Jumping into Short-Term Volunteering in New Zealand As a Student
Combining Volunteer Work with Exploration
Legs trembling and insides churning, I stand with my mud-splattered Keens peeking out from a scaffold 154 feet above water. Gazing at the horizon, over which I seem to float, pine trees and cabbage trees cover the hillsides. Looking down below my shaking feet, rich emerald-blue water shimmers far into the distance . . . and also plummets 525 feet. Welcome to Lake Taupo: a natural jewel of New Zealand’s North Island, and the place I abandon all senses and leap into possible doom. In 15 seconds, I will be dangling by a bungee cord like a fish caught on a hook, suspended above the water.
I found myself at Lake Taupo after I decided to travel to New Zealand and volunteer with a local tourist guide. It was a convenient month-long side trip before I embarked on a study abroad program in Australia. It was also the best adventure I have ever experienced. Back home, I never imagined I would be teetering on the edge of a plank about to bungee jump into a lake. But the experience as a short-term volunteer in New Zealand greatly shaped my perspectives and taught me a lot about traveling abroad.
Since I had about two months between the end of my university’s semester and the beginning of my semester in Australia, it was the perfect time to squeeze in some extra traveling. I also liked the idea that switching hemispheres in January would bring New Zealand sunshine and beautiful landscapes in the middle of cold, wet U.S. winter. But I did not want to just move about from city to city. I wanted to learn about New Zealand’s culture first hand.
Looking to the Internet for Answers
As any globetrotter knows, searching the web for “international volunteering” brings up a host of different sites, and browsing through them can become quite tedious. Prices for different volunteer placements range from nothing to the cost of a small car. The level of program support and in-country assistance also varies. Some organizations that do the leg work for you to travel in New Zealand are: International Student Volunteers, Inc., and United Planet. I was bound by a very limited budget, which narrowed my choices and meant I could only afford to trade volunteer work for room and board. I found Ren, a local New Zealand tourist guide who needed extra help, at Help Exchange. Help Exchange functions like a giant classified ad online, only it lists hosts who want international volunteers at farms, ranches, homes, lodges, B&Bs, hostels and sometimes sail boats. New Zealand's branch of WWOOF offer such similar exchanges. For last minute excursions, I often saw local ads for volunteer work on hostel bulletin boards.
When I agreed to spend a month with Ren, I had to do some research to ensure working for my host, who is a tour guide, was the kind of experience I wanted. I decided to work for Ren because he had many volunteers before me and I could explore many parts of the country with him on tours. But you should always make sure to ask about your expected accommodations and food, the hours you are expected to work, the type of work, and the nature of transportation in the area where you volunteer. Ask the host for past volunteer references just to get an idea of what you are getting into.
Experiencing Pure New Zealand
I touched down at Wellington airport after 18 grueling hours of flights and layovers. I was anxious to see what lay ahead for me, but my worries eased when I saw Ren—short and graying, fitted with “tramping” boots—beaming amicably.
The moment I set foot outside the airport, I realized there were quite a few lessons I needed to learn. First, do not lug a giant red suitcase with you while you are traveling. They call it backpacking for a reason. Suitcases are heavy and hard to maneuver. If you are in New Zealand, pack for any climate. You might be wearing a raincoat in the morning, but sporting a swimsuit on the beach in the afternoon.
And just because you enter a country where people speak English, the culture and certain words will still be foreign to you. At first I had trouble understanding the different words and pronunciations that Kiwis used. A bathroom is called the “loo,” for example.
Other cultural adaptations were required as well. I tried not to wince every time another car slipped by us on the “wrong” side of the road. I had no idea what the rainbow bank notes and silver coins in my pocket were worth. I did not know so many sheep could cover such a small country. And when we went to cafes, I was astonished that people poured milk in their tea and ate pies filled with meat.
Once I arrived at Ren’s house, I got settled in a room of my very own and got to work. I weeded the garden, painted the porch, and helped Ren with any project needed. Nothing was too strenuous, and I continued to learn about New Zealand life via Ren’s stories while I worked.
As an international volunteer, you also get to meet other volunteers who enjoy sharing their ideas and culture. I volunteered with a German girl who worked for a time picking kiwi fruit, and then she spent a week backpacking in one of the many national parks. I learned some good traveling tips from her. For example, if you are going to go “tramping” for a long time in a forest, you can give a notice to the New Zealand park service so they will search for you if you do not return on time. I also worked with a Canadian, and met Australians, Lithuanians, and English citizens. It is good to meet other foreigners with whom you can commiserate about the tribulations and triumphs of traveling. They can also become good travel partners later if you are heading the same direction.
What to See in New Zealand
I was lucky to have a tour guide as a volunteer host. By taking care of some basic duties, I got to ride along on tours to some gorgeous sites. However, traveling the country is very easy without a tour guide. There are tourist info centers in nearly every town with maps, car rentals, and buses available, hostel locations, and of course suggestions regarding what to see. Prices for excursions are decent, especially considering the exchange rate from U.S. dollars to N.Z. dollars. Most multi-room hostels usually cost the equivalent of 16 U.S. dollars per night.
One of my favorite cities in New Zealand was Wellington, the national capital. This vibrant harbor city holds some of the finest cultural events. I was amazed by the Te Papa museum, which examines the country’s history, including the roots of the native Maori people. The city also has the vintage Cable Car Museum where you can ride the “relentless red rattler” up a hill and then stroll around the lush Botanical Gardens below. Auckland and Christchurch are also great cites to see, although Christchurch is currently recovering from a devastating earthquake.
If you want a more intimate setting, go to small towns, which are the places where you will most likely volunteer anyway. There you will find true Kiwis who have a great deal of national pride, as well as a sense of humor. Many towns have a giant statue that seems to stake out the townspeople’s spot on the earth. They seem honored to live in the giant carrot, giant shoe, or giant cow town. Before I saw it, Ren tricked me into thinking the 15-foot-tall cow was real.
Furthermore, if you are like me and you have passion for visiting natural wonders, nearly every corner of the country has something to see. I would recommend tramping around Mt. Ruapehu and the Tongariro Crossing, where scenes from the Lord of the Rings were filmed. In Rotorura, geothermal geysers and bubbling hot mud pools will make you feel like you are on another planet. And certainly, you cannot miss the Cook Strait Ferry, which carries you from the North Island across scenic blue Pacific Ocean to the South Island.
At last, depending on your level of bravery, New Zealand also boasts some of the best places to do extreme sports. You can zip line down a river canyon face first at the Mokai Gravity Canyon, attempt skydiving in Queenstown, or go whitewater rafting on the Rangitaiki River. You can even take on the daring bungee jump in Taupo like I did.
Remembering the Adventure
I jumped. Not because I am an adrenaline junkie or a heedless traveler, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I could bungee jump. I could travel half way across the world and see incredible things I never knew existed. I could make new friends and a new family who would show me a lighter side of life and the importance of being proud of who you are. My international experience even prompted me to enter a major and career path to study language and communication. If I did not take the opportunity to volunteer in New Zealand, I would not be the same. Technically, I am an American, but now I have become a citizen of the world.