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The New Zealand Sheep Fence Networks

If you live in New Zealand long enough, you’re eventually going to go hiking. Probably sooner rather than later. There are hiking trails everywhere. There are hiking trails where there don’t even need to be hiking trails. In a small town near Tauranga (if I”m not mistaken) there’s a hiking trail that weaves through its downtown strip in addition to the existing sidewalk…because it would be too boring to just walk on the sidewalk that’s already there. And I agree with  the locals.

Finding out that there’s a breath taking hiking trail right around the corner or stumbling on a city with a superfluous hiking trail woven through the downtown strip are little just two examples of the idiosyncratic things that make you smile in New Zealand. Another example is that it’s completely normal for these hiking trails to cut across private property where sheep graze.

That’s super cool that you can just walk on and off people’s property. In America the sheep would be a health and safety hazard. The entrance would have to be wheel chair accessible, there’d have to be a water fountain and toilets available. There’d be signs warning you not to shove rocks or sticks in your eyes. And it’d cost $10 per person. In New Zealand, if you want to go walk over there…then you can go walk over there.

It’s not that New Zealand doesn’t have fences, but when a hiking trail meets private property there will be a (usually) very basic, wooden step. Every time I use one of those rickety country ladders it makes me feel free. It’s a minute, idiosyncratic joy I find living in New Zealand.

Now that you understand that New Zealand is covered in a patchwork of countryside woven together by age old, public walkways then you can understand a social phenomon that exists in New Zealand that I call “The Sheep Fence Network.” Kiwis probably have their own word for this phenomenon. It’s a significant facet of Kiwi culture.

It stems from the fact that New Zealand is a pretty small place, and it’s extremely common for people to move to different cities. Despite how much Kiwis migrate within their own country they still really, really, really value family, heritage and history. So they don’t just fly the nest and never write home.

Try to look at life from a Kiwi perspective. Most of the world doesn’t even know New Zealand exists. If it’s suprising for a foreigner to know where New Zealand is it’s almost unheard of for them to know anything about life inside New Zealand other than the fact that the rugby team is called the “The All Blacks.” Most Americans don’t even know that much, and you’d get beaten up in America if you walked down the street wearing an “All Blacks” t-shirt.

The rest of the world’s apathy towards New Zealand has rendered the country one big, gigantic inside joke. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about ask a Canadian. They understand.

The cumulative effect of all these social forces is that every Kiwi knows every other Kiwi. If any one Kiwi doesn’t know another Kiwi specifically, he will still know 15 people who know that person. It’s like 6 Degrees to Kevin Bacon except with  a lot less degrees. If you’re ever at a bar with your Kiwi bloke friends  and another Kiwi enters the conversation and nobody knows that person, you’ll probably have to sit through 23 minutes of oral history while everyone figures out how many people they know who knows someone who knows the other person. Or something like that.

It’s cute to watch, but it makes you feel lonely. It’s also worth warning potential emigrants about, but understand what I mean when I say, “warn.”  The New Zealand good ole’ boy sheep fence network isn’t a sinister thing; Kiwis have just had a long time to become really close friends because there hasn’t ever been anyone else to talk to. If one of your friends asked you for a job you’d probably going to give it to them. You might even give your brother’s friend, or your best friend’s friend preference before you even advertise a job to people with hard-to-understand accents who don’t get all your inside jokes.

You can use this too your advantage though. If you know you’re going to move to New Zealand then get on the Internet and try to impress a few people in New Zealand. Make some professional pen pals and then drop their names every chance possible. I didn’t actually do that myself, and I’ve never known anyone who has, but it seems like it would work really well in theory.

And don’t worry about it too much anyway. There are 10 million reasons why this may never be a problem for you, but once you’ve lived in New Zealand long enough to establish your own catalog of references you’ll be able to play the name game with blokes at the bar and enjoy all the perks of being accepted into the sheep fence network.


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