new zealand’s south island: tramping burnout

Here’s my route all over the South Island. The red is bussing/hitchhiking. The pink is the Routeburn Track and the blue is a big road trip (next post!). The pins are all the places I spent time in. 

I stopped overnight in Christchurch. The whole city is still under construction and there’s not that much to do, especially if you’re carless, so I left the next morning. I spent some time in Tekapo, which is a town that supposedly has the darkest night sky in the country, so I was getting excited for some astro-photography until a full moon came out and ruined my party, but the surrounding area was still mountainous enough to make me happy.

And then I ran into the tiny pickle that my bus pass wouldn’t run from Tekapo to Mount Cook, so I decided it was high time I tried to solve that kind of problem by hitchhiking. I went to a crossroads and stood about 100m further down from an Iranian guy with long hair (I stupidly thought he would hamper my chances) and stuck my thumb out. After about 15 minutes, a rainbow-coloured hippy van pulled over, picked up the Iranian and then trundled down the shoulder and picked me up too. There was a French guy driving and Pink Floyd blasting. Comfortably Numb. He dropped me at the next intersection, I said thanks and immediately stuck my thumb out again. The French guy hadn’t even pulled away before a very nice English couple pulled over and drove me the rest of the way. It was faster than bussing. It was free. It was brilliant.

I’ve decided that trekking really isn’t my thing. I love the places I get to by walking, I love camping, and I love being outdoors, but the physical act of plodding along with a big pack just really isn’t fun to me, so there better be something damned good along the way. Nevertheless, when in New Zealand… there’s usually something damned good along the way. 

2,200 steps up on the Mueller Hut Track at Mount Cook led me straight up the mountainside, racing clouds. The fog played a moody game all day, but it never took over and I spent the entire day alongside huge glacial valleys. 

Unfortunately Mount Cook also destroyed my main lens by shoving over my tripod on a rockslide with a massive gust of wind (that also shoved me down the rockslide, but I didn’t tell mom about that one. I landed like a cat. 8 lives left). This was the last photo I took with it intact. I’d spend the next months mourning the loss, having been left with only a fisheye lens. Useless. A substitute lens was mandatory. Goodbye, budget.

But I made do (cried a little) and headed for Wanaka. After dropping some of my stuff, I hitched a ride to the trailhead of Roy’s Peak. Roy’s Peak is a popular 16km day hike and the saddle is Instagrammed to death. That last point is important because it gives the illusion that the saddle is the top. 

When I reached the saddle I thought I was done and was not very happy that there was still another 200m of vertical ascent to go. The views were arguably worth trudging tons of switchbacks through sheep crap for. I dragged my 65L pack up to the top and set my tent up. No one else stayed. It was a steep, cold sleep and not a whisper of wind rustled outside. The night was clear and I woke up at the bottom of my tent, having gradually slid down overnight. The fly was covered in ice but I unzipped it and watched as the sun rose and finally hit me, melting the frost. 

The trouble with traveling in New Zealand during high season is that there really isn’t any last-minute availability, and since I don’t have a bike (or a car), it becomes a little bit harder to get to those small campsites out of town that I would have been staying in if I had wheels. When I got back there was no space in Wanaka, so I wandered into the DOC (Department of Conservation) centre and asked, “Do you know if there’s a track I can camp on that I can easily hitch to?” And she said, “Yeah, go to this one!” and within 20 minutes I had my thumb out on the side of the road once again and enjoyed another four nights of paying for absolutely nothing. Nature’s free, people.  

Track to track to track. I hit Queenstown, trekked the Ben Lomond summit and then promptly hitched a ride with two insane guys to the start of the Routeburn Track the next morning. They careened to the shoulder of the road when they saw me and as soon as I got in I thought maybe they were drunk or a little high. One was Dutch and the other was Swiss (my half-brethren!) and both of them were heading to the Routeburn as well. The road there looks like it was painted but the way Dutchie was driving it was throwing us plastered against one car door and then against our seatbelts on the next bend. 

They gave me their hitchhiker’s guestbook to sign and instead I drew a picture of mountains and a tiny stick-figure-girl hiking to the top of a summit. She had a speech bubble saying, “I hate walking.” We went all the way to the top of Conical Hill (highest point on the Routeburn) that day and back down to our campsite. Keas (a very smart kind of alpine parrot that only lives in New Zealand’s Southern Alps) came and raided the tents at night and in the morning. I caught one in the act trying to pull my bag out from under my fly in the middle of the night, so I turned my flashlight on, unzipped the fly and found it with the light. I shone the beam straight at it and it stood looking right back at me, not even 6ft away. These birds are nervy, smart, obnoxious, sassy glorified seagulls. I’m pretty sure the only reason they are protected and called “endangered” is because otherwise, people would kill them in their annoyance. 

Once I’d gone over Harris Saddle, the weather turned and it started raining (and stayed that way for two days). I finished the Routeburn on the west (wet) coast, freezing and shivering in the pathetic, not-enclosed shelter. After a few days drying out in Te Anau, I once again headed out in a classic Fiordland downpour for the Kepler Track. I can’t say I liked the Kepler Track. The top was nice, but getting there was the most boring, inefficient track I’d been on in New Zealand. Trees… trees… trees. Some mud. A couple robins and some mushrooms. Did I mention trees?

Milford Sound is another 2.5 hours from Te Anau and there’s absolutely nothing there but dolphins, seals, rain, waterfalls, an airstrip and a boat dock. It’s unofficially been dubbed the 8th Natural Wonder of the World. Carved by glaciers on glaciers on glaciers, the mountains jut straight out of the water, the highest being Mitre Peak (don’t be a moron like me and pronounce it “meter” and have Kiwis smirk at you, say “My-ter”)…which was covered in cloud. So I vowed to go back.

I spent two weeks volunteering at the Rainforest Retreat in Franz Josef. It’s a hostel, a bar & restaurant, a hotel, a motel and a campsite all in one. You can rent a house, a lodge, a tree house, a little honeymoon suite, a dorm bed, or a patch of gravel… it’s got everything. I went from Stephanie Ridenour, Engineer-in-Training to Steph, kitchen girl and housekeeper in 11 months. I think we can call this journey officially successful. I learned so much being a housekeeper. Here’s the breakdown:

  •  Housekeepers are human beings and yes, we’ll judge the state of your deserted room. You’re not anonymous either. We have your name. We know it. 
  • People who strip their own beds are saintly
  • How to fold a hand towel so that it’s immaculately pretty and tucked
  • Shower towel origami!
  • There’s a special place in hell for those who romp in a hotel room and forget their panties in the bed
  • Toilet paper origami!
  • Blue liquid for glass, pink liquid to burn your nostrils out and bleach everything in chemicals, green liquid to cover the scent of the pink liquid, orange liquid to actually clean things
  • We know the coffee packets we give you suck

In summary, I learned nothing useful. It was a strange feeling to have to be somewhere at a certain time every day. It was a very strange feeling staying in one place for so long and it was even stranger when I started to remember peoples’ names. By the end I was living with 4 guys, two of which I think probably had the hots for each other and my bed was between theirs (made for some hilarious pillow talk and one-liners). I was told to describe them as, “handsome future drag queen” and “handsome future president” although one of those descriptions is vastly more correct than the other. We had Sherlock Holmes marathons and free dinners at the restaurant together every night. We scrapped over the evening shift because we all wanted the next day off and we pouted and complained that the helicopters are so busy they have no spare seats!

What I didn’t realize about working somewhere is that there’re more than just the perks of free food and free accommodation. You also get local prices. Suddenly a helicopter ride and landing on the glacier doesn’t cost $250, it costs a pack of beer. Skydiving and photos are $150 cheaper. My latte costs $3.50, not $5.50 (amazing) and a free drink at the bar is only a printed voucher from reception away. And while I had no intention at all when I came to New Zealand to jump out of a plane (seriously, who came up with this? They were a very sick, sick individual), I couldn’t really ignore that I’d unknowingly decided to stay put in a town where I get $150 off the highest jump in the Southern Hemisphere. So on a very clear morning, an itty bitty plane stuffed with 6 people took off and the only way we were getting down was by parachute.

If I had thought about what getting on the plane meant, I wouldn’t have been able to force myself to get on it. I was in complete denial of what was about to happen right until the moment it did. As my instructor cinched me onto his front and tightened everything up, a listened as the mask I was breathing into gently puffed oxygen every few seconds. The pilot passed the wind speed and direction back to all the instructors. At 16,000ft an American was shoved out of the door and he dropped like a stone without a sound. Like a clip of some horrifying movie, bodies flying out of the side of a plane, screams fading into nothingness.

So with every instinct telling me it was a horrible, horrible idea, I was jostled right to the edge of the plane, legs dangling over the edge, curling under the plane hoping that maybe there would be something to brace myself with. No luck. The photographer was dangling off of the plane wing and I did what I do when someone makes me watch a horror movie: shut my eyes and ignore all the sounds and clench my jawandit’sfineit’sjustamoviethisisn’trealnotrealnotreal. And then that sickening moment when you plummet.

Turns out my way of dealing with fear is to grin like a moron. So far, it’s worked for nearly a year. Or as Simba put it, “I laugh in the face of danger, ha ha ha!”.

Written in Franz Josef, New Zealand

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