Friendliest people on earth need you ... to visit

New Zealand needs you ... and you'll have the time of your life, bro.
New Zealand needs you ... and you'll have the time of your life, bro. Photo: Micah Wright/Lonely Planet

The ute ground to a halt in front of me, and the window began slowly rolling down.

You never know how these things are going to pan out in a dusty one-horse town. There was no one else around that the ute could be stopping for, and I didn’t know anyone for hundreds of kays, so this was going to be interesting.

Finally, a grizzled head pushed its way into the sunlight from the window, and the driver fixed me with a steady gaze.

“Hey, have you got the time bro?” he asked.

“Um… yeah, it’s 10.30.”

The bloke nodded, then broke into a smile. “You’re a bloody legend.”

And with that, he rolled up the window and continued on his merry way, leaving me standing there wondering what I’d ever been worried about.

That was back on my first ever trip to New Zealand, and the incident has stuck with me ever since. Not because it was a particularly dramatic episode, but because it was the first indication I’d had of something I would later find out for certain: the vast percentage of Kiwis are absolute champions.

We here in the “west island” like to cling to that old cliché of New Zealanders being slightly simple sheep-botherers, so it’s a bit of a shock when you get there and realise how wrong that stereotype is.

It starts at the airport, with what could probably be described as disturbingly friendly customs and immigration officials. When an Australian official would be sizing you up and considering snapping on a rubber glove, the Kiwi officials, mad buggers, are making casual chit-chat.

My dad went through Auckland airport last week and the immigration officer flipped through his passport a few times, then looked at his card. “Have we only got you for six days?” she asked Dad. “That’s a shame.”

Kiwis, you soon find out, are almost annoyingly friendly. How can they keep that level of enthusiasm up?

It doesn’t matter if you’re in a Wellington café, a Nelson pub or a Dunedin restaurant, everyone’s just being unaffectedly nice to you. Sure, there’ll be some light-hearted ribbing about rugby when they realise you’re Australian – even, confusingly, some talk of “netball” – but the overriding feeling is that you’re welcome to be in the country.

But I’m not telling most people anything new here. New Zealand is frequently near the top, if not at the summit, of most lists of Australians’ favourite overseas destinations. We’ve been crossing the ditch in search of slopes to ski, mountains to hike, wine to drink and geysers to ogle for some time now.

It is worth reminding travellers, though, of New Zealand’s charms, because now’s the time the country really needs your custom.

As devastating as it was on a physical level, last week’s earthquake in Christchurch is going to affect the whole nation for months to come, and the tourism industry is worried. Will people cancel their holidays out of fear? Will they just decide to go somewhere else this year while the clean-up is on?

Over here, calls have been going out for donations to help those affected, but we’ve had our own fair share of natural disasters lately, so it can be hard to keep doling out the dollars.    

There is, however, a win-win solution: spend your holidays this year in New Zealand. Give money by injecting it into the economy, and enjoy yourself in the process.

It’s not just friendly people you’ll find in NZ – that’s just something I picked out because it was what impressed me the most. Scenery-wise, it’s like a little slice of Europe that’s been dumped in the middle of our ocean. Culture-wise, it’s a rich mix of Maori, Islander and Western customs.

Plus, there are hobbit-infested mountains, beautiful islands, really high things to throw yourself off of, good wine, awesome beer, world-class coffee, half-decent rugby players, and loads and loads of sheep.

It’s relatively cheap to get there, and relatively cheap to get around.

Just as long as you don’t mention the fact that Richie McCaw is a brazen cheat, you should have the time of your life, bro.

Have you been to New Zealand? Did you like it? Would you encourage others to go there this year?

Hope you’re enjoying the Backpacker blog – there will be a new one published every Tuesday and Wednesday on the Fairfax Media websites. To contact me with any topic suggestions or personal abuse, visit my website, follow me on Twitter, or email me on bengroundwater@gmail.com.

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