Happy Birthday to me! It’s strange to think that exactly 21 years ago (ok so technically 21 years minus a day…thanks a lot International Date Line) I was brought into this world, surrounded by family and now, all these years later, I’ve put 8,400 miles between myself and said family to chase some damn good adventures.
My, how I’ve grown.
Anyways, it’s currently 5:30 a.m. on the day of my birth and I’m fumbling my way out of the construction-heavy area around Christchurch International Airport in my cute little silver rental car. It’s a sweet little car with radio buttons that don’t work and a first gear so ravaged by past renters, it sounds like a wind-up toy any time I drop below 20 kph. The car, technically, is a Sirion Daihatsu — a smooshed up little thing that reminds me of a hamster but looks perhaps a bit more like an overgrown SmartCar. Despite its rather demure appearance, I’ve just finished Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (well…technically Harry Potter et le prisonnier d’Azkaban. I’ve got to keep up with my French skills while in Australia somehow), so I dub my new noble steed Sirius in honour of the blazing “S” on its hood and set off into the surprising pre-dawn darkness of Christchurch’s rural outskirts.
After a quick bout of getting lost, we hit open road and as the sun finally begins to tinge the clouds a soft pink over the endless expanse of farmland, I pull into a small cafe on the side of the road that boasts “TAKEAWAY COFFEE” in huge white letters on its roof. Coffee, after my astonishing 3 a.m. wake up call, sounds good…as does a bathroom break.
I pop inside and, despite the brightly glowing Open sign out front, find the place deserted. A little bell dings in the back and a woman pops out from behind the corner. “Hello!” she says, surprised. “Hi there!” I reply, “Can I please have a…[I eye the cup sizes dubiously]…medium cappuccino?”
“Of course,” she replies. “Will that be cinnamon or chocolate on top?” she adds as I dance towards the bathroom hurriedly. “Oh. Chocolate please,” I assure. I’m not a monster.
When I pop back into the shop, the woman has been joined by her husband, who rings me up as his wife finishes the coffee. He asks me where I’m headed, what I’m up to, and I tell him.
“I’m heading down to teh anow…tea an oh…? Not sure how to pronounce it….but I’m doing the Kepler Track! Down in Fiordland National Park…so I’ve got quite the drive ahead of me.”
“Oh,” he replies, “That’s not so bad! Just a few hours down the road.”
I stare at him, very confused. “Erm…I think I’m going a little further. About eight hours down the road…? The Fiordlands…”
“Oh!” he replies. “The Flordlands —” (yeah, pronounced with emphasis on the “L” in “Flord”) “– ooh wow, yeah that’s a ways.” Embarrassed at having mispronounced the National Park for the past three months of my planning, I quickly elaborate on my hiking plans as his wife hands me the coffee. I take a sip as the man launches into his and his wife’s life story and the woman eyes me intently.
“…how is it?” she ventures.
“Oh, it’s lovely,” I reply, because it is.
She beams. Her husband continues on talking about their lives before the ended up here running this cafe in rural-suburban Christchurch. Rolling her eyes and reminding her husband that not everyone wants to know their life’s story, she hands me a free Anzac cookie — left over from yesterday’s Anzac Day commemoration (Anzac Day is sort of like Australia and New Zealand’s Memorial Day, with a focus centered mostly on casualties from the two World Wars). I assure them I really don’t mind — it’s nice to have a break from driving. She laughs warmly, in a don’t-say-I-didn’t-warn-you kind of way, and heads back into the kitchen while wishing me safe travels.
I stand in the cafe, listening to the man’s story of decades of travel all over Australia chasing an old dream of setting up a B&B. Unfortunately it didn’t work out, and they moved back here to New Zealand, their original stomping grounds, and set up this cafe. He says they really like it. We chat about his dog next — a fluffy little white thing that isn’t allowed in the cafe — and, as much as I genuinely am loving this impromptu deep conversation with my impressively friendly new Kiwi friend, at the next break in the conversation I thank him for the coffee and cookie and tell him I’ve got to hit the road. Beaming, he says it was no problem at all and wishes me safe travels.
Stepping back out into the cold morning air, I can’t stop smiling. What a beautiful way to start out my trip. Looking up to take in the sunrise, it gets even better.
I hop in the car and hit the road again. Not long after my date with the cafe couple, I make a few turns and at long last am faced with the mountains that made my flight in so stunning yesterday that I may or may not have cried for the whole 45-minute descent.
Let the games begin.
These mountains won’t be the ones I climb (otherwise, Mr. Cafe Man would be right and my drive would be much quicker), but they’re stunning all the same and give the views around me the perfect juxtaposition of dramatic cliffs and idyllic farmland that stole my heart during my first days in New Zealand back in January.
The deserted highway zig-zags through perfect, rounded hills of pasture and farmland, the mountains a constant, imposing backdrop. Sheep and horses and cows whip past as the sun climbs ever higher. It doesn’t take long for the scenery to get too gorgeous to resist, and I make my first photo stop of the day.
Despite my love for The Shire, this is no North Island, and soon the scenery proves it. As I wind my way out of the countryside and into a series of small, mountain towns, my roadtrip quickly devolves into a series of photo and bathroom stops, punctuated by profound moments of heart-stopping awe and beauty.
I’ve had high expectations for this trip since booking it (actually, quite frankly, since visiting North Island and being told it was “nothing compared to South Island”), and it only takes a few hours for those expectations to be blown.
Even for me, this trip was a bit of a leap of faith. When I booked it all back in February, I fully expected to find friends at UQ to come with me on my road trip and subsequent five-day / five-night backpacking escapade. Alas, my friends who like hiking are either too broke or drowning in mid-terms and my friends who don’t like hiking…well, they don’t like hiking. Thus, my bold wilderness birthday bash has quickly become a party of one. Now, before you pity me too much, I am a strong independent woman and I am more than capable of spending a week soul-searching and trailblazing through the New Zealand fiordlands (…er…flordlands…?) — not to mention more than stoked to do so — and I pride myself on that. However, I won’t pretend that spending your birthday alone making a eight-hour drive along New Zealand backroads in the hopes of having an awe-inspiring, emotional, life-changing experience is an easy order to fill. That said, New Zealand is not letting me down yet. The views out the window are so spectacular, I’m tearing up (again) every half hour or so and I’ve taken so many photo stops, my eight hour drive is starting look like a ten-hour one.
Despite the length of the drive and my stress over making it to Te Anau in time to grab my park passes, and the pressure that has built up for the weeks leading up to this trip, and my desire to make this solo trip a perfect and not-at-all lonely trip, now that I’m out of Christchurch and its surrounding suburbs, I’m feeling absolutely blessed to spend my birthday venturing through the most spectacular landscape I’ve ever laid eyes on.
About two hours into my drive, the road peaks at the top of a pass overhanging a sight that truly takes my breath away: in the valley below, the small, two-lane highway slides calmly beside a glittering silver lake ringed with snowcapped peaks. Low-lying clouds shroud the lake and the midsection of the Western range, making the whole scene even more unreal.
I take a long break on the side of the road snapping pictures but sadly, before long, I have to tear myself from the view and hit the road again. As Sirius and I wind slowly along the cliffs that line the lake, my hands itch on the steering wheel — I’m dying to turn off into the highway’s dirt shoulders to take more photos every five minutes, to stay here staring at this view forever, but I press on. I’ll stop more on the way back, I promise myself. The pull-offs are on that side of the road anyways.
Just as we round the far edge of the lake, the world around me disappears in a puff of smoke. I’m not just trying to be poetic…the road, Sirius, and I suddenly find ourselves plunged into the thickest fog I’ve experienced.
I can’t see further than a handful of meters in front of my headlights for much of the next couple hours. Cars pop out of the wall of gray ahead, headlights first, with only seconds of warning. Road signs whip past with hardly enough time to read them from the time they appear in the mist to the time they’re gone again. There’s a strange, ethereal beauty to the landscape thanks to the fog; everything that glides past does so like a ghost — the world here is nothing but silhouettes and shadow. What looks like irrigation canals slide past, just barely visible within the impenetrable wall of fog beyond the roadside. A tiny little town — Twizel — emerges from the inky mass of clouds as a series of abandoned roads and buildings, slipping in and out of view like an apparition. I try to stop in the little town for gas, but after driving in circles for ten minutes, I give up — I can’t see far enough in front of me to find it. Back on the main road, I look left into what looks like more of the same disembodied, fog-choked trees only to see the dark shapes of four ducks floating in midair. With a start, I realize I’m driving by another lake, this one with a surface so calm, its reflection looks as real as the lake itself in the half-light here amongst the clouds.
Finally, after far too long with nothing to look at but asphalt, grass, and grayness, we float out of the clouds and back into the gorgeous New Zealand countryside. The road snakes quickly away from the cloud-smothered home of Twizel and its floating ducks and into a compact range of mountains that, much to my excitement, has its very own designated scenic lookout.
From here, the views only get more and more dramatic: sheer cliffs tumble into thundering rivers lined with trees painted fiery shades of yellow by the weight of the coming winter. The air outside the car is perfect and crisp, the sun bright, and the road clear as ever as I roll into Frankton, the closest I’ll get to Queenstown on my journey.
A quick photo and granola bar stop is all I have time for before shooting up the final, two-hour stretch of road separating me / Sirius and Te Anau. A sign on the side of the road, however, announces that I must have time for more photo stops. I don’t know what they call what I just spent over six hours driving through, but apparently it wasn’t “scenic.”
This, though…this is scenic.
As I take what I promise myself will be the only photo stop on this most scenic of highways, I can see why it gets the formal title. Stretched out in a panorama on either side of the sharply winding road is a range of mountains so extraordinary, I don’t know whether to find their name funny or absurd. Apparently, the man who first climbed these mountains was (I’m assuming) so blown away by their beauty, when he stood there atop their tallest peak, he could think of nothing to say but: “Remarkable!” As such, I now find myself, in fact, rather lost for words and remarks as I stand staring at the impressive, cloud-laced cliffs before me known as none other than “The Remarkables.”
The mountains and road both drop off sharply into a narrow stretch of lake that glows dully like burnished steel under a brooding, overcast sky. I could stand here taking in the view forever, but I know myself (and know that my lack of self-control with picture-taking has changed very little since becoming an oh-so-mature 21-year-old), so I wrap up my photoshoot as quickly as possible before starting — really and truly — the final leg of my cross-country journey.
The Remarkables soon drop off around me and the familiar, gorgeous New Zealand farmland, framed by smaller clusters of mountains, returns. When Google Maps informs me I’m at the one-hour-left mark, the mountains start to build up again and the clouds above twist and contort in the wind that sweeps through the turbulent landscape. I’m in an all-out sprint-to-the-finish mindset by now, having been in the car for almost ten hours (plus I forgot to eat lunch and my hurried mid-afternoon snack of granola bars has failed to shake off my frightening level of hangriness), so apart from one quick stop that was more to shove another granola bar in my mouth than it was to take photos, I don’t take any more breaks.
Despite my sense of urgency and relative grumpiness, I can’t help but feel astonished and (surprise, surprise) pretty emotional upon seeing the view on either side of the road. Huge chunks of light tumble from a rolling sea of clouds above like sunlight through heaven’s floorboards, setting fire to the mountains that punctuate the perfect green expanse of pastureland. It’s the most breathtaking show of sun and sky, cloud and countryside, all broken by the imposing masses of the mountains I’ll soon lose myself in.
With a little bit of luck, maybe I’ll find myself in them, too.
Every few hundred meters, a car is stopped by the roadside, its passengers crowded outside with cameras in their hands and wonder in their eyes. Me though? I push on. I’ll take pictures when I get to Te Anau, I tell myself, desperate beyond belief to just please be done driving.
In a (perhaps cruel, but not hugely unexpected) twist of fate, this spontaneous feat of spectacular beauty by the Te Anau skyline is as temporary as the weather always is here in South Island (as the Department of Conservation has been happy to remind me since I reserved this trip). As such, by the time I pull into the Fiordland National Park Visitor Center, the sky is a perfect blue with just a few dramatic clouds and a cheerfully glittering sun. I’m so happy to be done driving and finally facing the start of my long-awaited 60 km trek I’m not even upset.
I walk into the Visitor Center and am greeted by a rather standoffish Department of Conservation (DOC) employee who seems to greatly question both my motives and my capabilities in regard to this track. After explaining, rather indignantly, that I did reserve tickets…and pack rain gear and warm layers…and know what I’m doing, thank you, she prints my tickets. Looking at my reservation, she gives me a couple warnings:
“At Brod Bay [my campsite for Night 1 and Night 5], we’ve had complaints from campers about mice eating into tents and packs to get to food, so be careful with that and maybe don’t leave your food out…” Sweet, got it. “…and at Iris Burn [my campsite for Night 3], you’ll have to watch out for Kea, our alpine parrots.” She motions to a poster above her on which a fat, bright-eyed, lime green bird stares intently out at the room. “They like to tear things apart — hiking boots, tents, anything really — so don’t leave any of your stuff unattended, otherwise you might not find it in one piece when you return.” Wow, that’s impressive. “Ok, I’ll keep an eye on them, thank you!”
Tickets in hand, I walk out the door and hop back in the car (ugh). Not wanting to have to deal with the possibility of a mouse-shaped hole in my brand new tent, I decide to eat an early dinner here in town and charge my phone up a bit before heading to the trailhead and hiking in. I have plenty of time until sundown, and this way, I’ll get one more hot meal and a charge in before I’m off grid and powerless for nearly a week. I drive down the road and stop at the first restaurant I see: a big, largely-empty tavern just off the road.
I walk in and purchase a meat pie from the remarkably unfriendly woman at the counter, who hands me a WiFi voucher as though it’s causing her physical pain to do so. I wander towards the tables lining the walls, on the lookout for outlets. The outlets, it would seem, are just as unfriendly as the cashier: each one is covered by a laminated chunk of paper that says, “NOT FOR PUBLIC USE” (with a smiley face…they wouldn’t want to seem too aggressive). Sighing, I take a seat near the window, dig into my meat pie, and log into the WiFi to let my parents know that I’m alive and that I love them and that I’m about to head into the Fiordland (not Flordland, according to the DOC lady — I knew it!).
Upon gaining signal, a slough of birthday messages flood in and I’m overwhelmed with emotion. It’s a bittersweet sort of moment, made heavier by all the stress and frustration of the day that has yet to fall by the wayside. What a way to spend my 21st birthday, hey? Yes I’m alone, but I’m not scared and I’m really not lonely. I’m proud of myself for being bold enough to do this solo and pretty proud of myself for even making it to this part of the world in the first place! Yeah! I think. You know what? To hell with what that cashier lady thinks, I’m pretty freaking cool!
Heartened by the messages from my family and friends, plus the imminent start of my adventure, I shrug off my irritation at this wholly unhelpful cafe and stride out of the restaurant. It’s time to get this emotional, awe-inspiring, life-changing outdoors experience started.
Despite my 30-pound pack, when I finally get my stuff gathered and take off on foot, I feel like a huge weight has fallen off my shoulders. The track leads first over the control gates that make up part one of this region’s hydroelectric scheme (lil’ sustainability fun fact for you: New Zealand’s South Island runs on 98% renewable hydroelectric power). The gates, though nothing all that enjoyable to look at, have a pretty great view of the lake.
Once over the gate, the real wilderness starts and I’m overwhelmingly content as I hike the mostly flat path to Brod Bay campsite. Everything around me is a brilliant, sun-soaked green. Ferns sprout from every spare inch of ground while trees, covered in bright, feathery moss, tower overhead. Off to my right, the lake shines through the gaps between the trees while, overhead, birds wheel and dive, chirping madly. I hike over small gurgling streams and past vast, open beaches until, finally, at long last, I reach my destination.
With the sun quickly making its way towards the horizon, I resist the urge to drop everything and spend hours taking photos of the spectacular beach bordering the campsite and set up camp first. I find a nice little spot squeezed between a couple of squatty trees that I hope will provide shelter in case of some late night winds. Much to my chagrin, I’ve never set up my tent solo before, so it takes a little bit of fumbling and quite a lot of disgruntled Well, I have no idea what I’m doing, but before long, I have my tent set up with my pack and an unfortunate number of sandflies tucked safely inside. Swatting more sandflies away, I grab my camera and head for the beach. The clouds of my drive in have returned to their previous splendor and this time, they’re hovering over a truly stunning view of the fiord.
With the setting sun comes more and more sandflies — small, evil little creatures that like to just sit on your body and crawl into your orifices and, once they get bored of that, take a big bite out of you and suck your blood…lovely. Having taken about a million shots of the shoreline, I tuck myself into my tent and start getting organized so I’ll be ready for bed when it gets dark. I keep the rainfly open on my tent so I can watch the setting sun reflect off the lake while I go on a sandfly killing spree and change into warmer clothes. As I rummage through my pack I’m reminded that my CamelPak insert seemed to have leaked into my pack during the drive (sigh). When I first set up my tent, I took the CamelPak out of my pack and set it in the bottom corner of my tent in case it leaked more, but now that I’m trying to organize things, its proximity to my sleeping bag is making me nervous. I sit there staring at it for a while, then make up my mind. I paid $18/night for this campsite for a reason: they have water here. Since the water in the floppy little bottle tastes a little funny as is, and since I have my Nalgene that I can go fill up, I’ll dump it, give myself some peace of mind, and go fill up my Nalgene with the campsite water for the night tonight and hike up tomorrow instead. It’s only a seven hour hike up to the next hut tomorrow — I’ll refill my Nalgene in the morning and be good to go!
I step out of my tent and walk down to the beach, which is getting colder and darker by the second. I chug half the CamelPak, hesitate at the thought wasting this whole liter of only slightly weird tasting water, then open it up and dump it in the sand. Proud of my decisiveness, I head up to the cooking shelter and water tank to fill up my Nalgene and stop dead, confused, upon seeing that its spigot looks rather, well, broken.
“Yeah, there’s no more water.”
I turn to my right and see the young European guy who’s sharing the campsite with me tonight.
“Oh.” I say. Then, “None?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Me and the others used a pan to get out the two inches at the bottom but the quality is…not so good.” He holds up a plastic water bottle filled to the brim with chunky, brown-tinged water.
“Oh,” I say again, trying not to panic. “Well that’s fine I guess…”
“Yeah,” he replies. “I mean, if you have enough water for the hike up tomorrow…” He shrugs.
I nod and shrug with a hollow laugh, thank him, and walk back to my tent. Overwhelmed with self-loathing, I zip myself into my tent alone and sit there for a second, letting the crushing weight of my regret wash over me. I just dumped out a over liter of perfectly good water without checking to make sure there was water here. What was I thinking?! About a million thoughts, all of them pertaining to how much of a moron I am, race through my head and I just bury my face in my hands and sob.
It’s been a rollercoaster of a day: I spent the whole drive today stressing about being able to get to Te Anau in time while still enjoying myself and getting all the pictures I wanted; I’ve been generally anxious about getting my money’s worth out of this trip and having an amazing, life-changing experience; since arriving at my campsite, I’ve been worrying about mice eating into my tent and about the potential for a windy, stormy night, and that’s not to mention the stress that comes with not really knowing what I’m doing; I also wasn’t able to charge my phone (i.e. my alarm clock, watch, and secondary camera) before coming out here; I’m still feeling pretty emotional after my very long journey through beautiful landscapes; and oh yeah! there’s also the bittersweetness of spending my birthday alone, unable to contact anyone, albeit in the aforementioned beautiful scenery (also now these sandflies are really starting to piss me off!). Now, on top of all of this heavy, worrisome crap, I’ve just realized that I have zero water for the next 18 hours and, what’s worse, I got myself into this situation by (a) squandering my last water resources for absolutely no reason, (b) paying for a campsite that’s absolute trash, and (c) not bringing emergency iodine tablets.
If we’re honest, it’s a miracle it took me this long to break down crying, but all the same, now that I’ve started I can’t stop.
I try to tell myself: Hey, yeah that was super dumb but you can’t change that now. There’s no use getting yourself worked up, you’ll be fine! But I can’t stop crying. It’s like every one of my worries from the past several days — plus new ones (is it going to get windier? Too windy? What if it rains? Will I be cold? I AM GOING TO BE SO THIRSTY!) — have just built too high to contain and so now, I just sit here sobbing. Every time I think I’m done, a new thought (or the same thought: I’m out of water) pops back into my head and I start bawling again.
Finally, after a while, I start to calm down. I blow up my sleeping pad, grab my headlamp, bundle up in more layers, and park myself on my sleeping bag, hiccuping and hyperventilating. Sitting there, I realize that I really needed that. I needed to get the stress and the worries and the pressure and anxiety all out of my system. I pride myself on being an optimistic, no-worries, work-with-what-you’ve-got kind of person, but this day has been a lot. Despite my frustration with having wasted my water resources for tonight and for my hike up tomorrow, I’m glad I had a catalyst to just let it go.
As I shut off my headlamp and crawl into my sleeping bag, I have a thought: sometimes there is use crying over spilled…uh…water.