Month: October 2014

The What of Buenos Aires

I probably waited too long to write about Buenos Aires, but I never knew where to start. Do I start with what I did there, describing my actual visit to the city, or do I start with my answer to the question, “Why did you like Buenos Aires so much?”

These are two separate posts but one doesn’t make sense without the other, so I’ll start with what I did, in running list form. It might not be eloquent but I don’t know if I ever could get it to be. I’ll try to summarize.

Day 1 I arrived early in the morning from an overnight bus and 2 hours later I was on a walking tour of the city, arranged by my hostel America del Sur. I learned some BA history, saw the main tourist sites, and watched some tango. I was even coaxed into doing a tango move on stage for a photo opportunity. I changed money on Florida Street; my first experience with the Blue Market of BA (where you get almost double the normal exchange rate). I had asado dinner at the hostel, and while I was waiting sat with a group of incredibly welcoming travelers mostly from the UK and Australia. I ended up at a housewarming party with them – Alex’s Palermo apartment. My first night in BA, a Friday, and I was at someone’s apartment getting to know a great group of people. A welcomed night of normalcy in a stream of hostels and bars. Out till almost 4 am.

Day 2 I went to the La Boca neighborhood with three new friends I’d met the day before – Jessica, Juan and Tom. We wandered and took pictures of the Boca stadium and the colorful buildings and graffiti around Caminito. I had my first choripan sandwich: the Argentinian version of a German favorite, chorizo sausage on a roll with chimichurri sauce. That night I went to Fuerza Bruta with Jess and Tom; I’d gotten lucky when Kye needed to sell his ticket that morning and jumped on board last minute. Incredible, a must do for anyone in BA. When we got home we cooked dinner and joined the rest of the group to watch the fight on the big comfy couch in the basement. I was convinced to go to a birthday party in Palermo for one of the girls who works at the hostel. Unexpectedly chill bar, still got home at 4 am.

Day 3 was rainy but we braved the San Telmo Sunday Market anyway. I had lunch with a friend of a friend, Sam. It’s amazing how friend networks extend all over the world. I returned to the hostel, to the couch downstairs where inevitably I would find my new friends, the people I would come to call my BA family. You know what sounds nice? A good beer. Just a casual beer at a pub. Not Quilmes. Alex, Tom, Brendan, and I chilled at Gibralter for a while. We got back and Ana convinced us all to go to Club One. Minds blown. This club was nuts. Was it really Sunday?

Day 4 I wandered the city alone: Puerto Madero (another choripan); the Obeslik; Teatro Colón; El Alteneo, an old theater converted into a bookstore; the Congress building; back to Florida Street; home to San Telmo. I collapsed on the couch. Brendan, Tom, Will, and I made a delicious dinner and I had my first Fernet and Cola night. Thanks Andy for helping me adjust to this taste before BA. I’ve had enough Fernet to last me a lifetime now. Everyone went out together for La Bamba del Tiempo – a 20 person drum ensemble on stage. Amazing music, 1L drinks, lots of dancing. The show ended and the drummers led us on a street party parade. Cheap street beers along the way. We were all having the time of our lives. The party ended at a club; more drinks, lots more dancing, even more pictures. Could this night get any better? 5 am we got home, my wallet was gone. Shit. There goes my license. We got panchos (gross cheese-covered hot dogs).

The next day I woke up too soon after going to sleep with a miserable hangover. Off to Uruguay.

I returned two days later and had to go to my new hostel in Palermo. I missed America del Sur, so I went back to visit. Hung out with and unfortunately say bye to Tom, the first of the BA group to move on.

Friday. Productivity day. Blog posts to write, 401k funds to move, US dollars acquired in Uruguay to exchange. That night I met up with another friend of that same home friend for the Palermo pub crawl. New fun in a new neighborhood. Does any night ever end before 4:00 am?

Saturday. Is this Day 5 or 6? I don’t think Thursday really counts, so let’s call it 5. I slept well past hostel breakfast and treated myself to brunch outside in Palermo. It’s what you do there anyway. Ana came over and we played in Palermo park: we tried to join some group choreographed dancing (we were so lost) and attempted some rollerblading/skating. We didn’t fall! Victory wine and cheese for dinner, had back at America del Sur of course. Louise and Katrina from Mendoza were there now – what?! They had made friends with the same people I had now made friends with before they went to Mendoza. Of course. It was a special La Bamba del Tiempo night. Our traveler group and the hostel girls all went together. Too many drinks, one big blur.

Sunday it was back to America del Sur for everyone’s favorite sandwich shop, El Banco Rojo, and nursing our hangovers in Recoleta park. We wandered briefly through the Recoleta Sunday Market, and I got my Argentina bracelets with Ana’s help. Back to the hostel. Movies and take-out Chinese food for dinner. Bus back to Palermo with Alex; no Club One for us this time.

Monday it was time to be a tourist again. I met two nice Dutch girls at the hostel and we explored Recoleta cemetery together followed by empanadas. I wandered back to the hostel through the Recoleta and Palermo neighborhoods, soaking in the city. Met up with Alex to explore Palermo more. We were somehow matching exactly: tan alpaca sweater, blue shorts, slip on shoes. The point was to just walk the streets, window shop, dream about what it would be like to be in Palermo with money to spend. We ended up in the park, said hi to some ducklings, it was a beautiful day. Dinner at Burger Joint, which has just as fantastic burgers as everyone said it did. Back to America del Sur. It was Raj’s last night so we all went to Club Severino. More dancing, more pictures, even more fun. I love these people. Home at sunrise.

Tuesday it rained. I took advantage to hibernate, blog, get a great salad at a local organic vegetarian restaurant (my body thanked me). Got a text: Brendan was leaving sooner than I expected, so it’s back to America del Sur. I arrived just in time to say bye to Will. This was happening already? Lounging with everyone on the couches, Brendan finally went to catch his bus. We were all so sad. Alex, Ana and I made dinner, then we went back to the basement to watch a movie but were relegated to the bean bags on the floor. Who were these new people on our couches? I said bye to Louise before I left, and on my way out I said bye to America del Sur.

Wednesday it was just Alex, Ana and me left, and we were all in Palermo now. Alex and I had another Palermo day, taking advantage of the Wednesday deals. We picked up some insanely delicious ice cream for lunch on the way to the MALBA, which is only AR$25 on Wednesdays. Great museum, incredible light exhibit. Alex imagined the whole thing as a DJ set. Dinner at La Cabrera. This fantastic Argentinian steak house has a happy hour deal on Wednesday from 7-8: 40% off the entire menu. We ate like we were not backpackers – half a filet minion for me, a whole one for Alex, tons of side sauces (plus free fries from our generous waiter, despite honestly saying we had no money), and we shared a bottle of Malbec. One of the best meals of our lives. After dinner I met up with Ana, who had moved into my hostel, and we were surprised to see Kye from America del Sur was our new roommate too. House party at Alex’s. It’s almost over.

Thursday was my last day. Ana and I were slow to start but eventually made it to my friend’s recommended place for open-faced empanadas before doing some shopping and getting drenched in a downpour. Ana said BA was crying for my last day like it did on Brendan’s. Around 4:00 Alex came over, and he, Ana, Kye, and I had tea with sweets. How British (Alex and Kye are Brits, Ana is Ecuadorian). It was my last night in BA so Ana, Alex and I went out in Palermo. Ridiculous night. I can’t even describe it. Out till sunrise, we were still hanging out in the hostel common area when they were setting up breakfast. I couldn’t believe I had a flight in a few hours.

Friday I got in a cab and went to the airport. It was all over. Time to change continents. In the BA airport I was just sad to leave, messaging friends and instagramming pictures of BA. I used my layover in Santiago to transition; I tried to move into a mindset that was looking forward to the next part of my trip in New Zealand.

So there’s the answer to what I did in BA. I’m sure you can guess why it meant so much, but I’ll save that for another post. I need some time to figure out how to write that one too.

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Thoughts from Rotorua

October 23, 2014. Standing in the wonderland of the Redwood Forest, staring at soaring trees above an ice blue river.

“In the beginning of this adventure when I would tell people I was doing a Round the World trip I think a part of me didn’t really believe it. I would tell them my itinerary and inside be laughing at myself because in truth my reaction mirrored theirs. I’m now halfway across the world in New Zealand and almost halfway through this trip, and I finally believe myself. I really am doing a RTW trip. I am around the world right now. This is happening, it’s real, I made it.”

Road Trip South Island: Queenstown, Take 2

Now this was the end of the road. Frank and Josi had flights out on Thursday, not just out of Queenstown but out of New Zealand – Frank moving on to Chile and Josi going home to Australia – so after returning from Milford Sound, the place that felt so much like a final adventure together, we decided to just hang out and chat over a chill beer at 1876.

This was our kind of place. Nice outdoor tables and good cheap beers, it was a great atmosphere to enjoy each other’s company on a pseudo-warm evening. One beer turned into two turned into going to the liquor store for more on our way back to the hostel. And while we were debating how many we should get who walks into the beer aisle but Karim from Wanaka! Frank and I were overjoyed to have our two travel buddies together, so obviously we went with a 15-pack of Speights and all hung out in our room for a few hours. I knew I didn’t have to say bye to Karim when I left Wanaka.

I had planned to leave Queenstown on Wednesday but that night Josi convinced me to stay one more day. She and Frank were leaving Thursday, so I should wait till then too. This was definitely the right decision; I had two more days in Queenstown to just hang out with the people who had become more to me than just travel buddies, they were my close friends.

The next morning we returned Fez. It was a sad moment for all. Then Frank and I had to hitchhike back into Queenstown from the airport. My first real hitchhiking experience! It made sense to try this in New Zealand, land of nice helpful people, and with a 6’3″ British guy to scare away the crazies. We were picked up by a very nice Irishman in less than 5 minutes who dropped us off right at our hostel door. My first hitchhiking was a success.

Due to bad weather, we lost all motivation to be active this day so instead we watched movies inside, eating the hostel’s free popcorn and soup (Southern Laughter, it’s related to the one in Franz Josef). Sometimes you have to love those lazy hostel days. Plus Josi had never seen Love Actually before. How was that possible?! Obviously we had to right this wrong immediately.

Our last day together was pretty much a summary of our trip: hiking and hanging out. First we went on a hike up Queenstown Hill. It was a perfect choice for the day, uphill enough to feel like we expended energy but, at an hour and a half return, short enough that it wasn’t a huge undertaking. The view at the top was fantastic. We could see from Queenstown to Frankton, looking out over the lake and with the background of The Remarkables mountain range. We took our time on the way down, pausing to take pictures and have some interesting discussions on a bench. Traveling for so long and having such fleeting interactions with people I sometimes missed the deeper conversations I can have with people from home. Frank, Josi and I were at the point of deep conversation, had been for a bit now, and that was very much present in our walk.

That night we took it easy; out for dinner and hanging out at the hostel with some wine. We tried to say our goodbyes at night since Josi and I had to leave early the next morning but none of us were ready. We all woke up early, in time to see a beautiful pink sunrise sky over the mountains, and first said bye to Josi. At least for now. We agreed that it wasn’t goodbye, it was see you soon. We made a plan to reunite in Berlin over the summer, and more short-term I will see Josi in Melbourne in a month.

An hour or so later, Frank walked me to the bus station. We had known each other for 19 days, but it felt like years. It was a big risk to decide to travel together after more or less 15 minutes of conversation and we would have been lucky to even just get along, but who could have predicted that we would become so close over that short time. I guess that’s what happens when you do a road trip in a foreign place together, when you experience intense new things like skydiving together, or share a new favorite place in the world like Wanaka. Although we are going different directions from here – Frank to South America and me to Asia – I know we will see each other again. It just wouldn’t be right if we didn’t, the universe isn’t that mean, and we won’t let it happen. Frank – you know I miss you, because we still talk all the time, and don’t you ever lose touch.

Road Trip South Island: Milford Sound

Milford Sound is majestic. It is breathtaking, jaw-dropping, peaceful, beautiful.

It is the end of the world.

I had hoped I would make it to Milford Sound somehow, so when Josi said she was thinking about renting a car to go from Queenstown around the time that our car had to be dropped off in Queenstown it was just too perfect. Milford Sound would be the final excursion in our road trip adventure. So we drove 4 hours on Sunday to stay the night in Milford Sound Lodge before we boarded the earliest (and cheapest) boat ride on Monday morning at 9:15 am.

The drive there was already epic. The road wound first through forest and then through marshes with cloud cover all around; we weren’t able to see most of the mountains that were surrounding us but the “Warning: Avalanche Zone” signs told us they were there. At one point we had to wait for a light to tell us it was our turn to enter a tunnel cut into a mountain. This tunnel was dimly lit by a single row of lights on the ceiling and had no end in sight; we just knew we were going down. Thank you to the tape gods for choosing to play Bruce’s “I’m Going Down” during this part of the drive. “I’m going down, down, down, down, down.” So appropriate.

We arrived at Milford Sound Lodge and I immediately loved the serenity. Located in a valley between soaring mountains, it was an escape from the rest of the world. The evening was all about relaxing; we hung out in our coziest clothes, reading, writing blog posts, and sharing stories. We cooked a fantastic veggie curry with rice and played cards until bedtime. No internet, nowhere to go, and nothing to do but chill. It was great.

The next morning it was time to see the main attraction. We made it safely out of the parking lot, avoiding the pesky kea and sand flies that surrounded the cars, and arrived at the harbor in shockingly perfect weather. Milford is one of the wettest regions in the world and somehow we had blue skies. People say that it’s better in rain, but after seeing it in sun I think they just say this because most people don’t get to see it in nice weather.

The early boat was definitely the way to go (and I would recommend the one we chose, Jucy). These boats could easily fit a couple hundred people, but we had about 20. It was almost a private tour. It had free tea and coffee the entire time to warm you up, and the captain periodically told us facts and stories over the loudspeaker. It was an enjoyable, well done tour.

Then there was the scenery. There’s no way to do it justice. We were in awe the entire time. Mountains covered in green trees rose up out of the dark water. Waterfalls were everywhere; they seemed moderate in comparison to the mountains but were actually the height of skyscrapers. Sun rays flooded over the mountain peaks and created rainbows in the waterfalls. The entire scene was magical.

The water was fairly calm so the boat took us all the way out into the Tasman Sea and then back through the fjord, with two quick detours: one to see a building where they study the fjord with a snow-covered mountain background, and one to take a quick dip in one of the largest waterfalls in the fjord. We had plenty of warning and most people went inside to dry safety, but I braved the cold downpour to get it all on GoPro video. I think it was worth it.

We were sad when the cruise ended but you would never know it by the huge smiles on all of our faces. There’s a reason Milford Sound is talked about as being one of the best experiences in New Zealand: because it is. Any positive thing you’ve ever heard about Milford is right. It is an amazing landscape, nature that renders you speechless. All I wanted to do was stare, contemplate, and smile. Absolutely incredible.

The drive back out of Milford was just as epic as the drive in. With blue skies we were able to see the mountains and waterfalls that we had missed on our way in. I’m so happy we saw it both ways: mysterious in cloud cover, impressive in clear weather. And again the tape gods gave us something to laugh about: on our way back up through the mountain tunnel we were treated with M People’s “Moving On Up.” “I’m moving on up. You’re moving on out. Movin’ on up. Nothing can stop me.”

A few hours later we were back in Queenstown. Something about this trip to Milford Sound felt very final. After a fantastic road trip, Frank, Josi and I had gone to the end of the world and back together. We had come from the sandy beaches of Abel Tasman through the dreary downpour of Hokitika and the skydive-induced excitement of the glaciers to the peaceful fiord of Milford. This was the best part of my time in New Zealand and I couldn’t have imagined better travel companions to experience it with and a better way to end it than the magnificent Milford Sound.

Road Trip South Island: Queenstown, Take 1

Queenstown: the end of the road. Well, almost.

We arrived in Queenstown on Saturday the 11th and had to drop off the car on Tuesday the 14th, so we decided to do one final trip to Milford Sound on Sunday-Monday. So we experienced Queenstown twice: pre-Milford tourist Saturday and post-Milford hang out together because we don’t want to the road trip to be over time.

When we went to Queenstown I had to remind myself how much people liked it. We were already a day late because we were having too good of a time in Wanaka, but we had to keep moving, so I tried to have a positive attitude as we wound our way down the roller coaster mountain pass into Queenstown. The approach was gorgeous and the town looked like a lively ski town, so I was initially into it.

We embraced the touristy-ness of Queenstown that Saturday. We wandered around town, in and out of shops, tasted some fudge (which we would do two more times during our stay there), and stumbled onto a market at the waterfront park. After hanging around outside for a bit we went full tourist and took the Skyline Gondola up to the luge.

The view from the top is really great – it looks over all of Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu, and The Remarkables mountain range (modest, eh?) – but we were skeptical about the luge. Luge is a bit of an exaggeration; you ride a kind of scooter with steering abilities down a winding concrete road. In the summer in Vermont when there was no snow on the mountains they had something called the Alpine Slide. As a kid I used to ride this all the time. There were a few track options and they had similar luge-like apparatuses that you rode down on (although much less sophisticated), but these narrow slides actually looked like smaller luge tracks and went down an entire mountain side, vertical enough to get some air on jumps or go sideways up a sharp turn. They also lasted probably 5-10 minutes each. Having grown up with those I have to admit, this luge was a bit disappointing. It was pretty short, less than 2 minutes, and not nearly as exciting. But ignoring the comparison it still made for a fun afternoon, especially when I passed Frank (ha ha).

Back at the hostel we reunited with Josi and planned our Milford Sound adventure. Then we decided it was time to finally go out. We had had some relaxed beer and wine nights along the way, but none of us had really experienced much nightlife in New Zealand. Queenstown seemed like the place for it. We started with dinner at the famous Fergburger, the burger joint that everyone kept telling us we had to go to. I’m sorry to be a burger-snob American but what is the big deal with this place? Overrated. Just because it’s huge doesn’t mean it’s a good burger. For starters it’s really just the bun that is large (and not very good), and the thin patty was cooked too well. Unless you got it loaded with so much crap that it barely resembled a burger anymore it just wasn’t worth talking about. Sorry if that offends some people. Come to SF, I’ll get you a real burger.

We spent the rest of the night barhopping from one drink special to the next and saw the range of nightlife options in the quiet season of Queenstown: from the start of the Stray bar crawl to an underground punk rock show to the top 40’s if it was 2010 dance club (where we all felt a bit too old) to the bar that hands out marshmallows to roast over their indoor fire pit. Conclusion? Meh, ok. Maybe our impression was skewed because it was in between seasons so town was a little quiet, or maybe it just wasn’t for us, but none of us came away feeling like Queenstown nightlife was all that impressive.

I feel like I’m hating on Queenstown too much right now. It’s not like there’s anything wrong with Queenstown, I think maybe I just expected too much and my first day there was a bit of a let down. So we got away for two days and came back on Monday night. I swear, it gets better.

 

Road Trip South Island: Wanaka

I love Wanaka. From the minute we arrived in this town I instantly I knew it would be hard to leave. Now that I’ve left, I want to go back. As I’m writing this I’m actually wondering if it’s possible to go back before I fly out next week. No, it’s not possible, but if at some point in the future you hear I moved to Wanaka don’t be surprised.

There is something about Wanaka that is addictive. Maybe it’s the picturesque setting on a perfect blue lake with postcard worthy mountains in the distance. Maybe it’s the laid back vibe of the small alpine village. Maybe it’s the chill people you meet who at one point or another also felt like they didn’t want to leave, and actually followed through with staying. Maybe it’s the clean mountain air. Maybe it’s all of this and more. Hell we didn’t even see it during the peak ski season or in warm summer… One day.

I would call the drive between the coast and Wanaka breathtaking but that would contradict the video footage: it has a soundtrack of “oh my god” “wow” and “beautiful” on repeat. With mountains on one side and first Lake Wanaka and then Lake Hawea on the other side, it is easily the most beautiful road I’ve ever driven.

Frank and I spent our first night in Wanaka sitting at a lakefront bar, outside underneath heaters, enjoying good local beer – a tasty IPA! – while staring at the landscape. We talked to the bartenders, one moved here from New Jersey for ski season, and JB met up with us for a beer as we all waited for the eclipse to happen. Night one and we saw a glowing red moon. The universe aligned and gave us yet another reason to gawk in Wanaka.

The next day Frank, JB and I hiked Mount Iron, a lovely hour and a half return hike with a view over the town and lake. We hung out on top for a while, doing handstands and just laying there taking it all in. After the hike we said bye to JB, it was time for him to move on to Queenstown, and Frank and I continued exploring. We walked along the calm lakeside path and up to the Rippon winery for a free tasting (of 7 wines). This has to be the most stunning view I’ve seen at a winery; sorry Sonoma, but don’t worry, your wines win by far. Another afternoon spent wandering through gorgeous scenery just chatting with Frank, and another afternoon that solidified our friendship.

When we got back to the Matterhorn South Hostel, a cozy, friendly place that I definitely recommend, our new friend Karim was back from work and ready to play frisbee golf. This introductory round of frisbee golf was our first of three games in two days. The frisbee golf course in Wanaka is, of course, amazing. There’s nothing quite as enjoyable as following your frisbee around rolling hills and pine tree obstacles while sharing a 12-pack of Speights with new friends. For those of you who have ever seen me try to throw a frisbee you won’t be surprised that I started out a little shaky to say the least, but I soon caught on (or maybe it was the beer?). Game two the next afternoon we picked up a new player Alex, and game three he brought a soccer ball. After all the frisbees were in we had to juggle the soccer ball until it also made it in the basket. Because why not invent new fun outdoor games in Wanaka, home to all the outdoor awesomeness you could ever want?

The night after our initial frisbee golf game (Wanaka night 2) we had burritos for dinner. Really good ones from a food truck. I actually ate the entire thing. I have no idea how that was possible, but I think going over 4 months without a San Francisco burrito had something to do with it. Over burritos and beers Karim successfully convinced Frank and I to stay another day. Queenstown could wait.

The next morning I went for a run around the other side of the lake, my first run in I don’t even want to admit how long. As I ran I thought to myself: “Hiking, running, IPA’s, wine tasting, burritos, frisbee golf – is this San Francisco in New Zealand?” It felt like home in a small lakeside mountain town. It was everything I love combined, which of course confused the hell out of me. Did I really want to move to NZ?

I didn’t really set out on this trip expecting to solve any life dilemmas or find the real me. I knew there were parts of my personality that it would bring out more than others and of course I would discover more about myself, but I didn’t leave because I felt lost or confused with who I was before. As will happen with any major life experience like this, along the way questions have arisen about what comes next when this is over. I admit there are times that I say I hope it’s never over, I’ll travel forever, but sometimes I have to acknowledge that it may end. And then what?

I have gone back and forth before – Chile for example – between thinking that I am meant to live in a small town surrounded by stunning nature, and thinking that a city is the right place for me. Wanaka didn’t help at all. Leaving Buenos Aires I thought that I wanted city life, but now maybe I preferred rural. So what did I leave Wanaka thinking?

San Francisco is the right place for me. It has the city that I love, but the access to the outdoors that I crave. If it’s at all possible to spend half my time in SF and half my time in Tahoe I think I really could have the best of both worlds. So maybe I found my happy place already in Northern California, and I just had to go to the opposite side of the world to realize it.

But don’t hold me to that. I still have 5 months to go before I have to make any decisions.

My last night in Wanaka, Frank, Karim and I made moussaka and hung out at the hostel. Leaving the next day was so sad but I refused to say goodbye, first to Karim – see you in Sydney buddy, and then in the Austrian Alps, and maybe one day in Cairo (please?) – and then to Wanaka. I just couldn’t say goodbye to a place that will undoubtedly be my favorite part of New Zealand.

Road Trip South Island: Glacier Country

It is unfortunate that the weather on the West Coast is so bad. The drive between Hokitika and Franz Josef was mostly strong winds and rain. A few hours after we arrived there was a break in the rain so we raced to see Franz Josef Glacier before night fell. The combination of being the only people there and the dusk light created a peaceful viewing. It’s a good thing we made it that first night; we had hoped to do one more short Franz Josef hike on Wednesday morning before we left the coast but the weather was so terrible that we just hit the road.

This meant that we had one good day in Glacier Country. Tuesday morning was consumed with the excitement of skydiving, but after the celebratory drinks we still had half the day left to explore – even if we were a bit tipsy for the first hike.

Hike 1 was to a viewpoint of Fox Glacier. The 1 hr 30 min return hike was a fun challenge: it started with an uphill climb through forest that led us to a rocky terrain, where we had to figure out how to traverse a glacial river before we could continue through more trees to the lookout. We ran into an Aussie duo and together the five of us figured out the best rocks to jump across and hopefully not fall in. We were successful. The trail ended at a wooden platform with a view of the whole Fox Glacier.

Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers are both in beautiful settings, but unfortunately they have receded a lot in the past 100 years. Having been lucky enough to see some impressive glaciers in the Alps in Austria and Switzerland, I can’t say that these were the best to me. I think of them more as part of a larger spectacular mountain range.

Hike 2 was around Lake Matheson. This loop stroll is recommended for the mirror-like lake that reflects its backdrop of Mount Tasman and Mount Cook. It was now late afternoon and our adrenaline had calmed down, so this was a tranquil walk with plenty of viewpoints to stop and take in the surroundings. Just your usual gorgeous New Zealand landscape.

We made it back to the hostel, Chateau Franz, in time to have the free vegetable soup for dinner. This hostel had some great perks: it included soup at 6, breakfast till 10, popcorn all afternoon, unlimited wifi, and international phone calls, plus a hot tub. We were hoping to relax in the hot tub that night but it was unfortunately more of a luke warm tub so we opted for a movie night instead. The next morning Frank and I said bye to Josi; she was going to hang out for a couple more days and hopefully get in another hike or two. It was more of a see you later than a goodbye though: we would reunite in Queenstown that weekend.

However our back seat did not remain empty. We met our new travel buddy JB at our hostel in Franz Josef. He was on his way to Queenstown and we were going to Wanaka, which is 3/4 of the way to Queenstown, so we offered to take him there. Typical New Zealand travel story.

Road Trip South Island: Skydiving Over Fox Glacier

I went skydiving! I was going to try to write about Glacier Country first and then casually bring up the skydiving, but let’s be honest, there is no casually bringing up skydiving. And it’s way more accurate to my emotions if I just blurt it out up front.

I knew I wanted to skydive in New Zealand from the early stages of planning this trip, it was just a matter of when and where. Frank, on the other hand, had no such plan until he met me. Again, you’re welcome Frank. I had seen advertisements and gotten recommendations from friends about where to go – Glenorchy, Wanaka, Queenstown, Franz Josef Glacier – but it was the receptionist at our hostel in Hokitika that convinced us to skydive over Fox Glacier. A sport diver who has done over 2,000 jumps, when he started talking about skydiving we all got giddy with excitement. His enthusiasm was contagious and we were all ready to jump that minute; we almost had Josi convinced to skydive too. This guy has jumped all over the place but thinks Fox is the best there is, and he’s not alone.

Fox is rated #2 in the world for locations to skydive; the first is Mount Everest, which is $35,000 for a tandem dive, so I think this makes Fox the #1 place realistically speaking. As I mentioned before, weather on the West Coast is pretty terrible, so our new friend in Hokitika checked the radar and saw that Tuesday morning would be our best bet; it looked like there would be a pocket of clear skies. He knew the guys there so he offered to call and book it for us in the morning. This meant we had the night to decided between 12,000 ft and 16,000 ft (and between NZ$299 and NZ$399 – this was not a cheap adventure).

The next morning we called and booked a 16,000 ft jump for Tuesday morning at 10:00 am. Which was the next day. 24 hours later. Go big or go home.

What do you do the night before your first skydive? We didn’t know either, so after checking in at our hostel in Franz Josef we just hung out in our room with a beer each and tried to calm our nerves. Josi was no help with her constant countdown: “Just 12 hours till you jump out of a plane!” It’s a miracle I got any sleep that night.

It’s hard to describe the nervous stages before, during and after the jump. At first I felt calm, surprised at how not nervous I was. Arriving, gearing up, watching the first group take off in the plane, it all felt fairly matter-of-fact. Then the bus came back to pick us up (the landing site was a few minute drive away) and the nerves kicked in. Mauro, the cheery Argentinan who was responsible for making sure I lived, ran up to me and without giving me any time to think led me right to the plane, snapped a quick picture, and on we went. Frank and Chelsea quickly followed. It was at this point that I realized I would be the last to jump; I was sitting furthest away from the door. Shit. I was hoping to go first. Within seconds the plane took off. No turning back now.

Mauro talked me through harnessing us together and pointed out the sites around us – Mount Cook, Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, the mountain range halfway across the island – which was helpfully distracting. Because we were going to spend a decent amount of time climbing above 10,000 ft we had to wear oxygen masks for a part of the flight. When the mask came off I went silent; when I get that nervous I just don’t talk. As I write this my heart is racing.

The door opened and Chelsea was gone. Peak nervousness. A few seconds later and Frank was gone. “Oh my god oh my god oh my god.” I was now dangling out of the plane. Hold the harness, head back, legs back. Mauro: “Ready, set…”

Freefall. LOUD SCREAM. I felt Mauro tap tap tap on my shoulder and I moved into the banana formation – arms back, look straight ahead. There was nothing above us but the plane; we were even above Mount Cook, the highest peak in NZ. To my right were snow-covered mountains, to my left was ocean, and for the entire 65 seconds of freefall I was smiling the biggest shit-eating grin you’ve ever seen (and not just because my face was a little frozen from falling through some ice). That view. Beyond words.

A quick hand-motion countdown and Mauro pulled the parachute. Time to ease our way back down to earth. We played around a bit, twirling to see the view before it was time to land. A few minutes later and it was all over, I had done my first skydive.

Safely back on the ground I ran and jumped on Frank. We were alive! And the adrenaline running through both of us was insane. Even Josi, who filmed our take-off and landing (thank you!), was so excited. When Mauro was detached from the chute I gave him a big hug and he picked me up and spun me around.

After getting my pictures (Mauro had a GoPro strapped to his hand the whole time) we went straight to a bar. Celebratory beers and shots for all. The rest of the day and for days after I would replay the dive in my mind, hoping to not totally forget it. The excitement of being in the plane, the fear of falling out of it, the happiness looking at the view, the playful landing.

I was able to pick out the most nerve-racking parts of the experience: 1) when the van came back and I realized it was my turn to go; 2) when the door opened and Chelsea disappeared; 3) the initial freefall, when your mind can still grasp that you just left safety and before the amazement at the view takes over; and 4) the instant the parachute was pulled and the only time I thought, “this could snap and I could fall to my death.” Those moments still make my heart skip, but then they remind me of the incredible experience it all was. As soon as it was over I immediately wanted to go again; that feeling has worn off a bit, but I would bet that I’ll skydive again in my life.

I can’t think of a better place for my first skydive than Fox Glacier. The view is unbeatable, and at 16,000 ft there was enough time to take it all in. We got so lucky with the weather too; by the afternoon the clouds came in and rain was back by nightfall. So thanks universe for making sure there was a clear moment so that I could have this incredible experience. New Zealand, you’re awesome.

Road Trip South Island: Great Coast Road

It was sad to say goodbye to Abel Tasman, but we had to keep moving south. We picked up a new passenger when we left The Barn, Josefin from Germany. She was hoping to get down the coast to Hokitika, and we were going to Greymouth just an hour closer on the same road, so she jumped in the car with us. And as things go in NZ, we ended up all continuing to Hokitika and staying together through Glacier Country, then reuniting in Queenstown. I can now add Josi to the list of people who have meant a lot to my experience and I hope to see again in life. In fact I will see her again in about a month, she lives near Melbourne now.

This was another day dedicated to driving, but it was supposedly on one of the most beautiful roads in the world. The stretch between Westport and Greymouth is known as the Great Coast Road and was rated among the Top 10 Coastal Drives in the world by Lonely Planet. Obviously this meant we were excited to see what it would look like, but the weather didn’t seem to care: rain and clouds the whole way. It didn’t matter though really, in any weather the landscape would be impressive. When we reached the coast we saw rows of waves starting far out into the ocean and crashing into the rocky coastline in succession. I think the stormy weather actually may have enhanced our impression, it made it a little more ominous and less normally beautiful.

We stopped halfway at Punakaiki to see the Pancake Rocks. These rock formations have been carved over centuries, with the result of looking like stacked pancakes, or as a friend pointed out like laser cut models (so true). The lines were so perfect they almost looked fake. And then to make this place look even less real, there was jungle on the hillside behind us. It was so crazy to see stormy ocean on one side of the rocks and then jungle on the other side.

So was the Great Coast Road one of the most beautiful drives? Honestly, no. As far as coastal drives go, I think Big Sur is better and Josi said the Great Ocean Road by Melbourne definitely beats it. For NZ drives, the stretch between Haast and Wanaka is the most scenic to me so far. Considering we wanted to go to the glaciers anyway it was worth driving this route, but it didn’t need more time than just the afternoon.

An interesting thing about driving down the West Coast of NZ, or driving around NZ in general, is the one lane bridges. For some reason there are bridges everywhere that only have one lane, even though they serve two way roads. So one direction has to yield to the other or you’ll collide head-on in the middle. One of the bridges we crossed was for two directions of traffic and a train – the tracks ran straight down the middle. I found this baffling and also nerve-racking, at least at first. Why not just build a second lane? This also happens on some mountain roads when there isn’t enough pavement for two lanes, and sometimes you can’t really see around the bend but hope you got it right. In really long or blind stretches there are lights controlling who goes to make sure no one collides. Just another quirky Kiwi thing.

The rain didn’t let up as we drove past dreary-looking Greymouth, so we kept going to Hokitika. We spent the night in the hostel with frozen pizza, wine, and two Lord of the Rings movies. That doesn’t sound like much, but it was a night we all said was a highlight of the road trip. Something about just hanging out with new friends in the middle of nowhere in coastal NZ while a storm rages outside stuck with us all. Josi’s original plan for Hokitika was to walk the beach looking for jade stone but the weather didn’t want that to happen, so she decided to keep going with us. The next morning we all departed for Glacier Country, and a whole new jaw-dropping landscape.

Road Trip South Island: Abel Tasman

Our original South Island plan was to wake up really early and make it to Abel Tasman National Park in time to do a walk, stay one night there, and move on to the coast the next day. After rushing through the North Island we decided it wasn’t necessary to keep moving at such a fast pace so we enjoyed a leisurely morning in Picton before hitting the road. It was a great call; we were able to sleep in, enjoy the drive, and get to Abel Tasman in the afternoon, a place we soon discovered deserved more than just a quick trip.

Leaving Picton we made a very important stop for the rest of our road trip: we got 5 tapes at a thrift store. Why so important? Fez only had radio or a tape player, and we accurately guessed that most of the drive through South Island wilderness wouldn’t have any radio signal. The selection was not the best, but we walked away with a few options: 60’s Chart Toppers (surprisingly good), Hooked on Rock and Roll (surprisingly bad), Interstate Truckers Original Artists (imagine Johnny Cash as a long haul truck driver), The Best of M People (the Brit chose this one, I had no idea who they were), and Bruce Springsteen (obviously the winner). The songs on these tapes will forever remind me of New Zealand. There were some moments where the fates aligned and the song was absolutely perfect for the situation, some where it was totally wrong, and some where we were just a bit delusional and the song became intertwined with our loss of sanity. For example: it was very rainy this day and 60’s Chart Toppers decided to play “I Can See Clearly Now the Rain is Gone.” Rude. Or when Frank and I sang a duet to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (yes I do have that on video). There will be more of these as I continue posting…

After a short lunch stop in Nelson, made even shorter by the unwelcome downpour we got stuck in, we got our first taste of hilly South Island roads. We decided to pass Moteuka in favor of staying in Marahau, which is at the entrance to the park. The approach was a winding downhill road with views of forest as far as the eye could see, until we reached the bottom, came around the bend and were greeted with the most perfect turquoise sea. We pulled off to marvel at the ocean and spotted a rainbow in the distance. That’s it, South Island, you’ve got us hooked.

We drove through town – if you can call it a town, it’s more like a hamlet; no traffic lights, one convenience store, a smattering of hotel and housing options – and ended up at The Barn. This hostel must be incredible in summer: it has an outdoor kitchen, pool table, BBQ area, tent and campervan spaces, and a ring of two person huts. It still was great for spring though since the indoor lounge and kitchen has a wood burning fireplace to keep everyone warm. Just to give you an idea how cold it still is here, we woke up to see fresh snow on top of the hills behind us. Don’t be deceived by the sunny beaches in the pictures, it’s not quite summer yet. We opted to stay in one of the huts even though it wasn’t heated (it was cheaper for 2 than the dorm rooms); just two beds and a light, so serene.

On the ferry ride we had decided to go on a wifi detox when we got to the South Island and The Barn was the perfect place for it. It is one of the most chill hostels I’ve been to so far. As soon as we arrived I had one of the most enjoyable showers of my whole trip, with a panoramic window looking out at the quiet beginning of Abel Tasman park and the ocean, and that night we cooked dinner and hung out with some of the other guests.

The next day we took a water taxi to Bark Bay, about halfway up the coast of the park, and walked back along the Abel Tasman Coast Track. When I say water taxi you probably imagine a nice little dock with a catamaran sort of boat. At least that’s what we were imagining. We were very wrong. We boarded the little 20-person speedboat in a parking lot and then were actually pulled into the water by a tractor. I have never seen this before. Crazy Kiwis.

The trek we did is one of the Great Walks and you can easily see why. It’s stunning. We started at a peaceful horseshoe bay with tan sand and vibrant blue water, then climbed up and around through forest before getting back down to another perfect beach. The scenery changed with the elevation and all of it was just beautiful.

Before we stopped for lunch at yet another perfect horseshoe beach at Anchorage we had to cross the ocean floor, literally. The tide changes so much here that at low tide you can actually walk across an area that is covered in water the rest of the day; our boat had driven over this area that morning to drop some people off. We tramped across tons of shells and traversed a freezing cold ocean water river to get to the other side, the whole time marveling at what we were doing. I had encouraged bringing a traditional American hiking lunch of peanut butter and banana sandwiches; apparently they don’t eat these in England, and now Frank has had this combination at least half a dozen times and will probably bring it back home with him. You’re welcome England.

The last leg of the walk led us to a viewpoint overlooking the coast. It was all hills covered in green trees descending to the blue ocean, separated by thin lines of sand. It was like we were in a postcard.

The hike took us around 5 and a half hours. We were happy to just chill at the hostel that night, enjoy a few beers, and chat with more fellow travelers. A few of the people we met meant to only be in Abel Tasman for a day or two and had decided to stay a week or more. It’s the kind of place that people don’t want to leave. As I soon discovered, most of New Zealand is that kind of place.

This day will forever be a highlight of my time in New Zealand, not just because the scenery was the definition of beautiful, but also because for hours Frank and I just walked and talked. We covered a whole range of topics from social to personal, political to cultural, and everything in between. Considering we had met for about 15 minutes when we decided to spend 2 weeks together, things were really working out. After a whole day just hanging out the two of us I could see that we would have a great road trip, and more importantly a great friendship. Writing this now, after our road trip has ended, I can say I was right.