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Winter with Kiwis

By Staff | Apr 4, 2014

Submitted Richard Davidson poses for a picture along the waterfront in Auckland, New Zealand, in January.

Lots of folks go south to escape the harshest months of a North Dakota winter, but few go to the lengths Rugby resident Richard Davidson did this past freezin’ season.

In January, Davidson traveled to New Zealand and spent 10 weeks staying with his daughter, Natalie. She has lived in Auckland since September, when she accepted a position supporting software for a company that does international banking.

Auckland is the capital of the island nation and has nearly 1.5 million residents. It enjoys a temperate climate with an average high temperature of 75 degrees in February. It is located on North Island, which is the more picturesque of the country’s two large islands, according to Davidson.

First impressions

For much of his time in the city he took short side trips to well-known tourist sites. He toured the harbor and did a lot of shopping, mostly buying souvenirs, including a couple of boomerangs for relatives’ children. Other experiences included seeing the one and only glacier on North Island and visiting the Hobbit Village, where the exterior shots of the Lord of the Rings movies were filmed. He spent some time at a library two blocks from Natalie’s apartment, which is considered the best library in New Zealand. He did a little beachcombing, and took a boat ride on rough seas.

But he also enjoyed sitting in the sun outside his daughter’s apartment and just visiting with people. Auckland has benches placed on every block all over town, he said, which encourage conversation, even with total strangers.

“The people are exceptionally friendly,” he said, and 98 percent speak English. Of all the people he talked with, and even though the country has many languages, he had trouble understanding just one man.

He found many similarities between the U.S. and New Zealand, including fast food restaurants such as Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonalds. The country’s currency is the New Zealand dollar, and the exchange rate is nearly even, with an American dollar worth between 93 and 97 cents.

There are, however, some distinct differences. “Gasoline is $10 to $12 a gallon, and the average price of a new vehicle is about $4,000 more than in the U.S.” he said. “I didn’t see any old cars because they have such strict pollution laws.” Commercial vehicles, such as buses, pay a surtax of $1.60 per liter of fuel purchased, Davidson said. Because of the mountainous terrain, road building is extremely expensive. One money-saving tactic used in road building is to have one-lane-only bridges. The first vehicle to the bridge has the right-of-way and everyone waits their turn. On very long bridges, where it is impossible to see from one end to the other, the massive structures are built with wide turnouts in the middle to accomodate two lanes. “They have lots of long, long bridges,” he said.

Because of the price of fuel, most residents, even adults on their way to and from work, get around on two-wheeled motorless scooters they propel with one foot. “The same kind of scooter I had as a kid,” Davidson said.

In general, prices for everything are three to four times higher than here, according to Davidson. “By law, the minimum wage is $17.50 per hour.”

Some of the food was unlike food common in our part of the country. He ate a lot of mutton or lamb, which he enjoyed. He cautioned, however, that the method of butchering and the preparation has a huge effect on the taste of the meat, with some tasting better than other. “The lamb burgers were very good,” he said, and depending on the restaurant, were served with a slice of cooked beet, much as American burgers are topped with onions or cheese. Since Davidson likes beets, he also liked the burgers.

The country is basically independent, Davidson said, but as a former British colony, they honor Great Britain a great deal. “Every city has a Queen Street and they are very loyal to the British.”

A bus tour

“Probably the most enjoyable time I had was on a bus trip which went around North Island,” Davidson said. At $2,000, the nine-day tour was pricey, but featured first-class accommodations and two meals a day. “It was cheaper than doing it on your own,” he concluded. Most of the 16 other tourists seemed to be very, very well off financially, and not all that interested in learning about the area history and geography – possibly, he surmised, because they take many such trips. But it was new and exciting for him, so Davidson seated himself directly behind the experienced and knowledgeable driver and peppered him with questions. “When the tour was over he thanked me (for being so inquisitive),” Davidson said.

“It seems like the whole island was pushed out of the ocean and it’s nothing but rocks, but there is farmland around the coast with lots of sheep and dairy. Only six percent of the country is arable land.”

One of the main crops raised for livestock feed is turnips, which are used as a supplement in the winter when grass is not nutritious, he said. The cattle learn at a young age how to eat not only the tops, but to pop the turnips out of the ground for a tasty snack.

“There’s an awful lot of dairy,” Davidson said, and much of the milk is dried and sent to Asian countries, which are reasonably close for ease of shipping. New Zealand was the first country to develop long-term refrigeration to ship their dairy surplus to China, he learned, although it took a little trial and error to perfect the process.

Since the country is heavily forested, it exports lots of wood. It also produces oil and natural gas. While he was there Davidson heard about protests against off-shore drilling.

On Feb. 6, Richard and Natalie attended a national celebration, Waitangi Day, commemorating the official signing in 1840 of a peace treaty between the New Zealand government and the Maori people, who had lived on the islands for hundreds of years prior to the arrival of white settlers. Half of it was conducted in the Maori language, half in English. An unusually cold rain fell all day, he said, but the celebration went on.

Davidson returned home in mid-March, making the 13-hour flight from Auckland to Los Angeles, then flying through Minneapolis to Minot. He said the cold came as a little bit of a shock after 10 weeks of sub-tropical sunshine. At present, he has no plans for further travel, but said with a laugh, it depends on whether Natalie, who formerly lived in the African country of Namibia, decides to move again.

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