Friday, July 14, 2017

10 Things I Learned in my First 10 Days in New Zealand

We made it! All the way to Lake Hawea, New Zealand. Every bit of effort and stress and bureaucratic hoops involved in getting here feels 100% worth it looking at views like this:

View from our rental house. I've got my eye on the peak to the left--looks like quite an interesting climb.
The Maori name for New Zealand, Aotearoa, means "Land of the Long White Cloud." I'd say that's accurate!
Lake Wanaka, which is another huge lake about 15 min drive away. The town of Wanaka is the main hub of the immediate region, and has all the shops (and tourists).
We didn't head to Hawea right away upon arriving in NZ. First we spent a little over a week in Christchurch, during which we opened bank accounts, bought a used car, switched over cell phones, and tried to handle all the minutiae of setting up a temporary new life in another country. This process wasn't always easy, so I thought I'd share some of the lessons we learned:

1. Friends are worth more than gold

Okay, likely you know this already. Yet I can't emphasize enough what a difference it made to have a friend hosting us during our "landing week" in Christchurch. My eternal gratitude goes to New Zealand author Helen Lowe, who opened her home to the three of us, patiently drove us around town and provided all manner of helpful advice, plus organized a fun get-together with local SFF writers and fed us many wonderful home-cooked meals. (Helen is not only an excellent writer but a terrific cook. Speaking of her writing, if you like epic fantasy and you haven't read her Wall of Night series, you really, really should. I've talked before here about why I love the books, and the series remains one of my favorite currently-running sagas. While we were staying with Helen, I felt tremendously glad for her help and yet regretful that we were taking her away from working on the next installment. I'm so eager to read what happens that I'd hate to be the cause for even the smallest of delays!)

Helen and I enjoying a wintry beach walk in Christchurch
2. Changing a Verizon phone over is NOT as easy as swapping a sim card

I must have read a hundred times in travel articles that switching your phone over to a local provider is as easy as putting in a new sim card.

HA HA HA no. Or at least, not with a Verizon phone. I dutifully made sure before leaving the US that my Samsung S5 was not "locked" by Verizon (i.e. that the phone would accept a new sim card). So when we got to Christchurch, we compared plans from NZ providers, selected one, and bought new sim cards. My husband also got a new phone, since his was pretty old and he'd never liked it anyway. His setup went fine. Mine did not.

Turns out you not only have to swap the sim, you have to dig deep into your phone's settings and change the preferred network type and enter a bunch of new APN info and make all kinds of other adjustments, all of which I had to figure out myself with the help of a lot of google searching. Even after all that, my phone still spits out constant warnings that I'm not using a Verizon sim card and keeps trying to reset back to its old settings. It's so annoying that I'm teetering on the edge of breaking down and buying a new phone.

3. Food in New Zealand is expensive, but the treats are very tasty.

I'd braced for the high food costs before arriving, but still, it's a bit of a sticker shock when lunch in a mall food court costs $50 NZD for 2 adults and a kid. (Burgers + fries + drinks + one ice cream.) We'll be cutting way, waaaaaaay back on eating out, and budgeting our grocery shopping very carefully. This is pretty darn hard when so many tasty treats are on offer. Everything from butter chicken pies to cheese scones to tuna-salad-and-cucumber sushi rolls (why can't you find tuna salad sushi in US stores?). Don't get me started on the actual desserts. As a fan of caramel and white chocolate, the shelves hold far too many temptations like this:

4. New Zealanders are a laid-back crew, but bureaucracy is taken seriously

Individually speaking, New Zealanders seem pretty laissez-faire when it comes to matters of payment. When I arranged to rent a house in the town of Lake Hawea, I was startled when I asked how much the owner would need for a deposit, and she told me there was no need for a deposit or signed paperwork, we'd just work out payment once we moved in. We've had similar experiences with other services (like firewood delivery). "Oh, just send me the money when you have a chance." (Payments here are made by bank account transfer, not checks.) People seem a lot more trusting of each other, which is a refreshing change.

Yet when you encounter bureaucracy, it can be quite rigid. For instance, when we went to open our bank account, the bank required proof of an address (either in the US or here), and the proof had to be a bank statement or utility bill. I dutifully handed over a copy of our joint account statement showing our names and Colorado address. But in Colorado we do all our banking at a credit union, and apparently credit union statements aren't accepted, only BANK statements. What about a mortgage statement? Nope. 401K? Nope. Our utility bills are almost all in my name with my husband as a secondary, which means his name often doesn't show on the statement. I was beginning to panic over how in the world I could provide proof, until I managed to dig up a City of Boulder water bill that showed both of our names along with our address. Whew!

5. The playgrounds are as awesome as the scenery

Even tiny towns can have some pretty nifty play structures. My husband theorizes this is because NZ, much like his home country of Australia, doesn't have a lot of personal injury lawyers. Our son's favorite playground so far is the Margaret Mahy playground in Christchurch (first suggested to us by the ever-awesome Helen Lowe). The park features trampolines, rope structures, massive slides and seesaws, a zipline, and an extensive "water engineering" play area.

Now that's a slide
In the US, water features are often turned off in winter. Not so here. (I suppose because it doesn't get cold enough for the pipes to freeze solid?) In the dead of winter, with temps hovering not far above freezing, kids were still happily playing with water features. Many of the kids wore shorts. Some of them were barefoot. I thought as a Coloradan used to blizzards and freezing windchills that I was tough, but clearly I have a ways to go to match a Kiwi.

6. Buying a car: timing is everything

When buying a used car, negotiate first on price before you get an inspection done. (We did this the wrong way around. Oops.) Also, don't expect to get anything car-related done on a weekend. Dealerships may be open, but registration offices, mechanics, and parts stores are usually not. We finally finished negotiating to buy a car on a Friday. We'd planned to leave Christchurch the next day. But we couldn't leave, because the car was an import and had to be registered, which couldn't happen until Monday. Thankfully Helen and her partner Andrew were kind enough to let us extend our stay with them at the last minute (this, after already imposing on them for a whole week).

7. Snow chains aren't just a quaint memory from the past

When I first moved to Colorado, I remember marching into a tire store and asking to buy chains. The guy at the counter looked at me like I was crazy. "Chains? You don't need those. We don't even sell them. If a road gets so bad you'd need chains on a passenger car, the state closes it."

He was right. In twenty two years of driving mountain roads in Colorado in winter, I never used or needed chains, even in near-blizzard conditions. Colorado's famously dry & fluffy powder packs down into a surface that provides decent traction; ice, especially black ice, is relatively rare. Plus, an army of snowplows crawls over the highways 24/7, plowing and sanding and dumping antifreeze. All you need is a decent amount of tread on your tires, and you're set, especially if you have a Subaru.

Not so in NZ! Driving the passes in winter, you're required to carry chains, even if your car is an Outback or even some huge honking 4WD off-road monster. And you may well have to use the chains. NZ snow tends toward the icy variety, and their plows may only work the road once a day (often first thing in the morning).

Ice on the road. No problem on flat ground like this, not so fun on a steep windy pass
Also, some of the ski field roads (such as the road to Treble Cone) are crazy steep with no asphalt, no guardrails, no room to pass, and a hell of a long drop off the edge.

Road to Treble Cone ski area. We are riding the bus because then I can enjoy the scenery instead of keeping white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel
So for the first time in my life, I own a set of chains. Haven't had to use them yet, but at least we're ready.

8. There's an art to tending a woodburning stove (we're still learning it!)

Most NZ houses don't have central gas-furnace-based heating. You keep warm in winter the old-school way, by burning wood in a cast-iron stove. In Christchurch, Helen instructed us in the art of lighting a fire in the woodburner (use newspaper, paraffin fire starter, and kindling) as well as other tips and tricks (you can clean the glass of the door by spitting on a paper towel, getting some ash on it, and scrubbing). The part we're still learning is how to manage wood and damper (the sliding control on the vent to the outside) such that we stay warm without burning through our entire firewood supply too quickly.

Time for another log for the fire
 I admit I'm a little ambivalent about the woodburning thing. It's kinda nice to have a fire on chilly winter nights. Yet the smoke haze from whole neighborhoods of houses burning wood is quite noticeable already in mountain valleys. As NZ's population grows ever larger, I have to wonder if the pollution will get to smog-awful levels. (Helen told us that Christchurch has quite strict rules about types of stoves and how to use them, in an effort to combat the pollution issue. Out here in the Wanaka area, I don't think they have such regulations yet, but looks to me like they'll need them soon.)

9. Even not-so-scenic NZ routes are still pretty damn scenic 

When we drove from Christchurch to Lake Hawea, we had a choice of routes. The shortest goes through Tekapo near Mt. Cook (NZ's highest peak), and over Lindis Pass, and is said to be gorgeously scenic. However, wintry weather was forecast for our traveling days, and we didn't want to risk the pass and roads being closed, which happens often in snowy weather.

So instead, we took the "Pig Root", driving down the coast to Palmerston and then heading inland toward Wanaka and Lake Hawea. Reading up on this route before leaving, I found many discussions online that disparaged the scenery compared to the Tekapo/Lindis Pass route. I felt kind of downhearted that we apparently would miss out on all the good views.

I shouldn't have worried. I'm not sure NZ has any non-scenic routes.

Yeah, not scenic at all
These mountains aren't scenic either. That's why I couldn't take my eyes off them.

This section of the drive actually reminded me quite a bit of northern Colorado

Somewhere near Cromwell
Heading toward Wanaka and Lake Hawea

10. Don't be in a hurry to get anywhere

Because you might get stuck behind an entire house being trucked along the road.

House-truck inching over a bridge. My favorite part is the car with the "House Ahead" sign on it. In case you didn't notice the GIANT HOUSE. The pic is a bit deceiving--there is no room to pass on the other side of the road. The house took up the entire road. Cars coming the opposite way had to pull off into ditches and wait. 
Creeping along behind this house added an extra hour to our drive between Oamaru and Lake Hawea. It was actually kind of fascinating to watch the truck driver negotiate the windy road. (The truckbed had hydraulic stabilizers to keep the house flat as the truck inched around banked curves.) But man, I was glad we'd allowed plenty of time for the drive.

Besides, you need time to enjoy all that scenery.

Lake Wanaka
Anyway, there you have it! The first ten lessons we've learned, out of what will doubtless be many more. Next I might do a post on some of the differences between NZ and CO skiing...but I'll get in a few more days on the slopes first. Gotta make sure I know what I'm talking about, right?

Skiing at Treble Cone


  1. #10 especially bit me in the butt in my time on the North Island...places took far longer to get to than I budgeted for, time wise

    1. Yep, the distances seem short, but the roads are curvy and mostly only 2-lane, so the speeds are low. They do have passing lanes every now and then on the highways on the South Island, which is good because I'm the weenie sort of driver who doesn't like passing without either a designated lane or a really long empty straightaway!

  2. As a random lurker who was arriving in Queenstown for 3 months this time last year, I'm loving the photos (and super jealous)!

    We only used the chains a handful of times, but they were invaluable when we did. Some of the ski fields will have a crew at the chaining station to help you put them on - the team at the Remarks completely saved clueless us the first time.

    Looking forward to the NZ/CO ski post. Are you planning to stick to Treble Cone, or are you hoping to get to some of the other ski & club fields and/or out in the backcountry?

    1. That's so cool you were in Queenstown! What did you think of the skiing there? We will mostly be skiing Treble Cone since it's the closest to us (and I hear it's the steepest--I've certainly been pleased with their expert terrain so far), but we do want to at least sample the other options within reasonable driving distance.

      I haven't used chains so far because we've been "cheating" by taking the shuttle bus from Wanaka to Treble Cone. Today was an epic powder day--mid-thigh on the upper mountain!--and boy did every penny of that bus ticket feel worth it as we chugged up the super-steep road past a giant line of 4wd cars struggling to get their chains sorted. Quite a few people standing by the cars tried to beg the bus driver via hand gestures to stop and give them a ride. Bus driver says he only stops for hundred dollar bills being waved in the air. (Round trip bus ticket is $29.)

      I do also want to get out into the backcountry but I need to get some touring gear first (and maybe take a refresher avalanche course).

    2. Sounds like a great start to the season! NZ skiing is hard to describe, but it feels very different to both the US and the Alps - I guess small and wild is sort of the general shape of it. I'll be interested to read your take on it.

      Like all NZ resorts Coronet Peak and the Remarkables are quite small, but worth a visit. CP has a higher vertical drop and more pistes & the Remarks has more traverse and hike to terrain (and touring off the back). CP is pretty good for a powder day, as it has wide unpisted areas that open quickly and the road is easier. We only spent a day at Cardrona - we had fun, but I think it was fairly flat.

      Consider going to stay at one of the club fields for a couple of days. We spent a weekend in Broken River in the catered accommodation - it's a nice atmosphere with communal dining and everyone assigned cleaning chores, with a mix of regulars and one off visitors. _But_ the nutcracker lifts had me in tears more than once, so look them up before committing (OH found them fine).

      I highly recommend ski crampons for NZ touring. As well as possibilities to the side or back of most of the resorts, options between Queenstown and Wanaka include the Crown Peak, Soho Basin & the Pisa Range (flattish rolling hills).