Solo Traveling the South Island

Dear Reader,

Have you ever thought about traveling somewhere completely by yourself? Thought about how you would act around people who knew nothing about you? Could you handle that much freedom—or would you worry that things would go totally wrong? People who study abroad have undoubtedly thought about these questions on time or another—I know I did when I was going through the study abroad process. But before this past mid-semester break, I never really knew what it was really like to travel alone. I came into my first semester of New Zealand already knowing a few others from UW-Madison. And all my traveling excursions were with a group of friends. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been great. I’ve had such good times with the people I’ve traveled with and have memories that I will never forget. But sometimes as we were traveling I’d see some individuals traveling on their own, and I always wondered what it was like for them. Did they get lonely? Did they prefer to travel by themselves or did they wish someone was with them?

As I planned my trip to the South Island for the mid-semester break of semester 2, I set out to answer these questions for myself. Although, I didn’t plan to be by myself the whole time. For the first week, I wwoofed (readers of my blog must know what that means by now) at a vineyard in Blenheim with the same family that I stayed with over the summer. It was nice seeing them all again—they’re like my very own New Zealand family! But when I finished spending time with them, I ventured over to the nearby Nelson Lakes National Park to embark on a three day backpacking trip through the mountains. From then on, I was on my own.

My first event as a solo traveler was taking a water taxi across Lake Rotoiti to the start of the trail. I chatted with the captain of the boat, Hamish, as we crossed the lake and once on the other side, he wished me farewell and good luck on my journey ahead. I still had 6 hours of hiking to get to the hut I was staying at for the night, so I starting off on the trail right away. The first part of my hike was great—the sun was shining, fantails fluttered in the trees—there was even a rainbow in the distance. But once my path turned into the forest and up into the mountains, rain began to fall…. and fall…. and fall. The trail also started to get less distinct the further up I climbed. No longer was there a clear ground path to walk on; the only indicator that I was going in the right direction was these little orange triangles nailed to the trees. And sometimes the triangles would be located across a gushing stream. Whelp, no more dry socks.

One of the Nelson Lakes
One of the Nelson Lakes

I eventually made it past the tree line, and it was here that I was reminded of why New Zealand was so beautiful. I was probably in some random valley that you couldn’t find in any travel book, but the views were still amazing. I decided to eat lunch here while the it was still sunny and felt proud of my decision to come to New Zealand. A short time later though the sun started to dip below the mountains and I noticed the clouds beginning to creep up into the valley towards where I was sitting. I was hoping to get to the hut before the clouds reached me, but…. let’s just say I looked like I had just gone swimming when I finally reached the hut.

Past the Tree Line
Past the Tree Line

[Lunch Time View]
Lunch Time View
The only other people staying in my first hut were Kiwi families on Easter holiday. They were all sitting around a table sipping on hot drinks and playing Scrabble when I walked in dipping wet to ask them where the hut warden was. They directed me to the warden’s quarters, where I anticipated meeting an old outdoorsman with a bushy beard. But I was surprised to find the warden to be a young American named Kat. She explained to me briefly how staying in a hut works and said she would meet me again during the hut safety talk. In the meantime, I unpacked all my wet clothes and hung them next to the fire hoping they would be dry by morning. It was still raining outside so I read some of the hut’s books to pass the time until Kat gave the safety talk. Afterwards, being the only two solo travelers in the hut, Kat and I talked about our travels in New Zealand and our  lives back home.

The next day was Easter and the rain had turned to sleet in the morning, but I couldn’t help wanting to jump into the nearby lake before setting off to my next hut. Kat was also keen and we dared all the Kiwis to be as adventurous as us Americans and join in the lake jump. And pretty soon everyone was jumping in! Yes, it was cold, but I think my jumps into Lake Mendota during the spring are much colder. Once back inside, I spent some time by the fire for a bit before setting off in the rain again. My next hut was another 6 hour hike away, but I was fortunate this time to have Kat joined me for the first hour or so. We talked more about traveling and what it was like to travel alone. Kat had been traveling in New Zealand a lot just by herself, so I asked her some of the questions I mentioned at the beginning of this post. One thing she said that stuck with me was “If I waited for other people to be ready to come with me, I may never have come to New Zealand”. But she also added that sometimes she missed being able to talk to people and have someone to have conversations with beyond just small talk. Eventually we got to the point where she had to turn around so we said our goodbyes and thanked each other for their company. And once again, I was by myself walking through the clouds on the ridge of the mountains.

I eventually arrived at the next hut before sundown. This time there were no families playing board games to meet me. Just an empty, dark hut. Also unlike the last hut, there was no fire going and I had no matches to start one. I was preparing myself for a cold night ahead of me, but luckily four Kiwi hikers came to my rescue. They were equally cold and wet from their hike, so the first priority was to get a fire going in the hut’s iron stove. We spent the night eating our dinners by candle light as they filled me in on all the gossip going on in their larger circle of friends while I chimed in to give some advice about people I’d never met.

The next day I wanted to head out early because I needed to catch a plane in Blenheim  at 4pm. That meant I needed to hike 3 hours to the road and then find a ride back to Blenheim (1 hour drive). The Kiwis I meet were driving in that direction too, so I was sorted! I said goodbye to them at the airport and thanked them for everything they’d done for me. I made it with plenty of time to spare and got on a small plane to cross back over to the North Island. Then after a short bus ride back to Palmerston North, my trip was over.

Now some answers to the questions I had at the beginning…. Could I handle that much freedom? I think yes. I survived with no major problems. I didn’t get stranded anywhere and made it back in one piece. Did I get lonely? Not so much. Although when I arrived at the empty hut on my second night, I really wished someone could have been there with me. Did I prefer to travel by myself or with someone else with me? A little bit of both. Traveling alone had its moments, but what I really remember most was the people I met along the way. What I’ve realized over this trip is that traveling alone can be uncomfortable, frustrating, and it makes you vulnerable. But if you are lucky enough to meet someone else who is also traveling alone, you have a unique opportunity to connect with them and make each other feel a little less vulnerable. It’s an awesome experience to connect with someone like that, but it is also very rare—rare because you have to be daring enough to head out into the world with complete openness. I hope you, my reader, will be so adventurous to find this connection too. It is worth the trip.