A
Gap Year with a Difference


By Matt Showering



Cultural Clashes
Cape Reinga
Just one day after leaving Auckland for the Bay of Islands (where I had visited Waitangi, a photograph of which was featured in the last chapter), on a coach up to Cape Reinga - the northernmost tip of New Zealand, where the Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman Sea - I had my first encounter with extreme anti-Commonwealth Kiwi sentiment. The coach driver/guide for the day (whom we had immediately seen to have a rather abrasive sense of humour), upon driving us past a Maori tribal flag, took the opportunity not only to draw our attention to the apparently growing clamour for the New Zealand flag to be redesigned minus the Union Jack, but to loudly and proudly voice his own support for this movement before going off on a semi-coherent, utterly offensive political rant - completely disregardful of the fact that most of the people on his coach were British. The following day I made a written complaint to the tour operator, for quite apart from the fact that it is completely inappropriate for tour guides to bring their personal political views into their commentary, they should also consider the demographics of their tour party or at the very least have the decency to get their facts straight: "Where was the Commonwealth when France tested nuclear weapons in our waters?" said the driver, clearly oblivious to the sad fact that the EU has long been more powerful than the Commonwealth. An Australian passenger sat in front of me said, in response to my angry agreement with another Brit who'd taken umbrage, "To be honest, mate, I think you'll find most people in these parts feel the same way."

I declined to engage the Australian person in debate, reasoning that if I'd wanted to spend half my travels trying to explain the concept of the post-Imperial Crown to its own subjects, I'd have taken my working holiday in Australia rather than New Zealand. If, however, I were pressed to explain why I believe that these two independent sovereign states - with their autonomous governments and legally distinct Crowns - should retain the Union Jack in their flags, then no words of mine could better the musings of an Internet Movie Database (IMDb) user in an 'Australian Republic' debate arising from discussion of the recently-released film Elizabeth - The Golden Age: this person urged Australians and New Zealanders to think of their countries as grown-up children of 'Old Mother England,' having flown the nest (become independent) but retaining the 'motherland's' flag in their own just as men and unmarried women retain their parents' surnames, and to view the Queen herself as the epitome of that elderly mother figure "who can still embarrass you from time to time, in a loving way." It's a great shame that I will almost certainly never get to have a face-to-face discussion with this person.

Needless to say, the views from Cape Reinga were stunning. The Cape is a sacred place for the Maori, whose traditional beliefs hold that the souls of the deceased pass through the meeting of the seas on their way to the afterlife. My overall impression of the journey up from Paihia in the Bay of Islands was that, the frequent appearance of native flora and fauna aside, the countryside could be said to have a moderately English feel to it - but then arrival on the coast felt like transportation from that 'green and pleasant land' to the Mediterranean. It was only when, a few days later, the Kiwi Experience bus arrived in the small town of Whitianga, on the Coromandel Peninsula, that I finally started to genuinely feel that I was on the other side of the world from home. The best way to describe Whitianga would be a township: distinct from a village, with all the basic functions and appointments of a town, but with mostly one-storey or otherwise very short buildings, and a bar not entirely dissimilar to an Old Western saloon; a type of place I had never been to before and had never heard of in Britain. The tiny War Memorial in the town centre, however, served as a fitting reminder that even such a remote, quaint and peaceful township was no exception to the fact that not a single town or village throughout the Empire was spared having to offer up the lives of its finest for the cause of freedom in the First World War.
Matamata
The next stop was Matamata, a similarly-sized town just outside of which lies the farm that served as the setting for the Shire village of Hobbiton in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. While taking a tour of the farm, the only filming location with remnants of the old sets remaining, surveying the landscape made it abundantly clear that the location scouts could not possibly have chosen a more English-looking natural setting for the part of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth intended to represent the rural English Midlands whose demise so greatly saddened the author - even his native Oxfordshire would today, alas, probably not contain a sufficiently broad stretch of unspoiled land so as to allow filmmakers the flexibility to fully capture what remains of its beauty.

For me, the most exciting part of the Kiwi Experience trip up to that point came when we embarked on the hugely popular Tamaki Maori Village Tour outside the geothermal town of Rotorua, for a taste of traditional Maori culture - complete with old-fashioned huts and spear-wielding, semi-clad warriors.
Tamaki Village
Each bus en route to the village (driven from the hotels and hostels by Maori driver/guides) was required to nominate a tribal chief for the evening, and my friends - knowing of my great interest in history - succeeded in nominating me. Upon arrival, I was required to press noses (quite literally) with the other chiefs, and we then had to stand perfectly still and straight-faced as the warriors 'inspected' us at the entrance; once convinced of our peaceful intentions, they allowed us to lead our 'tribes' into the village, where we were able to observe native domestic practices, arts and crafts in progress before leading everyone on to witness a magnificent display of song and dance. This was followed by a glorious banquet of food traditionally cooked on hot rocks under earth, and then the chiefs' duties extended to joining in the performance of the famous haka or war-chant - after which we were presented with Tikis, charms to bring us all "Good luck and many children." I resolved to wear the Tiki throughout the rest of my time in New Zealand (except when watching NZ v England cricket or rugby matches), despite obviously being somewhat sceptical as to its chances of overcoming the time-honoured doctrines of Herr Asperger. Finally, after a sing-along to the popular, moving folksong 'Now is the Hour' - used to farewell Maori soldiers departing for both World Wars - it was back on the bus, but I soon found that my chiefly functions had not yet been completed. My final duty was to find out all the nationalities present and direct each contingent to sing a favourite national song, in the case of England to be led by me personally of course - but with a note from the driver that we could sing "anything but 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' [the England Rugby anthem]" as this would be too painful a reminder of the All Blacks' recent failure at the Rugby World Cup. When the time came, I therefore decided upon 'Jerusalem,' but the substantial English contingent was none too pleased and insisted upon 'God Save The Queen,' to which I happily obliged. Why, though, being a staunch monarchist, had I not chosen that song in the first place? Because, 'God Save The Queen' is - in the New Zealand context - not distinctively British, being officially the joint New Zealand National Anthem along with 'God Defend New Zealand,' though more commonly regarded as the Royal Anthem; and in the British context, despite being sung at sports matches as the National Anthem of England, it is actually the National Anthem of the UK and is thus not distinctively English ('Land of Hope and Glory' is the English Anthem). Needless to say, my attempts to explain all this to other members of the tribe in the hostel bar later on were not altogether successful; and that label would also have to be attached to my subsequent stay in Taupo, the 'Adventure Capital of the North Island,' which was ruined by a rained-off scenic flight when forecasts had been good - yet another reminder of home.

Wellington-Auckland
Express Memorial
Between Taupo and the rustic lodge at the heart of the stunningly beautiful River Valley, our driver/guide - clearly one of the more culturally-minded ones employed by Kiwi Experience - took us to the site of New Zealand's worst rail disaster, Tangiwai (Maori for 'weeping waters'): here, on Christmas Eve 1953, a lahar (volcanic mudflow) from Mt Ruapehu in nearby Tongariro National Park caused the Whangaehu River to flood, severely damaging the railway bridge and thereby causing the Wellington-Auckland Express to plunge into the raging waters with the loss of 151 lives. Thus the year which had brought so much joy to Britain, New Zealand and the whole Commonwealth - most notably with the Queen's Coronation and the conquest of Mt Everest a few days earlier by New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary (who had ironically fallen in love with climbing during a school trip to Ruapehu) and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay - ended in tragedy. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were in New Zealand at that time on their Commonwealth tour, and Her Majesty's second Christmas broadcast (given the following day from Government House in Auckland) was amended to console grieving New Zealanders, after she and Prince Philip had led the mourning at the service of Christmas thanksgiving in the city's Holy Trinity Cathedral (the Duke later attending a mass state funeral in Wellington for many of the victims). Learning about this terrible tragedy and seeing where it happened, especially while I was in a rather fragile state of mind thanks to a bad cold, was naturally an emotional wallop. Most poignant of all was the inscription of the old Maori blessing "May the river carry you beyond the horizon" on the memorial stone: this incantation refers, of course, to the aforementioned beliefs surrounding Cape Reinga; and the mental juxtaposition of the two locations - the weather suitably bleak at Tangiwai as if to reflect the human loss, whereas it had been glorious at the Cape as though in a joyful reminder of life eternal - couldn't possibly have been any more dramatic. I very much hoped that any Kiwi children subjected today to republican propaganda may be told by their grandparents of how the monarchy had, as in this instance, served as a source of guidance and comfort for the people of New Zealand; but little did I know that this issue was soon to come to a head in the here and now - and in a way that was by no means unconnected to the events of 1953.

On 11 January 2008, while I was staying in Wellington, Sir Edmund - who in the 5-and-a-half decades since his conquest of Everest had not only undertaken many more daring expeditions to the likes of the North and South Poles, but worked tirelessly to improve the quality of life for the native Sherpas of Nepal - died in his hometown Auckland aged 88. Flags everywhere were immediately lowered to half-mast and it was announced that Hillary would be given a state funeral. Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Mike Moore had - apparently by complete coincidence - taken it upon himself to launch a media appeal for a 'Constitutional Reform Panel' to be convened with a view to examining (primarily) the possibility of a republic. Although Moore's plea for any reform not to be 'rushed' was obviously sensible, his suggestion of republican frameworks designed to avoid the dangers of an all-powerful president as featured in the American one, was rather unconvincing: under "the German model," for example, New Zealand would have a Government-appointed ceremonial Head of State who would exercise reserve powers only in the direst of circumstances, which in effect they already have in the person of the Governor-General as the Queen's representative; but the difference would be that without the symbolic presence of the Crown, the Government's appointment would surely be by definition a political one, thus denying the nation the benefits of an impartial Head of State. However, it seems impossible to ignore the timing of the former PM's article when you consider the fact that the Kiwi press had rashly assumed Sir Ed's funeral was to be attended by a member of the Royal Family, and - when this turned out not to be the case - The Dominion Post launched a full-blooded attack on the Royals, perceiving their non-attendance as a snub not only to the man who'd given the Queen "the perfect Coronation present," but to New Zealand herself; while some correspondents even had the temerity to argue that Her Majesty should personally address the nation, farcically comparing this state of affairs with the monarchy's popularly-(mis)perceived improper reaction to the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997.

Parliament Building
The republican movement naturally took the opportunity to use this shameful barraging as a launch-pad for its loudest cry yet for New Zealand to sever her links with the Crown, arguing that the nation's 'British Head of State' could never care about her and should thus have no authority over her, symbolic or otherwise. My personal view, knowing that it would've been completely unprecedented for the Queen herself to attend Sir Ed's funeral but also mindful of the aforementioned need for the identity of the Crown in the Realms to be strengthened, was that it would've been a fitting gesture for Prince Charles to postpone his prior engagements. At the end of the day, though, the event would be graced by the Governor-General - whose role as Her Majesty's representative in the country is not properly understood, as evidenced by the fact that 'God Save The Queen' is sung only on state occasions where a member of the Royal Family is actually present - and I felt that the offer of a personal memorial service for Hillary in St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle (Sir Ed having been made a Knight of the Garter 42 years after first being knighted following the Everest expedition) was much more significant than attendance at his funeral or lack thereof. Furthermore, although it was absolutely right for the Hillary family's wishes to be respected, the funeral transpired to be - by British standards - nowhere near sufficiently grand for a state funeral, taking place in a small church adjacent to Holy Trinity instead of the Cathedral itself, and with the coffin carried in an ordinary hearse rather than on a gun carriage. I was very glad when reading the views of one newspaper columnist, who argued that while the death had indeed marked the end of an era, it would be wrong to idly sweep away (and here we must disregard constitutional technicalities) the last remnant of that era - the monarchy itself - for the sole purpose of creating a system of government far more likely to be assailed by authoritarianism. On the other hand, I must admit that, when reading a copy of The New Zealand Herald's 1953 Everest coverage, noticing a quote from a British Polar explorer which read "I am glad that the British are the first to succeed," I thought to myself, "That man had some nerve," despite the fact that the expedition was of course a British one, as that columnist reminded his readers. Sadly, the full realisation of just how far most Pakeha (White New Zealanders) are culturally set apart from their British cousins - and how it must surely have been Hillary's Yorkshire stock, rather than his New Zealand birth and upbringing, that drove him on - was to hit me in a most negative fashion.

At the time of Sir Ed's funeral, I had been in Wellington for more than a month. Soon after my arrival, I had made the shocking discovery that the temporary job market not only quietens down in the run-up to Christmas (as happens at home), but stays quiet throughout the Southern Hemisphere summer as business seemingly grinds to a shuddering halt with employees on holiday. The final result of this was that, being at time of writing a week away from leaving the city after 2 months, I have managed to get in only a week's paid work and 2 weeks of 'Work for Accommodation' at my hostel, having refused to tie myself down in more mediocre call-centre or catering work as that would've meant denying myself the potential opportunity to get more valuable experience on my CV, experience which - in a time of global economic turmoil - would be like gold dust when it came to impressing future employers. Having at Christmas, despite these issues, still hoped to stay in New Zealand long-term, and having pre-booked a ticket for a NZ-England cricket match at Wellington in February, I had resolved to keep chipping away at the job market in the hope that niches might open up here and there; but when I spoke to the jobsearch adviser at the Auckland hostel where I'd previously stayed, after about 20 unsuccessful attempts to get hold of an independent immigration consultant whom her predecessor had suggested I contact, I finally realised just how badly I'd been duped. "I'm sorry, Matt," she said, "but if you want to spend half your gap year working in admin and the other half travelling, you really need to stay in Auckland for the first half working, and then spend the second half travelling" (or words to that effect). I must confess, I had suspected something was amiss when - arriving in 'the City of Sails' all those months ago - I noticed that everyone I met was either leaving after a couple of days or else staying there seemingly forever; but that does not excuse the outrageous failure of everyone in a position of knowledge to whom I'd spoken - my gap year package provider, my better-informed call centre colleagues (who fell into that latter category of traveller), the jobsearch consultant's predecessor, and the recruitment agent to whom she'd referred me for my call centre assignment - to warn me that the plan to spread my Working Holiday throughout the country was a complete non-starter. These people had, between them, sent me on a wild goose chase down the North Island; for there was never realistically going to be any more work for me in the Wellington market than there are trophies in the England football team's cabinet post-1966.

The only way I was going to get any worthwhile work experience now, I was told, was if I spent my last 3 months before leaving New Zealand, back in Auckland. This prospect didn't seem hugely appealing, but when I was told that I was also very unlikely to find employer sponsorship for work permit extension outside Auckland, it immediately became a no-brainer. Did I really want to settle long-term in an uninspiring city - in a country where carefully-laid plans and the pursuit of multiple distinctive goals are guaranteed to fall apart, which has about 3 public holidays a month, and an unbelievably lax approach to business in general (as I had already witnessed in my call centre job before discovering what happens during the summer months)? The answer was a resounding 'No.' Thus, with a great sense of irony (given my hatred of performing U-turns), I decided I would return home to face the political reality of 21st Century Europe after all; and with the reports on Britain's economic outlook growing gloomier each day, this meant that pursuing a job in financial services without any further relevant experience acquired during my year away would simply not be an option. The good news is that my travels in the South Island - where by all accounts the majority of the country's breathtaking landscapes are to be found - need not be rushed despite the requirement to give myself 3 months in Auckland. The bad news is that my far-poorer-than-expected financial situation requires me to abandon my deep-held thrift doctrine and borrow heavily from my parents. What I see down south had jolly well better make the debt completely worth it...


Chapter 2: Home from Home? | Chapter 4: Heart of Darkness




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