Goodbye New Zealand

It was 12 degrees Celsius (roughly 50 F), overcast, and drizzling in Christchurch. My Florida skin was not used to it. While Kiwis still walked barefoot through town, as many are so accustomed to do, I sat bundled up, staring at my condensing breath with childlike amazement. Though the NZ summer months brought eminently enjoyable warmth, the season is changing. And so too is this journey of mine.

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The stunning lakeside town of Wanaka was our first stop after the West Coast drive, and is the sleepier version of another lakeside legend, Queenstown. Where Queenstown has the thrills, Wanaka has all of the beauty with a laid back atmosphere. One main drag that borders Lake Wanaka is lined with coffee shops, bars, and tasty ice cream shops. It’s an easy town to get enamored with and such was the fate of my travel buddy, Grant. The atmosphere beckoned him and he answered by deciding to stay. It is sad to lose a guy that I spent close to 7 months traveling with throughout this majestic country, but I’m sure that Wanaka is going to treat him well.

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This led me to have to make my own decision. The original plan was to stay in New Zealand for a whole year but that meant having to go through a New Zealand winter. The prospect of trying to get work at a ski field was enticing, but the voice in the back of my head said to chase the heat. It didn’t take too long to figure out it was my time to say goodbye to this beautiful country, but there was one thing I still had left to do while I was here.

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I think I read about it in some travel magazine or saw it on the Travel Channel, but I knew when I first saw a picture of Milford Sound a few years ago that I had to go there before I died. It was a bucket list item from then on. There were many reasons that I came to New Zealand but Milford Sound was the one that made me first consider it, and there was no way I’d feel like the trip were complete if I had passed on the experience.

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After a bit of research I booked my cruise and headed out to go see if it would meet my expectations. The drive there turned out to be an added bonus to the trip. The only way to get to Milford by road is to take a two-hour drive in Fiordland National Park and gawk at what is surrounding you. The mountains in this region have some of the hardest rock found in New Zealand, so instead of gently sloping valleys often caused by glaciers, you have jagged faces jutting vertically into the sky with valleys only a few hundred yards wide in some cases. This results in a drive like no other and it’s quite a feat that it’s even possible to get there by land.

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Upon reaching the sound I boarded my small tour boat. The ensuing two-hour cruise is hard to put into words. On the previous day it had rained buckets, and this caused hundreds of waterfalls to show themselves pouring down the sheer slopes that pierce into the water. It was a surreal experience. I felt like I was in a Hollywood movie made more beautiful by the use of crazy computer graphics but it was all real. The captain even took the boat directly under a couple of the bigger falls just so you could feel the force of it all. Needless to say, it exceeded my expectations.

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Having checked that off of my list, it was time to set some more plans going forward. It turns out I don’t have to go too far to find warm weather. Australia has an almost identical Working Holiday visa to New Zealand’s, and while Oz may be in the Southern Hemisphere, the northern part of the country is so close to the Equator that even during the winter down here I can be in a tropical climate. Truth be told, I applied for their visa a month ago figuring that I might as well go while I’m out this way, but I didn’t know I’d make use of it this quickly. I made up my mind and booked a flight to warm weather, packed my bag, and hopped on board. Off to see the land of Oz!

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West Coastin’

Things don’t always go as planned. The Achilles tendon I mentioned at the end of the last blog post was bothering me for over a week and keeping us stationary in Nelson, so I decided to go to see a doctor. Seeing a doctor in New Zealand isn’t much different than in the US, save for one big exception: there was practically no paperwork. There was no 3-page monotonous document asking about everything from pregnancy status to my past infidelities, no, instead I got to talk to a nurse that asked me those questions and then wrote them all herself. It was a bit refreshing.

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During the visit I was diagnosed with Achilles tendinopathy, which sounds really cool, but all it means is that I overworked my tendon on the Queen Charlotte Track and stressed it beyond my normal limits. I would say it was an accurate description of the way we handled that hike. But have no fear, I was prescribed drugs, and if they aren’t helping me heal my heel at least they make me feel “different.”

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The saddening side effect of being immobile was that I was unable to go on one of the hikes that Grant and I had already paid for, the Abel Tasman Track, oft considered the most beautiful in New Zealand. I’d compare Abel Tasman National Park to Yosemite just in terms of popularity, as both are the most visited parks in their respective countries. So while I wasn’t overjoyed with missing the hike, not having to deal with the crowds offered a bit of consolation. According the Grant it was just a bit more beautiful than the Queen Charlotte, but with the views it giveth, it also taketh away: He lost his GoPro down a waterfall.

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I should add that during my recovery time I was able to stay at some friends’ house for more comfort and less money than staying at a hostel. During the first month of our extended stay in Nelson we got to know a great couple that was staying at our hostel while they were looking for a house in town. Once they bought their house, they had an open door policy and let us visit whenever we wanted. When we had finished the QCT we called them up and asked if there was space for us to stay for a bit while we recovered. And, no surprise, they welcomed us with open arms. Thank you!

After twenty more days in Nelson than we had intended, it had become time to hit the road again, finally going in a direction we had never been before.

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The first stop was Takaka, on the other side of the never-ending, winding drive over Takaka Hill, situated along the shores of the aptly named Golden Bay. Driving into the region is a bit of a chore but it’s worth it, offering some great sights. Pupu Springs, Wharariki Beach, and Farewell Spit are the main attractions, all of which I’m glad I got to see. And here I need to thank Grant for being willing to go to them again, because he had already seen them in his spare time in Nelson. The highlight was Wharariki Beach. The golden dunes leading down to the seal inhabited rocky islands are something I doubt I’ll see anywhere else in the world. No surprise it’s used as a picture for a lot of New Zealand tourism brochures. There happened to be 50-knot winds that day sandblasting our skin, though, so unfortunately we couldn’t stay for sunset as planned.

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Wharariki Beach

We then started our drive south, headed to Karamea. . . but wait! Let’s pause along the way in Motueka to get an oil change. . . and then have the mechanic tell us we need a new hose for our radiator because our coolant was leaking (“So that’s why it was so low.”) but the hose isn’t in stock, so we’d need to spend the night in Motueka. Car ownership still costs in a foreign country. It worked out all right though, as we stopped at a beach side campsite for the night and enjoyed an awesome Tasman Bay twilight.

Ok, now to Karamea. We decided to go there on a whim. It is a tiny coastal town on the northern West Coast and because of how the highways are situated it is very out of the way and seldom visited by the hoards of short-term tourists. That’s cool with us though; an $8 NZD campsite with a full kitchen, hot showers, and pool table was a pretty sweet deal. And we got to see some gnarly arches carved out by a river over thousands of years, one of them named the Gates of Moria before LOTR was even filmed in NZ. I thought that was a cool piece of trivia.

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Gates of Moria

The next few days had us kicking back in Punakaiki while seeing the famous pancake rocks, searching for treasure in Hokitika and seeing a turquoise blue gorge, and dodging swarm after swarm of sandflies as we made our way down the southern West Coast past the famous Franz Joseph and Fox glaciers. Speaking of sandflies: they are the worst insect that has ever evolved on this planet. Sandflies are silent killers, not making a peep, but when they bite they make you bleed, usually attacking in clouds, each a microscopic aerial assault. They are so bad that Captain Cook, a well travelled man, once wrote in his diary something along the lines of them being the single worst pest he had ever encountered on any of his expeditions. If it weren’t for the absolutely incredible scenery on the coastal drive down south, the unrelenting demon that is the sandfly would have made it not worth it, and that’s no exaggeration. But thankfully, because NZ keeps the beauty coming, turn after turn, that leg of the trip was without regret.

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Punakaiki
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Hokitika Gorge
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Franz Joseph Glacier. I remember it being much bigger as a kid.

Over Due

Yes, I know. It’s been a long time coming. I could say it’s because I’ve been so busy or that I’ve been without internet but instead of making excuses I’ll accept the fact that I’ve been a bit lazy and just haven’t felt like writing. Just know that I am remorseful and apologize to the hoards of faithful followers of this blog and I’d say it won’t happen again but I can’t guarantee that I’ll prevent that from happening. The fact of the matter is that my time in Nelson went by in a flash, all almost four months of it, because of the great experiences I’ve been having.

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Slacklining

Quite a bit has happened since we last spoke. After a few weeks on the job hunt (admittedly that sounds pretty drab since I’m travelling in New Zealand) and working for accommodation at the hostel where we were staying, I was hired at Kathmandu: kind of like REI back home, with stores in NZ and Australia. Staff discount on outdoor equipment? Yup. Cash inflow? Mhmm. The ability to spend the summer by the water in “Sunny Nelson” next to three national parks and outdoor pursuits aplenty without going broke? Yessir. I signed on until the end of January and since I only worked about 30 hours a week I had tons of time to take advantage of what the area has to offer.

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Nelson Lakes

As mentioned in my previous post, a very popular activity in Nelson is mountain biking. Because both Grant and I were able to secure jobs we decided to invest in mountain bikes. Grant is experienced from back home but it was the first time I tried the sport, and while being rough on your body it is a lot of fun. It was awesome for the few weeks that it lasted . . . but just when I was getting comfortable and not having to worry about falling off every few turns, my bike was stolen, cut from its heavy duty lock and taken by a hooded criminal all while being caught on tape. Unfortunately, the guy’s face couldn’t be seen and we had nothing else to go on. I’m still waiting to hear back from the insurance company.

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Camping at Pelorus

Though getting my bike stolen was quite a bummer and a shock (being in a country with one of the lowest crime rates) I couldn’t let it deter me from enjoying the rest of my time in Nelson. Much of my time was spent hanging out with the group of friends that we made and going to beaches, bars, or just hanging out in a park throwing a football. Staying in one place for such a long time gave us the opportunity to build relationships, some which I’m sure will last a lifetime, with people of all different backgrounds. I spent Thanksgiving with two Germans, a Canadian, a Frenchman, and a few other Americans.

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Thanksgiving Dinner

And being in the same town while you’re still in the travelling mindset can be pretty rewarding. It forces you to explore every nook and hidden gem that the town and surrounding area has in hiding. Because of that it makes you feel like a local very quickly. It’s an interesting phenomenon because I’ve probably explored Nelson more than I ever explored the town that I grew up in or, at least, it took me a much shorter amount of time to know Nelson as well as I know my hometown.

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One of the many churches in Nelson

It also gave me time to think about the life of long-term travel and all that comes with it. The fact is, everything in your life comes with it, except for the friends, family, and job you’ve left behind. I know it sounds like what I’m doing is stress-free travel throughout a beautiful country with nothing but fun, but the truth of the matter is that I still worry about gas money, food money, rent for accommodation, health, relationships, life goals, and everything else that you normally have on your mind. The difference is that I’m going through all of that in a foreign country, seeing and doing some cool things along the way. It’s definitely not a vacation, but a lifestyle.

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Awesome kites that flew for a whole weekend

And this lifestyle comes with getting used to. I think I realized I was a backpacker when I figured out I hadn’t washed my towel in three months and had just noticed it. The stink that would normally cause you to pinch your nose back home becomes almost unnoticeable when you’re living out of a pack and you have about 3 different combinations of clothes to wear. You can’t do laundry very regularly because it costs money and doing it in a sink isn’t very exciting. So, your nose adjusts. Also, the definition of a clean car tends to morph. Hiking shoes, t-shirts, dirty socks, camping stoves, gas bottles, alcohol bottles, water bottles, electronics, and the rest of our lives is thrown about the car and it has become the norm to go digging for what you need. Such is the life of a New Zealand traveler.

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Car mess

After finishing our jobs, Grant and I decided we wanted to do something in the wilderness and chose to do a hike called the Queen Charlotte Track in the Marlborough Sounds of the South Island. The gist of it is you take an hour-long water taxi ride from Picton out 71 kilometers to the starting point in Ship Cove, and you walk back through the mountains with stunning views of the sounds on either side of you. So we packed up our bags (with all the gear I got from my outdoor retailing job for super cheap). Neither of us had ever done a multi-day hike before. It turns out that when you aren’t experienced in hiking you don’t pack correctly and we brought too much. Too much food and too much other crud.

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Queen Charlotte Track

Most of the hiking during the day was done on the ridges of the mountains but the campsites were down by the water. That meant every morning there was about an hour of incline to start the day. There’s nothing quite like killing your calves when you’re half asleep. However, the toughest part was usually over in the beginning of the day. That lead us to hiking very fast for the rest of the day, probably faster than we should have. We went from worrying about not being able to do it in 4 days to doing it in 2.5. With the weight we were carrying, our muscles were not very happy and I’m currently nursing an aggravated Achilles. But was it worth it? Absolutely.

It’s now time for recovery and then we’re headed down the west coast.

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To Nelson

Picture a room with five bunk beds, each covered with a white sheet and a worn-out duvet that doesn’t match the others, stuffed into a room the size of a normal bedroom. Stains from spilled drinks and food mark the grey, stiff carpet. Most of the walls are off-white from age, with an occasional tattered New Zealand tourism poster hung in an unorderly fashion. The single-paned windows are draped with opaque fabric of all colors that keeps only half of the outside light from entering the space. And the door to exit the room has an incredible squeak that is bound to wake you up in the middle of the night when one of the tenants has to use the restroom.

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Boots. So glad I brought them.

That’s the budget accommodation we lived in, called a hostel or a “backpacker’s,” as the Kiwis say. Now this might seem like a horrible way to live and oftentimes it can feel that way. But while it may be occasionally uncomfortable, this past month has also been a lot of fun because we’ve been living with a bunch of people of all different backgrounds. In a previous post I said there were a ton of Germans here, and there are, but we’ve actually met people from 6 of the 7 continents (you can guess which one is missing). It’s very interesting to see all of the cultures collide and mesh together, especially when it comes to the different dishes that everyone makes at dinner. Most of the time you have at least one thing in common as well: the desire to travel the world while on a budget, so you can complain together about the crappy water temperature or the lack of a steak filet in your stomach.

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Salt flats hike in Blenheim

While we didn’t exactly get what we were promised by coming to Blenheim in terms of jobs, one thing that I’ve learned in this short time I’ve been abroad is that there are always positives that pop up. By being in Blenheim we had access to one of the coolest outdoor pursuits we’ve done thus far. Just about an hour’s drive south from Blenheim, along the east coast of the South Island, is the opportunity to hike to Sawcut Gorge, which was created by the small Ure River.

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Mike and Grant Traversing the Ure

What’s really cool about this hike is that to get to the gorge you first have to hike along the Ure River for an hour while having to cross it about 15 times. Some of the crossings are only ankle deep in very calm water—but then there are the fun crossings. The fun crossings have the water coming up to your crotch (at my height) and you are fording through white water. To add to the fun the water was probably 40° and by the 1-minute mark there were only pins and needles in our Chaco-shod feet (Mike forgot his Chacos, so he went barefoot much of the way).

While this description might make it seem like a cold and slightly life threatening journey, even those factors couldn’t take away the beauty of the surroundings. The riverbed of the Ure, along with its boulders and shear cliffs, is almost perfectly white limestone, making for the most spectacular color of turquoise river water I’ve ever seen, and it made it much easier to cross, since you’re able to see what you’re stepping on. About half way through, the mountains and their cliffs start towering over you as the river cuts deeper into the valley, presenting a sight that can’t easily be captured by a camera, but I tried.

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Awesome!

And for the grand finale the Sawcut Gorge really can’t easily be explained by words so here are a couple shots.

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The entrance to the gorge.
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Inside

Needless to say, it was a fantastic hike, even if we had icicles for feet by the end.

We had one more hike in the Blenheim area in between job hunting. Our hostel manager told us about a good walk up to the top of Mt. Vernon that would give sprawling views of the Blenheim area. The views were fantastic, yes, but I have learned that what may be a “good walk” to most Kiwis living in this mountainous landscape is, in fact, a heart-pounding, sweat-inducing, breath-stealing, hour-long hike up the side of a mountain for a boy born and raised in pancake-flat Florida. It was a challenge, but as evidenced by the photo, we made it, and we were damn proud.

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Happy to be at the top.

Though we had a great time with our adventures outside in the area, one truth remained: we needed to get jobs or find a way to stop spending money as quickly. A few emails later we landed a gig in Nelson at a hostel, working for accommodation. Since there were no paying jobs at the moment in Blenheim we decided to pick up and go.

Nelson is a really cool seaside town with a rich fishing history and is apparently a hot summer spot for vacationing Kiwis. It has a very “Mainstreet USA” feel to the downtown, which makes it very pedestrian friendly with all sorts of cafes, art galleries, and shops lining the streets as well as lots of greenspace. On one side is Tasman Bay and on the opposite are pretty large mountains. It makes for a very appealing setting. I first thought it was a town I didn’t want to spend much time in because it seemed too small for me. But over the past week it has really grown on me, especially because of the variety of activities that surround the city. It has some world-class beaches but the mountains are what interest me. If I can get a job here I will be investing in a mountain bike as Nelson is known to have some of the best mountain biking in New Zealand, making it some of the best in the world. Of course, if I can’t find work plans will change. 

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Nelson with the Southern Alps behind.

Also, my previous description of hostels does not apply to where we’re working for accommodation, as this is definitely an outlier. This one is extremely well kept and the owners also run a very popular bar that is attached to the hostel. Free WiFi and free breakfast are also two very enticing perks of staying here, though I might get tired of waffles by the time I’m done.

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Queen's Gardens in Nelson

Right now it is job search time and hopefully I’ll land something soon. Grant has found a job at a local Mexican restaurant so he’ll definitely be here for a while and Mike has decided to split off at least for a little bit and go back to Blenheim, because vineyard jobs are now starting to pop up. I’ve been applying to positions all over the South Island and could land a day cruise job for a few months in Milford Sound (a place on my bucket list) so who knows where I’ll be, but if the past few weeks have been any indication it will only keep getting better.

Headed Down South

It seems that no matter where we are in New Zealand, the scenery always has more to give. I’ve been constantly amazed at the variety of beauty in the country. In an hour you can drive from green rolling hills to sheer ocean cliffs and end up in a rainforest.

This beauty was just as present at one of our last trips before we left Russell. Just north of town is Tapeka Point, the end of the peninsula that the township sits on, and on the hill at the end of the point sits a lookout. We read about it in a guidebook and thought we should give it a shot one day around sunset.

To get to the access point you have to drive through what we thought was probably one of the most affluent areas in the Northland region. Huge, beautifully designed houses dot the hills. Ahh, if only we were millionaires we would have bought one up right away because the views from their windows capture the grandeur of the Bay of Islands.

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We parked and decided to hit the beach that lined the cove below the lookout. As with most of the beaches we’ve seen thus far there was perfectly golden sand and blotches of craggy rocks that jut out from the water. Oftentimes the rocks make for great climbing and allow to you to explore more of the coastline if you’re not afraid to take the risk of possibly falling into the water. We took the risk, as usual, and were able to see some great views that most wouldn’t. Afterwards we went to the top of the hill on Tapeka Point and experienced a fantastic sunset.

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The biggest blunder of our trip so far happened a couple nights before we left. The holiday park was having a pizza party for the wwoofers and it was all going to be made in the park’s outdoor wood fire pizza oven. All that the three of us had to do to get invited was light the fire for the oven an hour or so before the event started. Easy enough. We lit the fire, and boy was it a hot fire. It raged and roared. We were very pleased with our success. But then our manager arrived and exclaimed, “What are you doing?”

It was made clear that we had just lit on fire the stockpile for the whole summer,  which was being stored underneath the oven, instead of moving wood from the stockpile into the oven above it before we lit it. Our logic was that the wood underneath had obviously been piled for us to light and the flames from underneath the oven would heat it. That was incorrect logic. As a testament to the claim that Kiwis are the nicest people on earth, even though we had mistakenly burned all of the wood needed for the summer season, Don, the owner of the property, said “No worries, you’ll cut more down tomorrow.” We had a great pizza party.

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Our time at Orongo Holiday Park came to an end and we headed south. Way south. We had seen listings online for work in Blenheim, a city in the South Island laden with vineyards, and decided to make the trip down there. But instead of driving the 12 hours straight through, we weren’t going to miss out on a few highlights on the way down.

Our first stop was the Waipou glowworm caves. There are plenty of glowworm caves that dot New Zealand but only a few that are free, and this one was one of them. To get through them you have to carry your own flashlights and tread through mud and ankle-high water. This is an instance that made me think of how differently the US and New Zealand handle places like this. They let you walk completely unguided into a cave system that you can easily get lost in, where it is pitch black, has stalagmites and stalactites growing, and has glow worms for completely free, with not so much as a warning sign like “Enter at your own risk” or “Don’t touch the stalagmites.” It is equal parts concerning and awesome. Actually, way more awesome than concerning because when you get in there to explore it is mesmerizing. It’s even cooler when you turn your flashlights off and look up. You see thousands of phosphorescent glowworms stuck to the ceiling like stars in the night sky.

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After the cave we drove down to Waitomo, where we spent the night, before doing the Black Water Rafting trip in some more caves. While we’ve been trying to spend as little money as possible, Black Water Rafting was one of the paid activities all three of us wanted to do. Basically, you put on a 5-mil wetsuit, grab a specialized innertube, and enter an underwater stream through a cave system. All the while you get to jump off small waterfalls, see glowworms, and float lazily in the pitch black with your trust meter for your guide at full. It was an awesome experience even though our hands felt like they were frostbitten from the freezing water afterwards. It took half of the day to regain full feeling in my fingers.

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We eventually made our way down to Wellington, where we spent a couple hours in the city before boarding the Interislander Ferry to cross over to the South Island. It was a very picturesque crossing of the Cook Strait.

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Now we’re in Blenheim and it turns out that not everything you see on the internet is true: the jobs that we thought were so plentiful here are close to nonexistent. The problem is that we arrived in the middle of the dead month for the vineyards as they apparently don’t do much in October here. No worries though, we’ll figure out our next step, whether it is getting lucky with work here or heading somewhere with more prospects.

‘Til next time!

P.S. Sorry for the delay. There were a few days that I was a bit under the weather and really didn’t feel like writing.

Russell and the Bay of Islands

Upon our arrival in Russell we decided to explore downtown because we were a bit early to go to the place where we had lined up work. By “downtown” I mean a single road with about twenty shops and restaurants and a single shop serving as the convenience store and grocer. One block over is the beach and the pier, which is the gateway for most of the visitors that take a ferry across the bay from Paihia.

Russell is similar to Paihia in that it is a quaint ocean side town with a rich history (Moari vs. England conflicts and treaty) but it’s obvious that Russell maintains more of its quiet status during the busy summer months in the area because of its lack of blatant tourist trappings.

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Our car ferry ride from Paihia to Russell

After a couple hours of walking ‘round town and eating our fill of gourmet sandwiches (read: PB&J) it was time to head to Orongo Holiday Park: our home and workplace for the next two weeks.

What is cool and really prevalent in New Zealand is the acknowledgement by the local Kiwi’s that there are tons of backpackers that are searching for a cheap place to stay, and they try to fill that demand. A lot of it is met by offering a free bed in exchange for a few hours of work per day while also committing to stay for at least a couple of weeks. 

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Where we work.

Many use the acronym “WWOOF” as a general term to describe this type of work-for-accommodation arrangement. Using that acronym isn’t exactly correct unless you’re a Willing Worker On an Organic Farm where the same work arrangement is almost always used. Nevertheless, the three of us can say we are currently “wwoofing” in what would be a high-end RV park in the US, because that’s what the managers of the park say we’re doing.

This is our first experience doing this type of thing but what we’ve learned is that there are usually two types of work when working for accommodation. The first is housekeeping type work, especially if you’re working at a place that has rooms to sell to guests, and the second is general outdoors/gardening/farm help work, the type of work where you get dirty. Because we are big, burly men, the latter is what we have been up to. It actually makes for an interesting experience, doing something different each day, and often allows you to get a bit of a workout from heavy lifting. So far we’ve weeded the gardens, done general clean up, cut down trees, cleaned bathrooms, and risked life by scrubbing roofs that were a wee bit too shaky to be completely comfortable standing on.

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Relaxing after work.

Having committed for two weeks has given us peace of mind in that we know what we’re doing for the immediate future and also gives us time to figure out our next step. And it allows us time to explore the area we’re in and gives us days to rest our bones without getting worn out. And best of all, our bed is FREE! We’ve gotten to the point where instead of being overwhelmed with all of our options and living minute to minute, we’re able to get a plan together a day or two in advance.

One of those plans had us driving 45 minutes south to a little peninsula named Whangaruru. We left right after work and arrived at the most picturesque area we had been to yet. There is a pretty strenuous trail that leads you up the side of a small mountain, but the sweat and sore legs were all worth it when we got to the view point at the top. The views in this country have not disappointed me yet.

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Looking out over Whangaruru.

On our way back we stopped at Bland Bay after seeing a sign for a beach we wanted to check out. My God, could this place be named anything more inappropriate? Or maybe it’s on purpose to keep people away? Either way, Bland Bay is absolutely stunning.

Zebra-striped sand bordered turquoise water that stretched out to jagged Islands dotting the bay. You could tell the beach was hardly touched because almost every shell on the beach was whole and there were tons of them. Our original intent was to try to get back to Russell to see the sunset but we decided to stick around at Bland Bay and bask in the incredible view.

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Bland Bay

We also spent a day driving across the island to see a couple sights that we thought would be really awesome. Unfortunately, we discovered the realistic side of travelling that not everything you do will be very enjoyable or meet your expectations.

One of our destinations, a hot spring, was closed for renovations and our other big highlight, the Kauri Forrest of Waipoua, didn’t impress like we had heard. The Kauri trees are the second largest trees in the world and are definitely a natural wonder but I think because of being recently spoiled with the Redwoods in the US, the Kauri are something I could have skipped. Regardless, the day trip around the country still offered some great views.

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Views everywhere.

We have one more week here and we’re going try to fit in a few more adventures before heading down south. I hope everyone is doing well.

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The Land of the Long White Cloud

“Restful sleep” and “peace of mind” are two phrases not often used when describing the night before you go on a life-altering trip, but they would perfectly portray my last night spent at home. I pulled back the covers and fell asleep just like I would have on any other night. It wasn’t because I wasn’t anxious nor because I wasn’t thrilled. It was because I knew what I was doing was right and no one could tell me otherwise. With that belief came a calming sense that whatever may happen, it would all be all right. And, so far, it’s been more than all right.

While planning my flight to New Zealand I came to the realization that however I flew there I’d have to fly to the West Coast and make a connection to cross the Pacific. That meant heading through Los Angeles or San Francisco, the latter of which is the city in which my good friend, Matt, resides. Upon seeing that, of course I had to plan to spend a few days in San Francisco, a city I had been to when I was younger, but where I had yet to get the local perspective.

I landed in San Fran late and the plan was to spend a short night downtown so we could get some sleep and wake up early for Yosemite in the morning. As we all know, things don’t always go according to plan, and we spent quite a late night in town with quite a few drinks. But even a nagging hangover couldn’t stop us from leaving the house at the crack of dawn to venture into the great wilderness that is Yosemite National Park.
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After an obligatory stop at Chic-fil-A (and my last before leaving the States) we headed out on our four-hour drive to the park. What I knew about our trip was that Yosemite was bound to be beautiful but what I didn’t know was that the drive there was going to be spectacular as well. The golden landscape cascaded by and the bright blue sky welcomed us as we left the dreary fog of the city behind. Even though I had been in northern California before I had failed to soak in how beautiful it really was until that drive. The car ride itself would have been enough to make my day but the ultimate destination blew my mind.

Though not much was visible right after we entered the park, within 15 minutes Matt said, “Jack, look to your right….now!” And sure enough one the most amazing views I had ever seen popped into sight. El Capitan and Half Dome soared into the air, dwarfing the 100-foot trees that rested below them. Matt actually laughed at my jaw that was gaping from amazement. The day was spent bouldering, climbing, hiking, and chilling out above a waterfall. It’s truly incredible that places like Yosemite exist, and I’m ecstatic that I was able to visit.
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The rest of my time in San Francisco went by in a flash, full of delicious food and great people. One day was spent almost entirely in Golden Gate Park, where I completely misjudged how huge the place was and wore myself out. But it was all worth it, especially after seeing buffalo roam in the park (quite an interesting sight). I have to give a shout out to Matt and his girlfriend, Amanda, for being awesome hosts and for not showing their embarrassment as I took many photos and dressed like a backcountry explorer for most of my stay. They are great people. We said our goodbyes at the airport, I boarded the plane, and I was off to New Zealand.
Knowing I was seeing the US for the last time for at least a year was as exciting as it was sad. I’d been blessed to live in this country for so long but it was time to go. The thirteen-hour flight over the night darkened Pacific was uneventful. While I had hoped to meet people on the plane, almost instantly everyone fell asleep. After I had my complimentary meal I too dropped off and was fortunate to get six hours of, albeit cruddy, sleep.

Jet lag was in full swing when I landed in Auckland at 6am. I made it to my hostel by 8 with my eyes half closed and was greeted by a lovely receptionist telling me I couldn’t get a bed until 2pm. Oh, joy. I tried to make the best of the situation and started to stumble around the city. Thankfully, there was the FREE Auckland Art Gallery that took up much of my time and I got a quick lesson in the historical art of the native Maori people. Tired, delirious, and alone, I made my way back to the hostel and slept…forever. Well, I actually woke up at 4am the next day, wide awake. But while I was awake lying in bed, trying not to disturb my roommates, I had something to look forward to: my travel bros, Mike and Grant, were arriving in town that morning.
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The next few days in Auckland went by pretty fast. We were all of the same opinion, that we needed to make it out of the city as soon as possible, but we needed to handle a few things first. The biggie was buying a car. After a few failed attempts we found a 1997 Camry station wagon in plum. We paid about 1000 US dollars for it. What a glorious sight it is. It was sold to us by a seedy ol’ character, but after test driving it we decided to get it because it’s a Toyota and had no issues mechanically. In between looking for cars we did get some time to see what the city had to offer. We spent half a day walking to and seeing Mt. Eden, one of roughly 50 volcanos in the Auckland area. It offered sweeping views of the city and showed a glimpse of what the country had to give in the distance. We also made our first foreign friend in Luisa, a young German lady on her gap year between high school and college. It seems that coming to NZ from Germany is a common occurrence as we have, no doubt, met more Germans than we have Kiwis.
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After settling most of what we needed to in Auckland (paperwork and bank account; NZ really doesn’t require much to come here) we decided to leave the hustle of the city and head to the “Winterless North.” That name doesn’t really make sense to three guys from the southeast US as the temperature was a high in the 50s when we arrived in Paihia, the main destination in the Bay of Islands. Upon arrival we checked into the Bay Adventurer hostel. It was a great relief from the crowded hostel in downtown Auckland, though we heard that it is just as crazy during the summer months (the northern hemisphere’s winter months) when the Bay becomes infested with hard-partying backpackers. The Bay is appropriately named because it is, in fact, a bay full of beautiful islands. We made some friends almost immediately—four German girls of course: Hanni, Ani, Tabea, and Eileen. They were our partners in crime most of the time while there. At the risk of being too lengthy, I’d feel bad if I left out mentioning Javier and his El Café restaurant that filled our bellies every morning. You must go there when you all decide you must travel to New Zealand.
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Paihia is a pretty small coastal town with not much to offer before the summer season but we did get to experience our first awesome hike while there. Rainbow Falls caught our eye in a guidebook and we decided it was worth a try. After a short walk from the trailhead we were amazed to see the waterfall before us as shown in the picture. The guidebook also said you could get behind the falls if you wanted to risk getting soaked in the 45-degree water. At first glance both Grant and I thought it was a not a wise idea to try it as the route to get behind the falls was very wet and vertical at one point. But Mike, throwing caution to wind, started careening across the rocks and made it behind….so of course Grant and I had to do it too. We made it across as well and thanked Mike for leading the way, after which Mike exclaimed something along the lines of “I almost fell twice and the only thing keeping me from falling in the water was the thought that my phone was in my pocket. I was scared as #!@%.” While Mike expressed all of our thoughts with his words it was absolutely worth it, as what we saw behind the falls was a giant cavern full of green moss, probably big enough for a couple of basketball courts to fit in and 30 feet tall. This was the New Zealand we had come to see. Pristine nature surrounded us and we had a great time exploring it.
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Even though Paihia was a slice of paradise for us we needed to find a way to make money, or at least spend it more slowly. We went to every restaurant and store front in town but none were hiring. That’s when we started searching for work through the internet and Grant quickly found us a gig at a holiday park (a nice rv campsite) across the bay working for free accommodation. So that’s where we are now, in Russell, Northland, New Zealand. We’ll be here for two weeks and I’ll try to post more frequently from now on. We hope everyone is doing well. Cheers!

Why I Decided To Leave For New Zealand

In my house there are maps of all kinds tucked everywhere, illustrating the shapes of distant shores. Along with the maps hang memorabilia from many of those same places. Some of the smaller maps are reproductions and show areas as they were imagined centuries ago, all of the dimensions out of proper scale, a portal to how the world once was believed to appear. Large, four-foot-wide maps depict the countries of the world, as we know them today, in a rainbow of colors. If you look closely enough at the large ones you will see a hand-drawn, thin, black line sticking closely to the equator across the surface of the entire planet. That line represents the most significant thing to ever happen in my life.

World map in my house.

It tells of a three-year journey that I began with my family when I was seven years old. It shows the rough outline of how we sailed to 40-plus countries and met people of incredibly different cultures from our own. Anyone looking at the map, looking at our course, might think, “They saw so many fascinating places. They must have had the experience of a lifetime.” And those thoughts would be absolutely correct. We did see incredible places and have the experience of a lifetime; the only issue is that I can hardly remember it happening.

I often find myself looking at the maps and the mementos we collected along the way, whether a Fijian war club or a mola from the San Blas Islands, and think that it all seems so distant, like a cloudy dream you can’t quite remember. I know it happened, I just can’t grasp it. The physical evidence is there, but because I was so young and so much time has elapsed since then it makes it hard for me to comprehend.

So how was it so significant to me if I can hardly remember it? Even though I can’t always picture the places or adventures we went on, when I think about the trip I get overwhelmed with a sense of adventure and a longing to discover. The feelings I get make me understand the importance of what I experienced and, in turn, now force me to make my own journey. Because of how we spent those three years during a very malleable time of my life, it is ingrained in me to travel and experience different cultures. I know I have to get out there and see.

But the idea of what I needed to do was not immediately actualized. I was too worried about what was expected of an American kid who had just graduated from school, so the idea hid in the back of my mind until I was ready to embrace it. Upon earning my bachelor’s degree in hospitality management, I went almost immediately into working in that field. I was hired at a hotel and the job quickly turned into a disaster. It was very discouraging walking into a workplace where the employees were mistreated on a daily basis, so I quit (much to the dismay of my parents). Luckily, the summer camp where five of my adolescent summers were spent had one final opening for the coming season. I hopped on and had a wonderful two months in the outdoors with more adventures than I had had in years. So obviously, after having a great time working in an environment I loved I’d want to continue in a similar job, right? Wrong. I succumbed again to the pressures of American normalcy and the need to work at a “real” job, ignoring my true desire. The real job? At a hotel again, of course. This job lasted longer, but didn’t fair very well either. What I was doing never seemed to match who I am. It would turn into eight of the most unproductive, negative months of my life. I needed to get out and I knew it was time to grab hold of what I should have been doing all along.

Through a family friend I had been told of a couple of incredible ways to travel. Teaching English in a foreign country was the first option. It sounded great except that the more I read about it the more it seemed like another job that wouldn’t allow me to travel for the sake of traveling. The second option was the one that really got my gears clicking. It’s called a Working Holiday Visa and involves going to New Zealand for a year and being able to legally work while continuing to travel around the country. Eureka! It is the perfect mixture of work and play. However, there were many questions to be answered before I could take the first step. Did I want to risk being away from “real” work for a year, and what would it look like on my résumé to future employers? What if something terrible happened to a family member or friend while I was gone? What if something terrible happened to me?  How would I even be able to afford the trip? These questions spiraled out of control and brought a period of hesitation. But I made a decision to let inspiration pour into my mind instead of doubt.

I read travel articles and blog posts, researched famous adventurers, opened a world atlas, and gawked at pictures of the world’s natural wonders. I then found inspiration closer to me: two of my best friends. One is a soon to be Air Force pilot and the other is currently on a tour with Arianna Grande, pursuing his dream to be a manager for musicians. Both of them have very lofty goals and both are on their way to reaching them. I soon realized that all of the questions I was asking were only small barriers in the way of what I wanted to do and that if I didn’t suck it up and take risks, then, as cliché as it sounds, I would regret it for the rest of my life. It all came down to telling myself that whatever might happen on this trip I would be capable of figuring it out. After a short amount of deliberation I set an August date to travel to what is considered one of the most beautiful countries in the world. I was then able to start asking the important questions, like “What if I fall in love with an attractive Kiwi woman and stay there for life?” A giant, positive change had come into my life and things were looking up.

My life’s upward trend continued. I was soon asked by my Dad if I wanted to race with him and some family from Tampa Bay to Isla Mujeres, Mexico. To be able to experience some semblance of the journey we began when I was seven was too much to be able to pass up. I informed my job that I would be taking two weeks at the end of March to race across the Gulf of Mexico. This did not seem to be a problem for them until shortly before the trip, when I was fired for reasons I still don’t quite understand. But being fired was the best thing that could have happened to me at that moment. I was released from an unrewarding work environment and was able to focus on my future plans.

During the race we experienced very rough weather. As we were cutting around the north end of Cuba a front was located on the Gulf Coast of Alabama, and it was sucking in air from where we were positioned. This caused high winds and, in turn, high seas, creating some of the worst weather most of us had ever been through. The combination of the two made for some very sick crew and a few intensely dramatic moments. During the most hair-raising thrashing of the boat against the waves, the spinnaker pole (a 20ish-foot pole that helps keep a sail full of air) crashed down to the deck from its resting spot alongside the mast. Fortunately, it didn’t tear a hole through our sail. However, two people would have to get out of the cockpit to secure it while the boat was taking water over the deck with enough force to throw you overboard. Since my uncle was driving the boat, only my dad and I were left as the two who would be able to lift the pole into place.

I would be lying to you if I said I wasn’t scared almost to the point of inaction, but the job had to be done so I threw on my safety harness and willed my way out of the cockpit. The next five minutes were a blur of white and echoes of my Dad barking orders. Once or twice my feet got knocked out from under me by the boarding waves. In the end, we were able to finish the job with only minor bruises and our bodies soaking wet. I also finished with a sense of confidence from going into a situation which I wasn’t sure I had the ability to overcome but came out of successfully. That is a lesson I’ll be sure to take with me on my travels to look back on during any rough times. After four days of getting pounded by wind and water, we had finally reached the picturesque, tiny island of Isla Mujeres. The countless vistas and laid-back atmosphere of the island were reward enough for what we had just been through, but a First-in-Class trophy for our finish was the cherry on top.

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Upon returning home from the race I needed to find employment for the next couple of months and soon found my way back to the same summer camp where I had spent the previous summer. It was an even more incredible season than the previous one. Being able to influence young men in a constructive way is extremely rewarding. But what was just as rewarding was learning from and getting to know the great group of counselors I worked alongside. Many of them helped me overcome some of my greatest fears (heights was the biggie) and I was even able to find two travel buddies, Mike and Grant, to go to New Zealand with me.

This brings me to where I am now, back in Tampa, preparing to set out on my first adult globe-trot: a year in New Zealand. I’m undoubtedly excited—and equal parts scared as well. I have no real clue as to what will happen there but it is bound to be an incredible experience. I know this because of the feelings I get when thinking of my hazy childhood adventure and my recent excursions away from home. All of them were positive experiences and I can’t see why that would change. Now when I look at those maps on the walls of my house I don’t see my past as much as my future.

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