In Wellington we stayed with Phil, a Kiwi who lived in London around the same time I did, and his two housemates, Manu and Jake.
During our stay we got introduced to their hobbies. These were primarily lawn bowls, the making and repurposing of things strange and wheeled, and a game called coiny cuppy.
For Kris and Saunders it was the first time being put up in someone’s home while far away from their own. For me the amazing hospitality of people like the 208 guys is appreciated no less for having experienced it elsewhere. After a week and a bit we managed to get a slot on the ferry and it was on to the South Island…
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.
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.
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.
When I returned to Queenstown I had a month left in New Zealand. I saw less of everyone I knew. The rest of the group were working most every day and sleeping three-up in the car. I spent a few nights sleeping in the woods and then a couple of weeks in a hostel in order to do a bit of remote work.
Before leaving I wanted to see some more of the South Island and planned a route up the West Coast. The first part, crossing the mountains out of Queenstown, was to be on foot. Before New Zealand I would not have thought it within my capabilities. After the Routeburn Track it seemed possible, just. Once Kris and Saunders dropped me at the start of the Rees Track the transition to a solo trip was complete.
It was a flat, boggy and lonely walk to the first hut. As usual no-one there was actually from New Zealand but a couple of older guys from Melbourne were very hospitable and we played cards well into the headtorch territory of the night.
In the morning I walked to the second hut, climbing up and down the Rees Saddle in fine conditions. There I took a long lunch (five fruit and oat cookies, salami, e-reader) and set off again when the weather had exhausted any promise of improvement.
The track followed the valley to the tongue of the Dart Glacier. Even without the clouds over the tops it would have been an ominous landscape, but they descended and broke into rain. Waterfalls ran thin and tall down the dark moraine cliffs to the loose, rocky ground where little grew. The track turned out of the valley, up towards Cascade Saddle and an awe-inspiring view over the glacier. Avalanches above twice waterfalled onto it, sounding across the valley with a great roar. It was an inhuman place—beautifully so—and I was its only human witness.
Reaching Cascade Saddle was the second 500m+ climb of the day. It nearly broke me. Continuing was a case of being objective: I’m not finding the track hard, it is the track that is, itself, hard.
There were still a few kilometers to go laterally and a couple hundred metres to go vertically before the spot where it was recommended to camp. When I got there it was not in the lee of the wind as I had hoped, and, unfortunately, the biggest river crossing of the day was immediately before the site. So I arrived with soaking shoes and frigid feet.
I made a miserable and slightly hypothermic effort at setting up my tarp before a lovely Swiss couple, the only others camping at the same spot or anywhere on the track, invited me to sit in their tent with them and fed me endless cups of hot tea until I was warm. I had another go at the tarp and though it was a shelter ill-suited to the alpine environment I stayed dry in the rain and warm in the cold and the morning was worth the night.
I woke early, still in the shadow of the mountains, but for there to be shadow there had to be sun. I said goodbye to my Swiss friends and headed for the bottom of next valley. In worse conditions people have died coming up or down this section. It’s not as bad as the warning signs make out—I hadn’t even expected a track—but it did drop 1400m over 5km and two hours. Including the subsequent walk to the car park that gave me a total of 55km over two full days and a sense of achievement that would carry me into the next leg of the adventure.
I had my camera set up to take a self-timer picture. This is the first photo I took after the Kea tried to pick it up and sent it tumbling down the face of the rock.
On my way up the West Coast there was one more walk I wanted to do: the Copland Track as far as Welcome Flat. Here there are natural hot pools to soak in, which I gladly did until dizzy from the heat, and another cosy mountain hut. The surroundings were spectacular and I regretted not being able to explore further up the valley. With only enough food for the overnight trip it wasn’t an option so I headed back out to the road, marking the fifth day of walking at least 20 kilometres and feeling like every single one was absolutely worth it.
There are so few roads in the South Island that a lot of the best scenery is only accessible on foot. Because of this it stays remarkably unspoiled. There must be increasingly few wild places that are so easy to access yet so similar to how they would have been thousands of years ago.
After the Copland track I continued up the coast as far north as Punakaiki. I had some bad weather here which luckily coincided with my plan to camp at a hostel. It was only supposed to be for one night but, thanks to some good people in good accommodation in a beautiful location, I was glad that the rain forced me into a second.
* * *
I crossed from the West Coast to the East via Arthur’s Pass. On a recommendation and a whim I did one more overnight walk, climbing Avalanche Peak and looping back to the road via the Crow River.
It was one of the more rugged walks I’d done. A lot of the time there was no track, navigating meant following a ridgeline or a river and there was a 600m scree slope to descend. Here it really sunk in how much I was going to miss these wildernesses. When I finished it felt like I could have carried on indefinitely. But at the same time I was pleased to have left Queenstown with a plan and to have completed it—a marked contrast to my first few weeks in New Zealand.
I travelled the whole of this section of the trip by standing beside the road and sticking my thumb out. At most I waited an hour for someone to stop; generally it took less than ten minutes and a couple of times less than one. Many thanks to the following people: