Five minutes after leaving the airport, I very narrowly escaped a head-on collision. I had never driven on the left side of the road, and recited it as I struggled to negotiate winding roads, torrential rains, and mind-blowing views. I imagined driving in New Zealand might be a challenge, but traveling such long distances on nearly abandoned roads seemed to lull me into a trancelike lullaby, and I feel compelled to admit that on more than one occasion I found myself driving on the wrong side of the road; without knowing for how long. I quickly adopted the mantra "left means live, right is roadkill0.
Day one in the place I have always dreamed of. No itinerary, no partner in crime; just my backpack and an onward ticket to Sydney, Australia. I used to joke about starving myself in the name of saving money. This time I would have to follow through. My first stop outside the Christchurch airport was a massive supermarket, where a $19.99 price tag adhered to a bag of cashews. A smallish salad cost a wild $11. I threw a few cookies into my basket and splurged on a head of broccoli. Something told me the next 28 days would be rife with ramen noodle. I tossed my meager meal into what would normally be the driver's side of my Toyota 4-door rental, and reached to my left for the seatbelt. Fail. A thing I would do at least once a day, attempting to adjust to driving down under.
I decided to drive straight through Christchurch, and make my way toward the mountains. I could see them from the airport, sprawling and snow-capped. I was tired, and my right contact was turning into a thick goo that would not budge. I was disconnected, with no wi-fi, phone service or gps. I found a Vodafone booth and purchased a sim card and one-month plan, sending out my New Zealand phone number to a select few with a note to use only in the case of emergency. The truth is, I love being disconnected. I love the freedom of voluntary solitude. I bit into my stalk of broccoli as I punched "Arthur's pass0 into my cell phone. The route would take me straight into the mountains.
I love to travel alone. I love the open road and it's complete and utter lack of expectation. I love that I can sing out loud; sugar binge and skip showers; roll windows down; drive fast or drive slow. I can stop just to stare, count clouds, write a while; or find some cafÃ© and talk with a stranger for hours. It's hard to find people you can do all those things with on the road, but if you do find them, don't ever let them go.
That first night, I checked into a little bed and breakfast just outside Arthur's pass. It was the coldest month of the year, and low season on South Island. I paid just $20 for an upstairs room stacked with 6 beds and a wrap view of the snowy mountain range. I had the whole room to myself, and practically fell into bed after two days of non-stop travel. The next morning I woke up early and drove through Arthur's pass, clear across the width of South Island to the west coast town of Greymouth. I skirted the city's edge and headed south, hugging the coastline and stopping constantly to photograph. The roads were mostly empty, and never-ending. It was as if I had the whole country to myself.
I was so wrapped up in shooting that by the time I thought to find a place to sleep, the sun had disappeared into the sea. I had no cell phone service, very little gas, and the one hostel I could find was booked. The owner of the hostel pointed me south, so I drove on.
It was nearly 9pm when I pulled into Franz Josef, population 330.
I parked outside a YHA hostel, grabbed my bag and walked in to ask for a room. The guy behind the desk smiled and pulled a party popper from his pocket. Confetti exploded onto the counter. "Happy 4th of July! I've been waiting all day for an American to walk through that door!0 His name was Casey. My first New Zealand friend was a fellow American. The next morning we hiked Franz Josef Glacier together, counting more than six waterfalls at one point on the trail. It was beautiful, cold, and raining.
It kept raining. All. Day. Long. I said goodbye to Casey before making a stop at the single town pump – even though my new friend warned me prices would be steep. I was literally speechless when the attendant handed me a receipt for $147, the price for just one full tank in my 4-cylinder Toyota. I dug another $5.75 from my pocket for a large coffee and inquired about the length of the drive to Lake Wanaka. The cashier assured me the trip would be less than six hours – an estimate I would soon discover to be distinctly kiwi.
The drive was mesmerizing – in a grey sort of way. It was beautiful; but also long, lonely and remote. Just three hours into the drive, I pulled off at Knight's landing and fell asleep by the sea. The sound of crashing waves and rain tapping at the roof seemed to sing me to sleep. I awoke nearly two hours later, to what seemed like a wave crashing over my head. The tide had moved so far inland, I was afraid it would shake loose the rocks below and carry everything – myself included – out to sea. The sun had diminished to nothing more than a smudge of a thumbprint behind a veil of rain, moving slowly toward the sea. I had to keep driving. There were no houses, no road signs, no roads at all save the one before me. I stopped a few more times, at Fantail and Thundercreek Falls. Then shipwrecks. All were impressive, but impossible to explore, given the relentless rain and biting cold.
Wanaka was a welcome sight after miles and miles of rain. I followed Casey's advice and checked into another YHA lodge for $20 a night, and dropped my bag next to a bottom bunk in a shared dormitory room. The hooks were all taken, piled with scarves and towels and winter jackets. I didn't really care, happy to be back in the company of a few fellow backpackers. I went to the kitchen and filled a coffee cup with hot water, then stirred in the dark granules of an instant coffee packet. I settled beside the fireplace in the main cabin lodge, facing a huge bay window framing the white peaks of New Zealand's Southern Alps. I had instant coffee by my side. And everything was alright.
By day 9, hostel hopping had become surprisingly hat. Showers had become optional. Breakfast had become minimal; hot water, instant coffee and biscuits. I adopted a nightly routine not so different from that at home – grocery shop, cook dinner, pour glass of wine, nerd out on laptop, march around in pjs, brush teeth, climb into bed, pass out. Unlike at home, every night I was meeting new people, cooking dinner with new friends, or exploring the urban layout of whatever city I happened to be in. I slept in a room with five other people who were guaranteed to snore, sleep talk, wake up at ungodly hours or stumble around at 4am and flip on all the lights.
I never really knew what I was getting myself into – and it took some getting used to – but I was beginning to love the simplicity of living on so little.
After three days in Wanaka, I packed up and drove to Otago, from Wanaka to Arrowtown, over the crown range instead of around. I stopped at Postmasters to see Maria, a friend I had met in Argentina four years ago. We reminisced over backpacking Buenos Aires while sipping flat whites. As we said goodbye, she suggested I hike Tobin's track before making my way to Queenstown. I parked the car and crossed the Arrow River, then began the steep trek uphill along the track. I reached a bench at the top, unoccupied and perched at what seemed like the top of the world, overlooking all of Arrowtown and the Wakatipu basin. New Zealand struck me as the sort of place I could most definitely live, and love till the end.
Editor’s Note: Christian Ann Schaffer is one of those restless transplants. Having grown up in Wisconsin, she decided to leave the Midwest and everything she knew for a new life in Hawaii – selling all but four boxes of belongings. She has since packed up her life and moved on to travel across 5 continents, officially changing her mailing address 30 times. Photography and her freelance business have taken her to places she may otherwise never have ventured – happy we are that she did and came back with fantastic shots and inspiring stories from her travels. Please don't miss out on visiting her website for more outstanding pieces: http://www.christianannschaffer.com
Thank you for reading. Feel free to leave a comment and share this story.