new zealand: travelling south


September 19, 2016

I have a healthy amount of nerves. Caitlin and I access my chances of being abducted. But I believe fully that I will not end up dead in a ditch somewhere because I still have faith that most people are kind. I pace and fidget. I am also breathtakingly curious and excited. My bags are packed—my mind is buzzing.

At 6:30PM, I leave Caitlin's apartment to meet a man named Danny who has parked his new BMW on the side of the road. We found each other through and will be spending the next few days together on a roadtrip from Auckland to the South Island of New Zealand. I've never done anything quite like this before but one of the most valuable things I have learned is how to leap—to take a chance while believing that something will catch you.

Couchsurfing (and backpacking in general) tends to throw you into the deep end with strangers where anything can happen. It used to absolutely terrify me but now the effects are more subdued. What used to be four steps outside my comfort zone is now much less daunting. I don't need to apply the full force of my will to get through it.

Danny is from a town outside of Christchurch but in Auckland to pick up his new car. It's a long drive and company is appreciated. We're on the road for seven hours the first night—the sun mostly set by the time we had even begun. We go through the customary, "who are you exactly?" questions while I select the music and watch the dark landscape set against the dark blue sky with the hum of the engine always in my ear. We dance in our seats to Sia's, "Cheap Thrills" as we speed down empty roads.

It's past 11PM when we arrive in Taupo and most of the places are shut because it's off-season so who needs to be open late? Danny finds a familiar bar—half empty—and manages to convince me to play a game of pool. I have never played pool before. For months, I have been saying that I should learn but I've always avoided the actual learning part because I still have this fear of looking like an idiot. Yet Danny is persistent—beer in one hand, pool stick in the other—and I guess if I am going to learn, this is the time for it. Traveling with a stranger in a strange land. The stranger is bewilderingly good, striking each ball precisely and with a confident SMACK. He tries to teach me about angles and the various ways of hitting each ball yet I still manage to send a third of the balls flying over the edge of the table and onto the floor. They bounce like frogs. He deliberately misses shots so I can keep practicing. In the end, he knocks the white ball into one of the corner holes accidentally and I "win."

There are thermal pools at one of the nearby parks and we head out to find them, walking past wide-eyed possoms clinging to short trees (Danny shines a light on them so I can see my first one). The pools are massive, the rocks surrounding them slick. Danny cracks another beer and hops in while I am content to sit nearby, dangling my feet. There are some other travellers here, smoking and drinking. I puff on one of their cigarettes with quiet appreciation.

It's quite a feeling—sitting in thermal pools in New Zealand at midnight with the stars sparkling above. Just last week, I was in Canada.

We drive for another hour looking for somewhere hidden to park the car. Several small roads and (I suspect) someone's driveway later, we pull into field cluttered with trees. I can see their shadowed bodies against the dark and have to walk carefully as not to trip over the many roots. It is freezing. It is so fucking cold. We sleep on an inflatable air mattress outside and huddle beneath a few blankets. I wake every few hours. Cold.

September 20, 2016

Cold. Cold cold cold cold cold cold.


6:40AM and the morning light is glowing red against the bark of the twisting trees branches crawling skyward like veins. There are a few pink clouds. The air still fiercely cold but the sunlight makes it easier to endure. I love waking with the dawn.

I pull my freezing, aching body free of the blankets and wander the overgrown paddock with its many trees. My feet get wet from the cold dew sparkling on the grass. A horse snorts not far off and I squint at its general direction. A blurry blob of chestnut. I imagine the smoke of its breath before wandering back to the car where Danny has started the engine. I can see he's cold too—rubbing his hands together fiercely and hopping on the spot.

I see black swans for the first time on the blue waters of Lake Taupo and I squeal with excitement to Danny's amusement. He chuckles at me finally "losing my cool." Wisps of steam emerging from the sides of the bordering hills are evidence of the volcanic region we find ourselves in. Stark white and smoke-like in the sharp morning light against the green of the trees. I take pictures of everything while Danny talks on his phone trying to change our ferry booking from this morning to tomorrow so we have more time to explore. A part of me hopes that he fails and that I will be dropped off on the South Island today, but Danny makes up a lie and our booking is successfully switched.

We drive to Tongairo Park with Danny daydreaming about embarking on the famed crossing and me silently thinking that there's no way we have time for that but there's probably a shorter hike.

The lushness of the land alongside Lake Taupo crumples into flat terrain covered in shrubs and short plants. Mt. Tongario and its neighbours stick out of the rocky landscape with patches of snow on their faces and more steam vents are visible in the hills. Our hike to Soda Springs takes us past pale yellow grasslands and a hut where I write my name, and through a harsh terrain coloured with burgundy, rust, orange, grey and brown boulders and stones. Underneath the boardwalk, a stream trickles and turns everything spongy and damp. The whole scene feels otherworldly. Red ground. Blue peaks. Something from a fable.

It's very warm and we run out of water.

Exerted, we rest at Soda Springs. The waterfall gushes into the terrain while green ivy and moss sprouts in its spray and sways in the breeze. Danny fills our water bottle though I'm still skeptical of the water quality. As he takes a quick nap, I take more photographs and watch tiny people-like shapes weaving their way up the volcano's side.

Danny and I leave Tongario Park in the early afternoon and resume our expedition south. The land turns green again and there are sheep everywhere. I'm uneasy and wishing for the end of the roadtrip. But I'm here so here goes.

There are still a few shiny moments. As we drive along the tops of hillsides nestled in acres of grazing lands, there is this sense of abundance and liveliness entering my mind for the first time in what feels like a long while. Everything seems so immense and I feel so present in it all. The past year in Canada is so intangible and fake compared to the twisting road that I am on, curled in the seat of a BMW with my music in my ears and my eyes lavished by the sights. I think, it feels like I have just started breathing again. Like I finally just took a breath. I have been waiting to come here. I was waiting and waiting for this.

On our way to Whanganui, we drive by the remains of a Maori settlement called a pā. Danny parks the car on the side of the road and we hop over a fence into a field with a few cows and many more sheep. The grass goes up to my knee-caps and we try to navigate the hillside using the animal paths and slanted trees. The view from the top is stunning.

We spend the afternoon in Whanganui so I can buy vegetables and Danny can buy car insurance and beer. After the sun has set, we drive in circles for hours looking for somewhere to freedom camp. I'm used to parking in suburbs and sleeping in the backseat of my car so I'm really not picky but Danny is worried about getting caught or the sound of traffic or something. He chooses a strip of grass between a small river and a fenced field just off the highway. I decide to sleep in the car and Danny, who has been drinking Coronas for the past hour while driving, inflates his mattress on the grass outside.


September 21, 2016

I am so wrapped up in this blanket and wearing all the clothes that I could pull onto my body. But I'm not cold.

Danny wakes not long after me and we're off again. He announces (proudly) that he's discovered to the secret to staying warm at night: put a blanket underneath your body and not just over it.

This is Day 3. Danny is determined to find a shower today and manages to convince a holiday park to give him access to theirs. He's surprised when I don't shower and asks if, "I'm some sort of hippie or something." I laugh. Maybe.

The holiday park is near Waikanae Beach about an hour north of Wellington. We walk through patches of semi-flooded woods to follow the water flowing into the ocean. It's 10 in the morning and fishermen are setting up their traps in the inlet to catch whitebait fish. Danny throws some facts my way (which I can no longer remember) and chats with some of the locals as they are waiting and wading in the water. Everyone speaks so casually with one another. It's like they're all friends. Canadians seem very closed off all of a sudden. We spend some time on the beach just watching everything. Danny tells me about this substance called ambergris that is formed by sperm whales, sometimes washes up on shore, and is incredibly valuable if you find any. He picks up strange looking objects from the sand and examines them.

On the way to Wellington, Danny asks me if I want to sneak onto the ferry by hopping in the boot of the car. I say yes immediately.

It's a hilarious situation. I'm in the boot, lying on a blanket, our extra possessions stuffed to my right, giggling at the absurdity of it. Once Danny pushes the back seat into its standard position, I'm in complete darkness and sending goofy texts to my friends. Guess where I am??

Someone once told me that all we can really ask for in the end is to have lived interesting lives. I'm trying—I'm trying.

I manage to remove myself from the boot without anyone noticing and spend the next 2.5 hours on a massive boat crossing Cook Strait from Wellington to Picton. I don't think I've ever spent so long on a boat. It's a bumpy ride. Young teenagers are staggering around pretending to be drunk. I giggle as I stumble into walls and take photographs of the islands passing us by.

We depart the ferry and enter Picton with me sitting in the front and not squished in the boot. Danny drops me and my bags off in front of a hostel that he recommends despite my meek suggestions that there's somewhere else that sounds nice and cheaper. When he drives away, I walk across the tiny town to a place called Sequoia Lodge. I booked a bed there while we were waiting for the ferry in Wellington. I'm tired with no idea what will happen next.