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…


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…


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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….


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


New Zealand – Chapter 4


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.

Image result for calvin and hobbes under the stars

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.

Image result for calvin and hobbes on life

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…