I spent three weeks inÂ New Zealand in June 2015 “on my way” from Bali to the USA. Â New ZealandÂ is really far away from anywhere else and is the most beautiful country in the world (as far as I can tell), so I wanted to take advantage of being in the same hemisphere. I had been to the New Zealand’s South Island back in 2004 on my way home from study abroad in Australia, and to give the North Island it’s due, this trip was solely in the North. I also wanted to try to copy my good friend Dave Cornthwaite and try to fly by the seat of my pants (he has a project where he doesn’t plan more than 10 days in advance and barters his skills as a videographer for lodging and transport) and travel as cheaply as possible. Over the years I have met several friends from New Zealand, and so I knew that I had a good shot of staying with a few of them. I started my trip in the largest city on the North Island – Auckland.
For some reason, whenever I meet a Kiwi anywhere in the world, I know they are going to be awesome and that we are going to have fun. If you are a from NZ, I will give you a free pass because your countrymen have set such a good precedent. I spent the first week of this trip staying with my good friend Mike and his wife Gretchen in Auckland, trying to catch up on some podcast interviews, exploring the coffee shop scene on a borrowed single speed bicycle, and generally being amused at all the funny Kiwi expressions. Mike and I worked at a bike shop together in Boulder, CO many years ago, and have stayed in touch to small degree. It is interesting to consider how easy it is to rekindle a friendship even after years of not physically spending time with a person. Mike and Gretchen put me up on an airbed that took up most of their living room and were generous to let me crash there for so long (not to mention let me eat their food and use their bikes). One thing I came away from this trip was feeling more confident about being able to trust in the kindness of one’s friends (and strangers!) – people will be there to support you no matter where you are.
Each night, Mike, Gretchen, and I would have dinner together at 6:00 and then have tea at precisely 8:30, with ginger nut biscuits, to which I quickly became addicted. Mike wouldn’t let me make the tea any earlier (I really just wanted some of those bikkies for dessert) because tea time is at 8:30 dammit!
On the weekends, Mike and Gretchen showed me the sights (Volcanoes and bays) around Auckland and took me to the West coast for some tramping around in the Waitakere Ranges (the same forests Sir Edmund Hillary first started exploring the wilderness) and checking out epic beaches that remind me of the Oregon coast.
The North Island is totally different from the South Island in many geological respects, but the overall feel isÂ theÂ same mystical, magical quality. Outside of the cities there is almost no one around, making things feel much more isolated than the distances would suggest. There are lots more volcanic cones on the North Island, which is one of my favorite features. I have a saying that wherever there is a volcano near the ocean, you are going to have some good scenery.
In the second week, I took the KiwiRail Northern Explorer scenic railroad (which I’ll talk about in more detail inÂ separate post coming soon!) from Auckland down to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital. On the trainÂ I talked to dozens of different people and interviewed them about their travels and what adventure meant to them (experimenting with recoding on my phone). Even though I interview people all the time, this was a big challenge for me to talk to so many strangers in one day!
My friend Natalie Sisson, the Suitcase Entrepreneur, wasn’t home in NZ at the time, but introduced me to her folks who kindly let me stay with them in Wellington for a couple days. They have an amazing house up on the hill overlooking the city (which is like a mini San-Fran).
I had the best possible weather in Wellington – people there say “you cant beat Wellington on a good day” but often in the winter it will be cold, windy, and rainy, so I lucked out! Wellington had some of the best street art and graffiti that I encountered on my trip and was surprisingly walkable and well planned.
I went to a brewery called the Garage Project (recommended by Mike) where I met two new friends,Â who both busted out onesies! The onesies were a response to Sarah (the one in the dino suit below) asking me what I had wanted to be when I grew up – I jokingly said a T-rex – and she said I had the opportunity to be one right then and there and produced aÂ dinosaur onesie. It turns out she is a local comedian and songwriter, and proceeded to write a country song about several of the beers served there.
I shuttled a free rental car (which I got through Transfer Car) up from Welly back to Auckland. Because the stream of tourist traffic generally moves from north to south in NZ, the rental companies need you to drive cars back north and they will give you a few days for free. Â I stayed the first night above a pub in Palmerston North, and experienced some hotel culture shock because the prices were about 500% higher than in Bali!
After I got to the US, I had an email saying I had incurred aÂ $40 fine for breaking some traffic violation, but they wouldn’t tell me what it was! Maybe I was driving on the right side of the road or something.
On my second day driving back to Auckland, I took the old road through Whanganui canyon and National Park! The road was so curvy it took me about four hours to drive through the canyon,Â partly because around every bendÂ would be another amazing vista or perhaps a rainbow and by the end I was so sick of getting out and taking pictures, but I couldn’t not do it either!
One of my favorite scenes from Braveheart is where they are running through the Scottish highlands, preparing for battle and some epic music is playing in the background. On a couple evenings around sunset, I would drive to the end of a dirt road, get out of the car and run into the hills yelling like a rabid scotsman. Too bad I was out of shape, it could have been much more epic!
One thing I noticed about New Zealanders is they are some of the most friendly people in the world and they will always try to help you out. This was basically my get out of jail free card, so I never worried that I wasn’t going to be able to find my way or get somewhere that I needed to be. The second night I stayed with my friend Ashley’s (who I met at a yoga retreat at Hariharalaya in Cambodia)Â parents. Â They live at a horse stable where million dollar race horses are bred. Ashley’s fatherÂ is a horse (hoarse?) whisperer, and I got to tour the stables in the morning before I headed on to Auckland and watch the future champions eat their breakfastÂ oats.
I dropped the car off at the airport in Auckland, and a big blue windowless van screeched to a halt in the parking lot outside the rental agency. “Quick, get in!” yelled Mike, and off we went. He was taking a trip to the other side of the North Island to Gisborne to visit some bike shops there, and invited me along for the journey.
On the drive over to Gisborne I asked Mike to stop so I could take some photos near Hobbiton at sunset, and I ended up running across a bunch of fields and getting some great photos and was gone for about 30 minutes. Mike thought I was only going to take a quick snapshot (he didn’t know my penchant for running through the fields) and figured maybe I got shot or lost or something and was ticked off when I finally returned. For the rest of the trip he would only let me leave the car for five minutes at a time!
Mike and I stayed a night in Rotorua, which is a big thermal area in the north center of the island. I really wanted to go check out some of the hot springs there, because I knew the location well from my days an extremophile virologist in Yellowstone. Many similar extremophile species exist in Rotorua and Yellowstone. Rotoroa is also home to some of the best mountain biking on the island, and we were going to spend a couple hours riding around those trails before we finished the second half of the drive. Two hours turned into four and a half, and Mike (who was a New Zealand national cyclocross champion) rode me into the ground! It took a week for my out of shape butt to recover. I never did get to any of the hot springs there because you have to pay to see them all, but I sure did smell the sulphur! Which I kinda like.
On the final leg of the drive into Gisborne, we stopped to pick up a lad who had just driven his car into a ditch. It wasn’t clear exactly how the accident had happened, but it didn’t seem to bother the guy too much, “I’m not saying I drive my car into the ditchÂ a lot, but it has happened a few times”. He had just finished three weeks work without a day off building milking facilities (New Zealand’s diary industry is booming), where he told us he clears $3700 cash per week. If the car was too badly damaged he said “I reckon I’ll buy a new one tomorrow”
Gisborne is a hot spot of Maori culture, a Mike gave me a pounamu or greenstone adze pendant, which is New Zealand Jade. You aren’t supposed to buy one for yourself because then it is less magic (we worked out a deal where I paid for some other stuff, toÂ circumvent the rule). To make doubly sure the pendant had all the good luck it could fit,Â I went down and blessed it in the ocean. This is weird because It wasn’t until I went to Bali that I felt like I had any spiritual or magic abilities to bless things, but now I know that we (high priests and medicine men and me) are all just humans and we all have the ability to endowÂ significance.
In Gisborne, we stayed with Mikes parents. Mike’s father took us on walks in the hills behind their house and let us drink his home brew (reluctantly?) His his mother had a head cold and she lost her ability to taste food. She kept saying “well what’s the point of eating anything because I just cant taste it!” We all suggested this was a great opportunity to eat food that was healthy but didn’t taste very good.
In my last few days in Auckland I stayed with a friend Emily who I met in graduate school in Montana. She is still in academia and we indulged in a some nerdy discussions and a trip to nerd night at the local pub to learn about the mathematics of the housing market in Auckland. Which, if you have ever met anyone from Auckland, the first thing they will talk to you about is the crazy housing prices there. Beforehand, we had a traditional “Mountain Beer” which is where you go up a volcano and watch the sunset. That day it just so happened that huge lightning storm was coming in at the same time and there was a full moon. I wasn’t able to capture a good photo, but I’m sure you can imagine how amazing it could be: Sunset + Volcano + Thunderstorm + Big Orange Full Moon.
This trip was an amazing exercise in self sufficiency and relying on the kindness of friends and strangers. Â I saw beautiful landscapes, learned lots of amusing Kiwi expressions, Â and experienced a variety of different cultural niches.Â It might be another 10 years before I get back to NZ (who put it so far away from everything else?) But it is definitely still my #1 favorite country to visit!