I start the car and drive hastily away from both Connie’s house and the feeling of regret - if it weren’t for the stupidly beautiful landscape, I’d be forcing myself not to look back at Wanaka behind me.
The drive to Queenstown is quiet and solitary. Something in the air has shifted and I feel uncomfortably strange. The same pangs of uncertainty that I felt when leaving Auckland almost two months ago are back, and I don’t like it one bit.
The deep setting sun is drowning everything in orange and I notice an unusual lack of birds this evening, the absence of desperate squawking making the silence even louder. I put my foot down and turn the music up, growling engine and raspy guitar blocking any space to think.
I arrive by dark and immediately feel like I don’t belong here, so I retreat to a spot on the lakeshore in Frankton to sleep. Queenstown is the first major town since Greymouth on the north west coast, so Tuesday morning means running lots of errands in preparation for leaving next week.
Nothing goes to plan and every which-way I turn I’m met with wall after wall and I get so frustrated that I shout and swear in the street and storm back to the car to cry, punching the steering wheel over and over, then hugging it tight after realising the car is my only companion. Loneliness is getting the best of me and weeks of continuous problem-solving are starting to defeat me.
I give up and just drive. Music up, spark a cigarette, window down, wipe the tears and drive. I race all the way to Milford Sound, overtaking everyone at 160km/h and screaming hateful things at Queenstown in the rearview mirror. It sounds ridiculous in hindsight, but solitude and despair are a recipe for insanity.
After two hours of mindless driving, the Milford ranges start to come into view and as my jaw drops, the rest of me starts to relax too and I realise how much I need to just escape to the wild for a while without restrictions and complications.
Another hour and I’m deep into Fiordland where I stop at the last campsite on the Milford road. It’s a quiet, barren basin in the midst of nothing but trees and mountains and I pitch my tent in the middle with a perfect view of the sky. My own little shelter for the next few days and nobody in the world knows where I am.
The wind is brutal tonight. By pure chance I pitched my tent facing out of the wind but it’s being completely battered which makes it difficult to sleep at all. There’s just enough shelter to keep my gas stove alight, so I boil some tea and cook some pasta and enjoy a peaceful evening to myself, the stars above shining brighter than I’ve ever seen and the last minutes of sunlight glowing behind the black shapes of mountains. You’ll never forget the first time you witness the Milky Way in all it’s magnificence.
I leave my tent pitched and drive further out to the Milford Sound on Thursday morning through a landscape that is indescribably beautiful. I take a boat trip into the fiord out to the Tasman Sea and back, coasting beneath breathtaking waterfalls which cascade from gigantic mountains and pass a herd of seals - it’s truly out of this world and a much needed escape.
Feeling refreshed on Friday, I’m ready to continue my journey and make the drive across to Dunedin in the south east. There’s not much to see on this side of the country except a quick stop to watch the enormous albatross soar around the cliffs at Taiaroa Head, but the 5 hour drive across the south is worth it simply for the next leg of the trip.
From Dunedin I drive 3 hours north west to the small town of Twizel and coming from this direction gives me a brilliant view of the southern alps stretching for hundreds of miles across the horizon. To think that I drove all that way down the west coast behind them is nothing short of rewarding.
I stop in Twizel to stock up on groceries and overhear some music playing in the distance. I head over to the pub and a small crowd of locals, which may have been the entire population of the town, are outside in the sun, laughing and dancing to a travelling one-man band playing lively folk songs. I grab a beer and perch on a bench to watch, and I could almost feel like a part of the community - a perk of not belonging anywhere is being able to meld so easily into any situation.
I eventually make my way into the Aoraki National Park where I plan to hike a 7 hour trail tomorrow. The landscape simply blows my mind. Everything you might picture New Zealand to be is right here in front of my eyes; the vast, glistening Lake Pukaki on my right doesn’t move no matter how far I drive; age-old mountain ranges rise and fall above me to my left; the open road stretches in front of me into endless fields of golden tussock, and a snowcapped Mt Cook stands almighty above it all.
I sleep amongst the mountains under a blanket of stars and wake on Monday to strong winds and rain. I’m advised not to attempt the long hike to Mueller Hut, but there’s a shorter 2 hour track with similar views. This is the last walk of my travels and I’m truly gutted, but I know going by myself in bad weather is unwise.
I complete the trek to the Red Tarns and the view is honestly anti-climatic, but I spot a small clearing in the bush and signs of a rough track. Curiosity takes me climbing up shingle and fallen boulders to the top of a bluff and when I reach the top I turn around to simultaneously laugh, swear and sigh.
I can see the entire valley laid out like a toy model or a map, an expanse of yellow is outlined by monstrous mountains and ridges and a thick silver line runs where rock meets earth as glacial water creates streams down both valleys. I’m truly speechless. I sit for a long time, taking it all in and coming to terms with the fact that this will be both my last hike and view in the land of the long white cloud. It’s difficult to comprehend just how far I’ve come and all that I’ve seen, but the mountains in front of me help to put my tiny self into perspective.
I make my way down and back to the car and it starts to hammer down with rain for the rest of the day. I hole up in the car still with the rest of the day ahead and I could stay here forever just watching the weather inside my bubble. I feel I’ve reached a point of complete anonymity; nobody knows where or who I am anymore and I could easily disappear without a trace.
In the morning I say farewell to Mt Cook and make my way toward Lake Tekapo, picking up a hitchhiker on the way who pays me in chocolate. I find a spot at the edge of the lake and spend the day cooking up the last of my food and fall asleep in the sunshine for the afternoon, followed by an evening in the wild appreciating the Milky Way again. My days here are coming to an end and there’s nothing else to do but absorb and reflect.
Wednesday arrives and reality sets in. It’s time for the last big drive. Thus far, driving has been temporary and without aim, but today reeks of finalities and ends. Until now I could drive as fast as I pleased but the faster I go today, the sooner the journey is over. I take my time, selecting the best music and taking in the surroundings. This is it.
I have 3 days in Christchurch to shed anything I can’t take with me on my flight to Australia, including the car. I have a list of things to pick up and loose ends to tie and each line I cross off is a step closer to the end.
I take the second day to drive out to the old French coastal town of Akaroa to enjoy my last slice of freedom. I spend the day simply reflecting and collecting my thoughts, and at nightfall I park on the wharf to sleep.
Ocean gales blow sea water all over the car and my own salty tears start to stream down my cheeks. I’m so, so tired. I cry and cry and cry, endlessly and without dignity. I cry for loneliness and I cry for heartache and I cry for home, whatever that is. Months of anger and frustration weep from my eyes whilst I’m curled up in the back of this car that I desperately need to get rid of, until I sob myself into silence and stillness.
The hardest thing to deal with is that no matter how well I tell the stories or try to express the emotions I’ve felt, no one will ever truly be able to relate. There has been no one to experience this chapter of my life with, which was my own choice to begin with, but how can I convey to anyone the things that I’ve learned and discovered about myself?
My final morning waking up in this car and this country is a strange day. I am unexpectedly sad to be leaving and desperately clinging on to every hour that goes by. Everything I’ve known has just evaporated in front of my eyes and by night fall I’ll be in a new country. I should be accustomed to packing up and leaving by now but this time it’s different. I’ve come to feel a sense of belonging here and it feels like I’m leaving way too soon.
At the airport I unload my two packed bags from the car and can’t stop myself jumping back in to hug the steering wheel. This girl has been my bed, my shelter and my safe place, my only real company and the only thing that’s seen all the sights I’ve seen over the past 8 weeks. I squeeze her so tight, then join my bags at the side of the road and as a stranger drives away with my baby, my heart drains and I weep.
This is really it. On the plane I try to think back over the entire year in New Zealand, remembering all of the small things that seem so distant now: each of the five apartments and the routes I walked to work; the people I lived with, worked with, had coffee with, shot with, explored with; the lows, the highs, the success and persistence, my drive and motivation, the lessons learned and strengths discovered. Suddenly sadness is overcome with a sense of accomplishment and I realise that I did this. I pushed myself through so much and came out stronger than ever.
Time to do it even harder in Melbourne.