Four Seasons of New Zealand Weather

You often hear New Zealand weather described as “four seasons in one day” and I’m sick of it.

Not the weather, the saying.

Yes, it’s true the weather’s changeable – my jacket’s on and off like a Game of Thrones costume – but the prevailing conditions are usually sunny, and winter never seems to come, except in the south of the South Island.

Let me put it this way: in Britain, you can’t not have a big, warm coat; here, I didn’t even own one for years, and now I own one I don’t ever wear it, or my scarf, or gloves, or a fleecy hat. Most New Zealand houses don’t even have radiators.

You can’t go around quoting “four seasons in one day” when the weather merely switches from sun to rain, or windy to not windy. It’s three seasons in one day, tops.

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Honestly, kiwis have nothing to complain about.

Brits get so little sunshine they’re all miserable and Vitamin D-deficient. Something like seventy-five percent of days are overcast, whereas in New Zealand I find myself hoping for a bit of cloud cover so I don’t get fried on my way to the shops. (Summer’s only just ended here. It lasted well into autumn this year and, frankly, the rain came as a relief.)

New Zealand gets so much sunshine you have to be careful. My friend’s mum’s known exchange students from Africa with extremely dark skin, who’ve come to New Zealand and been sunburned for the first time in their lives! I’m sure you know all about the hole in the ozone layer, the legacy of mankind’s reckless use of CFCs, which New Zealand was rather unfairly burdened with. It means you absolutely have to wear sunscreen in summer (and on sunny days in spring and autumn, as this year reminded me,) and nothing less than factor thirty will do. Also, you need a hat, or you’ll get a headache and a burned parting that’ll hurt like hell in the shower and look like bad dandruff when it starts to peel.

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New Zealand’s got one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, about four times higher than Britain, thanks to all those nasty UV-B rays let in by the depleted ozone. But if you don’t let yourself get some sun exposure, you risk other diseases like rickets. You just can’t win!

All this to say New Zealand is hands down warmer than Britain, often at the same time, despite the seasons being the opposite way round. Yup, a New Zealand winter can be warmer than a British summer. My mum still marvels that she can sit on our deck in shorts and T-shirts in the middle of winter here.

Sometimes it does get “too” warm, which is why my favourite season is spring, but I can tell you that Australia is far worse. I went on holiday to Brisbane a few years ago. It was the middle of winter and you could have cooked bacon and eggs on the pavement. I don’t think I could live there. Living in New Zealand is just right.

A sunbathing seal

And this sunbathing seal seems to agree!

The weather in New Zealand means you can do so many more outdoor activities here than in Britain, such as barbecues. Before I moved to New Zealand, I’d attended a grand total of one barbecue in my life. I couldn’t tell you how many we’ve had since. Partying outside is just what you do here, and when it gets cooler you light a fire. But, as my dad learned, you do not want to throw a couple of giant candles onto that fire.

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It did look cool, though.

The mostly-quite-warm weather also means that camping in New Zealand is generally a much more pleasant experience than it is in Britain, though I still prefer to do it in the comfort of a campervan!

Yes, the weather makes for a perfect New Zealand holiday, but be warned if you wanted to come in the “off” season: in winter it still rains a lot. Doesn’t mean you can’t go out – my birthday’s in winter, (which is messed up because I was born in summer,) and my celebrations have never been disrupted by rain. Besides, more rain means fewer tourists, and one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had was swimming in a hot pool in the rain.

Wonderful as the New Zealand weather is, however, there’s one aspect that – even after eleven years – doesn’t sit right with me: the idea of Christmas on the beach.

Trade your turkey for barbecued prawns; your snowflake jumper for a bikini – actually that does sound nice, but, trust me, the novelty soon wears off.

Christmas is a time for tradition, and spraying water at my little sister in a sun-soaked garden with the water blaster I’d just unwrapped simply wasn’t part of my Christmas tradition. We should have been having a snowball fight, not a water fight! Better, we should have been indoors, all snug and cosy. The sky should have been dark, so the candles looked pretty. All our family should have been there, not twelve thousand miles away.

That first year was hard.

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We still make Mum do our traditional Christmas dinner every year, even though it’s much too hot and humid to eat such a meal. We still spend Christmas resolutely at home, not at the beach, even though the sun beckons.

My uncle’s coming this Christmas. It’ll be the first time since leaving England that a relative who doesn’t live with us will be with us actually on Christmas day. I’m excited, but the picture still won’t be entirely complete.

I miss snow. Not that we got proper snow all that often in Retford.

I miss “ice-skating” on the frozen puddles in the street.

I miss going for walks along the iced-over canal, all wrapped up and wearing wellies, laughing at the ducks skidding along and that big, white swan that came in to land, slid uncoordinatedly for a bit, and crashed through the ice with a plop.

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My family are so desperately nostalgic for snow that, one winter, when we were driving up Desert Road, one of the highest roads in the country, and came across some, we got out of the car and revelled in it. I’d forgotten how much I loved the soft crunch snow makes under your feet! Unfortunately, we weren’t dressed for snow and soon got very cold. I’d forgotten how snow makes your toes tingle painfully inside your shoes. I’d forgotten that even snow loses its novelty after a while. It’s pretty to look at, but I’d forgotten how uncomfortable it was to be in.

Maybe Christmas in New Zealand isn’t so bad, I thought.

But by the time Christmas came around again, I was back to dreaming of snow.

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Flightless Birds and Flying Mammals: New Zealand’s Unique Wildlife

One of the first things you notice about New Zealand wildlife is a distinct lack of mammary glands. The only native land mammals are bats, and I’ve never seen one. They were apparently common in the nineteenth century, but now they’re almost extinct. Blame nasty humans cutting down trees and introducing foreign predators like rats and cats – although my cat would never be clever enough to catch a bat. Do cats eat bats?

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My little sister’s cat, unfortunately taken by cancer last year

The Maori call the bats pekapeka. They’re really tiny – barely bigger than your thumb – and can be found in very few places. One such place is Tongariro National Park, in the central North Island. There are three Department of Conservation campsites around the park, so finding cheap accommodation is easy if you hire a campervan in New Zealand, which I highly recommend. Obviously the bats only come out at night, so there’s another good reason for sleeping out in the wilderness.

Another native New Zealand creature that only comes out at night is the kiwi, the country’s most famous and special bird. It can’t fly; evolution has reduced its wings to stumps, hidden beneath feathers that are more like fur. Like the bats, kiwis are endangered and so rarely seen in the wild, but there are plenty of places throughout New Zealand where you can see them in captivity, such as Auckland Zoo. I saw a couple of kiwis mating there once. They looked like two tribbles stacked one on top of the other. I had to stop myself laughing, especially when a small child standing next to me exclaimed, “Mum, look, that one’s jumping on the other one’s back!”

For non-Trekkies, this is a tribble, an alien ball of fur that purrs endearingly and multiplies voraciously. Also, it is a mortal enemy of the Klingon Empire.

For non-Trekkies, this is a tribble, an alien ball of fur that purrs endearingly and multiplies voraciously. Also, it is a mortal enemy of the Klingon Empire.

Kiwis, scientists have found, are closely related to emus, but not to ostriches. There was a New Zealand bird closely related to the ostrich, but it was hunted to extinction by the Maori long before Europeans arrived in New Zealand with their foreign predators. It was called the moa, and it was huge. I remember the skeleton in Auckland Museum – some species could reach a height of over three-and-a-half metres, more like dinosaurs than birds! The only animals big enough to take them down (before the blundering arrival of human beings) were Haast’s eagles.

No, they weren’t eagles owned by some guy named Haast – he was just the first European to describe them. They’d been extinct for centuries by this point, but they must have been terrifying creatures to behold. They were the largest birds of prey ever known to have existed, and may well have hunted humans together with moas. Maori legend speaks of a monstrous, man-eating bird. Did Haast’s eagles snatch children and carry them off to their nests to devour them? It’s a scary thought.

The mysterious West Coast (Bethells Beach)

The mysterious West Coast (Bethells Beach)

New Zealand no longer has any particularly dangerous animals. Someone was killed by a shark off the West Coast of the North Island recently, but things like that don’t happen very often. There have only been about a dozen deaths by shark in New Zealand in the last two hundred years. Australia’s the death-trap. New Zealand doesn’t have any killer spiders, (although the weta can give you a painful nip,) or any deadly snakes – in fact it doesn’t have any snakes at all. It has a few other reptiles, though: frogs, geckos, skinks and, most importantly, the tuatara.

Like practically every other native New Zealand specie, the tuatara is endangered. Most people think it’s a lizard, but it actually belongs to a far older family, older than most dinosaurs, of which it’s the only surviving example. It has a lower body temperature than any other type of reptile and can live well over a hundred years. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to see a tuatara in the wild, as they can only live in areas devoid of rats, which pretty much limits them to a handful of sanctuary islands that tourists aren’t allowed to trample on. I’ve seen one at Auckland Zoo, though, and, to be honest, it was rather boring compared to the mating kiwis!

A tui, a common sight in our garden

A tui, a common sight in our garden

Not all New Zealand animals are so elusive. There are eels in the estuary, pukekos in park, and a whole array of native birds in most people’s back gardens. I’ve often gone to sleep hearing the sweet yet haunting howls of the onomatopoeically named morepork, an incredibly cute little brown owl, and woken up in the morning to the idyllic tune of a tui. My parents get lots of silvereyes in the tree outside their kitchen window, and it’s always entertaining to watch the fantails flitting about the lawn, flicking their tail feathers.

An absolutely incredible place to go to observe native New Zealand birds in their natural habitat is the visitor-friendly island sanctuary of Tiritiri Matangi. You can take a ferry there from either downtown Auckland or Gulf Harbour, but Gulf Harbour’s cheaper and has free parking, so good if you have a New Zealand rental car. Make sure you book, though, and make sure you take food with you, along with sunscreen, a hat, a raincoat, comfortable walking shoes, binoculars and – if the weather looks particularly nice – swim stuff. You’ll be doing a lot of bush trekking, and it’s nice to jump in the sea afterwards. There are lots of little blue penguins around the shore of the island. If you’re lucky, you’ll even see them in their nesting boxes.

In the bush on Tiri Tiri Matangi

In the bush on Tiri Tiri Matangi

Tiritiri Matangi is a very special island, because it is free of predators such as the possum, which will eat the eggs and chicks of endangered native birds. Possums were stupidly introduced to New Zealand from Australia, and since then they have become hated to the extent that kiwis, (the people of New Zealand, not the tribble-like birds,) will deliberately try to run them over. Their one redeeming feature is their fur… so soft… but as soon as I moved to New Zealand, I had it drummed into me that possums are the spawn of Satan.

So, not having any predators to fear, the birds of Tiritiri Matangi have become bold around the island’s human visitors. One particular bird, a now-deceased giant takahe called Greg, became so bold that, for a time, I referred to the island as Jurassic Park. Takahe are like huge, blue chickens with big, red beaks. They can’t fly, but – Jeez – can they run! A few years ago, Greg chased me and my friends across half the island. When we stopped, it snapped at the bottoms of my shorts and kept leaping up to my crotch. I remember running for ages and, panting, stopping to look behind.

“I think we lost it,” I said.

Then it appeared over the crest of the hill, wings outstretched, legs working like the clappers, beak pointing straight at us.

A New Zealand fur seal (not dead, resting)

A New Zealand fur seal (not dead, resting)

But encountering nature in New Zealand isn’t usually as invigorating as that. The coast is a great place to head to see wildlife, and it begins to get more mammalian. New Zealand fur seals can be observed on many rocky shores around the country, such as the Otago Peninsula. We went there when we were on a campervan tour of New Zealand. It’s a Mecca for wildlife, including a magnificent colony of albatrosses. The very best wildlife encounter I’ve had in New Zealand, however, was just off the coast of Auckland.

One of the dolphins that was riding our bough wave

One of the dolphins that was riding our bow wave

There are a number of companies that take tourists out on ferries to see dolphins, and the tourists are rarely disappointed. My family and I have been on several of these New Zealand dolphin trips and we’ve never had a no-show. Whole pods of dolphins come right up to the boat and play in the waves around it, leaping, diving and engaging in light sexual activity. Once, I was sitting at the front of the ferry with my legs dangling over the edge. One of the dolphins rose from the sea and tapped my foot in a clearly playful way – so awesome! We even got to swim with the dolphins, although, for me, this turned into a rather traumatising experience.

Swimming with dolphins is an activity that tops bucket lists around the world. It’s known as an experience so peaceful and happy it can cure depression, bringing people back to nature and generally being as wonderful as a field of unicorns vomiting rainbows. For me, alas… I got into the water and swam around a bit. None of the dolphins seemed to want to say hello. Then I felt lots of small, solid things knocking into my body, up my arms and legs. I suddenly realised the water was pink, and I was floating in the centre of a massacre: pink chunks of dead fish. Being a squeamish teenage girl (and unashamed ichthyophobe,) I screamed and swam back to the boat, taunted by the laughter of my family.

The day might have been ruined, were it not for the whale.

Typical me, I was facing the other way when its head came vertically out of the water. My mum tells me it was fantastic.

A view from the port side of the ferry

Typical me, I was facing the other way when its head came vertically out of the water. My mum tells me it was fantastic. But more amazing still were the gannets.

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Diving gannets

The sky was thick with them. They came because they saw the dolphins. Gannets have learned that their hunting technique compliments the dolphins’ perfectly. The dolphins gather deep down in the ocean, underneath a school of fish, and drive the fish upwards, trapping them at the surface – where the gannets can descend upon them from the sky. They dive into the waves like golden-headed missiles, so sharp and graceful… The whole boat was transfixed.

You can see a very impressive colony of gannets at Muriwai Beach, (which, coincidentally, is where that guy was killed by a shark,) just a short drive from Auckland City. I’d well recommend it – they’re absolutely beautiful birds – but seeing them out on the ocean, working together with a pod of dolphins, is a wildlife experience I’ll never forget.

Beached As, Bro

Nearly three-quarters of New Zealanders live within five kilometres of a beach.

And they’re pretty gorgeous beaches. Even the average ones are far more picturesque than the likes of Skegness and Cleethorpes, which were my nearest beaches growing up in Britain – and they were each a long train ride away, as opposed to at the bottom of the road.

In fact, looking back, both Skegness and Cleethorpes are extremely depressing in comparison to what I have now. I remember weary stretches of grey punctuated by flaking piers and consolatory donkey rides.

You don’t seem to get donkey rides at New Zealand beaches, or those creaky, old-fashioned fairgrounds. What you do get is nature at its most glorious; views that outshine even the dramatic shores of Cornwall and Wales.

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A view from a friend’s beach house in the Coromandel

Still, New Zealand beaches aren’t what I thought they’d be when I was first told we were moving here. The ten-year-old me thought they’d be all sparkling, white sands, crystal-blue waters, and coconut palms providing shade and convenient snacks. Imagine my amazement, therefore, when we arrived in Waiuku and my dad drove us the ten minutes (the closest beach was ten minutes’ walk) to Kariotahi: rugged cliffs, wild waves and black sand.

Seriously – BLACK sand.

It’s volcanic, also called ironsand, and is mined on the West Coast of New Zealand to make steel, yet it’s the softest thing I’ve ever felt. When my tender, British feet stepped onto it for the first time, I actually gasped. I felt like I was walking on velvet – and silky, high-quality velvet at that.

There are only two problems with black sand: it gets way hotter than normal sand and can burn your feet, and it’s very difficult to rid yourself of. But totally worth it!

The black sand beach at my boyfriend's parents' house

The black sand beach at my boyfriend’s parents’ house

Two of the first things my parents bought me upon arriving in New Zealand were a wetsuit and a bodyboard. Bodyboarding – or “Boogieboarding” – is basically surfing for wusses. I loved riding the waves at Kariotahi, but it sometimes got too dangerous and we had to stop. Lots of New Zealand beaches, including Kariotahi, have Surf Life Saving Clubs operating at them. They put a pair of flags out to mark where it’s safe to surf, and watch for people in trouble. I’ve never had to be saved, but I have experienced being dragged a scarily large distance by a rip and battling to get back between the flags.

West Coast beaches may be more dangerous to surf at, but the soft sand means you don’t scrape your knees when you get beached!

A black sand beach next to my boyfriend's parents' house

The next beach over from the one above

It’s impossible to holiday in New Zealand without hitting a beach. Most of them have places to camp nearby, and many of these have barbecue facilities. A barbecue on the beach is a very New Zealand thing to do – it’s sometimes said that’s what the Kiwi Christmas dinner is – but the most traditional beach food is, as it is in Britain, fish and chips. Or “fush and chups” in the New Zealand accent.

And ice-cream, of course.

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Beaches aren’t a special treat in New Zealand, they are a fact of life, and, as such, are often taken for granted. As a teenager, I was guilty of grumpily refusing to go to the beach – I would never have turned down an opportunity to go to the beach in England! Then again I was a little kid in England. Still, I recently told myself off for taking the Mount Maunganui beach (where I lived with my parents before moving away for university) for granted – a quick reminisce of Skeggy got me appreciating where I was once more.

Mount Maunganui is the perfect beach for sunbathing on. You can also surf, swim, fish, kayak, jet ski, paraglide, climb the Mount, cruise the harbour… But I’ll write a proper article about it another time. It’s very different from the beach at, say, White Island…

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You probably wouldn’t want to sunbath on that.

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There is, however, a volcanic beach where it’s absolute bliss to sunbath. At Hot Water Beach in the Coromandel, you can actually dig your own spa pool! You see, hot springs filter up through the sand, so at low tide it’s really warm. I must confess that I haven’t actually been there, but I’d love to go. Maybe next time we hire a campervan, we can stay a night around there. Hope so. It’s supposed to be one of the best beaches in the world.

No surprise it’s in New Zealand.

Going Bush

When I was a kid, back in Britain, we used to visit Sherwood Forest.

Yes, Sherwood Forest – the remnants of Robin Hood’s mystical domain – a symbol of romantic, English woodland.

Except it wasn’t that great.

There are nicer examples of English woodland, though patches of green seem few and far between in England, especially now: now I know New Zealand and its native bush.

It’s often said that New Zealand is green. This, of course, refers to its environmentally friendly image, but it may as well mean its landscape. There is a LOT of green. New Zealand simply has more unspoilt countryside, more patches of green to choose from than England.

Don’t get me wrong: I still love the English woodland. I get nostalgic for those grand, druid-worthy oak trees, cushioned by carpets of bluebells and snowdrops. But the New Zealand bush is something else.

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A view of the bush from inside a cave, Waitomo

The first thing you notice is the tree ferns. In Britain, ferns tend to be low-lying and rather unimpressive. In New Zealand, ferns grow tall everywhere, lining the roads and forest paths, delicate fronds lolling above people’s heads, filtering the sunlight. Some of the fronds are huge – my first few months in New Zealand, I kept expecting to see dinosaurs emerging from the foliage!

If you’re lucky, while you’re walking in the bush you’ll spot a fuzzy, brown coil protruding from the trees, a frond on the verge of unfurling. This is a koru, a Maori symbol of new life. When I arrived in New Zealand, having just stumbled exhausted and terrified off the plane, my dad gave me a koru necklace. I can’t say it made me feel any better at the time, but it was a nice thought.

Tree ferns are so abundant in New Zealand that the ‘silver fern’ is recognisable the world over as the emblem of the All Blacks rugby team. The Maori name for the silver fern tree is ponga, and the undersides of the fronds are, indeed, silver. So striking are they that these fronds can be placed belly up on the murky forest floor to create a gleaming arrow, a beacon to guide the way.

When I returned to New Zealand after going back to England for a few weeks, the sight of tree ferns at the side of the motorway when my dad picked me up from the airport evoked a strong ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore’ feeling within me – I was definitely back in New Zealand.

Ferns may be the most conspicuous of New Zealand’s native trees, but they aren’t the prettiest. That distinction, I think, has to go to the Pohutukawa tree.

Pohutukawa in bloom

Pohutukawa in bloom

They’re known as the New Zealand Christmas Tree, not only because they bloom around Christmastime – they bloom in a festive explosion of deep, beautiful red. The vision of bejewelled Pohutukawas gathered upon the edge of the golden sand, facing the gleaming waves, is the epitome of the New Zealand summer.

When you ‘go bush’ in New Zealand, you encounter many strange trees, and many more familiar ones, but what truly sets it apart from the English woodland is the atmosphere. It’s temperate rainforest. The air is hushed and humid. Well, hushed when there aren’t any cicadas around. When there are cicadas, it’s a never-ending cacophony of shrill, grating chirps. If crickets are violinists, cicadas are thrash metal guitarists.

A tui

A tui

Thankfully, cicadas aren’t the only creatures that serenade the trees. The tui, for example, is a native New Zealand bird that has to have one of the loveliest songs in the avian world. The males are a treat to look at too, with black feathers that shine with metallic purples and greens, their throats adorned with brilliant, white baubles.

There are endless places you can go bush walking in New Zealand, and most have campgrounds attached to them. Camping is an excellent way to experience the New Zealand bush, as you can base yourself somewhere and relax surrounded by nature, rather than driving ages to get there, walking for a few hours, then driving back. I think campervans beat tents in this situation, because you can have a shower when you finish your walk!

There are strict rules surrounding camping in New Zealand. This isn’t a bad thing, seeing as we don’t want these peaceful, picturesque sites to be ruined, but it does mean that you have to make sure you’re doing things right. There’s plenty of information about New Zealand camping out there and it’s well worth a read.

My absolute favourite place to go bush walking is Karangahake Gorge. Not only is it a breathtaking piece of nature, with its dramatic rock walls, carved by a large, winding river, it is a fascinating piece of history. The paths cross abandoned railway tracks, and tunnels delve into the rock, dark and frightening – seriously, I got scared going too far into one. It’s exciting to come out of a tunnel into daylight and suddenly find yourself looking down at the river far below. You can walk along the side of the river as well and even swim in it in places. There’s a pool with a waterfall and a cave you can climb into – an awesome place to have your lunch.

Waitomo again – it’s like you’re Alice walking through a keyhole into Wonderland!

Waitomo again – it’s like you’re Alice walking through a keyhole into Wonderland!

Another great place to bush walk is Waitomo, which is where most of the photos in this post come from. However, bush walking is probably the least amazing thing you can do in Waitomo – I’ll post about that another time!

And finally, as the location of my first ever bush walk in New Zealand, the Waitakere Ranges get an honourable mention as a brilliant bush walking destination, but, as I don’t have any photos of it, (I was only ten and didn’t have my own camera yet,) here’s another picture of Waitomo:

I always imagine fairies here.

I always imagine fairies here.

So is the New Zealand bush better than the English woodland? Well there’s more of it, and it doesn’t rain every time you go for a walk in it. And there’s exotic birds and weird trees. But the English woodland can be just as beautiful as the New Zealand bush; just as magical. For me – and, of course, I’m terribly biased – the bush simply isn’t as romantic the woodland. It is, however, wonderfully exciting.

I suppose you’ll just have to see it for yourself.

My Top 10 North Island Day Walks