There’s a reason New Zealand inspires filmmakers to shoot its unparalleled natural landscapes or use them to create even more fantasized versions of them in Lord of the Rings, Avatar, X-Men and more. Everything about this country feels bigger, greener, surrealistic and stunning. I spent a month in this country of physical (and in my case also emotional) extremes. There’s nothing about New Zealand that doesn’t test and ultimately reward you for making the long trek to the edge of the world to see this place for yourself. I experienced some of the lowest and highest moments of my 10 month journey, I felt more isolated than anywhere else I’d been and thankfully I also met some remarkable people that I believe will be lifelong friends. The country is so far and isolated from the rest of the world, I felt a bit like an explorer discovering new and unchartered lands. New Zealand transformed me into an outdoorsy person or at least as close as I was ever going to get as I faced harsh weather without winter gear. My tropical Southeast Asia clothes weren’t going to do me much good here.
My first stop was in Christchurch, a city that is unfortunately best known to many of us after the devastating earthquakes of 2010 and another smaller one in 2016. I really liked this city. You get a feeling of resilience everywhere you go and its residents who are still very much recovering from the natural disaster and aftermath. Some of the locals I met conveyed an attitude of moving on without complaint. That’s something I really admire about Kiwis, they’re used to handling hardcore weather conditions, remote areas, physical extremes and they do it with a friendly and optimistic ruggedness.
One of the best things about being a tourist in New Zealand is that they have these amazing I-Sites, which are the information centers for tourists and they help with everything from transportation, tours, hospitality and general questions. The super helpful woman at the Christchurch location helped me determine that I would take the Intercity bus system that you can use to bus all around both the south and north islands. I know a lot of people drive around the islands and camp, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing it on my own until I got to the north island where the majority of the population lives and in the end was happy with my decision. The South Island is a Jurassic World of forests, mountains, lakes, waterfalls, jaw dropping cliffs, fjords, glaciers, volcanoes and it felt like five kilometers there was something new and awesome and I wouldn’t have been surprised if I spotted dinosaurs roaming around.
Before I began my bus journey around the south, I took the famous TranzAlpine train from Christchurch to Arthur’s Pass National Park, home of the Franz Josef Glacier. The TranzAlpine was shut down the month before due to serious fires that took the line down for some time so I was lucky that the train just started running again. The ride gives you a plethora of opportunities to “oooooohhh and ahhhhhh” with the most incredible scenery. Arthur’s Pass Village is a tiny town, population total of 29 with a general store and two cafes. But you’re going to Arthur’s Pass to see the glacier, and do some of the many walks through the forest and mountains. Remember how much I loved Iceland’s glaciers? Turns out they’re also awesome in NZ.
I took the bus from Arthur’s Pass to Greymouth for a night where I stayed with an Airbnb host who gave me a friendly interrogation about Trump and how it was possible that he became the President of the “greatest country on Earth”. The Trump questions and concerns do not end and I can’t blame people for asking. Not too much going on in Greymouth, it’s a bit of an industrial town but a good stopping point.
Then I traveled from Greymouth to Wanaka, my favorite in the south and maybe all of NZ. I stayed in another Airbnb and met some friendly non-Kiwis who were both working and living in NZ and a lovely woman from the UK who was hiking all around the south. It was in Wanaka that I received news that someone in my family died and although it wasn’t necessarily unexpected, there’s always a shock that accompanies death.
When I started this trip last year, I lost my stepfather Richard, my grandmother and my aunt Su all within a span of a few months. I attended a memorial service for dad and my grandmother just a few weeks before I left the country and when I returned from Florida from the service, I packed up my things and left NYC. That time was a total blur and full of so many emotions: grief, guilt, regret, anger, and sadness to name just a few. At the same time, I tried hard to focus on the positives in my life and about the journey I was about to embark on and reminded myself that this limited time in life was part of what was driving my decision to do this. But the weight of my grief from losing my family was heavy as I started my “Year of Joy”.
I learned from the passing of my dad that complicated relationships in life leads to complicated feelings about their death. While he and I had not been in touch since he and mom divorced, his unexpected death sent me reeling. I felt the loss like a sledgehammer to my gut and was really surprised by how truly devastated I felt. How could I feel so grieved about someone who wasn’t even a part of my life in the last 15 years and with whom I always had a complicated and not very close relationship? I think it was the regret of not being as close as either of us probably would have liked that made the loss so final and cutting as well as a life cut short by alcoholism and not taking care of himself.
So when I found out about another death while I was quite literally as far from home as possible, I felt blindsided and the pain felt like a tidal wave knocking me down and every time I tried to catch my breath, I was taken under. I decided that I still needed to do what I could to try and be present for the gift of this trip and enjoy NZ so I did a lot of hiking. As previously mentioned, I’m not an outdoorsy person. I enjoy nature, but usually from afar in a protected vehicle. I’m often intimidated by it and here I am in NZ, basically nature on steroids. So much of my time in the South Island consisted of me pulling myself up higher and higher in vertical climbs that terrified me, that I wasn’t exactly practiced or familiar with and sliding down often tumbling on the way down, which is even more terrifying.
One of my most memorable moments was hiking Ben Lomond Trail in Queenstown, which I found really challenging. As usual, I was alone and stupidly did not tell anyone I was hiking alone. Not sure who I would tell. I heard it was a five to six hour hike if you go all the way up to the summit. By the time I reached a part of the trail called the “saddle” I was panting, my legs were spasming signaling SOS and I had been sobbing by myself for almost the entire two hours up to that point. I looked around and saw beautiful red pine trees, inspiring mountains, and a shimmering lake, but I couldn’t feel anything other than a blurry mix of heartbreak and exhaustion. At the saddle, the weather was starting to change from fairly cool, to much colder and I had to decide whether I’d try and summit to the top. I don’t even know if I weighed the decision consciously or if I just let the heartbreak momentum push me further up, but I realized quickly that the last bit was totally treacherous. I somehow got off the trail and found myself on an almost completely vertical area without any kind of trail and covered in sliding rocks. I slid several times, sometimes almost a couple of feet at a time and there was nowhere to grip to break the fall. I was genuinely scared and alone so I prayed “God, please don’t let me die alone on this mountain. Not right now. Please.” A minute later as I peeked over my shoulder to see the drop below, I saw a kea, a rare New Zealand bird, perched on a ledge not far from me and I swear it was making eye contact with me. As I pondered giving up on the summit knowing that I didn’t have much time before the sun would set and get dark, I still had hours to trek back and the weather took a mean turn as the wind whipped around me as a warning and it started to drizzle icy rain. But then the kea moved even closer as if he wanted to tell me something or to make sure that I saw him. I’m not sure if I imagined it, but I think that bird was encouraging me to keep going. And so I did. I slid a few more times, but somehow I made it to the summit. And I was all alone up there. It was so cold and wet that I didn’t have much time to pat myself on the back and it was too dark and rainy to take a decent photo to commemorate the occasion. All I could do was cry some more. I quickly slid my way back down and hiked the three hours back, frozen, head aching from tears and dehydration and grateful to that bird for giving cheering me on and witnessing my small triumph.
My time in the South Island was marked by visiting some of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen. I spent almost three weeks in wondrous awe of nature’s beauty and challenges, as well as almost debilitating pain reliving past trauma, death and grief. In some ways, the stark solitude of the south was probably what I needed to face all of these emotions and process everything. New Zealand was like the kea, watching over me as I stumbled, picked myself up and moved on. It was fucking hard though.
So when my fab friends JJ and Rachna (Kiwi American) offered to introduce me to their friends in the North Island, I was so grateful. It was through them that I met Lucy and Jessica and these wonderful women graciously opened their homes, let me eat and spend time with their families and slowly nurse myself back closer to normalcy. I spent a few days with Jessica in Wellington, a lovely (yes also windy!) and emerging city that is also home to Peter Jackson’s WETA studio. She and her sons Quincey and Felix made me feel so at home that I offered to become their nanny, although 13 and 16 year olds don’t need a nanny and Jessica is killing it in the awesome mom category. And Lucy who recently moved from NYC back to her home country also let me luxuriate in their beautiful new home in Tauranga. Lucy and I bonded over NY stories, Ru Paul’s Drag Race and talking about life changes. Lucy and I even got her city kids Iris and Freddie out of the house to go on a hike one day. I connected with Jessica and Lucy immediately and just being around smart, funny, and kind women was like a healing balm. I am so very grateful to my friends who connected me to their tribe and I feel like I made two incredibly good friends in NZ as a result.
I also did one of the most unforgettable hikes in my life in the north island in Taupo. There’s a trail called Tongariro Crossing which is one of The Great Walks in NZ and the seven to eight hour hike is an experience like none other where you pass the gates of Mordor (Lord of the Rings for you amateurs), volcanoes, red craters, descend down the steep and slipperiest set of rocks on Earth to end up seeing a trio of lakes the colors of which I think are only seen on Saturn or Jupiter and eventually through a dark, cold forest where I nearly gave up. I fell three times on the way down and noticed I wasn’t alone as I passed a poor man who just sat on the rocks after a bad fall looking like he resolved to just stay there until the end of time. By the time I finished, every part of my body was shaking and I was covered in five layers of volcanic ash, dirt and rocks. When I got back to the gorgeous Airbnb where Shani my host, a smart and fascinating woman took great mercy on me and made me an incredible dinner and poured wine into my cup to anesthetize my pain.
A month in NZ included seeing the craziest real phenomena such as volcanoes, crater lakes, mountains, waterfalls, glow worms, fjords, as well as some of my favorite fantasy fulfillment of drinking in Hobbiton, letting the waterfall from X-Men wash my face, a selfie with Gollum and much more. It was also the toughest time I’ve had this year with the mix of death, grief, isolation, and trauma as well as some of the hardest I’ve pushed myself physically which felt like the only way to distract myself from the emotional pain. I’m certain that the physical and emotional challenges I experienced there followed by the kindness of strangers turned friends, I left New Zealand feeling a sense of triumph that I have never experienced.