“I came here for two weeks…that was six years ago.”
– Robin, Wharariki Beach Holiday Park
“I came here for a week’s vacation…that was about five years ago.”
– Roland, Coronet Peak Ski Resort, Queenstown
“I visited for a couple weeks fifteen years ago. I went home, packed, came back, got a job, and I never left.”
– Patron at The Ballarat, Queenstown
*This post was edited and published after my return to the U.S.*
I’d had another long layover – the downside of budget travel – spending the night sleeping on a wood and metal bench in the brightly lit, cold, and desolate terminal of the Melbourne International Airport. It was after 11PM and there was just one other traveler, asleep on a nearby bench, and only the occasional worker walking by. I had on my longsleeve shirt and the EMS windbreaker my brother Steven had gifted me at the beginning of my yearlong journey. Knit hat on, hood up and pulled down over my eyes. I wedged my backpack between my bench and the glass outer wall, and used my daypack as a pillow. Not exactly memory foam, but I’d gotten used to giving up so many of my creature comforts by now. It wasn’t the best sleep I’d ever had, but it also wasn’t the worst. I’d spent one night in the hedges in the UK ferry town of Portsmouth, after all.
When I woke for good, around 4AM, the benches and floor along the windowed walls were full of waiting travelers, some entire families. I repacked my gear and walked to the nearest restroom to brush my teeth, splash some water on my face, and wait half an hour to check in for my flight to Christchurch, New Zealand, the final foreign country of this amazing adventure. When I finally reached an agent, I discovered I was not only in the wrong line, I was in the wrong wing of the terminal.
Not a great start.
When I finally reached an agent in the correct line of the correct wing, I was asked for proof of departure from New Zealand.
“I don’t have a ticket out yet,” I said without worry. If this has been a year ago, I would have been panicked. Better yet – I would have been prepared. By now, though, I’d reverted to dealing with being entirely unprepared with the same concern as that of a lazy teen.
“Well I’m sorry, but you’ll need one in order to board the plane,” he replied.
The challenge for travelers on trips like mine is we don’t always know how long we’re going to stay in any particular town, never mind country. A week. Maybe a month. Who knows. And New Zealand is a country that allows visa-on-arrival, so I’d gambled I wouldn’t be asked for proof of departure, and if I did, eh, whatever, I’d figure it out. The old me wouldn’t have dared leave something like that to chance, fearing the rubber hose treatment and weeks in solitary eating goulash. But now? Now I was a man who needed to do math to know if it was time to change his underwear, so worrying about a departure ticket from a country in which I had no idea how long I’d be staying was like preparing my taxes months in advance.
Luckily, I’d also learned about companies like onewayfly.com. For around fifteen bucks you can get a very real reservation on a very real flight, a ticket that checks out even when searched online by an airline agent. Your reservation is good for 48 hours, and then it disappears. You get to fly, and the airline still gets to sell the seat. Win-win.
Five minutes later, despite the agent looking at me and my business class international airline ticket with deserved suspicion, I had my boarding pass in hand.
As smoothly as that wrinkle was ironed out, however, I still couldn’t shake the feeling I’d made a terrible mistake. Indonesia had been paradise. I could have extended my visa and stayed another month, even more. I could have searched out those wild orangutans. I could have gotten dive certified. I could have done nothing more than snorkel coral reefs, swim with endangered turtles, and drink $2 Bintangs all day. But I’d left, and Australia had been a bit of a bust, not to mention a pain in my wallet. I’d just spent the night sleeping on a bench like a hobo. I was bone cold. I was hungry. I was tired. And now I was flying to equally expensive New Zealand. Sure, it was July, but in New Zealand that’s not just the dead of winter, it was the dead of a La Niña winter, and I would be living out of an Astrovan for the entire month.
My arrival wouldn’t go much smoother. Despite reservations and payment in full, my van wasn’t there. I didn’t have a SIM card to make phone calls or send texts to the crappy, shitty, awful rental agency, Spaceships, Limited (that’s a quote from my Yelp! review). And the only time they replied to my email – in which I told them I had no phone service – was to tell me to call their office. I might have just walked the couple miles to the rental agency if not for the raw, cold rain.
I’d been remarkably lucky, really, over the past year. I’d grown very accustomed to inconveniences like these. I’d even learned to find the silver linings. Every negative, every glitch, every little bump in the road had led to something new and unexpected, things I wouldn’t have otherwise experienced. My immediate reaction to plans gone awry used to be frustration and expletives only Ernie and Hadley would hear, but over the past several months I’d learned to simply take things as they came. Everything works out, after all. It always does. I still hadn’t lost this new, positive perspective, but something deep inside me was being poked. My inner curmudgeon was being awakened, perhaps.
“This was a mistake. Goddammit. I never should have left Bali,” I suddenly found myself muttering.
And then something remarkable happened. A miracle, really. A final gift from Dad, perhaps. Standing in the middle of the terminal, frustrated, defeated, I looked up from my email and there it was: a payphone.
To some of a certain age, finding a payphone is hardly worthy of being called miraculous. But when you consider that many more are likely asking, “What the hell is a payphone?” you might understand where one could see the divine.
While Perth, Australia, is literally the farthest place on Earth from Narragansett, Rhode Island – for me, New Zealand was its figurative. It was the destination after which, every mile east would be one step closer to home. It was the one place I knew that if they hadn’t lifted their covid restrictions just in the nick of time, I would very likely never get the chance to return. And shaky start aside, I was actually here, after all. I’d done it. The final bucket list box for this trip was checked. And just like that, thanks in no small part to an antiquated piece of technology, my head and heart were suddenly back in the game.
Life on the inside of a prison hostel isn’t easy. I remember one time during my single night stretch I was lying in my top bunk streaming Netflix, probably something violent and manly – definitely not a period piece – while enjoying a bottle of toilet Cabernet. It was late, and one of my nine roommates had come in and taken the bunk below. Soon after I corked the bottle and placed it in my daypack at the foot of my bunk, I heard a clank, a slide, and a clunk – the bottle had slipped out of the pack and down the wall to the bunk below. It didn’t sound like it hit the floor, and the guy below had already begun to snore. I would lie there for a moment, thinking, “Okay, well, this is awkward, but a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do…,” so I did what any man would do – I closed my eyes and went to sleep.
In the morning I would have to wake my downbunk neighbor to say “Sorry man, but I need to lean over you for a sec,” grabbing the wedged bottle from between his bunk and the wall. A short time later I would use fine espresso coffee grounds to draw a teardrop tattoo upon my face, forever marking the darkest moment of my time on the inside.
Time served, I did what any newly freed man would do – I bought a box of warm supermarket fried chicken and ate it on front seat of my Astrovan while sitting in a mall parking garage before heading into KMart to buy some discount winter clothes.
Now I was ready to begin my final adventure.
Tinkerbell would serve me well. She had no heating system for camping, but she did have a comfortable mattress, clean linens, curtains, a fridge, sink, gas stove – she even had a portable toilet, though I made the executive decision that it would be reserved only for the most dire of situations.
I’d drive northwest from Christchurch, crossing the frosted Southern Alps, through Lewis Pass at an altitude just shy of 3,000 feet, to get to The Barn Cabins & Camp and the Abel Tasman Coast Track, at the southern island’s northern point. The hostel campground had a community cabin with kitchen and appliances, a wood stove, clean bathrooms and showers. It was a comfortable place to test my mettle in the evening’s 30 degree temps. I started the van to run the heat before bed, and slept just fine, but stepping out into the morning cold took some getting used to.
Despite plans to begin driving south along the west coast, I decided to drive even farther north, along the hairpin mountain roads leading to the hip, hippy town of Takaka, then farther along to Puponga, the northernmost spit of land, in search of Wharariki Beach. I changed plans on the impassioned advice of Julie, a fellow traveler I met at The Barn – and my lord, was she right.
Beach (low tide) panorama video
From Greymouth, I actually backtracked a bit, having bypassed the northern coastal route to Punakaiki the night before due to a rockslide. Heavy rains had been wreaking havoc in recent weeks, and while I’d driven through my fair share of wet weather, the timing and duration of the rains had mostly worked in my favor. Backtracking proved worthwhile…
My ride from Punakaiki to Franz Josef would take me along the coast via Route 6, The Great West Coast Road, picture-postcard after picture-postcard. In fact, the coastline and inlets around the entire Southern Island, West and East, were stunning…
…and at times, adorable…
After a freezing cold, rainy night in Orange Sheep Campervan Park in Franz Josef, during which I woke and started the engine at least once to heat the van, I decided it was time for a warm bed at Glow Worm Hostel. I’d get a private room for a couple of nights, crank the heat, buy some cold beer, and make myself at home by the common area wood stove with views of Mount Muller, Mount Burster, and other snowcapped peaks.
It was here that I met Alex, a 20-something German woman, and her partner, a 65-year-old, bearded, overweight, shoeless, limping bundle of laughter and talk named Milton. Milton had spent the night sleeping in the car, he told me, an electric that had run out of juice just 10km from the hostel. They’d flagged down a passing couple, and Alex came to the hostel while Milton stayed behind. Not for lack of money, he assured me – earlier in the day he’d used a sizable inheritance to pay off his and his kids’ mortgages, with plenty left over – he was just more comfortable sleeping out there than in here.
A storyteller, Milton eventually got around to the fact he’d cut his entire left hand off with a power saw some thirty years ago. It was hanging by a flap of skin, he said. The surgeons were on strike at the time, but there was one young man still on duty, fresh out of University. He’d just spent nine hours in the operating room, and was napping “under the stairs” when he got the call to work on Milton, to whom he would later say, “Thank you for your hand – most surgeons spend their entire careers waiting for such an opportunity.” The young doctor would reattach Milton’s hand during 16 hours of surgery – far from the last he would need. But seven hours after the initial surgery, Milton had movement in his fingertips. Today he has the grip of a bear, and can even play piano, writing and singing an original song after the loss of his wife, Teena. He couldn’t have been happier when I asked if he had it on video, and asked only that I “like it” on YouTube if I thought it was worthy. I did, and hope you do too:
I mentioned the fantastic maintenance and signage on even the most remote trails, but sometimes, well….
The ride on Wednesday was gorgeous. I would stop at Lake Matheson, hike to Jetty Viewpoint, then drive the World Heritage Highway to Knight’s Point, Fantail Falls, and finally, to Ahuriri Bridge Conservation Area for the night. It was very cold, but clear, the constellations ablaze. I could see “Milky Street,” reminding me of Indonesia, of how far I’d come, all I’d seen, everyone I’d met along the way, and that my adventure – this one, anyway – was drawing to a close. Did I really even imagine I’d make it this far? During Covid? With so many potential pitfalls? And was I ready to be done and go home? That last question would be answered emphatically, first thing the next morning.
There was only one other group in the campground, and they would be gone when I awoke, leaving me to enjoy this gorgeous sunrise on my own…
I would hop aboard Milford Haven for a two hour tour of the sound, which, ironically, isn’t a “sound” at all – it’s a fiord, but that’s for another day… There were only twelve of us aboard a boat that could carry several times that number, and that suited me just fine. In fact, it was worthy of a toast.
It took only a minute or two before a half dozen porpoises appeared and stayed alongside for the entire ride out. We also saw two Fjordland Crested Penguins, and a handful of seals.
Sea Lions of Sandfly Bay (video)
Fur Seal comes ashore at Oamaru Penguin Colony (video)
The next night I found myself back in Christchurch, at Urbanz Backpackers.
I was so close to being home, this amazing journey so close to being over, that I was finally feeling ready. I was tired, and I was looking forward to seeing Mom, my brothers and sister, nieces and nephews. My friends, my house, and of course, Ernie and Hadley.
From here I would be flying to Auckland, and then to Hawaii. All of my connections went through Honolulu, and I discovered that it was actually cheaper for me to buy two separate tickets to get home to Rhode Island, rather than have a couple hour layover before continuing on – so what the heck, why not spend a couple days in the Hawaiian sun? I mean, seeing the world is exhausting, and who deserved a little vacation more than me, ammiright?!?
Well, anyway, I’d just spent a cold and wet winter month in a van, and I could use a couple days of warm sun and sand, not to mention a little color.
I rested in Christchurch for a couple of days. I found a nearby Irish bar for a pint or two one night. I cleaned Tinkerbell. I organized my gear. I washed my clothes. I wrote.
I arose at five the morning of my flight. No one else was up, the hostel quiet. I left my extra propane, water, food, and a couple of beers in the kitchen for my fellow travelers.
On the way down the hall toward the stairwell, I stopped at the door of a family – a mother, father, grandmother, and three young children. They were refugees from Afghanistan, living here at the hostel. I quietly left a bag at their door. My hoodie, flannel, fleece vest, socks, winter hat, gloves, a deck of cards for the kids. Then I continued on and out into the brisk morning air.
I drove to the rental agency and dropped off Tinkerbell, the van that had been my home for the better part of the past month. I dropped the keys in the lockbox, and pulled out my phone to call for a ride to the airport, just over a mile-and-a-half away. But then I looked at my watch. I was early, and I had time. I lifted my packs, and walked off into the darkness of the crisp New Zealand morning, toward my final international flight, homeward bound.