Ten hours later, I awoke from a writer’s haze with ten pages of content and the owner of the café fiddling with the Wifi, indicating it was time I leave. I gallivanted down the cobblestone main street one last time, bought some trail mix and bananas, and took to the road. After an hour of head-bobbing-bus-dodging-mountain-pass-driving I settled into the next chapter of my trip and threw on the audiobook “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek. Fitting, given my goal for this adventure is to find my “why”.
I drove five hours the first day, stopping with local tour groups to take short walks and stretch my legs. I couldn’t imagine sitting on a bus all day seeing New Zealand through a window with an occasional pee break – with no time to chase animals or jump in lakes or pick up hitchhikers. In just three short weeks, travelling had already jaded me.
It was nice to be alone again – on the open road. With the wheel at my fingertips, everywhere to go, and no plans – I felt free. I felt the opportunity of the journey that lied ahead and inspired by what I could turn it into. Another challenge, another chapter.
Night one, I stopped at a small Indian operated hostel near Fox Glacier. It was attached to the local sports bar so I obviously had a beer or two – and then a bottle of wine, and then chatted up an older well-travelled English couple and some aussies, and then got lit with a chick from Portland. It was good; maybe I drank too much.
The next morning, I hit the road again – refreshed, and slightly hungover, on new connections and stories to share. Rain slowed my progress towards Arthur’s Pass but painted the rigid glacial mountain tops with dangling clouds – which was a sight to behold. Two hours into my ride, I spotted my first hitchhikers just outside Franz Josef – whom I duly slammed on my brakes for.
Tim and Becky were real travelers. Their backpack shoulder straps were adorned with bohemian sleeve guards, and their smiles were as bright as their shoes worn. Fatefully, we were both heading 200 kms north, so I told them to “jump on in” – words which seemed to escape my lips just a little too fast. Tim was a vivacious Belgian that laughed almost too much – but was an absolute joy to be around. Becky, conversely, maintained the quiet temperament of a German watching the speedometer more often than the surroundings. Tim was tall and lanky with an unkept beard, Becky clean and short with tight lips. We made small talk for an hour and I learned that they were both creators from Europe – Tim an artisan furniture builder and Becky a newly trained boat builder. Our conversation soon thickened to discuss politics, marketing, fate, spirituality, and lifestyle. Four hours later, when we arrived at Arthur’s Pass, we hadn’t solved any of the world’s problems but it was apparent that we were well aware of them.
The duo asked if I wanted to join them on the first section of their ten-day adventure down Te Araroa, NZ’s equivalent of the PCT, when we arrived to Arthur’s Pass – and having enjoyed their company, I agreed to tag along. I guess the feeling was mutual. We grabbed supplies and went in search of the trail head. I was eager to get back into my hiking boots.
The notion of trekking with seasoned hikers initially intimated me as I didn’t want to slow the group, but I quickly found a comfortable pace between Tim’s long strides and Becky’s brisk steps. The initial ascent was brutish as, once again, I had loaded my pack with much too much, but I was determined to deliver a gourmet meal on the trail to my new friends. The trail wound its way through the mountains of Arthur’s Pass shifting between overgrown mossy rainforests, thick pines, and wet open meadows dense with tall grass. Our pace was firm but we were slowed by the muddied trail which quickly crusted out boots and knees with dirt.
Upon arrival to Lagoon Saddle hut we explored the area noting the large “No Campfire” sign and lack of all basic amenities. A small sign on the hut door indicated another structure had been erected across a nearby stream which had recently fallen victim to a mudslide – making the trail to the hut rather treacherous with weight. The sister hut was sketchy – comprised of rusted metal panels and felt more like the set of a horror film than a proper DoC abode. It had a mattress, however, and with the addition of our wet boots and stinky sleeping bags, soon felt like home.
Settled into the meat shack, I wrestled with a small fire while preparing a beef mince dish with fried bacon and feta cheese, to high expectations. It was horrible. So bad, in fact, that I couldn’t help but laugh as I gagged it down. So much for the heavy pack and gourmet meal. To my defense, however, I didn’t have much time to coordinate the menu. My European counterparts prepared a delightful pasta dish of cottage cheese, feta cheese, scallions, garlic, and a splash of Chardonnay – accompanied by the rest of the bottle which we shelped up the hill. We sat around the campfire late into the evening nibbling on dark chocolate with small raindrops tickling our noses, bouncing between life stories and soothing silence, stoking the fire often.
In the morning, no one was in a rush to say goodbye. Over the course of just one day, I had entered these two hitchers lives as a savior only to become part of their cohort – part of the clan. I smile just writing that. Tim and Becky were a joy to be around – I hope to see them again.
My arrival back to the car was bittersweet but I was excited to resume my road trip. Five hours later I arrived into Tekapo, a small lake town that claims to be the second-best star gazing spot in the world. The city turns off all public lighting at 10 p.m. to eliminate most of the local light pollution. After driving in the rain for most of the day, I didn’t have high hopes for my stay – but after an insane sunset and bottle of wine, the view was spectacular.
I made camp in a large holiday park right off the lake. Upon my arrival, I befriended a traveler from Holland named Neil. Still riding on the high of my time with Tim and Becky I didn’t give Neil the time day as we set up camp, but upon my return from the city with a fresh bottle and full belly I stumbled upon a wanting soul to converse and watch the stars with. Neil, initially, appeared to be your typical blonde-hair blue-eyed pretty boy traveler.
We quickly stumbled through the pleasantries of our adventures through New Zealand, sharing pictures and reminiscing on summits climbed. Neil had the disposition of a traveler, but the depth of his stories and the breadth of his gaze soon proved that there was a wealth of experience hiding behind his eyes. Within an hour of talking, and drinking, we were both sharing stories of lost loved ones, trials of the past, and the reasons behind our travels abroad. How great it was, again, to be in good company, and better yet, how soon.
We were both running towards the future with many lost loves, too many to count. Our laughs echoed throughout the campground deep into the evening, making sad stories merry, sharing more wisdom than two twenty year old’s should ever possess. The stars twinkled above. The full moon painted the mountainous landscape many shades of silver. We conversed late into the night, enjoying the view before us.
Before retiring for the evening, I convinced Neil to write, to share his story if only but with himself; and he convinced me to live more boldly, to say “Hi” when I didn’t have to – not a bad outcome I’d say. Neil described our meeting as fate – interesting how often that word keeps surfacing on this journey. Perhaps we’re all just looking for something bigger to believe in. Perhaps there is fate. No comment; it’s too soon to tell.
My return to Queenstown was brief in the wake of such profound connections; music blasting, the mountains and 200ks flew by. I was excited to reconnect with my German travel mates and share stories from our week apart.
Melo and the crew were staying outside the city at Twelve Mile Delta – our preferred campground while in Queenstown – but I opted to hire an AirBnb for my last weekend in the city given the rainy weather forecast and total need for a shower. After dropping off my belongings and returning the car, I found a quaint café on the lakefront to enjoy a coffee and write the tale of Melo.
My last weekend in Queenstown was quiet. I reconnected with the German crew which had increased in size and sat on the boardwalk, eating a giant cookie in celebration of Melo’s 26th birthday. I learned how to lawn bowl in an attempt to pay frisbee golf one afternoon. I had a chance to satiate my palate with some decent sushi and delicious confectionaries. I even stumbled upon AJ – the pianist that hosted a free concert in front of my tent on my second night on the South Island. Overall, it was an enjoyable relaxing semi-boring weekend which presented adequate time to reflect.
My AirBnb host, Fish, was no stranger to travel himself, having visited over 80 countries throughout his life. We spent a few hours sharing travel stories and adventures the night I parted with my German friends – and even touched on characteristics of different cultures, as Fish reminisced on how the world has changed. We talked about my blog and why I write. He made fun of my total lack of followers – and then smoked me out as we watched the sun set behind Queenstown. The night ended with a rum and whiskey tasting resulting from conversations on Cuba’s nightlife and Irish versus Scottish whiskey.
Fish challenged me to write more, to share myself more boldly – to be more open and amicable to the story I’m writing, and living. He made me recognize how far I have come – better yet, how far I still have yet to go. He made me realize that anything worth doing takes years of doing and that passion is a result of practice and patience. He reinforced that my greatest enemy and ally in this life is me. Most importantly, he helped me rationalize that we’re all just trying to live the best life possible – and while different for everyone, we can all occasionally meet on common ground, even if just for the moment. I felt inspired; perhaps it was just the bud. Regardless, I wrote well into the evening.
Fish dropped me off at the airport the next morning after a quick pit stop to grab some pies at Ferg Bakery. I jumped in my rental and hit the road again, no stranger to New Zealand’s driving laws. Little did I know how incredibly different the next chapter would be…