New Zealand has been in the grip of winter for the last 10 days or so. Snow dumps put the south of the South Island into chaos with power and telecom lines down and today more snow has paralysed the central North Island, at one point with no roads passable.
Whilst you might expect winter to bring such conditions, the NZ Met Office (http://www.metservice.co.nz/) says that these polar conditions from the south have arrived around a month earlier than and more extreme than usual. You name a weather pattern and some part of New Zealand has been experiencing it.
Wellington has faced bitterly southerlies bringing a wind chill factor to add to our balmy 5-10 degrees. But, it’s nothing compared to the -20 degrees faced by some residents in the rural areas of central south NZ (some of whom have had no power for 10 days). It’s rained a lot and I was viciously lashed in a hail downpour which appeared in a cartoon like manner tracking me across a car park.
You might think that the British are obsessed by the weather but it isn’t a patch on the kiwis. Checking the weather reports is an essential pastime and one which comes close to matching the melodic tones of the shipping forecasts in the UK. In NZ, weather is described in two parts – first the overall situation (the science bit) and then the regional detail. Wellington’s weather is about half way through so we get to know what’s going to happen elsewhere in the North Island first. Since the bad weather hit the south, I’ve religiously continued to listen in solidarity for those poor souls surviving in parts accessible only by helicopter.
Weather is reported on a regional basis so forecasts are a good lesson in NZ geography. Some of the Maori names can be tongue twisters so any presenter trying to speed up the report can get into a terrible tangle. One time, the news presenter on National Radio had to give the weather forecast instead of the specialist forecast giver and he got terribly frustrated with repeating some of the weather patterns. Big mistake, he tried to make it more succinct only to start leaving out vital bits of information and needing to go back.
I’ve become a bit of a dab hand at interpreting the weather for Wellington’s micro climate. For example, showers mean periodic burst of rain that could be widespread or isolated to a single street. Rain means its going to lash down so take your brolly and wellies. Squally showers/rain means don’t bother with your brolly as it will end up in the umbrella graveyard beaten to death by the wind. Fine means it won’t rain but will generally be cloudy. It is only sunny when there’s not a cloud in the sky.
The prevailing wind in Wellington is north westerly. If you hear a southerly is on the way its time to (a) get big coat, gloves and scarf or (b) stay at home in the warm. Winds tend to be gusty which means that things can be relatively calm but then freakish gusts can almost take you off your feet – or as it feels like sometimes, will blow in the windows.
Houses in New Zealand just aren’t built to stand the winter weather. Kiwis live in denial that this isn’t a cold country. Pah, I’m sitting here with my thermals and fleece waistcoat on top of normal clothing; and if I could actually sit on top of the heater I would. Central heating is not a big feature of kiwi homes – we’re lucky, we rent a newish townhouse that is well insulated and has a gas fire in the living room. There is under-floor heating on the ground floor (spare room, study and second bathroom) but the upper floor where our bedroom has nothing.
It brings back memories of childhood in the 1970’s when you wake up and it’s freezing cold and condensation on the windows and my attic flat in Sunderland in the late 1980’s. But, it’s a wonderful metabolism booster as you burn up more calories to keep warm (perhaps this is a new wave diet I could promote?). I’ve got into the ritual of hot water bottles before bed, turning on the portable heater when the alarm goes off and have even been contemplating whether it’s time to act like a kiwi and invest in an electric blanket.
I dream about the central heating we’ll have in our house in Kaitoke – oh we’ll be toasty warm! It will be just as well because compared to Wellington it gets 5 degrees colder up there in winter and 3 degrees warmer in summer. Our 4×4 will be an essential for winter as cars tend to get stuck on the Rimutaka Hills (Kaitoke is at the foot of these mountains that divide the Wellington region from the Wairarapa).
So, brrrrr it’s a cold snap indeed. And to add insult to injury this is my second winter this year. Still, only two more months of this to cope with and then Spring will be here. To survive our first year we’re treating ourselves to a winter sun break to Fiji (5 nights on the coral coast). What bliss, I’m counting the days on my frostbitten fingers and toes!