A year in the world’s most beautiful country

Kudos to all who said New Zealand, and photographic evidence to those who didn’t. But yes, this article is about the one-odd year we spent in Auckland, New Zealand, before we moved across the Tasman to Sydney, Australia. I am writing this article to capture my memories in NZ and also guide prospective immigrants with information. I’ll also include a cost of living guide towards the end.

We moved to New Zealand (NZ) in July 2014 from Singapore, a place which I love and have written about separately. It was for work, and boy was it an old dream of mine to live in NZ. However, I must say that the dream had nothing to do with working for an IT company; it was to be associated with NZ’s adventure tourism industry. In fact, I planned to immigrate to NZ in 2008 (by studying there first), and through sheer good luck, that never happened, because I eventually got this opportunity to move to NZ as a sponsored worker. Let’s begin with a little bit about NZ’s history.

New Zealand, as you probably know, is an island country in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. Aotearoa, translated as ‘land of the long white cloud’ is the Māori name for New Zealand. The country geographically comprises two main landmasses – that of the North Island and the South Island. Because of its remoteness, it was one of the last lands to be settled by humans. During its long isolation, New Zealand developed a distinctive biodiversity of animal, fungal and plant life. One of the most unique aspects about its fauna is that NZ has no snakes! The country’s varied topography and its sharp mountain peaks, such as the Southern Alps, owe much to the tectonic uplift of land and volcanic eruptions. New Zealand’s capital city is Wellington, while its most populous city is Auckland.

New Zealand was first settled by Eastern Polynesians between 1250 and 1300, concluding a long series of voyages through the southern Pacific islands. These voyages deserve a special mention as they were carried out in wooden canoes all the way up till Hawaii.

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Polynesian migration from east Asia

Over the centuries that followed these settlers developed a distinct culture now known as Māori. The population was divided into iwi (tribes) and hapū (subtribes) who would sometimes cooperate, sometimes compete and sometimes fight with each other. The first Europeans known to have reached New Zealand were Dutch explorer Abel Tasman and his crew in 1642. In a hostile encounter, four crew members were killed and at least one Māori was hit by canister shot. Europeans did not revisit New Zealand until 1769 when British explorer James Cook mapped almost the entire coastline.

Following Cook, New Zealand was visited by numerous European and North American whaling, sealing and trading ships. They traded food, metal tools, weapons and other goods for timber, food, artifacts and water. The introduction of the potato and the musket transformed Māori agriculture and warfare. Potatoes provided a reliable food surplus, which enabled longer and more sustained military campaigns. The resulting intertribal Musket Wars encompassed over 600 battles between 1801 and 1840, killing 30,000–40,000 Māori. From the early 19th century, Christian missionaries began to settle New Zealand, eventually converting most of the Māori population. The Māori population declined to around 40 percent of its pre-contact level during the 19th century; introduced diseases were the major factor.

Auckland, also known as the City of Sails, is what we called home for an year. Auckland straddles the Auckland volcanic field, which has produced about 90 volcanic eruptions from 50 volcanoes in the last 90,000 years. It is the only city in the world built on a basaltic volcanic field that is still active. It is NZ’s largest city, with more than 1/4th the country’s population residing there. Even so, it is a small city by global standards (in terms of population…it is quite large in terms of area), and having lived in Bombay, New York, and Singapore, Auckland was very different. When I arrived at Auckland airport, I remember being greeted by a huge statue of a dwarf that read ‘On loan from middle earth’! For those who didn’t quite get the reference, it is because the famous Lord of the Rings movie series was shot in NZ. How cool is that!

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On loan from middle Earth

My first impressions of Auckland was that it was tremendously beautiful, green, and calm. I didn’t see a multi-storied building for 3 full days till I visited Auckland CBD, a welcome change after living in vertical Singapore. We stayed with a Chinese family as paying guest for a week in their lovely wooden home in Mt. Albert. It was peak winter in NZ, and the weather, though not extremely cold (around zero degrees), was cold enough for people who had moved from Singapore. Also, the fact that the home we lived in (as most homes in NZ as we later discovered) had almost zero insulation and heating made matters worse. The temperature inside and outside the house was almost the same, which was unbelievable. We wore the same clothes inside and outside the house!

Through the remaining year, we figured out the reason for the poor heating arrangements. One expects more when in a developed country such as NZ, but there is a key difference between NZ and the others, that being energy. NZ has very limited energy resources, and owing to it’s rather principled stand against unclean energy, energy is also very expensive. Most homes are wooden and built between 20 and 75 years old, meaning that they don’t use modern insulation techniques such as double glazing. Regularly using an electric heater (or the more efficient air conditioner [called heat pump in NZ]) will set you back by anywhere between $220 and $450 a month. Plus, owing to the poor insulation, the heat escapes pretty quickly! It was also quite windy, which exacerbated the chill considerably. Light rains made it unpleasant to explore outside, and we were trapped indoors without a car.

Things improved drastically once we moved into our apartment in Mt. Eden and bought a car. Our unit had a heat pump, so we were far more comfortable there compared to in the wooden home of our Chinese hosts. Mt. Eden is one of the more liveable and expensive suburbs of Auckland. Although no area in Auckland is particularly unliveable especially after having lived in Bombay, Mt. Eden is only 3 kms to the city, which made my commute to work a breeze. Buses are reasonably frequent and reliable if you are trying to commute to and from the CBD. However, they are woeful when it comes to commuting between suburbs. The train network is small and underdeveloped. Modern trains are extremely capital intensive, and in my opinion, neither does Auckland need a full fledged metro network, nor can it afford it. Bus and train fares are quite expensive, especially when compared to Singapore’s far superior public transport options.

Auckland CBD is where the country’s commercial and financial activities are centred. It is quite lively during the day and in the evenings, and offers some gorgeous views of the ocean and north Auckland. My work place, LiveOps, was also in the CBD, and I quite enjoyed the short daily commute to work. Again, by global city standards, Auckland CBD is very small, probably covering an area of a square kilometer or two at max. There are four to five ‘tall buildings’ and the imposing Auckland tower that dominates the skyline. To the north of Auckland CBD is the wonderful North Shore City, accessible by the Auckland harbor bridge and the Devonport ferry service. Several senior executives live in Devonport (in North Shore city) and commute to work in a ferry.

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Auckland CBD

New Zealand is an interesting medley of capitalism and socialism. Though it is a ‘developed’ white country, it has a socialist bent to the way it governs itself. For example, their social security, education, and health care programs are amongst the best in the world (and a HUGE drain on the country’s treasury). The level of transparency almost shocked me when I realized that as a foreign worker, I was eligible to the same medical benefits that a NZ citizen could avail. Their logic is simple; I pay the same tax so I should get the same treatment. This isn’t the case in Australia, Singapore or even in Canada. So yes, as a foreign worker, you are covered for all medical contingencies with the exception of dental and optical treatments.

New Zealand is also particularly considerate about the environment. Though the whites who arrived there from Europe can hardly boast of their record (which saw the forest cover decrease from 85% to 30%), the forest cover has been slowly rising. New Zealand generates approximately 60% of its electricity through renewable energy. This is despite it having access to abundant coal and oil resources that would produce cheaper electricity. This is one the reasons that electricity is expensive in New Zealand. They also import almost all their oil, meaning that petrol costs in New Zealand are almost double of those in Australia!

I was very happy to know about NZ’s take on nuclear energy. They refer to nuclear as the ‘N’ word, as if it were an obscenity. NZ is a nuclear free zone, meaning that it does not use uranium for any purpose. In fact, despite being a NATO and ANZUS member, NZ famously refused to let American nuclear war ships enter NZ’s territorial waters. The overall level of sensitivity about the environment is certainly higher in NZ that any in other place I’ve been.

As far as it’s natural beauty is concerned, it is unparalleled. We travelled all across the north island in the one year that we had there, driving our car across stunning, volcanic plateaus, and staying in quaint little backpacker lodges. Our first major trip outside the Auckland region was to Hamilton and Rotorua with some family members who were visiting NZ. Hamilton is a town south of Auckland; it is the capital of Waikato state, which is where most of NZ’s dairy industry is based. It is also infamous for being the only major city in NZ that is far away from the sea. The major highlight in Hamilton are the stunning Hamilton Gardens. The gardens are themed on the basis of distinct styles (such as the Mughal gardens of India, the Italian styled gardens, Japanese gardens etc.). They are a stunning day retreat.

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Hamilton Gardens

Rotorua is also a major town and the de facto capital of the Māori people. It is located on a active volcano, making it a very interesting place to visit. The main areas of the town are around Lake Rotorua, which was formed as a result of a massive volcano.

Lake Rotorua New Zealand
Lake Rotorua

Apart from all the stunning beauty you can see there and around it, Rotorua is also notorious for the pungent smell of sulphur which greets you when you enter the town. You can see steam escape from the ground almost everywhere in the town, including from road dividers! It boasts of a number of hot water pools and springs, Māori cultural sites, the stunning Wai o tapu thermal reserve, where you can literally witness some of earth’s finest shades. We also visited lake Taraweera, lake Rotokakahi (green lake), lake Tikitapu (blue lake), and the stunning Redwood forest.

As the last few names suggest, names in NZ are most Māori when you leave the 4-5 major towns that were established by the Europeans. Everything else is Māori , which also means that it is unpronounceable for an outsider. And though this isn’t particularly enjoyable as an outsider, I did rather enjoy it because it showed how deeply ingrained the Māori culture was with the land and how it had survived despite the European onslaught.

On the topic of the Māori , it is worth digressing from the topic of travel here to understand the relationship between the Māori and the whites. In neighboring Australia, the native people, called aboriginals by the whites, have basically been obliterated by the colonials. In NZ too, things were never cordial, but after the Treaty of Waitangi, the whites and the Māori stopped fighting and have worked together to a remarkable extent. Whereas the aboriginals make up 2.5% of Australia, the Maoris still make up 15% of New Zealand.

Again, Māori lag behind on every socio-economic parameter, but not all of them are on the streets, living off welfare. There are several Māori employed in the commercial sector, and a large number in the trades sector. Māori language is taught in Kiwi schools and even has a TV channel that is subsidized by the NZ government. The epitome of the status of Māori in NZ is the stunning Te Papa, the  national museum of NZ in Wellington, about which I’ll talk about shortly.

Back to our travels. Our next trip was a 1100 km road journey that looked something like Auckland > Taupo > New Plymouth > Wellington > Taranaki > Auckland. Taupo, my favorite Kiwi town, is another touristy town that was built around the grand lake Taupo. Lake Taupo is the largest fresh water lake in the southern Hemisphere. It is approximately as large as Singapore.

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Lake Taupo with Maori rock carvings

The lake was formed as a result of several volcanic explosions, starting with the legendary Oruanui eruption, which is the largest ever recorded eruption. This was followed by the Hatepe eruption, a phenomenon which was recorded in China and in Rome! Today, the lake sits over a dormant volcano, serene as you could imagine, with no trace of its violent past. It is also a great place for adventure activities such as skydiving, parasailing, and jet skiing.

Palmerston North was an unscheduled stop on our travels. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It is a very picturesque town, green and relaxed. The main town square is the center of all activity and is also home to some beautiful gardens and stunning trees. The Victoria Esplanade Gardens is the town’s most beautiful offering, and ranks amongst the most beautiful gardens I’ve ever seen. The rose gardens within it are a must visit. Definitely worth a stop if you are driving to Wellington.

Wellington, the capital city, is a relatively small city, that is expanding in all sorts of weird ways owing to its unique geography. It is mostly settled in a horse-shoe like shape between the hills and the sea. It is extra ordinarily beautiful, but annoyingly windy. In Wellington, we visited Mt. Victoria, Wellington Museum, Oriental bay, parliament buildings, and the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa. Mt. Wellington affords stunning views of the city on a clear day. In fact, we went to Mt. Wellington four times, in search of the perfect lighting for photography.

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Wellington CBD from Mt. Victoria

The national museum, Te Papa, is a stunning museum of New Zealand’s flora, fauna, and culture. The cultural part is surprisingly Māori specific, with the Europeans finding almost no mention. At the entrance, you are greeted by huge boulders that are some 3 million years old. Entrance is free, and it requires a good 4-5 hours even for the casual visitor. More curious folks will require the whole day to do justice to the artifacts and other exhibits. The winds of Wellington are so notorious that some areas have metal chains around them to help people grab onto something when the winds get bad, which is quite often. Umbrellas will either brake or fly off with you. From Wellington, we drove a long way to Taranaki or New Plymouth.

Another stunning, and often ignored town that is situated on the west coast of NZ, Taranaki is an extremely beautiful and relaxing town. It derives its name from the gorgeous Mt. Taranaki, close to which it is located.

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Mt. Taranaki dominating the background

It has a thriving industrial base, making it a relatively rich town, with many homes being amongst the best we had seen in otherwise modest NZ. We also trekked for a few hours on Mt. Taranaki itself, and though the weather was cloudy that day, we were able to get some stunning views of the national park around it. Other places of interest are the stunning Pukekura Park, where we were lucky to witness the festival of lights while we were there, the coastal walkway, sugar loaf islands and Paritutu rock, Pukeiti Rhododendron Garden, and a waterfall, whose name I forget, in the Taranaki national park.

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The long journey back to Auckland was also quite scenic and exciting, especially while driving at 90 – 100 kph on NZ’s narrow, single-laned roads. Even national highway 1 (Auckland to Wellington) is mostly single landed.  Our last major trip in NZ took us to Northlands, the area north of Auckland.

Our route was Auckland > Whangarei > Matapouri > Hikurangi >Paihia, Russell > Mangonui > Cape Reinga > Henderson Bay > Ninety Mile beach > Kaitaia > Waipoua forest > Kai Iwi lakes > Auckland. Yes it was quite an intense trip, packed with breath taking locations. Whangarei is a town north of Auckland, where I met an old friend of mine, Dalbir Singh. It was quite a story, because Dalbir was one of the guys I was in touch with back in 2008 when I planned to study in NZ. We had never met, and as life would have it, we met in Whangarei, where he is now well settled with his wife. After seeing the beautiful Whangarei falls, we drove along the coast, stopping at a number of beautiful places, most notably Matapouri and Hikurangi.

Paihia, the capital of Bay of Islands, is a very touristy resort town, and for good reasons. It is nestled in a beautiful bay, and is gateway to exploring the famous bay of islands. It is also the primary access point to NZ’s first capital, Russell. Russell was interestingly the city of sins in NZ, where the whites indulged in all the wrongs back in the day. We visited the beautiful Waitangi treaty ground and watched an incredible Māori cultural performance inside the house where the treaty was signed. We also visited the Haruru falls, Paihia bay/beaches, and Russell, which had its own set of attractions.

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Mangonui is a quaint little town, best known for its stunning bay and its fish and chips. Cape Reinga is the northern most point in NZ, where the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean meet. Another stunning, stunning place. Just be well prepared for a long and hot drive while getting there as the region is very humid but arid. Later in the afternoon, we visited the breathtaking sand dunes near Cape Reinga, where Farnaz did some very adventurous sand boarding. That night, we stayed at a beautiful hostel in Henderson bay that had an untouched beach right behind it. The hostel’s owner told me a lot about the region, legends, and other things. She also had some lovely samples of Kauri gum in her house. The following day we visited the famous ninety mile beach, and yes it is famous for good reason. I have never seen a beach extend from one end of the horizon to the other, without a single blemish on it. Interestingly, the beach itself is a highway, and before the road to Cape Reinga was complete, one had to drive on the beach to get north of Kaitaia.

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On our way back, we managed to squeeze in a visit to Waipoua kauri forest, home to the incredible Tane Mahuta tree.

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It’s straight out of Lord of the Rings. And though I have seen large trees before, this one was like the Tree of Life in Avatar. Before we returned to Auckland, we visited the serene and beautiful Kai Iwi lakes. We didn’t really have much time to enjoy them fully, but if you can, you should definitely camp there for a day. On our way back, we passed through Dargaville, which I mention because it was home to several ‘Dalmatians‘, people who migrated to NZ from eastern Europe mostly in search of Kauri gum.

DDC

Our other travels included day trips to Raglan beach, Piha beach, Orewa beach, and Whangapararoa. We never got a chance to visit the famed south Island, and did not want to push it because we wanted to do justice to it; we hope to visit it in the years to come from Australia.

NZ is a very peculiar country. It is very expensive, with Auckland rivaling some of the world’s priciest cities now. Services are very expensive as well. The reason for this is that the minimum wage in NZ is approximately $15 an hour, which is very high when compared to say the US or Canada. This has a cascading effect on the costs of services. However, the positive is that even the lower class have a reasonable amount of money, enough to live with dignity. Even a waiter can make his or her ends meet. I observed that it is quite difficult to be rich in NZ (unless you are a successful businessman), but it is also quite difficult to be poor. It is largely a middle class country. Most of the rich people, with their fancy cars in Auckland are immigrants, with 80% being Chinese immigrants.

Chinese immigrants have also been responsible for the explosion in the house market in NZ, particularly in Auckland. Most of them move to NZ loaded with cash, and buy property in all cash deals at prices that would be unthinkable for a local Kiwi. The folks we stayed with during our initial stay were ‘students’, but owned a $750000 house that they bought without a loan in Auckland! The property market is out of control in Auckland, with the government helplessly trying to implement cooling measures.

NZ also has other memories for us, such as getting included in circle of Columbian and other South Americans, through my friend and colleague William. I also played football with them throughout the year, being the only Indian in the team. In NZ, both my wife and I spent a lot of time studying for competitive exams, and I cracked both the GRE and GMAT exams and secured admissions in the coveted University of California, Berkeley. We were on the verge of flying to the US for my further studies (visa was done and tickets were booked) but fate had other plans for us, and due to a number reasons, we took the hard decision of giving up on the American dream and Berkeley in favor of moving to Sydney, which is where I write this memoir from.

Costs of Living:

I am sure a lot of you ended up reading this article to get an idea of the costs of living in New Zealand. I’ll try and be as elaborate on this topic. If you have read my post about living in Singapore, I can say that everything in New Zealand is more expensive than in Singapore with the exception of housing.

Housing: The biggest killer especially Auckland.  Of course, the possibility of having an actual ‘house’ for an Indian is a big deal, because it is virtually impossible to do so in India, Auckland is very expensive in terms on real estate. To add to the costs, housing is of very poor quality, with most homes/units being 50+ years old. Newer housing is usually far away from the city and is also far more expensive.

A 2 bedroom 1 bathroom unit (something like an apartment) costs you between $350-650 week in Auckland. You can find one in an upmarket area such as Mt. Eden (where we lived) for around $475. Good apartments are in short supply. If you want a modern apartment (from the handful that exist), you’ll be paying at least $550 a week. A 3 bedroom house would cost anywhere between $450 – $750. Most 3 bedroom homes have only one bathroom (in fact many 4 bedrooms have one bathroom too!).

Sharing an independent room in a good apartment/house will cost you between $200 to $350 a week.

Utilities: A 2 year mobile phone contract (with no payment upfront, and a top end phone) costs around $90 per month. Unlimited broadband internet (usually decent quality, but not great). We didn’t have cable TV, but I believe it costs around $70 a month or so. There are ‘free to air’ channels that you can watch for free if you have a TV and an antenna.

Electricity bill for a 2-bedroom unit with no air con/heating and all white goods will be around $120 a month. Water will cost around $30. Both vary upon usage and these are approximates. Add $80 or so if you use modest heating (a heat pump, known to the rest of the world as an air conditioner).

Food: After Singapore, I found NZ to be quite expensive considering the wages and the fact that most of it is locally produced. Eating out is very expensive, with the cheapest decent food setting you back at least $12-15 at food courts and even some corner restaurants. Fancy restaurants can get very pricey. Alcohol is on the cheaper side, especially wine, but hard liquor is expensive. Here is a partial list of food items to give you an idea:

1. Good bread: $3 to $5
2. Eggs: $2 to $4 for 12 eggs
3. Milk: $2.5 for one litre of fresh milk and $2 for UHT
4. Carlsberg 24 crate X 330 ml $35, . A bottle of good wine $15.
5. Fruits: Apples, pears, kiwis, avocados, grapes etc. are affordable whereas peaches, cherries, mangoes, water melon, coconut etc. are expensive.

6. Vegetables: A lot of pricing is seasonal. Tomatoes can cost $10 a kilo in winter and $1 a kg in summer, so I suggest adjusting your diet with the weather.

7. Boneless chicken breast: $15 a kg

It’s hard to calculate an individual’s food budget, but if you eat good food at home 80% of the time, two people can comfortably manage in $750 or so. I highly recommend shopping for fruits and vegetables at the Avondale farmers market. For general grocery shopping you can shop at Pak n Save (cheapest) or Countdown. For Indian groceries, Lotus supermarket in Mt. Roskill is a good option and stocks almost everything you’d ever need. There is a Persian grocery story on Mt. Eden road, between Mt. Eden and Three Kings.

Transport: Public transport is very expensive, especially after living in Singapore. Trains are not really that popular in Auckland. The basic tariff on a train or a bus is $1.8. General commute is around $3- 4.5 one way. Taxis are unaffordable and you’d need to spend $30 to even return from grocery shopping.  Monthly office and general transport costs per person are around $150. A monthly public transport pass costs around $120. Petrol is about $2.2 a litre. Used Japanese cars are relatively cheap as they are imported from Japan and Singapore (NZ has no auto industry). New cars are pricey. You should be able to find a ten year old Japanese car in good shape for around $5000-7000.

Entertainment: Cinemas are pricey with tickets starting at $15 and going up to $25 depending on the cinema, location, and the movie. Internet booking attracts an additional charge! There are many other events, shows, museums, parks etc. that one can visit. All of them are on the expensive side. Auckland residents can visit the local museum for free, and also have access to an excellent library network.

Water sports are expensive. Kayak hire is about $30 for an hour. Parasailing would be around $150 and so would bungee jumping. Skydiving would be around $300.

Eating and drinking out is on the expensive side. A meal for two in an Indian restaurant will cost around $40. Groupon has excellent deals on restaurants from time to time. There is the Bring Your Own Booze (BYOB) option available in most restaurants. Mission bay, Devonport, CBD, Epsom etc. have good restaurants.

Fitness: There are some community swimming pools and tennis courts. Swimming pools are around $5 for a single enter. Some courts are free while some better ones charge around $15 an hour. Gyms vary in prices can can be between $50 to 125 a month. I used a decent gym called Jetts paying around $45 a month. Swimming pools cost $1.5 per entry on weekdays.

In conclusion, NZ is like a developed village. As Indians, all of us feel the urge to get away from the city life, but as soon as we do, we also have to leave behind whatever little infrastructure exists. NZ fulfills that dream; it is like a village with broadband internet, clean roads, and running water. The only reason we are not living there today is that it couldn’t meet out career aspirations, but we wouldn’t want to change NZ into an industrialized country for our careers 🙂

 

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