Crystal blue lakes, dark green mountains and crisp cool air consumed my life for two weeks when I lived in New Zealand for a semester. After jetting off in a tiny plane from the north island to the south island, my friend Alex and I rented a beat up dark blue car and began our road trip.
The New Zealand countryside consists of long winding roads with peaks and valleys. The shades of green reminded me of the shades you see in Ireland. The plants and trees along the roadside somehow looked tropical and European at the same time. Occasionally, a field of butter yellow or dark purple flowers crossed our paths. I reminded myself how lucky I was to see a country this beautiful at such a young age.
Sh-t got real during this excursion, but in a good way for the most part. Our food supply was limited. Some days, Alex and I drove about 14 hours straight. On bad nights, we slept in our car at a camping ground or an empty parking lot.
On good nights, when we allowed ourselves to spend some money, a cheap hostel became our home. We spent four nights at either a stranger’s or an acquaintance’s home.
I would never replace those memories for anything else. Never would I have rather holed up in a fancy hotel, or even a mediocre one, instead of backpacking across the southern island. Both the spontaneous and the planned adventures turned into great stories. Not only did I further solidify my desire to travel for my career, but I also became more grateful for what I have and learned what I am capable of.
Of course, not everything was perfect during the trip. It got heated once or twice, but that’s what you expect when you’re constantly in a small space with one other person. We never had serious fights; we only bickered. “You took the wrong exit again!” “Are you sure we should sleep at our mechanic’s house?” “OH F–K, stay on the left side of the road—you almost killed us!”
Alex and I, two drastically different people, actually made a good team. She planned things, worked out the timing and booked our hostel and hiking reservations. I, on the other hand, was more of the “I’m up for anything” kind of traveler, who, of course, helped out too. Luckily, we both enjoy meeting new people and trying new things, so we connected really well and became close friends.
After walking along a short but steep hiking trail to a cliff of large boulders looking over a lake, we checked into our small hostel and made dinner. Alex forced me, which I’m now thankful for, to wake up at the crack of dawn to watch the sun rise over the water behind a tiny church. The colors shot up like fireworks from the horizon. The sky appeared as if someone had taken a brush and smeared yellows, pinks and oranges all over a light blue canvas. I’d never seen anything like it, and the reflection on the lake was breathtaking as well.
Continuing our trip, we drove to Mount Cook where we hiked two trails on a misty day. One trail took you up a mountain, through a wooded area, down a small hill and across a large rusted bridge with a babbling brook underneath. The hike was quick, we ended up at the top of a cliff where we could see glaciers down below.
At Dunedin we stayed at an acquaintances house—a girl that attends my school that I met during our orientation program. Dunedin has a university as well, and that university is known as the “party school” of New Zealand. The city is small and quaint, like most cities in that country. Students at Dunedin live in houses together in large groups. Every night multiple houses throw themed parties for students to hop around to. These Kiwi college kids are mainly known for partying in the streets and burning mattresses.
The town is filled with cute little restaurants and thrift stores. It also has the steepest road in New Zealand, which a Kiwi friend showed to us and had us drive on. Driving on it was actually a little scary and I’m not scared of heights. It felt as if the car was about to topple over!
After saying goodbye to our friend and her roommates, we ventured on to the Catlins, where we met our friendly but creepy mechanic-turned-host.
Alex and I drove to a famous lighthouse that you can hike up. When we walked back down to the parking lot, our car wouldn’t start and it was nighttime. This made no sense to us. We swore we hadn’t left the lights on, but our rental was very crappy so we weren’t too shocked. Even more unlucky, all the tourists and locals had left the area by then so no one was available to jumpstart our car. We called a mechanic, who took about an hour to get to us. When he arrived, we felt extremely tired and hungry and had no plans for a sleeping arrangement.
“Where are y’all staying tonight?” asked the mechanic while his friend Israel Smith (iconic name for us) drank a beer and stared at us. We told him we didn’t know. “You can stay at my place tonight if you want, it’s about 20 minutes away. Just follow my car.” Now, I know that nobody would do this in America, but it’s New Zealand. Couch surfing is a common thing to do. So, we followed him.
The further we drove the more we regretted it. His neighborhood was in the middle of nowhere with an eerie, rundown-feel to it.
After a car ride full of slight anxiety and feelings of regret, we finally arrived at the man’s house. The home was the size of a studio apartment. We slept on the couch in the living room. Israel Smith and the mechanic turned a movie on and made sexual comments about the female characters while Alex and I uncomfortably laughed.
The main reason we were creeped out though was due to the mechanic’s eerily quiet personality and Israel’s sloppy drunken state. But, thankfully, the wasted companion eventually left once he lost his ability to speak in full sentences and the mechanic decided to go to bed. I took a knife from the kitchen and kept it with me in my sleeping bag just in case.
We left pretty quickly the next morning.
The long hike
Our three-day-hike was next on the agenda. We picked up our two friends, Andrew and Priya, and bought our supplies. Each of us carried a large backpack filled with food, toiletries, clothes and a sleeping bag. The hike began on a warm day. We walked along a coast in the wooded area that felt more like a jungle with vines, thickets and tropical plants. The hills are crazy in New Zealand, and this hike was filled with them. We constantly trudged up a short, yet steep, pathway and then skidded slowly down the other side.
Each day, we hiked for eight hours to get to a set of small cabins. The cabins, made of wood and concrete, each held around four sets of bunk beds that lacked pillows, sheets and blankets. The mattresses were stiff and thin. The only available electricity was the two outlets for people to charge their phones.
We consumed tuna fish on bread two times a day. For breakfast, we ate a banana with peanut butter. Appetizers for dinner and lunch included chocolate biscuits, tangerines and occasionally chips. We ate like this during the whole trip, but when we were still driving from city to city we occasionally ate at restaurants or got a variety of cheap snacks. Thankfully, Priya brought a portable boiler and mac and cheese so Alex and I traded some of our tuna for her noodles.
We met so many people during this adventure. There were two London girls who couldn’t get rid of their annoying Polish companion that followed them everywhere. We ran into a small family from Germany that hikes all over the world for fun. At the cabin, on the last night, there was a class of middle schoolers and their adventurous teacher.
Walking up and down hills, along beaches and climbing rocky hills for three days straight is tough. We were constantly starving and always exhausted by the end of the day. But, the reward was much greater than our hunger or fatigue; the sights we saw took our breath away.
I’ve never felt more in tune with nature or more disconnected from society and my cell phone. I felt the stresses from our daily lives leave my brain and had gratitude for being able to experience a place as beautiful as this.