Down Under And A Little To The Side A Travel Saga by Joseph Moss
Acknowledgements Before I start, I would like to thank everyone that I met throughout my travels. I encountered many people from a broad range of backgrounds and ideologies, and all of them contributed something special to the experience. The landscapes were stunning, the food was adequate, and whether I expected it or not, my needs were always met. To comment only on the beauty around me would be saying too little. I went on this trip to venture forth into the world after college, but I think subconsciously there was a desire to work hard, reap the rewards, and perhaps glorify myself in the process. I selffunded these three months (barely), and through out their course I was brought to my knees in humility and undeserved generosity. This is that story. Some Nonacademic Sources: http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/maori/page3 https://www.eeca.govt.nz/energyuseinnewzealand/renewableenergyresources/ http://australianmuseum.net.au/bluebottle https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phonognatha_graeffei http://www.ranker.com/list/theworld_s6knownsupervolcanoes/analise.dubner Me Published by Your Mom. All rights reserved. ©2016 2
Prologue Getting off the plane at six in the morning on the other side of the world, the first thing I noticed was the absence of my cylindrical shipping container. Dawn was taking its sweet time so there wasn’t much to see yet, but I appreciated the agreeable climate’s stark contrast to the Minnesota winter I had just left. Rather than droll on about my introductory fascination with the trivialities of a foreign place, it would save a lot of time to get you up to speed with some items of cultural significance in New Zealand. Oh right, I went to New Zealand: that’s what this is about. As a nation, New Zealand really is quite young. The Maori originated somewhere in Polynesia and first arrived only 700 years ago. They named it A otearoa , or “long white cloud,” perhaps after the day’s weather. What they discovered was a land populated only by flying things and a few lizards. Bats were the only mammalian representatives to be found. It was an island system comprised of exotic birds and foliage denser than the mind of a third grade boy. Streams were the only passages open enough to get around for long distances, so they served as transitways while the indigenous people burned away the forests for farmland and settlements. Haast eagles, which remain to present times the largest recorded bird of prey, lived in the highlands and hunted during the day. Their formidable tenfoot wingspan may explain why so many of New Zealand’s bird species became nocturnal. The eagles died out after their primary food source, the moa, were hunted to extinction about 150 years ago. Moa were large flightless birds comprised of (according to Wikipedia) “ n ine species endemic to New Zealand. The two largest species, Dinornis robustus and Dinornis novaezelandiae, reached about 3.6 m (12 ft) in height with neck outstretched, and weighed about 230 kg (510 lb).” These were bigass birds. It wasn’t until 1642 that the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman (ever heard of Tasmania?) discovered New Zealand, followed 127 years later in 1769 by Captain James Cook. Curiously enough, Abel hadn’t bothered to put his feet down so Captain Cook was the first European to step onto the distant shores, claiming it for the British crown. As in Australia and the United States, the introduction of Europeans to an indigenous way of life was disastrous and fraught all manner of havok. The Treaty of Waitangi put an end to the warring in 1840, formalizing the start of New Zealand as a peaceful nation. The damage however, had already been done, and generations of Maori have been reeling from the tumult of British colonialism ever since. It didn’t help that the Maori signed one version and Queen Victoria signed another, each claiming sovereignty. It wasn’t until the 1970s that true reparation began to be made, a glowing effort that continues to this day. Native legend often sits side by side in museum exhibits next to the chronicling of historic events. Since 1987, many signs read in English as well as Maori, now both official languages of Aotearoa. In a more modern and whimsical sense, New Zealand has a number of delightful peculiarities. The rest of the world knows them as “flipflops,” but the first person to bring thonged sandals to the country from Japan was a man by the name of Morris Yock who 3
patented the famous design in 1957. While there is some debate as to who originally came up with the idea to make the traditional Japanese footwear out of plastic instead of wood, what is certain is that neither of the potential creators were especially creative in shortening “Japanese sandals” into “Jandals” which remain their national moniker. As a former British colony, New Zealand is one of the few countries in the world still determined to drive on the left side of the road and put steering wheels on the other side of cars. Unlike the United States’ resistance to the metric system, it happens to be charming and unique that they do things differently. Furthermore, semi trailers are often broken into two segments to accommodate the tight curving roads, “sweet as” means that everything is alright, “tea” = dinner (despite the fact that “tea” can literally also just mean a morning or afternoon snack), "bits and pieces” or “bits and bobs” are personal articles a person would get “sorted” upon boarding a bus, “cheers” is a courteous parting, and takeout meals are instead advertised as “takeaway.” I'm sure I've remarked upon it elsewhere, but ordering a plain old cup of coffee is extraordinarily difficult here. Lattes, cappuccinos, flat whites, short blacks, long blacks, macchiatos, and the like appear in dizzying number, but plain brewed coffee is almost nowhere to be found. When I’ve asked for it, the baristas just kind of cock their heads and look at you as though you're missing a major facial feature. I definitely ordered a bunch of tiny espresso shots the first few weeks while I was trying to figure out the menu. Americanos with a little heavy whipping cream became my goto in the absence of normality. Flat whites were a second favorite which I enjoyed after taking the advice of travel guru and author Bill Bryson. Local news on the other side of the world has something of an enjoyably petty quality in that almost nothing going on has any relevance at all to the American Midwest. Picking up a newspaper provided me a cultural insight into what interests and worries currently occupied the minds of Kiwis in early 2016. According to papers, wealthy Chinese businessmen were buying up massive amounts of urban property in Auckland and pissing off the locals with an affordable housing crisis. There had also been a weird amount of teens involved in recent high speed pursuits ending in traffic fatalities and lots of other accidents: including but not limited to collisions with dairy trucks and trees falling over onto tourist vehicles. I blame New Zealand’s curvy roads for everything. The only straight roads in the country are for airplanes. The article ended by noting how many people don’t wear seatbelts which struck me as a much better way to start an article than to end one. There was also a large ongoing debate about picking a new flag that was more distinctly Kiwi and that didn’t have a tiny British flag on it. Ultimately, there wasn’t enough gusto to prompt a change despite many new flags already in circulation and left most people feeling that the entire debate had been staged as a national distraction from the TransPacific Partnership trade deal that was signed behind the public’s back. Despite all of this, New Zealand is an incredibly easygoing nation. To give you a feel of how laid back this country is, New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Keys was recently hit in the face by a giant pink flying dildo during a televised press conference. The woman who threw it was then taken away and subsequently released without charges. John Oliver quipped that in America she probably would’ve been shot before the dildo hit the ground, but 4
in this country they simply laughed it off and remixed the sound of the dildo hitting his face across the internet. Other articles I read in local papers highlighted municipal events or detailed absurdities with headlines like “Lemon Smuggler Caught At Airport.” It turns out a woman recently entering the country was detained and deported for trying to smuggle lemons in her pants past security. I don’t know if the lemon smuggler had commercial quantities of lemons up her trousers or if in fact there was something quite special indeed about this citrus, but it probably left airport staff a little sour. New Zealand has approximately 4.6 million people, almost 14 million sheep, and nearly as many cows. Main exports are wool, dairy, meat, and timber with tourism as a main driver of the national economy. Most citizens drive smaller fuelefficient cars and currently power their appliances with 38% renewable energy. Wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, wave power and biofuels power their nonnuclear infrastructure and contribute to their goal of being the first carbonneutral nation by 2020.
Part I If I had to pick a catchphrase for my trip, it would be “Huh, I thought that was closer.” When I got to Auckland, I had a plane ticket into the country and a plane ticket out. Whatever happened in between was up to me just as long as I made it down to my flight in Queenstown by the end of two and a half months. Since jetlag is rather kind when traveling west, I woke up refreshed the first few days and took it upon myself to see the city and go on morning runs in the beautiful park domains. A dormant volcanic cone right next to downtown named Mount Eden was my favorite because it offered panoramic views of the surrounding areas and a natural escape in the midst of dense urban environment. These parks were what parks back home aspire to be. Before I landed I had prearranged accommodation (just about the only time I booked ahead on this trip), and my Airbnb was tucked away in a cosy apartment sector downtown. Oddly enough, it stood separate from any building and had a clean modern interior and multiterraced decks. I had rented the couch for $12. As it turns out, I had also somehow mixed up the difference between two days and three, and needed to book an additional night which my host Lily was all too kind to accommodate. “All too kind” is not an exaggeration either, since in the absence of other guests she let me have the entire twofloor apartment to myself and sleep in whatever bed I liked for no extra charge. Having immediate housing locked away freed me up to explore the city and enjoy its endofsummer festivities. Auckland happened to be in the middle of its 75th anniversary celebration and Buskers Festival. Busking is the Kiwi term for performing on the street for money, and talent from around the world converged on the city as sporadic shows erupted around town. It was fun and lively and the perfect highenergy way to start my trip. The next part of my travels involved WWOOFing. Like you, I didn’t know what the hell WWOOFing was either until about four months before. Essentially it stands for Willing Workers On Organic Farms, a servicebased exchange where 46 hours of daily labor gets 5
you room and board taken care of in what can’t help but be an intimate cultural experience. I was there for both reasons. I wanted to see what Kiwis were like without the fanfare of tourism. I also definitely could not afford to stay in a hostel every night of my trip. I had set up two WWOOFs so far with plans for more and some camping as my travel continued, but for the moment wanted to retain my flexibility. As I was waiting for a train to enroute to Karekare, a girl named Tiree started a conversation with me at the Grafton train station. She was an engaging cross between one of my sister’s dorky friends and Keira Knightley. I enjoyed talking with her, and it was pleasant to have a companion on the train ride out. Once I reached a station in the Auckland suburbs, I met my host Carlene and her daughter Prayer. Carlene is a naturalist hippie type who is convinced that the government uses the fluoride in city water supplies for mind control. Her husband Mark is a good, hardworking, laid back man who prefers life without a shirt. I enjoyed teasing Prayer about boys as she prepared to enter high school. They have a cat, a pony, some horses, and a tiny dog named Smudge. Smudge will often leap into the jungle with no notice at all, and will later appear watching you out of a hole in the foliage; a little weird, but a constant companion . After doing a little school shopping with Prayer, I had the pleasure of accompanying a large flat desk as a travel companion in the back seat. Normally our friendship would have been amicable, except that Carlene it seemed, had changed her career focus from teacher to Nascar driver on the winding mountain roads of Piha and the desk no longer wanted to be friends but in fact became rather determined to decapitate me the entire drive back to their house. I suppose I should have taken note when both driver and passenger popped some motionsickness candy before our drive, but I didn’t notice at the time. Carlene was outspoken on many social issues that she was passionate about, which lead to a good amount of rigorous discussion. I was happy to discourse however, as it was a welcome departure from American disagreements where discussions become embroiled in emotion rather than the topics. Her position as partMaori also offered a great many cultural insights. Carlene was as kind and generous as she was passionate which made for an enjoyable stay at their house. Most of the work was some form of painting, and the afternoons I would spend wandering the exotic forests of the Waitakere Ranges. Out on a drive with them one afternoon, I unwittingly almost photographed a local murderer at the Piha beach. Setting aside the fact that they had a “local murderer,” here’s what happened. We were driving through the parking lot and I was looking through my camera out of the car window, oblivious to surroundings. Without warning, Carlene immediately told me to put my camera away and accelerated out of the lot, the entire time furtively checking the rearview mirror. I thought perhaps I had broken some cultural law at first until she informed me that the particular tattoos a nearby man was sporting were gangaffiliated and represented the amount of lives he had personally ended. Indeed this seemed like the wrong man to be caught photographing with a zoom lens in sun glasses out of a car window. I went back through my camera and didn’t see anything, but she remained convinced that I had unwittingly almost gotten the entire car slaughtered. My time in Karekare ended on a happy note, but I didn’t get any more rides after that. 6
Back in Auckland, the day before I hopped on a southbound bus, I was catching Saturday evening mass. From previous trips, I accurately predicted that all the money I had at the start would evaporate by the end and I would probably be stuck eating ramen and grasshoppers. In hopes of prolonging this inevitable conclusion, and in part because I didn’t think ahead to book accommodation for the night, my tentative plan was to slum it in one of Auckland’s larger parks. I figured that if I found a nice quiet gully tucked away in the foliage that I probably wouldn’t have all of my belongings stolen at the beginning of my grand adventure. As I sat in mass, I noticed that the church was named after Saint Benedict and might possibly have some affiliation with the Benedictine order. What I knew about the Benedictine charism of hospitality toward itinerant visitors mostly pertained to European monasteries, but I figured at this point it couldn’t possibly hurt to see if they had any floor space in the church basement for the night. I mean, my other option here was to sleep alone outside in a city park or in a graveyard I found under a bridge, so a lot of things were sounding more appealing. I never got the chance to ask however, because during mass, I had the strange impulse to ask for hospitality from the complete strangers at the other end of my pew. They were a husband and wife, perhaps in their midfifties, of kindly countenance and who it might be assumed were emptynesters. To be clear, I was highly uncomfortable with this entire situation. Honestly, I probably would have rather just slept in the park than go through a conversation as assuredly embarrassing as this promised to be. As a Christian, I would like to think that I have a reasonable amount of trust in God (otherwise why bother, you know?), so I told God to make it clear if that's what he really wanted me to do. Trust me, I was looking for any possible sign that said “HA! GOT YOU. I’m just kidding God.” Instead, after the homily, the priest got up to sing a song he had written for guitar. For anyone unfamiliar with the Catholic liturgy, this doesn’t happen like ever. It was at this point I knew I was really in for it. Song lyrics are a goldmine for potential meaning to us humans, so I braced myself for what was coming. I nearly lost it when he announced the title of the song: “There's A Place For Me.” Whether it was purely coincidence or divine comedy, I determined that I would suck up my pride and ask the couple at the end of my pew if I could stay at their house once mass was over. I also had the sense that she might even have an architect son which was totally weird because that’s what I had just finished school for. Despite my concerns that even if they accepted they would be strange or live out in the hills somewhere far from my bus, I couldn’t help but feel that everything was taken care of. If logic had any say, I should have rejected these absurd notions, but I asked anyway. As I opened my mouth with the quivering smoothness of a high school student asking out his first prom date, the woman smiled and approached me to ask if I needed a place to stay. I think my jaw just about dislocated itself. Turns out that Tess and her husband Bill have a gorgeous twofloor condo overlooking the Auckland harbor. What’s more is that it was a mere block from my bus the next morning. Further, they did in fact have an architect son; currently working abroad in the United Arab Emirates. For the most part, I’m still a bit unsure how all of this happened, but however you take it, things turned out better than I could have possibly imagined. Tess and Bill were incredibly gracious hosts, even more so, accounting that they had never done anything like that before. When someone helps you for no reason other than that you happen to be a human 7
being, it leaves you feeling oddly helpless, indebted to strangers you have no hope of repaying. All there is to do is return the societal favor somewhere down the line. Early the next morning, Tess was up to make sure I found my bus on time. I did. For a few hours I had contemplated renting a car, but besides the expense I was more than certain I would crash it before the first day ended. When you’re still looking the wrong way at crosswalks, there’s a virtual guarantee the situation won’t improve with a motorized vehicle. My first stop was the Coromandel Peninsula. It is known for its rugged terrain and picturesque rock islands, making it an attractive place to begin my journey south. I spent a few days at Hahei, where a vacationing Aucklander named Ian taught me how to improve my bodysurfing while his daughters Chelsea and Isabella prayed for us and cheered us on. I didn’t bother asking whether his daughters always prayed for swimmers or if it was just that I looked like I needed it. After a while, they let me borrow a boogie board which introduced a vast improvement, much preferred to dunking my face into sand and seafoam. On the trip out, I had met an American couple from Chicago who I grabbed dinner with the first night. After abandoning culinary hope, we happened upon a delicious microbrewery tucked away in the tiny town. A few beers later, we talked into the night and walked along the beach under dazzling stars. It sounds pretty romantic for a thirdwheel situation, but you take what you can get. The next morning I woke up while it was still dark at the hostel, determined to hike the hour out to catch the sunrise at Cathedral Cove. I was surprised by the amount of photographers already there, but there was enough sunrise to go around. It was spectacular. Later that day, it was still early in the trip and I was feeling especially ambitious, so after a short nap, I jogged the ten kilometers to a nearby beach. I should’ve paid for the bus because it definitely felt farther. Regardless, Hot Water Beach lives up to its name. I’m not sure why anyone would want to stand in the natural equivalent of a steaming cup of tea, but throngs of people seemed intent on digging little pools to sit in and enjoy the hot water. In my experience, it was either so lukewarm that it would be better entertainment to swim in the ocean, or it felt like the blazing urine of Lucifer. There was no middle ground. In addition, there were a mild number of “Blue Bottles,” or tiny Portugese ManOfWar jellyfish washed up on the beach. These buggers can still sting after death, and in extreme cases victims may require medical resuscitation after a sting. As it were, one must have found its way into a manmade pool, because in a shriek of the utmost alarm, an Indian tourist who only moments before had shown great delight having found an empty basin, came to the utter and immensely painful realisation of why it had been left unoccupied. It was too funny not to laugh, plus in ten minutes he would be fine. The incident sparked a conversation with a cute girl nearby who I found out had just participated in the massive car and motorbike rally competition underway in the countryside. After mentioning an interest in surfing, she told me her friends had an extra surfboard I could borrow if I liked, and indeed I did. Never mind the jellyfish or that poor Indian man, the large choppy waves, postings of no swimming, and advisement of strong rips. All the locals were doing it and I figured I could keep up. Conditions weren’t ideal, but I didn’t die. After ingesting more than my daily suggested limit 8
of sodium, I'm proud to say I made progress to the point where I fell off (the presupposed condition being that I was briefly standing). F or my final day in Hahei, I rented a boogie board to spend a leisurely afternoon on the beach. I made sure my applications of SPF 50 sunscreen where nice and blotchy so I would burn unevenly. Furthermore, between the salty grip of my swimsuit and the rough sandy top of my board, I succeeded in chafing both my nipples and just about everything else. Sunburned backs and backpacks do not get along very well as the next few days constantly reminded me. I spent the last night out under the stars at the top of a hill overlooking town and the bay below. This was the first time I had slept outside so far, and being caught between rock islands and shooting stars on a hilltop meadow wasn’t so bad. Rotorua was the next stop on my expedition. When I found out that Rotorua boasted the world’s highest commercially available waterfall (a seven meter drop) I had to do it. I had never whitewaterrafted before, but it is definitely something I would do again. I brought my GoPro rafting to capture the vibrant experience, but somehow managed to turn it off for the big drop. We had sat waiting around a bend in the river while other rafts went first so I had turned it off to save battery (with the thought that this would prevent the exact thing that happened), and was unable to turn it back on. Afterwards, it happily beeped back to life on the other side of the falls with plenty of battery in the single most infuriating glitch of its entire existence. It has worked fine ever since, despite my immediate impulse to leave it in the river. That evening I went out with some Swedish girls and a German guy from my raft and enjoyed a night market in the downtown area. The next day I rented a mountain bike and made my way south out of town. Little did I know it at the time, but the expansive single track downhill mountain bike park that winds through Rotorua’s redwoods is a mecca for the sport. Even if you wanted to, there would be no way to see it all in one day. As I arrived it was pretty daunting: like looking down a black diamond ski run for the first time, but replace the snow with rocks, roots, and massive tree trunks along a dirt path between 1 and 3 feet wide. It took a little bit to warm up to things, but I began to develop some confidence. After a short conversation during a breather, I began to ride with a forty three year old named Robbie and a fifty two year old by the excellent name of Cornelius. They knew the park better than I and took me under their wing to show me some favorite tracks. As an energetic twenty three year old, I might have overestimated my reaction times to be “mongooselike” and an athletic superior to my two aging companions. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In addition to their complete lack of fear which would often send them flying off into a hole in the foliage, they totally kicked my butt fitnesswise. Call it old manstrength or whatever you like; these guys could ride. A wallaby crossed the trail partway through and I managed to glimpse it hopping off into the ferny undergrowth it felt a little bit like seeing a polar bear in Kansas, out of place and unsure what to think. By the end of the day I had learned a ton and was ripping down challenging routes I never dreamed I would ride. There’s a good chance I might need to move to Colorado where I can bike and snowboard the entire year.
The next part of my trip involved hiking the 19.4 kilometer Tongariro Crossing on the south side of Lake Taupo. Lake Taupo sits in the caldera of the fifth largest supervolcano in the world, and the entire area is still awash in geothermal activity. Instead of staying closer to the Crossing, I instead opted to get off at Taupo and quickly ran into Colin, an Irish juggling Bostonian who rode a giant unicycle and whose busking show I seen multiple times back in Auckland's festival. He’s extremely talented. To be clear, he wasn’t riding his unicycle at the time, I merely recognized him on the street and said hi. After having lunch together and checking out the price of a jetski rental, he left to paddleboard and I read my book. Back in Rotorua I had met Manuel: a german photographer who had recently arrived from Nepal and was about my age. Upon realizing we wanted to do the Tongariro Crossing the same day and hated slow people, we had decided to do it together. I met him early the next morning for the 5:30am shuttle out to the track. I couldn’t believe how many people there were. It felt more like starting an early morning marathon than a walk in the wilderness. I think we were both somewhat appalled at the amount of casual hikers with selfie sticks and city sneakers and did our best to get past them. Partway through, we took advantage of the opportunity to climb Mt. Ngauruhoe, or “Mt. Doom,” from The Lord of the Rings film franchise. The trek highlight was sitting above the clouds on geothermallyheated rocks before the weather grew windy and overcast. To be perfectly honest, the last eleven kilometers were nice, but didn’t necessarily live up to the hype they were predicated by. We had one more day in Taupo, so Manuel and I saw Deadpool (for a bit of American cinema) and then hiked to Huka Falls. On the way back, we took a spur of the moment dip in the crystal clear river to cool off, which lead to a subsequent swim at an amazing place upstream where a hot spring meets the main river. It's a most delightful mix of hot and cold were both extremes are experienced at once. It truly is a strange sensation to comprehend. Soaking in a hot spring under a picturesque walking bridge as the sun and moon exchanged places was one of those summer afternoons that just don’t get any more perfect. Since I had a few extra days before my final WWOOF in New Plymouth, I purchased a bus pass to save money and headed up to the tiny surfing mecca that is Raglan. It’s a charming little town at an inlet where rolling hills meet seacliffs and broad beaches. Everyone walks around barefoot and hangs out at the library for the free wifi. When you aren’t surfing the astounding waves, there are a plethora of quaint little shops and restaurants. It's the sort of place you could retire to and build a house on a cliff. It was apparent that some homeowners felt similarly. T here was a girl there named Pega who I don’t think will ever make it to Auckland: she abandoned her study abroad program in Australia and she keeps saying she’s leaving but never does; it had already been five months when I got to town and she was becoming something of a local legend. She has a long list of people she hates and her moody temperament made me laugh. T he first day it rained, so my hostelmates and I found a Korean travel guide and made a drinking game out of it which was hilarious. The next day I went surfing for the first (official) time, but due to a storm the day before out at sea, conditions were mostly large waves and whitewater. The combination of strong rips whisking surfers to the other end of the beach (so much so that you often couldn’t even stand) and 10
pummeling waves meant that even the pros weren’t making it out to the breakers so my companions and I contented ourselves with leftovers. It was exhausting and largely unsuccessful, but I stood for maybe ten feet so some progress was made. Still, the day turned overcast to beautiful and an afternoon moon complemented colorful hang gliders in the sky . I drove our car back from the beach, conquering roundabouts and single lane bridges from a side of the road that would have gotten me a citation back home. It felt good. Back at the hostel, I shared a beer with a guy from Alaska and my rafting buddy Niclas from Rotorua who I ran into quite by chance. Happy times and happy people overlooked a tidal inlet in the golden light of the setting sun. I loved Waitomo. Everything about caves is great in my opinion. Juno Hall was my favorite hostel on the north island: in part because of Stephanie, the cheerful cutie with dreads at the front desk, partly because the eccentric owner would often make snarky interjections into a conversation from across the room, but mostly because of the beautiful rural surroundings and the cool dark quiet nights. The first thing I did was a glow worm tour when I got there to take pictures in the caves. “Glow worms” are technically cannibalistic maggots with buttlights, which make for marginally poorer advertisements than their conventional description. They aren’t visible until you’re deep enough in the cave system that natural light is blocked out, and then they slowly emerge as headlamps flick off and eyes adjust. First a dim glow appears, and then a bioluminescence strong enough to cast shadows slowly gathers force along the ceilings over subterranean rivers. The spectral glow stretches deep into the caves, hanging overhead like a twinkling artificial galaxy. Trying to get a picture of these things was one of the most technical challenges of this entire trip. It’s too dark to focus automatically (plus you’re trying to focus on tiny bugs so good luck), and in addition it takes at least a minutelong exposure to see if you manually focused right. Then the routine is to refocus and wait again. It was a lot of painstaking adjustment in the dark. Keep in mind that by this time, my entire tour group of old people had left the cave, leaving me alone in the subterranean caverns. I definitely didn’t have the time to expose any pictures nearly long enough, but it was ethereal sitting in the silence deep underground with nothing but my thoughts and the insect light above. The next day I slipped on a wetsuit and prepared to get wet. It began with a 35 meter (110 ft) abseil down through a tight hourglassshaped hole descending quickly into darkness. Guides did a crash course that taught us to control our own speed and emergency stop if need be. That part was neat. The rest of the expedition felt a little bit like a fifth grade boy scout outing. I understand that as a tour operator, keeping everyone alive is in the best financial interest, but there were points where the handholding became too much and it was just outright coddling. I mean, we sat down and had a sugary snack with hot chocolate as soon as everyone was safely in the cave. Come on. No one likes getting patronized, least of all underground. Thankfully there was a blind zip line through a long cavern which wasn’t terrible, and a jump off a small underground cliff into icy water, followed by an enchanting float down the subterranean stream under a glow worm sky above. The group floated in our wetsuits further into the cave. After a while things got pretty tight and required underwater transit to squeeze through some small passageways and follow a 11
second narrow stream passage back up. After half climbing half crawling through two raging waterfalls step by step, which was admittedly very cool, the headlamps begin to give way to daylight as we exited where the stream poured into the cave from the surface. The opening was just wide enough to get people through one at a time. It leaves me in awe how nondescript cave entrances often are, in contrast to the grandiose chambers they conceal far below. I left Waitomo for New Plymouth and bought a tent for the south island there. I’m not sure how it had occurred to me as a good idea to only bring a sleeping bag for the entirety of the trip, but I was finally properly equipped. The iSite/bus stop turned out to have an impressivelysized museum attached to it which garnered my attention for some time before I stopped by the Len Lye sculpture museum as well. If you happen to see a bendy metal kinetic sculpture outside somewhere built in the last fifty years, there’s a pretty good chance that guy was involved. Since I was in the habit of making the most of my days in a new place, I hiked out to the Te Rewa Rewa bridge which just might be my favorite bridge in the world. Also the locals do not tell you how far away it is to this thing: I got halfway there before I saw a sign telling me I had another 5 kilometers to go before I even arrived. The scroll function on Google maps provides a wildly inaccurate understanding of distance I must say. Regardless, I got back to town tired and ravenous only to rediscover that seemingly every business in this country closes at 5pm or before. Restaurants make the pretense of staying open until seven, but even that is unreliable. The only place I found still open was a small Chinese place hidden away on the second floor of a building. It would do. They had nice presentation but I was too hungry to appreciate it. Back at the Arkiri backpackers they had a nice view from the rooftop, but it did little to compensate for the hot multibunk dorm. Once again I wonder how an entire country could have an electric fan shortage, and further, how one enterprising businessman hasn’t had the novel idea to simply import a bunch of them. Out at my second WWOOF just southwest of New Plymouth, I immersed myself in life on a dairy farm. The owners were exceptionally nice and cheerful (so were the cows for the most part), but the overly organic side of it all was a bit offsetting. It wasn’t a traditional house, but rather a converted cowshed, adapted to human life by some degree. The main shower could be found outdoors in an open field on the side of the house with no pretense of privacy requiring you to yell if you thought someone to be nearby. Likewise, the “toilet” (and I mean every bit of those quotation marks), was no porcelain throne, but rather a composting five gallon bucket that you shit in beside a creek. Refrigeration seemed to be something of a borderline sport of seeing who can keep things out the longest before they spoil, so needless to say I was running something of a gastrointestinal gauntlet. Roydon and Su live next door to their various children, children’s partners, and grandoffspring it gets a bit confusing so I just didn’t ask. They had a cat that was perhaps the friendliest cat I've ever met. If I happened to pass within a considerable proximity, the cat would let out a little meow and spring over, rubbing up against my legs for as long as allowed. Roydon also made me laugh each day because he wore these tiny little shorts with a big shirt over his scrawny build which made it 12
look as though he does everything around the farm without pants. Organic oddities aside, Roydon and Su are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Days there start while it's still dark and anyone without a good reason is still in bed. I would grab my headlamp and make my way across the grazing paddocks to the milking shed. While Roydon rounds up the cows on his motorbike, I would start a fire to heat up the water reservoir used for cleaning after milking. That's the other thing I forgot to mention: any time you wanted something warm other than a sunburn, you’d have to start a fire and wait for the stove to heat the water. It was like camping but worse since the immediate environment would seem to suggest a relative ease of preparation (e.g. kitchen, industrial milking parlor, shower) that simply didn’t exist. When the cows show up, they enter the corral and are lined on either side of the milking trough where we would attach mechanical cups to extract the milk. It was here perhaps that I was most grateful Roydon and Su had embraced some element of the mechanical age. Hand milking a cow two teats at a time is a surer route to carpal tunnel than anything else I’ve experienced. Now it must be because they're dairy cattle and not beef, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the pure composition underneath their bones is milk and poo. Walking down the trough (or the firing range as I like to call it), it’s only a short matter of time before any of the thirty rear sections aimed in your direction erupts in a colossal bowel discharge. Don't underestimate the splatter factor either. There's no safe way to walk under the behinds of a long row of cows. Trust me, I’d rather take my chances with any of New Zealand’s active volcanoes. By the time you hear it hit the floor, that hot diarrheatic blast has already traveled the entire standing length of your body and there's nothing much you can do either way. After attaching and detaching cups from 150 different sets of udders, the cows are sent back to pasture with a few sticking around that might require a little medicine or extra care. Everything gets hosed down and the equipment disinfected, the fire put out, and the milking aprons hung back up. Then it’s brunch followed by a few odd jobs, for the most part painting. I had the distinct pleasure one of my first nights of accompanying Roydon up the volcano next to Mt. Taranaki to catch the sunset over the surrounding farmland. Most of the trails in New Zealand are excellently maintained so I had no hesitations about the climb. There’s this thing however that the locals ambiguously refer to as “The Bush.” What I have learned along my trip is that it comprises much of the island system and is of utter detriment to any hiker who spends too much time in it. Although it starts out as a thick low forest, with elevation gain it transforms into towering brush, just high enough to block any views until you've already reached the top. The only common factor is its uncanny density and navigable difficulty. When we started the hike, the only thing visible was a tiny hole in a wall of vegetation. Then followed an angry mix of blackberry patches and gauss (think thistles on crack) which had overgrown the facsimile of a path and lasted longer than I care to remember. Once out of that, the viny undergrowth and fallen timber did their best to keep us from finding the tiny triangles generously spaced by the Department of Conservation between trees which supposedly marked the way. I couldn't exactly tell what plant they were coming 13
from, but each of us had also accumulated quite the collection of quilllike burrs protruding from the exposed portion of our legs. With every step they would jiggle and resonate, emulating in some way an external layer of sensory perception which was not at all pleasant . The constant travel through tall grass only exacerbated the irritation which I could only describe as having a troop of tiny gremlins hanging about one’s shins armed with an infinite roll of duct tape and utter hatred of leg hair. This aside, we made it to the first view we could get and took in the setting sun over the panorama of the Taranaki Region’s steadily curving coastline far below. Somehow we made it back down to the truck without getting horrendously lost in the dark and even managed to see hedgehog and an opossum on the way home (which look much more like furry lemurs than the more grotesque North American variety). In the morning I shuddered as a spider the size of a baby’s hand crawled out of my shoe. The shoe had been locked inside the camper for the night when I went to bed. I’ll let that sink in. I should probably also tell the story of how I admitted on record to the WWOOF organization that unbeknownst to my hosts I was there without a work visa (this was a requirement I uncomfortably discovered after my first stay, possessing only a holiday visa). Roydon and Su told me when I first arrived that some WWOOF representatives were coming for an interview but I must have quickly forgotten in the midst of settling in. The next day however, there they were as I walked into the kitchen, recording a conversation with my hosts. They beckoned me over to participate since I was an active WWOOFer, and I had no choice but to accept since it was a small farm and there weren't many places to hide. I became immediately aware of the potential situation I was in, but figured I could gently steer the conversation away from my one treacherous topic. Unfortunately for me, they had a checklist of questions and that was on it. Right as I thought the dangerous part was over, Su turned to me and directly asked without any hope of avoidance: “You do have a work visa, right?” I'm sure I became red, but confronted it head on and turned to the interviewers with my statement about WWOOFer experience: “Actually I don’t. I’m glad you brought that up Su. I wasn’t even aware of this requirement until I was at my first WWOOF.” At that time of course, with only one more stay to go, it seemed to be past the point of going back to the government and letting them know I got into the country with the wrong visa and asking them what they thought about that or if I could perhaps spend the night in jail so I had decided to keep it to myself. In what I thought was a nice closing point, I proposed “That requirement would be a really nice thing to see in big letters somewhere on the WWOOF website.” During the stunned silence that followed, I wondered if I could make it to the camper and grab my stuff before I was deported. Luckily, after a brief moment of shock, all parties seemed to come to the silent agreement that the last thirty seconds never happened. After the interview ended, we all took a picture out in front of one of the farm’s weird trailers and never spoke of this again. I said goodbye as Roydon dropped me off at the Punihoe track and I began my three day trek up, over, and across Mt. Taranaki and Egmont National Park. The first day was spent almost exclusively in the bush, not because I was particularly keen for it, but rather since that's what 14
one must go through to get anywhere worth going. The track was actually closed when I arrived, but Roydon said it was worth a shot anyway so I made do. The thing about these tracks here is that once you’re on them you tend to be alright, but so many of them dump out on rockfalls or riverbeds and expect hikers to find the proper hole in the bushes to continue. None of those damned little orange triangles are telling you if you're headed in the right direction or the complete opposite until you've already found the path on your own. It’s a terrible system for their less popular routes. After considerable effort, I finally made it past the storm damaged riverbeds to spend the night at Holly Hut on the north side of Taranaki. Since I had a little extra time, I practiced setting up my tent for the first time on the soft moss helicopter landing area. It went smoothly until I misstepped and brilliantly put a tent stake through the bottom of my bare heel, gouging out a triangleshaped chunk of foot. It didn’t help that the weather report predicted rain for the next day, forcing me to decide to take an extra day on the mountain. This was poor timing in that the storm meant I couldn't summit as planned, but also because I hardly had enough food as it was. Four trail bars per day with a small bag of beef jerky does not make for particularly joyous meals, especially after hours of grueling climbs with a fifty or sixty pound pack. I spent a lot of time during that excursion thinking about what massive meal I would eat when I finally hitchhiked into Stratford. I also spent a lot of time reassuring myself that the human body can go for a few days without food and that despite some discomfort, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. There were plenty of streams and rain on the way so I didn’t concern myself over dehydration since I could drink from just about any water supply with my Lifestraw. In essence, this was a test run for the trekking to come on south island and I was scoring solid C’s. It was then that I vowed to send everything nonessential back home because I needed a lot more room for food. Hiking to Tahurangi lodge the next day in the rain sucked. It was almost a five hour hike through a dense soup of cloud cover and by the time I got there (after getting lost multiple times thanks to those untrustworthy orange triangles) I was cold and drenched from head to toe. Although my boots were waterproof, my pants weren’t, and after walking through so many raincovered bushes they felt obliged to share their saturation with my socks which spread the wealth to my boots. As I arrived at the lodge, I had no idea what to expect since Holly Hut had been quite nice. It turned out to be a private lodge and the entranceway required a key fob to get in. This was just spectacular. The next closest hut was a solid two hours down the mountain in the wrong direction, and in the mist, illicit campsites were nowhere to be found. Heck, I missed the lodge itself in the fifty feet of visibility I had and only found it after significant backtracking. Luckily the foyer had a separate door to keep out the elements so I posted up in the six by eight foot entry. The room had a sad wooden bench and was concrete on five sides with the collective charm of a prison cell. Add to the fact that for the past two days, views had been limited by the bush and then the clouds, I was left a little on the cranky side. As the weather slowly abated, I had seven hours to kill before dark and was relieved to see the Wellington man and his English nephew I had met back at Holly Hut when they checked in to see I made it. After some dialogue, we parted ways and I wandered down the trail in the clearing clouds to find out where I was. Marvelous views 15
unfolded between the seemingly near summit and the farmland spreading out far below. Thinking an old radio station was a bathroom facility, I circled it to accidentally discover a glorious vent of warm air which must have been the byproduct of some internal system at work inside. I ran back up to get my sopping wet clothes which had been futilely arranged to dry in my tiny accommodation, and immediately hung them up under the vent. That was a day changer. The rest of the afternoon I spent taking photos and marveling at how quickly weather conditions changed up here from minute to minute. With my clothes now dry and my boots mostly there, I took in the sunset from under the warm vent, above the clouds with views stretching from New Plymouth all the way out to the mountain peaks of the Tongariro Crossing which I had completed with Manuel weeks earlier. Right when I thought the sunset was done, beams of sunlight shot out underneath the clouds on either side of the volcano behind me, illuminating miles of farmland on either side of the volcanic shadow. As the light waned, Taranaki's silhouette crept toward the horizon passing Mt. Ngauruhoe in the distance with the most fantastic visual display. I went to bed overlooking the twinkling lights of a farbelow countryside shielded from the elements on my terrible wooden bench. To say that I awoke rested would require a Catholic priest and a confessional, but I got up at 5:45am, ready to start the day. After running down the mountain to the radio station where I had left my boots to dry overnight, I was overcome by the moonlit mountain slopes set against the backdrop of the milky way. It was unreal. I packed my bag and set out. I was short on food, energy, and had now had dangerously low water since I had found nowhere to refill it after the previous day. The constant crossing of mountain streams I encountered the last two days had dried up now that I had climbed above their tributaries so that emergency option was no longer a contingency. Although my immediate thought was not that I would die of thirst (although it felt like it), I was dramatically more worried that I would find myself dehydrated and lightheaded at the wrong moment and tumble down the mountainside to a bruised and uncertain end. Even fully hydrated the days before, I had had a difficult time controlling the unfamiliar weight of my pack on tough terrain. Add into that the possibility of decreased decisionmaking abilities in the high altitude with less oxygen and less water and this put me in an increasingly tough spot. Progress was slow as my thighs burned and I made my way up the ever steeper slopes. It wasn't more than an hour before I had already been overtaken by another hiker who started 600 meters below me down at the visitor center. As it turns out Bjorn was from the Netherlands was equally happy to have a companion, a slight reassurance in the case of disaster. After hiking together for a bit and sliding down almost as much gravel as we climbed, I learned that he was headed to Stratford later and that I had found my ride. Although I would have loved to stay at Syme Hut’s rock outcropping perched above the clouds, I really needed a different pack for the climb as my current one would not have allowed me to safely traverse the even steeper descent down the other side. On top of that, there were too many unmarked tracks on that route before I got to safety and no assurances that the hut had water that high up. Those were chances I couldn’t afford to take in my current condition, so I dropped my trekking pack right then and there to be picked up on our impending descent. Once I changed to my lighter camera pack and Bjorn shared some of 16
his water, I felt like a young mountain goat once again. For reference, that's how I usually feel. The summit was a breathtaking pinnacle in an ocean of clouds. The clear skies afforded unencumbered views in every direction and we appreciated every bit of the view we had earned with our sweat. A fter vaporizing a powerade back down at the visitor center, we got to Stratford and destroyed a Subway footlong and large pizza each. Finding ourselves at a local country bar, I bought him a beer and we shared stories with the other patrons who bought us each another round before we left. It was the sort of place where closing time is whenever the bartender's friends feel like leaving. Back at the only reasonably priced hostel we could find, Bjorn slept in his campervan and I bunked with some elephanthoofed travelers. These were literally the loudest people I've ever met. After someone in the room finished their phone call (still in the dorm room I might add, because who has ever heard of taking a long call outside at night), I finally fell asleep on a soft mattress after an exhausting three days. Then at 11:45pm one of the clerks walked into the room and turned on ALL OF THE LIGHTS to count the number of open beds. There were two of us. Unless she was mathematically disabled this this wasn't doctoratelevel work requiring the lighting of an industrial laboratory. I groggily informed her where where a smaller light could be found on the wall in true Minnesotan passiveaggressive fashion, but she must have been concentrating hard on the addition because she only remarked that the large family I could hear wailing outside needed a room. At this point I only wished to ask her if her ass had room for my foot, but she left soon after and apparently found them alternate accommodation. Thank God. If I were to write a country murder novel I know exactly where I would start. My first day in Wellington, I woke up early to see the city as I traditionally do in new places. There was never any hope of blending in well with my outdoor clothing in a sea of business attire so I proudly chose to flaunt that I was on vacation and they weren’t. After finding a tasty tiny Vietnamese banhmi place in an alley for lunch, I met up with my Estonian friend Mirjam from the bus the day before. Mirjam was polite and refined, a tall blonde with striking features who was surprised to find someone familiar with her home nation tucked away in the far reaches of the Baltic Sea. Granted, it was merely the location that I was familiar with, I couldn’t recount the first thing about anything there. Regardless, it was nice to have a change of gender in my travel companions to accompany such beautiful weather. It was a definite highlight that afternoon to sit in on a session of parliament in New Zealand’s capital and take in the constant bickering. There was plenty of security getting in and we were informed of what we could and could not do, but the incredibly relaxed nature of it all put me at ease. While certain representatives were discussing policy, the rest of them looked like they were having humorous side panels with each other, most likely making fun of whatever particularly boring person had the floor. It was delightful. After parting ways with Mirjam for the day and grocery shopping, I had dinner back at the hotel, and ventured back out onto the waterfront. Returning at twilight, the scene was entirely different as dramatic lighting radically transformed every surface and bridge. There were even little beacons on the ground to show where ladders were located along the pier should a pedestrian happen to fall in. A steampunk carnival with vintage and very mechanical looking rides entertained children 17
in the park and contemporary artwork gleamed everywhere under unobtrusive lighting. This was a place where I would be happy to spend the next few days. I should note something that I very much like about the people of this country. Rather than make everything so safe that a sleepwalking drunk couldn’t hurt themselves on it, there’s an acceptance of personal responsibility and a cheery sense of fair play. It goes something along the lines of recognizing that citizens enjoy doing certain things and providing a safer means of doing whatever that nondestructive activity may be. One of my favourite instances of this was the Wellington pastime of climbing the nine meter ambulance building on the waterfront and jumping into the bay. There’s a delicious irony in that people were getting hurt by means of a building dedicated to mending human injury. Presumably after chuckling about it in the city council that dealt with the matter, Wellington put up a multitiered diving platform of equivalent height right next to the ambulance building that people can jump off of as much as and whenever they like. There’s also a diving board straight into the bay about 500 meters down the wharf. Locals seem to enjoy their time there both during the day and late at night after a few drinks. I made myself take the plunge because I’m the sort of person who would be bothered by passing up such an enjoyably sanctioned and invigorating pastime. It was worth the wet walk home. Passing the few days in Wellington with Mirjam flew by. We toured famous avenues, thrift shopped, ate street food, saw the museums, rode the cable car, walked the botanical gardens, and shared a bottle of wine at the top of Mt. Victoria at sunset. I even got to go to the spectacular hillside church of St. Gerard, my confirmation saint, for Sunday mass. It was a bittersweet goodbye saying farewell to the city and my friend. The following day before the ferry even left the harbor, I happened to meet a young couple at the top of the ferry's observation platform. Turns out, they were from Minnesota as well and the girl even grew up in my hometown of Shoreview! The logistical probability of such a connection blew my mind. Even crazier was that these weren't even the first Minnesotans I had met in Wellington. Add to that the two friends from Minneapolis that I met back in Auckland, and that makes five of the approximately twelve Americans I had encountered so far from my home state . Later on, proportions balanced out a bit more with the majority of Americans hailing from Californian shores. Until a mild case of seasickness, I enjoyed the novel sensation of feeling open ocean swells on a large ship. The ferry ride to south island was rather noneventful other than a singular albatross sighting and a piece of chocolate cake I largely lost to the wind.
Part II Over the course of my trip, I lost about 25 pounds. The secret? Staying active and not being able to afford food. Now that I had made it to south island, it was time to recover some of my budget while I enjoyed the less touristy wildernesses that had drawn me to the country in the first place. I spent the first night in my tent at a city park. As most homeless people do, I packed it all away the next morning before anyone in Picton noticed and headed out of town to hitchhike. It took me a while to realize that I was headed out the wrong way. After thankfully receiving zero rides and having an informative conversation at a local business, I located the correct road and got picked up before long. The ride went quickly, leaving me just short of Blenheim as we engaged in an enthralling discussion of alternative lifestyles and living off the grid. After a cheerful goodbye and thanks, it took less than half an hour to get picked up by a Frenchman named Patrick from the city of Lyon. This was the hitch I had been waiting for: it was like the film “Mr. Bean’s Holiday” except in reverse where I was the beautiful actress and he was Rowan Atkinson. Patrick hardly spoke any English so he communicated largely by waving his hands and making strange sounds. This wouldn’t have been so unnerving other than the fact that he was also driving. Most of the trip I was convinced that we shared a mutual desire to stay on the road, but somehow at intervals it seemed he would forget about that inclination. After careening around hairpin turns in the mountains for a few hours, we finally arrived in Nelson which was as far as my general lack of plans had placed me. Since it was barely ten in the morning and we had already made it 120 kilometers, I saw no reason to stop so we continued on. I had no idea where he was going and frankly I’m not so sure he did either, but after some unintelligible sound effects he handed me a map printed off the internet with a singular pen scribble which convinced me enough that we were headed in the right direction. The plan was to hike Abel Tasman National Park. It is one of New Zealand’s five Great Walks on the south island, a fifty five kilometer track that winds its way up, down, around, and over stretches of rugged rocky coast. Since my reliance was largely on buses, hitchhiking, and my own two legs this trip, I was plagued by a constant misjudgment of distance. It was really bad. As I exited the car in Motueka, I thought I would have a lovely afternoon stroll to the beginning of the track, carrying my sixty pound pack. Well it was about twenty two kilometers and decidedly not lovely. Add to that, back in Motueka I had the deluded foresight to book where I planned to camp along the track so I would have a bus to pick me up when I was done. Had I made this booking on the other side of the day’s grueling walk, it might have gone differently. As it was, this meant that after getting there exhausted, I was compelled to finish the full track in the next fifty hours. Most people take a full three to five days to complete what I punished myself to do in just over two. I couldn’t tell if what I felt on the other side was more a flush of stupidity or a sense of vindictive accomplishment. 19
Though I spent the majority of each day walking, I had a chance sighting of the famous Split Apple Rock (which I thought was on the other side of the island to show how much I knew), as well as various encounters with fruitstealing Weka birds which would run off with your dinner if you didn’t pay enough attention. I also found myself afforded the opportunity to play fun little games to pass the time. Among my favourites were “When shall the tide come in?”, decidedly a gamble because tidal crossings often forced multihour waits for the next low tide. Another classic was “Which root shall I sleep on?,” a charmer to be sure which I frequently played late into the night. The last game was really more of a technique that I had cunningly developed later in the day. You see, what I had failed to factor in was the compounded chafing effect of saltwater in shorts over an extended period of hiking. It was horrible. To combat this, I cleverly (or so I thought) had devised a system of simultaneously elevating and spreading chafed areas without going into further detail. It freed up movement fabulously until another hiker would happen upon the trail in the other direction. I had some pretty close calls getting my hands out of my pants, but don’t think I ruined anyone’s walk. Despite not being sold on how “great” the walk initially happened to be, it slowly won me over with its variant coastline and dynamic foliage. When I finally staggered off the bus and into a hostel in Takaka, it’s safe to say that I didn’t move for some time. Waking up in Takaka reminded me of the scene in the Lord of the Rings where Frodo wakes up in the house of Elrond, surrounded by cheery friends and good food. Except if the elves were hippies. Turns out Takaka is a hidden hippie haven, nestled into New Zealand’s Golden Bay. Food is fresh and organic, you can buy any beads you like, and if you can’t hear Bob Marley playing at the time, then someone else is nearby strumming a guitar. Kiwiana is the hostel I found myself in, and I must say, it is a decidedly cheerful place. Hammocks sway in the gentle breeze and mountains are visible from the outdoor deck area. It’s big enough not to feel cramped but maintains a cozy atmosphere where the guests quickly bond with one another. Most people pass through intending to stay the night in an apparently unremarkable town, but find themselves lingering for a week or more. I stayed an extra night myself. Free bikes are provided to ride around town with since no one in town has any concern for theft. Nice things are left out and no one takes them. I discovered a delightful microdistillery that brews various alcohols and tonics from Manuka honey (most of which were quite good) and found myself leaving with a small bottle of whiskey. Across the alley was the most incredible restaurant I have encountered in all of New Zealand. The Wholemeal Cafe has a tiny entrance with a barely visible patio on the side but opens up inside into a large interior twofloor dining room painted happy tones of yellow, orange, and blue and is decorated generously with memorabilia from the seventies. I’m sure the rest of their menu is delectable as well, but their steak sandwiches are out of this world. First off, it isn’t really a sandwich so much as it is an actual steak laying across an arugula salad over a tomato and toasted bun. Chips (thick fries) come on the side, and it is crowned with a drizzle of barbecue sauce and a smear of aioli in an immaculate ratio. Never has there been such luncheon perfection. The guy next to me was eating pancakes so naturally I had to try those the next morning. They were unreal. Crispy, not burnt; fluffy yet not doughy; these were rolled into an appetizing stack next to 20
caramelized bananas and laced with bacon. Below lay a petite pool of natural maple syrup under a gentle dash of cinnamonsugar that complemented a fresh sprig of adorning mint. This place needed no culinary foreplay to get you salivating for the main event. If they rented rooms upstairs I would probably still be there. After befriending an interesting Israeli guy named Nitai back at the hostel, I caught a ride with him and some friends up to the northernmost tip of south island with plans to see the Archway Islands. I had also arranged to travel the next day down to Kaikoura with a girl from the hostel so I had one day and planned to make the most of it. You can only get out to the islands at low tide which happened to be around sunrise and sunset that day, so we used the time in between to explore Farewell Spit. Farewell Spit is a narrow bridge of sand extending some thirty kilometers out into the Tasman Sea. We took the naming to be ironic since an errant spit clumps immediately in the fine sand and rolls for a bit, leaving the option to take it with you if you don’t want to say goodbye. Playing amongst the dunes and laying in a cheerful little desert bordered closely by ocean on both sides was an excellent way to pass an afternoon. The weather could not have been more agreeable and the place had an untouched peaceful serenity. On our way back to the car, we decided to go back by another path (which we never actually found) and managed to get lost on a stretch of land less than a kilometer wide. After wandering around the dunes a bit and teasing our friend at the hilarity that once again an Israeli was lost in the desert, we decided to suck it up and set out across my arch nemesis, the bush. Going was slow but tolerable, as long as we managed to avoid menacing patches of gauss (that’s the spiky stuff). Eventually we found a track which led us back to the other beach and finally the car. Our mild exodus was over and it felt great to sit down. With the tides now lower, we ventured over to the Archway islands and Wharariki beach, setting out across a hilltop hike. It was going well, except that we had started out from the wrong car park. The hike was turning out to be longer and more beautiful than expected, but our ride declared we couldn’t go any further since she apparently had a visual condition that impaired driving at night. She certainly had no problem driving during the day, as every car we passed with Nascar speed on the way up can attest to. The beauty was too great to abandon however. I trustingly asked her if she would hide my backpack behind a bush in the car park (e.g. everything I had in the country including wallet and phone) as Nitai and I continued on with a girl we had picked up from northern California. The late afternoon light was so enchanting that we could not resist its allure. It was like walking into the end of a movie. The golden path we followed crossed the crests of white limestone cliffs hundreds of vertical feet above the sea below. Seals played gleefully in tidal pools far below as their joyful calls echoed up the coastal canyons. It no longer felt like walking as the mesmerizing tableau laid before us effortlessly drew us on. I almost wished that the distant dunes and beach would never come because it was so surreal. Finally arriving, the islands shifted quickly into focus with their dramatic stone pillars lifting them above the salty onslaught of the sea. It was magical. I felt as though we were subjects in a painting by some unseen artist.
As darkness fell, we hitched back to town with two German girls we met leaving the beach. That last night I opted to skip the the hostel and save money by sleeping outdoors. As I wandered about town looking for a suitable place to pop up a tent without too much trouble, an Israeli guy named David who I found cooking in a parking lot asked me if I was looking for a place to stay. He pointed down a gravel road into the darkness beyond town where apparently there was a small community of about seventy campers living in an informal establishment. I hiked in darkness since I didn't want to draw attention to myself with a headlamp, and before long muted lights came into view and murmured conversations drifted through the farm hedges. There were a few tents tucked away into the trees, but the gathering consisted largely of sleeper vans on the rock outwash next to a mountain stream. After looking for a campsite in the rocks to no avail, I bothered to ask some guys eating a late dinner nearby if they knew of any good spots for a tent. I must’ve asked just the right fellow as he claimed to know of two very nice locations that were hidden and should be open without a doubt. All I had to do, he said, was to follow the river upstream for about 200 meters until I found a thirty year old wine bottle he had set out on a rock five days before. From there, turn in and walk towards the trees and there should be a few excellent options. All I had to do was find this ridiculous wine bottle and hope it was where he left it. Simple enough. Against all odds, I found it without undue struggle and set in for the night at a great location. Couldn’t have found a better spot myself. In the morning I caught a mostly silent ride to Kaikoura (German girls are in general not very talkative), and had the chance to see some seals up close. I had a beautiful sunset out on the rocky peninsula where I cooked dinner, but almost got trapped out by the tide as it crept in quietly behind me. Darkness fell, and I camped on a peninsular ridge which overlooked the north bay and would be eager to accept the morning sun. Unfortunately it was overcast the next day, but regardless it was a nice place to wake up. Waiting for the bus the next day on the beach, I started a conversation with a guy I thought to be homeless who was picking through the rocks. Curious as to what he was looking for, I discovered he was searching for greenstone jade, a local mineral that is polished, carved, and sold in local shops to tourists for anywhere between NZD $30 and $200. Once I knew what to look for, I found some small nuggets myself. The guy’s name was Lazarus and he was a Greek expat waiting for the same bus. He gave me one of the nicer greenstone rocks he had found and we started a long conversation. He didn’t have much, but he shared everything he had. I’ve never experienced such unwanting generosity. After riding the bus to Christchurch, we found out that each hostel we visited was either completely booked or charged absurdly high rates (think two or four times as much as anywhere else in the country). This was apparently due to people working out of hostels in the wake of recent earthquakes that left a hole in the residential real estate market. The point is that it was way beyond our budgets. My phone was dead so we found a shopping mall where we could charge it. While I waited there and searched lucklessly for a last minute stay on Airbnb, he ran to the adjoining supermarket and got us both dinner. It was a loaf of bread, some dry cookies, a small pack of nondescript sandwich meat and some chips. I had some food in my backpack that I tried to share, but he would have 22
none of it, insisting that that was for me but that this was for us. It was incredibly touching and something I hope I never forget. Feeling homeless at a mall with all your belongings on the ground and eating bread out of a bag with mystery meat put life in a whole new perspective for me. People who any other day might have cheerfully greeted me on the street or had a conversation about the weather or discussed any number of things suddenly no longer made eye contact and hesitated to make any kind of acknowledgement. Conversations were replaced by one word answers and a quickening pace as I wondered how many times I had been that person on the other side of the divide. Eventually we located a reasonably priced hostel on the other side of town but were unable to call so we started out and hoped for the best. Thankfully when we got there they had rooms so we showered and crashed. Lazarus still had some party in him as he was perhaps one of the most perpetually upbeat and cheerful people I have ever met, but I was done for the day. I said goodbye the next morning and thanked him for everything, wishing him well on his flight to Australia in a few hours. He gave me a hug and handed me an apple for breakfast. It made me smile that there were people like him in the world. After that, I spent the day exploring the sights of Christchurch with a cute English girl who I had met on the bus from Kaikoura. The container market and the cardboard cathedral where quite memorable and unique. It’s a strange sense that one gets walking through that town. The botanical gardens were beautiful and flourishing, but the city itself feels like a bombedout shell of its former self. There was some respectable street art, but a larger amount of trashy urban graffiti and halffinished construction projects in the downtown area. Vacant lots cleared of the rubble from damaged buildings grew weeds as municipal councils tried to figure out what to do with them. It’s as if the entire place got the wind knocked out of it and was still pausing on the ground before it decides to get back up. Unfortunately I didn’t get to experience an earthquake in the time I was there, despite there being some quite notable ones during my travels. My English friend Charlie had apparently been in a 4.0 earthquake during an earlier stay in Christchurch, but had been too drunk at the time to notice it. Funny how we travel to the other side of the world to make memories and at times do quite the opposite. After giving her a hug goodbye, I headed back to the hostel to find that Lazarus had left on my bed the rest of his loaf of bread and a can of spaghetti. I was deeply touched by the sincerity behind the gesture. Seriously, this guy is one of those unlikely saints. I guess most people just aren’t looking for five foot tall Greeks. I woke up in the morning ready to pack up and head out of Christchurch. One day was enough and I didn’t have time to wait around for the next earthquake. Back in Wellington I had had the insight to cut my beach towel down to hand towel size so as to take up less space in my bag. That part of it worked. Unfortunately my job of cutting left it looking like the burial wrappings of an Egyptian mummy. As I awoke, I sordidly realized that the hostel cleaning lady had likely thought to do the world a favor and threw my towel out. I don’t blame her, but that still left me without a towel. As it were, I was heading to the mountainous west coast which is constantly beset by heavy rain so I supposed I would have to come to 23
terms with being wet sooner or later. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I had a strange sense that I should see if anyone was driving west from the hostel after breakfast. Swallowing my pride, I interrupted the din of kitchen activity to ask if anyone was heading out on highway 73 toward Arthur’s Pass. I got one of those quiet audiences that upset politicians and comedians everywhere. After conversations resumed, a girl from California approached me and informed me she had some friends who were headed in that direction and she could ask them. It was at this point I realized that while my hitchhiking skills could use some refining, I was slowly mastering the art of the prehitch. Arranging rides beforehand is nicer since it foregoes the time outside in inclement weather and provides the chance to build a little rapport before a trip. It turns out the two guys she knew were fairly set on staying another day but happened to know another guy headed out that direction. Unfortunately he was in preference of a solo venture, so I thanked them and headed out into the rain. New Zealand has the strange quality of seeming like many places at once. There have been points in the trip where I could’ve sworn to be in Colorado, Seattle, San Francisco, or Minnesota, oftentimes within the same day. Part of it has to do with the extent of imported foliage and building styles, yet the country has an exotic density that can be found in few other areas of the world. While I happen to love those places above, today it felt more like Great Britain. Wet winds that chill to the bone aren’t anyone’s idea of a nice day, but that’s what I got as I walked all the way out of Christchurch’s suburbs. The only thing I found compelling me was the assured pick up from some driver who happened to pity my miserable condition. I was wrong. There’s a certain irony in the lack of empathy in a place literally named after Christianity. It took nearly two hours at two different locations for me to get picked up. Two Belgians in a campervan turned out to be my good Samaritans for the day and took me all the way to my destination of Castle Hill. As I stepped out and thanked them profusely for their assistance, who did I see but the two guys I had chatted with at the hostel after breakfast! I was dumbfounded. It turns out that hours later they had decided to screw it and drive out after all. Keep in mind that there were about five other cars in the car park and we were out in the middle of nowhere. I’m not sure if I was supposed to have a little more faith in them, but I was ok that I didn’t bother waiting. We all had a good laugh about the incredible coincidence. The first thing you should know about Castle Hill is that it’s not that remarkable. Picture a drunk Stonehenge, where instead of constructing celestial monoliths the workers left them scattered upright and sideways without discernable order on the hilltop while they went for another drink. It’s not manmade and it’s not a castle. The much more fascinating part in my opinion is the larger collection of such limestone pillars down on a lower hill, shaped by erosion into amorphous towering blobs. These are intricately sculpted into a dense labyrinth of the most delectable forms which wind together in a mindboggling contrast of chaos and organic order. If you have the spacial perception of a threeyearold, it’s enough to blow your mind. As a recent architecture grad, I was positively giddy. Luckily it was mostly abandoned as I worked my way inside, for anyone about would have observed me manically giggling to myself as I delightfully traversed this alien landscape. Canyons opened up unexpectedly, tunnels led to hidden precipices, spherical cauldrons grown men could sit inside lurked within 24
open rock faces, and natural rock arches abounded. I was in heaven. I had planned to spend one night, but I spent two. Between the grassy tunnels, rock outcroppings, and hidden meadows, I had no shortage of desirable campsites. It was still overcast the first day so I found a little circular meadow out of the wind and out of sight. When I awoke the next morning I couldn’t feel my toes. After an early climb of Castle Hill to see what lay around me, I was disappointed at first to see that my view extended no further than the low bottom of the clouds. By midmorning however it had cleared. I looked out over a flat agricultural plain with the highway far below. The foothills I had seen the day before rose now into majestic snowcapped peaks that formed a splendrous perimeter, encircling the mountain valley. A cheerful little stream flowed through the reaches of the pastureland. I spent majority of the day in this personal ShangriLa, sunning myself on rocks unseen, far above the dopey tourists as I climbed column after column at home in my element. Water was plentiful as the rocks had collected rain in their many circular openings and all I had to do was sip it through my Lifestraw from any pool I desired. I felt like a local hermit. They all went home, but this place was mine. Sound was another fascinating characteristic of the landscape for it carried extraordinarily well. I could hear the focus beep and shutter snap of DSLR’s over 200 feet away and the crunch of gravel beneath motorcycle tires from the kilometer distant car park. When it grew quiet again at the end of the day, all these attributes made the silence that much more profound. I could see why the Maori took shelter there hundreds of years ago. The second night I set my watch and vowed to stay up to do some night photography of the stars against the alien skyline. I missed my alarm, but strangely woke up after a dream about doing night photography roused me to check my watch. Peeking out from my tent, the moon had nearly half waned and and was low in the sky. I grabbed my headlamp but didn’t use it as I was oddly alert and the moon lit my path. As I wound my way through the rock labyrinth by moonlight and memory, I recollected a childhood reading of C.S. Lewis’ “A Horse and His Boy” from the Chronicles of Narnia in which a young traveler takes refuge amongst bulbous rock forms, varied such as these. What he doesn’t know and finds out later is that these are the windworn casings of ancient tombs and mausoleums. While families picnicked there on nice days, no one stuck around after dark for there lurked a presence in that place, evil and threatening, that at night would emerge from doors and crevices unseen by human eyes to prey on leftovers from the daytime visitors or perhaps any small animals they might be swift enough to ensnare. “What a fine feast I would make,” I morbidly thought to myself, still living in a dreamtime state which provokes the imagination. By now my mind was bringing in bits of H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine,” remembering the denizens of the underworld, strong wiryframed creatures with bulbous eyes that preyed above ground in the absence of the sun, hunting in near silence under padded foot. While one or two of these would provide a fair fight, they were known to hunt in packs and a place like this could harbor hundreds. After I got my photos I left, descending through dark rock channels back to my tent under a fading moon. I didn’t use my headlight, perhaps because I wished not to dispel the mystique . Despite the fantastical fears which still lingered at the edge of my imagination, I managed to drift back to sleep. There’s no telling how long I was out before my heart abruptly jump 25
started my consciousness with every chemical in my body as I shot awake to the quick approaching patter of multiple sets of padded feet. Instinct expected the immediate closure of toothy jaws around my neck and limb to be rent from ligament in utter agony. Before I could move, they were upon me and pummeled my tent with incredible force. I don’t know if you’ve ever been hit in the head by a large jackrabbit before while you were fast asleep, but let me tell you, it gets the blood pumping. From 2:36am onward, the only sleep I got was troubled and nightmarish. Creative minds can at times be a little selfdestructive. Daybreak was a relief when it finally came. I left Cathedral Hill with an elderly walking club that I met in the parking lot. Before we departed it was essential to take time for morning tea, so they shared cookies and scones and coffee with me in the generous fashion of many people their age. They were in no hurry to get to the west coast and I was alright with that. My bag was in another car as I rode with Arthur and his wife Margaret. Arthur was a retired architect who had taught in universities for a number of years and practiced in the area for quite some time. He was a veritable fountain of information when it came to everything we passed and I found him to be a charming conversationalist. Margaret slept a lot. We stopped in Arthur’s Pass where I saw a kea, apparently the only alpine parrot species in existence and they treated me to a gigantic hokey pokey ice cream cone, also apparently a local specialty. After that, we took a break at Kumara where the couple had grown up and they treated me to a beer and some chips at the historic hotel. Apparently Andrew Carnegie’s foundation built a library in Hokitika that had been restored in large part to Arthur's drawings so I promised to give that a look in the morning before I departed. After giving me a brief tour of town, Arthur and Margaret dropped me off at a backpackers and I bid them a thankful farewell. I definitely forgot to check out the library. Hostel life is hostel life, but between the constant nocturnal downpour outside and the Godawful drunken karaoke leaking from the bar next door, it took three hours to fall asleep. Despite how happy I was to have gotten the last available room, keep in mind how little I slept the night before out in the rocks in case you need a reference how difficult it was and how badly I wanted rest. You can imagine my immediate irritation when some fifty year old codger walked in about midnight and turned on all of the lights after our eightperson dorm had been dark for hours. He then had the audacity to unplug my phone and camera charger and plug in whatever he had with him (presumably a walkman or external pacemaker since he didn’t seem likely he would be using anything from this millennium). As he was in no hurry to courteously turn of the light for the seven people he happened to be inconveniencing, I politely asked him if he would mind using his phone instead of military floodlights. When this contemptible clown turned to me and said “maybe you should have booked a private room,” I just about lost it. “Maybe you should have booked a nursing home you fat fuck,” I mentally cursed. This guy literally slept with an oxygen mask over his face connected to a machine the size of R2D2, and wore a constant fanny pack that he probably slept in as well. Besides being 200 pounds overweight and a total dick, the only thing saving this disagreeable fellow was how badly I wanted sleep. Instead of saying 26
anything, I simply climbed down from the top bunk and plugged my phone in on the other side of the room. This guy probably had a month left to live before he died from a heart condition and he was staying in a hostel. I decided he had it bad enough. In one day, I had encountered two very different sides of old age and was left more than determined which way I intended to turn out. Shortly after arriving in Hokitika, I came to the unhappy realization that buses only picked up from there a few days a week and that the next one didn’t come soon enough. I had a ticket on a bus leaving from Franz Josef the next day, perhaps eighty kilometers away so it was time to hitchhike. It wasn’t so much a lack of luck as a general lack of cars leaving town that delayed my departure. Eventually, an old Corolla with a trailer pulled over and out popped a cheerful man with one arm. Luckily the arm Andy still had was his right, so I didn’t end up stumbling through a horribly awkward handshake attempt. I hopped in the car with his wife and daughter as we traveled down to Hari Hari or some small town name I can’t recall. I thanked them for the lift and got ready to thumb the next leg down to the glacier. It must have been about half an hour and only five cars actually passed through town in my direction. Just as I was settling in for what was sure to be a long hitch of attrition, a familiar car passed back by and pulled over. It was Andy again, chuckling at my misfortune. I thought we would share the humor in it and part ways, but he offered to take me the rest of the way to Franz Josef. This was incredibly generous since he lived in town and it was at least forty kilometers out of his way. Just outside town, we pulled off at the deer farm he caretook at to drop off a trailer and he showed me around. Apparently the owners were global trophy hunters, for inside were mounted all form of fourlegged beasts. He told me the meat was always used if possible and they hunted ethically. The farm made money from meat, organizing trophy hunts for prize males, and selling shedded antler velvet to Asian markets that considered it an aphrodisiac. Andy thought that last part was especially funny. Outside, some of the youngest deer were in a paddock bordered on one side by the house. I was enjoying watching the fawns when their young daughter opened a window and they trotted right up. I had never fed a deer by hand before this, but I can tell you that baby deer are definitely just as cute up close. Back on the road, conversation drifted to New Zealand's DOC (Department of Conservation). Andy and his family are good simple folk, but the 1080 pesticide debate really bothered them. The ongoing 1080 debate centered around the loads of pellets the DOC had been dropping into the forest in an effort to target destructive possum populations, but many people were concerned that the substance didn’t live up to its claims of safety. Supposedly there was a noncumulative effect that didn’t work its way up the food chain like other toxins, but there was periphery evidence that untargeted species seemed to be dying from it. Furthermore, many of the people on the south island who depend on wells and rainwater in their homes were understandably concerned about its presence in the water they drink and plants they grow. I asked him what incentive the department might have to downplay risks; apparently there was an NZD $26 million stipend for 1080’s continued use each year. On top of that, there was the recent opening of a new factory now producing the chemical pellets out of 27
Christchurch which stood financial gain. Interestingly enough, New Zealand and Australia are the only places in the world where 1080 pesticide is still legal. Across the board, the New Zealand Department of Conservation is exemplary in what they accomplish and provide and this appeared to be the only real issue of contention. From what they told me, he and his wife are quite the activists: stopping helicopters from taking off and collecting animal carcasses for forensic analysis. I always enjoy hearing each side of an issue. Either way, it made for a quick trip and before I knew it I was in Franz Josef. Franz Josef was a funny place in that there were more places to rent a helicopter than to buy gasoline. After lunch, I left my stuff behind the town’s Catholic church and told Jesus to guard it. It was about eight kilometers to the glacier, so I grabbed my rain jacket and my camera. The west coast is notoriously called the “Wet Coast” here by locals and I had the opportunity to learn why. It’s because when it’s not drizzling rain it’s pouring rain. Other than worrying about the wellbeing of my camera, it made for a spectacular hike. Clouds filled the densely vegetated canyons, bringing a low ceiling and sense of mysterious intrigue . Through the center of the valley surged a powerful river, fed by the fresh constancy of rain. On all sides, water made its way down from the mountains in trickles and streams. Higher up, spontaneous cataracts cascaded past rock faces into the foliage. None of it quite seemed real. The glacier itself was a bit of a disappointment since it was dirty, concealed by clouds, and far away, separated by the raging torrent. Despite the strange beauty, it was a long drenched walk back to town. Everything I had on me was soaked, including my supposedly waterproof boots which I now discovered to have blown a large hole in the stitching. The best part was that all of the accommodation in Franz Josef happened to be booked, so my decision on where to spend the night was left to a bus stop or taking my chances with a tent in pouring rain. I chose the Catholic church. I guess they just leave the door open all the time, but there hung a nice picture of Pope Francis inside and I couldn’t think of anything more Christian than sheltering the homeless. I slept great, but woke up just after seven in the morning to an Asian caretaker woman shooing me out in broken English. “Younocanstayhere! Get out! Get out!” I briefly considered having an earlymorning conversation with her about the tenets of Christianity, but decided it wasn’t worth it to me and I wasn’t in the mood. I had planned to leave early already, so I packed my stuff and left. My bus from Franz Josef left in the early afternoon so there was a lot of rainfilled time to kill. I went out to take some pictures of a neon orange lichen I saw the day before, but most of the time was spent at the wildlife center in town reading books about local plants and animals. While there are plenty of species making their ecological comeback solely in New Zealand, the most interesting of these is the kea. Most people think of the tropics when they hear the word “parrot,” but these birds live far up in the mountains and are the world’s only alpine parrot. I had seen a few fly by in Arthur’s Pass and was there told of their mischievous nature. Locals complain about them attacking picnickers outside and taking their food, but what I read was even more interesting. Apparently the reason these birds were able to adapt to life in the mountains is that they are insanely clever. Using beaks and feet, they 28
immediately investigate anything that catches their attention. Unfortunately everything catches their attention, and their particular brand of investigation happens to be rather destructive. Besides destroying any camping gear left outside at night and shredding tents, they’ve been known to fancy motorcycles for the pleasure of ripping apart plush seating and tearing out the wiring. And that’s not all. They were hunted down to a few thousand over the past 150 years before becoming protected because get this they were killing farmer’s sheep. I shit you not. It was guessed that they used the fatty glands behind sheep’s kidneys to help survive the winter. A few would land on the back of a sheep stuck in the snow and begin a spinal operation where they opened up the unfortunate animal and dined on its innards. Once again, these are motherfucking parrots. There haven’t been reports of dangerous attacks on humans, but I’ll estimate that to be due to their recovering populations and the general lack of fat American tourists. I really wanted to photograph some of these remarkable creatures but was never afforded the chance. Wanaka was finally a chance to dry out all the gear and clothing soaked by glacier country. Everything was booked so I slept in a hedge. You would think that by now I might have picked up on the benefits of booking ahead. The hedge had a nice hollow interior bordered on all sides by near impenetrable pine. I think teenagers drank there on the weekend, but it was the middle of the week so I didn’t expect trouble. The next day I wandered around town and later met up with a French Canadian girl I had met on the bus. We cooked dinner together at her hostel and shared a nice stroll along the scenic Wanaka lakefront. It was a welcome departure from solo travel as such brief moments of companionship may provide. Walking back, I realized you’re at a certain point in life when you start referring to an instance of shrubbery as “My Hedge,” but when I returned that evening I discovered a homeless man to be setting up for the night. He was in the middle of rummaging through some trash or various belongings that he had strewn about next to the hedge. You can imagine my surprise getting back to my tent in the dark and realizing someone else is there. I wasn’t sure if he had discovered my tent yet as it was well hidden so I played it cool and struck up a passing conversation as I pretended to be walking to a further destination. He snarled something unintelligible in reply and continued muttering to himself. “Sorry, what was that?” I cheerfully asked in an attempt diffuse whatever tension he might have felt. Another grumble followed more muttering. I was in a pickle. I couldn’t tell if he was under the influence of some illicit substance or how potentially violent he might become if I tried to get past him and retrieve my stuff. To make clear the desperation of my situation, my phone, passport, camera, pack, and tent were all a few dozen feet behind this guy who was blocking one of the few entrances to the hedge. All I had to defend myself with was my wallet and the remains of a salad I happened to be carrying in my pocket from dinner. Since he might just take the wallet anyway, the only thing I could think to surprise him with was the fact that I had a salad in my pocket. I felt a little bit like Bilbo Baggins, bargaining with Gollum in the dark. My thought however was that amidst the confusion of airborne arugula, I might dive for my pack and make off with a few salvaged belongings. Admittedly this was a bad plan. Fortunately I ditched that idea and found a relaxed Israeli backpacker along the lakefront to help me 29
retrieve my belongings. Upon confronting my hedgemate, we shortly were laughing about the misunderstanding. The man was named John and he apologized for hassling me once he realized I had my stuff stowed behind him. Following our tense introduction, we had an informative conversation about how freedom camping has changed in New Zealand over the years. He promised there would be no further trouble at all and there was not. He was gone in the morning. Roy’s peak is one of the most popular destinations in Wanaka for its expansive panoramas of the surrounding region. The views it afforded truly were spectacular. I ran into a pair of German backpackers from my hostel back in Hokitika and who I had seen later in Franz Josef. I never learned their names so I’ll just call them Frans and Hans. It’s always kind of funny crossing paths again with people you met much earlier and it happens more than you might think in New Zealand. The hike itself was only maybe five hours in total and not particularly difficult, so when coupled with its proximity to town that meant it was rather crowded. Threequarters of the way up was an excellent view over the lakes beyond, where the trail went down and then back up over a picturesque little hump. It was an obvious photograph location, as the nonsensical gathering of teenage and twentysomething girls who had descended there would seem to indicate. Basic bitches, all of them. It was literally an endless string of Instagram fiends who were taking turns posing along the trail in the exact same Yshaped posture. I started to compile a collection of how absurdly similar they all looked, but had to quit in disgust. I couldn’t take it. They were making a mockery of exceptional natural beauty and exploiting it in cutanddry versions to juice a few more “likes” out of their Instagram feeds. I had to get further away. I spent the rest of the afternoon trekking up the road toward Treble Cone Ski Area with the intention to climb it the next day. As I approached the base the following morning, heavy rains forced me down to a tiny shuttle bus shelter where I ate all my food while waiting for the weather to pass. Plans had changed since the access road to the top had been washed out further up in a recent storm. It was now closed. Earlier, I had consulted the paraglider I hitched to the ski area with and he thought that if I followed sheep trails up to where they intersected with the mountain road I should be fine, as long as I stayed out of sight to the construction crews who were working farther up. Worst case scenario, they would make me come down, so I figured I wasn’t risking arrest. That had been before the showers and I was now back at the little six by ten foot bus stop at the base of the mountain. From where I stood, I could see two majestic waterfalls gushing off the steep cliffs nearby with their renewed water plummeting from pool to pool on the way down. During a break in the rain, I climbed to the base of the closer waterfall and decided I wanted to explore some of the cascading pools high above. It was captivating, but with every step the ground grew steeper and before long I found myself clinging to grasses and plants to secure a footing. The collective strength of their roots was enough to hold me, but I did have a few heartpounding slips. By this time, I was up to the lowest pool and paused to look out over the sheep pastures that stretched across the valley floor far below. As I was trying to figure out how to get higher, a light 30
drizzle picked up and wetted the grass that held my life in its tender blades. About this same time, I came across the carcass of a sheep that had lost its footing just above and fallen to a bloated and maggoty end. It was here that prudence prompted me to turn back. The rest of the day, thunderstorms confined me to my tiny shelter and did not abate until nightfall. After the construction crews left, it was as if I had the entire valley to myself. I reveled in such sanctimonious seclusion having sufficiently distanced myself from the superficiality of the Instabitches. That night I slept at the shack, bathed in starlight as the moon lit muted cataracts behind me, plummeting off valley walls. A short hitchhike later and I was back in Wanaka early the next morning. Despite the clear night sky, some light showers returned and prompted me to visit the local library where I made the acquaintance of an intriguing French girl named Coline. I’m pretty sure our conversation started when I noticed her reading a book about black holes and had to learn more. She was into rock climbing as well and invited me out to climb the next day, an invitation I eagerly accepted. The next morning she met me with a hippie friend from Eugene, Oregon, and we left town for a rock face out near Hospital Flat. On the way out I noticed she had some Star Wars memorabilia hanging from the rearview mirror: nerdy AND a climbing badass. I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t made friends like her back in the States. The guy from Oregon was really into mushroom collecting. Like REALLY into it. As we hiked to the rocks, he intently pointed out species of interest (mostly psychedelic ones), and divulged the best culinary approaches to extract their effects. All around though, if we had grown up together we’d likely be good friends since he was fun and we like a lot of similar pastimes. It was nice to commiserate about missing winter with a fellow snowboarder. The climbing was great and I got a chance to learn a ton about ropes, belaying, and climbing equipment that I had been waiting ages to learn. We slacklined for a bit back in Wanaka, but I left after growing tired of our companion’s one way flirting, plus I was pretty sure he had plans to make a lavender wreath later and had no intent to participate. Instead, I walked down the beach to find a good spot for the W arbirds Over Wanaka airshow over the bay . The show is internationally acclaimed and occurs just once every two years so I happened to strike a great deal of luck. It was an exciting aerobatic display, featuring multitudes of historic planes and rekindled my enthusiasm for aviation. I wanted to stay for the launch of NASA’s new weather balloon but it wasn’t scheduled to happen for another week. Holy Thursday mass was perhaps the least choreographed thing I have seen since my sister’s second grade dance recital. It was incredibly awkward. By the end of it, I was just glad nothing spilled. The visiting priest was mostly retired had some medical condition where if he stood too long he would collapse. He said not to worry, he had set up plenty of chairs. He wasn’t lying. I’ll admit that it was mildly amusing to watch him shuffle across the altar as he jumped from chair to chair in some form of liturgical lavatag. He was quite the entertainer, so I was thrilled when he presided at the Easter Vigil as well. Father must have been disappointed in Thursday’s performance because he really upped the ante. This mass had fire. Yes, you can imagine how on edge the entire congregation was as father read intently from a 31
book while passing his vestments across a flaming brazier. His attention was so keenly focused that the priest seemed oblivious to all else, including whether or not he might be on fire. As father whisked to and fro, the congregation collectively held their breaths. For his final act, father turned abruptly to return to the altar after concluding the liturgy of light, throwing the parish into a moment where time stood still as his robes imperceptibly missed knocking the flaming liquid off its precarious podium. The church was rather new and I think everyone present would’ve hated to see that and the visiting priest go up in flames. The rest of mass was only slightly less tense since we could never decide whether it was more likely he would knock everything off the altar or collapse unexpectedly from his aforementioned medical condition. It was a happy Easter indeed when the ceremony came to a close. This was my last night in Wanaka. As I said goodbye to the little town that had taken a week to steal my heart, I watched as satellites and shooting stars crisscrossed over the mountain bordered bay. It was one of those magic moments that could always use another ten minutes. Any morning you wake up surrounded by mountains is a good morning, plus the next day the skies were clear and it was Easter so I decided to treat myself to a nice Easter brunch after I repacked everything at the municipal campground. Unfortunately I discovered a veritable plague of terrible slow moving beetles clinging to everything. I wouldn’t have cared so much except that they stain a bright mustard yellow when squished. One wouldn’t ordinarily think much of that either, except for how easy they are to squish. It’s as if they were born without an exoskeleton. Half of my clothes and my tent now looked like they had been through a dijon mustard party. The bus pulled out of Wanaka and we caught a sentimental series of loopdeloops and aerial displays as we passed by the airshow. While I didn’t see NASA’s balloon, I was able to glimpse the USAF Globemaster transport on its way back from the show to Christchurch. The runway was long enough for it in Wanaka, but the small airport reportedly couldn’t handle the plane’s massive weight so it was only scheduled to do some low maneuvers and return to base. I was excited to see it. Further out, the bus passed some exquisite rock formations just southwest of Omarama and I briefly lamented my lack of personal transportation. Other than that, Lake Pukaki just north of Twizel turned out to be an exceptional and unexpected gem. Milky teal waters brighter than the sky opened up beside the road. At the far end of the lake stood New Zealand’s highest mountain, Mt. Cook, poised in majesty. It might have been one of the most surreal views to date on the trip, but the bus didn’t even slow down. I had heard from two girls back in Hokitika that there is an incredible little known hike at the far end of the lake, but you almost assuredly need a car to get there. Lake Tekapo was alright, but my impression was that its reputation may be a little overstated. Picturesque views of arid mountains bordering a pristine lake make for a nice afternoon, but I was happy I wasn’t staying much longer. The town was much smaller than expected and there wasn’t much to do, so I contented myself by the water next to a stone church and soaked in the afternoon. I didn’t especially feel like cooking dinner that evening so I bought a bag of chips and a soda at the grocery store. Partway through, I could hear my mother 8,507 (I measured it) miles away, scolding me for my nutritional choices so I poured out the rest of 32
the soda and went back to the store and bought an entire head of broccoli. “That should do it,” I thought vindictively to myself as I returned to the lakeshore, but about halfway through gnawing my raw vegetable a caterpillar crawled out. While it might have counted for some unexpected protein, the idea that I may have already consumed some of its friends was enough to subdue my appetite. I’m not sure how everything worked out, but I figured the meal was a wash. After eating only food that won’t spoil in a backpack for long enough, there’s a sense of desperation for fresh food or really any sort of variety other than apples, peanut butter and jelly, bread, bread, bread, or ramen. Did I mention bread? Also bread. I managed to hitchhike all the way from Tekapo to Dunedin in a day. A German photographer took me to Timaru where I was quickly picked up by a car of Frenchies. It was an unexpected treat to see the Moeraki boulders on the way down. They dropped me off at Dunedin’s beautiful Victorian railway station and I made my way to the Octagon. Dunedin’s city centre is made up of concentric rings of city blocks surrounding an octagon shaped park in the center. Gorgeous gothic cathedrals line the perimeter with heavenly spires and flying buttresses. Cinemas, museums, a library, and the town hall all make up the octagonal facade, encapsulating various degrees of Victorian pomp. Quaint little coffee shops and ethnic restaurants fill in the gaps to provide a cultural focal point that is both sumptuous and engaging. There is a full scale brewery and chocolate factory within blocks either direction. Just a kilometer north, Dunedin hosts New Zealand’s largest college, the University of Otago and a polytechnic school. The student population of around twenty thousand students largely contributes to the feel of the town. I happened to be passing through over Easter break so the number of students was dramatically lower, but it retained a collegiate atmosphere. I had wanted to reconnect with my friend Tiree from the tram back in Auckland just to do it since we had stayed in touch, but we missed each other by a day as she went home for Easter. There was plenty to explore on my own. After some obligatory tourism and a nonstop jog up the 380 meters of the world’s steepest road, Baldwin Street, I grabbed my gear and headed out to the Otago peninsula. It looked so much closer on the map. I made it about halfway there after an emergency bathroom stop where I had to pretend to be interested in buying industrial hardware at a warehouse before someone finally picked me up. It was a relaxed surfer from a local farm who gave me a ride all the way out to Sandfly beach. I love that people are capable of such spontaneous generosity. I was out on that beach to see the penguins, that’s why I was there. I had read about it on the internet so I knew this was the place. The beach it seems, rather than being named after New Zealand’s most hated insect, was instead titled after the way the sand flies off its dunes. I too, decided that that was a pretty stupid thing to name a beach after. There used to be a public hide on the far end of the shore where visitors could get out of sight, allowing the timid penguins out of the water and up to their nests in the dunes beyond, but apparently the dune had eroded and it was torn down. It started to rain so I built a quick fort from some leftover lumber near the hide and waited under my makeshift roof. As the rain let up, I nestled myself in some of the thick dune grass and did my best to wait for these penguins the internet had 33
told me about. The chilly rain picked up again and the constant wet ocean wind only made things colder. I became distinctly aware of how much more frigid one feels without movement. No penguins. I was told six o’clock and it was now seven. No penguins. I even made up a song I sang to myself about wanting to see some penguins, but it didn’t change a thing. Other people showed up so I stopped singing my song since it was a weird song anyway, but now it was almost dark and the birds were nowhere to be seen. I went to bed disappointed in the dunes and woke early the next morning to make the trek out to a nearby natural rock arch called Lover’s Leap. I had the day to kill so I called my parents since it seemed appropriate after two months. A short hike further brought me to an outstanding panorama of Allan’s Beach from the top of a rocky ocean bluff. After a short nap, I decided to test out how much my white wool sweater looked like a sheep by trying to infiltrate a nearby herd. It turns out not at all. Worth a shot. That evening, I set up farther down the beach, opposite the place I hadn’t seen any penguins. I heard a little voice in my head telling me to go all the way down to the other end, since by staying in the middle I was making a conservative bet. “Yah ok,” I thought, and headed further even though it was nearing 6pm. As I grew closer, I could see a short little flicker of black and white waddling up the end of the beach. A penguin! It was so cute I almost died. Regaining my composure, I made sure to keep my distance and remain hidden in the long dune grasses while I whipped out my telephoto lens for some long distance photography. I was all by myself and it was great. Another penguin trotted out of the sea and across the beach. These were Dunedin yellow eyed penguins and only came out one or two at a time, unlike the more common but nocturnal blue penguins who came out of the water after dark in larger numbers farther north up the coast. It was a real treat made more special since I hadn’t seen any the night before. Two more came out of the water before I went to bed which seemed to satisfy a handful of gawking Chinese tourists who must have gotten lost and wandered out onto the beach a little bit later. I kept waiting for one of them to get chomped by a sea lion they were crowding for selfies but it never happened. The next morning I began the long walk back to town. The beach was more popular in the evening and I didn’t want to wait for a ride in the afternoon. I hadn’t made it more than three kilometers when a kindly old bus driver named Bryan pulled over and offered me a ride. I hadn’t even asked. I was back in town before eleven. I booked one more night at the same hostel in town since the services were good when I had stayed there a few days before. My only complaint had been an incredibly loud and intoxicated group of deviants who had disrupted a previous entire night of sleep, but I figured they must be long gone by now or at least regretting their life choices. Unfortunately, they had seemingly found replacements to carry on the debauchery. When you head to bed and still haven’t met anyone from your dorm room you know you’re in for it. As it were, I slept soundly until four in the morning when I could hear loud shouting on the street below. “Please don’t be my roommates,” I recall thinking in a groggy haze. They were. I must say, these people were infinitely louder in person than the alley echoes seemed to presume. While 34
having the circumstantial courtesy of not turning on all of the lights this time, the drunken clatter and exclamatory conversation was enough to rouse a home for the deaf. Floors creaking, beds shaking, walls trembling; I had wished it were an earthquake but this was no bucketlist item. In fact, one of them caught the urge to listen to loud U.K. rap and pair it with some version of drunk karaoke. The rest of the room pleaded for him to stop to no avail. After some time, he eventually grew tired of being a giant butt and passed out watching YouTube on his phone. I was tempted to throw his phone out the window or at the very least hide it in a potted plant, but neither of these approaches seemed worth the risk of waking the beast. Conversely, this despicable human being is the only person I’ve met capable of entrepreneurial activity while asleep. He must have felt ambitious, because in no time at all he was operating an entire lumber yard in the upper bunk, complete with machinery noises. I didn’t know how he did it, and I didn’t care. I grabbed my pillow and duvet and slept in the lounge. In the morning as I packed my belongings, I spotted a bug with some large pincers crawling out of my bag, presumably from the sand dunes . I made sure this insect found its way into a special someone’s bed. Everyone needs a friend, and after last night I guessed this fellow might be short on them. Before my bus left Dunedin I had an opportunity to tour the famous Cadbury chocolate factory that operated in town. Coming from a product design background and having just finished an exciting semester filled with many factory floor tours, I jumped at the chance to see the machinery that made chocolate en masse, especially by a company so renowned as Cadbury. I quickly made a number of interesting discoveries after starting the tour. It turns out we spent a grand total of no time watching how actual chocolate was made, but rather were ferried about to a collection of classroomlike “learning” areas where plump tourists were encouraged to stuff their faces with a generous assortment of the factory’s offerings. I was disappointed that I could have learned more in fifteen minutes on YouTube than in our hour long tour, but I don’t blame them for wanting to keep a bunch of slobbering sugar addicts out of their food safe environments. I had a sample at the beginning of our uninspiring journey and could eat no more. The sickly smell of sugar in the air lingered about like American waistlines. It was like walking around the SweetUms factory from the show “Parks & Recreation” with lots of illustrated chubby workers holding brightly colored signs and a culture merrily oblivious to the amount of sugar being consumed. I love tasty treats like ice cream and cookies and good dark chocolate, but this was merely the rebranding of the same milk chocolate and marshmallows with gooey jellies under different colors, shapes, and artificial flavors. It was enough to make your teeth hurt. In fact, I’m pretty sure the only thing I got out of my tour was a cavity simply by walking through. The one highlight was a small screen I found in a corner of one of the rooms that artistically displayed a video of industrial machines in a seamless collage of production. Whoever made that was my hero. I needed to go eat some vegetables. Invercargill seemed a bit nondescript except for a few poignant pieces of architecture, some memorials, and a large botanical garden. I got the sense that it had some history to it, but that 35
it was about as far from being a hub of cultural activity as it could be. Invercargill does have one interesting aspect, and that’s that the corner of WoodlandsInvercargill Highway and Dee Street in town remains the furthest point south I have traveled to date. After sleeping in a large bush near the bus stop, I planned to ride from Invercargill to Queenstown, followed by Queenstown to Te Anau the next day. After a bus change in Mossburn however, the 60 kilometers left to Te Anau seemed ridiculous to require two more buses and another day. So I skipped the next two buses and hitchhiked with a kindly outdoorsman named Grant. As it were, Grant also had a boat. I picked up groceries quick in Manapouri while Grant picked up his woman Shelley who had picked up beer. She picked up a lot of beer. I had planned to start the Kepler track in Te Anau, but Grant offered to take me there across the lake and cut out some boring forest, plus he had beer. Drinks on the glasslike water surrounded by fjordland were the way to go. Glad I hitched. The plan was to spend as many nights as I could on the Kepler Track since every night I didn’t pay for a hostel got my budget back in the black. Sometimes friends from home would ask me if I got lonely, but I never had the chance considering the constant companionship of every sandfly in the national park. I got dropped off past Moturau hut and I did my best to camp out of sight. I had been told that as long as it was 500 meters off the track it was legal and I didn’t especially want to look up any more information, preferring instead a willful ignorance. I was always clean and left no waste and no trace. Other than not paying an absurd $54 a night to sleep on the equivalent of a prison mattress, I couldn’t think what might upset a lover of nature. After two increasingly colder nights, I decided it was time to cover some ground. To my dismay I had inflamed a tendon in my left knee (a medical student friend from back home named Ashley made up a fancy term so I would take her advice) and the ibuprofen which had been mitigating swelling had run out. Joint movement resulted in shooting pain, and understandably this wasn’t ideal on a 60 kilometer trek. I reckoned the damage occurred back in Dunedin when I ran to the top of Baldwin Street. The pain was bearable then, but soon I could no longer run and walking became a burden. I spent that third night in the Hanging Valley emergency shelter two hours from Iris Burn hut and perhaps four from Luxmore. Ordinarily I might have camped since I hadn’t seen the signs prohibiting it having been dropped off partway in and from the less popular direction, although I got there early and felt reasonably entitled to stay with my burdensome injury. Just before arriving at the shelter I ran into Frans and Hans again. We simply stared at each other in disbelief. I met them sharing a dorm room back in Hokitika and had already run into them hiking through the rain at Franz Josef and later climbing Roy’s Peak in Wanaka. Yet here we were, staring at each other on a mountain ridge for a fourth chance meeting after having personally put on over 500 kilometers since the last one. It was uncanny. I never learned their real names, but I think that was part of the charm. After getting to the emergency shelter, I quickly realized that three Belgians by the names of Gilles, Merlin, and Donovan were planning on staying there as well. We wanted to stay outside as long as possible since it would be better for plausible deniability if our belongings 36
were not set up in the shelter should some straggling hikers stop through and feel the need to inform a ranger at the next hut. Sightseeing helicopters and small planes fly through scenic areas constantly, so we didn’t think much of one nearby until we were buzzed by a low approach. My blazeorange windbreaker was meant for the event of a mountain rescue but in this instance denied all furtive ability. I happened to be standing while one of them sat and the other two were laying down resting in the grass. I knew we had been made. While we were mostly sure that no one would set out to write us fines in the middle of the night given our distance from the two closest huts, there was a relative certainty that rangers would be looking for hikers fitting our descriptions the following day. My only notes from that wretched shelter are: “Cold night, little sleep, zero comfort.” The next day, we parted ways before dawn in some of the thickest mist I’ve ever seen. The track was all but invisible past a few feet so I felt safe enough wearing my identifying windbreaker to ward off the high winds and light drizzle. Far below, I could hear the shrill cries of elusive keas as they left their roosts to scavenge in the valleys. Since I was traveling in the opposite direction of just about everyone, I developed a false sense of security that perhaps they would not be looking for me. This sentiment was quickly dispelled by the rough tone of a ranger as I stopped by the Luxmore hut to refill my water. The next hikers would have been hours behind me if they left from the closest hut, and we both knew it. There was no point in lying. Corroborated by the fact that I was wearing the same jacket their helicopter spotted the night before, I had no choice but to explain that my knee became too painful to continue after I ran out of antiinflammatory medication. This was partly true, but while I had even memorized the name of the ranger at the previous hut in case I needed to leverage it, none of this accounted for the fact that I didn’t have a permit for any of the huts. The gruff mountain ranger paused for what felt like eternity before he spoke. I’m not sure why, but he let me off the $150 hook. Rangers were still looking for the two other Belgians, and at the time I didn’t feel like telling him there were three. They were good guys, and I wanted to give them a sporting chance. On the way down, I explored what I could of Luxmore cave, but my injury kept me from a thorough investigation. A Swiss climber asked about my limp on his way up the mountain. I recounted as much as I knew, and he kindly offered me a ride into town if we reached the carpark close to each other. I figured he would be up and back down by the time I arrived since I was going on eight and a half hours that day with a heavy pack and an uncooperative knee. He showed up right on schedule. Ice cream, shower, Lord of the Rings. That’s all I wanted. I was pretty antisocial the next four days as my leg healed. For what it lacks in activity, Te Anau makes up for in peace. It was a great place to recover. Still quiet waters of the largest lake in Australasia stretch around the town’s quasipeninsula, reflecting the backdrop of fiordland in calm serenity. There’s not much to note other than that I found myself eating a lot of croissants for some reason. Queenstown was a lot smaller than I had been lead to believe. Also, the repulsion of excessive tourism seemed nowhere to be found. I loved Queenstown, and while some may object, I found there to be an engaging balance of culture and nightlife that left plenty to do. 37
The town is incredibly picturesque, surrounded on all sides by either lakefront or majestic mountain slopes. At a local market, I said hello to a vendor I had met back in Wanaka and explored the charming avenues, wandering from shop to shop. As I crossed a street, someone called my name from the other side it was my Israeli friend Nitai from Takaka! After cordially embracing each other and catching up from the past month, we had a fun night out involving a mechanical bull and a bachelorette party at an Americanthemed bar, taking in the Queenstown nightlife of which there was plenty. Almost nothing feels as good as getting a long needed haircut so I took advantage of the first rainy day in Queenstown. The remainder of my spare time there consisted of reading “At Home” by Bill Bryson in the local library and renewing an unexpected love affair with the Pita Pit restaurant chain. Maybe it’s something odd in Queenstown’s water supply, but I started having vivid and incredible dreams. While I won’t relate them all, it’s worth mentioning at least what I can remember of one. I became lucid in a strange alternate version of Alaska where the climate, culture, and topography were completely different. I was part of a small party fleeing Anchorage for a refuge far off in the mountains. It was not much like the real Alaska at all for it was far more populous and those that populated it belonged to various medieval clans and cultural peoples. Back in Anchorage (not the real Anchorage of course, but some parallel version of it) there had been a vast biological plague. I hesitate to use the word “zombies,” but people grew horrendously diseased and died with an alarming rate of contagion. As my companions and I fled the population center, we watched as our own government detonated nuclear arms over its citizens in an attempt to curb the outbreak. There was no telling, but I got the impression that we weren’t at the biological epicenter of this affliction. If a plague spreads as far as Alaska you know you’re in a bad spot, presumably because all of the warmer areas were already wiped out, save a few isolated archipelagos. Whether it was a government bunker or an orbital space station, people must have survived elsewhere to launch the missiles, but as to where was anyone’s guess. As we escaped town, a nuke detonated overhead and I anticipated the shockwave shredding me cell from cell. It must have been a different weapon instead, because the blast felt strangely more moderate. After that brief pause, we made our somber way along the coast towards the hills, anticipating an ultimate death from radiation poisoning. Passing through a hostile clan of humanoid creatures, we barely escaped with our waning lives and lost most of our few possessions. For whatever reason, a frozen chocolate malt was the only edible thing that had made it through this madness and so it was divided into what we presumed to be our last meal. Along the way, passage was marked on a map which allowed us to take note of any danger should we need to return. There were compelling complexities along the way which grew foggy to my waking mind. The last thing I can recall is hiding from a threatening horseman among the ferns along a steep path after he picked off one of my companions with a spear. Once the horseman left, the remaining few of us made our way uphill and into a narrow gully lined by strange trees. As we stopped briefly, the trees began to move. What began as swaying turned into a slow but ominous march as the forest began to encroach and crowd us in. We noticed further that somehow these trees had the beaks of various birds and seemed now very intent on trapping 38
us as they advanced from all sides. Right when we thought we were about to be the first humans dissected by beaked trees in a medieval nuclear zombie apocalypse, a low flute blew from the other end of the gully. Strangely the trees began to retreat as though repulsed by its melodic properties. A different horseman rode up, clothed differently and more splendidly than the first and bid we follow him with haste. Right as we escaped the treacherous gully I opened my eyes. Dreams are weird. I feel the Asian tourists in Queenstown deserve a special comment. Visitors to New Zealand are approximately 30% German, 10% French, 10% Scandinavian, 20% English high school girls, 10% other, and 20% Chinese. The first thing you’ll notice is that if you find one group of Chinese tourists, the rest of the tour bus isn’t far behind. These are people who don’t stray far from the crowd. I’ve seldom met an Asian tourist hiking on their own or straying far from the stereotype. Most dress like they either recently finished a runway show highlighting exotic new materials or got very excited about the fall catalogue in the latest backpacker magazine. They have the best of everything, but apparently no idea how to use it’s potential. The majority of the Chinese tourists I’ve come across have cameras more expensive than my next car, yet use them to take selfies or pictures of ducks. They really like feeding ducks for some reason. I would say that maybe it’s because they don't have ducks in China, but I know that to be patently untrue. I have also most certainly derived private enjoyment toying with their tendency to dislike missing out. It started when I noticed that whenever a tour bus stops to let passengers off in a photogenic location, these guys go berserk. I’m reasonably unsure that many of them know what they’re actually taking pictures of if there isn’t a sign. In fact, I’ve literally watched as some of them take pictures of the sign itself and ignore the majestic view beyond. Getting to the point, when a large group of triggerhappy Chinese tourists would stroll along with cameras ready, I’ve found absurd pleasure taking pictures nearby in an animated manner as if something incredible were occurring. Not wanting to miss out on whatever may or may not be happening next to them, the group would often break into a photo frenzy, indiscriminately taking ambiguous selfies pointed in the general direction I was facing and clicking away aimlessly. I have nothing against Chinese tourists besides the fact that they have yet to figure out pedestrian travel. Other than that, I’ve found them more than agreeable in just about every encounter. This is not to group all Asian tourists under one umbrella. To be fair, from the small amount of time I’ve spent in Japan, the Japanese are far better pedestrians than any other culture I’ve come across. It’s simply the Chinese mode of tourism that I find fascinating: that they would fly to the other side of the world to ride around on private buses exclusively with members of their own countries to take pictures next to a famous rock or do whatever their travel guide says. I suppose plenty of Westerner stereotypes carry over as well. I would like to think that there’s a hilarious “American tourist” stereotype in China that entertains them as much as they do us. One evening, I decided to stroll up to the top of the Skyline gondola. The hike up crosses under people zip lining high above in the trees and winds through an inviting mountain bike park. I can only speak for myself, but I find dirt paths that jump, curve, wind, and drop 39
dramatically through the trees to be almost irresistible. Toward the top, I expected the last bit of road to have open skies, but instead the road darkened as it wound through dense evergreen forest, heavy with the nostalgic smell of pine. Up at the gondola, the panoramic views were more rewarding than I had hoped as I ordered a beer and waited for night to fall. After doing some night photography and screwing up a beautiful time lapse part way through by bumping my tripod, I prepared for the dark walk down. My phone was dead and I didn’t have a light so I was going to use my camera’s display screen for a dim flashlight. Immediately it seemed like a bad idea, so I opted to suck up the ticket for a gondola ride back down. For some reason, it was at a point after dark where they no longer charged to go down as a smiling attendant informed me when I tried to buy a ticket. That in turn made me smile as I enjoyed a glimmering descent into Queenstown on the house. My flight out to Milford Sound was unexpectedly canceled due to inclement weather on the coast, despite excellent local conditions. While I was certainly disappointed to miss a key destination of my trip, it freed up funds to go flyboarding (look it up), bungy jumping, and blow NZD $150 on a ten minute Seabreacher ride the next day. Admittedly the idea was pretty cool since not too many speedboats can submerge completely and return in working order or happen to be shaped like dolphins, but I thought it was a tad steep for only ten minutes. I considered asking if the ride came with complementary blowjobs for the amount we spent but thought better of it. While I waited for my booking, I sat down next to an old man on a bench and struck up a conversation. The first thing he did was offer me some of the homemade sausages that he had with him and I ate some before I realized what they were. In my defense, I didn’t hear him clearly and the fact that they were square shaped and that no one ever carries around homemade sausages had led me to initially believe that they were some sort of breakfast pastry which might pair well with my coffee. Weird start aside, it turned out he relocated campervans for a living throughout New Zealand and used to drive limos in Sydney. Unbeknownst to him at the time, he had driven around the likes of Quentin Tarantino and one of the older James Bonds. As I left for my Seabreacher experience, I realized abruptly that the booking agent had said “the boat leaves at 11:30,” not “be there at 11:30,” which made itself more than clear as my transport began to pull away from the dock. Lucky for me, the agent saw me walking over and had just enough time to run down the pier to stall the boat and toss me a lifejacket. I was too embarrassed to dwell on the fact I was now spending $15 a minute. When I climbed from the Seabreacher’s cockpit a short while later, I was more than assured I had gotten my money’s worth. At the time, Queenstown was the only place in the world commercially operating Seabreachers despite their being made in northern California. All other sales to date had been to the sort of people who own superyachts with jet ski ports and helicopter pads. Only a total of 94 had currently been made. Since I didn’t know any Saudi princes or tech moguls, I was happy to have had the experience. This machine was the threeway mechanical lovebaby of a fighter jet, a jetski, and a submarine. Best thing ever. I was left with no regrets other than not having an extra $65,000. 40
The road to Glenorchy is supposed to be one of the most scenic in New Zealand so I set my sights there and stuck out my thumb. Like most places on south island, it didn’t take long to get picked up. After getting out in Glenorchy, I wanted to get closer to the snowcapped peak of Mount Earnslaw that I had seen on the way up. When I leaned in to ask the next car that pulled over where they were headed, a young woman of the Asian persuasion stuck her head out the window and in broken English exclaimed: “WearegotoParadise!” Now I didn’t know where that was, but it sounded nice so I hopped in the car. Although we never made it to “Paradise” due to unfavorable road conditions, the French couple living in Thailand made for a fun hitch. The woman was born in Rangoon, Myanmar, and enjoyed poking fun at Asian tourists which I found amusing. That night and the next, I camped at the edge of Mount Aspiring National Park and decided autumn had fully arrived. The morning frost and lack of feeling in my extremities made that more than clear. Still, the weather was fine for that next day and provided perhaps one of the nicest afternoons of my entire trip, laying in the sun on alpine mosses high above the Earnslaw Burn on a massive ridge surrounded by mountains in every direction. The views were spectacular and the silence was phenomenal. No one else took these trails except mountain goats and I was humbled at the lonely privilege. Sharp peaks stretched in every direction as far as I could see and under a cloudless blue sky I faced the looming grandeur of Mount Earnslaw with the glacier at its heart. I was transfixed. I always feel a certain sadness coming down off the tops after a long hike: in part because of the energy spent getting there, but also to abandon the incredible views that so few get. I ate my meals in the middle of a glacial stream on what I dubbed “the Breakfast Log.” It was a tree trunk that had fallen out into the middle of an icecold creek forming a sort of natural bridge and founding a tiny rock island. Clear water flowed around and underneath everything in seamless liquid movement. Speaking of which, coffee while camping seems a luxury until you find yourself without facilities. I figured it was only a matter of time before I wiped my butt with the wrong leaf and underwent some hallucinogenic backwoods experience. Back in Queenstown, I discovered my boots had recently upgraded themselves from badsmelling footholders to biological weapon status. Two and a half months of solid hiking had taken their toll and I was starting to get selfconscious about them now that I around other people again. I would say it reached a peak when I went to buy pants from a local Salvation Army thrift store. As I took off my boots in the changing room, I heard a muffled “Oh, God,” from the cashier, followed by intermittent air freshener blasts around the store. I just about died in that booth of both laughter and embarrassment. I’m uncertain whether or not she figured out that my hiking boots were the agent of such destruction, but I quickly made a purchase and left the store. Back at the lakefront hostel, I tried to be considerate by leaving them outside the room, but that apparently wasn’t far enough away, because one of the staffers moved them all the way outside. After some industrial cleaner the threat was neutralized, but the shame hung around like a sad little cloud. Refreshing sleep maintained its scarcity even though my body was no longer keeping me conscious all night to avoid hypothermia because my dormmates were doing the job. I couldn’t recall the last night I 41
woke up rested. With the fatigue, I began to interact with people less. Perhaps I just didn’t have the energy for any more one or two day friendships. Regardless, Queenstown was a nice place to end the majority of my time in New Zealand. It is definitely a place to come back to with money and some friends. Even though I couldn’t afford 95% of the town, the atmosphere was unbeatable. I got into Sydney, Australia, after a delayed flight and slept in an airport lounge that night. I was so tired I ended up sleeping better than the hostels. At this point in the trip, my budget was about $25 USD a day. After taking the train into town the following morning, I realized that nothing opens early in this hemisphere and was forced to wait around in a local park admiring exotic birds as the day slowly rose off its haunches. In the park, I met an elderly man named Stephan who was walking his dog and we chatted for a short while. I had perhaps an hour to go before a hardware store opened where I could buy rope for some illadvised canyoning in Blue Mountains National Park. I had a halfbaked plan per the usual. In the meantime, he invited me back to his apartment nearby for breakfast and tea. Since I hadn’t eaten for some time, the invitation was gladly accepted. He lived with his friend John and they excitedly showed me plans to renovate their multimillion dollar place and start renting on AirBnB. It was an openarmed welcome to Australia and a nice way to spend the morning. The train ride out to Katoomba was enjoyable and the time passed quickly chatting with a Canadian girl who I met waiting on the platform before. She had done the classic PeruCuba PhilippinesAustralia six month trip so there was plenty to talk about. I’ve come to the conclusion that I prefer my travel in smaller doses. To me, traveling is like eating fine food: highly enjoyable at first but after long stretches you quickly forget how good you’ve got it. Either way, we had a nice stroll down to the “Three Sisters” limestone rock formation at the edge of town which I had heard of but had no idea was within walking distance. It had been raining, but just as we arrived the clouds cleared and an afternoon sun came out to reveal expansive plateaus and staggering vertical limestone cliffs. The gentle scent of eucalyptus forests down in the valleys wafted up to the lookouts as colorful parrots flew overhead. We could just as easily have been in the highlands of Venezuela with such an exotic tableau. The cliffs were also reminiscent of parts of Tianmen Mountain National Park in China that inspired the floating mountains of Pandora in James Cameron’s “Avatar.” Not bad for my first day in the country. After an inspiring hike up and down a long chain of very vertical stairs we parted ways and I retrieved my bags from where I had left them back in town. Heading back to the rocks I was hopeful for a dramatic sunset but was mildly disappointed. While the sunset let me down, the onset of night held a pleasant surprise. After all the dumb tourists had left and even the last of the lingering photographers wandered off, I finally had the glorious expanse to myself. Right as I was preparing to leave, as it was now quite dark, a massive floodlight burst on below the viewing terrace to illuminate the Three Sisters in spectacular light. It was a special treat that I was alone to see. None of that day had been planned and all of it was marvelous. That viewing platform marked the furthest extent of my travels, landing me 9,046 miles from home back in Shoreview, Minnesota. 42
At this point nearing the end of my trip I had long prioritized experiences over everyday comforts. As such, I was now choosing to experience food rather than sleep at hostels. Since the idea of getting any actual sleep at hostels was by now a bit oxymoronic, I figured I’d get better sleep on my own anyway. As long as I didn’t step on any snakes in the darkness or get robbed in the last three days of unplanned accommodation I figured I’d be fine. Rather than set up a tent, risk being seen, and have to take it down in the morning, I opted to use my sleeping bag in an artificial rock park shelter. It’s unsettling the amount of things you wake up to when you’re sleeping in a park. Every footstep, every passing conversation, any animals you see crossing outside; raindrops that sounded like gravelly footsteps in the middle of the night: each of these contribute to an ebbing state of alertness powered by tiny spurts of adrenaline . It’s odd how quickly the mind races to establish solutions to potential situations. When engaging in illicit slumber, it is also required that one wakes up as soon as the first people are awake so as not to be caught where one not ought. It generated a special hatred for ambitious early morning joggers. Why these people see fit to go on runs before the sun makes an appearance is beyond me. When morning came at long last, I made it down to the cliffs once more with the gaggle of earlymorning photographers. If I hadn’t seen them a few other times while I waited for spectacular sunrises, I wouldn’t have believed that such a strange cult exists. They arrive before dawn and disperse again like a secret society before the first tourist rolls out of bed. It was here that I found enchanting views of misted mountains and early flocks of cockatoos roosting in the trees. Smaller colorful parrots with burnt red heads, a shimmering green back, and bright blue under their wings picked through grasses and various bushes. It was a precious last glimpse before fog rolled in and obscured everything beyond. My next stop was the Claustral Canyon. The Claustral Canyon was, as per the usual on this trip, further than I anticipated. Luckily the train went farther than I anticipated. I hopped back on from Katoomba to Mount Victoria, essentially cutting the eight to nine hour walk in half. Of course that still left 22.5 kilometers. The notion google gave that Victoria Falls road stayed an actual road for more than the first few kilometers was entirely false and misleading. Luckily it ended up being far better than I imagined and dropped me into the middle of canyon country hiking trails. These were far more rugged and remote than New Zealand’s trails and consequently more enjoyable. Furthermore, while the only thing you had to worry about dying from in New Zealand’s bush was boredom, here I had the added thrill of literally any snake, spider, or insect being loaded with enough poison to drop a horse. I found a strange comforting acceptance of death in that at least if I died, it would be canyoning in Australia and not in some dumb nursing home. As you might have guessed from reading this, I didn’t die, although I did have some close calls on incredibly slippery rocks. The morning of my 24th birthday I set out to tackle the Claustral Canyon. Milford Sound and the Claustral Canyon had been the two mustsee gems of my trip, and so far I had seen neither of them. As I headed down the road to where the track reportedly started, I was glad that I had taken the initiative to make it back out of the canyons before last night. It wasn’t long before two girls were kind enough to pick me up and 43
drop me off a few kilometers up the road. Once there, it took a while to find the path since it wasn’t publicized at all and there were no signs. Generally the thought must have been that anyone heading in must be well prepared to know where they were headed. Fortunately I had done my research. Unfortunately I was lacking in the equipment and experience department. Up until a couple weeks before, I had counted on the financial assistance of three Aussie friends to split the cost of some rope, a rock climbing harness, and an abseil device. They bailed due to various circumstances, leaving me on my own. I was used to this, in fact, that’s what started my independent travels: great friends who couldn’t seem to collect themselves enough for an adventure. Regardless, all I could afford were some crappy hardware store ropes and a sad little karabiner. As I made my way down the track, I realized how generously the term had been applied. “Track” seemed to predicate a general starting point, but after that any slight opening in the dense foliage perhaps allowing human passage fit the bill. A machete would have helped quite a lot. After doing my best to collect every spider web in the vicinity, I finally found the creek that led into the slot canyon. Not that this was remarkably better. When I wasn’t wading through murky pools or sliding off logs, I continued to bushwhack my way through the temperamental plants that obstructed my way. It was slow going, and the cuts I received called to mind why they are called “blades” of grass. Once I had finished slipping over every mosscovered rock I could find, I finally made it to what I thought was the first abseil. Unfortunately that was also incorrect as it just happened to be a small waterfall which I approached from the wrong direction after having lost the path long ago. It did however give me a chance to test out my ropes and come to the disappointing realization that I had left my lone karabiner back up the road a few kilometers. I persisted, rather than giving up after coming so far and found myself now in a dark and deepening canyon. Vegetation gave way to large rock formations and the stream plunged on down below. When I got to the first abseil, I discovered what I was up against. I managed to lower my dry bag down to the bottom and looped the first of my ropes around a tree. It was here I came to grasp that if I pulled down my rope after descending, there would be no getting it back up around the tree. Even if I had my karabiner weighing down the end, it would be impossible to sling it back up through the “keyhole” as it was called. The first abseil follows a small waterfall down through an hourglassshaped hole in the rock, ten meters to a dark chamber below. Ten meters sounds better than thirty five feet, considering I didn’t have a harness and was free climbing down a wet rope through a waterfall on slippery rocks. Luckily there were good footholds, because I slipped down the last bit of rope at the bottom. This left me in a predicament. Every soppingwet dirtcovered part of me wanted to explore further into the deepening wonder below, but I could not pull down the first rope if I wanted a chance of getting out. If I pulled it down and somehow made it through the next two abseils without falling to my death, a likelihood which was constantly increasing, then the best case scenario would be to make it out of the other side of the canyon, back into the depths of the Blue Mountains National Park and a full day’s walk from my tent and gear. Conversely, if I made it down the next abseil and then decided that fifty feet straight down clinging to wet hardware store rope spelled certain death, I would have no alternative of return and would be stuck 44
indefinitely. Given the state of the trail above, I guessed it could be a matter of weeks before anyone else came through. I climbed back up my rope, out of the canyon, and pushed back through the bushes until I was once again up on the road. It was tough giving up the second of two keystone attractions on my trip, having made it to the literal doorstep of each. As it were, I would have to add it to the growing list of places to revisit once my bank account resembled that of a responsible adult. Despite not seeing either Milford Sound or the Claustral Canyon, I was still able to enjoy the rest of the day on a vertical cliff called Wall’s Lookout, majestically poised over the canyons below. It was truly incredible to behold and no picture could do it justice. Some base jumpers even came by later and parachuted off the cliff into the valley. They informed me that they got into base jumping back in the States, hopping off bridges out in Idaho. I penciled it in for later. Not a bad start to twenty four. I couldn’t sleep as I had eaten too much dark chocolate that evening to celebrate my birthday. There was a full moon rising and I couldn't resist the urge to hike back out to the cliffs to watch the moon come up over such a pronounced canyon. I only got a short view before clouds moved in, but it was a nice trip. Throughout these few days, I hadn’t seen any land mammals and the largest thing to skirt the trail were a few lizards. The bearded dragons were gone now, and the only eyes picked up by my headlamp as I hiked back were those of medium sized spiders. Any arachnophobia I had was pretty mild, so I was content to coexist as long as we didn’t bother each other, but there were plenty of species around. I didn’t see any huge ones, but tiny spiders were in abundance as well as all manner of webs from which to choose: from wide netting on the ground and in low bushes, to funnel webs tucked away in plant leaves and burrows in the ground. There were also some enormous ants, measuring almost an inch in length . One type of spider caught my attention which I looked up upon my return: P honognatha graeffei , or the Leaf Curling Spider, weaves a large pancake sized web between two bushes and pulls a long leaf into the center. Originally I had thought how uncanny it was that a leaf should fall so perfectly into the center of a spider web, until I noticed that they all had them. The spider actually uses its webbing to roll the leaf lengthwise into something of a straw, and then conceals itself at the center of the web. I could only see the legs sticking out, but such activity struck me as cunning and rather exotic. I didn’t see any koalas, but I did see a kangaroo: dead on the side of the road. After returning from my foray into the Blue Mountains, the last few days of the trip were spent touring Sydney. I was lucky enough to meet up with a good friend from home who came in from Melbourne with her study abroad companions. The days went by fast, and the nights faster. Without going into endless detail, Sydney is a stunning, thriving, and active city that set new standards for quality of life in a dense metropolitan area. It is a place I highly suggest one see should you be afforded an opportunity to travel. I certainly left enough unseen to warrant another visit. My friend Isaac, who I met two years ago in a New Orleans hostel, was kind enough to host me during my stay. We even rented out an apartment downtown in the central business district for Saturday night. It was a blast. Besides a hilarious teambased scavenger competition of our own devising that ran through the course 45
of the evening, Isaac and his friend Peter gave us the local circuit of unique bars. They were the tour guides we never expected and the generous hosts we couldn’t thank enough. Starting off with some “goon” (an Aussie term for cheap bag wine), we rented out a private karaoke room for an hour and passed from bar to bar, intermittently astonished at the bouncers who were extraordinarily strict. No shots after midnight; no reentry for any exit after 1:30am (although you’re fine remaining in the bar as long as you like apparently); snap judgements about sobriety that are nowhere close to scientifically based; it was quite the ride. Peter took us to a bar where he used to work and got us all sorts of special access which was a pleasant way to end the night. We collected lots of business cards, asked strangers on dates in made up languages, and took plenty of pictures in other people’s glasses. After one member of the party found himself spending more time outside of bars than in, we called it quits. I should note that the revelry decided to call it quits approximately one member at a time, and that I found myself playing Charon, mythological ferryman of the underworld, as I alone possessed the sole key to our Airbnb apartment high above. Trip by trip, I escorted somber souls to the land of hangovers for what felt like an eternity. When all was said and done, it was a charming evening full of friendship, outbursts of laughter, and the inescapable Donald Trump conversation. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world. It was difficult to say goodbye to Sydney and the first friends I had seen in three months as the sentimentality of my ending trip grew more real. Due to a characteristic mistake in my calendar, I found out just in time that I had entered my flight details in United States Central Time rather than the vastly more helpful Australian Eastern Standard Time. Landing back in Auckland, I found myself with an extra evening I hadn’t expected. In other circumstances this wouldn’t have mattered so much except that I was flat out of money for anything other than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the next 48 hours. Rather than try out for the Auckland Homeless Experience: Minnesota Edition, I opted to sleep in a chair at the international airport. While slightly more socially acceptable, I can’t pretend it involved much sleep. The last full day in Auckland involved visiting some of my favorite haunts from the beginning of my trip and a last night hosted once more by the generosity of Tess and Bill in their flat downtown. Come the next afternoon, I was ready to hop on my plane back home.
The Dark Side of Splendor It’s hard to leave the idea of travel behind. Every day you have the opportunity for new and exotic experiences, but life’s richness isn’t made up of exotic experiences, it’s made up of all the ordinary moments in between. It is what you take away from travel that’s going to influence those everyday experiences. Memories and fantastic tales of the things you’ve seen are one thing, but if you walk away unchanged I believe you’ve missed the fundamental point. This trip has been beautiful, difficult, and eyeopening for me. Living on a budget of 46
$20 USD a day by the end of the trip doesn’t provide much in the way of food and shelter, and having to frequently choose between accommodation and nourishment really opened my eyes to the many people who every day make those decisions. And yet even at some of the lowest moments, these were the people that helped me in my tiny little moments of despair: giving out of their own wantonness. There’s a certain freedom in losing control of these littlest things that’s hard to explain. I stopped worrying because each day took care of itself. When you surround yourself with other first world travelers, it’s easy to be envious of those who have more in relation and aren’t bothered dropping copious sums of money on a string of pleasures. But then you recognize that even if your parents didn’t fund an international trip, they still helped supply some means of it: whether that’s a car, an education, or even a place to stay once you get back penniless. I was able to spend until flat broke because I had a house to go home to and food on the table. I’ve even been able to get a college education that will massively raise my lifetime earning potential all because I wasn’t busy simply trying to survive. It is all too easy to forget where you’ve come from and with what, but this trip has opened my heart to empathize with others’ struggles, filled me with compassion, humbled me with the experience of living in another caste of society, increased my determination and value for hard work, and broadened the lens through which I see the world. Rich, poor, or somewhere in between, I hope remembering this experience helps me treat all people as equals and look out for those in need. Perhaps I’m prone to romanticize, but perhaps I’m not because dreams can die. They often do in the first world. It’s people like those I’ve met that keep them alive.
Meant to be an entertaining and informative narrative, goes well with beer.