from here, missing out on Northland, the cradle of both Maori and Pakeha colonization, cloaked in wonderful subtropical forest that harbours New Zealand’s largest kauri trees.
East of Auckland the coast follows the isolated greenery and long, golden beaches of the Coromandel Peninsula, before running down to the beach towns of the Bay of Plenty. Immediately south your senses are assailed by the ever-present sulphurous whiff of Rotorua, with its spurting geysers and bubbling pools of mud, and the volcanic plateau centred on the trout-filled waters of Lake Taupo, overshadowed by three snowcapped volcanoes.
Cave fans will want to head west of Taupo for the eerie limestone caverns of Waitomo; alternatively it’s just a short hop from Taupo to the delights of canoeing the Whanganui River, a broad, emerald-green waterway banked by virtually impenetrable bush thrown into relief by the cone of Mount Taranaki, whose summit is accessible in a day.
East of Taupo lie ranges that form the North Island’s backbone, and beyond them the Hawke’s Bay wine country, centred on the Art Deco city of Napier. Further south, the wine region of Martinborough is just an hour or so from the capital, Wellington, its centre squeezed onto reclaimed harbourside, the suburbs slung across steep hills overlooking glistening bays. Politicians and bureaucrats give it a well-scrubbed and urbane sophistication, enlivened by an established café society and after-dark scene.
The South Island kicks off with the world-renowned wineries of Marlborough and appealing Nelson, a pretty and compact spot surrounded by lovely beaches and within easy reach of the hill country around the Nelson Lakes National Park and the fabulous sea kayaking of the Abel Tasman National Park.
From the top of the South Island you’ve a choice of nipping behind the 3000m summits of the Southern Alps and following the West Coast to the fabulous glaciers at Fox and Franz Josef, or sticking to the east, passing the whale-watching territory of Kaikoura en route to the South Island’s largest centre, Christchurch. Its English architectural heritage may have been ravaged by earthquakes – and its people still reeling from the upheaval – but signs of normality are returning, and, as the rebuilding process picks up pace, the city looks set to become the country’s most exciting.
From here you can head across country to the West Coast via Arthur’s Pass on one of the country’s most scenic train trips, or shoot southwest across the patchwork Canterbury Plains to the foothills of the Southern Alps and Aoraki/Mount Cook with its distinctive drooping-tent summit.
The patchwork-quilt fields of Canterbury run, via the grand architecture of Oamaru, to the unmistakably Scottish-influenced city of Dunedin, a base for exploring the wildlife of the Otago Peninsula, with its albatross, seal, sea lion and penguin colonies. In the middle of the nineteenth century, prospectors arrived here and rushed inland to gold strikes throughout central Otago and around stunningly set Queenstown, now a commercialized activity centre where bungy jumping, rafting, jetboating and skiing hold sway.
Just up the road is Glenorchy, a tramping heartland, from which the Routeburn Track sets out to rain-sodden Fiordland. Its neighbour, Te Anau, is the start of many of New Zealand’s most famous treks, including the Milford Track. Further south you’ll feel the bite of the Antarctic winds, which reach their peak on New Zealand’s third landmass, isolated Stewart Island, covered mostly by dense coastal rainforest that offers a great chance of spotting a kiwi in the wild.
Famous movie locations in New Zealand
When Peter Jackson filmed his Lord of the Rings trilogy in New Zealand the country rejoiced, even appointing a special minister for the project. However, few could have anticipated how completely it would take over the country. For thousands of visitors, no stay in Aotearoa is complete without a hobbit hole visit to Hobbiton, a pilgrimage to Wellington’s Weta Workshop, where the prosthetics and miniatures were done, and a tour of film locations around Queenstown.
The next wave of scene-seeking tourists took Disney’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as their inspiration, and there is a tsunami of tourists eager to stand where the hobbits of Peter Jackson’s two-part epic (based on J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit) planted their feet. Trips to location sites undoubtedly visit some magnificent scenery, but don’t expect scenes to look as they did in the films. Digital enhancement works wonders, but the landscape stands up just fine without CGI trickery.
Tribal costume is only worn on special occasions, facial tattoos are fairly rare and you’ll probably only see a haka performed at a rugby match or cultural show. In fact, Maori live very much in the modern world. But peel back the veneer of the song-dance-and-hangi performance and you’ll discover a parallel world that non-Maori are only dimly aware of.
Knowledge of whakapapa (tribal lineage) is central to Maori identity. Spirituality connects Maori to their traditional local mountain or river, while oratory, and the ability to produce a song at a moment’s notice, are both highly valued. All New Zealanders understand mana, a synthesis of prestige, charisma and influence, which is enhanced through brave or compassionate actions.
Sadly, the Maori community is riven by social problems: average incomes are lower than those of Pakeha; almost half of all prison inmates are Maori; and health statistics make appalling reading.
Hope for redress comes through a bicultural approach stressing equality and integration while allowing for parallel identities.
Introduction to New Zealand's culture and history
Given this stunning backdrop it’s not surprising that there are boundless diversions, ranging from strolls along moody windswept beaches and multi-day tramps over alpine passes to adrenaline-charged adventure activities such as bungy jumping, skiing, sea kayaking and whitewater rafting. Some visitors treat the country as a large-scale adventure playground, aiming to tackle as many challenges as possible in the time available.
Much of the scenic drama comes from tectonic or volcanic forces, as the people of Canterbury know only too well following the Christchurch earthquakes of September 4, 2010 and February 22, 2011. The quakes, along with several thousand aftershocks, collectively devastated the city, which is slowly recovering.
Thousands of residents have left Christchurch, but it remains the second-largest city after Auckland, just pushing the capital, Wellington, into third place. Elsewhere, you can travel many kilometres through stunning countryside without seeing a soul: there are spots so remote that, it’s reliably contended, no human has yet visited them.
Geologically, New Zealand split away from the super-continent of Gondwana early, developing a unique ecosystem in which birds adapted to fill the role of mammals, many becoming flightless because they had no predators. That all changed about 800 years ago, with the arrival of Polynesian navigators, when the land they called Aotearoa – “the land of the long white cloud” – became the last major landmass to be settled by humans.
On disembarking from their canoes, these Maori proceeded to unbalance the fragile ecosystem, dispatching forever the giant ostrich-sized moa, which formed a major part of their diet. The country once again settled into a fragile balance before the arrival of Pakeha – white Europeans, predominantly of British origin – who swarmed off their square-rigged ships full of colonial zeal in the mid-nineteenth century and altered the land forever.
An uneasy coexistence between Maori and European societies informs the current wrangles over cultural identity, land and resource rights. The British didn’t invade as such, and were to some degree reluctant to enter into the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document, which effectively ceded New Zealand to the British Crown while guaranteeing Maori hegemony over their land and traditional gathering and fishing rights.
As time wore on and increasing numbers of settlers demanded ever larger parcels of land from Maori, antipathy surfaced and escalated into hostility. Once Maori were subdued, a policy of partial integration all but destroyed Maoritanga – the Maori way of doing things. Maori, however, were left well outside the new European order, where difference was perceived as tantamount to a betrayal of the emergent sense of nationhood. Although elements of this still exist and Presbyterian and Anglican values have proved hard to shake off, the Kiwi psyche has become infused with Maori generosity and hospitality, coupled with a colonial mateyness and the unerring belief that whatever happens, “she’ll be right”.
Only in the last forty years has New Zealand come of age and developed a true national self-confidence, something partly forced on it by Britain severing the colonial apron strings, and by the resurgence of Maori identity. Maori demands have been nurtured by a willingness on the part of most Pakeha to redress the wrongs perpetrated over the last 170 years, as long as it doesn’t impinge on their high standard of living or overall feeling of control.
More recently, integration has been replaced with a policy of biculturalism – the somewhat fraught notion of promoting two cultures alongside each other, but with maximum interaction. This policy has been somewhat weakened by relatively recent and extensive immigration from China, Korea and South Asia.
Despite having and achieving much to give them confidence, Kiwis (unlike their Australian neighbours) retain an underlying shyness that borders on an inferiority complex: you may well find yourself interrogated about your opinions on the country almost before you’ve even left the airport. Balancing this is an extraordinary enthusiasm for sports and culture, which generate a swelling pride in New Zealanders when they witness plucky Kiwis taking on and sometimes beating the world.
Working and living in New Zealand
New Zealand is the sort of place people come for a short visit and end up wanting to stay (at least for a few months). Unless you have substantial financial backing, this will probably mean finding some work. And while your earning potential in New Zealand isn’t necessarily going to be great, you can at least supplement your budget for multiple bungy jumps, skydiving lessons and the like. Paid casual work is typically in tourism-linked service industries, or in orchard work.
For the last few years unemployment has remained relatively low and, providing you have the necessary paperwork, finding casual work shouldn’t be too difficult, while better-paid, short-term professional jobs are quite possible if you have the skills. Employment agencies are a good bet for this sort of work, or simply look at general job-search websites such as search4jobs.co.nz and the jobs section of trademe.co.nz. The minimum wage for all legally employed folk over the age of 16 (other than 16- and 17-year-old new entrants or trainees) is $13 an hour. If you’d rather not tackle the red tape you can simply reduce your travelling costs by working for your board (though technically the Immigration Department still considers this to be work).
Working for board and lodging
A popular way of getting around the country cheaply is to work for your board and lodging, typically toiling for 4–6 hours a day. FHiNZ (Farm Helpers in New Zealand; fhinz.co.nz) organizes stays on farms, orchards and horticultural holdings for singles, couples and families; no experience is needed. Almost two hundred places are listed in its booklet ($25; sold online) and accommodation ranges from basic to quite luxurious.
The international WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms; wwoof.co.nz) coordinates over a thousand properties (membership, for one or a couple, with online access $40 or printed booklet $50), mostly farms but also orchards, market gardens and self-sufficiency-orientated smallholdings, all using organic methods to a greater or lesser degree. They’ll expect a stay of around five nights, though much longer periods are common; you book direct (preferably a week or more in advance).
There have been occasional reports of taskmasters; make sure you discuss what’s expected before you commit yourself. Property managers are vetted but solo women may prefer placements with couples or families. Other organizations have fewer guarantees, though many are perfectly reputable.
A similar organization is the online Help Exchange (helpx.net), which supplies a regularly updated list of hosts on farms as well as at homestays, B&Bs, hostels and lodges, who need extra help in return for meals and accommodation; you register online and book direct.
One of the main sources of casual work is fruit-picking or related orchard work such as packing or pruning and thinning. The main areas are Kerikeri in the Bay of Islands for citrus and kiwifruit, Hastings in Hawke’s Bay for apples, pears and peaches, Tauranga and Te Puke for kiwifruit, and Alexandra and Cromwell in Central Otago for stone fruit. Most work is available during the autumn picking season, which runs roughly from January to May, but you can often find something just as easily in the off season. In popular working areas, some hostels cater to short-term workers, and these are usually the best places to find out what’s going.
Picking can be hard-going, physical work and payment is usually by the quantity gathered, rather than by the hour. When you’re starting off, the poor returns can be frustrating, but with persistence and application you can soon find yourself grossing $100 or more in an eight-hour day. Rates vary considerably so it’s worth asking around, factoring in any transport, meals and accommodation, which are sometimes included. Indoor packing work tends to be paid hourly.
Particularly in popular tourist areas – Rotorua, Nelson, Queenstown – cafés, bars and hostels often need extra staff during peak periods. If you have no luck, try more out-of-the-way locales, where there’ll be fewer travellers clamouring for work. Bar and restaurant work pays minimum wage and upwards, depending on your level of experience, but tips are negligible. Generally you’ll need to commit to at least three months.
Ski resorts occasionally employ people during the June to October season, usually in catering roles. Hourly wages may be supplemented by a lift pass and subsidized food and drink, though finding affordable accommodation can be difficult and may offset a lot of what you gain. Hiring clinics for ski and snowboard instructors are usually held at the beginning of the season at a small cost, though if you’re experienced it’s better to apply directly to the resort beforehand.
A useful starting point is the online service from the UK-based The Gapyear Company ( gapyear.com), which offers free membership plus heaps of information on volunteering, travel, contacts and living abroad. The Department of Conservation’s Conservation Volunteer Programme (search at doc.govt.nz) provides an excellent way to spend time out in the New Zealand bush while putting something back into the environment. Often you’ll get into areas most visitors never see, and learn some skills while you’re at it. Projects include bat surveys, kiwi monitoring and nest protection, as well as more rugged tasks like track maintenance, tree planting and hut repair. You can muck in for just a day or up to a couple of weeks, and sometimes there is a fee (of around $50–200) to cover food and transport. Application forms are available on the website. Programmes are in high demand and often book up well in advance, so it’s worth applying before you reach New Zealand.
Visas, permits and red tape for working in New Zealand
Australians can work legally in New Zealand without any paperwork. Otherwise, if you’re aged 18–30, the easiest way to work legally is through the Working Holiday Scheme (WHS), which gives you a temporary work permit valid for twelve months. An unlimited number of Brits, Irish, Americans, Canadians, Japanese, Belgian, Danish, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Dutch, Norwegian and Swedish people in this age bracket are eligible each year, plus various annual quotas of Argentinians, Brazilians, Chilean, Chinese, Czech, Estonians, Hong Kong citizens, Koreans, Latvians, Polish, Singaporeans, Spanish, Malaysians, Maltese, Mexicans, Peruvians, Taiwanese, Thai, Turkish and Uruguayans on a first-come-first-served basis; apply as far in advance as you can.
You’ll need a passport, NZ$140 for the application, evidence of an onward ticket out of New Zealand (or the funds to pay for it), and a minimum of NZ$350 per month of your intended stay (or, depending on your country of origin, NZ$4200 in total) to show you can support yourself. Some nationals can (and in some instances must) apply online (using a Visa or MasterCard). Brits can apply for a 23-month stay, the last 11 months of which can be applied for in New Zealand as an extension.
Working holiday-makers who can show they’ve worked in the horticulture or viticulture industries for at least three months may be eligible to obtain an extra three-month stay in New Zealand with a Working Holidaymaker Extension (WHE) permit. Applications are made through Immigration New Zealand (t 09 914 4100, w immigration.govt.nz), which has details and downloadable forms on its website.
Some visitors are tempted to work illegally, something for which you could be fined or deported. However, there is a variety of other visa options, including the new Silver Fern visa for 20–35-year-olds, and visas for seasonal horticulture and viticulture seasonal work – contact the Immigration Service for details. The only other legal option is trying to gain resident status – not something to be tackled lightly.
Anyone working legally in New Zealand needs to obtain a tax number from the local Inland Revenue Department office (w ird.govt.nz); without this your employer will have trouble paying you. The process can take up to ten working days, though you can still work while the wheels of bureaucracy turn. Depending on your level of income, the tax department rakes in from 10.50 to 47.04 percent of your earnings and you probably won’t be able to reclaim any of it. Many companies will also only pay wages into a New Zealand bank account – opening one is easy (see Maps and GPS).