When it Rains, it Pours

Five minutes into my great New Zealand road trip adventure, I very narrowly escaped a head-on collision. I had never driven on the left side of the road, and I quickly adopted the mantra “left means live, right is roadkill” and recited it religiously as I struggled to negotiate winding roads, torrential rains, and mind-blowing views. I had imagined driving in New Zealand might be a challenge, but traveling such long distances on nearly abandoned roads seemed to lull me into a trancelike lullaby, and I feel compelled to admit that on more than one occasion I found myself driving on the wrong side of the road; without knowing for how long.

I love to travel alone. I love the open road and it’s complete and utter lack of expectation. I love that I can sing out loud; sugar binge and skip showers; roll windows down; drive fast or drive slow. I can stop just to stare, count clouds, write a while; or find some café and talk with a stranger for hours. It’s hard to find people you can do all those things with on the road, but if you do find them, don’t ever let them go.

Solo travel isn’t for everyone. People often ask whether or not I get lonely while traveling alone, and the answer has always been easy: no. When I travel alone, I step outside my comfort zone. I meet new people and try new things. I feel alive. Strange as it may sound, I tend to feel more isolated in a crowd than I do when I’m by myself.

My first night in New Zealand, I checked into a little bed and breakfast just outside Arthur’s pass. It was the coldest month of the year, and low season on South Island. I paid just $20 for an upstairs room stacked with 6 beds and a wrap view of the snowy mountain range. I had the whole room to myself, and practically fell into bed after two days of non-stop travel. The next morning I woke up early and drove through Arthur’s pass, clear across the width of South Island to the west coast town of Greymouth. I skirted the city’s edge and headed south, hugging the coastline and stopping constantly to photograph. The roads were mostly empty, and never-ending. It was as if I had the whole country to myself. I was so wrapped up in shooting that by the time I thought to find a place to sleep, the sun had disappeared into the sea. I had no cell phone service, very little gas, and the one hostel I could find was booked. The owner of the hostel pointed me south, so I drove on.

It was nearly 9pm when I pulled into Franz Josef, population 330. I parked outside a YHA hostel, grabbed my bag and walked in to ask for a room. The guy behind the desk smiled and pulled a party popper from his pocket. Confetti exploded onto the counter. “Happy 4th of July! I’ve been waiting all day for an American to walk through that door!” His name was Casey. My first New Zealand friend was a fellow American. The next morning we hiked Franz Josef Glacier together, counting more than six waterfalls at one point on the trail. It was beautiful, but cold, and raining.

It kept raining. All. Day. Long. I said goodbye to Casey before making a stop at the single town pump – even though my new friend warned me prices would be steep. I was literally speechless when the attendant handed me a receipt for $147, the price for just one full tank in my 4-cylinder Toyota. I dug another $5.75 from my pocket for a large coffee and inquired about the length of the drive to Lake Wanaka. The cashier assured me the trip would be less than six hours – an estimate I would soon discover to be distinctly kiwi.

The drive was mesmerizing – in a grey sort of way. It was beautiful; but also long, lonely and remote. Just three hours into the drive, I pulled off at Knight’s landing and fell asleep by the sea. The sound of crashing waves and rain tapping at the roof seemed to sing me to sleep. I awoke nearly two hours later, to what seemed like a wave crashing over my head. The tide had moved so far inland, I was afraid it would shake loose the rocks below and carry everything – myself included – out to sea. The sun had diminished to nothing more than a smudge of a thumbprint behind a veil of rain, moving slowly toward the sea. I had to keep driving. There were no houses, no road signs, no roads at all save the one before me. I stopped a few more times, at Fantail and Thundercreek Falls. Then shipwrecks. All were impressive, but impossible to explore, given the relentless rain and biting cold. I was alone, and for the first time in a long time, I was lonely.