In 2014, there was a chance a good friend of mine, a Marine, was going to be stationed in New Zealand. He wasn’t happy about being so far from family and friends that they couldn’t visit. To cheer him up, I started talking up New Zealand, looking up pictures of the beautiful landscape to send him. And that’s when I fell in love with this heaven on Earth. The country’s beauty is breathtaking, and the lack of animal predators makes it even more appealing to the solo hiker. In one day, on the same hike, I could experience dry and dusty mountain ascents, cold and windy alpines, and dark and humid rainforest conditions. My friend never ended up being sent to New Zealand. But I went.
In one month, I worked my way from Te Anau in the southern part of the south island to Auckland in the central part of the north island. I completed four multiday hikes and one day hike on some of the most beautiful trails I’ve ever been honored to tramp on. I biked through wineries in Blenheim and through various attractions in Wairakei. I went tubing with glow worms and boating under waterfalls. I ran across bridge paths in Mangere, through natural tunnels in Waitomo, around sulfur fields in Rotorua, and up mountains in the Waitakere Rainforest. I shared meals with Kiwis, Canadians, Germans, and Frenchmen. I ate homemade meat pies in Te Anau, several pounds of Pic’s peanut butter from Nelson, hand-picked prawns in Taupo, and fresh manuka honey at the Huka Honey Hive. I learned about New Zealand history and culture during my tramp up the Kaikoura Coast, from every Kiwi I crossed paths with, and from the museums in Christchurch, Rotorua, Wellington, and Auckland. I was a guest, expected and unexpected, to two wonderful Kiwi families and to a welcoming Maori church congregation. And I fell madly in love with Max, the residential terrier mix of Juno Hall. Yes, I traveled alone. And it was a dream realized. Thoroughly researched plane tickets, well-planned PTO time, months of daydreaming, and multiple mistakes went into conjuring my New Zealand adventure.
The first step I took was checking my bank account. When I realized I had enough savings to make this adventure happen, I started to scour the internet, looking for the best deals on flights to New Zealand. Not all flights are created equal. Some are cheaper, some have more frills, some involve multiple layovers, and so on. But if you’re like me, you’re just interested in cheaper. I was patient. I spent weeks checking flight prices from various airports. I found that ticket prices were lower when I searched during the day in the middle of the week and that flying out of Newark was cheaper than flying out of Philadelphia. I also found that flying to New Zealand from Los Angeles was significantly cheaper, and flights from Newark to Los Angeles were pretty cheap at the time as well. Listening to my research, I booked two round-trip tickets—Newark-LAX and LAX-New Zealand—crossing my fingers one wouldn’t get delayed by more than a few hours. So, rather than paying the average (at the time) $2500-$3000 round-trip ticket price for a trip from Philadelphia to New Zealand, I paid a total of $1600! My diligence and patience saved me A LOT of money.
During my flight research, I was also in conversation with my supervisor at the time. She is a lover of travel and so was very supportive of my adventure. She worked with me to make it happen. New Zealand’s summer is our winter, so I went over the Christmas and New Year holidays, using PTO from the current year and the following year. The only stipulation was that I send her postcards and that I come back. I promised the first, but I couldn’t be certain of the second.
Once my flight was booked and my job secured, I dove into planning. I had found multiple hikes I wanted to complete and then picked my top 5: Kepler, Milford Sounds, Kaikoura Coast, Tongariro Circuit, Routeburn. Booking for these major multiday hikes opens six months in advance, and so at 9am, exactly six months before each trek, I called the booking number. The only hike that booked up before I got through the line was Milford Sounds. But I bagged Kepler, Tongariro Circuit, and Routeburn. The Kaikoura Coast trek is on private land and so the booking is handled by the landowners, Sally and David. To book the trek, I emailed them directly, introduced myself, and said what dates I wanted. Simple. They said David would pick me up from the bus stop to take me to the start of the trek, and there would be homemade jam and bread for my first morning. It was the sweetest beginnings of a hike I ever encountered.
With my hikes booked, I started to look into transportation, and that is when I realized my first mistake. New Zealand is big. And there is no speedy rail system from one area to the next. I needed to rely on low-frequency buses and shuttles, which cut into my town-exploring time. Feeling anxious about it, I booked all my transportation in advance, leaving no room for spontaneity. I had my travel itinerary typed out and all my tickets filed in order. It made me confident in the moment, but I would find later that it restricted my ability to truly explore: My second mistake. When I go back, I’ll be renting a car instead. There is a lot more freedom with a car rental compared to public transportation.
Now that I knew what days I would be arriving in each town, I started to book my hostel stays. This further stifled the possibility of spontaneity: My third mistake. I now knew where I was going to be every minute of this trip. From a safety standpoint, it was iron clad. But from an adventuring standpoint, it was a noose. When I go back, I’ll give spontaneity plenty of breathing room.
Since my treks, transportation, and hostels were booked and paid for, I expected to spend very little money during my actual trip. This assumption was my fourth mistake. I failed to make a budget and look up how expensive New Zealand is. (And it is expensive.) The US dollar was worth less than the NZ dollar, and everything seemed to be marked up. I just kept swiping my card with eyes closed. Luckily, I could buy only what I could carry since I was backpacking. So, most of my purchases were food and flat whites (way too many flat whites). But a budget would’ve kept me from scrambling to figure out the damage once I was home.
Traveling solo was the best decision I've ever made. Yes, mistakes were made: Spontaneity was stifled, and money was spent without regard. But my New Zealand adventure was still a dream realized. It started the breakdown of my should-mentality and the fueling of my refusal to settle, leading me into a life of adventure—new beginnings, countless life lessons, and leap after leap of faith.
Over the next year, I will be sharing the stories of my four multiday hikes and my one day hike in New Zealand (listed below). The names of the tracks below will become live links as the stories publish. They will be mixed in with other adventures of mine throughout the next several months, so keep a look out!
But to get the adventuring started now, click on Kepler below to read about my 4-day hike on the Kepler Trek!
My New Zealand Hikes:
Kepler (4-day hike)
Routeburn (2-day hike)
Kaikoura Coast (3-day hike)
Queen Charlotte (day hike)
Tongariro Circuit (2-day hike)