I watch as my Air New Zealand plane descend into the city of lights, Singapore, and memories of fluffy cows on grassy patches, the curves of mountains behind them, the crimson sunsets and the puffs of smoke from my mouth ricochet in my mind, and I’m overwhelmed with longing – longing for the life I would be leaving behind.
I’m aware that my working holiday experience in New Zealand is different from most others who’ve done their working holiday here.
Many of them find work in orchards, farms, pack houses, hospitality, or in F&B. Most would work in a place for a few weeks at a time, up to a month, then move on to the next job or travel, so that they get to explore around the area they are working in extensively during their work stint.
My experience had been an exceptional one. I worked in the same company for the entire duration of my working holiday period.
6 months is the default duration for a Working Holiday Visa for Singaporeans.
I spent the first 2 months in November and December travelling with Tourism New Zealand and doing the Air New Zealand Queenstown International Marathon, my parents and a friend on 3 separate trips around the North and South Island.
If you ask me for the best time to visit New Zealand, I’d have to say New Zealand in summer is perfect. The lupins are blooming, the weather is warm and sunny with little rainfall to dampen your outdoor plans (and New Zealand is such an outdoors country!).
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They say pictures paint a thousand words, but no pictures can fairly justify what I'd seen that night we spent up the glacier. So I'd rather paint the picture with my words so you can see with my eyes what I saw that very day. I cannot begin to describe what a magical moment this morning had been. This is the sunrise after staying up on the glacier overnight. By 9pm, it was pitch black, with the only sounds of the howling, chilly wind. We fell asleep squeezing in a sleeping bag – the only saving grace – under a blanket of a million stars in the sky, and I mean MILLION. It was sensational, how it stretched endlessly. The moon illuminated the blue ice, creating a world which existed only in fairytales with white witches and stairways to heaven. Waking up was easy – you can't deny a sky full of the softest pastel hues, from yellow to orange and pink and purple. In that moment, I knew everything I'd done had been right, if only to live this moment once.
Living in Fox Glacier is akin to living a life in our own little bubble. We are unaffected for the most part by what goes on outside of this town (except Ed Sheeran coming to New Zealand!). We probably only care about the weather and what our weekend plans are. In my entire time here, I’ve never gotten the chance to don my dress or wear heels.
There are a few things I’ve learned and took away from the people here, the environment and Mother Nature.
This came as the largest shock for me – we leave all our house doors and rooms unlocked. We work in the same company together and live on the same street. We walk in to our neighbour’s whenever we want, to have a cup of tea, to share a story, to borrow a yoga mat.
Some cars are even left unlocked in the driveway. One of our guide (Cam)’s old car (almost as old as I am) even has his side mirror knocked off, yet he was able to drive all 5 of us through long hours in a car packed full of groceries for 5 households without a glitch. We had boxes of food stacked on top of us and cartons of beer stacked under our feet, on top of all our outdoor gear that we took on our weekend trip to climb/ paraglide. It was hilarious squeezing in the car!
My company skirt was sewed by a colleague, Eelin, because I was too small for it. Funny how I am considered small (or even tiny!) by New Zealand’s standards, and how I was one of the smallest in the company, if not the smallest. I’m 169cm and 50kg, so that’s not small by Asia’s standards.
Coming from the city and without any intention to stay in New Zealand on my first trip here (I was only supposed to come to New Zealand for a week to cover the Queenstown Marathon with Tourism New Zealand!), I obviously wasn’t packed for the outdoors.
Yet, lucky for me to be working in a outdoor guiding company, the guides are all outdoorsy people who are fully equipped with outdoor gear.
They have everything you’d need for anything from an easy hike, multi-day hike, rock climbing, camping, kayaking to multi-day cycling expeditions or even for yoga. There are nice enough people who’d non-hesitatingly lend you a hand.
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Best perk of the job – being able to get up the ice whenever! I've always admired the work the guides do that go behind the scenes – climbing extra distances to set our climbs up, enduring blistered fingers chopping ice to pave the way for us, carrying heavy backpacks throughout their day on the ice… Behind the enthusiastic, encouraging selves are the back aches, the blisters and the burnt faces, yet they do it all over again, relentlessly. That surely is respectable. @foxglacierguidingnz
Staying in a small town where the nearest large supermarket is 3 hours drive away, some houses grow their own vegetables and spices.
They are kind enough to offer you some of their harvest, so you get fresh vegetables right from their own garden, organically grown!
I find the idea of growing your own food pretty novel, considering there is no space nor time in Singapore to do that on your own. Besides, our wet markets are always not more than 5 minutes away.
I love how international we are.
Our conversations revolve around speaking in different languages, different accents, sharing food from different countries, and talking about how certain cultures are just too distinct – the most obvious being how Americans are more generous with tipping even though it’s not in the New Zealand culture, and how some other cultures are plain rude and arrogant.
EVERYONE HAS TIME, GIVE WAY, AND SMILE.
It always starts with a “How are you?”, and then you may find yourself stuck about talking about your weekend’s adventure, a family recipe that you made at home, or the latest gossip in town.
Apart from having to appear at work on time, it’s an unhurried, leisurely lifestyle you’re in for. Sometimes on the way home from work, I’ll be called in while walking past my neighbour (Colin)’s, and I’d end up having dinner until bedtime.
Crossing people while on your walks, you’ll never meet a local who wouldn’t smile at you and greet you.
I find chatting with older people the best – they are always so warm, so friendly and full of stories to share. It’s interesting hearing their enriching life story, like how I got to know this elderly Thai who’ve moved to Bruce Bay to live with her farmer husband and have gotten so used to the weather here that her knuckles would swell whenever she returned to Thailand.
Even during my interview for this job, my interviewer sounded genuine hearing my stories around New Zealand!
WE GO BASIC
I’ve met people who don’t have Instagram, WhatsApp or even Facebook. I’ve witnessed how communication was done by knocking on doors, making house calls.
What surprised me when I first settled into work was how there are no WhatsApp group for teams to chat online. Workflow communication is done face to face, or on pen and paper (and occasionally over the radio).
Rosters are written manually and put up in the office, so everyone has to go to the office to check their rosters daily, even if they are on their weekends. Unsurprisingly then, there wasn’t Wi-Fi available for staff to use at the shop where I work too.
The most basic living I’ve had the chance to experience was when we experienced a complete power outage on 1 February, Thursday, due to a cyclone.
Not only that, we also experienced a loss of phone signal, which meant we were cut off completely from the world. Because of a storm that happened for a whole consecutive day or two, the fierce rain and strong winds caused power lines to be cut.
Flat mates started coming out of their respective rooms to the living room to hang out together. We whiled the evenings taking out the guitar, drawing paper and reading. When night came, candles were lit, the camping stove was in action.
We could really only boil a limited amount of water and had to make do with crackers and cheese. We started playing board games under the dim candle lights.
It was only the next day did we realise how severe the storm had been. Roads into and out of Fox were closed because of landslides, trees had buckled and fallen, blocking the roads. Water was not being able to be treated, so E.coli bacteria started appearing in tap water, rendering it unsafe for drinking.
It sure made me more aware of how we’ve been taking power and hot water for granted.
WE EMBRACE NATURE
Dirty as a way of life. You’ll start getting used to seeing little children walking barefoot everywhere – from the supermarket to on the streets and on grass patches.
I’ve noticed how common getting your shoes muddy and soaked are because of encountering mini floods or unexpected swamps, and how it is okay – not even gross or uncomfortable for them. I admit to cringing getting my shoes soaked in the beginning, but now I no longer cringe when it spells an adventure!
I always thought peeling the skins of carrots and washing your corn were the common practices, until I saw people just chew the corn off on its own, and eating a carrot that was picked up from the supermarket. That’s the city girl in me staring in surprise.
After I was introduced to eating ice from the glacier, I started doing that on my own every time I go up the glacier. The other time I went up on a higher altitude in a scenic helicopter flight, i picked up snow to munch on. Yum!
The waters here can be so pure that you start drinking the water from the river, as was the case when I was up hiking Breast Hill in Wanaka one weekend.
It was a 35 km hike which we took 24 hours to complete over 2 days, including an overnight camp up on the summit, and there was no water for the first half of the hike so we had to resort to drinking river water.
Also, if you think not showering for one night is gross, I’ve heard stories of how these hardcore adventure goers can go on without showering for 2 weeks when they are up in the mountains! To think we wash our hands right after eating chocolate. Crazy huh?
Some people just embrace getting themselves soaked running in the rain. Well, I never did that in the time I spent here, except for once. It gets too cold and wet and uncomfortable to run. On the contrary, I love, love running in the sun and getting some sweat in, especially because of how rare sunny days are. The weather is still cool but warm enough that I can take my shirt off when I run. Nothing like getting some sun on my skin!
I cannot emphasise enough how darn common sandflies are in New Zealand, both in summer and winter (more so in summer, around the beaches).
The first few weeks when I arrived, I got bites all over my body it was no joke. Sometimes I would get up in the middle of the night to scratch, wishing that I could just pierce through the bites and get rid of the itch. Living here for years doesn’t give you the immunity against these darned sandflies either.
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The melting of colours, of snow, of frozen lakes, of emotions, of touch, of soul, of walls being broken down, often rewards us with the beauty of fierceness, of passion, of exuberance, of boldness, of hope, of magic, of trust being cemented. That's what it feels to be alive. What makes you feel alive?
I’ll miss us jumping in the car to chase gorgeous sunsets on the rare chance it appears, and it’s a sight you’ll never fail to be sick of. The combination of pink, orange and purple paints the sky, in a way that no painting or picture can ever capture it.
When the locals say they are going swimming, they most likely mean jumping into lakes or rivers or streams, without fear of what’s under the water, or if the currents will wash them away.
Also, skinny dipping and swimming in your underwear are more common than I thought. I’m glad I got to experience it, with the incessant pressure of friends, and even doing that in glacial-fed lakes that are as cold as swimming in a bucket of ice!
Nobody that did their Working Holiday Visa in New Zealand (or Australia) ever regretted their decision. Some ended up building a home and family here, as is the case with most of my international colleagues and a Singaporean couple that I know about.
I can say with conviction that I’m very much leaning more towards country than the city. Take me horse riding anytime. Rock climbing on natural rock. Swimming in the lake.
Yes, I don’t fancy getting mud on my skin or my shoes soaked from treading through rivers. I’m probably the slowest hiker around, but there’s something about being in your own element in the great outdoors.
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Does it scare you how you can feel so much and so little with time? Does it scare you how distance can draw you apart and yet also draw you even closer than you ever thought you could? Does it scare you how you can't imagine yourself fitting into a mould but then find yourself fitting right into the very edges and cracks of it?
Standing on the edge of the cliff, right by the water’s edge, watching the fishes go about their lives, ducks waddling about, seagulls finding their way curiously around, lying across the glacier, being exposed to the elements of nature. You realise just how fragile life is, just how magnificent the Earth has been moulded into. You stare in awe at how beautiful the world is beyond the four walls you build around yourself. You can’t see it, you can’t hear it. But you can surely feel it, you sense it.
And you question how I can ever get enough of this?!
Read the rest of my posts on New Zealand:
- New Zealand North Island Experiences To Check Off Your Bucketlist
- 5 Unmissable Things to Do in Rotorua, New Zealand (If You’re Tight on Time!)
- What Exactly Happens When You’re Skydiving at 15,000 Ft in Taupo, New Zealand?
- New Zealand South Island Attractions You Must See On Your Road Trip
- 23 Things To Do in Queenstown, New Zealand, in Summer
- Running My First Overseas Marathon – The Air New Zealand Queenstown International Marathon
- My First REAL Horse Riding in Glenorchy, New Zealand
- Tips for Catching New Zealand’s Southern Lights