Here YA contributor Lee-Ann is a kiwi local who learned the hard way how important it is to explore your backyard and why you should travel your own country before heading overseas, especially when your homeland is New Zealand.
The entry to the Abel Tasman National Park is a 10-minute walk from where I stood every day for work. How lucky am I?
Beautiful beaches, turquoise water, seal life, and temperate rainforests were all within my reach. This new home away from home of mine was breathtaking. In many ways, I felt like I was in a foreign land but within my own country of New Zealand. Travel your own country before going overseas? It hadn’t occurred to me.
The people I met through my new job are mainly travelers from around the world. Culture came to me without me, even going beyond my borders. The few times I have ventured beyond the Land of the Long White Cloud has been across the pond to Australia. Does that count?
The furthest I’ve ever been to is Canada. I liked it probably because in a lot of ways it was like a giant New Zealand, just with bears and better wifi.
Living seven hours away from my little hometown of Timaru made me feel like a real nomad, off on an adventure. Growing up, I had traveled a little around New Zealand before my move to the Abel Tasman, but mainly for sports trips and family holidays.
A lot of young people from Timaru move to a bigger city to escape small-town living. All of my friends had moved to Christchurch or Wellington, so living in Nelson was a little unusual. Working in a popular tourist spot was even more so.
I had no idea my experience here would make me realize I had very little knowledge of this country I called home. To travel your own country was calling me before I knew it.
As I stared gazing out at the small road overlooking the tidal waters of Marahau, a young European man of about 20 walks into the booking office where I was working selling kayak and water taxi tickets.
“Hey, how can I help you?” I said to the blonde-haired man.
“Hello” he replied with an alluring accent.
“Are you looking at entering the Abel Tasman National Park?”
“Yeah, definitely!” The conversation begins to roll, and I get a glimpse into his adventure.
“Can I hike the park in a day?” he asks with curiosity.
“You can hike a section in a day.”
“Oh, but not the whole thing?”
“Not unless you run!” I reply jokingly.
“Oh, okay I’ll stay one night. I was just doing the Tongariro Crossing and I am trying to do all of the great walks as quickly as I can.”
“That’s amazing!” I reply confidently but really, I am thinking about where the Tongariro crossing is. I’ve heard of it… Is it in the South Island or North? I’ll just pretend I know.
“How long did it take you?” I inquire further. I’m pretty sure it’s a 3-day tramp. I think to myself.
“6 hours, and you?”
“Wow, that’s epic! You did the whole thing? Me? I haven’t done it yet. But it’s on my list!” He must be lying.
“You should, you are so lucky here.”
“You’re right. One water taxi to Awaroa Bay is $49, thank you.”
That awful moment when you realize you’re an ignorant local
As I continued serving him, a little ball of embarrassment developed in my chest. Where is the Tongariro Crossing? Why haven’t I done it? I’m working in tourism, and I don’t even know where the hell it is!
I later find out it is one of the best day hikes in the entire world and is located on the North Island. Even worse, this wasn’t the first time I’ve met an overseas traveler who has seen more of my own country than me.
Working in Marahau, I frequently overheard conversations from travelers about where they had been and where they were off to next. People asked me for advice all the time about New Zealand travel. I’m thankful a few of my colleagues had seen more of these spots than me.
The same week I overheard a few other tourists talking about Milford Sound. I know that’s in the South Island, but I haven’t been there either. I don’t know when I will get the time to go down there anyway. Everything is far from Nelson.
When I realized how uninformed I was about places in my own country, I felt embarrassed and lazy. Why had I never thought about traveling around New Zealand? I was caught up in the conversation about the Northern hemisphere and how great it was to escape from this small island country.
Before, I intended to save all my money from this job to travel to the UK like my friends for an OE. But what kind of traveler would I be when I met people asking about New Zealand? Could I even tell them what it was like?
I could tell them about Timaru and how lame it was to grow up in a sleepy town. I could say to them about the East Coast and living near the sea. But I couldn’t tell them about well-known landmarks such as Cape Reinga or breathtaking views in Milford Sound. I couldn’t even tell them about what it’s like visiting the Treaty of Waitangi grounds. I hadn’t been, and I didn’t know. Why?
Because I thought I could do better than staying in New Zealand. The allure of the unknown beckoned me beyond my island. I thought New Zealand didn’t have anything to offer me, and I lacked the perspective to see it for what it was. To me, New Zealand was a small country far away from the busy and exciting Northern Hemisphere.
But I was wrong.
Becoming a local tourist
A prerequisite for this job was to know a little about the Abel Tasman National Park, which, fortunately, I did thanks to a trip with my parents there a few years back. But there’s no prerequisite for knowing about New Zealand.
I suppose I should have upskilled my knowledge of tourism before working in tourism. I had only been to Auckland once. Home to hot water beaches seeing an aurora here hadn’t crossed my mind. Lots of popular kiwi attractions never crossed my mind to see. Why?
You don’t learn about this stuff in school. I come from a small town where travel was usually just to the local lakes and mountains. If you wanted to get your travel fix, most people did the classic OE of two years in the UK or skipped the ditch over to Australia.
It wasn’t a thing to set off on a nomadic adventure around your own country. Why didn’t it occur to me to travel your own country?
Growing up, holidays for me were mainly camping trips with my family.
We would go to the lakes nearby such as Aviemore or Benmore and set up camp for a few days. This is the classic kiwi holiday.
Most of my friend’s families would do the same but with boats. Sometimes we went to the river or my aunties bach – a rugged house with all of the essentials, but nothing fancy cobbled together with whatever materials you could find. We would tire tube down the river and play backyard cricket or badminton.
Sausages were always on the BBQ, and we played board games and cards most nights.
I had moved to Nelson to escape my small town to find a job.
I was saving for the typical dream of doing an OE. An OE is an overseas experience, usually done straight after high school or university. When people ask what you are doing after school, it’s a great excuse to say you are going on an OE. In other words, you have no fucking idea. It seems to satisfy people when you have an answer. Most people would come back after two years (usually from the UK) and then get to work.
So many kiwis end up in London for their OE, many sticking around for years, often only returning to New Zealand to start a family. Growing up in such a faraway place with a tiny population, living in the big bright cities of Europe, is appealing. Travel your own country before going overseas?
It didn’t take me long to realize I didn’t need to travel abroad to get my travel fix. Travel your own country first was on my mind now.
Working in tourism and leaving my hometown fulfilled my big OE dream in a way I hadn’t expected. Chasing an OE was ingrained in us kiwi kids as our chance for an escape, to experience the unknown, and even become someone else.
Perhaps the very purpose of an OE is just the EXPERIENCE.
With experience comes reflection and a change in the very fundamental way we think. A new place with new people can gift us new ways to perceive the world.
For a lot of us, this is what an OE is all about. To become a newly formed version of ourselves and to see things differently. Upon returning home, things seem different. My local beach just down the road suddenly has similarities to that one over in Australia. Those mountains appear to be a smaller scale for those in Canada. The turn off to a random place down the road is now compelling. You take the turnoff, and it leads you to a gem you had no idea existed.
For me, it didn’t take leaving the country to experience the same feelings, just a total change of scenery with a whole heap of tourists to put things into perspective.
My New Zealand OE
It occurred to me while working in tourism that people come here to escape their own country. The dream of New Zealand’s famous beauty was real.
With these fresh eyes, New Zealand quickly fascinated me. Nelson was like a foreign land compared to Timaru.
Timaru is a small working town on the East Coast of the South Island, about two hours’ drive south of Christchurch. Not a lot happens there, and it’s quite a sleepy place. There’s no real ‘vibe’ or exciting things to do in Timaru. Most young people settle down and have a family. Otherwise, they leave town or find themselves out at a local pub every Friday and Saturday night. That being said, it is very family-friendly and a safe place to live.
But I’ll be honest here when you’re in your early 20’s, all you think about is leaving.
Exploring New Zealand, I marveled in the sense of freedom of being out in nature. To travel your own country and realize how amazing it s
My growth and experiences were too good and unique, not to share. I was looking for a way out of conventional life and starting a travel blog was my ticket (little did I know how much work it would be!) My blog is called Be Free with Lee. It covers destination and adventure activity guides in the South Island as well as van life tips, tricks, and inspiration.
My blog was a way for me to document and share my discoveries. It started just about hiking and exploring the Nelson region, but I called it a New Zealand travel blog. It was not an NZ travel blog (yet). To be a source of information, I needed to have ‘been there done that’ first, right?
Local knowledge can be accessed via research, but I needed to explore, feel, and see the real New Zealand. Most importantly, I wanted to talk to people.
Let’s get educated
With that in mind, my partner and I saved up for a campervan. Traveling by campervan is a classic kiwi travel experience. There’s something about living in a tiny van that is appealing, the real nomad dream with life on your terms.
People thought it was super weird. I definitely felt out of kilter pulling up to freedom camping spots and hearing only different accents around. We hardly ever met young kiwi couples like us. Where were they? Europe, I guess.
One of the most significant cultural shocks for me was visiting Northland. I come from a small, mainly white rural farming town in the South Island. Māori culture isn’t widely present here. But in the Northland region, it’s a different world; this was the New Zealand I wanted to experience. I remember being in a mud spa with a few local Māori guys walking around. I was near a dude with dreadlocks who, at the time, who I thought was asleep.
“Where are you guys from?” he said out of the blue.
“Timaru” I replied.
“Ahh Timaru (he pronounced it properly), you guys should sing me a cultural song.”
What the hell is this guy on. I wasn’t sure if he was just being rude, or he knew I was not very cultural. Yikes
“I don’t know any,” I replied bluntly. I came here to relax.
“C’mon you’ve got to have something” he pushed.
I thought about moving mud pools to avoid answering, but I had a feeling he would follow. Sticking it out, I didn’t end up singing a song but stayed put. He relayed his cultural heritage to us, along with the other couples in the pool.
Although I was a little annoyed at first, unsure of this new experience, after leaving the pools and Northland, I grew an understanding and appreciation for the rich complexities of our indigenous culture. It’s moments like these that can transform you, educate you.
Māori tell stories, they know the land and its history better than anyone.
I don’t even know the story behind the Benvenue shipwreck down the road from my family house. I’ve seen the information signs but never read them. Writing this has made me realize how ignorant I was.
I don’t blame myself; to travel your country before you go overseas is not common. We have to seek it on our own, which is not usual. But perhaps now it might be.
While writing this, America is protesting for Black Lives Matter. A movement to stop racial injustice. Even though New Zealand is far away from the USA, I can’t help but see the similarities here with Pākehā and Māori here in New Zealand.
The South Island is very sheltered, and there a not a lot of Māori people. At school, for example, there were only a handful of Māori students. When you go to the North Island, there is a greater awareness for Māori and Pasifika peoples as well as more exposure to Māori language on simple things like toilet blocks and road signs.
I may never know what it is like to be in a minority race, but I can feel myself waking up and realizing I have privilege by just being white. Traveling in the North Island made me realize how sheltered I had been from a culture that shaped this land.
Māori, like Black Americans, are overrepresented in our justice system, there is racism here, and work needs to be done to right many wrongs and to change a culture of racism. If I had stayed in my small bubble of Timaru, I probably would have never realized this.
Travel your own country before going overseas?
Explore your backyard first
I’ll never know everything about NZ, I’ll never do every hike or visit every café, and there will always be something to discover.
To travel your own country has taught me that New Zealand is breathtakingly beautiful, the Southern Alps are at our doorstep, a drive from Mountain to surf can literally take less than 1 hour in some places, and we have volcanoes! Every region is filled with different people with their own stories and view on life. Beer is different in each city; life and country are almost two different worlds.
But most importantly, I learned that strangers are kind. I understand why many people flock here every year. There are things to be seen, people to meet, and places to discover.
New Zealand is full of incredible treasures.
You don’t need to go to the colosseum to see the architecture, have a look at Napier city that was rebuilt from an earthquake, or Christchurch. You don’t need to go to Bali to sit on a subtropical beach. Visit the Coromandel, the weather is mild, and the beaches are from some faraway land. You don’t need to go to Switzerland to go skiing, the slopes in NZ are world-class. Rock climbing? We got it! Surfing? Yeah, we got that too. Wonders of the world? Yup, we have a hidden one in Rotorua.
The scale of variability in such a small country is remarkable.
Perhaps now more than ever is the chance to explore and experience our own backyard. The possibility of an OE is no longer a choice. But we can try an NE – a national experience – instead. It may just give us what we’re searching for.
Have you traveled your own country before going overseas? What do you think are the benefits? Are you considering a ‘NE’? Would you travel around your own country before going overseas? Have you seen much of where you’re from? Share!