From OZ to Middle Earth

And I jumped back into winter again. Or at least it felt like it. After heading overseas from a bright summery Wisconsin to a bright wintery Brisbane, Australia, now I was changing seasons one last time and visiting a chilly New Zealand.

It is two months after my arrival to Brisbane, and the weather is always pleasant. I’ve enjoyed an easy life the past two months, living in this bright, open house with five other international students. The city is interesting, the beaches are beautiful, and the semester is going smoothly. I’ve planned to go on a tour of New Zealand over the mid-semester break, and as I contemplate how I feel about traveling on my own once again to a completely new country, all I can do is build my excitement and fuel my need for adventure by collecting J.R.R. Tolkien quotes from the internet. “Home is now behind you, the world is ahead.”

And then I’m off. And I’m so cold. I did not plan well for this weather. The clouds are up and the cold rain is coming down on my already numb fingers and toes. But the pre-accommodation housing is a tourist attraction in of itself. The old prison-turned-hostel still has rooms preserved from its operating times as a jailhouse. Exploring some of the creaky iron gates and dark, winding staircases that still remain, my tour feels like it has already begun.


I wake up to my phone alarm at 6 am, and three other phone alarms that are set likewise. And soon I’m waiting in a lobby full of unfamiliar faces, and I am relieved to see that I am not the only one who has booked this tour traveling alone. Our tour bus is packed by the time I get on, so I grab an empty window seat in the far back and hope that I get a few people who are also looking for some friends to take seats nearby. I always have been a lucky person, and before our first destination, I have three new friends. And by the next morning, I have five.


And then I am sitting in a helicopter on my way up to Fox Glacier. Being the lucky person that I am, I get the seat next to the pilot. “Will you take a selfie with me?” This feeling isn’t quite like I expected. It’s not unbearably bumpy or startlingly fast. The ride is smooth and the rising up over the mountains is breath-taking. It’s peaceful, this little humming bubble, in which the headphones withdraw the noise, and the turbulence doesn’t exist.


The mountains are just as beautiful standing among them as watching them from above. I am fitted with crampons for walking across ice and our hike up the glacier begins. Our guides mark out all of the paths we will take, warning that the conditions change each day with the movement of the ice and a false step in the wrong direction could send you shooting down one of the many great crevices under the snow. Here I explore the inside of bright blue ice formations, peer down into devastating crevices, and drink from the natural meltwater pools and waterfalls of the glacier.

Not long after I am again sitting on the bus and headed to our next destination. This time I have a large group of friends to account for, which is good, because it is hard to do a death-defying stunt on your own; this one being the tallest bungee jump in Australia/New Zealand at 134 meters with 8.5 seconds of freefall. I am no longer afraid of heights, if I ever had been. These next two days I spend on adrenaline–falling or jumping or even being pushed from incredible heights–in the birthplace of the bungee jump.


But there is calm between the storms. I walk along the dirt paths and lusciously green fields full of sheep and through the mossy forests that Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee have walked on their own adventures. I gaze at the beauty of the Remarkables, a striking collection of gray, snow-peaked mountains in the distance, seen time and time again in the film series. This tour of Middle Earth is complete when I saddle a horse and meander through one of the most delicate sets of the iconic movies, Paradise.

It is startling to leave this place, Queenstown, after it began to feel so much like home. But now we must drive onwards past the towering gray mountainsides and swooping green valleys. We have had the greatest luck with our weather so far, and today it is raining, but rain only makes waterfalls bigger. This place, Milford Sound, is one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand, and I am exploring it on a ferryboat with a balcony that juts out into the water–made just for capturing the enormous, cloudy mountainsides with their surfeit of waterfalls, both large and small. Although there is cover overhead, the spray from the sound skims pasts the sides of the rails, and at times the mist of the waterfalls soaks into my skin and clothes.


I am not ready to let go, but here I stand on the beach of a gorgeous lake with the friends I want to spend every last moment I have here with. Nature’s scene is picturesque, but our time is spent photographing each other. Out in this place, truly in the heart of the mountains, where the stars only shine brighter at night, we celebrate one last night together in this chilly place.


Goodbye New Zealand, thank you for all the beauty, but summer is coming.