I was born on January 22, 1991. It snowed that day in Albany, New York.
Twenty-five years later – against all odds and expectations – I find myself traveling around New Zealand. On this day I am in the quaint tourist village called Queenstown. I woke up in my van the following morning to find a $200 ticket for prohibited freedom camping.
The day started in Wanaka. It is peaceful and easy to live there, with a low–cost DOC campsite alongside a magical river where we can swim and be refreshed. I could not stay there, however. It was my birthday and I am required by the Gods – old and new – to celebrate this ancient tradition on the anniversary of my exiting my mother’s womb.
In the early afternoon, I drove from Wanaka to Queenstown to meet up with some friends.
Queenstown is beautiful, but in that beauty is chaos. Tourists and buses crowd the city and money is sought at every venue, bar and retail outlet.
Money rules here. Money is king.
Tourism is New Zealand’s top export. People come here from all over the world to experience the robust natural landscapes and easy-going human residents. Judging from the countless adventure tourism options in this area, I’m sure Queenstown collects its fair share of that revenue.
I too have paid my fair share to this industry. Before I arrived in New Zealand last June, I lived and worked in Australia for a year, mostly in the remote outback town of Alice Springs. I arrived in Australia with no money. I worked long hours in the hospitality industry. I saved money knowing that I would be venturing to New Zealand, where the pay is much lower and the natural beauty much greater. There I would travel more and work less. There I would spend most of the money I made in Australia.
On my birthday I was anxious. I was frustrated at the lack of camping options and the expensive prices and limited availability of accommodation. I made the bold decision to park my van in the Queenstown Gardens knowing that I would return there to sleep in the early morning. It was my birthday and I wanted to have fun and I didn’t know what else to do. I took a risk and for that I am sorry. I did not dump any waste – human or otherwise – and I did not cause a menace. I simply slept in my van with my female companion instead of driving drunk to the DOC campsite 12 kilometers away.
I woke in the morning to find the ticket on my windscreen. My first reaction was to simply ignore the fine and join the approximately 900 tourists who chose the no-payment option in 2014, according to the NZ Herald article titled, “Hundreds of tourists dodging $200 freedom camping fines.”
I only received one Birthday present this year. I complimented the duo playing guitar and singing pop songs at World Bar and told the beautiful singer that it was my birthday. She asked my name and then dedicated the next song to me.
It was “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift. I nearly cried. Maybe because I was drunk. I then rejoined my friends and danced the night away.
Now, I implore you, human who is reading this letter at the Queenstown Lakes District Council, I beg thee from the very depths of my soul and I promise I will never again sleep in my van in a prohibited zone:
Would you find room in your heart to forgive this ticket and follow T. Swift’s motto and shake it off?
They are eating vacuum-sealed, dehydrated Fettuccine Alfredo flown in from California, sitting on folding chairs outside of their rent-a-van covered in a tiger mural. They are still hungry when they join me on my yoga mat. I’m slicing onions, garlic and cabbage with shoulder bacon waiting for a hot skillet by candlelight with my iPod on shuffle.
Americans. Fresh off the plane. Always in a rush.
We first saw each other at a scenic cove overlooking the eternal meeting place of blue-green water, forest-covered cliffs and smooth-stone beaches. We greeted each other and kept driving. I start down the unsealed road to the East Cape, the most easterly point in New Zealand and home of the most easterly lighthouse in the world, when I see their van behind mine. Awesome, I’ll have some cool people to hang out with tonight, I think to myself.
The drive is filled with cows and calves grazing unfenced on both sides of the gravel road. I have to stop to encourage the little ones to get out of the way.
I see the hills reflect off of a still pond and I have to pull over to take some pictures. Their van stops next to me and he says,
“Are you looking for the same campground we’re looking for?”
I tell him I’m going to the lighthouse. I’ll see you there?
I didn’t know about a campground, I just wanted to check out the lighthouse to see if I could camp there for easy access to sunrise. Unfortunately, it is private land so I told them I plan on walking to the top tomorrow morning for sunrise. They agreed with my plan so we drove the slow, scenic six kilometers back to the campground, which was just a paddock with a spigot and an outhouse.
I’m excited to meet them and they want to learn about me. Britney and Tim lived across the hall at the University of California, Santa Barbara. They were both planning on traveling to New Zealand and when they met each other, they thought it would make sense to split the costs and go together. They are sleeping in a van about the same size as mine and they aren’t having sex. Weird.
Tim has long California hair and he lives two minutes from the beach. He is studying engineering and he works for some technology company. I assume he is well paid because he is able to take a three-week holiday to New Zealand.
Britney is graduated and is now working at REI, which explains why she brought along the backpacking meals-in-a-bag and why she is going on about her “Campsuds” when I say I’m going to wash my dishes.
After sitting and talking over the candle, we part ways and I fall asleep early to prepare for the next day. They said they would join me for sunrise at the lighthouse.
I woke at 5 am, brushed my teeth and flashed my lights at their van. No response. The lovely young Czech couple next to us shows signs of life. I give a double honk as I leave the campground, hoping Britney and Tim won’t be far behind.
I drive faster than I usually would on a gravel road with cows, calves, sheep, lambs and horses grazing unfenced in the dark. But I can’t wait to lie down in the grass with my camera on my tiny, flexible tripod to take a long exposure of the purple hues of early dawn.
The Czech man crests the hill with his GoPro recording every second. They don’t speak much English but we don’t need to speak much to share such a special and beautiful moment. We are at the edge of the world witnessing the first sunrise together.
While the boyfriend is on the other side of the lighthouse taking pictures, I ask her where they are from and how she likes New Zealand.
She says they wanted to get away and travel and see beautiful places, and she was surprisingly eloquent with her limited English. I wish I knew more languages so I could have a full conversation with people from all over the world.
Then it was time for them to leave. They said Goodbye and then I said Goodbye. They were very happy and polite and not like the Americans.
Britney and Tim never made it to the lighthouse. By the time I returned to the campsite, they were gone.
They were probably driving all day. Meanwhile, I had a relaxing day of preparation and adventure. I cooked bacon, eggs and toast with blueberry jam over two cups of coffee, waxed my leather boots, sharpened my hand-forged knife gifted from my step-mother, mended holes in my merino wool underwear and socks, and packed my bag for a long walk.
I set off toward the paddocks and forests away from the coast, and as I’m walking out of the campsite, the farmer drives in. He kills his engine and motions for me to come around to the driver’s side.
“Kia Ora,” he says.
“Kia Ora,” I reply.
He tells me his name is Len and I tell him my name is Sean.
“Kia Ora, Sean,” he says as we shake hands. His are callused, hard and dry.
“Nice to meet you,” I reply.
I ask him if he lives out here, Yup, the homestead is down by the lighthouse. I say it’s beautiful and isolated.
“Very isolated. My neighbor is just down the road, about four k’s,” Len says.
He says I look like a keen photographer, and I do with a full backpack and camera slung from my shoulder. I say I’m headed out for a walk and I’m wondering if this is all private land and if he minds if I wander around.
Without hesitation he tells me it’s fine.
I assure him I will shut all the gates behind me but he doesn’t seem to care at all at the thought of some random tourist tramping through his land. I’ve realized the importance of having a camera in hand. You can go anywhere if people see that you are just a photographer. As I walk away, though, I’m a little surprised that he didn’t tell me where his bulls are. I know they are out there so I’ll have to tread lightly.
He heads down the road a bit to shift his springer mob, the cows that are calving soon – and the only herd that are actually fenced in – and I open a gate and close it behind me and walk on his tyre tracks.
There are paddocks with wire-less fence posts on either side of the road. On one side, the paddocks end at the beach, and on the other, they end at pine forests and native bush.
I follow his track to the edge of the forest and jump in. The pine trees are planted in neat rows, like every pine forest in New Zealand, and this helps me to not get lost. Where the pines end, the native bush takes over and I’m overwhelmed by its thickness. There is a bloated, decomposing cow in a ravine. I realize if I keep going forward I will get lost in the dense forest or I’ll fall or something bad will happen and I’ll end up like the cow so I turn back. I decide to walk along the road but then I see a logging track and decide that would be perfect. This is obviously not Len’s land, but he said I could go anywhere and I doubt there is anyone out here right now.
I walk down the path and practice my stealth skills so I can sneak up and capture birds with my time traveling device. It is futile. The birds have been evolving for thousands, or millions, of years and they fly away before I have time to draw and shoot. But my stealth skills still work on humans.
After walking as silently as possible for about 90 minutes, I turn a corner up a hill and see a small all-terrain-vehicle with three people standing around with coffee and smokes. They think they are alone out here so I don’t want to frighten them. I walk much closer than I expect before they notice me. I say, Hello. The Maori man facing away from me jumps. I say Kia Ora, I’m sorry, I’m just going for a walk. The man on the side of the vehicle is rolling a thin cigarette and asks me where I came from. Uhh, the end of the road, I’m staying at the campsite, I tell them. This is a very isolated area and they don’t understand how I made it up here on foot.
He says I’m not allowed to be up here, “We don’t give a shit, but the site manager would.”
He says there is a wild bull out here somewhere and I should be careful. I tell them Len said I could go anywhere and they all laugh.
I decided my best course of action is to head back the way I came so I don’t get caught here in the dark of night where I’m not allowed to be with a wild bull lurking.
I’m extra careful to listen for oncoming trucks and I look for places I can jump to stay out of sight. But I’m alone.
I make it back to the road and walk into the unfenced paddock and head toward the beach. A small group of cows and calves run away from me and I see a big black cow with its head down by the boundary fence.
I sneak behind the big cow expecting it to hear me or sense me in the way that only animals can but it keeps its head down in the grass.
I make it to the boundary fence and – by force of habit from working on Digger’s farm – I check it for electricity with a blade of grass. Of course there’s no power so I straddle the wire fence up to my crotch and step over. I walk in front of the big cow, now on the other side of the fence, and it finally acknowledges me.
It lifts its head. It is broad and heavy and powerful. His body is a mass of muscle and I realize, Holy Shit, I just walked a few meters behind a bull. I’m either really lucky or really stupid or this bull was just really hungry.
Cows can be controlled and guided while bulls are unpredictable. They don’t care how confident you are, they will charge you and pin you against a fence without thinking twice. On my first day milking cows at Rian’s farm one of his monstrous bulls hulked through the shed, after the girls were milked, with the swagger of Gregor Clegane. They are terrifying.
As I’m getting over how lucky I am, I see a self-contained Britz caravan trying to find the perfect spot to park for the night.
When I return to the campsite, I approach them. They are from Switzerland, on a two-month holiday.
I love the Swiss. They take their holiday seriously. When I was a waiter at the Overlander’s Steakhouse in Alice Springs – the real “Outback Steakhouse” – we had to place flags on every table to show the assortment of nationalities. Every night we had at least one table with the square red flag with white cross. They travel often and travel well. They don’t fly to the other side of the world for a measly fortnight.
Unlike the budget travelers I meet, who are usually a year or two or three younger than me, this efficient couple went for the camper with room enough to stand, cook, clean and have wild sex. He hasn’t shaved in four days and his English is more practiced than that of his wife.
She says with a hard accent that their car locks automatically and they have been locked out before so if it happens again they will come sleep in my van. We all laugh with the joy of meeting strangers in a strange land.
We tell each other how long we are here, the second mandatory question among travelers. I say two months is a good chunk of time, they aren’t in a rush and they can see most of the country without driving for seven hours a day. He says, Wow, a year. He says I have the best way to live. Work and little, travel a lot. He’s right.
There are difficulties, however, like finding a balance between going on adventures with wild animals, wild humans and wild landscapes and sitting down at my laptop somewhere with power and Internet to write about said adventures.
And what book should I read next?
When the Swiss couple leaves the next morning, we share a happy, hearty wave. I love the Swiss.
After another relaxing morning of seaside breakfast and yoga, I leave the East Cape and think about Britney and Tim.
They didn’t see the first sunrise and they didn’t meet Len and they didn’t trespass through crown forest and sneak behind a bull or see the sunrise the next morning with magical horses grazing through the campground beneath the magical sky. I can’t blame them, they don’t know any better. I’m on a completely different schedule than them. I can afford to spend two nights on the Cape and then spend three nights at a motor park in Gisborne to wash my body and my clothes and renew the Warrant of Fitness for my van and buy contact solution and thread and darning wool.
Len is the luckiest man in the world. He owns the most easterly land in New Zealand. He spends his days with his sheep, cows and horses. His animals are happy — they graze freely and babies stay with their mums — and he is happy. He can go fishing or collect shellfish from the bountiful sea. And he can stop to talk to travelers who come to camp on his land.
I’m glad I decided to tour Eastland instead of heading straight to Gisborne to sit in the library and write all day. Adventure comes first. Blog comes second. You gotta have priorities in life.
From sunrise to sunset I am required to traverse New Zealand’s narrow, winding roads and stop at every scenic overlook for at least a half hour and watch the endless supply of travelers cycle through to take a quick selfie.
The three Canadian girls in a rented Jucy Campervan at Hot Water Beach are touring the North Island in just two weeks. Poor souls. A Honda Civic hatchback with a couple from Switzerland and Germany appear. He is here for a year but she is going home tomorrow and we all groan and tell her not to leave. Never leave.
I stop at the next spot and I think I’ll just stay here for a bit and put on a cup of tea and cook up some noodles and drop in a few eggs and the organic kale I picked up at a booth on the side of the road somewhere along the Coromandel Peninsula. I might as well read another chapter of the Hobbit and imagine I’m traveling with Bilbo and the thirteen dwarves. I wish there was more danger and adventure in this world, but I am content being armed with a camera instead of a sword.
I can do whatever I want. I have no obligations and no one to worry about but myself. I can’t imagine being in the group of six Germans divided among three minivans at the campsite last night. It’s hard enough deciding how to spend my day, where to sleep and what to eat for myself.
The boots I bought in Ireland two years ago have betrayed me. My feet feel the morning dew as I walk through the Wentworth Campground. Useless. I spring for the leather Kathmandu hiking boots with Vibram soles. They make me look like a weekend warrior. In a few years the leather will be seasoned and they will have taken me to places I can’t imagine.
I sling my hand-me-down Canon over my shoulder and stick my GoPro in the cargo pocket of my brown travel pants and walk though the thick, fern-covered native bush or maybe I’m strolling along a serene beach where the local elderly have been admiring the same sunset for seventy years. The beauty of this place is never ending. And everyone says the South Island is where all the amazing landscapes are found.
I feel the compulsive need to sift through the hundreds of pictures I take everyday and pick out the 42 best shots to share on Facebook. What did travelers and writers do before social media? How did they share what they were doing? Talking? Photo albums? How arcane. What would Henry David Thoreau Tweet from his hut on the Walden Pond?
So many thoughts cloud my mind as I drive down the expressway to Te Puke. I haven’t blogged in eleven days. Wait a second, I’m pretty sure this side of the four lane divided highway is one way. Is this cunt driving on the wrong side of the road? Jesus. The station wagon in the lane next to me pulls behind my van to let the Idiot pass. We give each other bewildered looks once he’s gone.
Bugger Auckland, I can barely stay in a small, coastal city like Tauranga for more than a few hours. Anywhere that forces me to pay or parking is too big. I like Te Puke, where a sign in the library reads:
Dress Code: No gang patches. No gang insignia. No pyjamas.”
Two Maori’s sit next to me playing rap music from their Samsung.
Wait a second, you may be asking yourself, I thought Sean was supposed to be covered in cow shit and breaking fence posts with the tractor. How every perceptive of you, Dear Reader, and thanks for paying attention. Let me take you back to the penultimate day of August…
It’s 5:15 in the morning and I’m sitting in the international arrivals area of the Auckland Airport. A little girl yells “Daddy” and runs to give him a hug. A group of Chinese business men stop to take a picture in the area marked by yellow lines that reads, “STAND CLEAR.” Leigh’s flight is delayed by an hour so I have to sit here and watch families and loved ones reunite. OK, she should be here by now. I get a text:
Sean, I’m so sorry to keep you waiting. My luggage is still not here :(“
After nearly three hours, she sneaks up behind me and grabs my beard. It’s weird seeing her after 73 days apart but after a few hours together it’s like nothing has changed.
She is from the Philippines but she recently earned her Australia permanent residency, thanks to her skills and reliability as a chef at the Casino where I was a barista and bartender. Dating a girl from a third world country is exciting and full of surprise. I never know what to expect and she makes me burst with laughter and joy without knowing why. Tagalog, the Filipino language, doesn’t use gender specific pronouns so she regularly mixes up her he’s and she’s.
Once she finishes the two years left on her contract with the Casino, she will be an Australian citizen with a blue passport. Apparently people from third world countries have maroon passports, which restricts travel. If you have a blue passport, you can enter many more countries without needing a visa or extra paperwork. I’ve never thought about the color of my passport.
The Philippines is corrupt, she says. After typhoons, for example, the government receives international aid money and most of that money doesn’t actually go toward helping people in need. Also, the wages are abysmal compared to Australia. Instead of a solid hourly wage, workers are paid by the day.
In order to travel, she went to culinary school for two years and then applied for an internship in the US, and then in Australia. Now she has accrued six weeks of holiday and is spending one with me and five with her family. It’s good to have an excuse to leave the farm behind and travel around this North Island of New Zealand.
First we went to Northland to camp on Uretiti Beach then down to Waitomo to take a tour of the famous glow worm caves. There were options to do adventure black water rafting, tubing and abseiling but I just wanted the simple tour of the caves guided by a soft spoken Maori who ended every sentence with “aye.” He says it takes 500 years for a stalactite to grow one inch, aye. Then he takes us on a twenty minute boat ride through the glow worm cave, aye. The American Dad in front of us with crew cut and brand new hiking boots — Now I’m like him — sits the wrong way.
“You’re facing the wrong way, mate,” he tells him, aye.
The glow worms will stop glowing if we make any noise, but the Spanish family that barely speaks any English keeps chatting and our guide says, “Shhh.”
The boat comes to an opening with nothing but green, glowing orbs above us, and our guide stops the boat for ten minutes and we all sit in silent awe. It is peaceful.
I realize now that it’s a losing battle trying to write about every day and every experience we had on this trip. I could write thousands of words, but no one wants to read that. So here are some pictures:
On one of the last nights we had together sleeping in my van, she asked, “After I leave, is this the end?”
It was like she was reading my mind. We had already said goodbye when I left Alice Springs and it was really hard. I didn’t think we would see each other again. She has two years left in Alice Springs and I am living a life of travel and adventure. I need to be free.
I feel like I’m a puzzle piece in your life and one day you will be complete and I will be so happy for you.”
People underestimate her because her English isn’t perfect and she is small and soft spoken. But she is smart and intuitive and cheeky and funny and when she says things like this I realize how incredible she is and how lucky we are to be with each other right now. She understands me and she believes in me.
She is 23 and she is young and she wants to be free. After two years of learning and developing her skills as a chef, she will be a talented Australian Citizen with the entire world and all of it’s food ready to be diced, sautéed and plated. One day I will dine in her 5-star restaurant.
She asks me if it is hard to always be leaving. The emotions come in waves. I’m anxious in the process of making my preparations and saying my goodbyes. But once I’m packed and charged and on the road, it’s pure euphoria. I can stop at hostels to find work if I want or I can keep camping and traveling.
As we drive to the airport, she says, “It’s so hard not to cry because that’s all I can do.”
The second goodbye was easier for me. When I left Alice Springs I was leaving a steady job, my best friend from back home, an easy life in the outback and my girlfriend and I was heading to a new country where I had to start all of that over again. This goodbye is different. She is the one who is leaving and I know what I’m doing.
I’m not sure if this is the end, but I’m so glad you joined me.
…And now I’m alone with the road and the wild chickens and the travelers and the sunset. This is where I’m supposed to be.