From my top bunk-bed, I could hear the Pacific Ocean. I tumbled out and along the beach, the waves still dark beneath the stars. An hour later, I was diving off a boat as the waters glinted beneath the rising sun. Dolphins jumped and thrashed around me as I shivered inside my wetsuit. This was dawn in Kaikoura. It was late January – the middle of summer.
Our hostel won two consecutive pub quizzes at Kaikoura while I was there, and I’m afraid to say that it was almost entirely because of me. On the first occasion, we all won free meals, which we ate in the courtyard on a warm, sunny evening. A few nights later, the hostel manager hid me in the linen cupboard to stop a drunk guy trying to stab me. She smuggled me out of the hostel and into her house while he was being detained by police. Later, after they released him, we heard him howling as he patrolled the street outside, still looking for me. The next day, he took me out for lunch to apologise.
There were other odd days, like that time I had to kill a goat. Blood everywhere and I can still smell the warm, slippery fat. And of course my first night in New Zealand, when I slept next to a man with multiple personality disorder who concocted a plan to impregnate his wife with insect sperm. I spent two nights sleeping in cars, one night in Christchurch airport and a night in Hokitika with water filling the tent and all clothes offered up as sacrificial levees.
But a few short February nights before that, I rode a helicopter to a glacier and hiked up the ice with crampons. Half the trips are cancelled because of rain but on this day the sky was perfectly clear. Rainforest surrounded the glacier, stretching out to the sea. A few days before that, I jumped out of a plane in Wanaka, shimmering lakes filling my view as I twisted and spun out of the sky. And a few days before that, I stood beside the tent with Molly in Mount Cook National Park. It was the middle of the night and the campsite was quiet; I stared for an eternity at that perfect Milky Way.
The next day I took the coldest shower I’ve ever taken in my life. It was torture, but it was the first shower I’d had access to for days. Two months later, I came to miss that shower. It was April and I was living in a caravan on a zoo. Plenty of shit to shovel and nowhere to wash it off, the caravan’s shower nothing but a slightly leaky sprinkler in a plastic closet. Sometimes I peed in that shower so that I didn’t have to walk to the zoo toilet in the middle of the night, past the big cats who were hopefully asleep and hopefully hadn’t escaped in an earthquake. Both Lindsey and I felt that one strong earthquake in New Plymouth, and ended up watching Moulin Rouge in my caravan so we weren’t thinking about it.
Though for all the lions and tigers and monkeys and that primadonna ostrich Sharon, I never got quite as dirty as I did trying to cut alpaca toenails with rusty pliers in Kaiapoi in early March, while Charlotte put the damn beasts in headlocks and they spat cud at us with the manners of, well, alpacas. Fortunately, I flew to Australia directly afterwards, and luxuriated in Dan’s serviced apartment to recover.
Friendships are forged when you choose to reunite. I met up again with Mikaela in Blenheim and Maryann in Wellington. I spent time with Fabio, Pia, Maria, Yannick, Krissi and Lisa in Kaikoura. I ran into Lucas in Hokitika and Pablo in McDonalds in Napier. Kirsty and I had dinner in Auckland. Sian and I spent a lunch-time in Wellington cafes and wondered when we’d ever see each other again. After we said goodbye, I went back to the CAA and surprised Sio and Claire. Connie and Seb were away that weekend, but they let me stay in their house so I could look after their cat. When they returned from Queenstown, they were engaged.
I found Bill again in Queenstown, while Erin and I tracked each other around the South Island, from Wanaka to Franz Josef to Nelson and finally across the Cook Strait back to Wellington, where we both winced as the ferry rocked in the powerful swell and tried not to listen to the apocalyptic crashing coming from the kitchen. I don’t usually get seasick, but I threw up. A lot. It made me hugely relieved that I’d taken the plane to Stewart Island and not the far more infamous boat.
It also reminded me of the two other times I crossed that strait – once I met an American man who’d just lost his mother and his wife. The other time, I was relocating a car from Christchurch to Auckland, via Blenheim, Picton, Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateapokaiwhenuakitanatahu, Clive, Gisborne, Tauranga, and of course fucking Coromandel. I spent the night in an empty campsite in north Coromandel all by myself, and fell asleep to the sound of waves. That was late March. Mostly I was happy to be driving the car myself, unlike our December Nelson Lakes road-trip, when Lilly ate too much sugar and hurled Mikaela and I along the windy Charlotte Sound tarmac like the crazy Ikea employee she is.
In late August I relocated a car from Queenstown to Invercargill. When I got to Invercargill, I had nowhere to stay, but I booked myself into a quiet little hostel and got given my own private room. I walked down to the local supermarket and realised I’d been there before, six months earlier on Valentine’s Day, in a futile but hilarious quest for alcohol (because of course you need alcohol on Valentine’s Day). Then, in early September, flush with savings from my CAA job, I actually rented a car, and traversed the final parts of the North Island I’d wanted to see.
I’ve tried to get back to see as many of my wwoofing hosts as possible, and have been continually reminded of the generosity and kindness of New Zealand’s people. At Almond House, Fiona gave me a private room in her hostel for free, which was incredibly useful once I discovered I had a Skype job interview with Teach First at 4am. Back at the zoo, Liu and Adam put me up in the guest bedroom and refused to let me work. And in Auckland’s western suburbs, seeing Rosie and Ross again was like coming home.
On Waiheke Island, Sheena and Richard happily welcomed me back, even though I could only stay for a few days. In return, I gave Leo and Lex two days of intensive maths tuition, which only resulted in one teary outburst: I’ve been doing my four times tables for five hours! On a visit to some hives on a nearby farm, I also conducted an impromptu lesson on bees in my beekeeping suit to a rapt crowd of home-schooled kids.
Because yes, I learned about bees. I also learned how to milk a cow, and even how to milk a cow without getting sprayed with shit. I learned how to check if an alpaca’s pregnant (try and get a male to mate with her) and how to make walnut butter and cheese. I learned about flag referendums and aviation and hostel management. And I spent two days sanding a roof.
Somewhere in between all of that, I spent a sunny Christmas with good friends and endless Germans and excellent food. We even went to the beach.
Eight months later, I saw a kiwi in the wild on Ulva Island with Soren.
And a month before that, I said goodbye to my Dad at Heathrow airport, and I got on a plane to Hong Kong.
I remember thinking, very distinctly, that at some murky point in the future, my year in New Zealand would be at an end. And I remember thinking that, as long as the year before me seemed, one day it would seem like it took up no time at all.
It’s one of the great paradoxes of time, that the more you fill it, the shorter it seems. The more you experience, the more you learn, the more you make friends, the more it seems like there isn’t time for anything at all. Life is breathtakingly fast.
However, life is rarely instant gratification. A lot of it is working towards a future. Sometimes you have to defer success, ambition, relationships, even happiness. Just don’t ever defer purpose. Find a meaning in every moment, because it’s gone forever either way. That life you’re waiting to find, zoom in on it and see that it’s composed entirely of these moments, strung together in a wiggly line. Nothing more, but also nothing less. The sum total of what you do at every point in time. You can’t find your life because you are your life. The journey is the destination.
I’m hugely grateful that you’ve been part of this journey, whether this is the first entry you’ve read, or the one-hundred-and-sixteenth. I’ve enjoyed writing this blog immensely and if I start another one in the future, I hope you’ll follow me there.
In the meantime, I’m leaving New Zealand, 358 days after I arrived. Goodbye, you wild, gorgeous country. Fof’s off.