Kiwis

So what are the Kiwis like? Here are our first impressions about them after almost two months in their country …

The first thing you need to know is that there are Kiwis (New Zealanders, who often refer to themselves as Kiwis, so it is not a derogatory term), kiwis (the endangered native bird), and kiwiFRUITS (apparently it is a common mistake for foreigners to refer to the fruits as kiwis not realising that term is reserved exclusively for the birds). And that’s about as complicated as life gets here … !

Green kiwi fruits are delicious but…

…the golden ones are divine

We are yet to see one of these guys

In several of our posts, we have already mentioned the kindness of the people which has been one of our strongest impressions. Beyond this, we have also experienced a real interest from people about our trip and a genuine wish that we enjoy our stay here. It’s novel for us to be on the receiving end of such warmth after years in Hong Kong’s more mercenary environment, and it still takes us by surprise. We are trying to adopt it though, and pass it on …

We have been struck by how outdoorsy and fit the Kiwis seem. Whatever town we are in, we see young and old out jogging, and regularly see new Mums vigorously pushing strollers up and over hills. On the trails, the hikers we meet are of all ages, from school groups to elderly couples, the latter category often putting us to shame with their ease on the tracks. At odds with all this though is the high levels of obesity we see. I don’t know the official stats but I’m sure I’ve never seen such a high proportion of obese people anywhere i have been before. Obesity is prevalent amongst the white Kiwis but even more so amongst the Maoris and Pacific Islanders. And sadly, an elderly hiker we shared a hut with recently said he thought Pacific Islanders (those from Fiji, Tonga etc) died up to 20 years earlier than white Kiwis. He cited a combination of factors such as lower socio economic group, poorer diet, weight issues, alcohol etc. 20 years sounds exaggerated, but no doubt there is an element of truth behind his claims.

NZ is quite a multicultural place, with 69% white, 14% Maori, 9% Asian and 7% Pacific Islanders (we haven’t been counting and classifying everyone we meet; those stats are from our guidebook!). It is regularly touted as an example of a place where the indigenous people were historically well treated and where the various races get along well together nowadays. During colonisation the Maoris fared relatively better than Australia’s aboroginals, or North America’s Indians, and today there are generous reparations being paid to Maori tribes to address any past wrongs. And (at official levels anyway) throughout the country there seems to be an almost sacred respect for Maori heritage. For instance many of the national parks, rivers and mountains have Maori names. Quite ironic really given everyone we met so far in the national parks have been white! However, there appears to be a less than harmonious mixing of the races overall. We rarely see a mixed race group (other than work collegues), and have been warned many times by white Kiwis to be careful in any dealings with Maoris or Pacific Islanders. And indeed our first impression of non-white Kiwis was less than flattering. Often they are heavily tattooed with tribal designs, and the facial tattoos in particular we found quite shocking initially. The kids and teenagers tend to wear baseball caps, sloppy sports clothes and slouch around in gangs on the streets, or travel in packs. All symbols we associate from our cultures of a certain tough and unfriendly attitude … But our experience here has been quite the opposite and those we have met have been very warm and friendly, even that strange species, teenagers! Typically when a group of Maori youths passes us on the street, each of them will smile at us and say Hi, sometimes asking where we are from, and generally blasting away all the misconceptions we had based on their appearance.

Continuing on the same theme, we were disappointed to find that the Chinese seem to have the fast food industry wrapped up. After years of living in HK and travel to China we have a healthy distrust of the Chinese attitude to food due to the high levels of contamination from chemicals and fertilisers in their food, and we were looking forward to eating healthy NZ produce. So imagine our disappointment when we saw that the fish and chip shops were mostly Asian managed! Anyway, after trying several, we can report that the best fish and chips we had so far was from a Chinese take-away 🙂

On a lighter note, we have been impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit we have seen here. While walking on small country roads, it feels like every third house we pass has a sign advertising the business that is run from there. Architects, designers, sign-writers, electrical work, you name it! And it turns out that this country has one of the highest levels of employment in small businesses. Good on ’em!

They are definitely a practical people by and large. An example that I love is the lack of small coins. Nothing smaller than 10 cents. So whatever your grocery bill sums to, the cashier rounds it to the nearest 10 cents if you are paying cash. Sometimes you lose a few cents, sometimes you gain a few, but it keeps the almost worthless coppers out of your wallet/pocket. Brilliant! The society here too is relatively classless, and you don’t often see displays of wealth or ostentation. Apparently the group dressed in the most threadbare shorts and ancient boots – the farmers – are the wealthiest group, but you would never know it to look at them!

We continue to be amazed at how hardy and strong they are. Even discounting how soft we became after several years in HK, they are still impressive! On a demanding trail recently we met 2 local ladies, one in her 50s and the other well into her 60s. The trail was no bother to them, and in fact they told us they regularly LEAVE the trail, and do some bush bashing to explore interesting caves, or rock features! And the thing is, these appear to be normal Kiwis! Sometimes we meet them walking in t-shirts while we have 4 or 5 layers on. Or we hear their stories of trips they have taken, where as an aside they mention that their boot laces froze vertically, or their tent was covered in snow. No big deal, and certainly nothing to get excited about.

One topic that DOES excite them though is fishing. Many people have access to a boat, and most of them (plus others) seem to love fishing. And with a generous fishing quota of NINE snapper per person per day, i can see why 🙂 No need for a license or anything tricky like that, just grab a rod, stand on the coast for a half an hour and catch that night’s dinner. One Kiwi was telling us that the norm on a fishing charter (where a group hire a boat plus a captain for the day) is to have maxed out everyone’s quota within 2 hours, which unfortunately leaves a long day ahead with nothing to do except drink beers … We haven’t yet been fishing but Daniel is determined to rectify that (he claims it’s nothing to do with the prospect of a boozy day on a boat!).

Their interest in nature extends well beyond knowing the best place to catch fish, and we have noticed a widespread and deep interest in nature and conservation. The other Kiwi hikers we have met were far more knowledgable about their environment than hikers I have met in other parts of the world, easily identifying plants and birds that we see. It’s true also of anyone connected to the tourism industry, but it feels like a genuine interest / passion, rather than something they have to learn about for their job. The government department that manages conservation here does a fantastic job, and in every town we have been so far there is a well maintained network of trails, ranging from easy nature walks to challenging tracks and mountain bike routes. They do everything to encourage people to get out and about in nature, and it seems to work! 

Their numerous skills don’t unfortunately extend to driving – the roads are lethal here. There are very few two-lane highways, and the standard speed limit seems to be 100km/h despite the mountainous terrain, winding roads and distracting views. Two separate reports we read from cyclists who had traversed the globe listed NZ in the top 3 most dangerous countries to cycle in. I’m happy we are walking our way through the country, and not cycling 🙂

The final comment is about the kids here who are so chatty and uninhibited by strangers. We’ll be sitting in the library, catching up on emails and children of any age from 5 upwards will start talking to us. What are we doing? Are we doing it for work? What are we writing about? Is that an ipad we are using? The 7-year old who asked us this question smiled wistfully when we said yes and said he’d love to have an ipad, but he can’t afford one 🙂 They always make us smile, but sometimes we hide in a quiet corner to avoid the inquisition 🙂

Overall, a lovely people to be around, and a big part of why we are enjoying our time here so much.

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