What do you do if you are stranded in Paradise? You try to get out of course. Well, at least this is what a very large number of New Zealanders (hereafter called Kiwis) do every year.
New Zealand is often referred to as 'God's own country'. The natural scenic beauty is world-renowned and the outdoor opportunities are second to none. With a relaxed lifestyle and friendly people, New Zealand is one of the best places on the planet to spend a happy childhood.
However, when the young Kiwis reach adulthood, they get a strong, often irresistible urge to travel. They feel a need to spend some time seeing the rest of the world. This is known as the overseas experience - or the big OE.
The big OE of a generation ago basically involved going to London, finding a flat with other Kiwis, South Africans or Australians and getting a job; any job. The UK was the main choice since New Zealanders had pretty free access, and it was still regarded as the 'mother country' of the Commonwealth. Since then the UK has decided that it would rather be part of Europe, and access to young Kiwis has become somewhat tighter.
After working for a period of time the young Kiwi would have saved enough for a trip around Europe. Together with a bunch of fellow Antipodean expatriates, he or she would spend a month, or two, or three, hitching, driving, railing and bussing around the continent. One of the favourite variations was the VW Combi Van, which had the advantage of being cheap and a place where one can sleep.
Then would follow halcyon days of racing around the cultural icons of the old world, from the Rembrandthuis to the Prada, from the Coliseum to the Berlin Wall and the Eiffel Tower. The Munich Oktoberfest is also very popular. Apart from the pubs, it seems that the ruins, art galleries and museums are the main attractions. Since New Zealand is such a young country, it is the history of Europe that is particularly fascinating. The young Kiwi is not too interested in the beaches of the Côte d'Azur or the mountains of Switzerland - 'Got better ones at home', seems to be the attitude.
The basic theme of touring Europe remains, but today the overseas experience has evolved into a variety of different types. In the 1980s and 1990s jet travel became cheaper and more widespread. Round the world fares became good value for money, and allowed a variety of stopovers.
This meant that more Kiwis could do tours of Africa and Asia on the way to or from London. London still remains on most OE routes, not only because it is a major air hub, but also because it comes as a relief to speak English again after six months or more budget-travelling through the developing world!
South America also became more accessible with direct flights across the Pacific and, along with the North American ski areas, became another destination en route to Europe.
With a slower domestic economy, some Kiwis are staying longer in the UK or the USA, working harder, and even settling overseas for extended periods. The wise ones, of course, return.
Over the departure gate in Auckland International Airport there is a large carved archway. The inscription reads:
Those who leave from these shores carry with them the same spirit of adventure that brought their ancestors to New Zealand.
Kiwis have always been travellers, and will always remain so.