Aged 18 I was met at the airport in Wellington by a family friend. I’m not sure how my family knew him but after he had shown me the collection of pornography he kept in his car boot, I decided I’d probably be better off on my own. I got a room in a very ropey boarding house. It was run by a woman who bred non-prize winning poodles and had put pictures of them in every room. I was the only woman there apart from the landlady, who was always away, losing at dog shows. The other tenants were mainly Maoris, who were working at the local docks and a depressed hairdresser called Colin. The Maoris were very nice, although almost silent and would only watch sport on the communal television. They were very kind to me and occasionally cooked me dinner. I went to work for a month in an office. I was only allowed a month’s working visa and spent most of that time filing and trying to find places in Wellington to deliver packages to. I became very fit storming up and down the roads looking for addresses. I sat up with the Maoris in the evenings,watching a violent form of football, the silence only broken every now and then as someone would leap to their feet to yell abuse at the television.
After the month had finished, I set off to the South Island for five months of hitchhiking. I had a fabulous time. I did a lot of hiking; three day hikes across some of New Zealand’s most beautiful mountain ranges. I became even fitter and tied a bandana around my head. I always wore woolly shorts, as I’d been told by some guy in a pub that that was the best thing to wear in New Zealand. I was laughed at a lot.
Most of the people who picked me up hitchhiking were extremely kind. Most of them told me that I shouldn’t hitchhike. They would tell me that there had been an attack round there twelve years ago and would I like to come back and stay the night with them and their family to be on the safe side. I would leave the next morning with a pot of their homemade jam and a photo of us all together. It was very slow going. I would stand at the side of the road for a couple of days and then be picked up by a farmer in his tractor, taken fifty yards down the road and left again. Still I managed somehow, mainly by walking, to get most of the way around the South Island. Occasionally I got longer rides. One of my favourites was a woodcutter who drove an enormous trailer full of logs. We went in circles. We drove through the wood, to a clearing where there were lots of other woodmen. We would then unload and I would sit at a safe distance while all the woodmen discussed things and looked at their engines. My woodman would then load up again and drive to another clearing where we would unload again. I never really understood what he was up to, other then just carefully moving logs around the forest and I didn’t make much progress.
The most dangerous were the gangs of young guys transporting weed from one end of the South Island to the ferry at the top. They were usually great company, but always stoned and this meant that the car would hover just above the tarmac while we floated around extreme corners somewhere up a very steep hill. I never got the knack of picking these cars out before I got into them. They were always carefully disguised as normal cars. Once you were inside however, packed in carefully amongst the bundles of weed with the other three hikers that they’d kindly picked up earlier and were not letting go of now, then it was too late. I was also picked up by a reassuring looking combi, with very kind, smiley people inside. Once the door was closed they insisted on playing a kiwi version of Cliff Richard very loudly well trying subtly to get round to the point of Jesus. I think they were the only people I actually ran away from.
I met a young English man and we decided to go on a three-day trail together. We formed a group with some well-organised Americans and set off up the mountain. It soon transpired that the English man was an idiot who had brought no food with him. He would stand beside us as we set up camp, staring longingly at our tiny dinners. As he was English it was understood that I would be the one to help him out. My food ration disappeared very quickly – the Americans, being superior walkers disappeared into the woods before us and I was left with no food, a long, difficult walk ahead and a starving idiot. Then it began raining and continued for the next couple of days. We were surviving on muesli and I was beginning to wonder how to eat the small birds that surrounded us as we made our awkward way across the fabulous scenery. We were attacked on the last day by a group of keas, wonderful New Zealand oddities, half-parrot, half-eagle. They decided that they would open our backpacks as we walked along and so hung off the sides of us, sharp talons digging into our rain gear, honking in amusement as we tried to batter them off. I was not having a good time.
By the time we managed to get on to the route home, I was faintly hysterical with lack of food and exhaustion. I had also begun to hate this English man with a passion that I don’t think was altogether rational. He did however manage to get us a ride along the last bit of road back to a youth hostel. I had sores all over my body and had lost a lot of weight. The English man was just as perky as when we’d started.
The next walk was not much better. It had begun to get very cold in the South Island and so I made my way North to above Wellington, in the mistaken belief that it would be warmer there. I met a Swiss woman in a spartan youth hostel, who wanted to hike across the volcanic ranges near Rotarua. I agreed and although it was just out of season we set off. It was a fabulous walk up, although most people seemed to be going in the opposite direction. My woolly shorts were commented on a lot. Once we were up amongst the volcanic peaks, we began to walk across them on a trail marked with wooden poles. You could see them snaking in front of you for miles across the bleak, lunar landscape. Almost immediately we were hit by a blizzard. My legs began to freeze up and I started to lose my bearings. I clung on to my friend, who was used to extreme mountain conditions and she led me in near darkness along the edge of the volcanic precipice. We struggled on for hours, knowing that there was a hut just over the next hill. We couldn’t see one pole from the next and had to shuffle along, heads bent into our chests to avoid the driving, freezing snow. At one point my legs gave out completely and it began to dawn on me that we might not actually reach the hut, that there was the likelihood that I might not make it. I think my Swiss friend might have actually saved my life. She dragged me the final distance to the hut, holding me up under my armpits and feeling backwards with her feet. At the side of the hut were some hot pools, freak geological features amongst the snow and boulders. I stripped off and jumped in and lay there, the water up to my nose, feeling some life return to my legs. Getting out was a problem, so I lay there until I fell asleep and had to be dragged out once again by my poor friend who was regretting meeting me.
It took us two more days to get off the volcano again. We were met by the park ranger who took us back to the park centre. There, the local newspaper interviewed us about our stupid feat. They were very kind to us, nobody mentioned the fact that the season had ended and that we shouldn’t have been out there. The newspaper article was entitled ‘The Dynamic Duo’, a pretty misleading title, unless there was some sarcasm involved; I could still hardly walk and had light frostbite on one of my knees. There is a picture of us looking slightly alarmed and very hysterical. I binned the shorts. The newspaper sent the article back to my parents who were very alarmed. I hadn’t told them about this incident, or the fact that I was hitchhiking.
I soon split up with the Swiss lady and was picked up hitchhiking by a Maori elder. He invited me to stay with his family and took me to a Maori meeting in Rotarua. The elder turned out to be a member of parliament and was a very interesting host. He took me around all the local Maori sites and organised a Hangi for me. This is a Maori feast of meat and vegetables, which is buried for several days on top of hot rocks. It was temptation for a Vegetarian, so I gave in much to everybody’s delight.
I went back to the UK a few months later. In the intervening time, I met a long distance truck driver, who turned out to have been an All Black; was taken out on a fishing boat for a few days catching deep sea fish, got lost on a six day hike with three very grungy hippies, endless, brilliant adventures – such a great gap year.
- Interesting Facts About New Zealand (travelingmyself.com)
- Original Maori names for North and South Island approved (radionz.co.nz)