Better Than Vacation: A Working Holiday in New Zealand

A few years ago, I moved to Vermont, filled my wardrobe with flannel, and took a job as a ski instructor. It was meant to be a temporary job—a low-pressure time-filler until I found a new career path—but I fell helmet over boots for skiing. I started pursuing certification as a ski instructor and began to think of Summer as the “off-season.”

A year ago, wishing to avoid the off-season altogether, I decided to head south for the summer like a bird in reverse migration.

To me, New Zealand conjures up images of Mordor and the Shire; it is the land of Lord of the Rings. I think green, I think rugged, and I think “more sheep than people.” I do not, necessarily think ski destination.

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In fact, until some friends who had taught several ski seasons on New Zealand’s South Island suggested that I apply to do the same, the possibility of skiing New Zealand had not once crossed my mind. Once the seed of possibility was planted though, the idea grew firm roots. I applied for a job and a Working Holiday Visa. I got both.

At the end of May, when friends and family were planning Memorial Day weekend in the Hamptons, trips to the Cape and idyllic summers boating in the Vermont lake district, I was boarding a plane to the snow covered peaks of Queenstown, New Zealand, the epicenter of the Southern Alps.

I was not alone. My boyfriend, a ski instructor and kayaker, had agreed to pick up his life and move to New Zealand for four months with me. It was not an easy decision to make.

By all accounts, a Summer in New Zealand was going to deplete our finances. Getting to New Zealand for less than $2,000 is a small miracle, and the cost of living in Queenstown is high. Our friends gently told us we would be lucky if we broke even for the season. Ski instructing, it will not surprise you to learn, is not a lucrative career.

We arrived in Queenstown about a month before work on the mountain was supposed to begin. Queenstown is a small by-American-standards city that thrives off of adventure tourism. Like so many resort towns, it was suffering from a housing shortage when we got there. Much of the real estate in the area is dedicated to luxury hotels and homes, leaving locals and seasonal workers alike homeless and adrift in a sea of unaffordable housing.

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Our savings served as a small life raft in those first weeks, but three weeks in that life raft was starting to take on water. With work yet to begin and no housing available that did not require wheels, my boyfriend and I discussed leaving.

We talked about using the rest of our savings to travel around the country and then bag it and fly home.

Instead, we bought a car.

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For $1,500NZD we purchased a 1997 Toyota Carib and some snow chains. We named her Phoebe, and she was glorious: well maintained, reliable, and, for my benefit only, an automatic. With the purchase of Phoebe, our bank accounts dropped once more, but our outlook on life lifted. A car gave us options—to live out of town, to live somewhere that wasn’t on the mountain shuttle bus line—and that new freedom was invigorating. I wiped my tears, stopped thinking jealously of my little sister who was starting an analyst job with a major company in Manhattan, and took a road trip, the first of many.

That first day we drove to Glenorchy, at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu. Lake Wakatipu is New Zealand’s longest and third largest lake. It is deep—the bottom is below sea level—and some days it is stunningly blue, others it is eerily black. Rising straight from the shores of the lake are the craggy mountains of the Remarkables range. I would come to think of Wakatipu as the least mesmerizing of the startlingly dramatic alpine lakes that we would explore in the coming months—a testament to how truly it became our home. On that day though, the drive around our lake reminded me of why I had said goodbye to my family and friends that summer and come to NZ.

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I had moved to New Zealand ostensibly to teach skiing. It was, in many ways, a career choice. It was also a lifestyle choice though. I am American, but I spent many of my formative years abroad. When I moved back to the States after university, I was eager to be coming home. Four years later though, I found that I really missed tea—morning tea, afternoon tea, evening tea. I was tired of the chug your coffee and run attitude that permeates American life. The Commonwealth and it’s “let’s have a cuppa” mentality were calling for me.

When I moved to Queenstown, it was to do the same job I had been doing just a few months before, but throw in a change of scenery, peers straight out of the melting-pot, a grocery store snack aisle filled with unfamiliar goodies, and, of course, tea, and life looked different than it had in January. People often talk about craving the local experience when they are holidaying, but there is nothing quite like living in a place to immerse yourself in a new way of life.

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For Americans, moving away from the homeland is often complicated. One cannot simply pick up and move to the EU and start applying for jobs—you have to have a sponsored visa and a plan. However, if you want to live in New Zealand and you are between the ages of 18-30, you have the option of a Working Holiday Visa.

The WHV is a one-year visa that allows you to live and travel through New Zealand while also working (the name says it all). For many people, this means “woofing” on farms and taking short-term gigs to keep them afloat while they travel. For me, it gave me access to a career opportunity in one of the most remote and beautiful places in the world.

 

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Towards the end of our time in NZ, we took our Kiwi flatmate’s advice and went out to Milford Sound. Our flatmate was a pilot who flew over the fjord weekly. We had been waiting for a sunny day to go with him, but the timing never lined up and our sunny day never came. So in the fog and rain, we drove from the little holiday town of Te Anau down the Milford Highway, a two-lane road that often closes in the winter for snow.

The area is renowned for its tramping (that’s Kiwi for hiking), and we looked longingly out our windows wondering what sites were hidden behind the endless sheet of rain. Once again, we thought about turning back. Maybe we just weren’t going to see Milford Sound—after all, in visibility like that, what was there to see? Once again, we pressed on.

The boat terminal stank of decay and spring mud. Midgies buzzed around the pier, nipping at exposed skin. The vivid greens and open vistas we’d come to expect from New Zealand’s south island were obscured under layers of cloud. I wondered sadly why there wasn’t a single place in the Sound for me to grab a coffee. I was told there would be tea on the boat—I wasn’t sure tea was going to cut it.

Full disclosure: I have seen Milford Sound in the sunshine- years ago on a family vacation. But I was mistaken in thinking that was the only way to see it. Every brochure you will find of the Sound shows it in sparkling, bright daylight. It’s dramatic mountains, clear against cloudless blue skies. These brochures do not do it justice.

We boarded our boat in the downpour, and I reluctantly made us two cups of tea. The fog was still sitting thick and low as the boat chugged out into the Sound. A couple kilometers out into the harbor though, the sound of rushing water cut through the heavy silence. The boat turned a corner, and the world seemed to materialize in front of us. Mountains soared up above the clouds, disappearing and reappearing endlessly. Hundreds of waterfalls, some rivulets, some full blown, multi-tier cascades of water, gushed down the cliff-faces. The rain had turned Milford Sound into an otherworldly wonderland.

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It looked like a prehistoric time capsule: untouched and wild.The boat Captain-a veteran of the Milford tourist junket-turned to me. “I always prefer Milford in the rain,” he told me. Underneath a gimmicky Captain’s hat, his face was appropriately weathered for a man who had spent his life outside and his smile unaffectedly genial. “Reminds me of Jurassic Park.” He winked. I had to agree.

It continued to pour, but my boyfriend and I couldn’t bring ourselves to leave the boat deck for the safety of the cabin. We battened down the raincoats and pulled our hoods up instead. As I sipped my tea by the railing, I wondered what millennia it was and how it was possible that a place like Milford still existed.

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I had expected to be underwhelmed by Milford: I had been before, the weather was terrible, and the visibility was worse. Instead, I was delighted, surprised and soaked through. I was cranky in the car as we drove back up the Milford Highway that afternoon. I was hungry, under-caffinated and very damp, but I would not have traded that adventure for a sunny day.

Vacations are a series of expectations—some met, some not, a few exceeded—a Working Holiday is learning to let go of the expectations and enjoy the ride. So I ate a sandwich, rubbed the condensation off the window and wondered at all the marvelous things that lurked just behind the clouds.

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