When I rolled my throbbing head over on the unwarranted light of morning attacking through the half-drawn curtains, I saw it was already past eight. “Kirra, wake up. We should have left already,” I mumbled unconvincingly. In typical fashion we hadn’t done anything we needed to prepare for the trip returning me back to the states after a year in New Zealand. I was barely packed. Our beat-up and lovable van had not been cleaned out since the last excursion to the east coast. Our dishes were still covered in sand, the sheets still dirty with days spent living on the beach. My laundry sat wet in the washing machine. Today we headed to Arthur’s Pass in the heart of the Southern Alps. I had only five days until my flight was to leave from Christchurch to Los Angeles and the desire to find adventure one last time in this epic nation boiled in me.
Four hours of melee and tearful goodbyes later, we found ourselves on the road north from the tiny lakeside town of Wanaka. With the windows down and the Southern Hemisphere summer sun shining on our February faces we made our way to meet two unendingly endearing Aussie boys. They had stayed with us a few weeks before, couchsurfing as they cycled around the country with a cheeky and entertaining American boy, all in search of Kiwi hospitality and the chance to experience something bigger than they were. We opened our doors to them and fell in love. Reuben, Tom, and Dan were sweet and easy as a day in bed. Their effortless humor sank into flawless rhythm with ours and we found ourselves convincing them to stay another night, and another. Reuben and I were instantly attracted to one another, but only the taunting prologues of an affair began with the young Aussie before it was time to bid them farewell. Unsure if we would ever see them again, we kept in touch as they made their way around the South Island. Once again frustrated that every boy who sparks something in me always has to leave, I was filled with giddy excitement that we found a way to cross paths again before we all had to depart from this astonishing place.
Six hours from Wanaka we threw the boys and their gear into the back of Billy the Red Dragon and hit the road further north to Arthur’s Pass. As the sun began to set behind the crumbling grey peaks, we pulled into a campsite on the banks of Lake Pearson, just outside the entrance to the national park.
With a fire burning brightly and the near full moon reflecting in the winded folds of the lake, we relaxed quickly into each other’s company. A box of wine, a fire pulled dancing in the wind, and three good friends made me smile the way you only can when there is nothing to want for in the world. Soon our trips were coming to an end. The boys were headed back to Melbourne just a few days after my flight back to the States. We recalled the moments that coruscated like comets, and the people who had indelibly chiseled us on our journeys. Reuben sang and played the mandolin while we sat in round agreement that the current company was by far the best we had found, and knew that this excursion was undoubtedly going to make the list.
The next morning we enjoyed a brisk swim and bacon breakfast around the fire before continuing on to the pass. Unsure of our plan, as ever, we headed to the Department of Conservation to find an overnight hike that would lead us to the hot springs, plentifully sprinkled across the geologically unstable landscape, straddling the very fault line that created its overwhelming horizons. With half the maps we needed and a vague idea of where to go, we continued on north following the subtle turquoise that belied the power of the forceful Otira River. As we found the car park at the entrance to the Taramakau Valley, we enjoyed sandwiches and cider while we packed up the gear for the seemingly simple overnight trip. With a late start and the energy of excitement pushing limbs earnestly forward, we followed the trail across some farmland as Tom chased sheep across the field with childlike abandon. No more than two hundred meters into the walk was the first of, what we didn’t know would be many, epic river crossings. The glacial water pushed and pulsed, careening around rock beds and tossing stones half my weight with the unforgiving carelessness only nature can bestow. How were we possibly supposed to cross?
We took off our socks and boots, prepared to ford the icy waters. Tom, fearless to the point of stupidity, was the first in and across the daunting river. Kirra and I watched him struggle as the water rose above his waist and the current buckled his knees beneath the surface. Holding footing was impossible as rocks were pulled away beneath our feet, sharp and uneven on soft soles, and the water began to numb my shaky legs. I was scared. On a bed of rocks halfway across the river, we struggled to find a place to cross. As we stood, trapped and barely able to stand in the thigh-deep water, Reuben quickly returned and told us we wouldn’t make it. Less than half a kilometer into the hike and we were already stuck. Almost a foot shorter than the boys, I knew I couldn’t withstand the strength of the current. Over an hour had passed and it was time to man up or go home. I wasn’t going to let this trail beat me before we ever even got to it. Realizing it would be impossible for us to cross barefoot with the unbalancing weight of our packs, we put our boots back on with a fresh determination. We were overcome with relief. The crossing was still difficult, but manageable, and we waded slow and steady across to the other side without issue. Waiting for the boys to meet us from up river I rolled a much deserved reward of a cigarette as the last minutes of our second hour passed by. Onwards we went into the valley with sun-warmed shoulders and smiles on our faces.
Along the valley through the edges of the forest, we crossed deep streams, clear to the floor and enjoyed the serene beauty of unblemished nature as a chorus of native birds whistled their unique songs around us. This was New Zealand. The one you miss on the frequently traversed Great Walks. This seemingly untouched trail was sometimes barely visible beneath the thick twisting roots and carpeted moss. The track progressed on through the valley until we came to a creek. Unsure of which way to go, we cursed ourselves for buying only the lower two maps, and kept our eyes sharpened for any orange trail markers to guide us. Trying to recall remnants of directions from the information desk, we followed the unknown creek upstream, hoping to reach the Otehake trail before nightfall. The sun still high in the summer sky, we continued on, Kirra and I lagging and finally submitting to the knowledge that we could never keep up with two boys that had been cycling a hundred kilometers a day for the last three months.
After a few hours steady tramping with relatively few mishaps, we made it to Lake Kaurapataka. A small clearing opened up to the midnight blue waters, surrounded by lush evergreen forests blanketing the surrounding peaks. We stopped to simultaneously catch and lose our breath. The moment we stopped moving, however, the sandflies began their descent. Kirra and I, exhausted and skeptical of the boys’ plan to continue on, quietly voted to set up camp at the lake for the night. “The trail down to the river is only about a kilometer from here, eh?” Tom announced as he held the only piece of map we had, “and another k to the hot springs. It’s only seven now, we’ve got plenty of time to make it before dark.” Already frustrated with the sandflies, we conceded to the boys’ endearing accents and eager faces.
As we winded our way up the mountainside the track became more and more difficult. Uncertain we were on a trail at all, we stumbled as we climbed through fallen trees, and carefully hoisted ourselves up mazes of roots. The sun continued its daily descent towards the horizon and the water in our boots squished and gurgled with each step. To my right was a tangled mess of dense forestry clawing itself into the mountain. To my left was a near vertical drop through the same gnarled bush four hundred meters above the sound of the ever-rushing river and the rocky ravine below. I was beginning to get scared again. Despite my life as a city girl, the last year I developed an insatiable taste for adventure. An overwhelming need to challenge everything I thought I knew about myself pushed me to test every boundary of my fragile, aging body. But the fearlessness I once felt as a reckless teenager had somehow faded to a cautious calculation of risk that once again aged me in the face of my twenty year-old companions. Knowing we would never make it to the hot springs before nightfall, we climbed and crawled through the non-existent trail, relieved each time another orange triangle appeared to remind us we were still going the right way.
The sun had gone and only the diluted light of the moon through the clouds illuminated the now menacing forest. With only one head lamp and a small lantern between the four of us, finding footing was difficult and slow-going. Each time the sheer trail descended toward the river, I let relief rise in my chest, until it chopped its way back up in elevation as the longest half-kilometer of our lives. Finally, sometime around ten p.m., we came across a steep creek bed with a little orange arrow pointing down. We had finally found the way to the river valley. Wondering how anyone could possibly navigate the unsteady rocks when the rain and snow flooded the creek in spring, we carefully made our way downwards with stones tumbling down in the darkness beneath our feet. Ecstatic to be back at the river, we refilled our empty water bottles in the clean, fresh water and re-hydrated from the exhausting trek. But walking on the river was no easy task. My legs were tired and every third step I rolled my ankle on the unstable stones in the unrelenting dark. Luckily the moon was almost full and, through the haze of clouds, cast a glistening grey on the steady flow of the river. I would have camped anywhere, given anything for the chance to rest my heavy legs and withered constitution. But with only the cold, unsheltered river bed beneath our feet, and the unapologetic cliffs to our right, we continued on. Reuben and Tom bounced merrily along, hopscotching on the shadows of rocks like school children, and the guilt of my own frustrating exhaustion silently embarrassed me. But as we trudged on through the two kilometer walk, the pungent scent of sulfur began to penetrate the air. We were getting closer, and hope-filled adrenaline fueled my acid muscles.
In the stone glow of the cloudy moon, we finally saw the island. Knowing this would be our last river crossing before the hot pools, we went without hesitation into the waist-deep water. Tom crossed first, with Reuben second, as always, to test the depth and strength of the current. Reuben remained, just under a third of the way from the bank of the island with his arm outstretched. Kirra went before I did, and as the freezing water reached her thighs, I saw the current unbalance her from below. I grabbed her arm to keep her from collapsing into the pumping river, and Reuben instinctively did as well. “Taylor, let me go!” Kirra snapped, as my pale-knuckled hands pulled her counter-productively against Reuben’s stronger arm. Always the last to cross at five inches shorter than Kirra, and closer to ten than the boys, I carefully continued on, glad to have Reuben there to bring me through the deepest part. There was something about this boy, a kindness and earnest honesty that I found rare and compelling, and ever wanted more of. But four people camping in a van does not a recipe for romance make, and so we settled for occasional glances and fleeting comforts as we winded our way around the South Island.
Once we all made it across, we were flabbergasted to discover a huge group of high school students were on their first tramping trip here. It was eleven-thirty at night and the island and opposite shore were speckled with spots of yellow and red tents glaring against the darkness of the midnight bush. With the embers of their fire still crackling in the stone-lined pit, we hurriedly stripped our soaked socks and clothes and made our way to the hot pools. Glad I had decided to bear the weight of a box of wine; I pulled out the plastic bag and followed behind in my underwear to find the hot stones emanating the geothermal heat from the fissures below. With shallow pools dotting the opposite side of the island to the shore, we realized we had done almost everything the hard way that day. And then we found it: steam rose tempting in the chilly night air and the four of us lowered ourselves into the scalding water. The heat instantly loosened my screaming muscles and my body sunk into the soothing weight of relaxation. Keeping the water the right temperature took constant adjustment with some burning while others froze. But the miracle of a natural, steaming, hot tub was beyond worth the journey. We spent over an hour enjoying the rewards of our perseverance while we passed around the bag of goon, opening the spout into our eager mouths.
With Reuben and Kirra respectively too hot and too cold, they headed back to the camp to start dinner. Tom and I stayed behind beneath the starless sky and spoke of the adventure we had endured that day. Tom was utterly fearless with the pale, pink-cheeked face of a mischievous cherub. His youth-filled vigor was like a drug I had forgotten how to be addicted to. I admitted how scared I had been on the mountain that day.
“I can remember the time I didn’t care if I died,” I said in reminiscence. “And now in every adventure, I’m tangibly aware of each danger, conscious of my body’s instinct to stay alive. I feel more scared now, but more determined to overcome it than ever before.” As the words left my lips I realized the power of their veracity, and thought on the things that had brought me through the seven year difference in our age.
“I think, if I were out here alone I would have been scared, but as long as you’re with someone, it’s easy not to be, eh? It was an adventure!” Tom countered excitedly. Knowing I live heavy with regret only from things I don’t do, and never from chances I take, I continued to discover through articulating,
“I guess you don’t have a choice when you’re alone. It’s too late to turn around so you just do it. But with someone else leading the way I think I let myself be scared. Maybe because I know there is someone to be fearless for me?” I questioned to no one, “or maybe I am just always scared no matter what.” I laughed as I thought of how many times I had been petrified on my own in this world over the past year, and how I got through it.
“You’re like a Norwegian,” Tom began, somehow both playfully and seriously, “they have this untranslatable word that means to have to do something to prove it to yourself. And so in their culture, they are always testing themselves. It’s why they’re all so bad at team sports.” I laughed, agreeing, and realized how different we truly were, and from where our strengths come. We curiously discussed how we come to be the way we are, and why we were driven to lead the lives we lead. I had felt heavy with the knowledge I was heading back to the real world soon knowing I was going to struggle to continue to live the life I had found here. People were different in New Zealand: desiring a life on the road, devoid of make-up, judgment, and high-heels, where living in a van doesn’t mean homeless, and showering in the ocean counts. But Tom reassured me that I could always make the life I wanted, and as we made our way back to the campfire, I felt confident in the knowledge that D.C. could never take away what New Zealand had given me.
Reuben had the curry almost ready when we returned, and we bundled ourselves close to the struggling fire. The instant the nourishment touched my stomach, exhaustion took over. My body was too tired to be hungry and I made my way to the pile of three sleeping bags, two mats, and no tent we were pretending was a bed. We cuddled into a people pile and I curled myself close into Reuben, contented in the spark of companionship between us. He was the first boy in a long time to offer me the comforts of love in a transient life. I let myself revel in it knowing in just four days we would be nine thousand miles apart. It was already past two in the morning when we finally lay down and the sleep was restless and cold.
Before I felt my eyes had even closed, the highschoolers and sandflies began their buzzing with the dawn. We tried, unsuccessfully, to keep our faces covered from the incessant insects, and remorseless light. I turned around to rest my head on Reuben’s chest, and pressed myself closer once again, knowing what we both wanted, but couldn’t have. “Think anyone would notice if we had sex right here?” I laughed suggestively at the absurdity of the comment on the tiny island packed with bustling campers. We surrendered to the inevitability of our frustration and took simple pleasures in the joy of each inch pressed against another. Unable to get back to sleep, I got up and tried to make a fire for some peanut butter toast, unsuccessful with the rain-soaked wood. Bringing a slightly warmed piece of bread spread with peanut butter, I enticed the others to rouse from their fitful sleep, save for kirra, who could soundly sleep through an earthquake. We were alone on the island again and after a quick breakfast put our freezing, wet socks back on our tired feet. We had the favor of daylight today, and the knowledge that the track through the river valley was far more manageable than the flood trail we had navigated the night before. In the light of day, the muted turquoise of the river over the pale greywhacke distinctive of this side of the Southern Alps was unimaginably and quietly beautiful.
This time, we crossed the river with ease, growing accustomed to the cold water and quick currents. We hopped playfully along the rocks laughing and taking pictures until we reached the swing bridge. Our little orange arrows pointed us upwards and so we ascended, assuming the trail took us up from the base of the bridge. The climb we began was more frightening than anything we had attempted the night before, but I was ever more determined to overcome it. The mossy mountainside was an almost completely vertical ladder of gnarled roots, each upward movement testing the strength of dead and dying braches. With barely enough room to find a footing, the drop down to the ravine exceeded thirty meters, and grew quickly as we climbed. Again, I was scared, but kept it to myself trusting in the boys’ fearlessness to guide me, and knowing how silly I always feel once I make it in one piece.
With Tom leading the way he turned back and called, “Hey guys, I don’t think there’s a trail up here, eh?” Sure enough, we hadn’t seen a reassuring orange triangle since the bridge, and the pseudo-ladder we were on became impassable further up. With my heart quietly pumping mortality through me, I began the even scarier descent. Being last, I was now in the lead to head back. Looking down the sheer drop to the river bed I focused only on maintaining my delicate footing and checking the strength of each and every branch. Suddenly, the sound of dead wood cracked loud and sharp like splitting thunder. I turned upwards to see Reuben falling from at least three meters above me. His head hit a tree and twisted his body as he continued to contort in free fall. Swiping Tom’s shoulder on his way down, I knew I would never be able to brace his weight with mine and only a few inches of footing between me and the edge. If something didn’t stop him we were both going to fall to our deaths in the thoughtless surge of the Otehake. I held out my arms as Reuben twisted in the air, his back now racing straight toward my open embrace. Then, the unbelievable happened: just two feet above me, a twisted branch extending from the cliff caught Reuben’s leg. With the tree supporting the majority of his weight, he landed softly in my petrified grasp. He was safe. We were safe. I immediately kissed his head, frantically stroking his face, “Oh my God! Are you OK? Jesus, Reuben! I thought we were both gonna die!” A small scrape marked his forehead and his hand was bleeding, but through it all, he was unfazed. “Holy shit, that was crazy. How far did I just fall?” We stopped and each recounted our vantage point of the miraculous event. Kirra seeing the weak branch just before it snapped, Tom and I both believing nothing would be able to stop Reuben as he accelerated towards the ravine. Once we made our way back to safety, I hugged Reuben tightly once again. “I can’t fucking believe that just happened.”
I couldn’t stop repeating it. The moment ran, seconds stretched to minutes, in my head again and again. It was unfathomable. And that moment recalled a blind acceptance of death that I couldn’t remember when I had lost. Throughout the last careless decade of my life, standing drunk with arms spread wide from a high-rise rooftop just to feel the thrill of the drop, I believed I cared not for when or how I died, so long as I was really living. Somewhere along the way I had become more aware of my own mortality, and missed the freedom that confidence I once had had given me. Death is an inevitability for all of us, so what is the point of living in fear? There are too many things of which to be afraid in this world. I was afraid of my friend dying, and afraid of dying myself, but we didn’t. And remembering that if I was gonna go, falling off a cliff in New Zealand was a pretty spectacular way to do it, I smiled knowing my reckless youth was still tucked within me, even if tinged with the knowledge that I had a lot more living I wanted to do.
We headed back on the proper trail this time, knowing we were all meant for at least a little bit more on this planet. The trek back was quiet, and tiring, but far faster than the trek in. As we came through the clearing in the Taramakau Valley, we knew we would soon be facing the awesome Otira once again. The river we were warned was “not to be taken lightly” stood before us in a massive plain of dry river beds sliced by intertwining arms of seizing waters. Unsure if the crossing would be as menacing as the first time, we went in without a second thought.
The Otira, however, was far stronger than any piece of the Otehake, and as the water rose above my thighs, the current began to pull my feet from under me. A rock was sucked from my footing, my balance wavered, and I felt the rushing water winning out against my weakened, frozen legs. Reuben, seeing me struggle, stepped back into the icy waters to offer his arm to me. Instantly stabilized, I forced my legs through the powerful pull of the river, and found myself safely on the other side. We had done it. With the van in sight, we excitedly began talking about the salami, cheese, and crackers we were going to eat, and the joys of clean, warm, dry clothes. The last river crossing was the end for me. My ancient limbs were wobbly as Jell-O and sore as if I hadn’t moved in months. I had nothing left. When we got back to Billy, I stripped to my underwear and collapsed on the mattress in the back. I could barely move.
This night was to be our last night camping with the boys. We headed out from the pass to find a spot to set up camp. Most of the DOC sites just parking lots on the side of the highway, we decided to look a little harder for the perfect place. A solid twenty kilometers and five campsites later, we took a left over a bridge crossing the Waimakariri River into a vast valley of flat, featureless plains. There was no one in sight for miles in any direction. The plains followed the massive, braided river bed to the peaks that surrounded us on all sides. As we parked the sun sat hanging just above the rugged horizon and the soft yellow glow overwhelmed us all to silence.
How could this place continue to stun to speechless? How could anyone take such majesty for granted? In a country the size of California with fewer people than metropolitan Los Angeles, it is the only place I have been where you can feel truly alone and at peace with the world. We collected driftwood from the river bed and parked the van to block the sweeping winds. The fire consumed the dried wood quickly as the flames contorted high into the whipping winds beneath the finally full moon. We shared laughter and the last few beers over the last of our food. Reuben lay his head on my lap as I ran my fingers through his hair, and over the small abrasion on his forehead from his brush with death earlier that day. We were leaving this place in the morning, and I leaving New Zealand just two days later. Despite the stone-sunk sadness that enveloped me at the thought of returning to America, and having to leave the loves I had found here, I knew that no part of New Zealand would ever leave me. And when I returned home, it was only time to find another adventure to scare me enough to remind me just how incredible this life can be.