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Australia: Part One

A Dutch girl and an English girl meet in a hostel and decide to drive down the East Coast of Australia…

One week ago, Elke and I were about to find out the punchline to this story, setting off from Cairns in our red van (unimaginatively named Rouge). After knowing each other for less than 24 hours, we’d hired a campervan, and booked AU$1000 worth of tours together, trusting on a gut reaction that something was special about this new friendship. Luckily, we were right – so much so that this week could only be described as one of the best of my life.

Yes, we’ve dived in the Great Barrier Reef, driven scooters around Magnetic Island, and spent two days and nights on a sailboat in the Whitsunday Islands – it doesn’t really get more magical. But these days need time to be savoured and appreciated, before they run away from under your feet in a blur of sand, sun, and beauty. When doing a big trip like the East Coast of Australia, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed to the point that the extraordinary starts to become ordinary, particularly when there are certain sights which draw thousands of people to them daily. So, it’s been the moments eating dinner on the beach, driving into the sunset to a song, doing laundry or shopping for groceries, that have kept us grounded and able to take in the awesomeness of what we’re doing – moments that can feel just as special as that swirl of white sand and turquoise sea because they’re shared with someone who understands.

When I came to Australia, I never considered that this travel experience could compare to my time with Hayley in New Zealand. Of course, it is new in lots of ways, with different people and different places. However, in the small but most valuable ways, it feels familiar, with someone to share this time with who sees the world as you do; who you can teach and learn from to the same extent, and love for your similarities and differences.

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A Year’s Up

With less than two weeks of work, and three weeks in total, left in New Zealand, I’m stunned on a daily basis by how quickly this year has gone. Working, travelling, each day lived to the full; but still the weeks have rushed past like a film played fast forward. Though many small moments will have already been forgotten, I do know that every day has played a little part in this experience, and taught me so much about who I am and who I want to be. So, time to take a look back – the first things that come to mind when I think about this magical year.

1. Wellington City
Arriving with no plan and little money, Hayley and I were forced to make the decision which shaped our trip (and Hayley’s foreseeable future): the move to the West Coast. I know that we had moments in that first week which manifested themselves in the flat, shrivelled, burnt pancake we made in Nomad’s Hostel, but I never remember thinking we’d made a mistake. We enjoyed the city and our surging highs and lows, got a job in an unknown destination, and settled into this life of movement and adventure.

2. Monteith’s Brewery
At Paroa Hotel, though we spent our mornings exploring the area around Greymouth, we initially didn’t have a night off together. When this glorious evening came, we decided to celebrate by going to our favourite pub. Not wanting to worry about driving, we walked in the blazing heat for what seemed like the longest hour and a half, laughing at our own commitment to the evening. From this time, Monteith’s Brewery became a comfort – a place of celebration or commiseration; a reminder that although we spent almost every minute together, we still valued each other’s company more than anything. Our world was small in this little town on the West Coast, but it made us think big and feel free, with new perspectives and beautiful places.

3. “Oh Sandie!”
The Kitchingham family was our first real experience of Kiwi hospitality. They invited us into their home in Nelson, going above and beyond to make us feel welcome and help us prepare to walk the Abel Tasman, Sandie sending us on our way with camping gear and peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast. She is a whirlwind of fresh plums and paddle boarding, generosity and micro-management, whisking us off around New World Supermarket and filling our baskets with noodles and snacks after a two-minute acquaintance. We’ll be forever grateful to this family and their beautiful home on the beach.

4. Sea Legs
With a ten-hour bus journey to Gisborne for R&V festival, we decided to take some travel sickness pills so that we could enjoy the winding hills and views of the North Island. However, this remedy seemed to revolve around forced sleep, allowing us to make dazed contact for three minutes at a time, before sending us deep under for a further two hours. At the moment before it took us again, we would simply laugh and pass out simultaneously, stunned by the weight sitting on our eyes. Luckily the effects seemed to have worn off enough for us to enter the New Year on three days of sun and fun.

5. Down South
On our road trip with Ross and Tyson in January, Hayley and I took the chance to sit back and let them lead the way. There are so many things I could mention from this trip: two best friends and two best friends enjoying the excitement of new romance by knee boarding on remote lakes, camping in a stranger’s garden in Queenstown, and discovering “Heisenberg” lettuce. But the one which stands out was simply a moment of silent recognition between Hayley and I – sat in the back seats, beer in hands and music up loud – of how much fun we were having, and how lucky we were: a smile can sometimes say it all.

6. Kaikoura
Swimming with dolphins and free camping on the beach – what more needs to be said?

7. The Tasman Sea
The sunsets and the stars stand out from our time in Punakaiki. Our friend Luc shared his secret path down to the edge of the Pancake Rocks where you could sit, watch the sun go down, and feel like you were on the edge of the world. Coming back from this spot one evening, I decided I wanted to swim in the sea. So, Hayley and I walked down to the beach, and in the now complete darkness, let the waves crash over our naked bodies, laughing with every cold hit of water on our stomachs. Away from the lights of the café, the stars were as many as I’d ever seen.

8. Scones and Salmon
Cheese, spinach, mushroom and red onion – these scones won our hearts at the café. In the minutes before my departure to Methven, we chose a scone to send us on our way, and they’ll forever remind me of those last few weeks in Punakaiki, house sitting on the beach, and preparing to go our separate ways – full of mixed emotions and comfort. The salmon, like Monteith’s Brewery, holds stories of the best and worst times. It became a staple part of our luxury picnic, first put together on Christmas Day in Wellington: this Manuka-glazed smoked salmon and the excitement it brought now seems to be a symbol of appreciating the small things.

9. Snowboarding
I never planned for a Winter in New Zealand, but snowboarding is now a love for life. It’s given me an added sense of purpose the last few months, and that satisfying feeling of learning something new – moments where something clicks and you wonder at how this sport just gets better and better. The movement becomes your whole white world, and for the next few minutes you fly on adrenalin and snow. Onto the surf board for summer!

10. Freedom
Dad once asked me what I most liked about New Zealand, and though I’d never really thought about it at this point, the answer came to me in an instant: the freedom. Although we’ve had to work most of the time out here, it’s always felt like a choice rather than a necessity. And though I know I had the same scope to choose in the UK, there’s something about being in a new place and away from anyone you know – outside influences, welcome or not, are removed. It’s also the space and beauty in this country; the open roads and small population; the empty walking tracks which guide you on adventures. The path is still there, taking you up, down, and round the bend, but you’re free to stop and sit for a while in the sun.

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Let the New Zealand Winter Begin!

When we left for New Zealand in October, Winter didn’t even enter my mind: my backpack was full of shorts, bikinis, and a couple of jumpers for the notorious Wellington wind. Who knew where we would be by April – perhaps Australia? But this was before: we had no idea how fast time would fly or how much we would love this country. As the summer came to an end, I knew I wasn’t ready to leave, so I started to think about how to make the most of a New Zealand winter. We’d been told it got pretty cold, rained a fair amount, and New Zealand houses were generally freezing due to their lack of central heating; with so much of this country’s highlights being weather dependent, travelling for another two months felt risky, and sleeping in the car would definitely not be a pleasant experience… And then it hit me: snow!

A conversation with Natasha and Koen – a Dutch couple we worked with at the Punakaiki café – set this plan in motion. They were talking about their plans to snowboard in the South Island; “You’ve never done any snow sports?”, they asked me. Suddenly, a plan for the winter months became so obvious and exciting: learn to snowboard. Why snowboard, not ski? It was an instinct, and when a friend gave me his old board, it seemed like fate. Having gone up the mountain four times in the last six days, more than ever it feels like the best decision – I’ve found something new which I absolutely love; that I’ve made happen on my own, making the most of the complete freedom we have in this country.

Mt Hutt and Methven always seemed like a great option, and went to the top of my list when Hayley decided to stay on the West. Queenstown might be lots of travellers first choice, with its buzzing nightlife and incredible location, but this makes it extremely expensive and difficult to find accommodation: it always seemed like a place better to visit rather than live. Methven has all the perks of a small town, but as the base for Mt Hutt comes to life in the Winter, more than tripling in population size – houses filled with temporary staff and hotels with visitors enjoying the mountain. There is still the expectation that everyone knows everyone, and residents take pride in the relationship between the town and mountain, which only exist because the other functions: it’s a town which ebbs and flows, but keeps at its heart a community who love where they live. Once again, it seems that I’ve seamlessly slotted into a new life, never once feeling like I’m suddenly on my own on the other side of the world… and this post becomes yet another tribute to this wonderful country and its people.

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Goodbyes

As we come towards the end of our time in Punakaiki, I’m thinking more and more about saying goodbyes. Throughout this job, there’s been people coming and going, but there are certain farewells which stand out for their bittersweet-ness: to care so much for people in such a short time is a wonderful thing, but the more attached you become, the harder it is to accept that they’ll no longer be a part of your every day.

This level of attachment is part of the working package – unlike travelling, where you might stay somewhere at most a week, we’ve been in Punakaiki for over three months, where the people around us have taken us into their lives and made us feel special. It is a huge testament to all the people here that I’m so sad to leave. But it would be much sadder if I was counting down the days, wishing away each working day; happy to be sad, as strange as that seems.

Leaving this job has gained even greater significance since Hayley and I decided to do the next three months in different places. And if anyone’s thinking, “I knew two girls would argue after eight months together”, you couldn’t be more wrong: I know I’ll never have another friendship quite like the one that has formed over this time – she is truly the most wonderful person and this whole experience has been made by her part in it. But to act against a gut feeling just to stay together would be a mistake that could end up having an impact on all the magic that has happened.

I’m hugely excited about the next chapter of this trip: not only will I be learning to snowboard, exploring a new area of New Zealand, and settling into another work environment, some time travelling alone will be a different experience, with the incentive to meet lots of new people. However, after eight months relying on a single person, the thought of my own bedroom terrifies me! Perhaps it is time to address the dependency issues anyway…

Luckily, I know that we’ll finish the trip like we started it – bouncing off each other’s appreciation for the incredible things we’re doing, and for what this year has given both of us. To the best friend a person could have, thank you for the time of my life!

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Lesson No. 3

I’ve been talking about how much I’d love to surf since before we came out to New Zealand; while out here, I’ve forced Hayley to drag a wilting bodyboard around with us – an extra thrown in when we bought the car – to keep this longing at bay. Finally, last week, I booked a surf lesson with the local surf instructor and occasional performer at the café’s Jam Night on Fridays, Dion.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I turned up on Saturday morning – the formality in the concept of “lesson” doesn’t really fit with Dion’s relaxed, surfer persona and general attitude towards life. But I had one other surf lesson to go on – a progression from practising on the beach, to lying on our stomachs, to then trying to stand with the help of the instructor.

Arriving at the Beach Camp, there were three people and a car, loaded with surf boards, ready and waiting. And off we went to find a good spot. Luckily the one we settled on happened to be perfect for beginners, which I’m convinced was a piece of luck more than a plan. Parking up in a layby, we wound our way, boards in hand, down a steep and spiky path to the beach, where Dion explained the general theory behind surfing, and compared the standing up process to “the worm” dance. After that, it was up to me to choose where I felt comfortable in the water, and to try to surf. Meanwhile, Dion, Tim and Hilary made the most of the mellow waves, occasionally gesturing over in encouragement and checking I was ok.

The informality of this situation could have made me feel even more nervous and embarrassed, especially since I was surrounded by people whose life is above all, surfing; there is something safe about the atmosphere of a lesson, like you’ve been given a licence to be terrible and fail. But instead, the sense that I was just part of their regular day, that I was a friend rather than a student, was actually far more of an encouragement just to give it a go and work out my own way of doing things. It was liberating not to feel that I was constantly being watched, but just happened to have found myself learning to surf with a few locals.

After a couple of hours (and a stomach full of salt water), we took a drive to Fox River, a spot just North of Punakaiki, for the big waves. Hilary and I sat on the beach with a beer and watched the four others (we’d been joined by two more at this point) having the time of their lives. When everyone was exhausted and hungry, we went back to the Beach Camp to “cook up a feed” – a Kiwi expression I’m still not too sure about… Everyone pitched in some veggies, and somehow, we came out with a huge wok of pasta, cooked in Dion’s caravan, which we ate on a picnic table in the sun. I returned to the café 6 hours later, tired, full, and feeling even more at home in Punakaiki than I did before – only a lesson on the West Coast of New Zealand.

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Home

“Home” is a word with such significant connotations – a word attached to the concept of family, love, longing, and identity. We lucky ones know where we might call our ultimate home, often where we grow up or where we start our own family. Yet despite its importance, it’s also a word we use incredibly lightly. In the last five months, I’ve described perhaps eight places as “home” in a casual context, ranging from our two-month house in Greymouth, to a hostel in Wellington, to our car Max; some places we might only have stayed for a couple of nights.

Considering the emotional significance in the term “home”, it’s a wonder we haven’t come up with a different word to describe these temporary stopping points – something which captures the physical aspects of a home, but perhaps not the extent of the sentimental. It seems that this word might subconsciously aid our settling in process, making us feel comfortable in a new environment – as much a wish for the comfort of “home” as a convenient description. Or perhaps it is the difference between physical space and a concept: “home” can be both purely symbolic or purely physical, but is best when it’s somewhere in between.

I think a small part of me feels guilty about referring to New Zealand as my current home. I’m touched by a feeling of disloyalty to family and friends, especially when I consider that although I miss people hugely, I am yet to feel truly “homesick”. This doesn’t make my family home any less important to me, and it makes sense that if you feel truly “at home” somewhere then you won’t long for another; it just makes me extremely lucky – to feel “at home” somewhere is such a gift, not to be taken for granted. But this humbling sense of belonging doesn’t mean we shouldn’t move on, trying new places and people who might or might not offer us this same luxury. It might be the most valuable thing about travelling: finding happiness and a new part of yourself in unfamiliar places.

Here’s to many more homes to come.

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Lesson Learnt No. 2

Everyone has their people.

Throwing yourself into a group of strangers, whether for work, play, or a little bit of both, is a huge challenge and hopefully a whole lot of fun. Although first appearances can be misleading, in most cases within days or even hours, you can normally identify those people you click with, and those whom you never will. Even if there aren’t any negative feelings involved, you just get a good feeling about some: they make you feel instantly comfortable, bring out a good side of you, and without knowing, encourage you to share your thoughts. They see you the way you want to be, bringing out a lovely side of you which you may not have seen in that particular form before. And most of all, they make you like yourself.

These are the people who, given enough time, become truly great friends. If time isn’t there, they are still the people we should be surrounding ourselves with as much as possible. This doesn’t mean dismissing other people, or thinking you can’t enjoy their company, and people can always surprise you. But it’s just as important to recognise that we don’t have to love everyone. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you can’t seem to get on with someone well: it doesn’t mean you’re boring or cold, it just means you’re missing that natural connection – it can’t be helped, and chances are, they’re feeling exactly the same way about you. Be kind to everyone, give everyone a piece of your time, but try to find those people who make you feel like a really great person, because in their company, you will be one.

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Making Photos

No one can deny that a huge part of travelling is self-discovery, despite it having become a cringeworthy cliché. I expect I’ve learnt more than I’m fully aware in New Zealand, about what kind of person I am and what my priorities are. However, one characteristic that has become abundantly clear, is that I lack the photography instinct; much to Hayley’s frustration, in special moments, I just don’t think to pull out my camera or phone to take a picture. In lots of ways, I’m glad this is the case: taking a picture might be the easiest way to save a moment as a memory, but it can also distract from the moment itself, dampening that memory’s potential. But as I was running home the other day (home now being the Pancake Rocks Café in Punakaiki), I regretted that I’d missed the opportunity to take a certain picture. Since I didn’t get the photo, I’ll try to describe it with words.

A couple stands on the pavement directly in front of me. They’re next to each other but facing slightly inwards towards the road, feet and bodies at precisely the same angle. Both are wearing knee length khaki shorts; she’s in a purple V-neck, he’s in a navy collared t-shirt and a light brown cap. Their backdrop transitions, top to bottom, from clear blue sky, to green bush, to grey road. You can hear the Tasman Sea against the beach and jagged rocks, hidden behind a beach-front motel, trees, and the Punakaiki Tavern. The woman holds a large smartphone just above her head, taking a picture of the wild west coastal road in front – towering green cliffs; the man mirrors her movements exactly, but using a black digital camera.

There was something so perfect about this shot – their positions, actions, and expressions of deep concentration – that I was disappointed I’d run past without slyly getting a picture. Now I think the result may never have lived up to expectation – better left as a mental image. I could hear their conversation when they arrived home, wherever that might be, and were looking through their holiday snaps, frustrated by the time-consuming job of deleting duplicate photos on multiple devices: “Now which part of the West Coast is this then? And why do we have eight of the same shot?”. This imaginary picture had such a strong narrative as well as visual appeal, as a moment of companionship, and as a commentary on our photo “addiction” – beautiful, but also beautifully critical.

Excessive photo-taking seems to be a growing phase. For lots of people, when they arrive in a beautiful place, their priority is pulling out their cameras, even before they look with their eyes. Most get deleted or forgotten, and they never live up to the reality of what’s in front of you, but it’s become an instinctive response whenever we’re doing something enviable. This obsession, fuelled by social media, seems enough to drive out common sense – it’s more often than not a waste of time, in the present and future. This isn’t to say that photos can’t be incredibly beautiful and valuable, but moments should be chosen carefully, before photographs are considered the most significant thing to take away from an experience.

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Limbo Land

Being in limbo can be the worst kind of feeling. Take for example, if you are in a relationship: being unsure where you stand is far worse than knowing one way or the other. Or applying for a job: once that application is sent off, you just want to have the answer so you can start to make a plan. But Hayley and I seem to have found a really great kind of limbo – that space between living and working in a country, and travelling it.

For the time being, we have made the West Coast our home. This is because it feels like home, and we love it here: the mountains, lakes, empty roads, small towns, the coast road. In this way, we get to experience what it’s like to live in New Zealand – familiar drives, shops, and people; days when you aren’t seeing or doing anything new, but just enjoying the regular day-to-day things you might do at home which have by now become something of a novelty, like baking peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies.

This time standing still then means that each time we take a trip, even if it’s only been a few days since the last one, it feels special and all-the-more exciting. Travelling for months at a time is amazing, but you cram in so many great things each day that they can lose their impact after a while. Or at least the smaller things do. This way, we move when we want to, not because we have to check out of a hostel at 10am. It feels like we’re starting all over again, that rush of excitement as we set off in the car for an unknown destination.

Last weekend, we took a trip down to Franz Josef, a small town made a big hit by the glacier 2km away. Walking up to the glacier, I realised how lucky we are: to feel both so at home and so out of depth in a place; to be living, but also looking for new sights every week, wanting to do new things every day, because we have the mindset of travellers. So, starting our new job in two weeks doesn’t feel like impending doom, but just a chance to make another home from home, and keep doing what we’re doing. For now, it seems to be the best of both worlds.

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January 29th – That Day

January 29th – That Day

I saw my best friend go
From cloud to yellow sun.
We bought lemons for life
For someone special now,
Planted the tree in the sun
And shade of a new home
Waiting to be filled with hearts
And empties, summers and winters
Waiting to record how
We laughed at insecurities
And cried at certainties that
Life is best savoured, life
Like a kiwi gold.