So that’s it. 66 lifts and 4542 kilometres worth of hitchhikes, 140 hours and 380 kilometres of hiking later, I’ve finished my ten weeks in the country I’ve wanted to visit ever since I can remember. The country I discovered on a globe when I was a little kid, spinning the world around, putting my finger on the United Kingdom, and pretending to dig a hole through the earth until I found the opposite side to where I was standing. I guess it was something about exploring the ends of the earth that drew me in – the unknown, the remote, the seemingly unreachable. New Zealand was this magical land that I formed in my mind and later heard about – a place where the mountains stretched to the heavens, where the seas ferociously collided, where the birds sang sweet songs, and where the unknown was to be explored.
And New Zealand has indeed been incredible. I’ve seen enough amazing sights to last a lifetime, found myself in places I thought only existed in photographs, and just stood in awe at the landscape that surrounded me. I really have tried to make the most of my time here, making an effort to walk the extra kilometre up a mountain, hitchhiking in the pouring rain to get to a location someone told me I had to visit, staying up till midnight to see the stars in all their glory just to wake again up at 5:30 in time to watch the sun to peak above the horizon, and generally just trying to see as much as possible, which has led to unforgettable experiences. It has been physically tiring, and mentally exhausting too at times, but I wouldn’t change these couple of months for anything.
I came to New Zealand because there are not many people at all, so it would give me an opportunity to explore the wilderness. I came here specifically for the scenery, specifically to see the best of the world that we live in, but that is not what I’m going to remember most from this trip. Of course, I am going to remember for the rest of my life the magnificent views, the kilometres of hiking along a beach on one of the Great Walks, dropping my pack and going for a swim when I got tired, tramping along mountain ridge-lines, setting up my tent on a peninsula in between two lakes and facing a magnificent mountain, crossing countless rivers, and every single one of the other 380 kilometres I’ve walked. I’m going to remember discovering places that just make you just smile and laugh, wondering how can such a place exist. But it is the people I have met, that has surprisingly left the biggest impression. I’ve never witnessed the constant kindness everyone has extended. I’ve heard that the kiwis are a friendly bunch, but I would never have expected people to drive a detour just to show me some cool places to see, and act as a personal tour guide. I would never have expected people to offer me to pitch my tent in their backyard because the hostel was full, and then offer myself (and a couple others who picked me up hitchhiking) breakfast, lunch, dinner, use of their wash facilities, and invite us into their home to watch the cricket and American football, and then take me the next day to a popular cafe in the nearby village. Many other travellers have also gone out of their way after they picked me up hitchhiking – they’ve cooked me lunch, invited me places and have just been so friendly. People in huts have given me chocolate (this is when I discovered the wonders of the cocoa bean on a hike), everyone always offers a cuppa, they always spend time telling you where to visit, and they share other stories from travelling around the world. It’s not just the friendliness, I’ve met some incredibly interesting people – from the woman from Denver who picked me up hitchhiking who worked in Antarctica on the American base, to the German couple with two angelic little kids I met in Doubtful Sound who offered me a place to stay whenever I visit Germany, to the woman who worked for Google in the famous San Francisco offices, to the guy who ran ultra marathons for fun, to the Maori guy I couchsurfed with who taught me the technique of weaving flax leaves like his ancestors, the sculptor artist from New York who is completely fascinated by the patterns of nature, the German photographer who gave me a few pointers, the old man who was walking from the top of the north island to the bottom of the South Island (and in doing so made my hiking distances look tame), the warden who shared his life experiences and with it some pearls of wisdom, the other warden who took me hunting, the two friendly Canadians I met on a couple hikes, the 9 year old daughter of someone who picked me up hitchhiking who raised $600 from selling cupcakes just because she desperately wanted to buy a ticket to go to Australia, her 6 year old brother who was inspired by his sister and conjured a grand plan of selling his toys to other kids on the street so he could buy a jetski, and the many others who I don’t have space to mention. I’m probably never going to see these people again, but their fleeting presence won’t be forgotten.
During the journey I’ve learnt many things – from the simple stuff, like the lifestyle and landscape of a new country, to the surprisingly complex quirks of farming. I have had to learn some things quickly and by making many mistakes – I’ve learnt not to pick up a glass jar of pasta sauce at the supermarket, but rather the concentrated paste in order to lighten the weight of my pack. My cooking skills have definitely improved, although my housemates would probably argue that there was no skill in the first place so I could only have gotten better. I have learnt backcountry wilderness techniques on the fly, learning how to cross fast-paced rivers, properly descend scree slopes, climb ice inclines, memorise tidal times and plan a 5 day hike accordingly, build cairns to allow myself to find my way back, and the joy and necessity of morale-boosting chocolate. I think I went overboard with the latter though. On my last multi-day hike, I learnt that there comes a point where increasing the amount of chocolate brought with me doesn’t increase morale, only the feeling of sickness. In hindsight, nearly 2 kilos (for 5 days to be fair…) of solid blocks and chocolate spread was always going to be too much. I was always careful of leaving behind non essential items when going for a multi day trek, in order to lighten the load, but I was never going to compromise on chocolate.
Travelling in a country where I knew absolutely no one, and stepping off the plane by myself with no plans whatsoever seemed a bit daunting at first, but it has been wildly freeing – I have been able to go wherever I want (if I could hitchhike there), do pretty much whatever I want, whenever I feel like, and at whatever pace I am going. It may be that stupid cliché you get sick of from people who’ve gone travelling (and I never thought I’d say it myself) but by completely immersing myself in this journey for the last ten weeks, I’ve learnt so much about myself and have more of an idea of what I want to do in the next few years. Hopefully, I’ve also improved myself somewhat; one way I know I definitely have is my physical fitness – a lifestyle in Perth of sunbathing and eating ice cream all day didn’t quite prepare me well for it, but all the hiking with a 20 odd kilo backpack has gotten me in better shape, even when I was eating chocolate by the kilo.
New Zealand has been utterly, unequivocally amazing, and I honestly could not have asked for a better experience travelling. I’ve been so blessed with lucky weather, the people I’ve met, the places I’ve seen and just everything these last ten weeks. But I’m really excited to be heading back to Perth for my last month of holiday. It feels like home now, and the more time I spend away from there, the more I realise how much I love it. I love the fact that you don’t need to check the weather forecast – it’s probably going to be a hot and sunny day. I love the size, that it’s small enough to walk around the city centre, but big enough that there is always a new place to find. I love that you have the beautiful Swan River on your doorstep, the incredible Kings Park and the beaches of Cottesloe. I love the fact that it’s so isolated – you don’t see tourists everywhere you go, and that the beaches are empty. I’ve been a bit spoiled to be honest; all the travellers and locals I’ve met have been going on about the spectacular beaches of Abel Tasman and the Coromandel of New Zealand, but if I’m honest, although they are undeniably amazing, they don’t stack up to the perfection of the white Western Australian sand. Pretty much everything about the state I just love.
Having said this, I am going to miss New Zealand and my lifestyle these last ten weeks. The routine of waking up in my tent before sunrise, peeking out of the vestibule to check if the sunrise will be worthy enough for a photo. The routine of planning where I want to go next, planning when and where I need to hitchhike from and to. The lifestyle where my only worries were planning how much water to bring based on the location of my next water source, how much food I could consume that day in order to have enough for the rest of my hike, and finding the optimal place to set up my tent. I am going to miss meeting new people from hostels, huts, campsites and hitchhiking, and sharing stories of travelling. Indeed, I’m going to miss the farming lessons the kiwis who have picked me up hitchhiking have given me. Latest fun farming fact for you: a cow will produce 30 litres of milk a day in the spring, but 18 in summer. I think, if I was to spend another few months here hitchhiking, I’ll probably have learnt enough to start my own dairy farm. Maybe. I’m going to miss all the tramping and carrying the 65 litre pack that used to feel like I was carrying a cow, but by the end felt like a part of me. It has been my lifeline, everything I’ve needed I’ve learnt to pack in its own specific location within that bag, where only it can fit. It may be more than 20 kilos, but it added to the sense of achievement, when I climbed a mountain with it strapped to my back. The outdoor wilderness lifestyle, without electricity, signal or even any sign of humanity, and watching the stars in silence every night is something I’m sure I’ll crave again soon enough. I’ll be back one day.
As one friend put it, it has been an adventure of the dreams. I’m sure the little me would have a grin on his face, knowing that the New Zealand he imagined was indeed this magical place. I now cannot wait to put my finger back on that globe.