New Zealand: Leaving After 15 Months

by | Jan 9, 2018

First off, Hilary and I are now back in Canada after we returned from New Zealand on December 12th. This means that our 15 month adventure has come to an end, although I know we’ll be back one day. If nothing else, our time in New Zealand was one of the best experiences of our lives so far and it’s only made us more excited and prepared for more adventures in the future.

This also means, however, that this will be the last post about New Zealand besides a couple of summary posts that I might do. I hope that you have enjoyed reading about our adventures as much as we enjoyed living them. Even more than that I hope that it has possibly inspired you to take on a new adventure of your own or go to some place that you’ve always wanted to see.

I do have to apologize slightly as since returning home, I have been making the most of the Christmas season and taking time to visit family. Because of that this post has been a while in the making, but here it is anyways.

Our Last 10 Days in New Zealand:

The last post that I wrote from New Zealand was about our adventures after returning from Asia. After spending a year in New Zealand we headed over to South East Asia for a few months before returning to New Zealand for 3 weeks on tourist visas to pack up our things, do a few last adventures and say our goodbyes to friends. 

The first part of those 3 weeks were spent going skydiving, cliff jumping, having BBQ’s with friends, drinking beers at the lake, heading down to Stewart Island, and spending a night in Riverton

Now, for our official final 10 days in New Zealand, here are a few things that we got up to:

Christmas Camping Trip:

Camping Trip Photo Glendhu Bay

There’s nothing better than a Christmas camping trip right? Well if you’re from Canada like us, there are all sorts of problems and complications with that idea. But in New Zealand, having BBQ’s and camping are all part of the fun of Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere.

As Hilary and I were leaving a few weeks before Christmas, we decided to have a camping trip with friends before we left. We camped by the lake, played some games, hid from the rain, and swam. Besides being December, the only other clue that it was nearing Christmas is that we did a secret Santa exchange. 

Copland Track:

Walking the Copland Track NZ

One of my favourite walks that we did during our time in New Zealand was the Copland Track. We had actually tried to do it once before about 3 months earlier but the night before we left Hilary and I ended up getting sick.

Group taking photo in front of Copland River

Our second attempt went much smoother, however, and with a good stretch of weather and two of our good friends, Tom and Claire, we made it happen. It’s about a 3 hour drive from Wanaka to get to the trailhead for the Copland track which starts on the rugged west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. While the Copland track isn’t designated a great walk of New Zealand, it’s quite a popular one and is really well signed and maintained.

Walkers crossing foot bridge in New Zealand

It’s hard to accurately describe the entire track as it seems to constantly change the further that you go. It is quite a long walk, however, at 20 kilometres and for most of the time you have to carefully place your feet through rock gardens and tree roots so it ends up being quite exhausting.

The scenery, however, is what makes it special. Whether you’re going through thick forest, walking along the edge of the glacier blue river, crossing one of the many swing bridges along the track, or side hilling across steep scree slopes, you’re always surrounded by some of the most spectacular scenery that New Zealand has to offer. 

Mountain Peaks above Welcome Flat

When you finally arrive at the Welcome Flat Hut, you are in the middle of an impressive steep valley. Even the hut itself is quite special and is one of the better huts that we stayed in during out time in New Zealand.  

Welcome Flat Hut

One of the best parts is that a few minutes from the hut are shallow natural hot springs to sit in. There are a few different pools with different temperatures so if you’re like Goldilocks you’ll find the one that’s just right.

Hot Springs near Welcome Flat on Copland Track

That evening in the hut, we played cards, visited, drank hot toddies, and of course…went to bed early. The hut wardens at the time were an Austrian couple who had spent several weeks at Welcome Flat. It turned out that he was a hunter and had shot a Chamois a few days earlier but didn’t have enough room to pack it all out. Because of this, he was giving away some of his extra meat. We were happy to volunteer to take it off of his hands so we even got some wild meat out of our hut trip which we hadn’t expected.

The next day we woke up early as Tom had to be back in Wanaka for work in the afternoon. Even though it was mostly downhill on the way back, it still seemed like an agonizingly long walk out. But even seeing everything for the second time, it was still just as special as the day before.

Copland River

A long drive back to Wanaka and a lot of napping in the vehicle marked the end of the Copland track but it’ll still be one that I remember as one of the best adventures during our time in New Zealand.

Mountain Biking on Coronet Peak…Again

Ben biking on Rude Rock Queenstown

I’ve mountain biked on Coronet Peak before but as it’s one of my favourite places in New Zealand to ride I thought I should get there one more time before we left the country. Besides that, I had a new bike that I had barely ridden before leaving for Asia so I really didn’t need any more encouragement or excuses. 

Hilary was kind enough to shuttle me for a few laps on Zoot’s DH and Rude Rock and she even grabbed a few pictures along the way.


Downtown Nelson New Zealand

Before we left New Zealand, we wanted to do one last tour around the South Island. Well, actually I just really wanted to mountain bike in Nelson and Hilary was game so off we went. 

We started out up the west coast through Haast Pass, and made our first stop in Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers. In all the time that we spent in New Zealand this was actually our first time at the glacier towns and, while the area along the coast is beautiful, the towns are a little bit boring. I have the feeling that they are those types of places where you have to spend some time to explore the area to really appreciate. Unfortunately time was one of the things that we were short on so we had to keep moving on.

We did have some time to walk around part of Lake Matheson, however, which is where you can usually get a photo of Mount Cook reflecting in the lake. Not when we were there, however.

Lake Matheson near Fox Glacier

Continuing on, we made it to the small town of Hokitika just as the sun was setting. We walked along the beach with other people who were playing in the sand, walking their dog, or fishing. Even though we had spent a warm Christmas in New Zealand the year before, it was still strange to see Christmas lights and decorations on the street while we were walking along the beach in shorts and sandals.

Hokitika driftwood sign

After spending the night near Hokitika, we made the long drive up the rest of the west coast until we reached Nelson. We had driven this part of the coast before but it was still amazing to see for a second time and is one of my favourite sections of coastline in New Zealand.

West Coastline of New Zealand South Island

Mountain Biking in Nelson:

Our plan for Nelson was to ride our mountain bikes as much as possible. Nelson is one of the biggest mountain bike destinations in New Zealand and I had to experience it while we were in the country with our bikes. We spent about 2 days riding and tried to get in as many trails as possible to get a good feel for the area.

Everything in Nelson is known for being steep and difficult. Trails that might normally be rated a black would be a fairly typical blue in Nelson. On the day that we arrived, we spent some time walking around town and stopping by a few bike shops to get some trail advice and then we headed for an area called Codgers. We rode a few trails here and were lucky enough to bump into a Swiss couple that lived in Nelson who asked us to tag along with them. They were awesome to chat with and gave us a good tour of the area 

Codgers trails in Nelson New Zealand

The next morning, I did some riding by myself to explore some of the longer steeper trails of the area while Hilary hung around town. Some of the trails that I rode were Te Ara Koa, 629, Sunrise Ridge, and Peaking Ridge. Everything was super fast and steep and the climbs and descents were long and tiring.

Mountain Bike on top of Te Ara Toa

While we rode quite a lot in only a few days, it was only a small amount of what Nelson has to offer and it definitely made us want to return to spend more time in the area.

By far my favourite part, however, was the local community. There were so many people out on the trails and everyone was friendly and helpful. It reminded me a lot of what riding at home in Canada felt like.

After a few days in Nelson we headed off to finish our loop around the South Island. Since we had driven up the west coast, we decided to head back down the east coast to complete our loop.

Riding in White’s Bay:

Whites Bay Bike Track

Along the way we stopped off in a small campground near the north-east tip of the South Island called White’s Bay. There’s not much there besides a narrow windy road, a small campground, and a beautiful sandy bay. But just behind the campground in the hills there is a walking/biking loop and a few other trails. It’s quite a famous spot for riding in New Zealand besides feeling like it’s far from anywhere.

Whites Bay New Zealand

We had stayed overnight in White’s Bay so I woke up early and did the loop in a few hours. This was one of my favourite rides in the country and the fast single track and rocks and roots made it a ride that I’ll always remember.  

Heading Back to Wanaka:

After White’s Bay, we made the long journey back to Wanaka. The coastal route was still closed through Kaikoura which meant that we had an extra 3 or 4 hours added to the journey. We spent our last night on the road (and in our van Ernie) just south of Christchurch on the way home. 

In fact, when we arrived back to Wanaka, we had arranged for someone to see our van who was interested in buying it. So, we got back, unloaded our things, gave the van a quick clean and a few hours later it was sold. It couldn’t have worked better!

Some Final Thoughts from New Zealand:

Sheep crossing road in New Zealand

After spending 15 months in a country and becoming a part of the community and building relationships with the people there, you become attached to it. There is definitely something deep down that slowly formed during our time in New Zealand that will always be a part of me. The country and our experiences there left a mark and no matter how much time passes, I expect that I will always feel a pull to return to the country.

Before going to New Zealand, I feel like I had always rushed through parts of life trying to get to the next thing around the corner. From getting out of high school and into university. Then getting out of university to start building a career. Then from that first job to either a promotion or a new and better job, I was always looking ahead instead of enjoying where I was at the moment. Going to New Zealand, however, was something that I had wanted to do for a long time, and for the first time that I can remember, I was completely and totally happy being right where I was. I think I had finally gotten some priorities aligned and I was happy to enjoy where I was and what I was doing without planning the next step to something bigger and better. I was still working a full time job but it was something that I enjoyed and in a place that I loved.

Wanaka itself changed my path and my outlook as well. The town is filled with creative and independent people that are focussed on the things that are important to them, like staying active, spending time with good friends, and not taking life too seriously. Lots of people in Wanaka earn a living through small businesses of their own, as athletes, or other creative ways. It had definitely made me compare it to my own idea of getting an degree, and working in a large company to work up the ladder through promotions and raises.

I never went to New Zealand to find myself or anything like that but I feel like I was attempting to escape something in the career path, location, and job that I was stuck in while I was working in Calgary. In the process of living in New Zealand I think it changed me in many ways but to say that I found myself would be far too cliche and would diminish the actual feeling that I’m trying to get across. Instead I think the best way that I can describe it is that our time living in a new country, forming new relationships, and dealing with the sometimes difficult situation of being away from family for so long…all of this and more….was simply exactly what I had needed at this point in life. Like a bit of breathing room. Or maybe just a chance to catch my breath and regather my thoughts.

The real question however that I am very unprepared and unwilling to answer is “what next?” There always has to be a “what next” but sometimes it’s harder to see than other times. For the first time in my life I don’t have a clear path forward. It’s always been school then university then work then…well…New Zealand for a year. But now there are many many paths in front of me and I feel at a crossroads between them all.

I know that the right thing to do is to follow my gut and do what feels right but sometimes it’s hard to know what that is. Is it possible to make a wrong decision or does everything just happen as it’s supposed to for better or worse? My time in New Zealand has put me on a path forward that I want to be on but it feels fragile and I don’t want the weight of life to crush inwards and suffocate this vision as I know it would be so easy to lose that direction and be pulled into a job or lifestyle that I’m not happy with. And then the year in New Zealand becomes for nothing and is reduced to that fantasy time in my life that I always look back on as a dreamstate through the murk of stress and everyday life. Instead why can’t we all live our lives like that time in New Zealand and enjoy the moments and do what feels right. The future would be far less scary. These rules that we’ve made up about how we must live our lives are just that, made up, and you can always find a different way with enough persistence.

I’m not saying that everyone should quit working, spend their days drinking beer on the beach, and do whatever they feel like doing with their lives. But what if we all committed ourselves to making a living doing things that we care about and exploring our curiosities rather than committing to a career path that is going to be the most economical and stable way past the point of enjoyment.

Flying Out of Auckland:

Birds circling on beach at sunset in Hokitika

As we were flying out of Auckland and watching New Zealand disappear below us, I grabbed my iPad and wrote down a few thoughts that I had about leaving the country.

I always thought coming to New Zealand that if it was as hard to leave the country for home as it was to leave home for New Zealand then the trip would have been a success. It would be evidence that the relationship and memories that we formed here were so awesome that the rivalled that untouchable feeling of home. In the midst of leaving now I can safely say that by these standards the trip was a success beyond anything that we could have ever imagined. The friends and places that we’ve come to love so much now feel like another home across the world and it’s something that we will cherish forever.

So if there is one thing that I’ve learned looking back on the year and what it’s meant in the scheme of life thus far, it’s that there are things in life that matter to you and that you hold important and that these things have to be priority. It sounds simple but sometimes it’s the most difficult thing to practice. Everyone knows what these things are by feel even if you don’t consciously acknowledge it. And sometimes it’s more convenient for a time to ignore them in an effort to make money or progress a career or whatever it may be, but this can be dangerous. For me, these things that matter are living in a small town in an area with good outdoors, surrounded by like minded people and earning a living doing something that I care about. It’s simple, but it’s what we had in New Zealand and it made me realize that these were the things that are important to me.

I now have a goal and a vision of my direction and everything that I do I want to be aimed in that direction. It’s easy to get waylaid and push in another direction for a while because it’s the path of least resistance but I’ve done that before living in a place I didn’t want to be in and working a job that I didn’t want to do. So maintaining a direction and staying true to it is of utmost importance. This is what I’ve learned in my time here and what I want to maintain in wherever I’m heading next.

The final act of leaving New Zealand felt like getting a tooth pulled. You’re filled with dread leading up to it but in the midst of it you’re numb to everything. It doesn’t feel like you’re actually leaving and the idea of not knowing when you’re going to return hasn’t sunk in yet. It’s only later once the freezing comes out that you can feel something missing. Maybe it’s not as obvious as a hole in your mouth where there was once a tooth but there is definitely something missing that was once a part of you. There is an empty spot that the people and places around you once filled up. But like teeth, we have other people and places, but that one tooth that was so precious will never be found again. Luckily for us, our bonds with the people that we met and with the country are strong enough that they will never actually be broken and we will see both again at some point in the future.

The thought of returning home now doesn’t quite feel like I thought it would. I know there will be excitement to see friends and family at home, but for now all I can comprehend is a deep emptiness that the country and people in it once filled. It didn’t happen all at once, but over the course of a year we slowly fell for the country and the people that we met here. I write this now as I’m watching the landscape disappear below us from the plane window as we fly from Auckland to San Francisco. It’s just after 8:30 PM and a beautiful blue and red sunset fills the sky. Every glance out the window brings back a flash of memories from our time here. The times shopping in New World and Pak n’ Save, the beaches that we’ve wandered, all of our nights spent sleeping in our van throughout the country, our purchase of mountain bikes and all of the adventures that they provided, the lunches spent by the lakeside in Wanaka, all of the pie shops that we visited throughout the country, and the many mountain that we climbed.

There are only a few things that I won’t miss in New Zealand, like the high price of gas and…well… the high price of most everything else. But the list of things that I will miss is a long one. More than anything though, it’s the relaxed and laid back feeling that everyone seems to share. Things just aren’t as big of a deal in New Zealand and people are happier because of it. Material possessions also hold less importance and people seem to be more inclined to get outside and enjoy the outdoors rather than buy a new couch for their living room. Luckily, this ideal, as well as all of our memories from our time here, are things that we can bring with us and carry onwards. And these things might just be the best souvenirs we could have asked for.

And with that, until next time New Zealand!