Finally, a new entry! This one is about money and gold, elections and whales.
Do they know it’s Christmas?
It’s been six months since my last blog post, and as we approach the end of December, I’m having one of those “crap, I really have to update my blog again” moments. There’s no guilt like end-of-year-guilt.
So: Last time I posted I had just returned from a trip to Hong Kong. Since then, I have not left central Wellington even once. If things hadn’t been so busy, I might feel just a wee bit claustrophobic. Wellington confuses me like that: While it’s unbelievably convenient to have everything so close, it means at the same time that everything is always close. Many others, both born-and-bread Wellingtonians and recent arrivals, have told me of similar mixed feelings about our town. It’s a bit like its weather: simply awful on a bad day, and just glorious on a good one. People who don’t like extremes should not move here.
We can has crisis
Global issues have dominated the news here in New Zealand just like everywhere else. The steep rise in the price of oil for much of the second half of 2008 has made pretty much everything more expensive, and while the equally steep fall of the Kiwi dollar against the US Dollar (and the Euro) has made things a bit easier for exporters, it added to the pressure for consumers, not to mention that it has made international travel scary expensive.
One of the hardest-hit areas has been the housing market. While we are thankfully still far away from a situation like in the US, house prices stopped rising mid-year and immediately began dropping fast. For a lot of people who bought during the height of the boom with little or no deposit (i.e., downpayment), this means that the amount they owe on their mortgage is more than the value of their property. 1 in 5 homeowners are said to be in this situation at the moment. And while the Reserve Bank towards the end of the year finally lowered the Official Cash Rate, and thereby, the interest rates, the majority of mortgage holders have signed up for fixed rates, meaning they won’t benefit from those lower rates for months or even years.
Housing wasn’t the only cause for anxiety though: Food prices have also soared, with August seeing the highest monthly cost increase in 19 years. It’s especially bad for the staples: Compared to a year ago, salad costs 145% more, butter 88%, cheese 44%, bread 17%, and milk 13%. The higher prices were mostly blamed on the increased cost for transport, however, now that petrol has returned to much lower levels, the cost of food still remains high. Unlike many Kiwis, we fortunately can absorb this kind of increase, but for many it’s a real struggle.
It certainly didn’t help that New Zealand’s largest company (based on turnover), the dairy firm Fonterra, was involved in the Chinese milk scandal. China is one of the biggest export markets for New Zealand dairy, and the Chinese firm Sanlu, in which Fonterra owns a 43% stake, was in the centre or the scandal. Apparently Sanlu had received complains about its melamine-contaminated baby formula as early as December 2007, but lied about it for 8 months before the issue became public. Fonterra says they didn’t know about this until August 2008, but regardless whether that’s true or not (I really don’t know what to believe), it has damaged the company’s reputation in a time where the economy is already fragile.
Change we can’t really believe in
In November 2008 New Zealand held a general election. New Zealand elections take place every three years—not enough time in my opinion to get anything accomplished. This year’s campaign was very much overshadowed by the US Presidential Elections which took place just 4 days prior, and which generated a lot more interest and excitement amongst Kiwis than our own.
The polls had been suggesting for a long time that the leading (left-ish) Labour Party with Prime Minister Helen Clark would lose, and that the new government would be led by the (right/conservative) National Party under newcomer John Key. Both party leaders took their cues from the US election, citing “people voting for progressive politics” and “people voting for a change in government” respectively as a sign in their favour. In the end, it came as predicted/hoped/feared (based on your political persuasion), with National winning a comfortable majority and going on to form a government with a broad coalition with some of the smaller parties. Full results here.
Unlike last time, where we had been in the country for less than a year, we got to vote, but I have to admit that I was very uninspired by what was on offer. A lot of the issues that were debated seemed petty and irrelevant, given the global problems that affect the country. Worse, the tone of the campaigns was all about blame and accusation rather than trying to find ways to deal with the issues. We watched a couple of the debates on TV which left me mostly appalled, seeing how these “leaders” shouted at each other and seemed to be more interested in being the loudest than in a genuine debate on the issues. So far, the new government has pushed through eight new laws within two weeks “under urgency”, in other words, without the public input through Select Committees. While I don’t necessarily disagree with the laws themselves, I’m not impressed with this approach of shortcutting the democratic process for the sake of making a point. Maybe the three-year term isn’t so bad after all and I can just wait it out.
At least I don’t have to worry about bribery: New Zealand, along with Denmark and Sweden, was recently named the least corrupt nation in the world. The Corruption Perceptions Index 2008 by Transparency International looked at 180 countries and scored them on a scale of zero to ten, where zero is the highest level of corruption and ten the lowest. New Zealand scored 9.3. Germany, along with Norway, was at #14 (7.9); the United States at #18 (7.3).
He loves only gold
Just before the new year, I got to leave Wellington for a little bit after all. We went on a short holiday down south, to Central Otago.
Central Otago is in the lower South Island, roughly between Dunedin and Queenstown. It’s best known for its mountainous, barren, rugged, stark landscape; high country with river gorges, wide plains and deep blue lakes, big skies and clear light. The area is very sparsely populated: only 17,000 people in a region of 10,000 km2. Similar to the California foothills, Central Otago is gold country with a rich history that’s still present everywhere, although today’s key industries are wine, sheep, and tourism.
Gold was discovered first in 1863 in St Bathans, and like in California a good decade earlier, thousands flocked to the region to make their luck. Towns cropped up everywhere and quickly grew to populations of thousands, along with the inevitable infrastructure, namely banks, bars and brothels. From the 1860s, miners from all over the world panned gold from the streams and rivers and created elaborate techniques to extract the gold with hydraulics and other machinery. To this day you can see buildings, mining equipment, tunnels and sluiced cliffs all over the region, and there are a number of small but interesting museums about local history. It’s hard to imagine how hard it must have been for these miners to get through the harsh Otago winters, with little to burn for fires and often only mud huts, or worse, canvas tents for shelter. Around the turn of the century gold mining operations were mostly abandoned, not so much because gold was running out, but because of the harsh conditions and the drop in the price of gold.
If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving
Today’s gold is ruby, earthy and with a hint of cherry fruit: At a latitude of 45 degrees south—halfway between the Equator and the South Pole—Central Otago is the southernmost commercial wine region in the world. At 300 m above sea level it’s also New Zealand’s highest. Hot dry summers and cold winters provide a climate similar to other great wine regions in the world such as Burgundy or Alsace. The grapes ripen slowly, which gives the wines an intense flavour, and the soil is rich in minerals. This makes Central Otago great for Pinot Gris, Riesling, and most famously, Pinot Noir, my favourite wine.
Wine growing in the region started in the 19th century by the gold miners but didn’t take off commercially until the early 1980s. Even today the majority of wineries is small and produces mostly for the local market, meaning you can’t even get them here in Wellington. Only a few big wineries, such as Mt Difficulty and Felton Road, have a wider and even international reach. In conjunction with the growing wine business, we also noticed that there is a growing interest in food in the region, especially using locally sourced produce.
I cannot recommend Central Otago enough to anyone visiting New Zealand. The landscape and the light are simply stunning. The unhurried pace is a welcome change from the city (yep, even Wellington—it’s all relative!) and the hospitality makes you feel welcome wherever you go. There is lots to do, from visiting the historic sites to activities such as biking, hiking or photography, and the food and wine…oh, the food and wine….We stayed at a lovely Bed and Breakfast in the former goldrush town of Naseby and explored the region from there, including a day by bike on the excellent Central Otago Rail Trail, where the track of the former railway has been converted into a biking and walking track with no access for cars—to the best of my knowledge, this is unique in New Zealand.
More about our trip
- View a detailed map of our trip on Google Maps with routes, place markers, links and annotations.
- View my Central Otago photo album.
A video of a beached whale which has turned from an obscure internet phenomenon into a widely known pop culture icon, and which sums up Kiwi humour perfectly. Enjoy (or shake your head in disbelief), and happy new year!