The first night I slept in my car in New Zealand's South Island the temperature dropped below zero and I woke with ice on my blanket and dew in my hair. At some point in the night the cold had seeped into my bones, and my body ached as I uncurled myself and emerged into the bright, frosty morning. Standing on the jetty overlooking Aotearoa’s majestic mountains, I wondered if this was such a good idea after all.
When the country emerged from our first full lockdown, I found myself itching for adventure and to see more of the place I was born. With my repository of funds obliterated by recent overseas adventures, I did what humans have done forever and got crafty. A proud owner of a baby blue station wagon, Keiko, I took to Mitre 10 and found myself a sturdy kitchen shelf, otherwise known as a bed base, and hunted out Bed’s R Us’s best foam mattress. Armed with camping gear borrowed from my Dad and a cheery demeanour that was equal parts idealism and naiveté, I set off on the Interislander, the ferry that would deposit me in Picton to start the journey through the mass of mountains, coastline, and tiny towns.
I gave myself a month, with the leniency that I could stop whenever I’d had enough. Six weeks later I returned home, having spent hours upon hours in my own company, witnessed vast swaths of this country’s great landscapes, eaten numerous bowls of muesli and noodles, hunkered down against the temperamental weather of Southern spring, scrawled pages of notes in my journal, and bumped into a few friendly locals and fellow travellers along the way.
While this stint exploring beaches and peaks opened my eyes to why so many foreigners choose this collection of islands to visit, the main thing I walked away with was a greater understanding of what it is to be with myself. I was no stranger to spending time alone, but this was a whole new ball game. Patchy reception, off-peak season, vast and remote regions, and being shy by nature meant I could go days with minimal interaction of other human beings. I could drive for hours and not see another car on the road, or show up at a campground with no one else in sight.
At times it was eerie, and in those first few days agitation bloomed. In the quiet, with only the rain, birds or wind to break the silence, thoughts in my head seemed all the more loud and oppressive. This, combined with the frosty temperatures and my lack of preparation, made me almost turn around. But no, that just wasn’t good enough. “Give it a week,” I told myself, “And if it doesn’t get better go home.” In the next town I brought a hot water bottle and struck up a conversation with the friendly cafe owner, both of which gave me enough warmth to continue on.
Experiences like these tend to strip away common comforts in a way that I resist but is so good. Realising that this wasn’t so much a picture-perfect getaway as an exploration of what it means to truly be at peace with myself changed my approach, helping me to let go of perfectionistic ideas, and to lean into the discomfort. Well, slowly but surely. Over time I found myself considering, perhaps for the first time in my life, the casual luxuries I had always lived with or had access to, how much my thoughts took me out of the moment simply as it was, and how little I actually needed to experience bliss, and courage.
A big turning point was when I decided to do the Kepler Great Walk. Up until this point of the trip I’d only dabbled in the Great Walks the South Island has to offer. I’d do as much as I could do in a day, in and out, reemerging from the undergrowth with relief washing over me, before whizzing off in Keiko to find a place to sleep.
The thought of doing an overnight hike alone was daunting. I’d hiked plenty, but always with people more experienced and survival-savvy than me. To have to rely entirely on myself was a ridiculous notion, but the more I did these quick day hikes the more I longed for a longer, more challenging excursion. The seed was planted and I couldn’t ignore it any more. I plucked out a few days that weren’t raining and locked it in. No going back.
The Kepler Track starts under the cover of trees. You walk and climb for hours under the drooping canopy and, at the beginning of this time of year, past frozen lichen and moss. Under the shadows of the trees I slowed my breathing, easing the panic of the unknown. After some time, the physical task and peace of the trees quietened my mind, and I began to enjoy the sweat, the beat of my footsteps, and the birdsong. Slowly, and then all at once, I was on the top of the hill, above the trees and in the alpine shrubbery. Magnificent already, and when combined with the first sun I’d felt in days, it was heaven. The sun kissed the tussocks and ravines split by deep water below. The winding path led further up the pass, up to the top of the world.
The huts on the Great Walk trails are top tier, and the one I encountered on my first night was one of the most incredible places I have ever slept. A rare moment of clear skies gave the few stray hikers there that night a stunning sunset that set the fiords and grass alight in gold, only to be followed, after a freezing night, with an equally impressive sunrise. I greeted the new day's sun with unbridled joy and a freezing face, alongside a lone, jovial Argentinian (the only one of his group to emerge at the break of dawn) and the two hut wardens.
This hike, and the many others I was able to do, sunk into my soul and replenished me, deepening a love of the exploring the wilderness with a simple backpack, powered only by the strength of my legs and lungs. And, at the end of it all, I was so glad to return to a warm home with familiar faces, and leave the long, empty roads to the pūkekos and retirees.