New Zealand

There and Back Again
May 2015

The Fellowship hiked through the barren valley of craters, deep into the volcanic wilderness of Middle Earth. Mount Doom loomed overhead, the rust-colored landslide dotted with snow. A few foolish members of the Fellowship decided to summit the mountain-shaped pile of rocks, but the rest of the elves, dwarfs, and hobbits skipped the treacherous climb. Instead we climbed Mount Tongariro, which was nearly as steep but at least there was an actual trail to the top.

New Zealand is famous for its superb hiking whether you’re a Lord of the Rings fan (read: nerd) on an adventure, or just a normal outdoorsy human. The best hike on the north island, or at least the most popular, is the Tongariro Crossing, featuring Mount Ngauruhoe aka Mount Doom. It’s a challenging seven-hour hike where half the challenge is the variable weather which can make it unsafe to hike, but luckily the weather was clear and dry. The other half of the challenge (read: thrill) is that it’s in an active volcanic zone and the park is carefully monitored for seismic activity. At the hostel we got a safety briefing of what to do in case of surprise lava. Along the trail there are helpful signs that if they are flashing, you run. But there are some of the types of lava that flow at 100 km/hr. I don’t know how fit you are but I can run about 10 km/hr, and that’s being generous. You do the math. Extreme hiking!

The night before the big hike I kept to myself, I was worn out from traveling all day and I didn’t have the energy to make new friends. Sure I said hi to the people in my hostel room but I stuck to the scripted Hi-I’m-Kate-I’m-from-the-US-I-have-been-in-New-Zealand-for-a-week-this-is-my-first-hike-here-can’t-wait-goodnight. I was ready to do the hike by myself, I’d had plenty of practice entertaining myself in nature. I had hiked for hours solo in the Swiss Alps and Albanian “Alps”, into the Pyrenees and back out again. Wilderness aside I had spent hours on buses, trains, planes, bikes, and boats. I had wandered foreign cities for days on my own, observing and thinking and exploring. Sometimes that much time alone made me lonely. But generally when I needed companionship I could find it, either by striking up a conversation with someone new or by reaching out to friends and family back home. But I didn’t get nearly as lonely as I would have thought. I quite enjoy the silence and space. I could hear my own thoughts again, once the frenzy and noise of experiencing new things had quieted.

The morning of the hike I woke up sinfully early and the hostel bused all of the hikers to the drop off point. The trail started out as a boardwalk and after half an hour turned into stairs, a lot of stairs. Not the most exciting start to the “Best One Day Hike”, but not miserable. An hour in I found that I was hiking at approximately the same pace as two young gents from my hostel. Despite the fact that I told myself I was content with my own company, perfectly satisfied, as entertaining as a cat in socks, not bored in the least, we started chatting. Truth be told it was probably me who started the conversation. As much as I say that I don’t mind my own company, I do get bored of myself and without fail I start trying to make friends. Apparently a day and a half by myself was enough and I had the energy to hold up a conversation again. Turns out they were happy to have the company of a stray so we continued hiking together. Not long after we came upon other solo hikers from our hostel and we got to talking. One thing lead to another and soon our entire hostel was hiking together. We were the usual smattering of Europeans and Americans, some on short trips and some on long journeys.

As a solo traveler I have the freedom to balance how much time I spend on my own versus time with other people. I get to choose when I make new friends and when I go out on my own. It’s easiest to start talking with other solo travelers, we are usually open to meeting strangers and are grateful for someone else to break the ice. I also don’t feel like I’m intruding, if they don’t want to talk to me then they will find a way to make an exit. They’re not afraid to choose to be in their own. When I’m officially traveling with someone or a group it’s hard to go off on my own, I feel obligated to spend time with my mates. But when I meet someone in a hostel it’s much more casual, maybe we share a conversation over breakfast, or walk to the market together, or spend the next three days together, or the next three weeks. We travel together because we enjoy each other’s company, not because we are afraid of being alone. It’s easier to join in with a band of extras, spare travelers that aren’t matched in a pair or a group. Everyone is choosing to be there.

Aside from the two Austrian gents, we were all solo travelers. We skipped most of the small talk like who-are-you and where-are-you-from and what-have-you-done-so-far-in-NZ and where-are-you-going-next. The canned conversations get monotonous. Sure it serves a purpose when I meet someone new; I am looking for something in common, or something of interest in the other person. Or I’m just being polite and those are the socially acceptable questions to ask other backpackers. I use it as a way to suss out the people I think I will get along with, once we get past the minutiae. People who aren’t just looking for the next party, or to visit all 500 of the tourist sites in the country. Many times I have gotten lucky meeting the most exciting people in hostels, on islands, couchsurfing, in vans, all by happenstance. Then again, I’m out doing the thing that I am passionate about (being a dirty backpacker), so I do have a higher likelihood of meeting similarly passionate people. The best way to meet other awesome people is to do awesome things yourself.

The Fellowship was formed in the fires of Mount Doom. There was nothing in our world that afternoon but red craters and the impossibly green lakes. It was like being on Mars, or another planet we haven’t yet found. We trudged and cheered each other on, bonding over sore feet and taking pictures for social media. We walked down to the pickup spot and in the space of a few hours we left the prehistoric vistas and drove back to the 21st century, with wifi and hot showers.

The whole Fellowship had dinner together that night. Everyone scrounged for food from the local supermarket and made it as edible as possible in a hostel kitchen. We joked and talked, comfortable and familiar. Just 12 hours before we had never spoken a word to one another. But after our fair share of sweat, scratches, and volcanoes, you build a certain kind of bond. So we traded Facebook details before we parted ways the next morning.

Categories: New Zealand

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