The Northlands is a region of abundant beauty (and few humans) as Uschi and I discovered almost as soon as we left Auckland heading, you guessed it, North (although if there is a region of New Zealand that is not abundantly beautiful I’d be genuinely shocked). The rolling hills and seascapes we witnessed on our drive were made all the more beautiful by the warm colours of fall and the late afternoon sun.
Our trip to the Northlands began with a one-week-stint harvesting kumaras (sweet potatoes), while we were waiting for our first tree planting contract to start.
Kumara harvesting is pleasant enough, but rough on the hands. Workers stand on a harvester that is being pulled along very slowly by a tractor. The harvester digs the kumaras out of the ground, and sends them up to the workers along a conveyer belt. Workers stand in a row twisting big chunks of dirt off the kumaras, and sorting them onto another conveyer belt where they are then washed and dropped into a big bin on the back.
Ideally there should be nine workers on the harvester at once (four on each side of the conveyer belt, and one at the bin on the back), and one person driving the tractor. We sang along to the music and chatted with each other while working, and because the conveyer belt is constantly moving, the work is non-stop, making time go by quickly.
The work itself is not back breaking like a lot of other seasonal work in New Zealand (most fruit picking or vineyard work for example); however, twisting the dirt off of the kumaras is hard on the hands, and people who do the work for an extended period of time often end up with arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and/or sore wrists and forearms.
I only did the job for one day before catching a nasty cold, but even after one day my hands were in pain.
Our home for the week was a remote campsite called Glinks Gully Campground, located on a hill above a beautiful beach.
We decided to spend our last day in the area frolicking on the beautiful beach.
After our week harvesting kumaras, we headed out to meet up with the tree planting crew.
Uschi and I first heard about this tree planting opportunity last October through a friend, and after discovering how much money we could make (a lot), we decided to give it a go.
Our first day “on the job” saw us moving into our new digs – a big beautiful house owned by the NZ government in a gated regional park.
By the time we had moved in, chosen bedrooms, and gotten over the initial excitement of the INSANELY BEAUTIFUL HOUSE that we would be living in for FREE, it was mid afternoon, and the time for actual work had passed. We would begin tomorrow.
The crew consisted of between twelve and sixteen people, depending on the day, and our boss Paul.
It would change a bit over the coming weeks with people leaving or joining, but for the most part the core group remained the same.
Besides Uschi and myself there were three other Canadians – Cassy and Noah from Calgary, and Dominick from Quebec; a Belgian couple – Nico and Ysaline; Melissa, Elodie, Romain, and Margaux from France; Leo and Teano from New Caledonia; and Karolina from The Czech Republic.
Almost everyone spoke French, and after spending so much time with the group I have to say my “listen to people speak French and not understand what is going on” skills have greatly improved.
I was equal parts excited and hesitant to live in a house with so many people. Although I am very much a people person, as I grow older, I find myself needing more time alone. And even though there was more than enough space for everyone, this was a lot of people (with, as I would soon find out, a whole lotta personality).
Regardless, when you are given the opportunity to live in a gorgeous house for free, have all of your food paid for, AND do work you feel good about for a highly competitive pay rate, you leave your doubts at the door and jump in head first.
The following day we woke before the sun. Breakfast consisted of toast and jam, porridge, fruit, coffee and tea. We all wandered into the kitchen at various times; it was easy to tell who was a morning person and who definitely was not.
After breakfast had been eaten, coffee and cigarettes had been drank and smoked, we all piled into the two work vehicles and headed off for our first day on the job.
Our contract was for 60, 000 trees, which we were to plant on a grassy hillside a five-minute drive from where we were staying. The job was contracted to Paul from the government, and was expected to take three weeks.
We arrived, and after Paul gave the world’s shortest instructional speech: "Here is your shovel, dig a hole, plant a tree, take a step, dig another hole," we paired up and got to work.
We worked in pairs – one person was the “digger” and one was the “planter.” The digger dug the hole (shocking), and the planter carried the plants, planted them, and stomped them into the ground.
The plants came in trays - 28 plants to a tray. We were getting paid a rate of 0.75 per tree, which worked out to be about $10 per person per tray. On our best day we planted well over 200 trays in about six hours of working, meaning we planted between 6000 and 7000 trees. One morning Melissa and I planted 18 trays in less than two hours before our first break. You do the math…
In addition to the great pay, the working conditions were exceptional. We never worked more than six hours per day, we took long half hour breaks in the morning, and hour and a half lunch breaks with a barbecue every afternoon. We worked outside in the sun, blasted music, ate fresh baked cake and wild meat (not me and Uschi obviously) from animals Paul had killed himself, and were home by 4:00 (ish) every afternoon.
The best part was that every single person on the crew was hardworking. Not only at work – always pushing themselves to do a little bit more than the day before – but at home as well.
As I mentioned previously, all of our food was provided to us, and all we had to do was make the grocery list. However, we were in charge of the cooking. We all took turns in the kitchen, preparing lunch for work, cooking dinner, baking cakes and treats for our breaks, and doing the never-ending stream of dishes. Everybody helped out without complaint, and there was always someone offering to lend a hand with whatever needed doing.
Oh, and we ate like fucking royalty.
Dinners included hand pressed, barbequed burgers (and veggie burgers!) with home cut fries; fresh battered schnitzel with battered and fried cauliflower and potato salad; roasts with onion and potato, pasta with creamy homemade vegetable sauce, roasted kumaras and heaps of salad, giant pans of lasagna (both meat and vegetarian), spicy Indian dishes with rice, curries and stir-fries, veggie omelets with homemade hash browns, garlic mashed potatoes, homemade pizza, fresh grilled fish, lamb, and goat, and on and on and on
Not to mention the delicious desserts we were treated to every day on our break. Cakes of every shape and flavour: chocolate, lemon, pear, banana, cinnamon; sugary apple strudels; cookies baked with applesauce and macadamia nuts from the trees in our backyard; banana muffins with chocolate chips – we had it all!
And on weekends we would often wake up to warm crepes and homemade bread fresh from the oven, courtesy of Nico.
Oh and did I mention all of this was FREE?!
There was no wifi at the house, little service, and the nearest town was a 25-minute drive away. Initially I thought this might be a problem, but it was easy to adapt to the Internet-less life.
Our days were long, and although they were filled with lots and lots of joy, they were also filled with hard work, which, for me at least, rendered wifi insignificant.
We woke before seven every day, and the tree planting itself was very physical work. Carrying trays on our shoulders up and down hills, digging holes in tough roots and tall grass, and constantly bending over takes a lot out of a person.
When we got home we would prepare dinner, lunch and snacks for the next day, and do the dishes from lunch and again from dinner.
Additionally, I did yoga most days after work, and the beer, wine, and other herbal refreshments we so often indulged in aided in our exhausted status’.
By the time 9:30 rolled around I was usually more than ready for bed (and not missing wifi at all).
It was a good life.
A back-to-basics, homegrown, down-in-the-dirt, make-shift, real and simple kind of life.
When we finished our first contract, we moved from our beautiful house in the regional park to Paul’s property and took up residence in a big warehouse/garage-like structure he fondly calls “The Man Cave,” while we waited for news of more work.
On weekends we went to the beach, fished in the ocean, explored the area, and enjoyed a few beers. Cassy and Noah are into fire spinning, and would often put on fire shows in the evenings, and Cassy taught Uschi how to sew, beginning her newfound interest with patching her clothes.
We would go for walks, search the fields and paddocks for mushrooms, hunt for wild goats and turkeys, enjoy evening fires or the occasional movie, and nightly jam sessions.
We worked hard; we played hard, and as the days passed, we evolved into a little misfit family.
Tree planting has hands down been my favourite job in New Zealand to date, and a standout experience in my life. The combination of the amazing people, working outdoors in the beautiful New Zealand countryside, exceptional working conditions, and doing something I genuinely feel good about is incomparable.
I am full of gratitude, and would like to say thank you to everyone who made this time what it was. It was a pleasure to be surrounded by so much love, light, and life. This experience is not one I will easily forget.