Those Who Wander
All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost. - J.R.R. Tolkien
When I was in the fifth grade, for show-and-tell I brought in my battered, torn-up copy of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and proceeded to read my favorite scene aloud to the class, for the entirety of my allotted four minutes. I can still see my teacher cringing in the background, but I fucking loved every second of it. I can’t really remember a time where I wasn’t deeply and loudly obsessed with Lord of the Rings, so when we were trying to decide where to travel next, New Zealand (where the movies were filmed) felt perfect.
We decided to explore the country the best way we knew how - by camper. We’d done this a couple times before, first in Maui on our honeymoon, and then most recently around the American Southwest. Our car this time was little more than a glorified mini-van: a small bed we could throw together in the back, a broken cooler, a single camping stove. The first time we stopped for gas a couple of teens on their bicycles rode by and yelled “shitty van!” at us, and I’d say that’s an accurate assessment. We’d flown into Auckland but wanted to start driving early, so right after we filled up we hit the road.
We headed east for hours, the scenery was so different from what we’d been seeing the past few months and we were happy just to sit and watch it pass by, windows rolled down. In Southeast Asia, we’d grown accustomed to a lot of things - the loud conversations in languages we didn’t understand, the roar of motorbikes ripping through dirt roads, wearing dust masks in bigger cities. Sticking out like sore thumbs as tourists, flagging down tuk-tuks, Peter and his blond head. Here, we could feel anonymous again, on the open road. We passed waving fields of wheat covering rolling hills and vast open plains, rugged mountains and sandy coastlines. We’d moo out the windows at the innumerable cows and sheep that peppered the green farmland at every turn we took. We spent our days hiking around and getting lost in the coves and waterfalls and trails we discovered along the way. It took us a while, but eventually we got used to driving on the left, and the fact that we could drink water out of the taps again. The heady aroma of wildflowers, and leaves coating the forest floor, and the rare silences we’d been missing. All the new constellations we could see in the night sky.
On a whim we ended up in Raglan, a little surfing town. We’d never been surfing before but wanted to give it a fair shot, so we settled in for five days on the coast. Each day we’d wake up, grab some breakfast from the back of the van, then head for the water. The hot black sand of Ngarunui beach would burn our feet as we hauled our boards to the shore, where we’d spend the better part of each day fighting the waves out to sea, then riding them back to the sand. Out to sea, back to sand, rinse and repeat, over and over until our arms were sore and our veins pumped battery acid. I won’t lie, surfing is difficult and we didn’t look cool, wiping out in the waves and scraping our knees in the sand far more times than we ever stood. I never quite got the hang of eyeing which wave was going to be a good one, often the surf would pass me and I’d be left standing up straight on still water, or else get bowled over completely. But those few times when the wave catches just right, you feel it early, and the board rises and pulls beneath you - it’s an addicting feeling.
Heading south we passed through Hobbiton, an obvious stop for any Lord of the Rings fan. We walked through the rounded doors and idyllic gardens, and correctly answered every piece of trivia the tour guide gave us, but I’ve been told I shouldn’t brag about stuff like that.
The next few days took us to Rotorua, a town famous for its natural hot springs. We drove around without a plan, every few minutes there’d be a sign for mud baths or thermal pools, I think we stopped off at each one we found - glittering emerald lakes, sputtering geysers. We drove to a small creek outside the city, the water was hotter than we expected, but it was the smell of those minerals churning together in the stream that could knock you back if you weren’t careful. Still, we stripped to our swimsuits and waded in, we scrubbed the dirt from our skin and washed our hair under the waterfall - the first hot shower we’d had in weeks. We stunk like sulfur all the way back to our campsite.
We continued south to Tongariro National Park - Mordor, in Lord of the Rings. The Alpine Crossing Trek is considered by many to be the most beautiful day hike in New Zealand, and I’d long wanted to give it a try. But rain and fog seems to follow us on so many of our hikes, and this one was no exception, we were four hours into a 6.5 hour trek and it didn’t look like the skies would clear up anytime soon. We’d long since passed Mt. Doom shrouded in fog, had summited the peak and were headed down when the mist finally started to burn off, and gusts of wind blew the dense cover down the sides of the volcano. We’d catch quick glances - the bluest skies you’ve ever seen, turquoise water in still lakes, red craters and steam rising from thermal vents. Just for a moment though, until the winds died down and the fog rolled back in - blink and you’ll miss it.
Our last stop on North Island was Wellington, the capital and another town by the sea. The camping laws were stricter in the city, we spent a few nights driving empty streets in the dark trying to avoid campsite fees. Peter had been itching to get another tattoo, so we stopped into a parlor on Cuba Street. The artist’s name was Juce, a North Island native, and for two hours we got to know each other over the buzz of the needle and the ‘90s hip-hop blasting in the background. He told us about his favorite New Zealand slang, like “chur” and “sweet as”. He told us to eat butter chicken pies, and to go to Kaikoura for crayfish (except “you Americans call crayfish fucking LOBSTER”). He told us how he almost volunteered to be an extra in Lord of the Rings, but ended up not trying out because he “didn’t think the movies were going to be a big deal.”
The next day we were catching a ferry to South Island, we lined up in the vast queue of cars waiting to drive onto the boat. We’d been in the camper for a while now, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t have its downsides. We never know where our next shower is coming from, but we know that it’ll probably be cold. We eat cereal for dinner when it’s too windy for our shitty camp stove to hold a flame. And the bugs, those damn bugs that flock to the flashlight whenever you have to find your way to the bathroom at night. But already I can’t even count the number of times we’ve wrenched the car over to explore green valleys or bucolic pastures, head down dusty side streets, or pick up fruit from a farmer’s stall on the road. There’s just so much you’d miss if you fly from Point A to Point B, what you can only see on the road, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
We pulled into the ferry and started heading south.