Long before morning I knew that what I was seeking to discover was a thing I’d always known. That all courage was a form of constancy. That it was always himself that the coward abandoned first. After this all other betrayals came easily.
Cormac McCarthy — All the Pretty Horses (extended quote)
With nowhere but the woods to stay in Queenstown I took a bus, alone, to Te Anau, with the aim of doing the Kepler and Routeburn tracks, two multi-night walks through the mountains of Fiordland National Park.
The first day on the Kepler track was glorious. Never had I seen such verdant forest, the trees thick with lichen and the floor carpeted with moss. After 21km I reached Motarau hut, the stopover for the night. With some heat left in the day I swam in the lake and when the heat was gone I sat around a bonfire on its shore. The sun set behind the mountains, thin shelves of cloud about their necks, but otherwise it was a clear and serene evening.
In the morning there were different clouds and the forecast was bad. At 16km it was to be a shorter day’s walk but the last hour was through driving rain. Though it was only 1pm when I reached the campsite at the foot of the mountains I was cold as soon as I stopped moving. The only thing to do was get into my sleeping bag and wait out the day.
It was a long eight hours until dark and there was a darkness in my head. On the mountains above there was fresh snow and again I had the feeling of being trapped. I read Cormac McCarthy and thought about my America trip. If I was finding this difficult then how would I cope alone for a whole month? Planning it had been a form of escapism from the situation in Queenstown but thinking about it now offered no escape from the situation I was in.
I awoke unsure whether to continue. A Frenchman came to my tent, stating his intent to go up the mountain. The ranger told him that, dressed as he was with no waterproof top, he would be “coming down in a body bag”. Since I was cold enough at the current altitude I figured my chances were only slightly better and practical concerns overruled any I had about my character. We backtracked 22km to the nearest road, joined by some Belgians and Germans who had come down from the mountain the previous day, just before the weather, and who were kind enough to give us a ride back to Te Anau.
In Te Anau I checked into a hostel for the night. The anxiety engendered by my experience on the Kepler track remained. I immediately set about curtailing my America trip to something less challenging in a flurry of Facebook messages and flight searches.
The next morning I did my first ever hitchhiking. The third car that passed picked me up, a couple of English ladies on the cusp of sixty who happened to be going to the start of the Routeburn Track as well.
The rest of that day was few easy kilometers to Lake Howden Hut. It felt like a house with an entire national park for a garden. For no money could you get a hotel in such a location. Looking out from the wooden porch the only sign of any human presence was the track leading off into the bush. In the morning I started before sunrise. In the forest the only light was from my headtorch, the only sounds the first birds and the streams that crossed my path, they bound for the valley and I for the tops.
I had left myself the rest of the track to do in a day. At 28km with 750m of ascent (and to the displeasure of my still-injured knee, 1000m+ of descent) I thought it would be tough. But the weather was glorious and I was buoyed by the prospect of actually finishing something I’d started.
By the end of the Routeburn track I’d walked about 100km in 4½ days. I hitched a lift back to Queenstown with a couple from London. They were even kind enough to turn back when, after 15km, I realised I’d left my camera in the car park. So I’m especially thankful to them for being able to show these photos at all.
The situation in Queenstown had made me doubt my motivation for travelling. I set off on the Kepler with something to prove but was quickly reminded that the biggest battle is always and ultimately with oneself. If I were to go straight into another mentally difficult situation in America would I be longing all the time for home or the next trip, rather than the places I’d have to expend so much effort to reach over there? Spending time by myself in the backcountry gave me space to acknowledge the misjudgements I had made. Curtailing my plans for America gave me the freedom to enjoy the time I had remaining in New Zealand.
In Queenstown we stayed with Adam, who I met on my adventure across America in 2011, and who knew Luke from the same trip and before. Everyone got accustomed to living indoors—albeit sleeping on the floor of the garage—all too quickly. The initial plan had been to use Queenstown as a base for trips to the rest of the South Island. But New Year followed Christmas without us having gone further than Wanaka, 70km away, and the only nights not spent in the garage were when someone or another didn’t make it back from town.
Queenstown is a fairly isolated place, established after the discovery of gold in the surrounding mountains. Once the gold was exhausted the town’s primary industry became tourism, especially mountain bikers in the summer and snowboarders in the winter. This puts a youthful skew on the demographic.
I felt—as I was—the oldest on the trip. I spent my time cooking, reading, watching films, and exploring the walking tracks nearby and in the surrounding mountains. The alternative, getting wasted and sleeping half the day away, was not what I came to New Zealand for. I felt trapped, partly by a knee injury but overarchingly by the divergence in ambition between me and the rest of the group.
There were good days. We had some adventures, and always with a spectacular backdrop. The better part of their time, unfortunately, was consumed by what I thought were the worst parts of the place. I begrudge no-one their fun, but my trips around Australia and Europe were what they were out of a willingness to live cheaply and keep moving.
* * *
The longer we stayed in Queenstown the more evident it became that I needed to extricate myself from the situation. I began to plan a cycle touring adventure across the USA. It would start in California and end in Texas, as my trip three years ago had done. I dreamed of deserts and mountains, of wordlessly pedalling the days away toward some vast horizon. I occupied myself studying monthly temperature averages and plotting routes.
The first step I took towards leaving was to sell my BMX. My interest in riding had been slipping over the years but it had dropped off completely by the time we got to Queenstown. It still wasn’t an easy decision; I have BMX to thank for teaching me how to travel like this. There is a thread that runs from now to Radley racetrack road trips, age 15 in the back of someone’s van, but now is not then. BMX has experienced enormous progression in the 14 years I’ve been riding. Perhaps it has regressed as well by becoming more heterogeneous, more saturated. That has little bearing on why I quit. From those early road and train trips to moving away from home then moving to London BMX always seemed to promise the most adventure possible in the circumstances. In New Zealand BMX was the reason to not move on; I was prevented from having, in the other ways I’ve since found, as much adventure as I’d like.
The ultimate factor was the risk, which only increased the less capable I became. After sliding down the road at 40mph after a vicious speed wobble (my second major crash of the trip) and the ensuing time spent recovering I was done. A couple of weeks later I took the first chance I got to sell my bike.
* * *
I think that people’s willingness to host travellers is predicated, to some degree, on vicariousness. It brings adventure into their lives. If the adventure is gone then the goodwill can, understandably, go with it. So after six weeks of living in the garage our welcome was outstayed, something which I regret very much to do. The rest of the group moved to sleeping in the woods and the car. They had neither the money to continue travelling, nor the immediate means of earning it anywhere but Queenstown. I began the transition to travelling alone.
We left the North Island from Wellington harbour. The ferry that we had seen bear oceanward from hilltops around the city with new friends for company carried us one morning across the Cook Strait. Those same hilltops bowed further to the horizon with each wave that crashed across the bow, underfoot damped to a gentle roll by the vessel’s size.
The approach to Picton, the port on the South Island, navigates one of the coastal inlets in the Marlborough Sounds. The boat meets this landscape at a slower pace and there is shelter from the ferocity of the winds through the Strait. The others remained sheltered in the lounge, soaking up the last of the wifi rather than the first sights of new land.
West of Picton we had a few days of fine weather. We swam in the sea and in tidal inlets. We wandered beaches and clambered about on rocks. This area is supposed to have the South Island’s best weather but the rain eventually—sooner than hoped—arrived.
The forecast promised better conditions on the east coast. The decision was made to go where the weather was good now, thinking that we would be coming back up at some point. But enthusiasm for life on the road and the new places along the way remained low. We hardly gave ourselves time to adjust back to it. Kris and Saunders took increasingly to sleeping in the car. In Christchurch we didn’t even get out to walk around the earthquake-damaged city center.
The default choice is to drive. While it’s always an option and it feels like something has been achieved New Zealand is not a big country. From the north west we did three 300km+ days to our final nights camp on the shores of Lake Dunstan.
In the morning only an hour’s drive remained to Queenstown. There would be the Wellington-type situation of having someone to stay with, and the end of this chapter of the trip.