A Working Holiday in New Zealand for an Adult Gap Year
A working holiday in Mapua, New Zealand with WWOOF.
It was a steep climb up, but once we had reached the summit and looked out over Wanaka on a glorious day in late summer, we knew it was worth every lung-busting step we had taken. This was a celebration. It was the 1st anniversary of our arrival in New Zealand on a working holiday that we originally thought impossible. We spent some time reveling in the dramatic views of Lake Wanaka and the Mount Aspiring National Park. We later toasted our success with steak and chips, accompanied by a delicious Central Otago Pinot Noir, and reminisced over our adventures.
Working in New Zealand via BUNAC
We had first thought about taking a working holiday in New Zealand 18 months earlier. My sister Suzanne and I were close in age, temperament, and interests, and having worked together as Island Managers in Greece, we were confident of our ability to live, work, and travel together. There was only one problem. We were considered too old at the grand ages of 33 and 34! Then I discovered BUNAC, an organization that offers an exclusive 12-month visa for New Zealand called the Work Exchange Visa, which is available to UK citizens between the ages of 18 and 35. We were in!
Our visa route at the time ran with a tourism agency called IEP, whose office and resource center in Auckland were excellent. (Editor's note: BUNAC's various Work Zealand Programs offer a transparent way to handle the visa process for you as part of their service now that IEP no longer has a presence.) They arranged for our first few nights' accommodation. They held an introductory meeting full of information on job-hunting, accommodation, transport, tax numbers, and mobile telephones, plus a wealth of information on New Zealand. They advised us about extending our visa by three months in return for three months of work in any horticulture or viticulture industry, a valuable option to maximize our time and enable us to save for our travels home. They provided free internet access, luggage storage, and a mail-forwarding service throughout our stay. Most importantly, they were always prepared to deal with problems or queries.
Our plan for the year was simple. We were approximately 10 years older than most working holidaymakers and had spent our twenties in busy, stressful city jobs. We were not doing this to further our careers but a chance to rediscover who we were and our priorities in life. We wanted to immerse ourselves in the varied and awe-inspiring landscape of New Zealand, explore the weird and wonderful wildlife, and really get to know the country and its people.
The first issue to address was transportation. While New Zealand offers an excellent national bus service named Intercity, plus various adventure buses such as Kiwi Experience and Stray, we soon realized that if we wanted to get off the beaten track and explore the countryside, we needed our own. Enter Shadowfax, our trusty white steed (a Toyota Corolla), without which our many adventures in New Zealand would not have been possible. We were lucky with our car. We bought it from a rental agency that sells off vehicles at the end of every season. Since we approached them at the end of their sale, we purchased a well-maintained vehicle at a hefty discount. We got doubly lucky a year later when we sold the car. We advertised the vehicle over a month before our departure date. Eventually, we sold it in Wellington for the same amount we paid before finding a relocation deal to take us back to Auckland. This is a top tip for anybody planning to buy a vehicle, as we encountered many travelers trying to sell their cars in Auckland before their flight and often being forced to accept a much lower value.
Finding work was sometimes time-consuming, primarily because of our choices. Our priority was to explore the length and breadth of New Zealand, so we needed to keep moving and finding short-term work along the way. We found that spending two or three months in one job could save enough for a month on the road, and so on. Consequently, our best option was seasonal work, which helped with our visa extensions. Many seasonal jobs involve hard work, and we found fruit-picking to be too demanding as it is based on strength and speed. We preferred to work in the pack houses, although our favorite jobs were vineyards and a viticulture nursery. We also found cleaning work an excellent short-term option. We found the internet helpful in determining the type of work available in a region. Still, we had greater success securing decent jobs when turning up in person. Many people expressed surprise at us taking this sort of work. After all, we were native English speakers with good CVs, but we loved the freedom it gave us. Moreover, I have never been as fit and healthy as I was at the end of our travels.
However, if earning money hadn’t been necessary, we would have WWOOFed our way around New Zealand. WWOOF (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) New Zealand is simply a brilliant concept. For a small fee, you can access many organic projects throughout the country, ranging from lifestyle blocks to cattle farms and chocolate shops. In return for four to six hours of daily work, your host provides you with food and accommodation. While it is a challenging option, it offers fantastic opportunities to interact with the locals and learn about life in rural New Zealand. We used WWOOFing to our advantage. Once we had chosen an area to settle, we would find a WWOOF for a week or two while using our spare time to look for work and accommodations, something often aided by our hosts who knew the area and had insider knowledge on the sort of jobs and accommodations available.
For accommodations, we joined BBH, the largest of three backpacker associations. Membership ensured reduced rates, and negotiating a deal weekly or monthly was often possible. We found them to be a good option in the short term but preferred a twin room, for which they were less keen on offering deals. We also chose the autonomy of holiday parks. Once we had purchased our own plates, etc., we always looked at this option first. Once again, we found that turning up in person had its benefits. When looking to secure a long-term deal over the phone, the owner of a holiday park insisted that they did not make deals. Still, after meeting us, they decided to take a risk, and we had an incredible ten weeks with them.
Of course, it is always worth remembering that neither hostels nor holiday parks will negotiate long-term rates during their high season when accommodation prices are at a premium. We also looked for work with accommodations, including a holiday park where we were cleaning, which offered us a caravan free of charge. In Wellington, we provided a house-sitting service for a retired university professor away for the winter.
Life in a holiday park on the west coast with our trusty "Shadowfax" vehicle.
New Zealand was the Star
And what about New Zealand? Well, New Zealand was the real star of our story. The country is similar to the UK in area, but with a population of just over five million people, a quarter of which are based in Auckland, the sense of space is truly delightful. While the North Island offers some beautiful areas, such as Coromandel and Northland, the South Island is simply stunning. The Southern Alps form the backbone of this dramatic island, a snow-tipped area of glaciers and imposing mountains, with windswept beaches and rainforests stretching for miles along the west coast, and the Abel Tasman National Park and Marlborough Sounds sitting at the top, like a jewel in the crown.
We had many wonderful experiences in New Zealand, such as learning how to make (and taste) wine. Still, our favorite memories will always be the peace and tranquillity we found in that extraordinary countryside, whether immersed in a lush, vivid green rainforest or breathing in the wild sea air on a stormy West Coast beach. And of course, there was the wildlife, whether being surrounded by a majestic albatross off the coast of Kaikoura, encountering pods of dolphins playing in the surf, exploring penguin and fur seal colonies, and meeting Sparky, a one-legged kiwi, and Woof-Woof, a talking tui at the Whangarei Bird Recovery Centre.
The Welcoming Spirit of the People
And finally, a note on New Zealanders. We were always welcomed wherever we roamed, North or South Island, with Maori or Pakeha (white European settlers). People were interested in us, our stories, and what we thought of their country. A brief meeting often led to an invitation to stay. We had just one uncomfortable encounter on a WWOOF (with a non-native host) that left us needing a place to last less than a week before Christmas. So what happened? We were taken in by Joy, our "Fairy Godmother," who welcomed us into her house and shared everything she had with us throughout the festive period. For us, that experience embodied the spirit of New Zealand and its people.