Letters from Southern Man

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Letters from the Southern Man

Migrating is more than just filling in forms and submitting paperwork, its a complex process that will test even the most resilient of people. 

Understanding New Zealand is paramount to your immigration survival and to give you a realistic view of the country, its people and how we see the world, read our weekly Southern Man blogs. Often humorous, sometimes challenging, but always food for thought.


Posted by Iain on Feb. 17, 2017, 4:25 p.m. in New Zealand Weather

Sun. Rain. Wind.

It is interesting how much of a role climate - perceived or real - plays in terms of where migrants might choose to live.

If you are Singaporean or Malaysian you love the fact that New Zealand is, for the most part, both drier and for most of the year, cooler, than you are used to. Comfortable is the word I hear a lot. Migrants from these countries tell me how much they love the climate of ‘New Zealand’ (they are usually referring to Auckland or Christchurch).

If you are a South African you tended historically to perceive the climate in New Zealand as being both cold and wet. I should say as thousands more South Africans settle here this perception is changing as expectation hits reality. 

If you are from the UK you’ll report back to friends and family that it seems you have moved to the tropics (which the very north of New Zealand it is starting to become).

Rainfall in Auckland is around 1200mm per year. Tauranga 1100mm. Hamilton, the same. Christchurch 600mm. Dunedin 700mm.

Durban has around 950mm. Johannesburg 500mm. Cape Town around 700mm. Singapore and Kuala Lumpur average 3000mm or more. London, believe it or not, comes in around 750mm.

As many readers know I have a beach house which is 160km north of Auckland and about 50km south of Whangarei (NZ’s last northern most biggish city). Nestled along the east coast temperatures here and only 90 minutes drive north of Auckland are at least 2 degrees warmer at any given time of year. Rainfall in Whangarei is 1500mm per year which makes it probably the wettest big city in the country. 

Temperatures up here last week were in the low 30 degrees (Celcius) with temperature records being set almost monthly. 

This part of NZ lies in the sub-tropics and I was reading an article recently which said if temperatures increase by as little as 1 degree Celsius then this region will begin to be more tropical than ‘sub’.  

While it has been a funny old summer (it came later than ‘normal’ and many evenings have been far cooler than normal) and climate change is playing its part, we have had a preponderance of South Westerlies which is unusual for us in summer. Lying on the east coast of the North Island the rain shadow effect has been amplified so I suspect the summer has been a far drier one for Northland than ‘normal’. 

Having said that in the past 8 years there has been drought in all but three years up this way. So ‘big dry’ summers are very much the norm. The fields and paddocks are the colour of the Serengeti. Stock has been moved off many farms. Many of the small villages that rely on rainwater and don’t have water bores for their water supply have dry tanks and have to buy it in from water tankers. 

Spending so much time up here the annual pattern of rain has almost started to mirror the tropics insofar as there is increasingly a rainy season and a dry one - both of around six months.

I have 6000 square meters of land here which I am slowly planting out in native trees and shrubs. By September each year I consider laying drainage across the property so my trees do not drown. By November I have to irrigate. The past few years here in January there are cracks in the hillsides big enough to lose a toddler down (okay, slight poetic license) such is the lack of rain.

When it does rain here in summer, it rains. A week ago I suggested to some friends that what we desperately needed was a solid 24 hours of non stop light rain or my water bills for irrigation will go through the roof. I got my wish and then some. I suspect we have had close to 70mm the past 24 hours. Today the sun is out, the temperature is around 25 degrees and the humidity must be around 90%. I can almost watch the plants grow. It feels very much like a cool day in the tropics.

At the same time and 1000km to the south Christchurch has been reeling as a massive fire has spread through thousands of hectares of farm and forest on the city’s outskirts destroying homes, buildings and resulting in one death. That part of the country gets half the rainfall we get up here ‘normally’. Their summers are warm and the wind they often get coming down off the Southern Alps, desiccates the land. These fires are the result.

In the Hawke’s Bay where summer temperatures are routinely over 30 degrees and their rainfall is closer to 600mm per year they too are coping with a lack of rain, drought and fires.

Northern Canterbury (north of Christchurch) has seen no significant rain for three solid years.

One only needs to travel 100km or so to the west (and through the weather system blocking Southern Alps) and rainfall is in the order of Singapore or KL - 3000mm plus.

So rain falls in very different quantities in very different ways across the country.

It is overwhelmingly wetter in winter (although the wettest month in Dunedin in the deep south is actually December) and much drier in summer.

This country has such rugged terrain with mountains and plains, hills and valleys all spread across 1600km of (relatively) thin islands and is surrounded by very warm oceans in the north and cold ones in the south. It means you can drive 30km and find very different microclimates. For those from larger countries with more consistent topographies and spread over fewer degrees of latitude it can be quite a climatological shock.

In fact we probably have a far more varied climate than Australia for example which is probably 20 times our size. This myth of sun, surf and BBQs everywhere there is exactly that. Myth. Many parts of Australia are far wetter than many here in New Zealand. Many parts of New Zealand have far hotter summers than parts of Australia. 

I am constantly surprised for example how cold Melbourne is whenever I am there between April and October - far colder most of the time than, say, humid Auckland.

Perceptions and realities.

The climate you find when you get here might in the end be very different to what you perceived the climate and rainfall to be like before you emigrated.

Until next week...

Iain MacLeod

Southern Man - Letters from New Zealand


The Big Chill

Posted by Iain on June 26, 2015, 1:48 p.m. in New Zealand Weather

Having spent last week in Cape Town complaining about the cold I came home to what was for three days this week a mini Ice Age by comparison.

Average maximum daily temperatures in Auckland through June and July tend to be around 16-17 degrees Celcius which is cool but by no means cold because with our humidity it generally feels a degree or three warmer. At this time of year we can have a lot of cloud cover which does act as a bit of a blanket and keeps us more snug than the temperatures might suggest. This week however someone ripped the duvet off and left the freezer door open.  Air that seems to have come straight off the Ross Shelf in Antarctica settled over the country for a few days and left us shivering under a great big icy blob of frigid air.

With clear sunny days and cloudless nights and this large fat anti-cyclone sitting over us there was nothing to keep the warmth in and temperatures plummeted. Earlier this week Auckland got down to minus 2 degrees overnight and maximum temperatures were  between 11 and 13 degrees for the first three days..

That was positively tropical by comparison to what was happening in the deep south of the country where in Central Otago (and up in the mountains to give this some perspective) temperatures fell as low as negative 21 degrees. Apparently we have only had temperatures that low four times in the recorded history of the country. Two of these record lows happened this week.

Would someone please send an email to Al Gore – there is no way there are any melting ice caps in this part of the world this week.  Show me the warming! I’ll take a triple dose thanks!

I have to say though that while the nights are chilly the days have been amazing. We have a certain type of light in this country and when combined with our clear air and the sunny days these weather patterns bring, the country has been stunningly beautiful from top to frigid bottom. Narnia-esque in so many parts.

Although we get no snow up this end of the country the South Island has more or less been blanketed producing the most incredible images. With everything covered in snow and ice there are it seems only two colours – bright blue skies and the countryside covered in the purest snow and ice. Water has frozen as it has settled and dripped off leaves and fences and the frosts that cannot melt are being added to the next night creating a landscape dominated by crystals.

Lovely if you are a tourist I imagine, less so if you are a farmer trying to dig your hypothermic sheep out of a snow drift.

The ski field operators are all doing cartwheels given the snow is now deep and soft  and ready for the school holidays as hordes will no doubt descend upon this winter wonderland.

This really is a country of incredible climatic variation and just as the heaters are on full at home this week I quickly forget that during summer we need air-conditioning in the same house cranked up to the max to prevent house from feeling like a Turkish bath. And we complain of the humidity and heat in summer as much as we moan about the current cold.

It’s funny we forget that we live in the sub tropics which might mean nice warm summers but it also means cool winters with occasional extremes around the edges.

I have to say it all makes for thoroughly interesting micro-climates though.

The temperatures are now returning to normal for this time of year with a chilly but not freezing 16 degrees in Auckland.

Last week while in Cape Town the ‘cape of storms’ delivered and I had heavy iron ‘loungers’ being blown around the deck outside my hotel room for two days as if they were made of balsawood. Low cloud, huge winds, cold temperatures were quickly replaced with what we have had here the past few days – stunning blue skies and bitingly low temperatures. While for many people who have more settled and predictable climates this can all take some getting used to but I have to say a return to Cape Town is for me like a return to Auckland – you never quite know what the day will serve up in terms of weather at any given time of year (or in Auckland’s case in any given hour on any given day…..).

Some love it, some hate it but for me it is never anything other than interesting.


Until next week

Iain MacLeod

Southern Man


Cyclone Pam Leaves Her Calling Card

Posted by Iain on March 20, 2015, 8:25 p.m. in New Zealand Weather

With many parts of New Zealand suffering from their annual drought the prayers and rain dances have been in full swing these past few weeks. 

It seems one rain dance too many as Cyclone Pam, having smashed her way across Vanuatu, set about sprinting across 3000km of South Pacific ocean in a little over 24 hours to attempt the same destruction on New Zealand.

Luckily, she only brushed the north and east of the country as the main body of the biggest storm in memory skidded offshore down the coast.

Tropical Cyclones (hurricanes) usually begin to lose their awesome power as they hit the cooler waters around New Zealand (at this time of the year the sea in these parts is 23-24 degrees Celsius) but this baby was big and strong enough to retain much of its power built up as it headed south.

North of Auckland and all the way down the east coast past Coromandel, Tauranga and the Wairarapa swells of between 5 and 8 metres were smashing the coast. These are all ‘surf’ beaches popular with swimmers and board riders but no one ventured out into the massive waves thrown up by this storm. To do so would have been suicidal.

In some hil country areas up to 100mm of rain was received in 24 hours. This, for places like the Hawkes Bay, represents about on sixth of their average rainfall.

With the ground hard and parched such volumes of rain can be more destructive than helpful. While they can fill up reservoirs and dams, much of it simply runs off the hard fields and pastures into rivers which then floods, causing major damage downstream.

Thankfully, the system was far enough out to see that the worst of its potential was not unleashed and the damage relatively light.

Auckland escaped largely unscathed through being sheltered form the hurricane force winds. In fact, I have been told it was more than a bit of an anti-climax for most Auckland’s.

Drought is such a part of our long hot summers but it still amazes me how many South African clients in particular, who (it has to be said), have a stilted perception of our climate and have sent me emails marvelling at the weather through the Cricket World Cup as if it is unusual for it not to rain for weeks on end. In summer, it isn’t.

Because New Zealand is 1600km long and thin, mountainous in the south and hilly in the north, lying in the sub-tropics and in the souther temperate regions we're surrounded by warm water in the north and cooler water in the south. This means our climates are as varied as countries with ten times the land mass. No set wet or dry seasons and you will find you can get rain at any time of the year although generally more in the winter.

In Auckland we get 1000mm a year (about the same as Durban and Johannesburg). We have one third of the rainfall of Singapore of Kuala Lumpur. Seven percent generally falls between May and September.

Of our five largest cities, Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin those last two are actually the driest despite lying (or perhaps because of) over 1000km further south. They come in at 850mm and 650mm each year, far drier than all of the major cities of South Africa.

In terms of sunshine hours, Christchurch generally tops the list. The further north you go, the more humid things generally become and therefore the more cloudy. For the record, the two sunniest cities in New Zealand  are actually Benison (top of the South Island) and Whakatane (south east of Tauranga)

We are now sliding gently into Autumn which is slowly creeping its way up from the south. It takes around 6 weeks from now for autumn to reach us up in Auckland. Having enjoyed three months of summer temperatures in the mid to high twenties and weeks of blue skies, the nights are set to cool down and the temperature each month will fall by a degree or two till it hits winter minimums in July and August. Even then it is not really cold (it doesn’t snow, for example) and the difference between an Auckland summer and winter is a jacket and an umbrella on standby. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe it as a goldilocks climate but it does seem to have just about everything in reasonable proportions.

During the South Pacific hurricane season, which is now drawing to a close, mother nature does unleash from time to time a little reminder that ‘averages’ are a statistical measure and while the past twelve months in New Zealand have been entirely average in terms of sunshine hours and rainfall, when measured in weeks and with her occasional ‘big weather’ surprises such as she delivered this week, things can appear very different when you sit staring outside your window at torrential rain and trees bent double with 150km an hour winds.


Until next week.

Iain MacLeod - Southern Man