An account based on a five week stay in Maraetai Beach — a semi-rural bayside suburb of New Zealand’s largest city of Auckland — in July 2010 (the “winter” season). Advice for travelers. Thoughts about the land and people and politics and culture and economy and geography. Theories about extreme sports. Note: this article & pictures are public domain; feel free to copy them without attribution. Like it? Add weblinks to it.
Note: the kitty cat from Auckland (see picture at bottom) which I used to play with traveled with her owner to Christchurch and was undoubtedly in the recent earthquake. I hope kitty and all Christchurchers are safe. Best wishes from this American. — tom sulcer February 23, 2011
Unrelentingly gorgeous landscapes and seascapes
New Zealand is a stunningly beautiful place. Even the drive from Maraetai (muh-RYE-TYE) Beach to Botany is one breathtaking nature-scape after another. When possible, I pulled the minivan over to snap photos — each could be used for a
|Aspiring American screenwriter near Maraetai Beach.|
jigsaw puzzle or on your computer as a wallpaper background photo. Since the volcano-formed land is young geologically, water and wind haven’t yet leveled landscapes resulting in eye-catching views but sometimes challenging driving. Since much of the north island is hilly, rather steep in places, roads are curvy and windy like around the San Francisco Bay area, and sometimes require abrupt changes of speed. One mistake could find one plunging down an embankment or splashing into the bay. When I drove on the Maraetai-Botany Pacific coast highway, initially I felt intimidated by drivers behind me, pressed to go faster than I thought reasonable, but now I drive somewhat slower, knowing cars behind me can pass in the two passing-lane stretches. When we got back to our temporary “home” in Maraetai Beach, sunshine broke through following a powerful afternoon downpour to reveal the most beautiful rainbow I had ever seen, with spectacularly vibrant colors.
|The Botany-Maraetai road (Pacific Coast highway) has countless
spectacular views such as this one near Whitford.
with my two teenagers. We did a house-swap and car-swap with a New Zealand family for a month, staying in the Auckland area in a place called Maraetai Beach. New Zealand is made primarily of two large islands about three hours plane ride east of Sydney, Australia, in the southern hemisphere. The north island is warmer since it’s closer to the equator; the south island is less populated with tall mountains, and colder — it’s where much of the movie Lord of the Rings was filmed. Studying maps on the Internet, I had presumed New Zealand would be flat like New Jersey.
|American teenager in a pohutukawa (or macrocapra?) tree.
Photo by Tom Sulcer (public domain) Waiheke Island.
Clevedon takeaways restaurant shared their advice and stories with us; the man gave us a free Auckland map (taking ten minutes to retrieve it out of his car, unasked) which has proved helpful for our excursions. Even the Chinese-born takeaway (takeaways = NZ speak for “take-out food”) staff put up with my friendly kidding about winning only the “regional” chips (chips = French Fries) contest — why did your firm not clinch the national title? I showed them pictures of Hunua Falls on my camera. People can talk politics without getting into heated arguments. In America, talking politics is almost taboo; at a house party once, somebody brought up politics and the room went silent. Kiwis converse. They listen. There’s a give-and-take between people here, a refreshing openness, that I find less in America.
|Auckland, from a hill near Devenport. Winds from different directions
make it easy for sailing. It has two harbors (one on the east, one on
the west). It’s called the “City of Sails”. Photo: Haley Sulcer.
I love visiting Tony Sykes’ cafe in Maraetai Beach, having a flat white coffee, writing (I’m working on a second screenplay), enjoying the view, and meeting people. Tony described a bunjee jump, saying you fall faster than you think; bobbing up and down over the water, he felt somewhat nauseous until he was released. Tony’s description was so vivid that I didn’t feel it necessary to relive the experience for myself (I’m not the bunjee-jumping type to begin with). Ballsy birds hop into the shop to peck at crumbs; one got confused and flew into the glass a few times until a patron took the bird in cupped hands and put it outside (it lived). I met a Whitford family who has a relative in New York who’s a philosophy professor at NYU. Another friendly lady told me how to ship horses to the states (“by plane in special compartments”); she had been a dancer but is now a chef and told me about great walks in the area, and plans to visit South Vietnam in a few months. And she introduced me to other friends, one lady who may buy a $2000 camera on credit and a prominent businessman who travels regularly to China. New Zealanders I’ve met tend to be well-traveled, worldly, aware of other nations, environmentally-conscious, globally sophisticated, open-minded. They ask questions about America. Where is New Jersey? Go to New York City, hang a left, I tell them.
Later, on Waiheke island, while building a sandcastle, some young moms with kids got a chance to help pat down the towers while their dogs got good exercise chasing balls in the flat sand into the water. While the beach was almost empty of swimmers since it’s winter, it has a friendly feel. It’s possible to swim (some children do it for short bursts) but it’s still a bit chilly for a long afternoon of water sports. In the NZ summer season (October-April roughly) the water is much warmer and suitable for swimming.
|Hot springs in Rotorua. Don’t jump in. It’s 212 degrees F.|
Politeness is expressed not just in smiles and handshakes and shared advice but in highway signs where you’ll see the word “please” and “thank you” in road signs. When there’s construction there may be a sign saying a reduced speed limit was only “temporary”. When buses are not in service, in the U.S. you’ll see a flashing sign in all capitals saying NOT IN SERVICE; in New Zealand, it flashes “Sorry”.
There were times when I wondered whether the omnipresent friendliness could have been manufactured somehow, as if there was a team of government friendliness enforcers predicting my every move in advance, and carefully monitoring people to ensure they were friendly. Or, do people get ticketed for being unfriendly? Or maybe professional greeters were hired to be friendly, and were planted deliberately in places I might visit, knowing that I would write this. I occasionally felt like the character Truman on the movie The Truman Show, with everybody smiling at him with a kind of eerie hard-to-believe artificiality; I wanted to wheel around quickly and catch people giggling in cahoots. But the friendliness is genuine, omnipresent, as if a cheerfulness bubbles up from the ground like hydrothermal activity at Rotorua. And it’s quite amazing. While rummaging for a piece of paper to write down a link to this column, a motorist who was parked nearby the store pulled out a blank envelope — here mate, write on this, he said. People are thoughtful and caring.
|Nature walk on a trail up to a hill overlooking Clevedon.|
descended guide named Manuwai showed how strong this concern is. Her family, which has owned the caves for 14 generations, doesn’t permit people to touch rocks within the cave or bring anything in or out. It’s a self-contained beautiful eco-system in which the glowworms, numbering 14,000, are counted about once a year. How is the count done? There are two separate glow-worm censuses are averaged; each counter maps out territories and counts prodigiously. My next question: why count? Manuwai explained that it helps her family determine whether human visitors to the caves are hurting the glowworm environment. They track this information. Glowworms attract food by lighting up via a chemical reaction; mosquitoes are attracted to the light and get attached to the sticky fishing line of the glowworms and become dinner. How do mosquitoes enter the cave? Through streams below. I had to ask: why not bring in more mosquitoes? Then, there would be more glowworms? But she said any artificial effort such as this couldn’t be sustained over time; clearly, the emphasis is on maintaining things as they are. Overall, the cave’s owners were serious about their commitment to the environment, causing me to suppress possible joke-questions that kept lurking in my mind, taunting me to ask them aloud: wouldn’t this be a terrific place for a paintball battle? Why not convert it into a discotheque? I thought I saw people eating glowworms on the TV show “Fear Factor”, right? I behaved myself. I kept quiet. Or I kept mum, as a NZer might say.
|Trees in New Zealand vary from palms to pine.|
According to Manuwai, US software entrepreneur Bill Gates visited a few years ago and arrived with his handlers in three helicopters. His security people explored the cave first, then Bill took in the sites (“he’s shorter than I imagined”, said she). The cast of the American show “High School Musical” also visited (no helicopters). The caves, about 20 minutes south of Paihia, are well marked on the route, but a rocky dirt road with few travellers which looks like a private farmer’s driveway may scare off some tourists; but it’s well worth it. Seeing the tiny glowworms light up a cave is amazing, but humans are more amazing. Centuries ago, Maoris in open boats navigated the immense swaths of the Pacific Ocean by learning how to read the patterns of the waves, by stars, by examining cloud formations over islands. The Maori word for New Zealand is Aotearoa meaning long white cloud.
Beaches vary. The west coast of the north island is famous for its black sand which is mined for iron ore. Giant ships arrive and scoop up the black sand to extract the ore, according to one person I spoke with. In winter, it’s not fun to walk on it — the black sand clings to your suit, feet, and finds it way back into your house, said another. West coast swimming can be treacherous, since currents are unpredictable, and huge holes can develop and sandbars disappear in an hour; there have been numerous drownings of swimmers caught up in riptides, and fishermen caught off guard by a large wave. Beachgoers often encounter a rogue wave which attacks without warning, rising ten feet above normal; the person I spoke with said they were well up on the beach and found themselves in two feet of water in a split second. In the hot season, the black sand gets extra hot, and can burn your feet without protection. Dogs’ paws have become burnt on the hot metallic sand, so people have to be careful with pets.
|Beach on Waiheke island. Great sandcastle sand.|
East coast beaches on the north island I visited are white sand, but the ones on the bay at Maraetai Beach don’t get much surf. They’re relatively safe for swimming, but the sand doesn’t get pounded enough to be soft. It’s filled with broken shells and can be difficult for sandcastle building, but it’s excellent for bathing. The best beach I found was at Onetaigi (sp) beach on a northeastern facing shore of Waiheke island, and it got somewhat tougher waves although the island was still somewhat shielded from the Pacific Ocean’s main blasts by Coromandel peninsula. The sand there was perfect, soft, easy to drip into tall spires for your sandcastle creations. Each year there’s a sandcastle building contest on this beach.
Generally New Zealand’s climate is mild, mediated by the immense Pacific Ocean, with temperatures varying
|Winter sunrise at Maraetai Beach, looking east. It was mild, not chilly.|
from slightly colder (south island) to warmer (north island) as expected. Winds generally blow eastwards from Australia, hitting the south island, and wrapping around somewhat to the north before heading to South America. The currents and winds between the two islands can be treacherous for boats, according to one report. In “winter” (July & August) in the Auckland area, daytime temperatures have been around 65 (F) when the sun is shining, and about 8 degrees colder when the sun ducks behind a cloud. At night, temperatures drop to around 50 degrees. It can rain on and off with brief but intense showers alternating with bright sunshine, producing vivid cartoon-bright rainbows. Since Auckland is on a narrow isthmus between two sides of the ocean, wind direction can vary. In the summer season (December to February), it gets warmer but is often humid, making it feel sticky. I didn’t see many room air conditioners in houses, and I don’t think there is much central air conditioning, but it’s probably not needed. Skyscrapers in Auckland probably have air conditioning. The climate is perfect for growing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables; many neighbors in the Maraetai Beach area have orange trees. I bought two mandarin trees in pots for my home-exchange family to possibly plant when they return from America.
|Some trees resemble American cell towers. Photo: Haley Sulcer.|
Several NZers told me the south island, which I didn’t visit, was totally different from the north island, even more beautiful with scenic “Southern Alps” — a taller mountain range running down the spine of the island. There are few people. You can drive for a day without seeing another car. “Make sure your petrol tank is filled up full before you leave”, advised one traveler, since one can drive a full day before seeing another filling station. He and his family drove to Wellington, took the ferry to the south island, and spent a month seeing the sights. The west side is wet and wild and foresty, with beautiful sights at Milford Sound, and rocky cliffs. Rivers sometimes have a clear turquoise color from minerals. Glaciers are amazing to behold. A good base to stay at is the centrally located city of Christchurch, they advised. On the eastern slopes of the island, it can get dryer; it’s possible to go from rainy forests on the west to scorched farmland enduring a drought near Dunedin on the east. This last city was a whaling town and now home to the University of Otago which several commented was one of the top universities in New Zealand.
I see New Zealand in the British (not necessarily American) orbit. While it’s clearly a western country, it seems closer to nations culturally like the U.K. and Canada and South Africa and Australia. I met people who moved here from South Africa, have family in Australia, relatives in Canada. One chocolate specialty shop owner from the U.K. was having trouble adjusting to the chilly NZ winters; “houses aren’t insulated” she complained. In the house where I’m staying, there is no town water source; rather, rainwater from the roof is channeled into tanks and stored. When needed, a pump pushes water through a filter, and it supplies a house. This works effectively because it rains often, but when occasional droughts happen, it sometimes is necessary to pay a hundred plus dollars to get a truck to deliver more water. Ancient Venetians did something similar, if memory serves correctly, except without the pumps or filters. I did not meet many other Americans, surprisingly. After hearing my accent, two supposed I was Canadian; one correctly tagged me as American. What’s British? Horse jumping shows on TV, shrubberies, rugby and cricket, British-sounding names for towns and prominent streets (Nelson, Dunedin, Queens Road, Khyber Pass Road) and words (barrister, car hire, etc), grassy lawns, manicured gardens.
|View from Duder Regional Park.
Composite photo: Haley Sulcer
While the U.S. has a strong British orientation regarding culture and legal system and language and tight military cooperation, it veers off in a different direction somehow. The NZ-US connection is cultural — American TV celebrities (Oprah, Rachel Ray, David Letterman), music dominates. At the rugby match of Vodafone Warriors vs Melbourne Storm, cheerleaders arriving via motorcycle danced to American Katy Perry’s tune California Gurls (the words “kiwi’s on top” were dubbed over the “bikinis on top” lyric). Many kiwis visited the U.S. (one had a serious injury on an electric bronco in Las Vegas but recovered) but I bet most Americans couldn’t find NZ on a map. The kiwi focus is on lifestyle, sports, environment, while the American focus is on money and business. NZers see America as a great place to visit — a huge country — and some have relatives living in cities like Boston or Spokane.
Politics: alive, leaning left of center
I participated in a political discussion at the cafe about mining. That in itself was amazing — political discussions between neighbors! I was impressed that people had conversational exchanges which were friendly and showed respect for opposing viewpoints; in the United States, talking politics is practically taboo unless you’re with close friends or family or in a well-padded insane asylum. At a party once in my hometown in the U.S., somebody brought up politics and the room went silent for a tense few seconds. In NZ, your correspondent got to express his point of view when the conversation went from mining, to terrorism, to dairy farms.
There had been a recent government decision to back away from mining the so-called “Crown” lands. Newspaper accounts suggested that this had been a victory of popular anti-mining sentiment against the government, although the issue was far from resolved. At the cafe table, my three kiwi neighbors applauded the anti-mining decision, but I disagreed. What, dear reader, was my brilliant pro-mining argument? I said: Rocks are rocks … people want them … they’re not valuable in the ground but are valuable out of the ground … why not move them from below ground to above ground and make money? Such was my brilliant argument. My American pro-money pro-business agenda was revealing itself. But the others disagreed that it would impact tourism negatively and only benefited select industries and not the whole nation. My kiwi neighbors most likely were not persuaded by my sophisticated argument.
Surprisingly, I found people interested in an issue that concerns me very much as an American, namely, how to prevent terrorism. I have a pamphlet called Common Sense II in which I advocate a strategy of identifying public movement for all people and things, but protecting this information with strong privacy fences, along with other rather controversial suggestions which require people to, among other things, act like citizens again by participating in politics. The people at the cafe listened to my thinking. One disagreed with the strategy on the basis that she worried it would undermine civil rights. In America, even bringing up the subject of terrorism prevention causes people to turn away and tune out; in New Zealand, people are listening and thinking.
My general sense was that the level of violence in both NZ and the US was about the same, with sporadic
|Goodbye Mr. Guy. If I had met
him, I bet he’d have been friendly
like all New Zealanders.
reports in the media about arson or murders. For example, during my five week stay, I read in the newspaper about a 31-year old New Zealand farmer named Scott Guy being murdered on July 8th in his driveway near Fielding; he left behind a wife and young children; by July 31st the killers had not been caught. This violence, unfortunately, happens in both the United States and New Zealand routinely, and is unacceptable; in my view, murder is a form of terrorism, and when murderers are not caught, I think of it as a form of tyranny by the state (if interested, read my Common Sense II pamphlet). I believe that if New Zealand had adopted my terrorism prevention strategy, then Mr. Guy would be alive today and his children would have a warm father rather than a cold gravestone, and this American would have had one more friendly New Zealander to meet. Later, I emailed a link to my terrorism prevention strategy to a New Zealand police website, and I received a polite return e-mail thanking me for contacting them. I had expected a form e-mail; but it was specifically written to me. Somebody is paying attention. I was impressed. Did NZ police read my strategy? I can not say for sure, but this is a big improvement from American police at the NY-NJ Port Authority; one officer, on the phone years back, told me flat out he wasn’t interested in my thinking. “Who are you?” he asked. “I’m a New Jersey handyman,” I replied. Well, I can see why he wasn’t interested — after all, New Jersey handymen are generally not known for our brilliant terrorism prevention strategies (at least not yet).
Back at the political discussion at the cafe, the conversation had shifted to a dairy purchase, and I got a chance to weigh in on that debate as well.
|Rainbow at Maraetai Beach. Bright beautiful rainbows are plentiful.
It rains but often without lightning and thundering.
In the news there were reports about the possible sale of a large NZ dairy cooperative to a Chinese-owned firm. There is popular concern about selling what are viewed as New Zealand’s assets, particularly land as well as key export-oriented industries, to foreign-owned firms, and this sentiment pressures governments to impose restrictions on such sales. In my view, restrictions hurt the value of all assets in general; it makes a possible buyer worry about possible political complications. But my three kiwi neighbors generally were opposed to the dairy cooperative sale.
A common public sentiment is along the lines of “We don’t want to become tenants in our own country.” But I argued that the assets were not New Zealand’s assets but are owned by particular firms, individuals, or stockholders who may be citizens of New Zealand or citizens of other countries. And the nationality of the owner, in my view, is irrelevant to the interests of the owner. Regardless of who owns something, the land will still be there and the government of New Zealand will still get tax revenues from businesses which buy and sell in the country. Selling New Zealand land to a Chinese state-owned enterprise might be a problem if, after the sale, a giant barge pulled up with giant earth-moving equipment, dug up all the land leaving only puddles of Pacific Ocean water, and then hauled it to another (warmer?) location in the Pacific, then raised a Chinese flag on the replanted island. That would pose a worry. But, as kiwis say, no worries mate.
I see a mild popular public sentiment against business, against capitalism, against ownership, against buying and selling, somewhat similar to a Western European political sensibility, but it’s hard for me to tell if this sentiment hurts NZ economically. And it’s balanced by respect for the rule of law. Unlike America, New Zealand has few lawyers (barristers or solicitors) per capita and avoids much needless litigation such as class action lawsuits. Why? My guess is that a healthier political sphere has structured incentives for lawyers in such a way as to avoid unnecessary litigation. For example, in 2001, Parliament passed the Accident Compensation Act which established a no-fault way to pay accident victims; it cuts down on lawsuits but gives an agency called the ACC wide power (sometimes criticized) for making decisions about medical treatments to victims.
|New Zealand coins are logical,
easy to figure out. The $2 coin
was easy to carry and used often.
A few decades ago in New York City, a Japanese firm bought up prominent properties such as Rockefeller Center, and there was talk among Americans that the Japanese were buying up our country. But it was overblown. Nothing much changed. The USA? Still the USA. I don’t know who owns Rockefeller Center and I don’t care what nationality they’re from. Recently there was political debate about a Middle Eastern seaport management firm buying up America’s ports; again, a non-issue, in my view, but political pressure and government action canceled the sale. I believe in free enterprise. I believe in buying and selling. I believe in ownership. I believe these are the fundamentals to any strong economy. I believe limiting potential buyers from potential purchases has the effect of reducing the value of all purchases. Whatever happens, governments retain control over territory, make the rules, get the tax benefits.
|Pine Harbour marina. It is likely that a road will soon connect this marina
with the town of Beachlands. Many commuters take the subsidized ferry
boat (not shown) into Auckland each morning. Photo: Haley Sulcer.
Another political question was about whether to bring a large supermarket into the bayside town of Beachlands. This town is part of the greater Auckland area and is a relatively flat peninsula jutting out into the bay with streets in a grid format; it should probably be called “Clifflands” since much of the shoreline is two-story and three-story high cliffs. Residents like its rural nature and generally oppose the supermarket. I found myself shopping about half of the time at Botany (Pak N Save) and half at Beachlands Superettes (“Superette” = grocery or convenience stores). A new supermarket would reduce driving time and expense to Botany, probably bring more competition and lower prices for shoppers and tax revenues to the local town, but might undermine local shops and a community feeling. Blocking the proposed supermarket is a definite economic benefit to the local shopowners.
If I lived here permanently, my greater concern wouldn’t be which particular businesses operated or how big they were, but that store owners don’t rope off space from the so-called public sphere. In American malls, for example, political discussion or protests are nonexistent, since mall owners own the space between the shops. It’s part of an overall shopping experience. If I try to protest any political issue in any American shopping mall, mall managers can have me arrested for interfering with their “rights” of commerce by interfering with customers’ shopping experience. And US courts will generally side with the mall managers. Malls are a more structured, pleasing shopping experience with indoor fountains, improved lighting, trash collection, bathrooms and music, but they cut off people from interacting with other people politically. In a town like Beachlands, with it’s present arrangement, it’s possible to approach people and talk about anything you like. I see an unfortunate worldwide trend in which there is a general erosion of the public sphere. I hope this doesn’t happen to towns like Beachlands. For further information about this topic, see my article on History of citizenship in the United States.
The combination of functioning democracy among a people with a somewhat anti-business attitude can be problematic for entrepreneurs, particularly from abroad. I got an email from an Australian entrepreneur who had read my account here on Google but thought it was too positive, and he wanted to warn people about possibly moving to New Zealand for business purposes. He complained about having to constantly “dodge and manoeuvre past bureaucratic approval processes” to seek permission for his projects, and after six mostly unproductive years (there were scattered successes) of cumbersome delays and procedural run-arounds, he’s returning to Australia. He described himself as “shattered and in shock” from his experience in New Zealand. He complained about an anti-business attitude among local councils as well as a tendency to favor locals and entrenched elites rather than immigrants.
I see numerous signs that there is an active healthy relation between people and government. While it’s probably a result of New Zealand’s smaller size (it’s harder for populous nations to keep a spirit of democracy alive), I believe the parliamentary system is superior to America’s constitutional variant. Professor Adam Tomkins in Our Republican Constitution (“our” meaning the U.K.’s) argued that asking government ministers to seek support from Parliament each week was a powerful brake on corruption; it kept Parliament in the driver’s seat and ensured that it was well-positioned to get facts and weed out poor performers. In contrast, the American system of government has broken down with a corrupt Congress (controlled by corporate lobbies). In many respects, US government is like a giant corporation. Power within government has gravitated to an essentially undemocratic branch — the presidency — which controls a vast number of federal agencies. Presidents have appropriated congressional power by quasi-legal devices such as signing statements in which a president says how a given law is intended as being understood and enforced; presidents have vast budgetary authority. A still-vital check on executive power is the judiciary which can work, but it works slowly, inefficiently. The Supreme Court can not act on its own, per se, but it can only react by making decisions in court cases which take time to bubble up from lesser courts. Serious debate doesn’t happen within the U.S. Congress. In contrast, the NZ Parliament has regular debates readable online. Debates in the British parliament are lively and informative.
|Tree at Pine Harbour Marina, in Beachlands.
Photo: tom sulcer (public domain)
Evidence of New Zealand’s political health abound even in matters such as tolls. I drove to a seaside beach resort named Paihia and the main highway (NZ term is “motorway”) went through a tunnel. Was there a tollbooth? No. But there were signs along the highway that the toll was $2 (NZ$), and that drivers have 5 (count them five) days to go online and pay the toll. Not paying was an offence, said the sign. So, the government of New Zealand (in my view) pulled off a coup — getting drivers to pay the toll without having to pay tollbooth attendants. Our car drove under an overhead structure which presumably held cameras. This is an example of how the government itself is smart, sensibly frugal, and knows how to get paid. Later, online, I saw the car’s license plate had indeed been recorded by cameras, accurately, and I paid the bill by credit card.
I see many signs of New Zealand’s political health. That people power prevented the mining decision shows that government does listen (although the issue isn’t fully settled, and I personally thought the decision was not in NZ’s best interests overall.) But it’s what the people wanted. In another example, motorists complained about a ticketing policy which targeted Auckland drivers who drove in a designated bus lane; complaints that a 50-meter rule was confusing were reported in newspapers and led to policy reconsiderations. People talk politics and listen courteously to opposing viewpoints; on radio shows, callers were well-informed and reasonable. Litigiousness (rampant in America) seems to be under control here. Doctors in America, particularly obstetricians, live in nagging fear of lawsuits and, as a result, have to pay extraordinary monthly premiums to guard against possible lawsuits; they pass these insurance premium costs along to consumers. Health insurance in NZ works and generally people seem to be satisfied with it, although I met a few who thought they’d have to travel abroad for specialty operations; some bought “private insurance” to cover services and conditions unavailable here. In another instance, traffic authorities wondered about reducing the speed limit on a section of road; so authorities polled local residents to ask their opinion on the question with a mail survey. Statistics New Zealand, a government agency tasked with national data, does a competent job with much less funding than their U.S. equivalent. Censuses happen more often (every five years in NZ; every 10 in US) and a policy of fining non-respondents seems sensible and boosts accuracy. In contrast, the US census is sometimes riddled with undercounting. As a former market researcher, my instincts are to trust the NZ data more than the US data, although it is cumbersome getting data quickly out of both agencies. One good thing about the US data: it’s free.
I’m still trying to make sense of New Zealand. I get the emphasis on sailing and water sports, since there’s
|Zorbing is climbing inside giant transparent spheres (left) and rolling
downhill. Cost of a ride? $49 NZ$ or about $40USD.
water everywhere, but why such an emphasis on extreme sports? Bunjee jumping? Zorbing? Luge? Skydiving? Paragliding? Why on earth would anybody be ballsy enough to invent such things? Why would the nation’s most prominent skyscraper have people jumping off of it? My tentative theory is that the country is so rough and tumble that it’s not such a leap, so to speak, for most NZers to invent sports which risk death via gravity. Driving from Maraetai to Botany is a luge-like experience, isn’t it? Delicate curves, slopes, winding trails, steep embankments — aren’t we luge-ing with every car trip? There are driveways in Maraetai Beach with 45 degree inclines; I’ve seen kids walking bikes up precipitous slopes without a care. I bet if one took a census of all NZers at any instant, that a good proportion of them would be within a few steps of a precipitous cliff. I am right now. I can walk thirty steps across the street and plunge somewhere. It toughens the spirit, doesn’t it? How do we get down that steep slope? Hey, let’s inflate a transparent sphere, fill it with warm water, and roll down the hill inside it! What fun. The phrase no worries is a possible reaction to falling off a cliff — let’s celebrate the worry with a flexible rope around our ankles and plunge. Hey, it’s safer than driving.
When New Zealand drivers do find a flat stretch of empty road, they want to make up lost time. So they speed. I understand this. Perhaps this explains the skateboarder going 100 kilometers per hour (around 70mph) on a flat stretch by hanging on to the backs of vehicles. Now that’s not safer than driving.
My daughter’s “Zorbing” outside Rotorua is starting to affect her sense of humor. We drove by cattle on hillsides. “Wouldn’t it be funny if that cow rolled down the hill? What a great YouTube video!” I try to keep my eyes on the turns. I predict newer, more incredible sports will emerge from the kiwi imagination.
Many of the rural roads in New Zealand are two-lane wonders, separated by only a broken white line. There is
|Steam rising at Rotorua.|
one lane for each direction. In America, that broken white line means there are two lanes going the same direction; in New Zealand, the broken white line is the equivalent of the American double yellow do-not-cross line. Cars come whizzing by in the opposite direction at 100 kph (62mph). If there’s a head-on collision with a vehicle heading in the opposite direction, it’s like driving into a brick wall at 200 kph (124mph). It’s instant death. It steels the nerves.
Driving back from Rotorua, there was a car behind me which didn’t pass when opportunities arose. Why? Then I figured — my car was serving as its shield. If an oncoming car crossed the center line, it would probably hit my car first. So, I started adopting the strategy as well — I found a large truck as a rugby-like blocker to hide behind, and followed rather closely, trying not to tailgate. It worked. But roads can be treacherous — that same evening, in the Rotorua area, teenagers in a van, some without seatbelts, had a dangerous late-night accident which everybody saw on the news — bodies spilled on pavement, two in critical condition, sharp truckers blocking traffic from each direction.
Generally adjusting to drive-on-the-left was not difficult. I had trouble conceptualizing how to approach a highway or how a cloverleaf might work, but simply following the signs and the other cars did the trick. Auckland motorway drivers are reasonable and cautious, generally, and drive like Americans by having an imaginary bubble-space around their cars; when changing lanes, drivers let other cars in the lane if they signal in advance, generally.
Auckland: well-managed cosmopolitan small city
Our first trip to Auckland, we parked and walked around the city. It’s New Zealand’s largest city in the northern section of the north island, considerably warmer year round than other cities; it has two bays on each side.
|What a baby robot sees when it looks up at its mother? No, this is
Auckland’s SkyTower. People jump off it and rappel down fast.
Since New Zealand is below the equator, the adjective north means warmer and south means colder. The SkyTower dominated, beckoned. What a distinctive landmark. My kids didn’t want to rappel down but how much was the restaurant? And the prices were steep so we decided to postpone it for now.
Auckland had shops similar to any western cosmopolitan city with familiar worldwide brand names. There were beautiful kauri (pronounced COOR-ee) trees in Albert Park. The University of Auckland had many covered walkways which we guessed were to get students to class on extremely rainy days. But my initial assessment was there wasn’t much to do in Auckland. I didn’t see any theaters (I was looking for a protruding marquis with flashing neon lights.)
A week later, we visited Auckland at night and it seemed a totally transformed, more vibrant city culturally. My
|Tree in Auckland Park. Watch your head walking underneath.|
teenagers went to an experimental theater project by the Auckland Theater Company in association with the Young and Hungry Arts Trust in a CBD venue called The Basement (really the first floor). The project tries to get 15 to 25 year olds interested in theater. One play was about teenaged angst; another by kiwi writer Grant Buist was about a rabbit attempting a world takeover by becoming mayor of Auckland; she (the rabbit) didn’t succeed in taking over the world, but the musical had some catchy avant-garde push-the-envelope numbers, according to my kids. While they watched the play, I walked around Auckland and passed by the New Zealand Film Festival, IMAX theater, concert hall, and found an indoor city mall with a nice array of international foods, a bookstore, and lots of well-dressed young people having a night on the town.
|Public parks have real sheep. They cut the grass. Looking southeast
towards the bay near Maraetai Beach at Duder Regional Park.
Starbucks serves flat white which is my current favorite coffee. I had my coffee and remembered someone saying there was a small battle about naming coffees according to the kiwi tradition; Starbucks lost; Kiwis won. So Starbucks calls coffees flat white and such. I walked back to the theater to wait for my kids inside.
Before the show ended, I spoke with a director named Amber who has a Ph.D.; one of her favorite writers was Janet Frame. Amber figured I wouldn’t have known who Janet Frame was since I was American; I responded “the writer spared from a prefrontal lobotomy by a vigilant doctor who lived in Dunedin and who wrote imagistic novels?” Hey, this American knows his Janet Frame, but most other American handymen might think she’s a type of window. I gave her a link to my screenplay Fifteenth Reunion; why not use it for an upcoming play? “But it’s a screenplay” she replied; they produced stage plays. It wouldn’t take much to turn it into a live play, and it’s free for small-scale productions, I argued. Other cast members wearing bizarre costumes were friendly and engaging, but I don’t think my excellent screenplay got any attention.
|New Zealand burgers are delicious,
many have beets. French Fries are
called “chips”, mate.
After the plays, my hungry kids had meals from “Burger Fuel” (a fast food chain not in the U.S.) and heard live guitar music at the Broadway Lounge featuring up-and-coming artist Eddie Gaiger. He played cover tunes but with his own particular arpeggio-like rhythmic sensibility. He has a strong voice, earnest, competent, backed by a sophisticated rhythm machine which replayed chord patterns so he could play solos, although he hasn’t yet discovered the beauty of open tunings (guitar strings tuned like Joni Mitchell or David Wilcox). There was a kernel of original style there beginning to evolve. Listening to him, I saw similarities with the land and people of volcanic New Zealand — young, relatively rough, earnest and sincere,
|North Shore (suburb of Auckland) from a park.
Photo: Haley Sulcer.
technically adept, needing honing and polish perhaps, a diamond in the rough with the right stuff to be a powerful contender.
Waiheke Island: defying expectations
The beautiful rolley-polley island off the coast from Auckland is like a miniature New Zealand, a study in contrasts. It’s a 35 minute fast ferry ride from the main Auckland harbor terminal. Most likely, the ferry ride is subsidized by government for commuters (but round-trip fares for tourists cost about $40 (NZ) each and included a helpful tour bus. En route to the island by ferry, I had expected rich, well manicured lawns and understated elegance, like a kiwi version of California’s Carmel, since I figured that only rich people could live there. After all, there were no bridges, and the island was accessible only by ferries and helicopters, and people went to see the fancy houses. But I was quite surprised to see an engaging mix of people and lifestyles. There were some fancy houses on bluffs, but there were some shacks and middle-class houses as well, along with a centrally located school (population about 1100 children). There are a few windy-curvy roads and two semi-town centers, with a delightful mix of artists’ shops, touristy places, Maori settlements. I found the most delightful beach for sandcastle building in New Zealand at Onetangi beach. The sand had few shells and rocks, meaning I could dig into it with my hands without risking a scrape, and the sand’s clean consistency was ideal for tall drip-castle towers. Sandcastle building competitions are held on this beach annually — contestants have three hours to make their creation. An
|Waiheke sand is great for building. Photo: Tom Sulcer (public domain).|
engaging guide on the Fuller’s tour bus (taking the tour bus initially is a good idea for travelers) with a wry sense of humor explained that many people, once visiting the island, fell in love with it, and stayed (one visitor asked: what’s that town across the bay? He answered: “Maraetai — and if you look over there, you’ll see my left eye”). Vineyards offer free wine tastings. Olives are grown at some locations. There’s an alpaca farm in one spot. Sections of the island are owned by extremely wealthy people, and many properties are owned by well-heeled foreigners who visit on occasion and who have caretakers to manage their properties. Many people commute regularly to Auckland, driving their cars to the northern end, parking, and taking the ferryboat. The year-round population is about 10,000 but swells to 45,000 during the warmer months (many locals rent out their places during the summer season; up to four people are allowed per house without incurring any additional taxes.) People mix. Maori participate in council discussions and “people know people”; it’s easy for Waihekians to recognize outsiders. There’s little crime. Prices for imported foodstuffs tend to be somewhat higher, but electric costs are the same as Auckland. There’s no hospital, but as the elderly population increases, helicopters land in the school rugby pitch to take them into Auckland’s major hospitals; according to the guide, it happens fairly regularly. It’s possible to bring cars to the island by car-ferry, but the island’s bus system is well run. As in most of New Zealand, there are no roads which go straight and can be quite treacherous; according to the guide, most people drive carefully and are aware of the conditions. Summary about Waiheke: what a delightful surprise. It’s almost paradise: a university and town would make it ideal.
|Beautiful combinations of trees, plants, ferns, forests. This is a pathway
near Rotorua, a city in the middle of the north island famous for its
thermal geysers and sulfur smell.
Television is banal like American TV, rife with infomercials and junk, although I only saw the channels that our house-swap family has. I had expected to see a New Zealand equivalent of a David Letterman with some kind of late-night format, but what I got was, well, David Letterman. It’s the rampant oozing of American culture. American chef-show host Rachel Ray was on during the daytime, with a guest described as a masseuse for dogs; “by petting your dog, you’re lowering its blood pressure and helping it to relax.” Oh, puh-leeze. I’m rolling my eyeballs. How much does this doggie masseuse charge? $45 (US) per hour. My brain is clutching itself, like a sick stomach on the verge of serious heaving. This is what America exports to the world? And then I’m feeling extremely stupid for watching it, and even more stupid for writing about it now.
Perhaps the market here, with only four million people, isn’t large enough to be financially feasible, but why not have a New Zealand version of David Letterman? These shows don’t cost that much to make. Perhaps the problem is finding enough celebrity guests in Auckland to make it worthwhile. But why not tape a late-night New Zealand oriented show in Los Angeles which uses an evening Auckland-sky background? Or have two hosts — one in L.A., one in Auckland? As the Internet and Skype brings us closer together, new options emerge.
|A cheerleader on a motorcycle at a Vodafone Warriors match. The song
they danced to? California Gurls by Katy Perry, an American. The
game? British. The cheerleader? Made in New Zealand.
New Zealand television has a refreshing mix of programs broadcast in different languages; I heard French, Chinese, Italian, and I think German. I found myself clicking over the Maori channel; sorry, I have no interest in learning Maori except only a word or phrase here or there so I can appear sensitive and smart. But what’s cool is that many Maori look like Filipinos, and many Maori names have the same kind of Tagalog-sounding sounds with syllables ending in an “ah” sound, like Pakabaga. I admit having trouble with Maori place names, since I don’t have a keen sense of how to pronounce the words properly; the names don’t stick in my mind.
Overall, however, I wondered why there weren’t more TV channels (only about 14 or so) or radio channels, or why the power and range of the existing signals couldn’t be boosted. Why not? The waves can be licensed by the government. Isn’t more better than less? When driving in the Beachlands area, I often lost the radio signal.
New Zealand is relatively expensive
So, you’re perhaps wondering why these Americans haven’t visited the South Island, done the Christchurch train ride, visited Queenstown. Why not? Partially because it’s colder there people and this New Jerseyan spent every week shoveling a foot of snow in January and February. This American is happy to meet new people, have a coffee or two, and do daytrips in your beautiful country, and I’ll stick to the north island this winter, thank you.
|Whangarei Falls, en route from Auckland to Paihia.|
Further, high prices are a factor. Readers of this paper probably heard about the New Zealand Herald report by a British rugby writer complaining about high prices here using the term “rip-off”. He’s right about the relatively high prices. My rough estimate is that products and services here cost 40% more than in the U.S.. For example, takeout meals cost roughly $10 NZ on average; that’s about $7 USD. But I could get equivalent American meals for $5 USD. One Zorb ride? $49 NZD. To fill a tank of gas here costs roughly $70 USD; in the U.S., $45. Gas prices in different regions were the same, leading me to think that government sets prices; several said gas prices were less than places like the U.K., suggesting prices were subsidized.
I think NZers have figured out creative ways to keep from expending money, such as riding bikes, not turning on electric heat, eating out less often, and other shortcuts. A helpful Pakakura couple told me about a real farmers’ market (not like the Clevedon Sunday market which sells rather high-priced specialty items such as chocolate Labrador-shaped cookies called “Barkers”) near Pokono (sp) past Bombay towards Hamilton. One owner of a fish-and-chips shop in Paihia said he went duck hunting regularly; he had a dog to fetch the felled ducks. Many NZers like to go camping, sometimes in trailers which they park in inexpensive lots around the country where they can get electric power and running water. There’s a cool YouTube video in which a NZer catches a trout bare-handed.
|Handsaws: $15 NZD (or $12 USD)
In U.S., only $8 USD.
Photo: tom sulcer (public domain)
Tourists, as well, will probably make similar choices to save cash. An American couple confided with me that they had a $90 (NZ$) limit to any tourism experience; if the cost was over that, they simply didn’t do it. My family’s strategy was roughly similar in Paihia: my kids and I decided the high-speed boat ride underneath a semicircular rock off the coast wasn’t worth it. We imagined gliding under the rock and the bouncy high speed of the boat glancing over the water like a skipped stone and felt the wind in our faces. What did we do instead? Segway rides: $25 each for two rides. I watched and photographed.
And the house-swap car-swap strategy is a huge cost-saver; our five-week stay in beautiful Maraetai Beach would have cost perhaps $5000 (NZ$) or $4300 (US$) — the exchange rate varies. House-swapping is not for everybody, but if you find a good arrangement, it can be a sweet deal all around. Another money-saving strategy: use your credit card rather than converted cash as much as possible. The credit card firms get much better exchange rates (you may not see the savings until you get home and get your bill). If you must change American dollars into New Zealand dollars, avoid exchanging money at airport kiosk counters; some of them charge an exorbitant service fee in addition to giving customers a lackluster rate. The rate was horrible at the Los Angeles airport; I only changed a hundred there to pay the taxi. You’ll find better rates at banks in the Auckland area, such as the ASB bank in the Botany mall.
New Zealand seems to have reasonably priced health care for its citizens, but it can be pricey for visitors needing to see a New Zealand doctor. I visited one needing a refill of my allergy prescription, and the cost for me seeing the doctor at the clinic was about $150 (USD). Unlike the US where the system seems to push people to get in and out of doctors offices quickly, doctors take their time with patients. My New Zealand doctor was affable, genial and professional. One downside, however, of the medical system was that NZ pharmacies did not carry the exact medicine which is readily available in the US — my doctor found a mix-and-match substitute which kept me going. If you’re planning a long stay in New Zealand, make sure you bring sufficient quantities of your medicines from your home country.
New Zealand has its act together with tourism promotion, in my view. There were several times when I was driving along the highway and needed information — once on the outskirts of Hamilton (trying to find the way to Rotorua) and once approaching Whangarei. Almost by magic, there was an i-Site location with convenient parking and helpful, knowledgeable (and friendly) guides. They steered me around Hamilton’s traffic; they showed me how to get to the Whangarei Falls. Government is clearly working hand-in-hand with tourism promotion. For example, as a visitor, I not only had to fill out an information card upon arrival to New Zealand, I had to fill out a card when I left, akin to a reverse customs. Information such as where I stayed and for how long is relayed to agencies like Statistics New Zealand, which compiles visitor information and makes it available for government planners and tourism boosters. The biggest overall promotion, perhaps, is Air New Zealand — an excellent and highly professional airline with diligent and hospitable attendants which charges reasonable rates for traveling such a long distance. Airline attendants make the journey comfortable; each seat has a TV/movie/videogame console; meals are excellent; attendants serve complimentary good-tasting wine by coming along with glasses and bottles. The airline understands travelers and have their act together. When I got thirsty, attendants appeared (almost by magic) with plastic cups and pitchers of water. An American comedian once commented about the stressfulness of long airplane rides, and joked that if you ever find yourself stuck on an airplane ride to New Zealand, you might as well proceed to the airplane’s bathroom, wedge your head in the toilet, and flush. But Air New Zealand finagles the time wisely by having most of the trip happen overnight which encourages people to sleep. It’s a pleasant trip, overall; you wake up in Auckland or San Francisco. I experienced some jetlag afterwards, but it wasn’t as bad as I had imagined.
|Steep cliffsides between Beachlands and Maraetai Beach.|
Why are prices high in New Zealand? I don’t think NZers are gouging visitors, but it’s basically factors beyond everybody’s control – (1) the remoteness of New Zealand and (2) the interior’s mostly rugged geography which raises trucking costs and (3) the small market which works against economies of scale. So, a videogame console designed in Japan and built in China has to travel a fairly large swath of ocean, incurring transport costs, to get to a market of only a few million possible buyers, and getting it to stores around the country costs further still. Government policies reflect an agenda which doesn’t always put business or consumers’ needs as the highest priority.
More advice for US travelers: make sure your passport is up-to-date. They expire every ten years. And it takes a month or so to process them through the mail. If you have to renew your passport at the last minute, it’s expensive and stressful.
Ideas for economic growth for New Zealand
Overall, I think New Zealand is in a good position economically, and shouldn’t fret too much about Australians widening the financial gap or about investors from other firms buying things. New Zealand has strong assets which are easy to overlook. People are honest. The judicial system has integrity. British law applies. The political sphere functions. People participate in the political process. These factors suggest that the nation will adequately deal with continuing and difficult problems such as the challenging geography. And it’s possible for the nation to prosper more fully by taking advantage of strong pluses like these:
- Hydroelectric power. It’s hilly. It rains often. There’s no oil. There’s coal (but requires unpopular mining).
It rains hard. It’s hilly. New Zealand’s excellent resource for energy
is hydroelectric power. Photo: Whangarei Falls.
Importing gas and oil is obviously expensive. I bet government will effectively push for even more hydroelectric power, which is considerably developed at present, to a greater extent, perhaps even in smaller areas and rural towns, and other strategic locations. My sense is it will concentrate on hilly areas close to towns and cities in the interior of the north island — where most people live — where the land to be inundated is unproductive; it will probably take environmentally sensitive steps by perhaps providing pathways for fish to travel upstream. Unlike wind power, rainwater is a storable energy resource which can be released when needed to turn turbines.
- Improve motorways. The major north-south highway in the north island runs the length of the island, but in rural sections it is only two lanes (one for each direction), and at one point is only a one-lane bridge. In the north, it intersects working railways with no drop-down flashing light signals (only a single signal) which suggests it’s possible to have train-car collisions. There are few tunnels. As a result of the difficult geography, the road is often curvy and windy, not straight, not flat. It is natural to expect that government will make this road wider, flatter, straighter, working outwards from key cities such as Auckland and Wellington. I bet the central city of Hamilton will have in the next decade a limited access motorway (or perhaps staggered lights) to allow rapid transit between the north island’s two big cities of Wellington and Auckland.
- Broadband Internet. Speed times are important. Sometimes I found Internet service to be fast, but other times pages loaded slowly if pictures were being sent. According to an article in The Economist, there are only two undersea cables linking the Internet with the rest of the world. This is an important area that residents have said that New Zealand prime minister John Key is working on. Software exports can be sent around the world with practically no shipping expense.
- Immigration. More people means a larger market, which will bring costs down, and possibly create new trading opportunities with businesses around the world.
Pier on the bay. Livestock
used to be loaded on boats
here to go to Auckland.
It’s possible to expand maritime traffic in the Hauraki Gulf. This is a large bay southeast of Auckland, bounded by the Coromandel peninsula, which is like a flat highway linking many towns in New Zealand. The water is not choppy, easily navigable, although subject to tides. The government has an opportunity to make this area more economically productive by studying the feasibility of subsidizing more ferryboats, and possibly large barges to carry truck and vehicles from point to point easily. There are subsidies for ferryboat traffic which encourage commutation.
- New technologies that help elsewhere will help New Zealand. For example, one idea is for homeowners and businesses to have a standard outdoor delivery receptacle box. It would be possible for delivery trucks to drop consumer goods and groceries, which were ordered earlier online, in a locked secure box accessible by homeowners. At the end of a day, workers coming home would get their groceries from this box outside their home rather than making a trip to the store. This would cut down on unnecessary shopping trips, save gas, and reduce traffic congestion.
- Insulation for homes. This is being done presently and will help reduce energy bills for houses; heating by electricity is particularly expensive. Many houses in the northern island would only be classified as summer homes in places like the United States. My handyman’s instinct is to insulate walls — one U.S. firm drills holes in the cavities between the sheetrock (inner wall we touch) and the outerwall, and then blows in insulation made from cellulose. Why not use large hang-down curtains across large windows to trap in an insulating barrier of air during the winter months? They can be pulled back when it’s warmer. On the radio, I heard there was an activist campaigning for laws to require landlords to insulate rental properties better as well as remove the dampness.
- Focusing development on flatter swaths of the northern island, particularly in the Hamilton area, as well the area north of Wellington, can have a substantial impact on the nation’s economy. My guess is that government will encourage people to move or immigrate to these areas by providing tax and business incentives for persons and businesses who do.
- Subsidizing a few key export-oriented industries. Economic ministers realize that dollars intelligently shunted to the right industries will pay big dividends. Particular emphasis on high-tech computer industries and software is wise since these information services can be sent worldwide at the touch of a button, with no shipping expense; Silicon Valley is the world’s software hub, but perhaps there are Internet sectors which can be developed in New Zealand? My sense is there’s a strong commitment to maintaining the nation’s position as a strong leader in the dairy area.
|Your correspondent with the kitty next door.
Note: this kitty moved with owner to Christchurch and
was probably in the earthquake. Hope kitty and humans
are well and not shaken up too much. — Feb 23, 2011
I think New Zealand’s future looks bright. It’s got great friendly people, a healthy rule of law, a terrific environment, and a vibrant and healthy political interaction between citizens and government. The economy could use a boost. But my sense is not to worry about it too much. I heard the phrase no worries many times and I think it’s apt. The climate is mild, so heating expenses are not that important, relatively, particularly in the northern parts of the north island (where most people live).
And while the current economic conditions are hard to measure, the long term outlook for the world is incredible and robust growth unlike anything in human history, and New Zealand will benefit from this growth, while possibly lagging behind Australia and other parts in the short term. But it will always be a beautiful country. I hope people can keep a sense of political participation alive, and keep talking about politics in a friendly way. — tom sulcer
Check out my other writings:
- Mentally healthy mind — strategies to flourish as a human
- Dating and mating in the twenty tens — advice for men and women about finding love
- History of citizenship in the United States — essay tracing how citizenship evolved from 17th century direct participation to a legal and economic marker in the present day