New Zealand South Island: Part Two

I ended my last post after my 10th full day in New Zealand with the Flying Kiwi tour. By the end of those ten days I had developed a close group of friends and done some amazing things, but I still had five more days on the South Island and these would prove to be the best of the entire tour.

The day is January 27, 2012. We had an earlier morning than expected because the impromptu campsite we spent the night at was further away than our original destination and we were going to try to see some penguins. Had the weather stayed nice the night before we would have gone to the Te Anau beach to watch all the Little Penguins come in from the sea for the night. The gale prevented us from doing this and so Holly and Steely had made a master plan to not only let us see the penguins but to also get us completely and totally caught up with the original itinerary. The bus was pretty quiet on the ride to the penguins because everyone fell back asleep. The little excursion was nice; we got to see the sunrise over the beach and the weather was great but we only saw a few penguins. We actually saw just as many seals as we did penguins and this caused quite a bit of emotional trauma when people were told that seals and penguins don’t exactly get along. It didn’t help that Holly came down with us and started naming the very few penguins that we had seen. I wonder if Brian made it. The highlight of the stop was when we saw one lone penguin waddle out of the bushes, down the beach, and dive awkwardly into the ocean. People eventually got bored with watching one penguin standing in a bush so we piled back onto the bus and quickly fell back asleep while Steely drove us to some monster testicles in the sand. Bet that got you to look twice, eh? Yes, we were on our way to the Maoraki Boulders. The boulders are quite large, circular rocks along the beach that the Maori (the indigenous people of New Zealand) believe were the testicles of a huge sea serpent that their ancestors cut off so that the monster would leave their people alone. The boulders were actually really fun and this stop was what definitely woke everyone up. I immediately started jumping from rock to rock and with each view down the beach there were larger and larger ones to try and climb. Andy found a massive tree trunk that entertained us for a while as well. Unfortunately for me I was the one that discovered the huge trenches that surrounded each individual stone. Hid under the water, these trenches were a good foot deep and were formed from where the sand had been washed away from around the boulders. One of my running starts to climb on top of a boulder ended pretty awfully in such a trench. The people who were watching said it looked like I didn’t even try to jump; that I just ran into the damn thing for shits and giggles. When it happened I was soaked, slightly embarrassed, and a little peeved but soon realized I would be laughing my ass off it had happened to someone else and just embraced it. The beach was serene and we were the only ones on it the entire time we were out there. Lingering on the beach as long as possible, I finally gave in and ran up the wooden stairs to the café located inside the gift shop. Most of the bus was there huddled around the tables and counter waiting impatiently for their morning drug so I slid into a chair and waited. I had barely sat down from paying when Holly came in and told everyone that the bus was loading up. You could have cut the tension in the room with a knife as each passenger looked at one another wondering who would be the person to listen immediately and board the bus or pipe up about having already paid and refusing to move unless their coffee was in hand. Although no one said it loudly, not a person walked out of the café but rather started to inch slowly but steadily towards the counter as if proximity to that flat surface would make their coffee appear there quicker. The two ladies preparing the drinks were frantic enough with the rush of people our bus had sprung on them that the new time constraint had them so desperate they began letting people walk out with juices and sodas instead of the coffees that were half made. I was one who decided that the monetary value of the coffee wasn’t enough to risk getting on the bad side of Holly and Steely so I returned to the bus and right when I had come to terms with not having my lovely mocha Rachel came running onto the bus with both of our drinks in hand. What a sweetie. Now that everyone was caffeine and sugar induced we could start our long bus ride happily. We were off to Dunedin, home of the steepest street in the world and our last place to stock up on supplies and snacks for the Routeburn hike. Steely took us to the steepest street first and I admit I was a bit confused because from the bottom it doesn’t look too bad. An offhand remark by Holly about the fastest time running up and down the street was all the motivation I needed to give it a go. Mistake. Huge mistake. I made it about halfway up the hill before my quads literally said, “Fuck you Ben, this is stupid,” and stopped working on me. That was a good enough sign for me to start walking. Rachel was timing me ascent but I never did find out what it was. The walk back down was much easier and I spent the entire time thinking how the hell anyone could survive running down that paved slope of death. One bad step and you would be plummeting to an untimely death or extended tour of Dunedin hospital. The world’s steepest street conquered, the bus rolled into downtown Dunedin so that its inhabitants could venture out into the streets to find food, clothes, and anything else they might desire. Only catch was that you had to be back at the bus in two hours. Ready, set, go! Holly had given us some vague directions as to where the best shops and restaurants were so we followed those the best we could. Alex wanted to get a camelback for the Routeburn and the rest of us were keen on picking a few hiking things up as well so we wandered into a store for a few minutes. Successful as always with our shopping we then put immediate sustenance in our sights. We crossed the street to a bar called Metro (you will learn why I remember the name in a few sentences) and stuffed down some pizza before realizing we only had 15 minutes left to get back to the bus and we hadn’t gotten snacks yet! Snacks took priority in this situation so we ran into the supermarket to stock up on Oreos, chocolate peanuts, gummy worms, muesli bars, and a few bottles of wine. I know you’re thinking that all sounds like awful hiking food but go walk 20 kilometers, eat an Oreo, and tell me that it wasn’t the best thing you’ve ever done. Also, the wine was for that night and not the hike (that’s a lie, we actually did debate on taking a few beers or something up the mountain with us but decided it wasn’t worth the weight). A mad dash to the bus ensued with a small pit stop for Andy and I at the most high-tech toilets I have ever used. The door locked automatically and opened only after the sink had been turned on for a few seconds. Looking back, this is actually a really freaky mechanism but in the moment it seemed okay. When we got to the bus Holly asked us what all we had done and I repeated everything I just wrote to her. Upon hearing that we went to Metro she laughed and asked me if I enjoyed it. I told her yes only to hear her tell me that Metro had been closed less than a year ago for failing the sanitary assessment. Whether it was bad food or not, I felt slightly queezy for a few hours after hearing that. A short bus ride has us in Te Anau, where we would spend the night. I chose to upgrade this night because it was relatively cheap and it would allow me to get everything packed the way I wanted it for the Routeburn the next day. We did a barbeque for dinner and afterwards those who were doing the hike got sorted into ‘food buddies’ and handed our rations of food for the journey. Rachel and I were food buddies so when we had received all of our food we split it up amongst the two of us along with dishes, utensils, a metal pot, and cups. Now about this food. For breakfast each day we got muesli and milk powder, lunch on the second day would be salami and cheese, and dinner for the two nights would be from freeze dried bags. Think astronaut ice cream but for your spaghetti. At that point Andy and Claire joined in and we downloaded all the pictures from our white water rafting adventure to all of our memory cards. This inevitably led to us looking at them over and over again. The pictures are embarrassing enough as is but when Rachel would zoom in on her iPad to show individual faces and expressions they are just downright brutal. In my defense, I don’t know many people who can jump off a 10-meter cliff gracefully. Metal pot filled with cheese, salami, muesli, and chocolate in tow I returned to my room to pack and call it a night.

The day is January 28, 2012. After a great night’s sleep I wake up to throw my backpack in the bus and everything else that I wouldn’t be taking on the Routeburn into the trailer. A quick breakfast and hurried sandwich making session later I found myself back in the backseat of the bus. Our destination was Milford Sound. To get there the bus had to go through a huge man-made tunnel known as ­­­­­­_________. I tried to hold my breath the whole way through but never came close. At the docks we were all handed our boarding and free muffin tickets by Holly and then joined the other tourists on the boat. The weather was shit that day; dark, cloudy, and rainy. Holly insisted that this was the best way to see the Sound though but most of our thoughts were focused on the multi-kilometer hike we would be doing that afternoon. To be fair, I think Holly was right about the best weather to view the Sound. Since it had been raining for a few hours by the time we started our cruise the waterfalls in and around the Sound were very prominent. The only downside was that the fog was so low between the mountains that it actually cut the tops of them off so it was hard to perceive just how huge the mountains really were. Outside of that minor detail it was a truly beautiful place. Even though waterfalls start to all look the same after awhile, I still found myself taking pictures and gazing in a sense of wonder at each new fall we passed. There is also a seal colony inside the Sound and the boat got surprisingly close to the rocks where they were sleeping and playing so that was very cool. The cruise also took us right underneath one of the larger waterfalls but I had run inside by this point. At the conclusion of the cruise we all got back onto the bus and it wasn’t until later that I realized that would be the last time I would walk onto the bus. Even typing that sounds weird and it’s been almost two weeks since I left the tour. Steely pulled his sexy blue ride up to the start of the Routeburn and after a quick photo session we all set off. Now, the Routeburn track is a three-day, 32-kilometer hike that has about a 1,100-foot climb and 1,000 foot decline. It is not considered to be an advanced hike and the terrain isn’t necessarily all that challenging but it is still a definite achievement to accomplish. Although we would all be hiking the exact same trail the Flying Kiwi group was split into three sections, all of which would be stopping at different points along the trail for the two nights. The first group was a group of 4 who would be doing the traditional version of the hike that split the walk up into equal sections for the first two days with an easy day at the end and would be staying at McKenzie and Flat huts. The second group, which I was in, would have their easy day on the first day followed by a long second day and a medium length third day. We would stay at Howden and Fall huts for our overnights. The third and final group would be doing a mix of the first two. They would have an easy day on both the first and third days but have an extremely long day in between the two huts. In addition, this third group would be camping due to all the beds in the huts along the trail being booked. The third group stayed at Howden and Flatt campsites for their overnights. When we started out, I think everyone expected that our paths would cross a lot more than they actually did. To be honest, I never saw anyone from the first group until we had finished the hike and the campers were with us the up until the afternoon of the second day when we lost them due to our different lodgings. I’m rambling. The first bit of the hike was nice even in the rain and cold. The cold didn’t last long because we were hiking but it was raining just hard enough that it would be uncomfortable to take the waterproof gear off. The scenery was beautiful, though. Winding its way through rainforest-esque terrain, the trail wasn’t too challenging and allowed us to get some really great photos. The rain definitely gave the forest a certain look and smell about it which was cool to see and experience. Like I said before, this first day was extremely easy for us and we were only walking for about two hours before we reached Howden Hut, a picturesque little building alongside Lake Howden. New Zealand is very clever with their names. Had the weather been better we might have done an optional hike up to the peak of a nearby mountain that was about a two hour round trip but we decided it wasn’t worth it and began the process of settling in for the night. Howden Hut was a nice little place. There was a porch you had to leave all your wet and muddy gear on and the first floor had a few gas burners, a wood fireplace, and five tables with benches. The ceiling was high with rafters coming across from all directions. From these people had hung everything from sleeping bags to socks and the immediate area around the fireplace had become the home to many damp shoes. There was a corner staircase up to the second floor where the bunks were. This floor was split into three alcoves each filled with bunks for a total of 26 beds. I grabbed a top bunk along the back wall of the second alcove and after I unrolled my sleeping bag and hung my various articles of clothing in the rafters went back downstairs. Much to our surprise (and theirs) we were not alone in the hut. A few pairs of internationals would be staying with us along with a family and their friends. The family and their friends were very friendly and they clicked pretty well with our group. At one point or another there was always food going around as well. Whether it was a bag of chocolate peanuts or someone making dinner we absolutely took the approach of eating whenever we got bored. Rachel and I lucked out when Andy and Claire offered to trade us our cabbage soup for their spaghetti Bolognese. I got my handy dandy metal pot to boil water and after an experimental stage of how exactly to get the boiling water into the plastic bag we were soon waiting patiently for our food to cook. See, we all thought that we would be pouring the food into the water but the instructions actually had us put the water in the bag the food was in and then reseal the bag for 15 minutes. Since neither of us had ever had food like this before, Rachel and I decide to film each other’s reactions on the first few bites. To my surprise it wasn’t all that bad. The taste was dead on but what I got hung up on was the fact that the texture was that of Styrofoam. It felt like I was chewing packing peanuts drenched in tomato sauce. As we cleaned up from dinner we all slowly came to the realization we had no idea what we were going to do for the rest of the night. There wasn’t much else to do besides sit around one of the tables talking or going to bed. We played a few games of hangman, discussed which movies we considered to be ‘must sees’, tried to figure out when the song “Hallelujah” is played in Shrek, and tons of other completely random stuff. It didn’t take long for people to start taking that corner staircase up to the bunks but I was one of the last ones up talking with Alex and Martin. I knew that the next day was going to be a long one, but I could sleep when I was home.

The day is January 29, 2012. Before we had gone to bed the night before one of the topics of discussion had been what time all of us felt was appropriate for us to start on our 7-hour hike. After going back and forth between a few times we arrived at 7:30am and one simply had to get up with enough time to be ready to leave at that point. I woke up and it felt like I had been sleeping in a sauna that poured the coals into old hiking boots. None of us had noticed the lack of ventilation in the room when we went to bed but the odor and mugginess was so heavy you could practically see it hanging in the room. The main room was much easier to breath in and it held the means to make breakfast so it quickly became the popular place to be. It was a bustling mess of boiling water, unpacked bags, powder milk and coffee, and a shoulder-to-shoulder queue for the muesli. As I am sure you all expected, we didn’t get off right at 7:30 but came pretty damn close. Close enough for us all to say that we left on time. Our walk started off along Lake Howden Lake just about an hour after sunrise and would take us winding up the mountainside through the forest until dumping us above the tree line to climb the summit. We couldn’t have asked for a better day, either. There were only a few clouds in the sky but it wasn’t too hot or too cold. A breeze balanced out the sun quite well but even this wouldn’t be a factor until we had trekked our way up out of the forest. It took us about four hours to walk up through that last section of forest during which we had some great views of the sun breaking through the canopy, were joined by a few friendly and curious birds, and I found a pickax that I carried around for awhile. At one point along the trail we were paused momentarily by a sign that pointed right to go past a waterfall (clearly visible from the sign) and left to go along the flood path for when the waterfall was impassable. This moment would become a defining one for ‘The Group,’ for better or for worse. When I saw that we were caught up on whether to walk through an awesome waterfall or be a bunch of pansies and take a bridge across I ran off into the falls. It was brilliant. The dirt trail ended right when the mist started to hit you and you were left to jump, run, skip, or slowly climb over the rocks that made up the edges of the pool. I stuck mainly with the jump technique and for some reason unknown to me yelled out “KaKaw!” multiple times while I galumphed across the rocks. This call would soon become a common way for us to get each other’s attention, display excitement, or just be stupid. That was a great moment. We also had a stop at McKenzie Lake, where the first group had spent the night before, where we had a snack and explored before starting our last big climb. Finding my way down to the lakeshore was all I needed to be entertained as there were huge rocks lining the shore that might as well have had “Come Climb Me” writing on the side of them. Not being one to break the rules I did what the sign said and spent the next 10 minutes jumping around from rock to rock trying to get as far out and high as I could. We still had a long ways to go though so we threw all our wrappers in the trash bag, buckled the packs up tight, and set off again. Coming up out of the forest was a bit more challenging than any of us had expected. We knew that it was going to be the steepest part of the entire climb but weren’t prepared to be scrambling up rocks and making almost 360o turns up the mountain. Although I thought that it was incredibly fun there was a little voice in the back of my head that questioned just how optimistic Holly was being when she told us the track wasn’t challenging at all. Since nobody was satisfied with the breakfast we had had that morning and with the hardest part of the hike behind us we soon began looking for a place to stop and enjoy our salami and cheese. When we did stop it was at a huge outcropping along the trail that looked out across two valleys, one of which we had just walked through and the other which was home to a river, highway, and multiple campsites. At first I was oblivious to us stopping for lunch because I had dropped my pack and galloped off to the edge of the outcropping. No idea where the energy came from but the sight of those two valleys and the easy, grass covered terrain of the outcropping was all I needed to run off in search of a better view. I got it, too. On my way there, I just kind of set my sights on the part of the edge where I wanted to be at and went. Upon arrival, I realized that the outcropping was less like an outcropping but more like a small field on the side of the mountain and that I had actually come quite a ways to get to the edge. The view in front of me was worth every bit of energy and time spent getting there, though. I had a bird’s eye view of the valley we had just walked through and could clearly see McKenzie Hut and the lake at the bottom of the mountain. The trail we had come up zigzagged up to my left and in front the entire range opened up in front of me. I could see waterfalls cascading down to the river below and every few minutes caught the sun shining off the windshield of a car as it drove along the highway on the other side of the valley. To my right was the outcropping I had just ran down and when I saw Alex starting to come my way I ran back up the hill to catch up. She told me that they had all stopped and started getting lunch ready and was even kind enough to invite me to join them. I would have been flattered had I not known they only wanted me for the cheese that was in my pack. A few awkward moments trying to figure out the best way to cut and distribute lunch later and we were all munching away contently. I would take that meal over a 5 star restaurant any day especially when you count the Coke I stowed away in my pack and the fact that we had enough chocolate to feed an army. The Coke made its rounds through the group and when we made sure we had cleaned up everything properly we strapped the packs back up. It was only then that Alex explained to me that she had actually been coming to join me out at the edge but had stopped because I had come back. Upon hearing this I insisted that she go back to the edge with me and told the others to go on ahead and that we would catch up. I am so glad that I wouldn’t take no for an answer because I got an even better view than the first time. This time we opted to go for the closer, higher part of the outcropping opposed to the part I had gone down to by myself. Words cannot describe the difference that this made. Although the bottom of the valley to our left was cut out we could still see most of it but now on our right there wasn’t the outcropping but rather the entirety of the mountain range folding out onto the horizon. It was the most spectacular thing I have ever seen. When you are in a situation like that you get completely lost in it. I lost all sense of time, depth perception, and thoughts of anything but the present. What I knew was easily 10 miles away looked like I could reach out and touch and mountains that were thousands of feet high were the size of my fingernail. I have no idea how long I spent standing out there with Alex but I do know that it wasn’t long enough. So captivating was the view that I actually don’t have a single picture of it and while I am slightly sad that I can’t go back and look at it I know that a picture could never do it justice. Besides, the thought that I was so struck with being there in that moment that it never even occurred to me to take a picture still puts a smile on my face. When we finally pulled ourselves away we knew we were pretty far behind so we set off quickly to try and catch up. Of course we still had to pause to take pictures, play in waterfalls, and talk to strangers along the way but eventually we joined back up with our fellow hikers. People had begun to get a bit anxious at this point because the trail had begun to feel like a perpetual incline around the mountain that never seemed to go anywhere. Each time we would round a corner we were granted with another spectacular view but soon the anticipation of reaching the top overwhelmed everything else. When we did get to the ‘summit’ it was a simple one-room shelter with two long drops out the back. The shelter was situated in between two peaks and that is why I put the apostrophes around the word summit, because to be honest none of us were entirely sure where the highest point of the hike was. We had a vague idea from the cross section map but we never actually climbed to a peak of a particular mountain but rather just walked in and around the range. Our immediate goal reached, we now had one final climb before descending all the way to Falls Hut where we would stay that night. One of the best views we had all day greeted us shortly after we began our last section of the trail. As we rounded a corner a huge lake and a massive valley ran out in front of us. The lake was a dark blue and incredibly deep. From where we were there was no discernable bottom to it and the shallows dropped off into darkness only a few feet away from the shore. Claire also discovered that this was a prime spot for echoes so all of us took turns KaKaw-ing and yodeling. The descent was rough. Much like the final part of our climb out of the forest, going back down into the tree line was rocky and slow going. Even if it hadn’t moved when the person in front of you stepped on it, you were never sure if the rocks were going to wiggle or wobble, roll or slide. From up high we could see where we had to go and from down low we could see where we had come from. This was cool but definitely made it seem like we were making slower progress than we actually were. When we came around that corner and saw the waterfall with our fellow Flying Kiwi-ers swimming it was such a feeling of relief. The pack was definitely lighter for those last hundred meters or so. The Falls Hut worked much like Howden Hut the night before but was definitely a nicer set up. There were two bunkrooms each with six alcoves holding four beds apiece for a total of 48 beds. Laying a mattress flat and throwing your pack up was all that was required to lay claim to a bed and it only took a few seconds after that for me to start making my way to that waterfall. It was a tricky thing to get to though and I wasn’t too thrilled at having to walk up a hill just to climb back down in order to get to the water. As Andy, Claire, and I walked up the same friends we had seen from the top of the falls greeted us. I still can’t figure out why none of us hesitated in the slightest when they were in their underwear. Probably because that was exactly what we would be doing. When you haven’t showered for two days and have just got done with an 8 hour hike, there is very little that will stop you from getting into the water. The temperature of the water came closer to keeping us out than anything else though. None of us cared that we didn’t have towels, had to swim in our underwear, or that it was a pain in the ass to get to the waterfall but all it took was putting one toe into the water to make you question why you were there. It was freezing. The coldest water we came across the entire trip and of course it would be at the place where it would have felt the most refreshing. It didn’t stop us though. Admittedly, I only put my head in once and it was because I fell off of a rock into a pool but I am still going to say that I swam. I imagine we were quite a sight to see wading around in the water. Before we had set out on the hike Holly had told Andy and I about how cold the waterfall was and that if we got in we “had the biggest balls ever.” I won’t lie and say this wasn’t part of my motivation for getting in but her true bet was definitely a challenge to fulfill. See, on one of the brochures and maps for the Routeburn there is a picture of two guys standing naked with their packs on at the top of a mountain. Holly told Andy and I that she wanted a picture like that and we couldn’t disappoint.  Since we wanted to be original and also prove to her that we had gone into the falls we decided to take said picture standing underneath the fall itself. It was quite a hard process climbing our way over to where the waterfall was. When we got there it was an even harder process to pull our pants down without falling over while the water slammed down on top of us. Claire was the lucky one who got to take the picture of us but who knows how many people saw it from the shore or the trail up above. Our challenge complete we all went back to the hut to warm up and eat. Alex and Kathy had a full ration of salami and cheese so we cut that up to eat while waiting for our freeze dried meals to cook. That night all of us had Thai chicken curry, which turned out to be really good. It didn’t even have the Styrofoam texture like the night before. Dinner finished right about when the park ranger came to talk to us about safety and responsibility but he added a fun little twist at the end. A few years ago on Christmas all the hikers at the Falls hut had made two signs covered in the phrase “Welcome to Routeburn Falls Hut, Happy Holidays” or something along those lines. Each phrase was in a different language and the ranger’s challenge was to see who could name 25 of the languages on one of the signs. The winner would get a bar of chocolate. Individually no one stood a chance but with a group the size of ours we managed to scrounge up 23 of the languages but unfortunately the ranger was a hard-ass on the number 25 and didn’t give us the chocolate. The ranger also warned us about the keas, an extremely smart bird, and opossums, which are easily the most hated animal by New Zealanders, that came out at night around the hut and told us that anything we left outside hanging over the railings or on the benches would most likely be taken or torn to shreds overnight by one of those two animals. Other than that, this night was much like our first night. People just sat around a few tables talking and what started as a crowd would slowly decrease to a table and then to a last few as people went to bed. By this point I had realized this was probably going to be my last chance to see the New Zealand stars so I stayed up to try and see as much as I could. Alex stayed up with me but since it was a cloudy night our interest turned to trying to find keas and opossums. None came but we did get a laugh when Janis came running out of a bunk room looking for his shoes that we has just moved inside. The day had been pretty draining though so no one was up for too long after that.

The day is January 30, 2012. Since we had to meet our ride to Queenstown at 10am we had to get a very early start to the day despite the fact that today was going to be a relatively short walk. The one positive of getting up so early was the sunrise over the valley. One second the entire hut was running around eating breakfast, pulling on fleeces, or brushing their teeth and the next we were all lined up along the deck taking pictures of the purples, blues, and pinks that were coming up over the mountains. We were a lot quicker this morning than we were yesterday and managed to go two for two in timely departures. #winning. To our dismay the first part of the hike was much like the challenging descent from the day before and we were slow going for the first hour. Slate is hard to climb down wide-awake and even more so when you’re still half asleep. We were deep in the forest once again but it was a much different landscape than the one we had climbed up through. It was much less a rainforest and actually kind of reminded me of home a little bit with all the pines we saw. There were also several suspension bridges which some people thoroughly enjoyed running, jumping, and bouncing on while others weren’t huge fans. Andy and I tried to circumnavigate one of the bridges though when we thought it was possible to cross the river via the rocks and boulders. We were wrong but didn’t realize it until 15 minutes had gone by, both of us had managed to get stuck, and I ripped open the bag holding the last of my chocolate covered peanuts. It was a bad 15 minutes for Ben. Once we hit the bridges the trail evened out quite nicely and we were easily cutting the posted times on the trail in half. You could say we were at the point where we just wanted to be done. The trail ended with one final bridge over the river and those who finished ahead of us welcomed us with cheers and applause. This is the moment that everyone realizes we still have an hour before our ride gets here and that there is even less to do here than there was in the huts at night. Fuck. Soon the entire group was back together just like we were at the start and we made a few attempts at getting group photos using the time delays on all of our cameras. Oh, tourists. When our ride did show up some of us were a bit surprised to see that it wasn’t Steely and his bus. This was the moment when I knew I wouldn’t be getting back on that bus again and that had me a bit unsettled. Packs were thrown in the trailer and we all piled into the shuttle for the ride into Queenstown. But no ride on this trip could go without something exciting happening and only a few minutes in we came across a man who had drove his car into a massive ditch along side the road. The elderly driver was obviously shaken up from the event and had to be helped from his seat so that our bus driver could manhandle the vehicle from the ditch. His prowess was actually quite impressive as he launched the vehicle (at one point its entire backend was a good 5 feet off the ground) out of the ditch in reverse. Kinda makes you wonder how he got so good at getting vehicles out of ditches. The ride went quickly but that may have just been because it felt so good to sit down. As we arrived in Queenstown the shuttle dropped us off at the booking office so that all of us could confirm and pay for the activities we wanted to do while in the Queenstown, the adventure capital of the world. Holly had reserved our spots for us while we were on the Routeburn but Queenstown is no different from the rest of the world and needed to make sure our money was where our mouths were. A big group of us were doing jetboating later that afternoon together and then the next day Rachel and I were going to do the Nevis bungy jump. Adrenaline rush, here I come. I got my first rush when I paid for the activities, thrills definitely don’t come cheap. While we were waiting to pay a few people had gone to our campsite only to find that the bus wasn’t there yet. Since we didn’t have a camp to go to we all decided to grab some food and explore the city for a little while. It’s fun to be completely lost in a city and just walk into one of the first restaurants you stumble upon. Sure it can be hit or miss but I think that it would have been hard to miss after wandering around in the wilderness for three days. Steak sandwiches, seafood pasta, and chicken soon flooded our table and disappeared as quickly as it got there. Hunger satisfied our concern then shifted to the fact we all smelt like complete ass and although the fact that we still had our hiking boots and packs on somewhat justified our stench we were pushing the border on what was socially acceptable. But we decided that we would continue pushing the border because we would soon be zipping through a canyon on a jetboat and no one would be able to smell us then anyways. A few minutes reprise at the campsite to unload our packs was all we got by the time we had to go meet our shuttle. The canyon was a quick ride away and we were actually out of the shuttle and onto the boat alarmingly quickly. A few cheesy photos here, a few cheesy photos there, and we were off racing through the canyon. Now you may be thinking, “The fuck is a jetboat?” When you think of a jetboat think of a huge jetski on steroids; what would be the offspring of a jetski and a supercharged racing boat if they knocked hulls. They are FUN. The boat itself holds about 15 people and has two massive engines that can propel it to 80km/hr and let it do 360o turns. The entire time our driver played a game of inches with us; coming a finger’s width away from the wall of the canyon or speeding over water you couldn’t drown in if you tried it was so shallow. He was a fun guy and took us up and down the course a few times before letting us off to be bombarded by gaudy tourist souvenirs. Our ticket came with a free photo so after we had collected out bounty we wandered over to the bar on site to enjoy a drink before heading back to the campsite. Here was where Alex and I started a friendly game of tetherball to teach Janis how to play that quickly became an intense battle that she only won because she cheats and the shuttle came to take us back. Since I now had no excuse to not shower and I highly doubted that anyone would want to be around me at dinner if I remained the way I was I grabbed my stuff and wandered over to the bathroom. Clean and in fresh clothes I began the process of packing everything up so it would be ready for my flights. Eventually I gave up and made the great choice to spend the rest of the time I had with the tour actually enjoying everyone’s company. Packing could wait for after they left. Since a lot of people would be saying their goodbyes in Queenstown, Holly arranged for all of us to go to dinner together. We were all expecting a bar setting with plenty of space for our large group but instead she led us to a takeaway pizza place located in the same room as an Internet café and travel organizer. We took the place over and were soon stuffed on the all you can eat pizza and breadsticks. We even got a free beer coupon with our buffet! J Halfway through dinner Martin got up to give Holly and Steely their card and presents that those who were leaving had pitched in for. The weed smoking bus from Cars was a gift for Steely since all of his buses had the bad habit of breaking and a traveler’s wallet for Holly since she had lost the company credit card in Dunedin. We so clever. Martin also collected a small sum of money to go towards the repair of the bus that had been the unfortunate acquaintance of that huge rock near Mt. Cook. While up there, Martin got incredibly nervous and shy so that made the whole thing all the more fun. When everyone was done the group migrated to the bar upstairs. It was pretty deserted when we got there but we would soon find out it was quite a popular place. The place was a bit odd and had some mildly disturbing artwork inside but also had a nice outside patio where you could smoke hookah, a pool table where you could embarrass yourself, and a stage for the band that would grace us with their presence later on in the night. It was a really great night. Almost everyone had come out and since we were the only ones in the place at the beginning we spread out, played some pool, and just chatted it up. I did become a bit self-conscious because I had quite a few drinks without spending a dollar since everyone was buying me drinks on my last night. Those beers were bittersweet to say the least. Right when other people started to fill the bar our crowd started to loosen up and soon after that the DJ started playing. A few chorus harmonies here and there was all the DJ got out of us but when the band showed up and started playing things got really fun. At least one person in our group would get excited at every single song they played. The DJ took notes while the band was playing and was much better after they had signed off. “All Star” by Smashmouth was a favorite because we had been talking about the Shrek soundtrack a few days before and also because it’s just a good fucking song. By that point we were all exhausted and, as always, people began to slowly leave the bar in search of their sleeping bag. ‘The Group’ outlasted most of them but even we were no match for Merin, Christy, and the new Australian boys who had joined the tour that day. But as we went home there was no doubt in our minds that that was definitely a great night.

The day is January 31, 2012. I woke up and could already felt how different things were since it was my last day. Thankfully, I didn’t have much time to think about it because I overslept a bit and had a date with the Nevis bungy. Rachel would be joining me on this date so we met up and walked down to the office where we would catch our shuttle. We ended up being a bit early (or the shuttle was late) so I was able to use the free internet to book my plane ticket from Queenstown to Auckland while I waited. That was definitely a load off of the shoulders. There was definitely a foreboding feeling when we got onto the shuttle but I was so excited that my adrenaline was already pumping it was all I could do to control it. Rachel was very nervous though and resorted to her iPod to get her psyched up. That shuttle ride seemed like the longest time I have ever been a car. The anticipation of the jump was bad enough as it was so it didn’t help that the canyon was quite a far distance away and we had to drop other people off during the ride. For the last part of the ride we had to transfer over to a smaller shuttle because the large bus we had been in couldn’t get up the steep road. The entire time I was thinking that Steely could have done it. Now the Nevis bungy is New Zealand’s tallest bungy jump. It is 134 meters high and hangs in the middle of a canyon. The platform you jump out of is a large box suspended in the air by cables across the canyon. The jump box only has three sides to it (the fourth side is the side you jump out of) and is split in half by metal gates to separate the spectators/future jumpers from the workers and the current jumper. To get to that box one must ride a trolley from the canyon edge out to what will hereby be referred to as the jump box. The trolley was probably the least safe thing about the entire experience as the workers have to carefully make sure that they don’t send too much weight out on it at the same time. All of this is hidden from the parking lot by the main building that house the bathrooms, shop, and photo/DVD purchasing centers. Now the time it took between us stepping out of the bus and being taken out to the jump box was incredibly short. Quickly stepping into the harness (after a highly recommended bathroom stop) we signed our lives away on a contract, were walked out to the edge of the canyon where the cart would take us to the jump box, and were standing waiting for our name to be called in a matter of ten minutes. Everything happened so fast you could hardly register it happen which was probably a good thing because every extra moment you had to hesitate made you less and less likely to go. Rachel was so funny during that entire time because she refused to look down. When the lady was talking to us about safety, while we were on the trolley to the jump box, and even while she was walking to the edge she didn’t look down the entire time. I was a bit too curious for that though and preferred to watch everyone in front of me jump, bounce, and get pulled to safety. I had promised Rachel that I would make her go in front of me so that I could force her to jump and in return I would have to jump because I couldn’t let her outdo me but my name was called first. After a brief moment of “Oh, shit this isn’t what we planned,” I told her that I would still make her jump and walked to the prep station. To get ready for your jump you are guided through a gate to a sort of dentist chair so that they can attach the bungy cord around your ankles. Once that is done they take off your safety clip (that has been attached to the ceiling up until this point) and clip it onto your waist. This was the moment where it hit me that I was about to jump 450ft with nothing but a glorified rubber band to keep me from being an unidentifiable pile of mush at the bottom of a canyon. The workers helped me to my feet and guided me out to this slight protrusion on the edge of the jump box where you have to line your toes up with a black band about three inches thick. They tell you to smile for the camera and begin a countdown. 3. Why am I doing this again? 2. Well, we are WAY past the point of no return. 1. Fuck me that is far. Go! Having no other choice really I launch myself into a graceful, perfect swan dive off of the cliff with arms spread wide and confidence soaring. Sike. What I imagined to be an incredibly display of athletic and mental prowess was in reality a pathetic shifting of my center of gravity and a slight bend at the knees. You can bet your ass that my arms were spread though and I even did a little push off at the very last second to try and save some dignity. I will let you all be the judge of that. The jump itself was an insane head rush. Having conquered all natural human and animal instinct, you find yourself plummeting headfirst towards the ground but then magically spring back up only to plummet down again. It is great fun. The actual bounce and pull of the rope isn’t that bad at all. You are actually slowing down gradually for about the final third of your initial fall so it was in no means a jerky experience. You don’t go straight down and straight up but that would be practically impossible to do and would require a perfect jump (which I didn’t have). Since the Nevis is so high there was no way for them to get the distance right to dip jumpers in the water but they told me I got about 12 meters from the ground. The coolest part is when you are completely weightless at the top of the bounces. That moment where you stop going up but haven’t started to go down yet is such an odd and irreplaceable feeling. I had been instructed to do two bounces and at the top of my second bounce I was to pull a ripcord at my ankles that would release them from the bungy and flip me right-side up (I would still be attached at the waist and so I would simply be sitting in my harness like a swing of sorts) so that I could be pulled back up to the jump box. When I was all unclipped and back in the spectator side of the jump box I was still on a pretty big high. Not only was I alive but I had just bungy jumped for the first time on what used to be the world’s tallest jump. I took on the role of encourager for Rachel as she continued to not look down and attempt to psych herself up. When her name was called she went through all the same motions as me all the while pulling off these ridiculous dance moves and doing anything to avoid what she was about to do. When she jumped, it was such a relief. I was scared that she wasn’t going to go the first time they counted by she did and actually got a better jump than I did. Guess that’s what I get for looking down. Rachel was ecstatic when she got back into the box and was still celebrating when we were back in the main building looking at the pictures. As she should have. By then my adrenaline rush was over (it would return in bits and spurts for a few days though) and I had come slightly preoccupied with the thought of leaving the tour and everyone on it. I guess this showed as Rachel immediately went into “Cheer Ben Up” mode. She informed me that the ‘water’ she had been drinking on the shuttle up here was in reality a powerful gin and tonic and then busted out celebration cookies for us to eat. The wait for our return shuttle was long and I began to get frustrated because I wanted to get back and spend as much time with people as possible. Finally, the pictures we ordered were done and we were back on the shuttle into Queenstown. A few minutes before we got off Rachel turned around and had me listen to two artists I had never heard of before, Two Door Cinema Club and Zero 7. They were great and were the first things I put onto my computer when I got back to Melbourne. Once the shuttle dropped us off we both returned to camp. My tent was the only tent left up because I was still not packed so that was a weird thing to see. I now officially had no choice but to get everything ready for my flight. Once I was done Alex came over to help me take down my tent one final time and also gave me a copy of The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, her current favorite book. When I was done making sure I had everything a group of us walked down to Fergburger, a New Zealand restaurant famous for their huge burgers. A double bacon cheeseburger was my comfort food for that afternoon and the burger definitely lived up to its reputation. We ate it back at the campsite with some glasses of wine and beer (had to get one last drink in together) but no sooner were we done than Holly and Steely gave the call to load up the bus. It was very strange to walk around saying goodbye to everyone, especially ‘The Group.’ I was disappointed that I hadn’t gotten to spend more time with them that day and admittedly gave some pretty withdrawn farewells that in now way gave justice to the relationship I had developed with them. I guess I was scared of the reality it was probably going to be the last time I saw any of them. As the doors of the bus closed I picked my pack up and set off towards the city. Every step was a struggle and new thought; I was truly overwhelmed and it was everything I could do keep walking forward and not turn back. I got to the top of the stairs down into the city and where I hoped the bus would drive by so I stopped to take some pictures and wave goodbye. I was waiting there trying to act like I was busy for an awkwardly long time until finally the bus pulled around the corner. I wasn’t quite sure where people were sitting and all I could make out were waving hands as the bus turned in front of me. I waved back and with a honk of the horn Steely drove off onto the tour’s next stop. Without me. I did my best to occupy my thoughts with finding a place to stay that night and I soon found myself throwing my pack onto a bunk at the Aspen Lodge a few minutes walk from the city center. Although all I wanted to do was go to sleep I forced myself to wander back out to get some last minute souvenirs and find something to eat. Cash was pretty tight at this point and I still had to pay for a bus to the airport so I was definitely counting every last cent that I had. I actually went without dinner that night because I couldn’t afford it. I returned to the hostel and bought a few minutes of internet (yes, this was more important than food) to let everyone know I was still alive and to write an incredibly depressing blog post about leaving the tour. When my connection ran out I foraged around in my pack for the book I hadn’t read a page of since being in New Zealand. I figured I might as well read a little since I had been carrying it around with me for the past two weeks. I took a spot in the corner of the main tv/kitchen area and spent the next few hours reading while occasionally looking up to people watch (subconsciously playing Your Team, My Team the entire time) and catch a few scenes of the movie some girls were watching. When I started to forget what had happened on the previous page I decided to call it quits and went to bed. It had been a very weird afternoon.

The day is February 1, 2012. Gah! Where did January go?! Not having anything to do or any money or people to do it with I got up early to make sure I could get to my plane on time. I would fly out of Queenstown at noon and my flight back to Melbourne would leave Auckland around five. For being last minute bookings, it worked out pretty nicely. I spent the last of my money on a bus ticket to the airport and then spent the next 10 hours sitting in terminals, airplanes, buses, and trains until I was finally back in Melbourne. My actual travel was incredibly uneventful and Air New Zealand proved once again to be a great airline to fly on with touch screens, food, and free beer on both my flights. Walking into my room was like hitting a brick wall, though. Not needing to find a place to stay, food to eat, rides to airports, or what terminal I needed to be in next meant that I had nothing to distract me from the thought I had spent the last 36 hours running from; my New Zealand experience was over.

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New Zealand: South Island Part 1

When I left you on my last post we had just crossed over onto the South Island and were staying the night in Picton, where I got my ass handed to me in arm wrestling and we climbed over construction equipment. Sounds like fun, right? Let’s hear how the rest of the trip went…

The day is January 22, 2012. We get up a few hours early for a walk into town to see the sights and grab some breakfast. Steve, a true Southerner from Alabama, joins us for a while. After we eat we explore a bit and discover the beach that we had come in by last night. There is a very striking memorial to New Zealand veterans there and I am struck with a sense of awe at how highly those who served are treated and remembered. The war memorials that frequent New Zealand are made even more striking when you think about how peaceful the nation is. It truly is a humbling thing to see.

After a little jaunt along the beach we head back to the hostel where we check out and sit along the street like a bunch of hobos while we wait for Steely to pull up with the new bus. Everyone is ripe with anticipation because Steely and Holly had talked up this South Island bus so much. Every other word out of their mouths was about how awesome, new, and spacious this bus was going to be compared to the one on the North Island that wasn’t exactly in its prime anymore. When he pulled up everyone rushed on to try and get the best seats and I ended up in the back with Claire and Andy while Rachel and Alex were in their own double rows in front of us. Spacious indeed. Despite my best attempts the night before catches up with me and I end up falling asleep and would have stayed that way had the bus not stopped to let the tour see a bunch of seals. If the weather had been better I have a feeling we would have been there for a really long time because they were genuinely interesting to watch. A few pups were playing and some of the adults were swimming but that only gives you a warm fuzzy feeling for so long before wind and rain seep through. Today was also a rare occasion because we found ourselves ahead of schedule that allowed us to stop at a vineyard on our drive through New Zealand wine country. Not a huge fan of wine, I opted to play tetherball and soccer whilst drinking coffee and eating bruschetta with Claire and Andy. When we piled back onto the bus there was more bottles of wine than there were people, some of whom had become slightly intoxicated from the tasting. The next stop was a small town just outside of Christchurch and when the bus pulled up we were told that we could do a walk along the beach for a few hours or do some exploring. Given that the sky looked rather dark most chose to explore town and relax over some coffee. But as it always done right when you make the decision to stay inside the weather cleared up and it turned out to be a really great afternoon. We stuck with our decision though and Andy had the largest cup bowl of coffee any of us had ever seen so about 20 minutes later when we went to the beach he was completely wired. The beach was very pebbly (they would be like this from here on out) but we made the most of it and had a competition to see how many times we could skip stones. We were all awful and couldn’t get more than two. Our time on the beach was limited though so we piled into the bus and headed towards camp, picking up those who did the walk along the way. Camp that night was really nice. We had a nice shaded area to pitch our tents and a (relatively) spacious place to cook and hang out. The shelter became even nicer when the weather turned for the worst. There wasn’t much late-night activity that night because the majority of people had to get up extremely early to go dolphin swimming or whale watching. I hadn’t put my name down earlier enough so I didn’t have a booking but I was told that I had a good chance of there being a good spot that I could step into if I was willing to wake up and ask the shuttle driver. So by 10pm everyone was in their tents trying to go to sleep and praying that you hadn’t looked over a hole in your tent when you set it up. Camping in the rain can be fun but no one likes to wake up in a puddle.

The day is January 23, 2012. The camp comes to life slowly this morning. It is so early that the night before we put reflective jackets on our tents so that if someone slept through their alarm people would know to wake them up. I get up with the rest of the dolphin swimmers (which is about an hour and a half before the whale watchers need to get up) but quickly find myself back inside my sleeping bag going back to sleep. Not because there wasn’t an extra spot but simply because the entire trip got cancelled due to the weather. To be fair, we had been warned that this was a very likely possibility but that didn’t make it any less frustrating to get up and ready for nothing. The whale watching got the can as well so our incredibly early morning quickly turned into one of the more laid back ones we would have all trip. When it was time to go we went back into the town from the day before to pick up the latest addition to the tour, a sweet old lady named Susanne. The tour was picking up quite a few people that day actually. Had it not been for us needing to pick up a few new people in Christchurch, then the bus would have never gotten anywhere near the earthquake ravaged city. The airport was as close we got and while the Antarctic expedition terminal was cool the entire bus had a very somber feeling for a few minutes as Holly explained why exactly we couldn’t go into the city. She told us that Christchurch still had massive amounts of work that needed to be done and that traffic in and out of the city had basically been routed into one big loop. This loop was easy enough to get into but one had no idea how long it would take to get out. So we looped around Christchurch and finally got to the campsite that would prove to be one of my favorites. The camp was on an old, picturesque farm and we set our tents up around the house the sheep shearers used to live in. Aside from the poop that scattered the lawn it was a great spot that had a river running behind it, a nice big kitchen, and a piano that was just slightly out of tune. Before dinner Andy, Mattheus, and Claire joined me for a dip in the river. I have never been in colder water in my entire life. After a hot shower and dinner people congregated into the living room where a few of my fellow Flying Kiwi-ers had begun to play before-mentioned piano. Florian, a German high school exchange student, and Phil put on a fantastic show complete with singing and a much less talented accompaniment consisting of spoons, pots, and Holly’s ukulele. Everyone was so relaxed and laid back that night despite the drama of a attention seeking twit unnecessarily going to the hospital. At least Claire got to be herself while she waited with Andy and I to show the ambulance where to go. No one lost much sleep over that. I had spent most of the night in the house and looking down to avoid sheep shit but a definite highlight of that night was the sky. It was the clearest sky I had seen not only on my trip but in my whole life. The only slight drawback was that it was a bit cloudy outside. It was great fun to try and find the constellations and remember some people had pointed out on previous nights of the trip. I was so excited by the stars that I ran inside to get Rachel and Alex to come see them and although they probably thought I was a bit too excited about it we all spent a few minutes arching our necks back as far as they could go trying to take it all in. What a night.

The day is January 24, 2012. Having not had an adrenaline rush in a few days I decide that it would be splendidly good fun to go white water rafting. As always, this required me to wake up earlier than those who weren’t going rafting but it was an easy sacrifice to make. I can sleep when I’m back in the States. Thankfully, Alex had offered to take the tents of everyone going rafting down so that we didn’t have to deal with it in the dark and this gave me another 15 minutes of sleep. When we got to the rafting place the hut was pretty breathtaking. It sat up on top of a hill overlooking the valley through which the river ran and had a huge porch and common area. Steely, who was coming along for the experience, told us this is where they normally had us stay but because of the place’s popularity and the size of our group we weren’t able to this time. At least we got to enjoy it for that morning though. A brief safety speech and explanation of the gear was all that stood between my dry comfortable clothes and the cold, damp, ill fitting outfit that they had us all put on. But if everyone looks ridiculous then no one does, right? We were shuttled down to the start of the course, took a few goofy pictures, and then we were off. While we were in the less rough parts of the course our guide taught us the different rowing techniques, how to get back into the raft if we fell off, and the ever-popular “Nose and Toes” line that described how one was supposed to go down a Class 5 rapid if one found themselves raft-less. Consider the confidence shattered at this point. All this pep talk proved pointless though because our group (which consisted of Andy, Steely, Carol, Claire, Rachel, and myself) navigated the rapids with ease and composure. There are even pictures to prove it. The most excited part of the entire trip was the cliff jump we got to do halfway through. There was a 4m and 10m jump and they were absolutely fabulous. The water was quite frigid though so we moved on after three jumps to keep warm and on schedule. When we got back to the hut we took all of our goofy outfits off, showered, viewed and purchased photos, and were then shuttled back to the camp. All of that before 11am. The day was made even better when we discovered that Alex had indeed made good on her promise to take down our tents. We had a bit of a drive in front of us but the destination had all of us too excited to mind. We got a taste of our campsite about halfway through the afternoon when we stopped just outside of a town alongside a glacier lake at the foot of Mt. Cook. Steely pulled over the bus about 1k out of the town and we all slowly made our way down the hill and onto the rocky beach of the lake. It was absolutely beautiful. The water was this intense light blue that was framed on all sides by the mountains and the cloudless sky above. The beach was entirely rocks which made it a bit of a challenge to get to the water’s edge but it was completely worth it. Although freezing, the water was so refreshing and I managed to make it out fairly far before I realized I couldn’t feel my toes (and that sitting on a bus soaking wet probably wouldn’t be too enjoyable). So naturally I climbed on top of the closest rock and posed like the sexy merman that I am before returning to dry land and more picture opportunities. At the top of the hill there was a very old church that would have provided great views if not for the small army of Asians that descended onto the place right when we got there. I never have quite gotten used to the number of Asians that are here. Sigh. That was our cue to head into the town, which was just a short walk over a dam and consisted of one street lined with a gas station, supermarket, hotel, Asian restaurants, and ice cream shops. Holly and Steely had managed to pass on their ice cream addiction to the rest of us so we managed to grab a few scoops and bottles of wine before being herded back onto the bus. This drive wasn’t nearly as long and we even had a short break so that people who wanted to bike to our campsite could take their bikes down from the trailer and head off. When we got to the campsite it was pretty breathtaking. The weather had stayed perfectly clear and the view was stunning. The bus stopped behind a stand of trees that initially hid the view of Mt. Cook from us but as we spread out searching for a place to set up our tents the entire group was struck with a sense of awe at the sight before us. The campsite was set up on a high cliff overlooking a glacier lake. Right in front of us, Mt. Cook rose directly in front of us framed by the rest of the mountain range. We were even closer to the mountain than we were before and had a panoramic view of the range as it started with foothills on the left and rose into the mountains that culminated in Mt. Cook and then sunk back down again. The lake was vast and sat about 20 meters below the top of the cliff where I set up the tents. From the camp you couldn’t see the other side of the lake as it approached the foot of Mt. Cook. So as the mountains rose higher and higher the lakefront got further and further away which made Mt. Cook an even more impressive figure to see. Since the rest of ‘The Group’ had gone on the bike ride and Alex had set in motion a kind of pay it forward tent program I decided to set up all four of our tents in the best place I could find. There were three factors in determining your tent location at this camp; slope, rocks, and view. You could only pick two though as the rocky beach below extended up the hill and turned into a hard, rocky hill all about the campsite. Deciding not to cram the tents with the rest of the group in a small, slightly flat area at the bottom of the hill (with no view) I went for a front spot along the cliff. With Roger’s help I got the tents set up fairly quickly (it took me longer to find the spot than to set the tents up) and with plenty of time to go for a swim in the lake. The water in this lake was a smidge warmer than in the other but still incredibly cold so my swim was cut short and ended up being more of a wade and rock sit than anything else. But apparently the definition of a swim is getting your head wet so I did indeed go for a swim. The bikers arrived in bits and spurts and shortly after dinner was served. We made sure to get done with eating before the sunset though and got some really amazing views from atop our lakeside cliff. It got cold quickly though so everyone got his or her jackets and beer coats out to stay warm. The topics of conversation were similar to most nights; what we were doing tomorrow, the sexual tension between Holly and Steely, stories of travels past, and plans of travels future. However, we were soon all captivated by the night sky above us. It was the most impressive and clear sky I had ever seen in my entire life. To get a better view we walked back to our tent and decided to lay our ground mats outside. I am sitting here trying to think of how to describe that sky and I simply cannot do it. It puts to shame the sky that I had seen the night before. I have never seen so many stars and they were all so crystal clear. I would get dizzy trying to focus on any one of them because there were so many others lighting up the sky. I have never felt so small. The sheer number was enough to make anyone’s mouth drop. I have no idea how long we laid out there but it was long enough for us to watch Venus drop to the horizon and Orion to move halfway across the sky. And we hadn’t even realized that it happened. The rest of the group slowly made their way to their respective tents until it was just me out there lying on the ground. It was then that I had one of those moments where you think to yourself, “Holy shit, I’m on the other side of the world.” You can’t help but smile at the thought and for a few minutes after you are completely and totally at peace with where you are. Alex came back out and sat with me for a little while longer before she was simply too tired to keep her eyes open anymore. I’m not sure how long I was out there by myself and may have even fallen asleep once or twice but I just felt that the sky was too majestic to cover up with a tent. I caved in eventually though and found my way inside where I was suddenly much more aware of the rocks and unforgiving hard ground. Guess it is true that one sense can truly drown out all the others given the right situation.

The day is January 25, 2012. By this time my body clock is set to wake me up no later than 7:30am regardless of when I go to bed. Despite my best efforts to roll over and go back to sleep I can’t get myself comfortable so I unzip my tent flap and exit into the cool morning. To my surprise, the rest of the camp is fairly active as well and I am actually one of the last to arrive around the breakfast table. The day before Steely had informed us that he was having a lot of trouble with the bus. So much trouble that a mechanic had been called out to see what was wrong with it and that the bus wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Our morning update came and, in their typical optimistic fashion, Holly and Steely informed us that we would all get a good 3-4 hour hike or bike today because the bus would need to be towed to a mechanic. They put most of the emphasis on the hike for understandable reasons. Most people chose to do the hike so we broke camp and got on our way. Just like on the Routeburn, the walking groups were established a few minutes into the hike and I had the pleasure of spending the vast majority of the walk talking with Alex. The weather from the day before had managed to stay so we once again had a cloudless blue sky and an incredibly intense sun to walk under. The walk itself was rather boring as it was simply a path that wound its way through a plane of grass and short bushes. There was no shade or shelter along the path but some was always just in view as if to tease us as we baked under the sun. All in all it was a great few hours filled with good company, conversation, and interesting moments with other members of the group. About every 30 minutes or so we always passed or were passed by a fellow Flying Kiwi-er who we would then pick up in our conversation for awhile before breaking away again. These moments are always the most entertaining as you never know who you are going to come across or what conversation you are going to walk into at precisely the wrong moment. As enjoyable as walking with Alex was though I think we were all glad when we made our way into town. Bathrooms and ice cream were the first things on everyone’s mind. Holly had told us to meet her and Steely in front of the information site where they told us that we had another short walk to get our stuff from the bus and then we would make our way to the campsite we would be staying at. Of course, this was not the site we were originally supposed to stay at and since there was no way to get the trailer with all the tents and food to the site we would all get a free upgrade and dinner that night. Before we left to get our bags from the bus Holly did the infamous ’30 and under’ count in order to separate people into the two cottages that had been booked. Of course I was in the 30 and under category but my closest friends were not so this made for a bit of an awkward moment as we were reminded about the age difference most of us never thought of. It was a very trivial thing but I won’t pretend and say I wasn’t slightly disappointed at the idea of not being able to spend that time with the people I was closest with. All of that is besides the point, though. I imagine that we were quite a site as the 30 of us trudged up the street to the mechanic, a measly broken line of slouched backs, sweat soaked brows, and feet stained red from the dust. It was awesome. As instructed by Holly and Steely, people were only supposed to take what they absolutely needed to the camp. A benefit of only having one bag is that you have no other space to put everything you don’t need so I simply grabbed my pack and walked across the road to the golf course to wait for the Steely shuttle to begin. Slowly but surely I was joined by the rest of the group. The Steely shuttle was delayed by a hospital run for Martin, who had been going through an increasing amount of pain in his chest and ribs after a bike crash at the beginning of the tour. Damn Australia for putting the brakes on the other side of the handlebar. Some of the more impatient people decided to walk or bike the 2k to the campsite and it was slightly entertaining to watch them set off with their bags and packs. The first awkward moment of the ’30 and under’ separation came when those around me encouraged me to ride a bike with the rest of “The Group” to the campsite. This passive aggressive suggestion that I couldn’t bear to be away from them for more than a few minutes had me determined to be the last person to arrive at the campsite. My cause was made quite humorous though when Andy and Rachel rode up to where we were sitting and enthusiastically tried to get me to ride with them. Irony at its finest. It turns out I was on the first shuttle to the site because no one else could be bothered to stand up from their spots and I ended up beating all of them there. I claimed a bunk in the cottage I was assigned and then did some exploring to find the small store, the lakefront, and the cottage that everyone else would be at. Since the walk had been extremely hot and this lake wasn’t glacier water we were all very excited to go for a swim. Although still cold, the water was refreshing beyond compare and at any one point almost the entire group found their way in to some extent. A good hour or two were spent out there swimming and enjoying the day before we went back to our respective cottages to enjoy a shower before dinner. Holly had found us a Thai buffet to eat at which was just a short ride away via the Steely shuttle back into town. All of us were so starving and the poor restaurant never saw us coming. Of course we had told them we were going to show up but they either thought Holly was lying about how many of us there were or simply had no concept of how hungry we were. It was the first time I had been at a buffet where the food is consumed faster than it is brought out. The Thai buffet was actually just a Wednesday special that a local pizzeria and bar set up so while we were waiting for more food to be brought out we took advantage of the bar. Cold, crisp carbs never tasted so good. That’s a dramatization as I am sure there have been moments where I have enjoyed a beer more than at a Thai buffet but BFN, New Zealand is realllllly high up there. A few games of pool were set up followed quickly by jukebox seletions and the night took off from there. Right before we were about to leave the bartender, who had taken quite a liking to Rachel, brought out a huge piece of smoked salmon to show off. I am still convinced this was done in a “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” state of mind but Rachel simply ooh’d and aah’d just enough to get a hunk of salmon and a salmon ball before the Holly shuttle came to pick us up. When we pulled into the campsite we were all terrified by Kathy who just popped out of a bush right in front of us. At first I thought we were going to hit her but quickly came to terms with that situation and let the fright of her appearing in front of the van take over.

*Side Note: I just tried to right the word apparate as in, the term used in Harry Potter for magically getting to one place to another and spent at least 5 minutes trying to find the correct spelling for the word. I even went so far as to ask both my Mom and Dad who informed me that I was bat-shit crazy, that apparate isn’t a real word, and that just because I am in Australia doesn’t mean I get to pretend I am at Hogwarts. Fuck my life.*

Back to Kathy. Oh yes. We were all kinda drunk and with everything that Kathy had put the tour through the past few days were having a grand ‘ol time laughing at what had just happened. Call us bad people if you want, but the situation was just hysterical and it was impossible not to laugh. When the Holly shuttle dropped us off I was told to just sleep in the cottage that had been designated for the “30 and over’s.” At this point, I couldn’t have cared less about what everyone would say or think about it so I went and got my stuff and slept on the extra bed Andy, Claire, Rachel and Alex had in their room. I knew it might be awkward in the morning but screw it.

The day is January 26, 2012. The night before at the Thai buffet Steely and Holly had told us that we would be getting a new bus (new for us, not actually new) and that we would be pinching in some glacier sightseeing around Mt. Cook that we had missed yesterday. We would also be cutting the Catlins out of our tour entirely. I was bummed about this because it is supposed to be a great area but accepted it as something that was out of everyone’s control and made the best of it. To be honest, unless I go through my original itinerary I forget all about the fact that we didn’t go there. We had a fairly leisurely start because our new bus needed to be driven to where we were staying. It was a mad dash on to try and claim seats but we once again ended up in the back. However this bus was much older than the last one and the setup was completely different. Rather than rows of seats on either side the back of the bus had three benches that faces each other. Since there was very limited storage under the bus this meant that we shared the back benches with most of the tents, sleeping bags, and some luggage. It was an interesting puzzle to put together that first morning but from there on out we got pretty quick at getting things arranged. When we had picked up the trailer and made lunch we set out for the glacier. I must say that my idea of a glacier must have been pretty romanticized because I was thinking we would be mere feet away from a gigantic mass of pristine ice where in reality we were many kilometers away from a gigantic mass of dirt and rock covered ice. There were a few walks that one could do around the glacier so I climbed the lookout point and then came around to the lakeside dock before it was time to load back onto the bus. The viewpoint was very cool. From the top of a hill you could see the valley that the glacier had cut, the lake and river that the glacier was currently melting into, and the mountainside where the glacier was still standing hundreds of meters thick. On our way back out of the valley we had two interesting things happen. The first was that Holly pointed out the gully that Helm’s Deep was digitally inserted into in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. It took some imagination because the producers had done so much editing of the landscape but there was definitely an unmistakable resemblance. The second interested thing that happened was that Steely hit a rock. And when I say he hit a rock I mean he ran over a boulder. Actually it gave all of us quite a startle and it happened right when we were passing in front of the Helm’s Deep gully so many were standing trying to take a photo. When cameras and people were all back in the respective places Steely pulled over the bus to survey the damage. Poor guy had really done a number on it. The very little cargo space we had under the bus was now gone so Alex and I were joined by even more tents and ground mats in the back. The bus still ran though so we continued on in fear of losing yet another day to mechanic issues. We had some catching up to do from the day before but the long ride went surprisingly quickly and the campsite made it entirely worth it. The camp they had set up for us tonight was very impressive. The entire thing was situated on a flat grassy area overlooking the beach about 20 meters below. It was a surfing beach so there were great waves coming into shore and lots of people running around. It really would have been a great place to stay but as soon as we were done eating a gale struck. The wind was so powerful that it made the tents bend to the point of breaking. After waiting a few minutes to try and ride it out we were given the orders to take the tents down before any further damage could occur. I would pay good money for a video of all of us running around trying to get the tents down in that wind. It had to be an absolutely hysterical sight. Rain covers flying away, various articles of clothing going airborne here and there, and what is easily a two man job requiring five people to do. It was an absolute blast and I was laughing the entire time. When all the tents were packed we took a few moments for pictures and then set off for the impromptu upgrade Holly had managed to set up at the last second. By the time we got there we were all very glad that we had left the campsite because it had begun to rain in addition to the gale. I once again was separated into the ’30 and under’ group and was once again given an ‘honorary old person’ card to make the numbers work better and keep everybody happy. I ended up sleeping with Alex, Rachel and Carrol. Hold your applause, I was on the floor. But it was fun. The four of us sat up for an hour or so having a few drinks and talking before passing out in exhaustion. Other than having one too many floor mats and therefore doing quite a bit of sliding around in my sleep it was a surprisingly good night of rest.

Well, there you have it. The first part of my experience on New Zealand’s South Island. Far from uneventful, I can’t see myself forgetting those five days anytime soon. Can you believe that I still have five more to tell you all about? I promise I will be all caught up on these updates soon and as always thank you for reading these. Be sure to check out the photos I have posted on my shutterfly website as well, the link is on the homepage of this blog.

New Zealand: The North Island

The last post that I gave to you was probably a bit premature and poorly planned. I was a bit more emotional than I care to admit and I was definitely feeling a loss over leaving the tour. But it has been almost 48 since then and I am doing a hell of a lot better. Don’t get me wrong, I still miss the tour and everyone on it incredibly but I think that I have been able to come to pretty good terms as to what exactly my experience was, how it changed me, and the relationships I gained because of it.

So lets rewind.

The day is January 16, 2012. I set out to catch my flight much earlier than I thought I had to but it ended up being a good thing. Between not having ate anything out of too much excitement, not having a printed out ticket in advance of check-in, and that awkward moment when you’re told that the bag you were hoping to carry-on has to be checked I was incredibly glad that I had the extra time at the airport. I was already worked up enough about the trip the last thing that I needed was to feel rushed as I was walking through the airport and various security checkpoints. The plane ride was uneventful and very enjoyable. For my 11 hour flight across the Pacific Ocean my United Airlines plane didn’t have individual screens for personal viewing but for my 3 hour flight to Auckland my Air New Zealand plane not only had those personal screens but also served me a full meal, a snack, and two drinks (one was a free beer!). United you really need to step up your game. I was unaware that there was a two hour time difference between Melbourne and Auckland so I was a bit surprised when I arrived in New Zealand at midnight as opposed to 10:00pm (or 22:00 as they would say over here). This kind of ended the plan to find a hostel and have a few beers before going to bed but I wasn’t too attached to that idea in the first place so it was okay. I found my way to downtown Auckland via an airport shuttle and stayed at Nomad’s hostel that was just a few blocks away from where I would meet my bus in the morning.

The day is January 17, 2012. I got a few hours of sleep before waking up at 8 to give me two hours before meeting the bus. Whether the lack of sleep was because I was so excited or because I was sleeping next to a girl who snored quite loudly I never really decided. After I shower I walk down to the main street where I will meet the Flying Kiwi bus and stop into an Equinox coffee to wake up and gain some semblance of direction from the friendly staff and customers. With their help I manage to find a pharmacy where I buy all the liquids that I hadn’t brought (sunscreen, insect repellant, etc.) Once this is done I wander down to the docks where my itinerary says I am supposed to meet the bus. After about 10 minutes of waiting and not seeing a single person when a backpack I walk inside and ask if this is the address I think it is. Fortunately, it was the address that I thought it was but unfortunately it wasn’t where I was supposed to meet the bus. For the next 20 minutes I am hit back and forth along Quay Street (pronounced Kay Street) like a ping pong ball by various tourist establishments until finally I get to the correct meeting point. When I get there I stand next to a bench where a blonde woman is sitting. She politely smiles and offers me the seat next to her but seeing more people approaching I decline. I would later learn that this woman’s name is Alex and over the next two weeks her and I would become bus, walking, and drinking buddies. Alex initially tells me that she isn’t on the same tour as I am but then gets to awkwardly walk past me when she finds out that indeed she had the name wrong (it was a lot funnier when you were there). The bus pulls up and out hops our tour guide Holly. Now to put words to this character would not be doing it justice but I will try anyways. Holly is a barefoot ball of energy and optimism. Nothing is too challenging, complicated, or difficult and everything is only slightly uphill, easier than anything else you will do, and the time of your life. She was great. Behind her comes Sugar Daddy, the bus driver. That really isn’t his name but he would later pick up that nickname from a slightly drunken bus during a wilderness camp. The name everyone uses for Sugar Daddy is Steely but that was not nearly as much fun to say. As Steely throws our backpacks under the bus we timidly file our way up the stairs as Holly checks us in. I end up sitting next to another guy from the States whose name is Phil. Phil is an English teacher in Vietnam and a great guy who hides a very good musical talent, LOTR passion, and interesting sense of humor behind shyness. Behind me sits Rachel, who would quickly become a close friend of mine through her hysterical antics and carefree ways. We leave Adelaide and are not gone for more 40 minutes when we have to turn back to pick up a girl who made the same mistake that Alex did at first. Now that was an awkward walk up the bus aisle. We drive up to the Coromandel peninsula past some beautiful scenery for a few hours before the bus dumps me and everyone else off so we can see Cathedral Cove. I opt to do the sea kayak to the cove so myself and 6 others walk up the beach while the others begin their trek on foot. The sea kayak was a lot of fun. The weather wasn’t the greatest and Phil got a bit queezy in some parts, but all in all it was a great experience. The rough ocean was very impressive and we got to paddle around some very unique islands. When we got to the cove the rest of the group had already moved on but while our kayak guides made us coffee we were able to walk around, take pictures, and if we were brave enough walk into the frigid water. Once our coffees had been finished, cheesy photos had been taken, and everything packed up we paddled back to our starting place and were shuttled off to the campsite. I remember being very intimidated and cold when I walked up to the campsite that first night. Everyone was a stranger and while they were extremely friendly there was definitely a sense of preexisting relationships there. I made the most of it though and would like to think that I was outgoing enough to be considered a presence but not so much that I was overeager. It was a very eventful evening as I did my best to take in all the processes of making dinner, cleaning up, setting up camp, and everything else. Around sunset I followed the crowd to the next destination known as Hot Water Beach. As we walked up to the hot spring (which would come to the surface if you dug out the sand above it, creating pools to sit in that varied from cold to scalding), Holly pointed out how to find a ‘rip’ in the ocean tide. There were two examples of rips on this particular beach and Holly made it quite clear that they really were as dangerous as they are made out to be and that to test your luck would be the stupidest thing you could possibly do. I listened. For the next few hours I bounced around from pool to pool trying to avoid the ones that had gone cold or would singe your skin. It was a delicate science but we got the hang of it pretty quick. That was a really great ice breaker for the group and I soon found myself interacting a lot with Andy, who would later become my go-to guy for beer drinking, adrenaline rushes, and everything else no one else would do with me. We walked back from the beach in the pitch dark and I realized how quickly my first day had gone by. I ended up tenting with Phil so we got our stuff into the tent and did our best to get comfortable. Since the line for the regular bathrooms was out the door I decided to be a rebel and take a family bathroom all to myself for a few minutes to try and wash as much sand off as possible (I still woke up with it all over my tent). I stayed up for a little while talking to Alex, Claire (who is Andy’s girlfriend and another part of my closer groups of friends), and a few other people while they finished their wine.

 

 

 

The day is January 18, 2012. When you sleep in a tent, there is very little you can do to avoid hearing the sounds of camp around you or the glaring sunlight that comes through at 7am. When you are on a Flying Kiwi trip this turns into a good thing because usually the bus is packed and rolling out of camp at around 830-9am. At this point I was still on my early morning sleeping schedule though so I didn’t have too much trouble with it. I broke down our tent, grabbed some yogurt and cereal for breakfast, and jumped onto the bus as it headed out to Whiritoa beach (Holly’s favorite beach on the whole tour). When we got there we were given the option of having a coffee or sprinting to Whiritoa because we were a bit close on time and the walk was longer than Holly remembered. I opted for the sprint which ended up being a hilly, barefoot run through a trail along a seaside forest and cow field. It was worth it though when I came around that hilltop to see the secluded beach open up in front of me. I ran around the beach for a few minutes (I got their early because I ran there with Holly) and took a lot of pictures of the same thing (will be posted soon) before dashing back to the bus. After a few hours of driving we arrived in Rotorua where a big group of us decided to do the downhill luge (any of you been to Gatlinburg? just like that). I ended up running most of them with Matteus, who was a quiet, thrill-seeking Swede and turned out to be great comical relief at multiple times during the trip. We had been told by Holly that the place we were to meet the bus was a short 10 minutes walk so we took out time and got ice cream (well, I got a huge steak sandwich) before starting the journey to the iSite where the bus was. This was our first true experience with Holly’s over-optimism. The 10 minute walk turned into a 45 minute journey across the entire town. But we survived it and actually weren’t even that late! A short drive later we had arrived at the first wilderness camp of my trip at Lake Rerewhakaaitu. It turned out to be a really great campsite. The lake was beautiful and the weather was great so despite the fact I knew I couldn’t shower I went for a run until I was forced to turn back by overgrown trail. This next tip is for anyone who finds themselves in the middle of a foreign country with complete strangers without any beer. If you return sweaty, scratched, out of breath, and play your puppy-dog eyes just right your wish will be granted. At least mine was (this is a joke by the way, most people will want to get as far away from you as possible if you use this technique) Looking back, I would say this is the moment when the group of people I would hang out with for the rest of the trip began to form. Andy offered me a beer over dinner and they just kind of kept coming. So we sat around and talked for hours (since there was nothing else to do) about anything and everything; Steely and Holly’s sexual tension, what people’s travel plans were after this, and everything in between. We had a few encounters with some of the most massive beetles I have ever seen and by a few I mean that they were everywhere. I ended up swatting one of them straight onto Alex on accident but it still was pretty hilarious. Given that our camp was in the middle of nowhere and the weather had been great all day this was the first time that I got to see the New Zealand stars. That night wasn’t the best that I would see while I was there but it was still breathtakingly beautiful and humbling. A few people got their iPhones out and used a star application that could tell us what all the constellations were in the sky above us. It was really cool and I did what I could to remember them but I didn’t catch a lot. We all headed to bed when we realized how early of a morning we had the next day.

The day is January 19, 2012. Another early morning for the bus tour. At this point it is no longer a surprise to break camp and be on our way by 9am but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the waking up gets any easier. We back track to the thermal pools of Rotorua when we visit Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. This was originally going to be an activity that I skip but the pressure from both Holly and the rest of the tour has me walking through the gates anyways. The walking paces and interest level of those who went into the park designate the group and this is where my group of friends, who would later be dubbed “The Group,” takes shape not only as drinking friends  but also as walking friends. The park was really interesting. Once you got out of the “Oh, another boiling hot pool of water” state of mind it actually quite impressive. We did the entire park and I am still convinced that the last pool we went to is where Nickelodeon got their slime from. When everyone had finished the tour we made a quick stop at Huka Falls which, when pronounced by Holly, sounded like Hooker Falls and made even the oldest member of the tour snicker a little bit. The Falls were impressive but they aren’t your stereotypical falls. Essentially, they are the result of a massive amount of water flowing through a very tight space. There is very little drop to them but you definitely wouldn’t want to try and swim it. Although I enjoyed these first two stops of our day I found myself constantly looking towards the afternoon because in just a few short hours I was going to jump out of a plane. On Holly’s advice, I had gone ahead and booked the skydive early because you were never sure what kind of weather you were going to get in New Zealand and if you really wanted to do it then you couldn’t be picky about what location it was at. So while the rest of the bus went on to the campsite I stayed behind with Andy, Alex, Mattheus, Benny, Jannis, Alex, Phil, and Christy. After losing Phil we climbed onto the skydive shuttle and we were off. When we got to Taupo Skydive it wasn’t very long before we were up into the plane. The most unsettling part of the experience was that they didn’t make you pay until you had landed. That wasn’t exactly a confidence booster. We all decided to go with the 15,000ft jump which would give us about a minute of freefall followed by a few minutes of parachuting down. The day was overcast and there was a solid cloud cover as far as the eye could see. I was a bit bummed out about it at first but it actually gave a really cool feeling to the jump. It took about 20 minutes to get to 15,000ft but only a few minutes for all of us to jump/fall out of the plane after that. I was the last one to go. Before Alan, who was my tandem partner, threw us towards the ground he made me look over my shoulder at a camera. Before I could look back from the picture he had pushed us out of the plane and we were on our way. That’s twice that I have fallen for the tricks of the tandem jump. Sneaky bastards. The freefall was intense. They say you get up to speeds of 200 km/hr during the freefall and all we could see was this blanket of clouds. Before we jumped, we had been informed that they would pull parachutes at about 4,000ft and that is right where the cloud layer was. So there we are falling into these clouds where we can see nothing of the ground below us and right when we come out all of Taupo opens up before us as we pull our parachutes and slow down. We had come down over the lake, which dominated the view at first. Once I had gotten over what I had just done I was able to see the entire city stretching along the coast and up into the mountains behind it. It was gorgeous, even in the gray glow of the day. When we landed we were made to do one final cheesy video and then we paid for whatever photos or movies we wanted to take back with us. A couple minutes wait and we were taken back to the campsite, where I experienced my first upgrade (jazz hands!). I had three motivations to upgrade, which essentially means that instead of sleeping in a tent I would share a hostel-esque room with bunked beds. My first motivation was that the tents were uncomfortable and I had discovered a slight hole in the bottom of mine, the second motivation was that it was very cheap to upgrade for the one night, and the third was that we were going to be doing a serious day hike the next day starting at 5am and I didn’t want to deal with taking down a tent that early in the morning. I hopped online for a few minutes as well to make sure everyone knew I was alive then enjoyed a BBQ and a few beers before calling it a night.



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The day is January 20, 2012. My alarm goes off at 4:30am and I as I walk outside I am so relieved that I didn’t pitch a tent that night. The group is completely dead as we shuffle around the breakfast table, fill up our water bottles, and retrieve the sandwiches we had made the night before for our lunch. When the shuttle comes to pick us up we hand over the $20 fee and sleepily take our seats. A few swigs on a Coke has me feeling much more awake and by the time we get to the start of the trek everyone has livened up a bit. We queue up for the bathroom, take our touristy photos by a few signs, and silently pick out who we want to spend the next 7 hours walking with. When that is all done we set out on what is supposed to be one of the world’s Top 10 day hikes; the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. I think that when we started we were attributing the chilly, foggy weather to the New Zealand morning but we would later find out that this was not the case. All of my photos turned out bleak and kinda creepy because of the constant fog we were in during our ascent. We made the best of it though and about twenty minutes into the hike the walking groups had been established through natural tendancies. I ended up with Alex, Andy, Claire, and Rachel (The Group). The walk started off easy enough with only slight uphills and good terrain. We made great time to the first checkpoint but not before Alex and Rachel made a bathroom stop less than 200m away from the toilet that we didn’t know was there. To get me back for laughing at her, Rachel then decided to get a few candid photos of me (but not Andy!) doing what boys do best off to the side of the long drop. Classic. From that point on, the walk just got rougher and rougher. We were told to keep our eyes out for Mt. Doom (called Mount Ngauruhoe in real life) but we walked right past it and never saw it because it was so foggy. I think I have a pretty good idea of where we passed it thought because the gravel and rocks were so similar to what Frodo and Sam went through in the movie. Oh well, conquering Mordor will have to wait for my next trip to New Zealand. The climb got really rough at this point. We were either climbing hundreds of stairs at a time or jumping from slate rock to slate rock. The mist made it slippery and as we neared the summit the winds were strong enough that you needed to brace yourself against them. It was awesome. We stopped a few times for snacks (Oreos and gummy worms!), bathroom breaks (some of which were more public than others cough cough Rachel cough cough), and to put some warmer clothes on but for the most part we were of the mindset that we all just wanted to get to the other side of the mountain. So we did. When we reached the top it was a really great feeling and I was really bummed that the only view we got was whatever was 5 feet in front of us. The descent was a bit more entertaining. At the very top it was about 7 inches of ash/silt/sand that you sunk into whenever you took a step. You could approach it carefully and try to avoid sliding or you could embrace it and run down it with a slide that you told yourself you were controlling but in reality weren’t. Guess which one I did? As we went further and further down the weather started to clear up and by the time we had reached the last check point it was actually sunny and pleasant out. We took a long break to eat, rest, and empty our boots of whatever had crept into them during the walk so far before leaving for the car park. This final stage seemed like it lasted forever. We started off walking through a field but then descended into what could basically be considered rainforest. When we finally emerged we were greeted by applause from those who had finished before us and then sat around waiting for the bus to show up. The sense of achievement from that hike was a really great one with the only downside being the weather. My day only got better though when Holly informed us that we were getting a free upgrade that night courtesy of Flying Kiwi and that rather than cook dinner they were going to buy us all fish and chips, too! We got to choose one other thing besides the piece of fish and I got a ‘hotdog’ which sparked quite a big discussion between Alex and I about what exactly a hotdog is. Now, we don’t need to hash that out all over again but lets just say that in the States a hotdog means something very different than what it does in the UK. But I would have taken a UK hotdog over this New Zealand hotdog any day. It was one of the grosser things that I had ever tasted and every time I think of a corn dog now I cringe. The free upgrade was actually very nice because I got my own room which let me repack everything that had kind of just been thrown around in tents up to that point. The lady who gave us our rooms was a lovely old woman named Deb who was funny, laid back, and probably the most forgetful person I have ever come across. After dinner the site built a fire which we all sat around for awhile talking and drinking. My first Maori experience came this night when a very drunken one came to sit with our group. He explained that he had been drinking since 2pm and that was about all we got from his drunken ramblings. That and Andy’s attempts at opening two beer bottles at once made the night very entertaining but we soon realized that we had been up for 18 hours and decided to call it a night.

The day is January 21, 2012. We wake up at a reasonable time and then get a group photo in front of the North Island bus taken by our lovely host Deb. Then we ride to Wellington where we get a half day to explore, shop, eat, etc. Since the weather was looking a bit foreboding “The Group” opts out of a hike and decides to grab some food, go to the famous Te Papa Museum, and walk up and down Cuba Street for awhile. Before we set out, we unload the bus of all our gear and pile it high in a hostel room that Holly booked for just the occasion. We had to do this because that evening we would be crossing from the North to the South island and we would be getting a new bus on the South island. We take a leisurely stroll down the harbor where we laugh at some people trying to awkwardly paddle surf (we weren’t sure what to call it). After walking away from a few breakfast places we decide to settle on a coffee and make our way to the famous Te Papa Museum, which is the capital’s free entry museum. I was pleasantly surprised by the museum and what it had to offer. None of us had had much of a Maori experience yet so we went to that exhibit first. We spent a few hours up there but kind of drained our enthusiasm more quickly than we expected. After hurrying through a few more exhibits (one which had you jump onto a platform to see how high of an earthquake you could cause) we found a deli near Cuba Street for lunch. While we were there we saw almost everyone else from the tour which was funny because out of the entire city of Wellington most of us ended up at the exact same place by complete chance. Establishing our game plan over lunch we set off with deadly purpose towards Cuba Street, the main shopping sector of Wellington. It was a really cool place that had been completely blocked off from car traffic and the stores were interesting to look in. But even the most intriguing stores get bland after awhile and I found myself quite bored with a few hours left before we had to meet up with Holly. I was also on my own, as the rest of the group was interested in a different type of store and much more enthusiastic about shopping. So I wandered around this Cuba Street district for awhile before going back to what I thought we had established as our meeting point. Emphasis on the thought. With about 40 minutes before we had to meet back at the hostel, I departed assuming that they others had gone ahead back or I had just missed them. But thankfully Alex sees me a few blocks past where I had been waiting and we all reconnect in time for a last second shopping spree, sprint session through the streets, and two minute McDonald’s run all before getting our bags from the room on time (one of the few times no one was late). After a short shuttle to the Inter-islander ferry, we get on board and dig in for the three hour trip. The ferry was actually quite enjoyable. We got pretty nice seats and had a great time taking photos out on the deck so the time passed pretty quickly. When we disembarked, Holly had arranged for a shuttle to take us to a local hostel where we threw down our bags and then headed right back out to a local bar. This was truly great fun. A bunch of people ended up coming out and the locals were great fun to interact with. At one point, I was challenged to arm wrestle a 50+ year old mechanic. Needless to say he destroyed me but it was still a pretty funny moment for everyone. Soon after the music started going and a makeshift karaoke session began. Maren, a German girl who got on the trip when I did, challenged me to a drinking contest at some point in the night that I’m not sure she would do again if she had the option. All in all, the night was incredibly fun and one of my favorites of the trip. On our way back to the hostel we found a steamroller that we climbed on for awhile before laying in a field staring at the stars. Everyone slept well that night.

Well, that is it for the North Island section of my trip. It was only the beginning third of my trip but looking back holds a lot of great memories.

If you want to see more pictures, then go to my photo website. There is a link on my home page or you can follow this one below…

http://recollectionsofawanderer.shutterfly.com/

Writing this has made me somewhat nostalgic for that excitement of meeting everyone for the first time and developing those relationships. I know that I am a better person because of this experience. I will be updating you on the rest of my trip around the South Island subsequently, so stay tuned!

The Wanderer Returns

Warning, this post will be a ramble with which I try to come to terms with the experience I just had in New Zealand after which I will go through and explain the past two weeks in as much detail as possible both so you can know what I did and because I never ever want to forget the people or places from this trip. You will most likely not understand this rambling but I will clear everything up over the next few days.

Hello everyone. This post is being written in a Queenstown hostel by a very confused wanderer who just had two of the most amazing weeks of his life with people who he became incredibly close to and just a few short hours ago had to walk down the street as the bus drove past. I know that the feeling of leaving comes with the territory when you travel but I was unprepared for how intense of an emotional experience the tour was going to be. Never would I have guessed that I would become so close to so many people, particularly Alex, Andy, Claire, and Rachel. Despite there being over a decade between me and the rest of them they still became my best friends on the trip and it was so hard to walk down the street while they all walked back onto the bus. I knew that I was going to have a certain few who I would become closer with than the rest of the bus but never to this extent. It is truly amazing what mutual experience will do to people. That and having to see them day in and day out for two weeks in a confined space in a wide variety of situations really expedites the process of getting to know someone.

When I first got to Australia I was slightly scared and very intimidated about being in a new place by myself. I used the fact that I was leaving for this trip as an excuse to not put myself out there. This trip completely ended that. By the time a week had gone by I felt completely comfortable and natural in and around the tour. I had an amazing group of people who I did the vast majority of activities with and to be honest I feel like I have known them for years. We picked up and hit it off so quickly and naturally that nothing else mattered whether it be age, relationship status, or anything else. And that was probably the single most amazing thing about this trip. To connect with “The Group” so genuinely was really my favorite part of the whole trip. Without it who knows what my Flying Kiwi tour would have been like.

I am tired. Physically and emotionally. The tour was amazing and I wish I had done the full 28 days like most of the people were but it was such a whirlwind of stress, drama, adrenaline, and a plethora of other feelings that I am having a hard time putting it into words. So I will take my leave now in hopes that after sleep and a few hours to come to terms with what just happened to me I will be able to clarify and explain my New Zealand adventure.

As always, please do not worry about me. Yes, I am sad about leaving my friends and at the gnawing thought something with incredible potential was cut short. Yes, I miss everyone from back home terribly and can’t wait to talk to you. Yes, I am more tired than I can ever remember being before. Yes, I am having the absolute time of my life. Travel is amazing. It hurts to leave people and places, but if it didn’t hurt than it didn’t mean anything in the first place. And I would much rather cry than have nothing worth crying about. So don’t worry about me. I will be fine. This experience has left me with amazing friends and memories which will last much longer than the pangs of change and slight lonliness.

I love you all and thank you for your wishes, prayers, and support.

Doctor, thank you. Realism can wait, don’t you think?

 

Yours,

The Wanderer

I Am Alive

This cannot be a long post because I am currently paying $1 for every 10 minutes of internet and I only have 3 minutes left. Shit.

But I wanted to let all of you know that I have made it safely to New Zealand and I am loving it here! The tour is a fantastic time and I have already done more in these past three days than I could possibly fit into one post. Those updates will come soon, I promise 🙂

Since the internet is still attached to download/upload limits I will also have to ask you all to wait a little while longer to see pictures. Patience is a virtue, or so I have been told.

Long story short, don’t worry about me. I survived my flight to Auckland, my one night in a random hostel, finding my way around a foreign city to find the meeting point, and even jumped out of a plane with nothing but some fabric attached to rope to keep me from becoming a puddle of mush. And I still have 13 nights to go 😀

I love and miss you all very much. Sorry that this post couldn’t be more informative or personal but having internet at all was a surprise in and of itself.

Have a great rest of January if I don’t talk to you before then and if I do then YAY!

LOVE YOU MOM AND DAD, SEE YOU SOON!

New Zealand: An Explanation

Dear reader,

In a few hours I will be hopping on a plane to Auckland, New Zealand to begin a 17 day trip around the North and South islands. Since I highly doubt I will have the opportunity to update this blog while I am over there, here is a detailed description of what I will be doing while I am there:

17 January- After having the morning in Auckland to get supplies and explore a little, I will meet up with the bus tour at 10am and leave for Coromandel. We will spend the day at Coromandel Cove Beach and I will go sea kayaking before we camp on the beach for the night,

18 January- We will travel to Whiritoa to explore the Pahutukawa forest before going to Rotorua where we will camp next to Lake Rerewhakaaitu below Mount Tarawera, a dormant volcano.

19 January- In Rotorua for most of the day, we will go to the Wai-o-Tapu thermal pools. Later we will hike to Taupo where I will bungee jump and hike around the mountains Ngauruhoe, Tongariro, and Ruapehu. Camping at Turangi that night.

20 January- I will embark on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing which will take me through and past many landscapes most people will recognize as Middle Earth. Move camp to Otaki.

21 January- Since my trip involves both the North and South island I will take the ferry to the South island after we arrive in Wellington. This is a loosely organized day so that we can explore the capitol’s many cafes, bars, museums, and shopping. That night I will take the ferry across the Cook Straight to Picton where we will stay for the night.

22 January- We will follow the coastline to Kaikoura where the hiking takes you into ‘close encounters with fur seals and a myriad of sea birds.’ I’m gonna make me some homemade UGGs!

23 January- We travel through the Canterbury region where I will do a dolphin swim and hang out on the beaches for the day.

24 January- After we travel to Rangitata I will white water raft through the Rangitata Gorge before we set up camp at the foot of Mt. Cook.

25 January- We will hike around Mt. Cook during the morning before traveling along the coast to Oamaru. We will spend a few hours there before going to the coast to camp for the night.

26 January- After a morning hike along the coast to see the Moeraki Boulders we will travel into Dunedin where I hope to tour the Speights Brewery. Travel to Catlins to camp and have a night hike to Nugget lighthouse.

27 January- We will hike around Catlins in the morning and stop for lunch at Lake Manapouri before visiting the town of Te Anau. Next we will leave for Fiordland National Park and camp in Hollyford Valley.

28 January- We will hike our way into Milford Sound via the Homer Tunnel (which is a 3,000ft decent). I still haven’t decided if I am going to do the Routeburn three day wilderness hike or not. I think I will wait to decide based on how I feel about the trip at that point and pray that there is an open spot if I decide it is something I want to do. The Routeburn is a three day hike that is truly backpacking. I would carry my tent, food, and everything else I would need as we hike up and over the mountain that the rest of the tour would go around.

29 January- If I don’t go on the Routeburn hike, I will hike in and around Te Anau and will do an overnight walk on the Keplar Track to go see Mt. Luxmore. Possibly do a jet ski before going back to our lakeside camp? 😀

30 January- We will finally get into Queenstown, the adventure capitol of the world! We will camp outside of the city but within walking distance. This is where I would rejoin the tour if I did the Routeburn and I would celebrate either way by a well deserved beer.

31 January- The last day of the tour. We will explore Queenstown for the whole day. I hope to go skydiving for the second time and possibly do more depending on the time constraints. The tour ends here but I will stay one more night in Queenstown before I return to Melbourne.

1 February- I will catch a plane from Queenstown to Auckland and then fly from Auckland back to Melbourne. THE END!

 

To say that I am excited about this trip would be a vast understatement. Everyone who has been to New Zealand says that it is the most beautiful place they have ever been and I cannot wait to experience it for myself. I wish that I had more time at each destination but I decided that a quick tour of the entire country would be a better way to spend  my time than to stay in one or two places for longer amounts of time. If the country lives up to everyone’s high praise then I have no doubt I will be back and this trip will hopefully give me an idea of what I want to do when I return.

Since I am not expecting to have internet and my phone will not be working while I am there, this will more than likely be the last post you receive from me for a few weeks. If I am able to post, it will most likely only be a brief “I’m Still Alive” update so that you all stop your worrying.

I am off to pack my backpack and make sure I have all my documents/tickets/information that I need. I also feel the heavy urge for a Coke.

Before I leave you, I want to reiterate what I have been saying the whole time since I have gotten here. I miss all of you so incredibly much and you have no idea how awesome it is to know that you all are reading this and supporting me while I am traveling. It has definitely been an adjustment to not be able to see all of you everyday or have immediate connection to you but it is something I am beginning to get used to. Please don’t take offense to a lack of communication, whether direct or through this blog. Always assume that no news is good news and that where ever I am that I am happy and smiling.

It is what I do for all of you.

Kei te aroha au ki a koe,

The Wanderer