I met Tato when I was in Cape Town in January. He was my neighbor at Longstreet Backpackers hostel and I remember being instantly relieved to meet him, a seasoned traveler who, like myself, was interested in culture and history, as opposed to a 21-year old student, who might be interested in drinking and going to every bar on the street. Tato is from Uruguay, is an ex-professional basketball player turned journalist and writer, and has a kind heart, cheerful spirit, and thoughtful approach to life. He and I formed a fast friendship and spent some time wondering around Cape Town together for a few days, which was comical in and of itself because Tato is about 6’7″ or so and I’m 5’3″. Tato and I talked about intentions and travel and how both can be a force of their own. It’s a common theme among all of the travelers who I have met along my journey. We all describe it in slightly different ways but in essence consider travel to be a living, breathing organism that can push and pull us in all sorts of directions. Like anything else in life, we can exert a lot of energy and frustration by pushing back or we can settle in and let the wave carry us. When Tato & I said our good-byes, Tato was off to the airport to fly to New Zealand and I was off to wine country in Franschoek. When I meet someone special like Tato, I always have an intention to stay in touch, but as travelers, we know that we come from different worlds and we have no idea when those worlds will collide again. We let the travels guide us.
As I continued my journey from South Africa to Australia and on to New Zealand, I began to feel that wave of travel energy more and more. It was all around me. I have tons of examples, but I think the best ones that I can share are those most recent in my mind from my time in New Zealand. If you read my last post, When the road takes a turn, hug the curve, you know that as I arrived in New Zealand, I made the decision to accept a short-term work assignment in Johannesburg. So, once that decision was made, I gave my mind a rest, stopped planning and surrendered to the pull of the organism so that I could enjoy complete freedom before starting work. There’s no doubt that I would ponder the future, but I allowed whimsy to guide my last 12 days, and as I did, I had some of the most amazing experiences.
First, there were my hosts in Auckland, Anna & Diana (and their 3 kids). Not only did they accept my last minute request to stay with them through Airbnb, but they allowed me to extend my stay day by day and when they learned of my decision and subsequent desire to rent a camper van, they jumped to assist me. Anna, a fellow traveler and explorer, knew of a site called Transfercar, a broker site used by rental agencies to find people like me who are willing to drive a vehicle back to the location where it is needed. There is no cost for the rental (and no contract); I would just need to pay for fuel and the ferry crossing, which I was planning to do anyway to see the south island.
Anna found a great deal for a camper van that offered a 5-day window to get to Christchurch, a trip that really only takes about 2 days if you drive direct, and within 48 hours, the site had accepted my request. Anna also found a great sale on a gps so that I could easily navigate the country without needing maps and wifi, and was able to offer me a ton of advice on various campsites. Just like that, I was on the road.
I knew I wanted to see both islands, but I really didn’t have a plan, so I just started driving. I had heard that Rotorua, land of thermal pools and beautiful lakes, was a nice spot so I headed in that direction. I stopped when I wanted to stop, explored when something looked interesting, soaked in thermal baths at the Polynesian spa, and camped in my camper van under New Zealand’s star-filled night sky. It was beautiful, sunny, quiet, and peaceful, and eventually I made it to Wellington. By that point, I was enjoying my camper van so much that I decided to message the rental company to see if I could keep it longer, which would simply mean that I would then have to pay the rental rate per day. It was late Friday night though, so I would have to await the response.
The next morning, I took the ferry across Cook Strait and decided that Golden Bay sounded lovely, so I would head in that direction. I drove up hills, along winding roads overlooking the ocean, and had to resist the urge to constantly pull over and take a picture. The best part about New Zealand is that it has heaps and heaps of amazing things to do and see all compacted into two little islands, so nothing is ever too far away.
I made it to Golden Bay by that evening and enjoyed a beautiful sunset over the ocean. I was supposed to return my camper van in Christchurch the next day, but since I hadn’t heard back from the rental company, I went to bed that night thinking I might just keep it and head down the West Coast of the south island to go see the Franz Josef glacier. And the next morning, that’s exactly what I did.
Now, up to this point, I had seen a large number of hitchhikers as I drove over the past 4 days, more than I had seen across all other countries combined, and I was very curious about this phenomenon. As I was heading out of Golden Bay, I decided to selectively pull over for a friendly female face to get a first hand account of why someone would choose to hitchhike.
Meet Tressa. She’s 33 years old, originally from Wayne, PA, and now calls Tahoe, CA her home. She developed an addiction to the “organism” of travel a long, long time ago and created a lifestyle of seasonal work that allows her to stay on the road most of the year. She’s done everything from grant writing for non-profit’s in California to being a carpenter’s assistant in Antarctica. And it turns out that she was on her way back to Antarctica but opted for a long stopover in New Zealand. Hitchhiking for her is just another form of adventure and it pushes and pulls her in directions that allow her to experience the culture of a country and it’s people in a way that the average traveller couldn’t even fathom. She carries a completely self-sufficient pack and when she can’t find a ride, she camps. She utilizes a bit of a barter system for her rides and offers her drivers tales of her adventures, a warm, optimistic, friendly exuberance, and whatever she picks up along the way, which happened to be fresh pears when I met her. Now, an interesting thing happens when you only have a vague notion of where you want to go next and you pick up someone who has a stronger notion. Our travel forces merge and are tempered. This happens with every encounter, but became very evident to me at that moment in time because I had been completely alone for the past four days on the road. Tressa was headed East to Christchurch & although I was tempted to go that way as well, I preserved my inclination to go West, so we drove for about 4 or 5 hours that day together and then parted ways. Leaving Tressa was a strange occurrence for me because she asked me to leave her on the side of the road, something I would never normally allow someone to do, so that she could find her next ride. I left her feeling awed by her bravery.
I stopped driving each day so that I could have a glass of wine and stare at the sunset. I camped that night in Greymouth and awoke in the morning to a text message from the camper van company telling me that the van was needed back in Christchurch for rental the next day. Ironic. I had just left Tressa on the side of the road the prior day and it turns out I needed to go to Christchurch after all. Fortunately, for me, it made little difference. I altered my course in my gps and hit the road. As I was driving through Arthur’s Pass, I decided to pull over and take a picture of the little town, and it just so happened that there was another hitchhiker standing there at the very spot where I stopped. I didn’t really notice him until I was getting out of my camper. It was complete coincidence, but I don’t really believe in coincidence. He seemed unassuming and well-mannered so I asked him where he was headed. “Mt. Cook”, he said. I explained that I didn’t really know where Mt. Cook was and that I was heading to Christchurch. He told me it was on the way, so I invited him to join me. Again, forces collided. His name was Vincent, he was from France, his profession was navigation specialist for sea vessels, and he had been traveling for the better part of 18 months. I’ll admit, at this point, I was intrigued… I was forming an opinion that hitchhikers are far more adventurous travelers than most.
It didn’t take us long to get to Christchurch and I explained to Vincent on the way that I didn’t really know what I was going to do after I got there because I was returning the camper van that I was driving and had to find a way to get to Queenstown for my flight to South Africa. Vincent, being the self-sufficient traveller that he was, didn’t seem to care all that much. He would simply find his next ride. When I dropped off my camper van, a day late I might add, the manager at Road Runner Rentals didn’t seem too bothered. Not only did he not charge me for the extra day, he offered me his office and his computer so that I could look up numbers to other rental agencies in town to find either a car or another camper van. There were no camper vans available, but I found a very reasonably priced car that I could drop off at the Queenstown airport. Voila!
Since Mt. Cook was on the way to Queenstown, I would now have to rent cabins or rooms, and it was supposed to rain that night, Vincent and I decided to keep traveling together. It would be easier to share some of the expense. Vincent also explained that I could still see the Franz Josef glacier by approaching Mt. Cook from the East Coast, so it was all working out quite well. Vincent was hitchhiking and camping his way through New Zealand, so he had the country mapped out far better than I did and his navigation was welcome. The next day, we headed for the mountain and what a day it was!
As we started our drive, it was overcast and ominous, but as we got closer to the mountain, the sun burned through the clouds and by early afternoon, a shimmering, snow-capped mountain stood looming before us. We did a few walks around the lower trails so that Vincent could investigate whether he was going to stay and camp. He decided that the weather was far warmer than he preferred while carrying his pack and there was little cover, so he would continue south with me to cooler temperatures. For me, however, there was no way I was leaving that mountain without seeing the glacier. So, we headed to the village airport and I negotiated the best rate for a snow plane landing onto the glacier.
This experience was incredible! The pilot was an expert who had been giving these rides for over 30 years, so he had a wealth of information. The mountain peaks were absolutely gorgeous and gleaming in the sunshine. We saw the Franz Josef glacier, Fox glacier, and landed on the Tasman glacier. I’m pretty sure that was the closest I’ll ever get to summiting a mountain so it was the highlight of my trip.
Now, just a note about the “living, breathing organism”… it turns out that because of the cloud cover on this particular day, if I had tried to take a helicopter or plane ride up to the glacier from the West Coast like I had originally intended, I never would have made it. Wayne, our pilot, told me that normally when he flew over the peaks, we would be able to see the ocean, but all we saw that day was a blanket of white, which meant that planes would be grounded on the West Coast . Thanks to Vincent, who I never intended to pick up in the first place, I experienced what I considered to be the highlight of my trip in New Zealand. I could feel the organism breathing…
By the next day, Vincent and I made it to Queenstown and although Mt. Cook was still the highlight, Queenstown was a close competitor. A city of about 23,000 people in the Lakes District, it is full of tourists, travelers who decide to stay, and lively energy. Vincent & I walked the Sky View Trail, lingered by the waterfront, had dinner in the Irish Pub and then came back in the evening for drinks after settling into our campsite. The next morning, my last full day, we found Vudu Cafe and enjoyed a delicious, leisurely breakfast. As I was sitting there, my thoughts wandered to South Africa and all the people I had met there. It seemed surreal that I would be going back there the next day. And just as the thought passed, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Tato! Tato was walking down the sidewalk past the cafe. I ran out the door and yelled his name down the street. He froze and then slowly turned around, stunned. I ran up and gave him a hug. I couldn’t believe it and neither could he. I asked him to join Vincent & I. We swapped stories and he explained all of the factors that delayed his travel to New Zealand. He revealed that he, too, had been hitchhiking down to the south from the north island. So, right then and there, I decided to pick up my third hitchhiker for one more day of fun.
We went to Arrowtown, home of the first Chinese mining settlement. It was quaint, adorned in budding autumn colors, and had plenty of delicious coffee shops. We took a walk along the river, popped into a few shops and then exchanged more stories over a cup of coffee. I was sitting there watching Tato and Vincent talk; like all of us were old friends. Another surreal moment.
Tato’s initial plan that day was to go to Kawarau Bridge, the home of buggy jumping, to watch some of the jumpers, so we headed there next. Vincent & I had already been there but it was a great spot and we didn’t mind going back. While I was standing there watching, I still couldn’t believe the accounts of the past days. I couldn’t believe that I was standing there with these two incredible men. I couldn’t believe that I was going to change my itinerary and go to work in South Africa. I thought, I just have to have faith. And then I felt the pull… yup, I was going to have to do it. Take a symbolic leap of faith.
That night, the three of us met up again for dinner and drinks. We remarked how amazing the organism of travel is. It was a crisp, beautiful night.
Normally, the night before I change countries, I feel a mix of emotion ranging from anxiety, anticipation, and excitement, to nervousness. Normally, I barely sleep. This night I felt nothing but calm gratitude. I could feel the organism living and breathing inside me. I knew I would let it take me wherever I was meant to go next…