New Zealand – Chapter 4

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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.