The Merit of Everything Falling Apart, and other Lessons from New Zealand (Part One)

I traveled to New Zealand last January—I hadn’t planned on it, but the best way I can think to explain it is that something inside of me was screaming for mountains, and I needed to act on it, quickly. The way that my body needs water, my heart needs wild places. So I booked a flight and was gone within days of deciding to go.

Those of you who know me probably already know that my favorite way to travel is loosely: to plan just enough to know where and when I’ll be going, and to leave plenty of room to choose what I want to do once I get there. This was no exception. I flew to Queenstown without any set plans, knowing that my friend Sarah, who had been living in New Zealand on a work visa, would be roadtripping in her new car, Subie Sue. I imagined that joining her would provide some good scaffolding for adventure.

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“Subie Sue” in action.  Photo by Chase Duran.

I was also lucky enough to meet up with this handsome character, who was traveling the islands by bicycle at the time and who ended up sharing grand and daring escapades with me throughout the month to come:

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Chase made friends with wildlife large and small on this trip.

I was pretty blessed with a lineup of travel companions that made my heart happy. Sarah’s plans matched up nicely with the itinerary suggestions that my Adventuress shipmate Cameron Zegers had sent me before my departure (um, check out her amazing photography blog). The idea was to rove around in Mt. Aspiring National Park, to visit cliffy Fiordland then head north over Haast Pass and up the coast past Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers as far as Abel Tasman National Park. Some of those things came to pass. However, as I’ve been piecing together an essay about New Zealand (one that isn’t destined for this blog), I’ve realized that the adventures that drove the deepest into my heart happened when even the loosest-laid plans fell apart.

So here’s an informal little series about just that: the amazing things that happened when life didn’t go according to plan. You can extrapolate as you will: the best experiences come when you drop expectations, stay flexible as unexpected difficulties arise, and always choose to say yes to what sounds best. Or you can simply take it for what it is: a lineup of some of the most amazing adventures available in New Zealand for those of you traveling on a budget and in search of wild beauty. If I were to offer anyone an itinerary to follow, this would be it. But don’t take my word for it—go out and make your own mistakes!

I’ll be uploading these gradually as separate posts, so that you don’t have to slog through the highlights in one sitting. I’ll finish up the series with a recap, some notes on logistics and travel tips, and some ideas about places that piqued my interest that I never got a chance to visit but would encourage others to try out. Enjoy!

Part One

Destination: Rees-Dart Track, South Island

What went wrong: We wanted to hike the Rees-Dart Track, but the washouts really cramped our style.

Before meeting up with Sarah for our adventures in Milford Sound, Chase and I decided to hike the Rees-Dart Track, as recommended by my old Yosemite friend Meg (incidentally, her recommendations were unfailingly the best). But hitchhiking to the trailhead meant we got a late start, and we didn’t account for the severity of the washouts on the trail.

At the beginning of most hikes in New Zealand, there’s a civilized little green sign indicating the distance to the next destination in kilometers and in estimated hours. One of these signs gave us a good sense for when we should reach our first hut on this route: probably right around nightfall.

We had been warned that the trail had washed out in a couple places, and from time to time we had to pull ourselves onto overgrown side-trails, using ferns and roots as handholds. Orange flagging always guided us back through the trees to the proper path. By the time we reached a high point in the trail and this view of turquoise flood waters, created by a landslide that dammed up part of the river (below), we had begun to doubt that cheerful green sign at the head of the trail with its tidy list of distances. We were nearing the upper end of the time estimate, the sunset was tingeing the mountains with pink, and the hut we were looking for was nowhere in sight.

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Way out across the water, we could see a meadow that looked like a good spot for a tent. It couldn’t be more than an hour from where we stood (…right?), so we hurried down the trail into the dusk and into the forest that stood between ourselves and our destination. The trail led for a small distance through the flooded forest that we had seen from above: water lapped against tree trunks like it does in my dreams of the Everglades.

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Photo credit: Chase Duran

Shortly, the original trail collapsed completely into the floodwater, and orange flagging guided us deeper into the woods. We rustled through confetti-dry beech leaves underfoot, squinting to try to find the flagging in the dusky light. Eventually, we switched on our headlamps and followed their swinging beams across creeks and up hills, over exposed scree slopes bathed in starlight and into dark hollows where we used our hands to identify moss by its texture and not its color.

It was getting late and the “scroggin” we had picked up in the bulk aisle of the grocery store (essentially New Zealand’s equivalent of trail mix) wasn’t cutting it. Dinnertime had come and gone and my stomach, whining for food, was unconvinced by the peanuts I was feeding it. Midnight was fast approaching, and we agreed to pitch our tent at the next flat spot we came across, but the woods were steep and closely packed with beech trees for miles ahead and behind us.

We marched on, and at the height of our doubt and exhaustion, we stumbled into a different dimension. I spotted them first, glowing like eyes: two little green sparks in the black forest. We stopped in our tracks and took stock of our surroundings, and in a moment, it was clear that we were surrounded. Electric pinpricks of light glimmered along dark cliffs and under ferny ledges. My head swam (low blood pressure? fatigue?) and I had the expansive feeling that I had walked into another world. Glow worms! They shone around us like galaxies.

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My camera?  Not so hot at taking nighttime pictures (or, for that matter, sharp pictures of journals), but this is an impressionistic sketch of the glowworms we experienced that night.

When we finally pulled ourselves away, it could have been hours or even years that we had spent standing in the cold yellowy glow of that place, like Rip Van Winkle asleep in the woods. Not too much farther, we found an open meadow where we ate a dinner of beans, pitched the tent, and watched the midnight moon spill across the sprawling grass like milk.

The next morning, we finally found the hut we’d been hoping for just a little farther down the trail.

Our adventure carried us past glaciers…

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Dart Glacier

…and high alpine dropoffs loud with long waterfalls…

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Photo credit: Chase Duran

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…into caves…

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… over hanging bridges…

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Photo credit: Chase Duran

…and across lots of water..

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Photo credit: Chase Duran

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Photo credit: Chase Duran

…but we had already found our best destination that very first night, in that phosphorescent glen so very far off the beaten track.

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Photo credit: Chase Duran

It turns out our experience might be hard to repeat. After a storm blew through a few days later, we discovered that the Dart Valley we hiked on our way in had been indefinitely closed to hikers due to yet another, larger washout.   By then, we had already safely reached the end of the trail. However, even without washouts for an excuse, we always were on the higher side of most of the hiking time estimates on those green trail signs…

You can read Part Two here!

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5 thoughts on “The Merit of Everything Falling Apart, and other Lessons from New Zealand (Part One)

  1. Really fun to read–and see– your visionary adventures, and to realize that the misadventure portion is often the most memorable–when you are on the other side, it is all the sweeter for the mud, the rain, the washouts, the harrowing ascent–you were in the flow and knew how it feels to be alive!

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