This was by far my favorite part of our trip to New Zealand, so it appears obvious to me that I would write about it first. Kiwis call hiking “tramping”, and there are plenty of opportunities to do it on such small islands. The views are outstanding, wherever you go, but Mike and I wanted to definitely tramp at least one National Park. Originally, we wanted to tramp the Milford Sound, a fiord in the Southern Island, but alas, four months early was not early enough to book a space on this coveted five day hike. There were limited bunks along the tramp and no camping spots. Out of luck, we turned to a nearby hike in the Fiordlands and found the Routeburn track, a three day trek through mountainous passes, thunderous water falls, and serene valleys. The usual bunks that were in the huts were already completely booked, but there were a few spots on the guided hikes with the Ultimate Guides. It ended up being way more expensive than if we booked a single bunk in a hut, but looking back on the experience, it was a blessing in disguise and I wouldn’t go back and do it any other way.
The first day poured down on us the heaviest sheets of rain that I have ever stood in. With winds worse than any Santa Ana winds I have ever experienced and temperature in the fifties, we were pretty much beaten up, for lack of a better term, by good old Mother Nature. Our water proof jackets and hiking gear and my snowboarding gloves did not stand a chance against the cold. My entire body was as wet as if I jumped into a swimming pool with all my clothes on, and we were freezing. Imagine six and a half hours of constant tramping in this way. Nature welcomed us with all its immensity. It was the most humbling experience of my life.
There was a part of the hike where we were supposed to see and walk right underneath Earland falls, a 570 foot waterfall. The winds were so strong and the rain so hard that when we got to it, it was a massive, angry, giant, whirlwind of noise, mist, fog, and spray. The falls were so loud that I could not hear anything a person next to me would shout in my ear. The guides had to walk us one by one and we would communicate by pointing and gesturing. The mist was so thick that I lost sight of Mike if he stepped three feet away from me. I swear the stepping stones were doing their best to twist my ankle. It was EPIC. You come away from that experience thinking, “Well, that could have been a disaster.”
When we reached our cabin that first day, we were so relieved (also read as fatigued, miserable, exhausted, in over our heads). We were the last ones to arrive, except for the elderly man who unfortunately twisted his ankle at the falls and had to be carried back and helicoptered out. I am not a very experienced hiker. We were greeted with warm mugs of tea and cookies and given our room assignments. I jumped in the shower and turned the heat to full blast, and my entire body was stinging and lobster red. I was sure I was going to suffer from hypothermia but I didn’t want anything less than than the hottest of waters. Our clothes and boots were soaking wet, but theyv’e got these AMAZING drying rooms, where you just leave all your clothes to dry overnight. Good thing too because we only had one set of hiking clothes and one set of lounging clothes for three days. I can’t imagine what people sleeping in the huts did on that day. They didn’t have showers or drying rooms or any amenities but a bunk bed. I don’t think we would have enjoyed the hike given that first day’s weather conditions if we went with the bunk beds. Having gone through that first day, we suddenly felt like kings, with our own room, a queen bed, and a shower with a hairdryer and a flushing toilet. When the usual comforts of daily living is taking away from you (even for a mere six hours), you realize how little you actually need to be immensely happy.
We went to the common lounge area, where everyone nibbled on cheese and crackers, more cookies, tea, coffee and libations until dinner was served. I think that was one of the best parts for me. Sitting down with people from all around the world, and talking about that first day’s experience. Everyone was blown away by the grueling nature of the hike, and I have never seen more grateful human beings in a room than I did on that day. We laughed over the ridiculousness of it all, and marveled at the beauty of the scenery around us. A three course meal was cooked for us by the crew, and everyone sat around large dining tables with strangers. We shared where we were from, what we do for a living, differences in culture, and our hiking experiences (none for me). On that day, I felt the strongest sense of community among people I never met before, and that was the second thing that triggered the realization of what constitutes a happy life. By the end of the day, we were a joyful bunch of extremely satisfied folk, high on the fact that we made it through day one alive. We re-convened for a recap of the day as a group, as well as an overview of the following day’s itinerary, and then it was lights out at 10pm for all huts. No need to tell me twice.
The second day involved the most uphill hiking. We hiked to the tops of the mountains, and the views were just breath-taking. Nine miles of going up, up and up. It was easy compared to the day before, without the bombardments of the natural forces. The hike was pretty jovial. Mike and I got to spend six hours of just walking together and talking and laughing. We would stop to marvel at the scenes and take some photos, but none of it will ever do it justice. The silence at the top of the hills, the light breeze, the refreshing cold air, the whispering of reeds. There were no distractions. You can’t buy this kind of euphoria. There are these pictures, but they can’t portray the aspects most beautiful about this hike.
Determined not to be last to arrive, we reached our cabin in the middle of the pack, and had an hour to really relax with a book after our showers, before joining the rest of the group in the main lounge area. There were boardgames, a guitar, and more conversations to be had. I remember being there at the dinner table and cracking up at everything this hilarious, sarcastic, tiny, elderly English woman would say. I sat next to two best friends from Australia in their late thirties or early forties who usually do yearly trips with their nine girlfriends but this year only the two of them could come out and make it. Mike and I commented on how it was the best food we have ever had. It may have something to do with being out in nature and exerting all your efforts to fulfill a simple goal of reaching a destination, which made us exponentially appreciate simple things such as the food, but whatever the reasoning, it was some of the best food we ever had. We still talk about the food today, almost a year later.
The third and final day was the shortest of all the hikes, lasting only about four hours. It was the easiest, mostly all downhill, although it was pretty hard on the knees. But it was here that we saw serene valleys and the rivers resulting from the lakes and waterfalls above. I remember thinking to myself how ludicrous it was that less than 48 hours ago, I was miserable being in nature, but now hiking back down, I dreaded returning to society. I already knew that this was the best experience that I have had in the entirety of my life, and it was the only experience that I have had without any distractions to take away from it. I was one hundred percent fully there in that moment. We all were.
It was also the moment that I knew that we were going back. It was when I first started thinking about leaving everything in the States and coming to live in New Zealand for a while. Unfortunately, with my student loans holding me back, I can’t quite do that. Although I did look up the requirements to work as a dentist in New Zealand, considering whether I could work there as a dentist and continue paying my loans while exploring this country. Unfortunately, relocating jobs to New Zealand for Mike would be a lot more difficult, and without his current salary, I don’t think we could be as aggressive with paying down our debt as we are now. But I can pinpoint this experience as the inflection point which catapulted me towards trying to find ways to get rid of my loans faster, and this was the moment where I started to obsess about the idea of being truly free.
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