What works for us

Our solution to our previously described gripes about full time travel was a return to work. Not a desk job in some corporate office, but a kind of ‘home help’. What we wanted was to stay for a week or two in a spot far from tourists, get to know some real Kiwi families, do something tangible and learn some new skills. We signed up to a website which matches ‘helpers’ with ‘hosts’, where helpers work about 4 hours a day in exchange for food and accommodation. There are about a thousand hosts in NZ, and we were able to select from dozens in the Wanaka region. Work can be anything from cleaning, child care, painting, gardening, chopping wood, house renovations, etc. We were up for anything (except childcare), and with a preference for working outdoors. So having screened what was available we made our first contact and were accepted to start working at …… the local dog kennels!!

Mark and Mary, a couple in their 40s (with one teenage son living at home), were our hosts at the kennels and cattery. There were about 30 dogs (and a few cats) boarding at any one time, and it was our job to clean out their kennels and exercise them twice daily. As dog and cat lovers, this was a dream job for both of us. The dogs were all healthy, well adjusted dogs (a far cry from the desperate disease ridden mongrels in the rescue shelter where i volunteered in HK). And there were all sorts – big and small, young and old, quiet and gentle as well as energetic and boisterous! We spent hours with them, throwing balls for our favourites, and enjoying their exuberant company, and those happy hours felt nothing like work.

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The family also kept bees, and we helped with the collection of honey. Beforehand we were told that if bees smell fear, they attack, and that we should project a calm energy, even if surrounded by bees. With my fear of insects, that talk alone set my heart racing and in the end i only lasted about 10 minutes with the bees before retreating to watch from the car. Meanwhile Daniel practically had his head stuck in the hive in his quest to see what exactly was going on! In total they collected more than 100kgs of honey, so we finished every meal with spoonfuls of fresh honey on toast! The best honey we have ever tasted …

Mark and Mary had recently started to breed cattle on the farm, and while we were there they purchased their first bull. We went over that evening to see how the bull was settling in, somewhat nervously, after hearing stories of how large and aggressive some bulls can be. It was while we were standing in the middle of the field with the bull approaching that Daniel asked Mary “do you think there’s any problem with me wearing a bright red jumper”? Luckily we could quietly back out of there before the bull got any ideas …

We spent several afternoons engaged in a ghastly business – killing rabbits. There is a massive rabbit problem in the area – the fields around were alive with rabbits running this way and that, and diving down holes. Indeed the whole ground was pock-marked by the gaping mouths of hundreds of rabbit burrows. Every time Mark drove through the property he pointed his rifle out the smashed windscreen of their farm car to pick off a few rabbits while driving, but given the epidemic he was facing, he needed a mass attack. Enter Daniel and Clara, a dynamic team wreaking destruction on the rabbits of Wanaka! The method employed was gassing and destroying burrows (we blocked all entrances to a burrow, bar one, threw in a pill and a splash of water and hurriedly closed the entrance). The theory was that any rabbits trapped inside would perish, and the burrow would also become unusable. While wanting to help deal with the obvious rabbit plague, I was also silently hoping that all the rabbits had safely escaped before we arrived, and were busy making a new burrow in a far away field …. Once while kneeling at the entrance and preparing to drop our bomb, a rabbit came dashing out and ran just past my legs, giving me a huge fright! I was happy though to see that little guy live to see another day …

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[Mark and Mary’s backyard]

Despite the rabbit business, Mark and Mary are animal lovers and adopters of all sorts of homeless or motherless animals. While we were there they had a goose (a gorgeous fellow called George, with the softest downiest feathers that made one dream of a duvet or a new Winter jacket), a friendly duck called Julien who followed George everywhere, 4 tiny ducklings, and a pair of swans.  At other times they have had upwards of 14 dogs and cats on the property while awaiting permanent homes. Against such a background of care for living creatures, it was hard to resist helping them with their rabbit problem. Before arriving at the kennels i would never have imagined that we would be involved in exterminating rabbits but dealing with that epidemic is a reality here, as it is in Australia, and our previous view of rabbits as cute fluffy things ignored the destruction they cause to the land and habitat of native creatures. Without natural predators, it’s just not possible to let nature take its course, and humans have to intervene to contain their numbers…

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We disgraced ourselves on our first day there, having announced ourselves as vegetarians and then displaying total ignorance as to what was growing in the vegetable tunnel! Like any good Irish girl i recognised the potatoes (!), and i also picked out the basil. The rest was a big green mystery. Wisely, when carrots and green beans were needed for that evening’s dinner, they asked Daniel to fetch them. So off he trooped to the tunnel of shame … Luckily for him, beans grow above the ground so he had no trouble with those. He duly returned with the carrots also, and confessed to me later that they were they only things he could recognise!

The vegetable garden is just one of their self sufficient initiatives with the whole property being an example of sustainability in action. Mark and Mary built the house themselves from wood, 25 years ago. All power is supplied by solar panels installed by them 25 years ago (amazing vision!), and their water is pumped from a spring on their land. They also produce their own honey, have eggs/meat from their chickens, and with their newly acquired cattle were starting to be self-sufficient for milk and beef. The house is small and without a guest room, so we slept in a caravan. It was inspiring to see such efficient use of space (and of energy for heating) through having a tiny house, and it limited the amount of crap that could be accumulated. There is just 1 bathroom, which is separated by wood panels from the kitchen/lounge and not at all sound-proofed, and it took us a few days to work up the courage to do our business in there with the family breakfasting about 3 feet away …

Our caravan was located in the biggest jumble of a yard imaginable, and barely visible among the detritus of 25 years of home building and improvements. Our first night there though we slept soundly until 4am, when the rooster started to crow. So our second evening we decided to catch and cage the rooster, having been told by Mary that a previous helper would just show the cage to the rooster every night and he would calmly walk in. We had to wait until it was almost dark and the birds took up their perch for the night in the hen shed, and then in that semi darkness identify which one was the rooster (we weren’t entirely confident after our ignorance with the vegetables). At dusk, Daniel quietly entered the hen shed, picked the rooster out from the line-up of sleeping birds and made a grab for him. So far so good – we had correctly identified our target, and now we had a hold of him. But then all hell broke loose! The rooster flapped and thrashed like crazy and the hens squawked and dashed for the exit, and in the chaos Daniel let go and the rooster tucked himself away in the furthest corner. Finally we forced him off his perch and corralled him on the ground and got him into the cage. I don’t know who was more traumatised by the event, him, or us, BUT we had a good sleep-in the next morning! We would just need to repeat that trick every evening to guarantee a good night’s sleep, but the next night didn’t go so well. During one of several spirited attempts to grab the rooster while he was on his perch, he fell and cut himself, and the sight of his bloody beak was too much for us. Mary had just been telling us that day what an exceptional rooster he was and that she hoped to have him forever. So, hoping we hadn’t inflicted permanent damage to his vocal chords, we waved a white flag and wore earplugs every night for the rest of our stay!

The knowledge transfer wasn’t all one-way as i did build them a financial model for their business. Having learned that they were using the old fashioned (paper) method for tracking their business, i couldn’t resist creating them a model in Excel. It felt good to be back in front of a spreadsheet again, and i think Daniel was jealous as he was continually offering ‘suggestions’ from over my shoulder 🙂 As Mark and Mary were fairly novice users of Excel we had to keep it simple and avoid our natural desire to complicate it. Nonetheless, since we left, we’ve been in regular touch to help them resolve issues as they get to grips with it!

Although we only needed to work 4 hours a day, we enjoyed our stay there so much that we joined in with whatever Mark and Mary were doing most of the day. The variety was great and we learned something new every day. What struck us most about our stay was how little we know about the world – after our decades in financial services we know a huge amount about one tiny aspect of the world, but are ignorant as to so much else. So it is wonderful to have the opportunity to spend a week or two doing all sorts of random things while at the same time getting to know some authentic Kiwis. And you just never know what each home help assignment will bring – sometimes you end up with a caravan, and sometimes you end up with a pool … :-))

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6 thoughts on “What works for us

    1. Salut Tiphaine
      No they don’t eat them. That’s one of the first thoughts i had when we saw the large number of rabbits around (that, and a vision of us kitted out in new rabbit skin coats :-)). Apparently though it takes 6 rabbits to have a decent meal, they have to be killed without stress (otherwise the meat is tough), and the effort involved in skinning and deboning them is massive. Mary did agree though that if their finances worsened, they certainly wouldn’t starve with such an abundance of meat on their door step.

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  1. Hi both, I enjoyed tremendously this post, you two have the right attitude and Mark and Mary were very lucky to have you. It is very entertaining to read all about your experience. You will have such wonderful souvenirs of this trip!! My Marc and I have decided to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary with a trip to NZ next February!! We will not backpack however, any suggestions of an itinerary are welcome. Leaving for HK and Guandong in 11 days!! Cheers and please keep up the blog, it is very interesting to read you.
    fondly, Marie xxx

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    1. Salut Marie

      Thanks for your kind words, and we are happy you are reading and enjoying the blog. The beauty of the arrangement is that we felt lucky to stay with Mark and Mary and at the same time they felt lucky to have us. What a beautiful balance!
      Happy hunting in HK and Guangdong and we’ll be in touch via email re suggestions for your NZ itinerary (we have plenty of ideas!)
      Big hugs

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