The Irishman who left Celtic Tiger Ireland for New Zealand's mountains
'I have a freedom I could never have in Ireland' - Dublin man Gavin Lang, who works as a mountain guide in New Zealand keeping people safe, says he has never felt homesick
Gavin Lang, who is originally from Glasnevin, Dublin, but now lives in Lake Wanaka, on the South Island of New Zealand, where he works as a mountain guide
Working Abroad Q&A: Each week, Irish Times Abroad meets an Irish person working in an interesting job overseas. This week we meet Gavin Lang, who is originally from Glasnevin, Dublin, but now lives in Lake Wanaka, on the South Island of New Zealand who works as a mountain guide there
When did you leave Ireland and why?
I first left Ireland in 1994 when I was just 17 years old. I loved the music scene in Dublin in the early 1990s. Music was my biggest passion then. I went to Belgium following my dream of making a living from playing drums in a rock band. I lived there for four years. In 1999 I returned to Dublin as the Celtic Tiger was devouring derelict buildings and turning them into upmarket apartments and shopping malls. I worked for United Airlines. By then my focus had shifted to outdoor sports such as caving, skiing and hill walking. I’d developed a taste for these activities in Belgium, France and Spain, and I was restlessly seeking more contact with nature in Dublin. I found that the best thing about Dublin was the proximity to the Wicklow Mountains. I wasn’t enjoying living in the city.
Why did you go to New Zealand?
I visited New Zealand for the first time in 2000 and loved every minute of it. To satisfy my curiosity I returned just over a year later and travelled around both islands on a one year working visa. I was never homesick for Ireland. Now I had a longing to return to New Zealand, my spiritual home. My interest in mountaineering became a reality through various trips with regional clubs. I already had good balance, endurance and rope skills, and I loved being on the side of a mountain, more so than underground.
I figured I could return on a study visa and hopefully use that as a gateway to working in the outdoor leadership industry, or more specifically guiding. In 2004 I left Ireland knowing that I was going home to New Zealand. It had an intangible attraction that I couldn’t explain. The energy of this place, particularly the South Island, gives me what I need and makes me whole again. Wide-open spaces, tall glaciated mountains, rain forest, rivers, and a general "can do" attitude from the people. There is a resilience and resourcefulness in Kiwis.
Did you study in Ireland?
No. I studied Dutch in Belgium. I studied Outdoor Recreation Leadership in New Zealand and have done my training here.
Tell us about working as a mountain guide in New Zealand
Mountain Guiding is an occupation that gives a high degree of autonomy to the guide. Maintaining my safety and my clients’ safety in a harsh environment is a pressure that most don’t find attractive, but I relish the challenge.
If find the most interesting and enduring part of mountain guiding to be the coaching aspect. I see how open people are to new ideas and positive change, simply because they are in an awe-inspiring environment.
In order to encourage and motivate my clients I need to wear multiple hats. One for safety, one for adventure, one for counselling and one as the facilitator. The fact that we can spend about seven days together in a remote mountain environment means that we often explore personal issues. I see patterns that people play out in the mountains that reflect their daily lives. The coaching and motivational aspects required to carefully handle those issues are extremely empowering for me and my clients. Overcoming barriers and blocks in a physical sense is liberating.This can bring about emotional and spiritual change too.
I’ve developed specific trips dedicated to self development using mountaineering as the vehicle for self discovery. My "Self-Mastery through Mountaineering" courses have been successful in New Zealand and I will take them to Peru this year, where I’ve guided many times in the past.
Is any day the same?
Never. There are far too many variables. My clients’ fitness, skills and abilities, as well as the mountain conditions and weather never repeat. I also create plenty of variation running my own guiding business. I customise itineraries and build non-standard trips to suit the level of adventure that my client desires.
What challenges are there?
Weather cycles can be challenging and it requires creativity to find alternatives when storms blow through. I’ve worked in the travel industry and find the logistical element to be a fun challenge for me. Plus, I never seem to tire of telling stories for entertainment purposes. Must be that gift of the gab thing we’re famous for.
Could you do your job in Ireland?
I’m sure I could run a version of the "Self Mastery through Mountaineering" course, but the gently rolling hills of Ireland don’t really pass for mountains.
Have you ever had any sticky moments up a mountain?
Just a few off the top of my head - I’ve had an abseil anchor fail on me on a personal mountaineering trip to Peru. Somehow I managed to turn and land on my feet. I’ve been hit by falling ice and thankfully not been swept off the mountain, I’ve torn my meniscus on a guiding trip, A client once dropped a large rock on me. Another time, I triggered a small avanlanche that pushed me off the mountain. I was tied to my client and his quick action stopped me dropping off. On many occasions, I’ve come across the “walking wounded" - people who found themselves in trouble and needed help. Although I’m part of the Alpine Cliff Rescue team in Wanaka, I’ve responded to more incidents requiring help while going about my own business in the hills.
What is it like living in Otago on the south island of New Zealand?
I like the transition of real seasons. We get snow in winter. The clear, frosty mornings are far more bitter than in Dublin, but it’s worth it for the skiing and ice climbing. We also get a decent amount of sunshine and clear weather in summer. Swimming in 20 degree lake water is pretty comfortable. The tourism industry is a big driver of the economy of this area, and we get plenty of visitors, but there is plenty of space to get into the wilderness and not see anybody else.
Queenstown, our closest neighbour is just under an hour’s drive away. It has issues with congestion and an infrastructure that has grown too slowly to keep up with the influx of tourists. Wanaka is taking a more conservative approach to tourism, trying to make sure there isn’t a repeat of the same issues or that we become the next best thing. Many of the residents have rejected a plan to turn Wanaka airport into an international airport. It’s a very small town, and international jet aircraft arriving in the next few years would take the town by surprise. The infrastructure is just not in place for that to happen.
The rate of melting of the glaciers and ice caps has increased dramatically over the last 10 years. I’m seeing rock on the summits at the end of summer
Has working there offered you opportunities?
Yes, I feel at peace here. I have a freedom I could never have in Ireland. I feel very connected to the environment and the sense of space here. I have also grown my hobby of photography into a business where I combine people in motion with the alpine landscape to produce my favourite kind of images. I’m currently working on a personal passion project in photography that that draws from my interest in self development. The project will fulfil a long time creative desire. I have spent long enough living here to know how to put all the pieces of the puzzle together with support.
What is it like living in Wanaka?
There aren’t any traffic lights in Wanaka. It’s still a small-town vibe. The holiday periods see the town swell threefold and the roundabouts have tailbacks that take what feels like a lifetime to clear. But that all feels relative when you live in a city and get used to the stop-start motion from one traffic light to another.
I don’t drink, so pubs and bars aren’t on my agenda. My social life is now centred around the sports I’m interested in and family life. Rock climbing and mountaineering help to forge long lasting relationships because of the challenges we overcome together.The joy of a shared experience goes deeper than a conversation at a bar. My five year old daughter and my wife form the nucleus of my social life.
You are out in nature. Have you seen any changes?
The rate of melting of the glaciers and ice caps has increased dramatically over the last 10 years. I’m seeing rock on the summits at the end of summer that until recently were covered by permanent snow and ice.
Is there anything you miss about living and working in Ireland?
It would be great to have more time with my parents, especially now that they have a grandchild they can dote over. Family reunions have happened in Buenos Aires, Bali and Turkey, and seem to work better than a trip back to Ireland since everyone is on holiday and not in their normal routine. I’d be very upset if I had to move back to Ireland permanently, or more importantly, if I couldn’t live in NZ anymore.
If you work in an interesting career overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email firstname.lastname@example.org with a little information about you and what you do.