And so, we come to the end. New Zealand! Other than Antarctica, this is the southernmost point in the world (that I’ve visited, anyway) and even more magical to visit. I have dreamed my entire life of making it here, and so I saved the best for last. (Sorry kids, but this is going to be a long one).
Let’s just put this disclaimer right out here in the beginning: if it is possible to adequately capture the absolute smack-you-in-the-face gorgeousness of New Zealand, it takes better camera equipment than I possess. I tried my best, but I think going forward, every picture I post, you should imagine it actually being 100x more beautiful. Agreed? OK, moving on!
For the bulk of my New Zealand adventuring, I decided to book a hop-on/hop-off ticket with a company called Stray. They offer all sorts of routes around the North and South Island and make it possible to get places I would likely miss if I was trying to do things on my own. Also, it is a great and easy way to meet people in a sparsely populated land.
I ended up booking the Dave pass, which would take me around nearly all of the South Island, and wind up with stops in Wellington and Auckland on the North. I started my New Zealand adventure in Christchurch, where I’d made arrangements to spend a few days visiting Simon and Jane, the parents of my friend Ben. Originally from the UK, they have lived in New Zealand for 12 years now. I met them in New York last year just before taking off on my journey and, knowing that I was ending up in NZ, I made arrangements to meet up with them many months hence. Time flew by, as we all have seen, and suddenly the appointed date had arrived. Simon is a great tour guide and knows a lot about the area. They were living there during both of the big earthquakes back in 2010 and 2011 and witnessed firsthand all of the destruction and changes to the city.
What happened there is tragic and it is also sad that there is still so much rebuilding left to complete. For a more upbeat adventure, Simon took me on a drive out to the coast through beautiful hills and valleys, dotted all over with (what else?) sheep.
When I wasn’t being shown around, I spent the rest of my time taking advantage of being in a real house, doing laundry and watching Netflix. After months of mostly hostels and couch-surfing, it felt decadent to have my own bedroom and bathroom. In fact, it was almost too comfortable and quiet, so much that I had a lot of trouble sleeping. Go figure.
After a couple of great days there, it was time for me to join up with my tour. The instructions from the company regarding the pick-up location were a little vague (just “Airport”) so I called the main office for clarification. The woman on the phone (TWOTP) told me to wait in the car/bus park to the left of the main entrance for a 9:45 am pickup. Easy enough. Simon gave me a ride over and I arrived in plenty of time. There was no Stray bus in the car park yet, so I wandered in for a cup of coffee. As it got to be nearly the appointed time, I began to get a little concerned that there was still no bus in the lot and started looking around to see if there might be another place they could be. After a bit of wandering, I found another (much larger) bus park on the opposite side of the airport. As it turns out, when TWOTP said the spot was to the LEFT of the main entrance, she meant the other left (i.e. as though you were coming from inside the airport). By now it was 9:50, and when I called the office again, I was told the bus had gone and there was no way to call it back. I was (understandably, I think) pretty upset, given that I’d been there 30 minutes early and was now stuck out at the airport. TWOTP was extremely unsympathetic to my plight and rather unhelpful in offering me alternatives as to what I could do to remedy the situation. Finally, she told me that I could either rebook for a new pick-up day (not an option, given my limited schedule) or take a Intercity bus to meet up with the Stray bus at the next stop in Kaikoura. The Intercity bus was really the only viable choice, so after several more excruciating minutes of trying to pry information out of her, she gave me the phone number of a bus company (which turned out to be wrong), a time of departure for a bus to Kaikoura (also wrong) and, at long last, gave up the name of the hostel where I could meet the group. I swear, it felt like I was trying to pry state secrets out of her. Ugh. Luckily, I had bought a local SIM card, so I was able to get online and find out some actual information about buses. The next bus to Kaikoura was leaving from downtown Christchurch at 4 pm (at this point it is about 10 am). I managed to get on the right city bus and for the bargain price of NZD$8, I got to go right back where I had started out that morning in downtown Christchurch.
The bus company was nice enough to let me store my luggage in their office, so I set out to wander the city and kill the hours until my departure. It actually turned out to be a nice day, I got to see up close several of the things Simon had pointed out to me during our earlier tour by car. There’s an eerie feeling to the city, as though it’s almost an abandoned place. There are half-demolished buildings scattered around amidst myriad construction sites. I got some good photos, hung out for a while in a lovely local whiskey shop, went for a leisurely pub lunch, and did a little shopping and soon enough it was time for my bus. We pulled into Kaikoura a little after sunset and I schlepped my bags to the hostel, another kilometer from the bus stop (thanks again, Google Maps!). The reception lady had stayed open just for me, and I was given the last bunk in the hostel. After a long and frustrating day, I briefly contemplated dinner and then decided to just go to sleep and try to start over in the morning.
Bright and early, I finally got to meet the driver and other people on the bus I had missed the day before. The driver was a gent called Cookie (all the Stray drivers go by nicknames, for some reason) who teased me (nicely) about the drama of the day before. The bus was about half full, and half of those aboard were continuing on my same path, with the other half boarding the ferry to Wellington that afternoon. We had a beautiful drive up the east coast from Kaikoura to Picton, with a stop along the way to check out a baby seal creche at the base of a waterfall. The mothers leave the babies to play in the pool while they go out hunting. In the past (I’ve been told) there can be hundreds of baby seals up there at one time, but we only saw about 5.
Still super cute, though! At another scenic lookout, I was chatting with Richard, a Scotsman who had also just joined the bus. We were walking up a short flight of stairs back to the road when I tripped on the top one and fell flat on my face. Luckily no injuries this time! I told you, stairs are always plotting against me.
We arrived in Picton in the mist of a steady rain, which didn’t bode well for the afternoon, as there is not much to do there aside from walking around the harbor and the little main street. Richard and I agreed that it was drinking weather and ended up passing the afternoon and evening with pizza and more than a couple 12 packs of New Zealand’s finest lager (that’s a joke. NZ beer is actually weak and terrible). We were staying at a hostel called The Villa, which was one of my favorites of the whole trip, not in the least part because we got free apple crumble and ice cream for dessert! I also spent time getting to know the others who were continuing on the bus with me. Marc and Evelyn are a cute couple from Quebec who reminded me a lot of my law school friends Adam and Susan, so I knew right away we’d get along. Cara and Ashley are a pair of GPs from Toronto who were traveling after having finished a contract working in a clinic in Australia, and finally we have Ceasar, an awesome, quirky and super fun Korean guy with an infectious enthusiasm for, well, everything. He also has a penchant for disappearing for hours and leaving us all worried, but I wouldn’t learn that until later.
Cookie had accompanied the other group on the ferry back to the North Island, so in the morning, we joined up with a new bus captained by the incomparable, indescribable Weeman. He and the band of misfits we were joining had been together for quite a while already, having toured all over the North Island together before heading south. At first it was a bit intimidating trying to meld with an established group. but before long it felt like we’d all been traveling together forever. The group was made up primarily of Brits (the lads: Harry, Alex, Dom and Paul, the ladies: Sarah and Rachel, the lovers: Rob and Kirsty), Canadians (the four I’ve already introduced, as well as Anita from Alberta), Swiss girls Saskia and Aglaea, Noora from Finland, Kathy from Malaysia, Keppa from Spain and Hannah from Kansas City.
I won’t recount all of our adventures in great detail, as that would mean we’d be here forever and even you, my faithful readers, wouldn’t want that. So I’ll stick to the highlights!
We spent a couple of nights at a place called The Barn in Marahau, right on the edge of Abel Tasman National Park. We had gorgeous weather while we were there and a big group of us went out hiking in the park during our one full day there. I didn’t fall down once!
From there we headed to Westport and on the way, Weeman informed us that he’d been given approval from the home office to make our bus a “challenge bus.” Basically, we all had to come up with a list of challenges for which Weeman would assign point values based on difficulty. Whoever had the most points by the time we reached Queenstown would win a free canyon swing! Luckily, I had no interest in doing a canyon swing, free or otherwise, so I didn’t have to get my competitive spirit in gear and would just be able to enjoy watching others (pretty much just the lads) make fools of themselves.
On the road, Weeman also decreed it was bus karaoke day, so each of us had to choose a song on our own iPod, play it over the bus speakers and sing into the mic. It was really fun and it turns out we had some talented people on board the bus! It was also a good icebreaker that helped further bond the group. (I sang the Lennon & Maisy cover of “Ho Hey,” if you’re interested). As we pulled in to Westport, we discovered it was Aglaea’s 19th birthday, so we came up with 19 challenges that she had to perform at the pub that night. She’s a shy little thing, but did really well! Challenges included taking a selfie with a stranger, holding hands with Richard for one full hour, dancing on a table to YMCA, and other embarrassing things. It also turned out to be karaoke night at the Wesport pub, and as we were already in the spirt from bus karaoke, everyone got super into it.
The next day, we were up early to go out to the pancake rocks, a pretty interesting geological formations on the seashore.
Later, while some people took a stone jewelry carving class, others of us visited the Monteith’s brewery in Greymouth.
We also picked up Dutch Mariella (who was rejoining the bus) and Brit Lizzy (a newbie). Our next stop was the town of Franz Josef, home to the famous glacier. The thing to do in Franz J is the Ice Explorer trek atop the glacier, which is accessible only by helicopter. It was a total budget buster at NZ$315, but I decided I had to do it, since I was there. Well, turns out the weather had other plans. It rained steadily the entire time we were in Franz J, which meant no one was going up the glacier. We ended up hanging around the hostel, watching movies and playing Monopoly (the British lads are dirty, dirty cheats). The morning we were supposed to leave, we delayed our departure in the hopes the skies would clear enough to let us go up, but alas, it was not to be. Marc and Evelyn and Kathy and Keppa all decided to hop off the bus and stick around a while, determined not to miss out, while the rest of us pressed on to the south. I was a little disappointed to miss out on the glacier, but also relieved to not spend another $300, as New Zealand was already proving to be hell on the budget.
* Challenges performed in Franz Josef: Richard won the “all you can eat pizza challenge” with 25 slices. Alex and Richard completed the “naked pub run”. Many (men) tried (and failed) to score the 10 points up for grabs for “kiss Weeman on the mouth.”
From Franz Josef, we traveled on to Wanaka, which is probably one of the most gorgeous drives I have ever been on. The road winds up and down through mountain passes and down into valleys, every turn bringing a new vista to take your breath away. Every day on the Stray bus, we stopped at places along the road for little hikes into nature. On the road to Wanaka, we stopped to hike up to the Blue Pools, where Alex, Harry, Richard and Paul all completed the skinny dipping challenge in (what I imagine to be) the coldest water in the world. This was one of the highlights of the whole trip for me, I must say. We all watched from a bridge while the lads hiked down to the river and were joined by a random older British lady who just happened to be passing by at just the right time. She was delighted to have stumbled across us and cheered louder than anyone as the lads stripped down and flung themselves into the icy water.
We rolled into Wanaka that evening just in time to see the sun start to go down over the lake. Wanaka is a lakeside ski town and is pretty as postcard. We were there during the winter games, so there were all sorts of things going on around town.
Some of us went out for some live music on the waterfront, after which I went to bed. In the morning, I learned that the night had not ended so sedately for everyone. Apparently, several people continued drinking and carousing until the wee hours, finally bringing the party back to the hostel (not my room, thank goodness). Accounts conflict, but it seems that around 4 am, Richard got up to look for the bathroom. Not finding it, he proceeded to pee all over the floor where Noora’s bag was sitting, then climbed into Noora’s bunk. She (understandably) freaked out and caused a big scene. Richard slunk onto the back of the bus in the morning and the overall vibe was tense. He claims to remember none of it, but said he was glad a lot of us were breaking up after Queenstown and he could get on a bus where no one knew his shame. (Little did he know, the drivers all talk to each other and I have no doubt his legend preceded him onto the next bus).
Another stunningly beautiful drive brought us into Queenstown in the early afternoon. Queenstown is the adrenaline-junkie capital of New Zealand, and it the home of the world’s first commercial bungy jump. A lot of people on the bus were pretty fired up about the bungy. I was not one of them. Seriously, just watching the video of other people jumping nearly gave me a heart attack. Hard pass.
That night was going to be the end of the line for our merry band, with most people splitting up and doing different things from that point on. I, along with six others from the bus, was headed to the deep south early the next morning. For a farewell extravaganza, we all signed on for the Big Night Out pub crawl, which included a trip to the Ice Bar. Overall, I think they should have called it Lame Night Out, but it was fun to spend a little more time with the great friends I’d made on the bus.
In the wee hours the next morning, it was all aboard a new bus! Our new driver was Postie (the origins of his nickname were never revealed). He didn’t have the joie de vivre and instant appeal of Weeman, but over time, he started to grow on me. I had thought that coming in with 7 from our former bus, we’d be a majority, but it turned out the whole rest of the bus had been together from the start, much like the last bus I’d joined. Postie wasn’t as good with the bonding activities, so this was a harder group to crack. The deep south loop is only 2 nights, so there’s less motivation to make the investment in new friends, so our original 7 mostly stuck together. Our first day was a long drive through the stunning, snow-covered mountains on the way down to Milford Sound.
Milford Sound is one of those bucket-list places that really does live up to the hype, even on a misty and overcast day. We took a 90 minute boat cruise through the sound and out to the open sea and then returned the way we came.
Following the cruise, we drove back through the mountain pass and made our way to Gunn’s Camp, our accommodation for the night. This was definitely the most rustic of all the places I stayed in New Zealand, generator electricity for just a few hours and wood-stove heating in most of the cabins.
This was also the first of our epic Postie group meals, an amazing nacho-like platter of meat, chips, salad, and all manner of deliciousness. In the morning, it was back on the road to Invercargill, our gateway to Stewart Island (the little-known third island of New Zealand). There’s not a heck of a lot going on on Stewart Island, but it is reputed to be one of the best places for spotting kiwis (the birds, not the people). We did another group meal there, this time a delectable roast dinner. Our host at the Stewart Island hostel was Vicky, a woman who defies description. Her favorite thing when the Stray bus comes through is to put together a trivia night. As you all know, I am an international trivia champion, so I was pretty excited for the chance to dominate some more. It was a rollicking good time, but in the end, my team came in second by ONE MEASLY POINT. All answer sheets were scored by Vicky, though, which later events would lead me to suspect was not the most reliable of arbiters. So, I consider it a win. After the games, most of us drifted off to bed after a bit, but apparently Vicky stayed up drinking scotch with some of the hardier (crazier?) souls. In fact, when I got up in the morning, the lady in question was passed out cold at the kitchen table. Apparently she’d stayed up drinking all night! Soon it became clear that it wouldn’t have mattered much if I’d done the same, as it proceeded to rain buckets all day long. Lizzy and a few of the others ventured out into the rain in search of kiwis and penguins, but didn’t find any. The rest of us spent another day cooped up in a hostel common room, watching movies and hanging out. I don’t usually mind these sorts of unplanned off days, but coming so soon on the heels of our disappointment in Franz Josef, it was a bummer to have another location that we didn’t even get to explore. Ah, well. Whatcha gonna do?
We returned from the deep south back to Queenstown and this time I was planning to stay a few days and enjoy it. Lizzy and I decided to upgrade our accommodations from Base Backpackers to Nomads, a nicer hostel a few blocks away. I didn’t end up doing a whole lot while I was there, as the budget was already suffering greatly. New Zealand is a pricey country and the whole of Queenstown seems to be set up to drain your bank account at every turn. Lizzy was only on a short holiday (and has an actual job) so she went out and did all sorts of foolishness like canyon swinging and such, while I curled up by the fire in the gorgeous Nomads common room and got things done (like working on everyone’s favorite blog!) and doing laundry. I did dig a little deeper in the wallet one day to go up Queenstown hill and do a little zip lining, which was a lot of fun.
After three lovely nights sleeping in the same bed, it was back on Postie’s bus for our trip up to Mount Cook National Park. Some of the gang from the deep south trip was on the same bus, as well as a few of the girls from Weeman’s bus, so it was all aboard the fun times express! Which is good, because the weather gods continued to laugh in our faces. My whole time in NZ had been pretty chilly, given that we were still on the tail end of winter in the southern hemisphere, but Mount Cook decided to kick things up a notch and welcomed us with a full-blown blizzard. We couldn’t do any of the walks or anything, but decided to try and make the best of things and so we built a snowman!
That night, we couldn’t even watch movies, as the snowstorm had knocked out the satellite reception, so we ended up playing Head’s Up and other silly games to pass the time. All in, it ended up snowing almost a foot that day! Luckily, things had cleared up by the morning and we were able to get out as planned (and even see a bit of the mountain, which had been totally whited-out during the storm).
That day’s travels took us through more beautiful valleys, ending up in Rangitata where we got to ride horses and enjoy the landscape some more. Our lodging for the night was a lovely cabin out in the middle of nowhere, and our group had the entire place to ourselves. We also went in for our last Epic Postie Group Meal, a feast of local sausages, homemade onion rings, minted peas, and mountains of mashed potatoes. Postie is a master of putting these amazing meals together and the price tag for each person came in at around NZ$7, which absolutely can’t be beat.
We were up bright and early to close the loop driving back up to Christchurch, where I should have gotten on the bus in the first place, had things gone according to plan. We lost a few people, picked up a few more, and continued onward back up to Kaikoura. It was interesting to do it over with the bus, and luckily, the trip confirmed that I’d missed absolutely nothing with my failure to find the bus the first time around. The next day, it was on to Picton, where I popped into The Villa to retrieve my towel, which I’d inadvertently left there on my last go-round (they’d even washed it for me!) and then it was time to board the ferry to Wellington. It was sad to leave the South Island behind, I wish I could have just stayed on and done the whole loop again!
Lizzy and the others left with Postie on the morning express to Auckland, but I had left a few spare days to hang out and explore Wellington. It’s a lovely city, though it’s reputation as the #2 Windy City (after Chicago) is well-deserved.
I spent a lot of time just wandering around, but also went to see a fantastic World War I exhibit curated by Sir Peter Jackson, visited the Te Papa National Museum and rode the cable car up to the top of town and walked back down through the beautiful botanical gardens. After three wonderful and relaxing days, it was my turn to board the Auckland Express, this time captained by Gollum. I’m sure there’s a story behind the nickname, but he was not at all creepy and never once uttered the word “precious.” The drive to Auckland takes all day and is rather exhausting, so I was glad when I arrived that I’d decided to splurge out on an actual hotel for my final two nights. FINAL NIGHTS? HOW DID WE GET HERE SO FAST? I spent my last day exploring Auckland on foot, and then far too soon, I was waking up at 4 am to get to the airport for my flight back to the U.S.A. One major downside of this past year’s adventures is that I don’t know how I’ll ever manage a normal vacation ever again. I spent nearly a month in New Zealand and it truly felt like almost no time at all. Not to mention having spent the last year on the road, visiting 19 countries (including Antarctica and the Falklands, which aren’t technically countries in their own right, but are being counted as such anyway).
And that, my faithful readers, is that.
Thank you all for joining me on this incredible journey. I don’t know what’s next for me. I don’t know what it all means. Even as I’m typing this, I’ve been back in the states for about a month, but it has been just as nomadic as the past year abroad, so that’s probably why I haven’t really been able to process it all. It feels unreal. It feels unfinished. Perhaps it is, who knows? All I can say is, stay tuned to this space. More news as it breaks!
(Don’t forget to check out — and Like! — my Facebook page for full photo albums from every destination and follow me on Instagram @itskimonawhim for the most up to date info on where I am at any given moment)