I confess - before we left Europe, I couldn't tell the difference between an Australian accent and a New Zealand one. They seemed pretty much the same to me - regional variations at best. But our time spent in Oz has had a profound effect on our perception of accents, and this was revealed to us before our flight from Brisbane ever left the tarmac.
The male member of cabin cabin crew who was making the announcements seemed perfectly alright at first. He went through the normal patter that you associate with buckling into a metal cylinder that has no business moving, much less flying. Then we heard them. The Kiwi vowels. His sentences seemed to hit air turbulence on encountering 'u's and 'i's and 'e's, losing altitude without warning and leaving inexperienced listeners reeling. Then just carrying on as if nothing had gone wrong. We were being asked to stow our luggage in 'overhead buns', that our flight was due to land at 'sux muneets past ee-lee-veen'.
Letizia and I exchanged worried glances. What did he say? She was learning Spanish for South America, I had done my Mandarin duty in China, and we had native speaking guides in Australia to help us with the non-standard noun-ending (you're just getting the hang of stubby, barby, pozzy, and so on, and then they chuck bottle-o and slippery-dip at you). But we had not prepared ourselves, linguistically speaking, for the Kiwi vowels.
On landing in Christchurch, it only got worse of course. We were swimming in 'chully buns' (chilly bin = picnic cooler/esky), with only 'fush and chups' for company. There were many embarrassing episodes where I would turn the most delightfully helpful of waitresses or supermarket cashiers into frowning curmudgeons by the simple repeated use of the phrase "sorry, what did you say". A typical bout would see us locked in a vowel-wrestling hold for up to five repetitions of "sorry, what did you say", before we would break and retreat to our corners, frustrated that we had not understood each other, but relieved that it was over.
But I think I have got to the bottom of the matter now. It's all the Scots' fault. The New Zealanders say their 'u's like 'i's in exactly the same way (to my ear) that Scottish people do. I am well used to the latter accent, and I can totally understand 'Bully Connolly' when he speaks that way. But when you do the same vowel translation against a backdrop of what otherwise sounds reasonably similar to Australian (or 'Strain', as I have seen it defined), then the context throws me completely. So to understand Kiwi, I am using the following trick. I am assuming everyone here is really Scottish, and pretending to be from Australia. Or if that doesn't work, the other way around.
The Australian tone can be reproduced quite easily. Imagine the letter 'y', made out of some very springy, bouncy material. Every Aussie you will ever meet has had one of these (the size may vary) inserted into their mouths at birth. It stops the mouth closing around a simple word like 'no', transforming it instead into a 'noiiiii', the springy letter 'y' bouncing along like a flat stone on water in every decreasing stretches before finally sinking. Marry that elasticity of vowels to the chin-against-the-chest, mischievous murmurings of a Scot, and you have 80% of the Kiwi accent. After that, Mandarin will seem like a piece of puss.
(PS: Somebody armed with more facts and less inclination to parody has come up with a different analysis of the matter, but the Scottish element of my thesis is supported).