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. 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:
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 old 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. You can read the other entries here:
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!
Destination: Haast Pass, South Island
What went wrong: It rained like hell.
We had been roadtripping with Sarah and her friend Jessie for awhile—we’d already seen the fjords of Milford Sound…
…explored the Routeburn Track from both ends…
….and given a proper “tittie salute” to the clear alpine waters of Lake Marian.
The campgrounds we had chosen along the way usually had some trees for wind shelter or some high, flat ground for good tent setup. Today, we were heading north, and a storm had been lashing the land around us, stirring up the occasional rainbow then settling again into torrential gray gloom. Unlike on the trail—where if you don’t make it to a hut, you’re free to camp where you choose—on the road, drivers can only stop at designated campsites for the night, and our option tonight didn’t look good: there was a flat parking area for camper vans and trailers (this is where Sarah and Jessie planned to spend the night encamped in the Subaru), and below the parking lot lay the tent lake—er, lawn. I think originally it had been a field—nice and flat and green—but it had filled (and continued to fill) with rainwater to the point where setting up a tent would have been tantamount to rigging up a boat. One other tent stood on the lawn, and it looked like it was ready to float away. Rules be damned: we were camping in the forest tonight.
It was dusk already, and we stomped hurriedly into the woods, which weren’t actually particularly drier than anything else. A small tiff broke out as to whether the entry of the tent should face downhill (so as to drain any water that might ingress), or uphill so that our heads could be on higher ground. Tensions were high. It turns out that rainflies are only useful once a tent is erected: in the vulnerable minutes it takes to lay out the groundcloth and insert the poles, dampness is inevitable.
We hurried through the process, with the prospect of leftover Fergburgers for dinner spurring us onward. We ate quickly under a public picnic shelter, with animal ferocity. Sarah and Jessie were already ensconced in the car, front seats cranked horizontal, and did not show any signs of budging till morning. When Chase and I returned to the tent later in the evening, the rain had not abated. All night, we lay in the soggy jungle, listening to the ferns shake with stormwater, hoping that the branches above us would hold strong.
When we awoke the next day, the rain had diminished to dainty percussive drips filtering down from the mossy canopy. As we lay there recovering, the most incredible morning ceremony unfolded above us.
A small bird hip-hopped onto a branch overhead and, with graceful, clipped movements, it bobbed up and down a few times and whisked open an astonishingly huge, peacock-like tail. It swayed and swished like a fan-dancer. And as it danced, others flitted into the branches above it. Their flashing tailfeathers caught the light of the brightening sky; their metallic, sugary chirps seemed like a celebration. We—humans and birds alike—had made it through the tempestuous night!
A backcountry hiker told me later that these birds were believed by the Maori to help guide lost wanderers back home. This could have been bullshit: I also read that fantails are the Maori messengers of death. Ecologically speaking, these little insect-eaters are likely just attracted to humans because of the bugs we stir up underfoot.
Whatever the purpose of the fantails, whatever their intent, the sweetness of the moment stands alone. And had we not been chased into the woods by the stormy torrent, we might never have awoken to our own private and unquestionably sacred fan dance. Usually when gratitude settles into ones heart, it ends up being not for grandness but for the little things. That morning was no exception.