New Zealand – Chapter 5

 

20180305_124141.jpgIn the confines of a car, the open road can appear a captive or a catalyst for something great. The difference between the two is good music, a scenic drive, and a healthy disposition to enjoy a journey. Two weeks of solid connections left me wanting more but my keen eye erred to find one traveler along the entire west coast. Day one, I drove 500 kms from Queenstown to Franz Josef – making quick pitstops along the way to publish a post and jump off some cliffs. The drive was scenic, so much so that I forgot to check my speed and got a ticket going 70 kms over the speed limit which I still haven’t paid – whoops…

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Over the course of the next three days, and 900 kms, I saw the best, and worst, that New Zealand has to offer. I stayed in an overbooked resort overflowing with kids from “Kiwi Experience” buses, perused through run-down Westport (a town that hasn’t changed since the Great Depression), fell asleep at the wheel in line to cross a collapsed mountain pass, and detoxed in a sauna at a delightful B&B in Takaka – all the while, enjoying the company of strangers, hitchhikers, hostel owners, and vagabonds. I met an artist finding purpose (searching for love), an environmental activist stumbling through her next chapter in the wake of love lost, a hostel owner rationalizing retirement, and a jewelry maker who appeared to be more a philosopher than a craftsman. I made rock jewelry and walked miles along empty beaches collecting perfect pebbles. I ran out of gas while debating the merits of nuclear energy with a cross-gender hitchhiker from Germany. I met locals and travelers alike and met them how I could – for once; instead of how I wanted. And, of course, I drove. And drove. And drove…

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The road felt lonely, however. I missed my German muses, Melo and the gang, Tim and Becky, Neil, and Fish – my new friends. Somehow, I knew that the rest of my travels through New Zealand wouldn’t be as deeply connective as the past three weeks. The more I pondered on that fact, the more restless I became. There’s merit in allowing an excess of time to stumble upon connections when you travel; allowing days to bleed into conversations and adventures, moments into memories. For the first time in my adventure I was a solo-tourist – lost with a need to always be farther down the road.

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In an attempt to slow down and refind center, I opted to spend an afternoon in Motueka exploring the city and polishing rocks. I soon found myself grinding down quartz crystals into necklaces to gift to friends yet to be found. David, the rock smith, was keen to quickly get philosophical. We discussed how rocks are like people, and how each one acts differently under a grinder and drill. We discussed the merits of rocks as medicine and the vibrations we call life. We discussed art and love and energy. All the while I played the role of the novice, mused by this craftsman’s understanding of life. Perhaps David was just a crazy troglodyte but I felt inspired – and departed his workshop with the promise to return in one week to collect my creations.

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I stumbled into a conversation with a social worker from Switzerland the night before I met David, who’s name I never caught. My initial intrigue in her quickly manifested into a healthy debate regarding quality of travel and fulfillment. I assumed the stance that quantity yields quality, purpose leads to perfection, action to adventure. She argued the opposite, that purpose is a derivative of the past, not an actionable future. That adventure is a disposition, not a destination. Smart girl; she got me thinking. We argued into the late hours of the night. Her parting words were to check out the Golden Bay, and with seven days to burn until my jewelry was complete, I didn’t have anything better to do.

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The mountain pass to Takaka was destroyed by the prior week’s cyclones. Five large mudslides resulted in two crossings a day (7am and 5pm) which each took over three hours as the NZTA worked on rebuilding the road. The result was a quiet Golden Bay. Most shops were closed due to the lack of tourism – and the hushed main street of Takaka was largely occupied by the local bohemian crowd that camped in the woods full-time. I was finally off the main tourist path – mingling with locals.

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I stayed at a B&B-Spa my first night in Takaka which also served as the local watering hole on weeknights. The Belgian owner urged me to jump into the sauna and I soon found myself surrounded by naked locals. Their playfulness and calm demeanors spoke to the quiet artsy lifestyle that so many in the area enjoyed. I was surrounded by farmers, craftsman, and bohemians alike. None of them earned much and only one was well travelled but their contentment was palpable amid giggling fits and acapella jam sessions. I couldn’t help but think “Where the hell am I?” Better yet, “What secrets do these hippies possess?” I fell asleep intent to fully explore and understand the Bay.

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The next day, I drove the entire west and east coast of the Golden Bay, stopping occasionally to kick sand and skip rocks. I drove over 50 miles on dirt roads in my tiny Yaris searching for the local’s secret to life; always assuming it was right around the next bend only to meet another magnificent vista. A quick pitstop at a café in the middle of nowhere quickly yielded an hour-long conversation with an LA expat – we discussed politics and travel. Upon my departure, she bellowed out “you were my only customer this week” with a cracked smile. 200 kms and ten hours later I arrived back to Takaka, slightly perturbed that I had yet to discover the “local secret”. I parked myself at Telegraph Hotel, the local pikey pub, that night to contemplate my next steps.

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I awoke the next morning to the hotel owner banging down my door, upset that I might miss checkout. I was disappointed at the lack of hospitality, but more upset that I didn’t have a reason to jump out of bed; this just wasn’t going to work, I needed something to do. I promptly grabbed a cup of coffee and strolled into the DoC in search of a local track to hike. To my surprise, Abel Tasman Coastal Track campsites were hardly booked due to track damage. Less than three hours later, I was on the trail again.

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Each step down the track felt like a step in the right direction. As I climbed Gibbs Hill, I felt the pressure and pain of my discontentment from the past week start to bleed away. Soon my mind moved onto thoughts of the past, as if the track were an abusive therapist. I gave in to the strain and pain provided by each step and my too-heavy pack. My discontentment with the pain soon turned into gratitude for the ability to explore the wilderness. I felt myself transported back to Routeburn, Roy’s Peak, Matukituki, and all the prior month’s hikes. I felt bliss. And then I got lost….

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Five hours into my hike and lacking a trail map, I found myself on Goat beach with no idea of where to go, turbulent waves crashing before me. It was growing dark quickly and two attempts to backtrack yielded no fruitful results: no trails missed, no signs, no markers, nothing. Shit. I parked my backpack on the beach and yanked out my GPS hoping to gain a bearing.

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There was no GPS signal. There was no phone service. I had no map. I was lost. After two minutes of panicking, I found myself searching for a solution as the sun disappeared behind the horizon. I juggled thoughts of backtracking, making camp for the night, and wishing I had stored a bottle of rum for such an occasion. Surely some spirits would lift mine. At last I resolved to carry on down the beach, backpack in tow, in search of a safe place to spend the evening. It took about twenty minutes for me to accept that I was lost – at which point I was overcome with a sense of peace. Not a minute later did I catch a glimpse of the trail from the corner of my eye, hidden by the bush. I was walking the path the whole time, thinking I was lost. It was only after I accepted where I was, enjoying each step, that I saw where I had to go.

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I threw on my headphones, unsure of how much farther I had to trek, and grooved out the entire six minutes it took me to stumble into my campsite for that evening. It was just around a bluff the entire time.

Sleep did not find me easily that night. It was a difficult day on my body and mind. I had journeyed over mountains and through forests; through blame and into acceptance; through misery, past mindfulness, and towards peace. I quietly whispered to ghosts of my past in the confines of my sleeping bag, attempting to make peace with 2017. I talked to my dad for the first time in months, hoping his spirit was close by. Hoping he could see his son travel the world. Hoping he felt loved. Hoping he was at peace. I received no answer except for a calm wind that teased my tent and eased my heart. I don’t think I was alone that evening; sleep found me easily after my prayers and I awoke to soulful glow.

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My next three days on the trail can only be described as bliss. I hiked fast with strong knees, passing many, and enjoying the company of those that could keep up. I napped on beaches with crystal clear water, waking up to crisp ocean baths. I built a giant fort and stumbled into a hippy commune where I was able to nab a bottle of wine, which I promptly drank that afternoon. I made camp on sandy beaches and slept under a sea of twinkling starts as mist from nearby waves painted my tent.

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My last night on the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, I made camp on a quiet mile-long beach blessed only by my company. I danced and did yoga to the beat of the break. I spun sticks and made driftwood art. I built a camp I was proud of even though I was sure to depart the next morning, begrudgingly. I strolled the beach looking for purpose, only to find more sand. I enjoyed the solitude in peace with quiet. I tried to write but my company was more interesting than anything I could say. Damn, that was a great beach.

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The hike out and fateful water taxi ride back to my car seemed like a blur as I was intoxicated with presence. Thinking back now, I can clearly recall every bend and step I took on that trek and everything that has happened since.

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The four days I spent on the Abel Tasman coastal track were a turning point in my travels; perhaps, in my life. I seemingly stumbled upon secrets to being present and fulfillment within oneself. My solitude transformed from a fear into a privilege. My purpose transformed into self-fulfillment, through effort and experience. It didn’t matter what I would do with my last week in New Zealand – I was content. Rest assured, though, my newfound disposition wouldn’t detract from the experience.

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New Zealand – Chapter 3

It only takes about 30 minutes of hitchhiking in the dark with a bottle of wine in hand to question if you’re homeless, a vagabond, or in for a night of fun. Luckily, I found Melo in Queenstown that afternoon and had good company to contemplate life with on the side of the road. Our conversation soon proved that I had made a good decision to reconnect. A few cheers, and swigs, later we found ourselves en route to the city excited to enjoy the local nightlife. It’s funny how good company can easily make a bad decision appear great.

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We strolled into the town confidently, chests touted, in search of Melo’s travel mates from his prior months in New Zealand, Janick and Celiene. Thirty minutes later, we discovered them stumbling along the boardwalk, beers in hand, enjoying each other’s company. What aspired to be a night clubbing soon turned into a night of drinking and laughing on the shore of the lake. We bumped into some local buskers and I had to opportunity to spin fire for the local crowd and new friends. Our night ended at the infamous Ferg burger and a short taxi ride later we found ourselves stumbling back to our tents, entirely drunk and content with the evening.

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After hostel hoping the next morning in search of a free shower and wifi, we settled on our plans to travel to Wanaka to catch Roy’s Peak at sunrise and then depart on a three-day trek up Matukituki Valley. The weather forecast had worsened, however, so I opted to rent a car for our journey up to Wanaka to spare our group two long days and two sore thumbs. While I enjoy hitchhiking, hitching a couple hundred kms in the rain with four people isn’t exactly ideal. I picked up the car, we packed up camp, and departed on to our next adventure.

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After a night of camping in the rain and a two-hour scenic drive we found ourselves in Wanaka, aka – Heaven. Imagine a quaint mountain town abutting a giant clear glacial lake; gelato shops, cafes, and bars lining the main boardwalk; mountain-bikers sending every jump-like-barrier with towering mountains in the backdrop. Imagine sunny days posted up on beach with free wifi and a gentle warm breeze from the west. Imagine being thirty minutes away from some of the most epic mountain biking, kayaking, hiking, skiing, and off-roading New Zealand offers. Imagine… Queenstown wasn’t looking so hot anymore.

After a rainy day of laundry, showers, burgers, and getting kicked out of cafes we pitched our tents just outside the city excited to hike Roy’s Peak the next morning. A cyclone from the past three days left a fresh layer of snow on the peak which only strengthened our resolve to beat the sun to the summit. Next thing I know, it’s three am and time to hike.

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I felt like a spring rabbit when we hit the trail head. My empty stomach and tired body were ready to hit the mountaintop to enjoy some well-deserved granola and coffee. The first thirty minutes were grueling, however. The 12% grade, new-mooned darkness, and sheer persistence of the track had me looking at my watch every 90 seconds. Eventually, I submitted to the misery and began to enjoy the fire road that winds eight kilometers up to the 1,600 meter summit. Our group quickly found its stride and an hour in we started passing other sunrise-seeking wanderers. Two hours in and six kilometers later we hit snow. A fresh centimeter turned into two and then five and then twenty. Soon after we lost the track, and taking Melo’s lead, spent the last thirty minutes directly ascending towards the summit. At 6:15, we were the first to hit the peak.

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It was dark with a clear sky. In the absence of the moon we could see the outline of the horizon and twinkling lights of the towns below. The frigid wind chill soon rendered my gloveless hands unusable, and I surrendered to an unpixellated experience. Our group huddled up behind the weather station at the peak to seek refuge from the blistering cold, and soon warm coffee adorned our aching hands. Thirty minutes later we were joined by the second group to summit, a couple from France. They quickly requested shelter in our huddled-up coffee corner to stay warm, which we happily granted.

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The sunrise was magnificent. Three days of cyclone ridden overcast yielded rows upon rows of mountain ranges dusted with fresh snow. The horizon transformed from dark blue to purple to red to orange, light consuming every inch of the valleys below, over which course our group of six had grown into thirty ambitious souls from around the world. A diversity of languages, and cameras, enlivened the summit. We took some pictures, enjoyed the view as the sun breached the eastern vista, packed up, and headed for departure – the trail we couldn’t find now decorated with fresh snowy footprints.

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Descending was fun. We laughed and teased and tripped all the way down the mountain passing group after group of winded trekkers, stopping halfway down the track to enjoy a snack and reminisce on the morning’s death march. At 10 am, we arrived at the carpark – now overflowing with campervans and RVs alike. Our ambition, which had turned into effort, was now just a memory. It was a beautiful day – and it had only just begun. Kicking it lakefront that afternoon never felt so good.

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The next morning, we quickly stopped at the grocery store to resupply for the three day hike up Matukituki Valley. The journey to the trail head was treacherous in our little Camry. Stream crossings soon turned into full-on river adventures, and gravel quickly turned into boulders – but luckily we made it in one piece, passing a graveyard of car parts along the way representing less fortunate souls. We parked the car, loaded the packs , and took to the hills.

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The hike up the valley was spectacular. Epic peaks and glaciers fell into nine kilometers of quaint pastured fire-roads intertwining with a turquoise glacial river. Livestock sheepishly skirted the trail offering numerous opportunities to attempt to start a stampede; all unsuccessful. Two hours later we found ourselves at Aspiring Hut, the halfway point to where we’d camp that evening. It was at this point that I felt my resolve start to wither. My pack became heavy and every step felt fruitless.

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The next two hours were hell. I bounced between being upset with the weight of my pack, pace of my counterparts, distance we had to travel, and state of my mind. I projected and then injected and then introspected – and finally resolved that I was just out of shape and on a long-ass hike. The last kilometer of the trail entertained a 700-meter ascent to the Liverpool hut; a combination of climbing and clinging on for dear life. I was tired but this track wouldn’t get the best of me. Turns out we all survived; and while tired, even had enough energy to enjoy the view. However, all I could think about that night was how terrified I was to descend from this hut/death trap. Advanced track felt like an understatement – I can’t wait to do another.

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The next morning I delayed getting up, much to my travel mates chagrin. I told them to go on – thinking they’d take me up on the offer. I had given up – I was scared and tired with well worn blisters. Much to my surprise, though, they stayed – and deferred the day’s plan. I was shocked and embarrassed, but entirely relieved – and very grateful. The hike down was actually fun on fresh legs – root clinging and butt scraping. I took pause at the bottom to thank my group – my friends. My mind had gotten the best of me the night before, but Melo, Janick, and Celiene helped me get the best of my mind. I got by with a little help from my friends. We made camp at Aspiring Hut that night and enjoyed a feast of instant rice and dehydrated lamb.

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The hike out was hilarious. 100 kph winds with heavy rainfall found us often blowing around the track with our butts in the mud. An unfortunate soap spill from the night before left my pack soaked with dish soap – and I quickly turned into the pillsbury doughboy. Sheep tumbled across the fire road. Cyclones shifted into dust devils whipping the river around the track. Rain guards frolicked in the wind like neutral flags begging for an armistice. Everyone ambled on at a tilt trying not to fall – at points dropping down just to survive. And survive we did – with smiles on our faces and mud on our butts. We clawed our way to the carpark, loaded up the Camry, and hit the road ready to cross some rivers.

There’s only one river crossing on the road to Matukituki Valley that you should worry about, and on a sunny day it’s really not that bad. It was not a sunny day, however, and the waterfall feeding the now-river was raging. I had worried about this crossing on arrival as it had almost ripped off our front bumper and now we had to decide if we wanted to risk floating down the river or camp in the howling wind for the night. This was not a decision for a coin toss.

Fifteen minutes of stick probing and nervous pacing later I asked my travel mates to jump out, told them to jump into the river and push if we got stuck, and gunned it. Anxious spectators who had smartly parked in the non-4×4 lot had their cameras trained, ready to post “Camry floats away in New Zealand Fjord”. But we made it. The few who watched even applauded. I smiled and laughed, unsure how our little sedan managed a submerged engine bay. The rest of the flowing rivers felt like trickles compared to that initial crossing, tunes blasting and our heads bobbing. This was Melo and Janick’s first multi-day hike and would surely prove not to be their last.

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We hit Wanaka, devoured giant burgers, bounced around town that afternoon, hired an AirBnB for the evening, and I made my travel companions a Mexican salad in celebration of their first multi-day hike as we watched the closing ceremonies of the Olympics. On our last day in Wanaka, we relaxed on the beach in quiet enjoyment – it was a spectacularly sunny day. My new friends were headed for Tekapo to meet up with two of Melo’s mates from home – and I planned to take a road trip up west coast. We resolved to meet in Queenstown five days later for Melo’s birthday and had a roadside goodbye.

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It was sad to say farewell to my new German friends, but I was ready for a solo adventure. My travel companions had challenged me physically and mentally – and I departed their company wiser, entirely content, and completely lost. So, I did what I do best – I found a cozy café and I began to write. Words poured from my fingers and my journey started to take shape on paper. Perhaps my blog would find some life after all. Interactions were starting to feel less sparse and more wanted, and I stumbled upon a satisfaction with having people in my life just for the moment. This is why I came to New Zealand – this is why I left my life back in the US.