I knew my first day in New Zealand was going to be a challenge. To get the most out of my limited time, I’d scheduled an overnight flight from Melbourne to Auckland. So any sleep I was going to be getting that night would have to be on the plane. It was a five hour flight, which isn’t a fantastic amount of sleep, but it would have to do.
Boarding the plane, I discovered it was only a 3 hour flight, plus a 2 hour time zone change. Whoops. I napped as hard as I could as the huge Maori guy next to me spilled over into my seat and nearly suffocated me. Welcome to New Zealand.
We took off late and arrived in Auckland an hour late. Uh oh. I had an appointment at 9am for a day of cave spelunking adventure. I’d originally planned on visiting the Waitomo caves and taking the 40 minute boat tour that all the tourists do, until a friend pointed out that they also offered more in-depth adventures that sounded more like my speed. There was a 3 hour version where instead of a boat, you floated through the caves in an inner tube. Cool! But the granddaddy of them all was their 5 hour adventure day, where you explored the caves The Descent style before inner tubing through the glow worm sections on your way back out. I signed up as fast as I could.
There wasn’t a later appointment or an earlier flight, so I needed to make this window of time work. I’d built a little fudge time into my schedule in case anything happened, but now with the late flight arrival it was all gone. I got into the customs line.
The line stretched back to the beginning of creation. Uh-oh. Australia and New Zealand take customs control very seriously, to prevent plants or fruits or Donald Trump coming into the country. An hour went by. Oh man I am so screwed.
I ran to the car rental counter and signed my name five times as quickly as the screen could reload. “Don’t forget that here in New Zealand we drive on the CORRECT side of the road!” Jesus Christ guy give me the car keys.
Ran out to parking lot, the car’s probably fine, skip the car inspection, peel out.
Driving fast is fun. Driving fast in Toyota Yaris, not so much. Driving fast in a Toyota Yaris in the rain, so not much.
Planning travel is a series of compromises, the skill comes in picking the right ones for your needs. Comfort versus cost. Rest versus getting to see and do a lot. I don’t always get this right. Like, if you’re going to be driving from the very top of New Zealand’s North Island to the bottom bit of the South Island, maybe don’t pick the cheapest rental car humanly possible. You’re already spending the cost of a black market baby on this trip, maybe spend the extra hundred dollars so you don’t spend half the trip in a roller skate that feels like it’s going to tip over every time you turn and that rides like a rickety wooden rollercoaster from the 1800s? Live and learn.
Racing against the clock, I called ahead to the Waitomo Caves. No answer. Tried again an hour later and was on hold for an hour. Finally got a person and told them I wasn’t going to make the 8:30am check in time. “We might be able to work with you. What time will you be here?” “If I break every law I’ll be there at 8:55am.” “The latest we can possibly let you in is 8:50.”
Shit. Also I desperately have to pee.
I raced across the North Island and arrived at the caves just before 9am. Thankfully, my group hadn’t left yet and everyone was surprisingly mellow about my arrival time, compared to what the uptight guy on the phone had said.
I was fitted for a wetsuit, boots, lantern helmet and a harness and they drove us to a hillside for our abseiling training.
Abseiling is the New Zealand word for what we’d call rappelling, using a rope and various clips and things to descend deep down into a cave from the surface.
Our guides, an affable caving dude named Ron and the Kiwi Amy Adams, trained us on how to use a metal device that looked like a Hanayama puzzle, which we fed the rope through and pushed with our thumb to control the speed of our descent. If you really got into deep shit you could hold the rope behind your back with your other hand, which would create tension in the device and stop you completely. What you really did not want to do was the most natural thing, which is to grab the rope. If you did this you’d just be painting the rope red with your blood, and you’d still be falling.
We took a few practice runs abseiling down the hillside, and it came more naturally than I’d expected. The difficult part is descending smoothly, you tend to go in jerky stops and starts as you start to go faster and realize this weird metal clip thing is the only thing keeping you from plummeting to your death. There were three Kiwis and a woman from England in our group, and everyone was really cool.
From there it was over to the platform, onto the actual rope, and down into the cave.
You go through one tight gap in the rock where you actually have to wriggle your way through to make it down past this spot, then the rock opens up into a gigantic cavern and you drop down into it.
As you descend, you can bounce off the rock face on your feet, swinging back and forth for fun, or you can put your knees and feet out in front of you to separate you from the rock wall. Or you can do neither and hit your face right on the rock, like I did. It’s totally up to you.
My descent was fairly choppy and awkward, with my full weight on the rope it was actually hard to get the wet rope to slide through the clip, the opposite of the “falling too fast” problem you’d expect to have. But it was still completely exhilarating. Reaching the bottom and gawking upward at what you just did is an awesome feeling. In spite of each of us generally descending like an airlifted manatee, our guides seemed impressed by the speed with which we’d all got down. I could imagine some people taking forever out of the fear of falling. Kiwi Amy Adams descended last at near freefall speeds, making me feel even more like a rotund marine mammal.
From there we ziplined across a chasm deeper into the caves. Ziplining into the pitch black nothingness is completely cool. At the other end, glow worms lit up the ceiling of the cave.
Now it was time to get into the water. We were handed large inner tubes and invited to jump off the ledge into the river at the bottom of the cave. The challenge was landing in your inner tube at the bottom of the fall. I managed to pull this off but you still hit the water so hard you go completely underwater, tube and all, with a cold blast of cave river water suddenly stabbing straight into your everything. Then you surface, blow all the water out of your nose, and curse your guides for lying about the water being warm.
Also, there are gigantic cave eels in the water. This is barely mentioned in passing, like it’s a minor detail no one could possibly be concerned about. This is probably a strategic choice, as you just accept there’s crazy Star Wars trash compactor shit in the water and get on with your day.
From here we carried on downstream, exploring the caves, alternating between tubing, swimming and wading through the shallow parts. Every time I felt something brush past my leg in the dark water I thought “Oh, that’s just a plant in the water” except there are no plants in this water and that was definitely a huge eel.
We stopped at one point and took some cool time-lapse photos, standing very still while our guide ran around with a colored light and “drew” on the photo.
Eventually we reached the furthest point of the cave, at which point we got in our inner tubes, lined up, and formed a chain with each person holding the legs of the person behind them, like a train of inner tubes. We turned off our headlamps and the glow worms lit up the cave ceiling right over our heads. Kiwi Amy Adams grabbed my foot, as I was the front tube in the train, and proceeded to tow us back through all the caves in the pitch black, as we leaned back and took in the beautiful universe of glow worms all over the cave ceiling.
This felt very much like flying through the universe, millions of glow worms forming constellations of stars and galaxies.
This part was completely magical and totally justified the pain of holding your head at that unnatural angle for so long, gawking up at the cave ceiling. Parts of it felt like we were sitting still and the universe of glow worms was streaming past us. Other parts felt like flying through space.
Once we reached the spot where we’d picked up the inner tubes, we flung them back up onto the ledge and carried on to the really tough part, climbing back up out of the caves. We made our way upstream, occasionally passing through corridors so narrow you had to crawl on elbows and knees and squeeze your body through, putting all claustrophobic thoughts out of your head. This made you feel like a total badass.
We passed through one small cave where we paused and Kiwi Amy Adams shone her headlamp into the water. A huge eel surfaced eerily out of the murk and took a treat KAA was holding out. It was a surprisingly mellow and beautiful moment for something so fucking terrifying.
To get out of the caves, we had to climb up two waterfalls. I’d read about this when I booked and figured you just went up some rocks next to where the water was falling, it couldn’t really be that big of a deal. But in actuality we climbed up through both waterfalls, there was no half-assing this. You had to place your feet very carefully and straddle the first waterfall as you climbed up, holding yourself up and making a little jump to reach your next foothold. You could definitely die doing this. I was impressed that the guides had got a number of people through this safely, though people who can’t handle this kind of thing probably don’t sign up for a day of spelunking.
One of the waterfalls involved stepping right into the torrent of water at the point where your guide was pointing, trusting that there would be a safe foothold in there somewhere beneath the raging water. It worked, but was quite the trust exercise.
Eventually we emerged into the outside world with an amazing feeling of accomplishment.
Outside, it was raining softly. I’ve never cared less about getting rained on in my life.
If you like the Lord of the Rings movies at all, when you go to New Zealand, you kind of have to drive around playing the score from the movie. It’s a bit of a cliché but it’s one of New Zealand’s laws, and for good reason. You really do feel like you’re driving through Middle Earth. One minute you’re on a highway driving past some mountains, then the “The world has changed, I can feel it in the water...” choral prelude begins and holy shit, those are the Misty Mountains! The second the music starts, the sudden transformation is enchanting.
I was on my way to visit Hobbiton, the actual set from the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. I suppose you could go to New Zealand and not visit this, but what the fuck is your problem?
One of the biggest surprises for me on the drive over was that the landscape around Hobbiton is even more fantastic than the set of The Shire itself. Otherworldly wrinkled green hills echo the Fairy Glenn on the Isle of Skye.
Walking around Hobbiton was surprisingly emotional. I didn’t expect this, since I like the movies, but it’s not like I’m naming my kids Frodo and Sauron or anything. But you really do feel transported into the world of the movies, which is magical. Hey! That’s Sam’s house!
Even the things that break the illusion are really cool. Some of the hobbit houses exist in multiple scales, so Frodo and Sam could stand in front of the big version, making them look small, then a shot of Gandalf would have him standing in front of a smaller version of the same house, making it look small and him much taller than a couple of actors who were only an inch shorter than Ian McKellan in real life.
The amount of detail on display is really fun, as you do have a full village here, and you can tell what each hobbit’s job is based on the things around their houses: the baker, the beekeeper, etc.
At the end of the tour you stop for a drink at the Green Dragon tavern.
I still hadn’t really warmed up from my time in Tasmania, so I took my ginger beer and hunkered down by the fireplace. In front of me, a stuffed cat laid by the fire. Nice touch! After about a half an hour of me staring into the fire and slowly warming up, the cat suddenly moved. GAH! Real cat!
A toddler came over and began playing with the cat, absolutely exploding with joy.
“Be careful, be nice to the kitty!” his mom admonished, hovering nervously as if she expected her son to pitch the cat into the fire at any moment. He petted the cat softly and she relaxed, and began to look around at all the impressive detail on the walls of the tavern. Then the little boy promptly sat on the cat’s head like it was a couch.
When I was growing up, the impression I always got was that everyone hated American tourists. There was the whole “Ugly American” stereotype, people visiting foreign countries and indignantly expecting everyone to speak English and make things just like they are in America, not being open-minded to learning or experiencing the differences. I don’t get this sense much anymore. I think it’s because of the Chinese.
I mean, we’re not anyone’s favorite tourists or anything, and since Trump happened I tend to get an “Oh, that sucks for you” response any time I tell anyone I’m American. But I think we seem lots more awesome ever since Chinese tourists have taken over the world.
When I first arrived in Sydney, I was shocked by how non-white it was. Not that this is a bad thing in any way, but you go to Australia and expect to see, you know, white people. It’s just surprising when it looks more like Tokyo.
This seemed like a combination of a large immigrant population, Japanese tourists making the relatively short trip from Japan, and the fact that there are a billion Chinese tourists in every country on the Earth right now.
The problem with this from a tourist perspective is that the Chinese tend to not speak any English, which is fine and understandable, but this leads them to totally ignore the tour guides and talk loudly through everything the guide is saying, so none of the rest of us can hear what’s being said or explained. So you’ve got a tour of Hobbiton that’s half passionate lovers of the films who are enthralled to be there and learn every detail, and half Chinese tourists who don’t know what a Lord of the Rings is and are just taking the tour because okay I lied I have no idea why they’re taking this tour.
I happened to be standing next to two of the guides at Hobbiton when they were having a private conversation.
“Are you coming back next year?”
“Nah, no way.”
“What if they offer you more money?”
“If they offered me like $70K and promised me no Chinese tourists I might consider it.”
“Oh man I’d settle for no Chinese tourists.”
I spent the night in Rotorua and was up early the next morning to watch the sun rise over Lake Tarawera. I’d read a spiritually themed blog by a girl who had gone to Lake Tarawera, which was sacred to the Maori, and she’d seen the ghostly figures of Maori canoeing across the lake. This seemed worth checking out.
It was cold as balls and I didn’t see any ghost canoers, but I did see a beautiful sunrise, perfect shafts of light cutting through the clouds and down into the water. Inside the shafts of light I saw a huge face form, and I asked for any activations I could receive at this place. My head began to buzz and I relaxed into the feeling.
This is also the place where I decided I was done with freezing my ass off. I headed back into Rotorua to see what kind of warm clothes I could buy. This was made more difficult by two factors. For one, it was 7 in the morning and no serious clothes places opened before 9am. If I was still in Rotorua at 9 the rest of my packed day was going to be screwed, as in completely missing things I had paid for in advance and being too late to check into my AirBnB that night. Going back to Rotorua at all was going to mean I’d have to make up the time on the day’s drives somehow, so I needed to find some place that was open at 7am.
The second thing is that it was spring in New Zealand, which is when they sell shorts and suntan lotion to get ready for summer, not when they stock long underwear for Americans who can’t convert from Celsius.
I ran into the K-Mart in Rotorua right as they opened. I was briefly sidetracked by their Flight of the Conchords-approved sock categories before I buckled down and focused.
After scouring their underwear section like a prospector panning for gold, I came to the conclusion that they had one thermal undershirt in the entire store. It was extra small. I am not extra small. Shit. The cool Maori girl working there confirmed how screwed I was and recommended I try The Warehouse across town.
It was also spring on that side of town, so the only long underwear they had was on extra super duper clearance and the pickings were extra slim. The available men’s sizes were extra small and 5X. I’m pretty sure long underwear that fits like a parachute doesn’t work very well. Shit. I did a loop of the store. Shit. I returned to the long underwear.
There were women’s sizes. Hmmm. The women’s long underwear was lacey and had flowers and shit on it. Hmmmm. Who’s ever gonna see what’s under my pants? (All the Nepalese people at my hostel in Milford Sound? Good to know!) I’m going for it. They had some women’s 2X that fit me and it was like $3. Thanks, plus-sized ladies of New Zealand.
I put it on in the back seat of my car while a deeply tanned and dreadlocked hippie guy wearing nothing but a pair of shorts wandered around the parking lot.
From there I drove down to the Wai O Tapu thermal pools, one of the most famous sights on the North Island. It was a pretty touristy spot, lots of Chinese tourists taking selfies in front of the vividly colored thermal pools. But beyond the main tourist track you could hike out further on longer loops, and these offered both solitude and a beautiful, peaceful connection to nature that I loved. At the end of the furthest track was a huge green lake.
I carried on from there down to Lake Rotopounamu, which is considered in esoteric circles to be one of the most important energy vortexes on the Earth. Like chakras in the body of the Earth itself, different sacred locations represent the elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water, and this lake is thought to be the wheel of water energy for the entire planet.
The energy of the lake was quite striking as I hiked around it, a vivid feeling of freshness that permeated the entire area around the lake. I was running terribly late but still took the time to hike all the way around the lake, not wanting to miss any aspect of it. I asked for any available activations and felt the energy stream through my body.
From there it was a long drive down to Wellington for my 5:45pm appointment.
I spent the drive to Wellington locked in mortal combat with Google Maps’ arrival time estimate. It said I was going to be half an hour late for the night tour of the Zealandia Wildlife Sanctuary, thus missing the night tour completely. I disagreed. Speed speed speed speed speed. Check the phone. Shaved one minute off. Accelerator down. If I can shave a minute off every 10 minutes of the four and a half hour drive, I'll get there at-
When the cop pulled me over, I was doing 140 in a 100. I think he should have been impressed that I got that piece of shit car going that fast, but I’m not here to tell people how to live their lives.
The cop was so nice I thought he was going to let me off with a warning, but that’s only because he seemed to think I’d only been going 124. I almost corrected him before I realized what a bad idea that would be. Maybe his radar gun only picked up the second after I yelled “Oh shit, New Zealand has cops!” and jammed on the brakes. Or maybe he was just avoiding the paperwork hassle of a reckless driving charge and having to book a big person into Hobbit jail.
I'd shaved ten minutes off my arrival time at the point when I was pulled over and given a ticket, a process that took ten minutes. Fuck. Back to where I started.
Traffic citations in New Zealand are kind of weird, in that the cop gave me a little business card with a number written on it, like he was asking me out. I had to go to a website, enter the number, and pay the $170, which I think is also how online dating works.
An hour later, sticking to the “10% over the speed limit” trick the cop had shared with me in order to not get pulled over again, I’d made up a few more minutes but there was no way I was getting to Wellington by 5:45. I called up Zealandia to plead my case. Maybe I could join the tour part-way through? I didn’t mind missing some, but I’d really hate to miss the whole thing just for being a little late.
They were completely awesome. They’d leave someone behind to wait for me after the tour started, and as long as I got there by 6:10, I could catch up with the rest of the group. Kiwis are so nice!
I looked at the arrival time estimate on my phone. 6:09. Oh cool. I have a whole minute to work with.
Then I drove into the biggest traffic jam possible in a country as small as New Zealand.
The town of Porirua reminded me very much of Malibu in California, right down to the traffic. I looked down at the time estimate. It had added 15 minutes. Shit shit shit.
After I was finally through the coastal traffic I put the hammer down and made it to Zealandia right at 6:10. A saintly guide was waiting for me at the entrance, and we quickly caught up with the group. I hadn’t missed any animals, just the intro video. Awesome!
The concept of Zealandia is that they’ve taken a sizable chunk of land in the center of Wellington and dedicated it to restoring what the ecosystem was before man arrived in New Zealand. Walls and fences around and within the property keep out the rodents that eat birds’ eggs, so huge numbers of native birds nest within the preserve. The staff was slowly weeding out any non-native trees and plant life as time went by, with an ambitious 200 year plan to completely restore the landscape.
This was all much, much more impressive than I had expected. One of my goals for New Zealand was to see a kiwi (the bird, not the people, though I wanted to see them too) and this seemed like the coolest way to see one. But from the website I assumed the place would be much smaller than it actually was, and something like a zoo. Instead it was a protected wilderness with walking paths, packed with native animals. An absolute cacophony of bird song filled the dusk air. I’d never heard anything like this before, wow. How beautiful. I felt like I’d been transported back in time to another era before the modern age.
Night fell quickly and we turned on our red flashlights, which helped with preserving our night vision and not scaring off the wildlife. Our guide was an amazing fountain of knowledge about all the animals in Zealandia. One of the things that impressed me the most about New Zealand is how connected to traditional Maori culture they remain. In Australia, there’s a certain sort of touristy sense of appreciating the Aborigines, and a sort of half-assed acknowledgement that they’ve been mistreated. But New Zealand feels closer to a partnership between native and white cultures, more so than any other place I’ve been.
A Tui bird swooped in the air over our heads, catching insects. The Tui’s partner called out in the bird’s fascinating, crazy, warbling R2D2 call. Our guide told us the Maori legend about how the Tui disobeyed the Gods and as punishment they took away his song, leaving behind this strange facsimile.
As night fell, something moved in the woods up the hill to our left. We stopped and our guide shone his red light up the bank. Something strange stepped through the shadows. Holy shit, it’s a kiwi! I craned my head and watched the kiwi step gingerly over the underbrush, pecking at the ground with her beak. We followed a parallel path up the trail until she disappeared deeper into the woods.
“You guys are lucky, not everybody gets to see a kiwi!”
Woohoo! Trip complete.
Actually I did want to see a giant weta as well, but I think it was the wrong season for them, too cold for these massive crickets. I did see a dead normal-sized weta, and that’s something.
We made our way through the woods, stopping to watch some strange aquaphobic New Zealand ducks that growl at you if you get too close. Down by the water, cormorants were nesting. Off in the distance, a male kiwi called out, his piercing call sailing through the night sky. No female responded.
We passed through the tuatara enclosure, spying a few of the small reptiles who came out to see what the fuss was all about. We walked across the dam to the other side of the preserve. Another wailing call from a male kiwi. No response. Man, the girls keep swiping left on this guy.
We headed down a trail and were told to turn our flashlights off. On the rock walls beside the stream, hundreds of glow worms glowed. Wow! We walked along in the darkness, following the trail of glow worms. Our guide told us about how the Maori taught their children that you can always find your way home in the dark by following the glow worms, who are always located along the riverside, having inadvertently been washed out of the caves that are their natural habitat.
We paused on a small bridge over the stream, and our guide shone his flashlight down into the water. Inside the shallow stream was a gigantic eel. Oh man that thing is big. Probably better that I couldn’t see them inside the cave. Our guide told us about the uneasy alliance between the ducks and eels in this stream. At one point they were electronically tagging the weta within the preserve, to track their movements. They noticed one of them was moving up and down the river all day, every day, bizarrely. They eventually figured out it had been eaten by the eel.
Around the corner, something crackled off in the underbrush. Another kiwi! There was something magical about barely seeing it through the trees in the strange red light, a beak here, a leg there as it went about its business hunting for food. Two kiwis! So lucky.
As we approached the visitor center, there was a commotion up ahead.
“I think somebody spotted a kiwi up there!” our guide said excitedly. We hustled over.
There was a kiwi prancing around right on the front lawn, digging for food.
“Whoa! This has never happened before. You guys are incredibly lucky.”
We had a good long look at the kiwi as it carried on, before it eventually hustled off into the woods in its hilarious ambling trot.
Three kiwis. Damn. I’ll take that.
I celebrated by driving up to the Mt Victoria viewpoint overlooking all of Wellington.
In New Zealand you can rent a car on the North Island and return it on the South Island, but you can’t take a rental car on the ferry. There’s probably some good reason for this but the way the weirdness works out is that you return your car in Wellington, take the ferry, and then pick up a new car in Picton on the south island, all part of your original rental.
“This is an announcement for all passengers with bagels: Please return to your bagels now.”
Bagels? Oh! She’s saying “vehicles.” Killer NZ accent, lady.
I picked up my second car outside the ferry terminal. It was a Toyota Corolla.
I never thought I’d be in a position in my life to ever say “Thank God, a Toyota Corolla!” but it really was a massive improvement over the Yaris. If nothing else, just for being a thing with wheels that behaves like a car and doesn’t try to fling you off a cliff rolling sideways like a hamster ball every time you go around a turn.
And so I proceeded to haul ass down the west coast of New Zealand, on my way to Queenstown all the way on the south end.
The west coast is a rugged and beautiful drive, and I had it pretty much to myself. There are only about 40,000 people in this massive section of New Zealand, so the only other cars I saw were the occasional fellow tourist in a camper. This was a stark contrast to the number of people on the north island.
I broke up the drive by stopping in Punakaiki to see the famous pancake rocks.
As expected, they were delicious.
Night fell and I continued to wind my way down the coast. At some point a huge deer ran out onto the road right in front of my car and did a majestic dance in the moonlight, to my brake-slamming appreciation.
For my day in the adrenaline junkie capital of Queenstown, I had by far the best weather of the entire trip and one of the best days of my life. I was up before dawn and on the road for the drive down from Haast up on the coast, crossing my fingers that I would make it all the way to Queenstown on the fuel I had, since I was up too early for any of the gas stations to be open. 24 hour pay at the pump isn’t really a thing in New Zealand. There’s also only cell signal in the big-ish towns on the South Island, of which there are about three, so you really need to plan ahead if you don’t want to end up royally boned.
Once the sun came up, the drive revealed itself to be beautiful. The narrow, curvy road wound around the edges of the mountains and made for thrilling driving.
One of the joys of road trips is stumbling across the right song at the perfect moment, which you will forever associate with where you were then, being transported whenever you hear that song in the future. Driving through the Australian outback, it was “Highwayman” by Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. Having the funky groove of Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time” come up on my phone inexplicably while I was winding lost through the insanely curvy roads of Wellington at night was one of my other favorite moments. The third was the propulsive bass of Cake’s “Never There” egging me on as I raced through the beautiful, sharply windy cliff roads on the way to Queenstown.
I made it to town okay and in plenty of time for my mid-morning hang gliding appointment. For the record this is far superior to having a cable appointment.
Queenstown is packed door to door with every imaginable variety of bodily peril you can pay to probably survive. I’d picked hang gliding after much deliberation. The funky bungee jumping at Shotover Canyon intrigued me greatly, but my intuition was giving me a hard no when I’d gone to book it. Paragliding looked interesting, but seemed like it might be too similar to the end of sky diving, which I’d already done a few times. The few times I’ve done a long zip line I was amazed by the sensation of flying like a big goddamned bird, and it seemed like hang gliding would be the way to take that incredible feeling to the next level.
They packed us in a van and drove us up to the ski area atop Coronet Peak. Harnesses, clips, buckles, straps, overalls, gloves, helmet. I met my co-pilot and we did a few practice trials of running arm in arm and jumping together off a mountain. Okay!
When it’s your turn to fly like a big goddamned bird, you get the glider into position, the pilot clips in, and you clip in behind him, underneath the wing. There’s a handle on the back of his harness for you to hang onto, while he mans the bar between the wheels that steers the glider in the air. There’s a big bar coming up from the wheel to the wing that looks like it’s definitely going to decapitate you when you take off, and the pilot repeats that trust him, it won’t. And also you have no choice but to trust him.
Are you ready? I gues- Go! Step, step, runrunrunrun down the mountain side. My feet went out from under me and I thought I’d fucked it all up, but when I looked down at the ground, it wasn’t there anymore. We were flying.
We soared out over the forest on the mountain side. Holy shit!
You’re flying like superman, in a prone position, and you can look straight down at the tops of the trees. Wow. This is exactly what a bird experiences. This is incredible.
The pilot pans and you swoop higher up the mountainside. The snow-capped mountain peaks are all around you. This is the life.
We drifted over a thermal, where the sun was heating the ground beneath us, and lifted up higher into the sky.
Okay, yeah, being a bird is way better than being a person. I’m sure it sucks to not have any hands and have to do everything with your mouth but I think it’s a pretty fair trade to be able to fly like this any time you felt like it. Goddammit. Even ducks can do this. Screw you ducks.
It’s a very powerful perspective, looking down over everything. You could swoop down on any of it at will. We gradually worked our way in swooping arcs down to the valley between the mountains, then zoomed in for a landing. You land, dragging the skirt that’s been holding your body up along the ground, and you should probably lift your feet if you like your shoes. I had a friend who lost a pair of shoes this way, which I completely forgot about until my feet were scraping along the grass. Thankfully my hiking boots survived this mismanagement.
I stood up, my whole body tingling. Wow! Skydiving is an incredible thrill, but it’s only really fun in the sense of the rush you get from challenging your limits, overcoming fear and doing something completely insane. Hang gliding was just pure transcendent fun. I could do this every day.
I looked up at the paragliders swooping in for a landing. Okay. I need to try that now. I had the pilot call the office and book me for paragliding in the afternoon.
The van dropped us off in town and I had to rush to my car to make it to my appointment on the jet boat, just barely in time. Slicker on, life vest, GoPro strapped to my head and onto the boat. We tore ass up the river at 90 KPH. The driver cut left and right, swinging us perilously close to the rock walls on either side of the canyon, making ducking into the boat seem necessary if you like your face. ZOOM.
Drifting Tokyo-style around huge boulders in the river. ZOOM. Then the driver points straight up in the air and makes a circling gesture with his finger. Uh-oh. He cuts the steering wheel to one side then jerks it in the opposite direction, and the boat suddenly spins like a top across the surface of the water, skipping and bouncing as the spray swirls violently around you. Up until that point I hadn’t been holding on to the railing in the boat, because come on, I just got done flying over the mountain on a piece of fabric, this here is kid’s stuff. Just a bit of fun that isn’t actually dangerous, it’s just simulated—the boat spun faster and the centrifugal force yanked me up into the air, off my seat and on my way out of the boat. GAH. Okay! Holding on.
We tore around the river, up and down, for about a half hour before we were deposited, thoroughly drenched, at the dock. When I’d booked, repeat rides were startlingly cheap, so I’d booked a second ride for right after the first. The second ride was fun, though the second driver wasn’t nearly as good at nearly throwing people out of the boat when he did his spins.
Back into town and into the van for my paragliding run.
Back up to Coronet Peak. My pilot this time was Ben, a New Zealander with a perfect and awesome Jemaine Clement accent and a charmingly dry sense of humor. Ben was my favorite person I met in New Zealand.
“I went hang gliding this morning and loved it, so I wanted to try paragliding.”
“Oh. No pressure then. Shit.”
A different harness, a different helmet, clips, straps. I watched the pilot in front of us struggle with the wind and the Japanese girl strapped to his chest. Standing on the mountain’s edge ready to launch, their parachute pulled them both to the ground and dragged them backward across the grass in the stiff wind. With some help from the other pilots, they got back into position and then the girl fell down. The wind gusted and she refused to stand up. Stand up! Stand up! Gust, drag. Finally, they awkwardly took off. We were next.
We stood on the ledge and Ben clipped in behind me. He pointed to the steep slope in front of us, covered in snow.
“When I say go, run down that.”
“In the snow?”
“Yeah. If you fall down, just try to get up as fast as you can and keep running.”
Run run run run, suddenly the wind gusted and caught the parachute, which stopped us dead in our tracks. Huh.
“Okay, we’re gonna try aga-”
Suddenly we were yanked straight up into the air. We were flying. Whoa.
The view was similar to hang gliding, though sitting in a slightly reclining position, it was far more comfortable. You sacrificed the straight-down bird’s eye view, but in exchange you could easily look around in all directions without craning your neck, and with no pilot blocking your view of any of it, since he was clipped to your back. The shadow of us and our parachute raced up the tree-lined slope below us, an awe-inspiring sight.
Immediately after take-off, we suddenly dropped dramatically down toward the treetops for several seconds before stopping dead in the air, then after a pause we swooped up higher. Ben was quiet and wasn’t filming with the GoPro. Huh, interesting. I guess you fly differently when you’re paragliding.
I was completely oblivious to this at the moment, but we’d nearly just died. The wind at the peak had gone crazy right as we launched, creating a huge downdraft that completely collapsed our parachute, sending us into a freefall. We fell straight down until Ben managed to fight the chute back open and lift us back up into the air before we hit the trees. After we landed at the end of the run, he told me it was the scariest thing that had ever happened to him in all his years of paragliding. This is a guy who does this professionally, owns four rigs and specializes in stunt flying and flying upside down. Okay then!
Our near-death was so dramatic that right after our launch, they closed the entire launch site behind us for the rest of the day. None of the people waiting behind me got to fly at all. My hang gliding pilot from that morning was there and told me later that I’d just experienced the most dangerous thing that can happen in either sport.
Of course, I didn’t find out any of this until after we landed. Up in the air, I was having a great time.
After we picked up altitude, Ben began filming and explained the ins and outs of paragliding to me. I asked him if he could do any tricks and it’s to his great credit that he indulged me after we’d just done the biggest inadvertent trick of them all.
Ben swooped the parachute to one side so that our bodies were parallel to the ground, then we returned to center. I got the impression from Ben’s manner that this scares most people into not wanting to do any more tricks, but I was laughing through the whole thing.
“You’re a daredevil!” Ben said, seeming surprised. “Okay then…”
We swooped parallel to the ground on the opposite side, then pendulumed back to the left, then swung back all the way around. I’m not sure if we went completely upside down, I think we may have, but shit was crazy and I can’t testify to exactly what was happening at that moment. It was amazingly fun.
Once we got too low to do any more tricks, Ben said “Okay, let’s land hard.” He stopped the parachute dead in the air for a startling moment with our faces parallel to the ground, then we plummeted like a skydiving freefall. Right before we got to the ground we swung into landing position and then it was feet down, land on your feet, boop, and there you are, standing in a field. Woohoo!
That was amazing. I think I liked that even more than the hang gliding. These were both tied as the best thing I’d ever done.
Ben and I chatted while he packed up the chute. He taught me how to read the clouds, to be able to tell what the wind is doing at different altitudes, and how to know where the airplane flight paths are. It was a fascinating look into an entire world I’d never even considered before. I could actually see myself doing this, taking lessons and getting certified to fly on my own. Who knew?
The hang gliding and paragliding pilots were all curious which one I had liked more, since I was the rare person who had tried both. Ben hadn’t even done both. One of the pilots I’d been talking to on the drive up knew I had been skydiving as well.
“Wow! The air is your element!”
I struggled to pick a favorite. For the rest of my life, I’ll never forget the feeling of looking down from the hang glider, being a bird in that moment. But holy shit, we went upside-down in the Paraglider! Both were absolute peak experiences but if I could only do one again I think it would have to be paragliding. The hang gliding pilots looked dejected.
One thing Ben was curious about was my take on Australia vs New Zealand. In America at least we tend to lump the two together in our minds, both because they’re so close to each other and because they’re both so far away from us. We think of New Zealand as a quirkier Australia, maybe, some kind of small variation. But I actually found them to not be very similar at all. I think Australia is more similar to the US than it is to New Zealand. There are the obvious stereotypical personality differences, Australians tend to be more brash and extroverted, with the Kiwis more likely to be thoughtful introverts. If anything, the Kiwis reminded me more of Brits than they did Australians, while of course having their own character that I was quite fond of.
Kiwi Tour Guide: “We’re using improved fencing and introduced predators to eliminate the invasive species in our sanctuary.”
Australian Camping Guide: “Be right back, I’m gonna go kill that feral cat with a rock.”
I found all of this fascinating. I thought about the British people venturing out, colonizing America, Australia and New Zealand. And from those points in time, the local populations gradually mutated into these unique cultures, all unlike England in their own ways. It reminded me of Charles Darwin in the Galapagos, observing how each isolated island had evolved its own unique animals. What were the factors that made Americans like we are, and Kiwis like they are? Surely there were some influences from the indigenous people of each land. Was the rest just circumstance? Are the Australians more like us because we both had these huge expanses of land to work with, each growing up through a wild west mentality in a sense?
While waiting for the van to take us up the mountain for the paragliding, I’d peeked at the website for the Shotover Canyon bungee jump and noticed they had a spot available at 4:30pm for the last jumps of the day. We were supposed to get back in town from the paragliding right at 4:30. Hmmm. My intuition was feeling good about the bungee jump option now, either that or it was just buried under an avalanche of adrenaline from all the day’s adventures. I went over to the bungee office and worked it out with them that I’d have the paragliding van drop me off halfway down the mountain and the bungee folks would pick me up there on their way to the jump site, so I could do both. This ended up working out beautifully, with a fair degree of luck, as the second van came by about ten seconds after the first one had dropped me off.
I was off to go jump off a cliff.
I’m calling it bungee jumping, though a purist would argue it’s something different. In bungee, you have a stretchy cord attached to your ankles and you jump off a platform, usually over a river. When you get to the bottom, the cord reaches its maximum stretch, which halts your fall, and you’re yanked back up. You bounce up and down a few times before you’re towed back up to the platform.
What I was doing was technically a cliff swing, which works the same as the above until you reach the bottom, where instead of a stretchy cord attached to your ankles, a steel cable attached to a harness around your chest stops you from hitting the bottom. Instead of bouncing straight back up, you swing out over the river and swing back and forth several times before they tow you back up.
Shotover Canyon specializes in offering you many, many different ways to jump. In bungee, you just stand on the platform, look down, shit your pants, and jump off. At Shotover you can jump off forwards, backwards, sideways, you can go off a slide, you can have someone push or kick you off, you can dangle upside down from a cable and be released, you can ride a tricycle off, the options go on and on. The video I’d seen on YouTube that clued me into this entire opportunity was a woman doing something called The Chair of Doom. It involves sitting in a chair at the very edge of the platform, 360 feet over the river, your back to the abyss. You lean back like you’re fucking around in Social Studies class when the teacher isn’t looking. You reach the balance point, and the guys working the platform hold onto your harness and basically fuck with you, rocking you back and forth until at some point they let go, and you flip backwards, end over end over end, tumbling off the cliff. I laughed out loud the first time I saw a video of this. It looked like the scariest thing I’d ever seen in my life. I simultaneously never, ever wanted to do it and also felt like my life would not be complete until I did.
Shotover’s slogan is “Even my shit was scared.”
They happened to be running a deal where your second jump was free, so I had to choose two ways to jump. Huh.
On the off chance that the first jump scared me out of doing a second, I realized I needed to do the Chair of Doom first. The German guy in line in front of me thought that sounded like a good idea and chose it as well. They rocked him back and forth several times, fucking with him.
“Okay here we go—nope wait. Okay, now we’re ready. Here we go, lean back, that’s good, wait wait wait that strap’s way too loose. Let’s fix that. Okay, that’s much better. Okay, let’s go again, lean back, that’s good, wait why don’t you have a safety strap—” He let him go. Ha, what a dick.
When it was my turn, I sat down. No problem. Leaned back and hit the balance point. Oh. I don’t know if I want to do this. What am I doing? I like my peaceful spiritual life. What am I doing about to backflip off this goddamned cliff? Well it’s too late now—
The guy holding my harness looked me in the eye, and at the exact moment I expected him to start to fuck with me, he just let go, his eyes getting big. Wait, wha—
There is a very interesting disconnect that happens at this moment. You know the guy has let go, and therefore you’ve tipped over backwards and are falling off a cliff. But your brain doesn’t process it like “Yep, falling off a cliff now.” Everything is upside down and end over end as the vegetation and cliff face are swirling around you, and your body is enveloped in a sensation of terrifying freedom, no part of it in contact with anything solid at all as you tumble through the air. But rather than thinking “I’m falling and this will be over soon” or “Oh hey, I’m upside down now,” my brain basically just shrugged and said “I can’t help you with this.” There was a fascinating sense of unreality, like I had entered another dimension, all this stimuli was coming in but it wasn’t part of any larger narrative my mind could make sense of, there was just a bunch of crazy shit happening all around me.
And then the cable went taught and I swung out over the river at the bottom of the canyon, swooooosh. Wow! I laughed out loud. The craziness suddenly became very peaceful as I swung back and forth over the river in long arcs, drifting between the canyon walls and taking in the beautiful scenery.
In time I came to a stop in the center and was towed back up to the platform.
“You faked me out by not faking me out!”
“Ha! Reverse psychology.”
High fives all around and I stood and watched the other folks choose their jumps and follow through. One guy from South Korea did a “Pin Drop” where you stand on the edge of the platform, steel yourself, and hop off sideways, dropping feet first. He let out a kamikaze scream as he fell. The girl jumping after me screamed so loud she scared everyone on the platform, a perfect horror movie scream.
I had to pick my second jump. After going backwards the first time, a forward jump was the obvious choice. The jump they rated the scariest was “Gimp Boy Goes to Hollywood,” where you’re dangled upside down off the crane, looking straight down at the river, and are let go. That looked fun, but the guys working there suggested it would be more fulfilling to do one of the styles where I had to make myself jump rather than being pushed or released, since there is a whole other level that comes with taking the leap yourself. I decided to go for the “Run and Jump,” where you get a running start and leap off the platform into the chasm.
When my turn came, I didn’t want to waste any time or give myself a chance to get psyched out, so as soon as the safety cable was removed and I got the all-clear, it was step step step JUMP. I jumped as far out into the chasm as I could, looking out at the opposite canyon wall instead of down at the moment of truth so I wouldn’t hesitate.
When you skydive, there’s a moment after you jump where you don’t feel like you’re falling, you’re just sort of hanging there, then you gradually realize that no, you’re actually falling very, very fast. Jumping off a cliff it’s immediately apparent how fast you’re falling, because you have a cliff whizzing by you and the ground rushing up at you astoundingly quickly. Usually time slows down during traumatic events, but during my cliff jumps it actually seemed to speed up.
Again, my brain just went “WHAT?” like it didn’t compute that I just jumped off a perfectly good cliff, so this must not really be happening. The ground leapt up toward me alarmingly fast as I fell in a face-first skydiving position, or as the platform guy later called it “The Spiderman.” I don’t think I’ll ever forget those few seconds of falling straight down, as even more than skydiving, this is the exact experience of jumping off a cliff and falling to your death, only without the death part.
The feeling of not being connected to anything, the cold air all around me, was extremely striking, like my senses were reaching out all around me, grasping for the familiar sense of weight on your body you get 24/7 from standing, sitting, or lying down. There was nothing, just air. And then, right as death was immanent, the cable caught and WOOOOOSH I swung out across the river. I gasped a deep breath. Wow!
There’s a very interesting sense that comes from having jumped off a cliff. Skydiving raises your self-confidence, because pretty much anything else you might be afraid to do is easier than jumping out of a goddamned airplane. But when you skydive as a beginner, you’re doing a tandem jump. So you have an experienced skydiver strapped to your back who actually opens the chute, etc. When you jump out of the plane, you jump together. So although you’re not pushed out and you do jump, there’s a sense of “Here we go!” where you’re not making that decision entirely yourself, it’s basically happening and you’d really have to death-grip the plane to not go out at that point.
Running and jumping off a cliff is much more something you have to psych yourself up for entirely on your own. No one else is involved, and for me it had a much deeper sense of “I can’t believe I just did that!” It’s a pretty cool feeling actually, like I’m a subtly different person now than I was before I jumped.
Before the trip I had looked at the bungee jumping and considered booking it, but ultimately decided against it. Watching footage of people jumping on YouTube, I was filled with a deep sense of dread. I decided this was my intuition telling me “Nope!” Why? Could I be injured somehow? It happens sometimes. Or maybe the subtle sensitivities that have been opening up for me lately would be negatively impacted by such a jarring experience. Or maybe it was just an awareness that there is too much fear in the world already, and going out of your way to experience even more of it wasn’t constructive.
After the hang gliding though, I was on a high and I wanted to try everything. I scanned my intuition and felt good about doing a jump. And both jumps went fine, no negative effects. Why had I felt that deep, deep dread before? One thing comes vividly to mind: I’ve always been afraid of being pushed off a cliff. On a ledge by myself? No fear of heights. On a ledge with someone else, no matter how much I trust them? Gut wrenching. Because of this, I’ve always assumed one of my past lives must have ended with someone pushing me off a cliff.
With that in mind, my reaction to watching the videos would make sense. This raises an interesting question: Was doing these jumps healing in some way for me, having that experience of falling and yet being okay at the end? Was I meant to do it for that reason? I don’t know, it seems plausible. It was fun as shit either way.
Did I sleep well after my massive adventure sports day? Yes. Yes I did.
My plan for after Queenstown was to take a full day doing the drive out to Milford Sound, a remote and breathtakingly beautiful spot on the southwest corner of the south island. There were many beautiful hikes on the way, and I was going to do them in sequence, eventually ending up in Milford Sound at the end of the day. After a night in the backpacker dorms I would take a cruise around the Sound in the morning, then make my way back up the island to hike around Mt Cook before visiting some friends in Christchurch.
Not one bit of this happened as planned.
During the bungee jumping, I had mentioned my plan to head out to Milford Sound the next day.
“You know they’re closing the road at 9am, right? The heavy rain causes an avalanche hazard.”
Well shit, there goes my plan for the day. Now I either need to get up crazy early and make the 4 hour drive before 9am, or skip Milford Sound entirely. As this is reputed to be the most beautiful part of New Zealand, I wasn’t eager to skip it entirely. I talked to some locals, who said that if the road was closed, it would probably be opened the next morning. That would work fine by me, I’d have to skip the hikes on the way out there, but my plans for the next few days would go on as planned.
My reward for making the drive so early was a front row seat for this incredible, brain-melting otherworldly sunrise:
As the road dipped down south of Queenstown before making a hard turn straight north toward Milford Sound, I passed the southernmost point on the Earth I’ve ever been to, and likely will be to until I make it to Antarctica. It’s funny the things you begin keeping track of, that it wouldn’t have occurred to you to think about before you began traveling a lot. My northernmost point will likely remain the top of the Snæfellsnes peninsula in Iceland, slightly higher than Fairbanks in Alaska, until I make it up to Svalbard one day.
I find that when you want to visit every country in the world, you start thinking in terms of smaller milestones that make the goal seem more manageable. If you just think about how there are 193 countries and you’ve been to 20 of them, it seems like an impossible task, so far away. But how about reaching all seven continents? That’s doable. What’s next after that? What continent will I visit all the countries on first? Probably North America, right? Or maybe Oceania would be easier. It certainly is in Risk. And I’ve got to be getting close to having driven in all the left-hand driving countries, right, after driving in England, Scotland, Ireland, Japan, Australia and New Zealand?
There are 75 countries that drive on the left? I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that.
I successfully made it up to Milford Sound before the road was closed. The “town” was much less of a town that I was expecting, in that there was the lodge I was staying at, the boat terminal for cruises, and basically nothing else. No grocery store, not even a mini mart. Oh man, I should’ve brought some food. Oh well, I won’t be here very long.
Checking into the lodge, the girl behind the counter warned me that they probably weren’t going to run the cruise I was booked on for the following day, since no one would be able to get in with the road closure. She moved me to the cruise that morning instead. Perfect!
People in the know suggest that visiting Milford Sound in the pouring rain is the way to do it, because the massive cliffs all around you sprout countless beautiful and temporary waterfalls. I don’t know if this advice is just a tourism board ploy to get people to visit when the weather sucks, but the waterfalls were indeed incredible. Our cruise ship took us all around the Sound for hours, pulling up close enough for us to stand right under some of the bigger waterfalls.
Many of the waterfalls were incredibly ethereal, dissolving beautifully into mist before they reached the ground.
The cliffs in the sound are amazing in that they’re covered in trees, in spite of being nearly straight down and entirely rock. The trees root in the lichens growing on the sheer cliff faces and dangle precariously over the sound.
Another interesting quirk of the sound is that extreme amount of rainfall here (21 feet a year) creates a unique effect in the sound’s waters. Tannins from the trees on the cliffs mix the with the rain water to create a dark freshwater layer that floats on top of the salt water of the sound. This acts like a pair of sunglasses, and fools deep water fish and corals to come up and live in shallow depths within the sound. We visited an observatory where a spiral staircase takes you down a cylinder under the waters of the sound to view the fish through windows, like a reverse aquarium. This was very cool.
After the cruise I went to the lounge at the lodge to work on this blog, of which I got very little done before making international friends and talking about our travels around New Zealand, sharing advice, etc. I ended up having dinner with a couple from Mexico who gave me advice on how to get into Cuba as an American.
The next morning, the road did not open. The rain poured down. This was the kind of thing where there were announcements twice a day, at 7:30am and 2pm, and you just waited until then to hear if the road would be opened. By the 2pm announcement on day 2 we were all annoyed that they hadn’t opened the road. Were they being too cautious? Then the email came through, with photos. The heavy rains on top of the snow on the mountains around us had caused an avalanche, which had buried the road out of Milford Sound. Oh wow. Well, kind of cool that we’re not stuck here for no reason.
I decided to see if I could hike the trails between the lodge and where the road was closed, salvaging a bit of what I’d missed from my planned hiking day. Hiking in the rain isn’t always fun, but it beats sitting in a dormitory staring out at the rain. Or maybe it doesn’t, I don’t know. But the point is I was going hiking.
I’m not going to pretend this went well. The trails were now streams you had to hop over, side to side. At one point I reached a spot where there were two big puddles with a patch of muddy dirt between them. Where I needed to step was obvious. I stepped on the patch and instantly sank into the mud up to my knee. GAAH! I grabbed a tree branch for leverage and pulled my leg out. By some miracle, my boot was still on my foot. Okay, yeah, forget this. I can’t risk breaking an ankle hiking by myself in BFE.
Later that night in the lounge an Australian couple told me they’d attempted the same trail and the girl went into the mud up to her hip. Yikes!
I found a hose over by the petrol pumps in “town” and managed to rinse the mud off my boot, pants and leg. I turned, and there were two huge parrots on top of an SUV that was parked nearby. There’s something you don’t see every day. They appeared to be trying to eat the SUV. That’s weird.
I got in my car and looked at the map, trying to figure out if there were any paved trails I could hike. I heard a THUNK on the roof of my car, like a branch had landed on it. What the hell was that? I got out.
A huge parrots was on roof, looking at me quizzically. He walked across the roof to the edge where I was standing and looked me in the eye.
My friend Remi from the lodge jogged by. “Hey look! A Kea on a Toyota!”
Oh, so these are the Keas, the super-intelligent mountain parrots they keep telling us not to feed.
I spent a few minutes talking to the Kea as he eyed me curiously. What a cool bird. Then he started trying to eat my car.
Dude, what do you think you’re going to-
He pecked at the rubber door seals, prying some loose and chewing on it.
Oh okay yeah you probably can eat that.
“Look you’re adorable but I don’t have good insurance on this car.”
I opened my car door and the Kea immediately moved to get in the driver’s seat. Wait, no! Shut the door. Hmmm. I’ll never get this bird out of my car if he gets in there. I walked around to the passenger side and opened the door. The Kea ran over to that side. I slammed the door, ducked around the car and hopped in through the driver’s side door.
Sorry bird, not today!
The Kea hopped down onto my side-view mirror. I laughed.
I talked to him for a while as he puffed out his feathers and looked me in the eye.
This was a lot of fun but this bird clearly had more free time than I did. I wasn’t going to win this staring match. I drove off and the Kea rode on top of my car for a few blocks before flying off.
I’d determined that there were two hiking trails I could do in the rain without risking losing a leg. The Chasm trail wound around incredible waterfalls that powered through alien rock landscapes.
And the Milford Foreshore walk provided beautiful views of the giant waterfalls thundering down into the bay, interspersed with sections of lovely woods.
On the trail through the woods I stopped to admire a tiny bird that had a big head, like it was a Little People doll. He ducked into the brush. I followed him with my eyes and sent my feelings of appreciation. After a minute he stopped trying to hide and fluttered out onto the trail. A similar bird of different coloring joined him. They stared up at me curiously from the path. I smiled and thanked them for being there. They hopped up the path, step by step, until they were standing right at my feet, looking up at me. A few minutes passed before they ducked off back into the woods.
That night I got to know my fellow refugees at the lodge better, consoling the three young folks from Nepal who were sharing my room and were none too thrilled to be stuck there. They were all sick, and I came away having caught their cough. But there was also some kind of energy exchange that felt meaningful. Maybe it was like a mini bear medicine in a way, it’s hard to say.
I had an eerie feeling that I knew several people at the lodge. Remi and Claudia from Mexico. A Canadian girl who was there rock climbing, and the older Australian woman on holiday who admired my balls-out travel style. There was a weird sense I couldn’t shake that I already knew them, beyond just having met on this trip. I assume we had some past life connection, and were brought together in this setting at this time for some reason. Nothing obvious presented itself, but perhaps it was just about being in each others’ energy for those few days. I feel like after this life is over we’ll look back and understand a lot of those kind of events better, see what we were actually doing that wasn’t obvious on the surface at the time.
Maybe this was a special collection of people I was meant to spend time with, or maybe my awareness is just opening up to where I’m just more conscious of my past live connections to all the random people I meet. I suppose time will tell.
This trip got me thinking a lot about these fleeting connections. We tend to think meeting someone can’t be meaningful or pre-ordained unless we go on to know them for a long period of time. But it no longer seems that way to me. I was in the shark diving cage in Australia with a young German woman named Sabrina. She was sitting in front of me on the plane from Adelaide to Port Lincoln. In Port Lincoln, we ended up being the only two people without a cab and shared one together into the town. The next morning, she turned out to be on my cage diving boat. We shared the first cage that went into the water. After the boat got back, we were in the same shuttle to our rentals. The next morning, I ran into her at the airport and she was sitting in front of me again on our flight to Adelaide. In Adelaide, we each had our next flights leaving from the same gate, even though she was going to Sydney and I was off to Melbourne. That’s a lot of synchronicities.
We talked plenty and got to know each other, but I doubt I’ll ever see her again. So why all the circumstances bringing us together? My younger self would have thought we were supposed to be romantically involved and that I fucked it up somehow. But it didn’t feel that way to me now. I think sometimes we just need to be around a certain person’s energy for a time, maybe it triggers something in us that changes our lives in some way. I don’t think either person needs to be consciously aware that anything out of the ordinary is happening.
The next morning in Milford Sound we eagerly awaited the 7:30 announcement. Nope, road still closed. Likely to be opened after a daylight inspection at 10am. Basically all of my plans were shot now, hiking at Mt Cook was out, and I wasn’t likely to make it to Christchurch in time to meet my friends. I could only hope now that the road wouldn’t stay closed so long that I’d miss my flight out of Christchurch the next morning on my way back to the US.
Just before 10am I sent off some hurried postcards and hauled ass out to the gate where the road was closed. If I waited for the official announcement I’d likely be behind tons of RVs driving slowly on the narrow windy roads out of here, which could cost me hours. One other car was waiting. I figured if the news was good, I’d see cars show up behind me. None did. At 10:30 I drove back to the lodge. They were clearing snow from the avalanche off the road. Next update at 11am. I played weird international Uno with the girl from Canada and a girl from Colorado. Finally at 11:08, the announcement came through: The road is open!
I raced out to the gate. It was still closed. Balls.
Around 11:30am a truck finally arrived to open the gate, and we were off.
I made the 10 hour drive straight up to Christchurch, through incredible scenery.
I really wanted to stop at Mt Cook and salvage a bit of that hike, but by the time I got there I realized that would take the 5 hours of sleep I was going to get before my flight and turn it into 2 hours. I coughed. Probably not a great idea. Also it was raining and I was done with that. On to Christchurch.
I stopped briefly in Twizel to take photos of the weird vintage McDonaldland playground equipment at the cabins where I’d been booked to stay the night before, had I not been stuck in Milford Sound.
And on and on, up to Christchurch. As quick a check-in to my AirBnB as politeness would allow, 5 hours of coughing sleep, and off to the airport, driving through a world of eerily thick fog. On time for my flight, on the plane, and… sit on the runway for 3 hours because they can’t see shit outside the plane. Finally we took off, and landed in Sydney far too late for my flight back to the US.
All the flights have left for the day. You need to stay here another night, and also your ticket has been forfeited. You need to buy a whole new ticket back to America.
Damn. This continent won’t let me leave.
Once I finally got booked on another flight home, I got the last seat on the entire plane. It was a middle seat. In coach. Between two women, one of whom was as wide as she was tall and who spent the entire 14-hour flight protruding six inches into my tiny seat.
This is, how they say, not ideal. But I wrote for hours and the time passed. There was a strange moment half-way through the flight where I looked at the graphic showing where the plane was on the flight path, over a seemly endless expanse of blue, and a sudden slightly panicy thought filled me that we were over the absolute middle of the ocean and there’s nowhere to land. You’re on this flight, in this seat, for 7 more hours and nothing can change that. This trip is plowing through to the end.
Laying over in San Francisco I suddenly realized that between being stuck at the airport hotel and my long flight from Sydney, I’d had nothing to eat but GoMacro bars for something like 40 hours. One of my best travel hacks is to never, ever, eat any food served on the plane. I don’t know if it’s because it’s been microwaved six times or exposed to cosmic radiation, but my body has made it clear on many consecutive occasions that airplane food is not for me and my travel enjoyment has increased massively since I realized this. This is normally not a big deal, but it does get tough on 14 hour flights.
I Lyfted from San Francisco International Airport to Ike’s in town, ordered two sandwiches, and Lyfted back to the airport. Oh god thank you, my body said, sitting at the gate and powering through a vegan meatball sandwich. I got halfway through the second sandwich, a delicious wasabi “chicken” concoction before my body said “Wait wait wait, slow down cowboy,” and so I did.
Sitting on the plane to Minneapolis, we took off and I paid for the wifi so I could work on the flight. Snacking on the rest of my sandwich, everything went fine until the turbulence kicked in. As the plane bounced through the sky, I began to feel unwell. Hmm. I never get air sickness, this is weird. Is it the sandwich? Is it because I’m trying to read while the plane is bouncing around?
My stomach went “bwaaaaaaaaaarg.” Uh oh. Okay, I’ll stop eating and just wait this out, no problem. I felt worse. Is it this cold? Jeez, maybe I’ve just hit the limit of what I can put my body through in three weeks.
I suddenly broke out in a cold sweat. Uh oh. This means I’m gonna barf. I looked at the air sickness bag.
I could use this, but I’d just been chatting it up with the guy sitting next to me and it’s going to be a really awkward rest of the flight if I just suddenly start violently puking unto a lunch bag. I looked up the aisle. I’d better get to the lavatory.
I snuck past my seatmate and into the aisle. The plane bounced up and down violently. Uh-oh.
As I started walking up the aisle, the plane began to spin around me. I’m pretty sure the plane wasn’t spinning, my nausea was just turning into extreme dizziness. I reached out to grab a seat back to keep from falling on my face.
Weird, this seat back is really fuzzy. Like, too fuzzy. It feels like a hairy bowling ball. I suddenly realized I was palming some stranger’s head.
I stepped forward and the plane pitched again. I grabbed for another seat and grabbed someone else’s head.
On like this toward the back of the plane, I think I grabbed seats at least 50% of the time.
I reached the back of the plane and everything was spinning wildly around me. I clutched the wall and fiddled with the lavatory doorknob, struggling to get the door open. Nothing was happening. The spinning slowed to where I could see again and I realized I wasn’t to the lavatory yet, I was fighting with some kind of climate control knob or the coat closet or something.
A stewardess in the bay was looking me at like “What are you DOING??”
In response, I stumbled the last few steps to the lavatory, turned the non-turning doorknob, fought the door open, and collapsed into the bathroom.
Crumbled on the floor inside, everything gradually stopped spinning and returned to normal. Gonna barf- Nope, not gonna barf. Wow. What the hell was that? I returned to my seat, attempting to avoid eye contact with all of the people whose heads I’d grabbed on the way back. Doot de doot dee doo.
Finally, I made it home. To black skies, and a massive storm. It took my Lyft driver nearly an hour to make the 20 minute drive back to my apartment, weaving through numerous huge crashes and a scene outside the car that looked like we were driving through a car wash.
I’ve been kind of fascinated by how hard it was to get home from this trip. Did that mean something? So many of my really meaningful trips have been followed up by weeks of returning to that place in the dream state, seemingly finishing up work I had started when I was there in person. Was there some kind of energy work happening in New Zealand and Australia that needed to be completed before I could leave?
Since I’ve been back I’ve found myself in that dream state again every night. I’m on some kind of non-existent train in New Zealand, visiting different remote locations, and I keep waking up in confusion. Wow, this train has the same lamp as my bedroom! Wow, come to think of it this is a really big train car. Waaaait a minute I’m not in New Zealand! I’ve been getting used to this since it has happened after so many trips in the last two years, but I still find it fascinating. I wonder what I’m doing there? And why New Zealand, and not Australia?
New Zealand was the more spiritual end of the trip for me, though Uluru in Australia was no slouch either. One thing I think about are the legends of New Zealand being populated long before the Maori came in the 1200s. There’s evidence for settlers from a wide variety of places in the ancient world, long before our current accepted history of settlement. But the one that’s most interesting to me are the stories of settlers who came there from Easter Island. Was I one of them? Or am I just tapping into the history of a people I was once a part of? Either way, I’m fascinated by the way these trips manage to tie into each other, and the ways they keep on giving long after I’ve returned home.
Thanks New Zealand. And the check’s totally in the mail for that speeding ticket I swear.