13 day kiwi roadie: 4 strangers got into a car…

From “work” at Franz, I hitched a ride to Kumara junction with a woman who lived in Franz Josef. She’d spent years being a travel guide in Eastern Africa and places like Lebanon, Russia and Estonia. She told me to bring sand mats on the Mongol Rally and so many spare parts that we’d be able to build ourselves a second engine. Noted. An old guy from some tiny little nowhere town picked me up next and he talked the entire way over Arthur’s Pass and into Darfield. He worked for the railways and as a result, railways got him very excited. He got more excited when he found out I was (technically, if not in practice) a civil engineer, and he got even more excited when he started quizzing me on how to go around bends on a motorcycle and I was relatively competent in answering. “This is Conrod Straight!” he said excitedly as we whizzed along a particularly steep, straight stretch of road before we got to the Canterbury Plains. “D’you know why?” he prodded, and then, “Because they used to race cars down here so fast the conrods flew out!”. I’m sticking with my first conclusion on hitchhiking: it’s amazing. It’s usually never boring. It is sweet as. 

I had no idea what to do when I was done “work” at Franz Josef. I knew I was sick of pizza and apple cider. I knew I was still in the middle of a tramping burnout. I knew I wanted to see more of New Zealand, because you can’t really get enough of New Zealand. I fiddled with the idea of a car rental, which is normally completely off-limits to my budget-saavy way of travel. Gas is expensive. Rentals are expensive. Insurance is expensive. The whole nine yards. Plus, I have no friends here, so I can’t exactly carpool. And then I thought having no friends here was absolutely not a reason one can’t carpool, so I made for the shrine on the interwebs called Couchsurfing and posted in the New Zealand Ride Share forum and within a few days, we had four people in on a 13-day road trip of the South Island, starting in Christchurch. The blue line is our road trip.

We picked up the car in Christchurch and filled it with myself, Blair (from Florida) and Cole (from Nebraska, but hit that ‘A’ really, really hard to get the full Ne-BRA-ska effect). We had to patch a hole in Cole’s tent fly with camo duct tape and patches, and we had to splice two broken poles, one on Blair’s tent and one on Cole’s –The Routeburn track doesn’t know mercy-, but it worked. We drove down the east coast until we got to the Moeraki Boulders. The Moeraki Boulders are these strange large, completely spherical rocks that have been pushed to the surface over the years. In the afternoon there were people wandering around them, but once we’d established ourselves at our free campsite, we made once more for the beach in the cold, cold dark. I like beaches in the dark –they feel fresher, wilder and they are always quieter. It’s usually just you, waves and a moon. You’d think this would force me to be present in the moment but after a good deal of running around with a flashlight while the shutter was open, I was playing with my phone while walking back. I walked straight into a chest-high boulder. Been a while since I’ve done anything quite so entertaining to watch, which Cole did. He saw it coming and let it happen. That’s what friends are for.

Down in Dunedin (call it “Dunna’s”!) we hit the steepest street in the world, Baldwin Street. Walking up it brought back memories of tramping up mountains. We picked up Shira (from Washington) and made for the southern coast of New Zealand. She said that Kiwis never really understood her name, so she had taken to introducing herself like this: “I’m Shira. Like a sheep shearer!” and with the Kiwi accent, “shearer” is close enough to “Shira”. She’d had all her cards stolen a few months back, and had flown to Australia on a friend’s loan. She’d landed with $200 in cash and nothing else and had managed to busk her way through Aussie and all the way into New Zealand. So for anyone who thinks that this is a viable excuse to stay at home and never travel: “I have no money”, I think Shira just proved that that’s a completely unacceptable one. Tiny narrow dirt roads and packed gravel took us winding down among rugged beaches and through the Catlins. 

We reached Nugget Point and its picturesque lighthouse before arriving at the southernmost point of the southern island. It was windy, freezing cold and the sunshine could not be felt. It wasn’t summer anymore. In the dark we drove 25km north of Te Anau and made camp at a DOC campsite on the lake, in the trees. Shira played ukulele and sang around a bunch of battery powered string lights, while we all inhaled hummus and crackers and some German guy joined us with a bottle of wine. It was one of those things that happen mostly in films: five strangers around a bunch of pretty little lights, sharing their food while one of them plays “Wagon Wheel” and we all join in on the chorus. I brushed my teeth in the dark on the lakefront, surrounded by mountains under a ceiling of stars, with the tiny sounds of the ukulele back in the trees and the muffled sound of people giggling and felt the little travel bug recharging once again. It’s strange, unfamiliar, slightly-hippy moments like this that make traveling solo worthwhile. 

We got up before the sun did and went straight to Milford Sound, for my promised second visit. We went kayaking and while my temporary road-trip buddies clearly thought Milford Sound was mind-blowing (it is), I had Milford-Sound-under-cloud to compare it to, which made it so much better. 

Mitre Peak stretched toward the sky, U-shape valleys were everywhere, and the water was so calm that our guide made us paddle madly toward the cruise boat wakes to get us a little soaked. Cole and Blair both braved the icy waters and jumped in. The sand flies weren’t terrible, until our guide stopped us on the way back in and began to tell the mythical story of how Milford Sound was made.

He said that once upon a time there was a god who hadn’t really done much with his life, so he asked his parents what he should do. They told him to go make a beautiful landscape. So whatever gods use to dig with, let’s assume a giant trowel, he chipped and scoured until he was satisfied and then invited his parents back. They weren’t that impressed. They said, “I think you can do better”. And so he resignedly made the peaks a little sharper and the drops more dramatic. He invited them back, and although his parents agreed it was an improvement, they still thought he could come up with something better. So he sat there and thought for a very long time, and finally took his massive trowel and dragged it deep and far along the entire landscape, creating a huge, sharp deep continuous valley. This time when his parents came back, they thought his work was worthy of a party. They invited all his brothers and sisters to celebrate his accomplishment. His siblings all had gifts to give him: the god of the ocean flooded the landscape so that the peaks rose from the water, the god of freshwater gifted him the rain and the waterfalls, the god of the birds brought little chirping songs and so on, and so forth. Until his last sister, the god of death and doom (I’m oversimplifying this) arrived, knowing she did not have anything happy to give. So she decided to gift his landscape with a feature that would keep people too frustrated to stay for too long to keep it pristine. She gave his landscape sandflies.

Our guide told us this 10 minute long story and dragged it out while we were all engaged wholeheartedly in the “Milford Wave”. It’s the wave you do when you are trying to keep the sandflies off you. Little did we know he’d stopped us right off of Sandfly Point. He finished the story while we were all yelling at him, “That cannot be true! This is totally going on TripAdvisor!” while he laughed and paddled madly away. Our guide also told us that the Maori name for Mitre Peak essentially means, “large male member”. Blair said, “Wait, Mitre Peak in Maori is named after a big dick?” and Cole said, “You know,  it makes me really happy that even hundreds of years ago, people came down here and snickered and said, ‘Dude, you know what that looks like?’ and then named it for it. Nothing’s changed.”

We made our way back to Te Anau and camped for the night, the next day weaving through Queenstown and Arrowtown. Shira and Blair came back from an Opshop with a bag of free bagels and a Caribbean CD, which was not exactly road trip vibes but we laughed about tracks cornily named, “Tropical Blue” and “Jammin’ Jamaica” while our sub-par vehicle worked its way over the mountains to Wanaka. The trees had turned bright yellow, orange and red. It wasn’t like Vancouver’s autumn – there aren’t really any maple trees here. But autumn still set the Kiwi mountainsides on fire. 

While Shira busked her way through Wanaka, Blair and I slogged up Roy’s Peak (some things you have to do twice in this country). It didn’t look much different, but the sheep were fluffier and the entire thing was about half the work because I wasn’t dragging my camping gear and 2 days of water up with me. 

From a perfectly-sunny Wanaka, we made for Haast Pass and the West Coast. Into the clouds, into the drizzle and finally into the downpour. We stopped at the Blue Pools, which is exactly what they sound like – the water is so clear that it looks shallow. We set up camp behind a 200-year-old hotel with a fat happy cat and a wood fireplace. $5/night. Living in extravagance. I spent the evening obsessing over the pub cat and the Americans played terrible music on the jukebox –yes, this place had a jukebox. 

I woke up in a puddle that was at least two inches deep. I can pitch in a puddle that deep and somehow, I wake up dry, even though the floor of the tent feels like I’m rolling around on a waterbed. Thanks, Big Agnes (now if only they’d do something about their inferior zippers). The west coast weather was part of the package deal of the South Island. I figured we were paying for our amazing day at Milford. We packed up in under 30 minutes, running to and from the car, rolling tents full of water and sleeping bags that felt a little damp. We made our way all the way up to the north coast to a small town with some seriously hippy vibes called Takaka.

Takaka was by far, the most gypsy, laid-back, hippiest place I have ever been to. And I’m including all the places in Southeast Asia. This is a statement, but New Zealand claimed its place. We stayed in an unofficial free campsite that was a 2 minute walk from the center of town. No facilities, but there were a ton of dreadlock-sporting, beard-flaunting people staying in their crappy fourth and fifth hand vehicles. And not just for a night or two, there were people living here. It was the most bizarre pocket of the country I saw. Shira brought the chai, Blair brought the milk, I brought the honey and Cole brought the hot water and we all sat inside our cheap car together in the dark while the windows got steamy. The nights were getting colder and colder and the days were getting shorter and shorter. By 6:00PM it was dark and by 7:00PM everyone had wool socks on and wished they had toques. 

We went to the north tip of the South Island and discovered tiny sand dunes, explored a cave in the steamy jungle-like forest and ate way too many fejoais. We spent an afternoon lying on a white sand beach in Abel Tasman  - funny how you can spend one day freezing in the rain and the next on a sub-tropical beach. 

We then drove across the island through the windiest, darkest roads to the northeastern coast. It was almost our last morning and we spent it drinking chai on the beach, watching the sunrise while we were bundled in sleeping bags. And then Blair nearly stepped on a dead shark. Average day in New Zealand. 

In Kaikoura we walked up a tiny stream where all the momma fur seals leave their babies for the day, so all the baby fur seals hang out with each other and play in the waterfall until mom comes to pick them up. Nature’s daycare - the most adorable type. 

And then I was dropped off at the Christchurch International Airport, feeling a little surreal that my time in this country had finally come to an end. 3 months is the longest I’ve spent in a country since I left home, and New Zealand’s familiarity was starting to feel a little like it was a home. So many trails tramped, so many roads driven, some five or six times. So much rain endured, so many shower-less nights in a sleeping bag, so many LOTR flashes and all of a sudden driving on the left side of the road seemed normal. The skinny little roads seemed normal. 

But it was time to go “home”. Can the south island of New Zealand be “done” in 13 days? Nope, not a chance. But can you do it and still feel come out with a sense that you saw this country? Maybe. But one thing is for sure –if you put 4 strangers in a car for 2 weeks, they are most certainly not going to leave as strangers. 

Cheers from the Christchurch Airport.

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