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New Zealand’s Far North: Reflections on Solo Travel

March 21, 2011

This post is part of my participation in Blog4NZ, an effort by the travel blogging community to promote tourism to New Zealand after the Christchurch earthquakes. Many people are postponing their travel or are afraid to plan trips to NZ after the earthquakes, even though most of New Zealand was unaffected. And even affected places like Christchurch could still use the help of outsiders. Tourism is a big industry for New Zealand, and while the country is suffering enough from this natural disaster, we should not make their economy suffer more by avoiding traveling there.

I myself had an incredible experience spending a month traveling solo around New Zealand back in May 2008. So in accordance with this effort, I will be sharing a few posts about my most cherished experiences in New Zealand over the next few days (March 21-23). To start with I’ve decided to focus on the last couple days of my journey through the country. I spent this time on the North Island, in what’s called the Far North of New Zealand, where I finally found some time to reflect on my trip as a whole and my first experiences as a solo traveler. In retrospect, these last few days were some of the most important and enriching days of my journey, ones that I would look back on for guidance numerous times in the following years.

I was glad I did the Far North last on my monthlong trip around New Zealand. The last place I visited was one of the most gorgeous (yet totally un-hyped and virtually unknown) places: a town called Omapere. In this small, quiet little Kiwi town I stayed in a wonderful little hostel called Globe Trekkers Lodge, owned by a friendly, well-traveled English woman. There were only a few people staying there: an elderly American couple, a girl from New Caledonia, a young British guy (who was sleeping in his van in the driveway) and myself. We all got along perfectly and everyone seemed to have a fascinating story to tell. Interesting conversation was never lacking!

My first night in Omapere (which neighbors Opononi, a town famous for its former attraction “Opo the Gay Dolphin” — about whom you can still watch an old, somewhat humorous video in the visitor center), I did the acclaimed Footprints Waipoua walk, which is a night walk hosted by indigenous Maori guides that focuses both on the area’s spectacular nature as well as Maori culture.

Your Maori guides take you out into the kauri forest, showing you some of the biggest and most ancient trees you’re likely to ever see (including Tane Mahuta, the Lord of the Forest, which is the largest known kauri tree, and Te Matua Ngahere, which could be up to 4,000 years old and possibly the oldest rainforest tree on earth).

They tell many traditional Maori stories and sing songs, which are haunting to hear in the very dark black night (especially after everyone turns off their flashlights). Paired with the quiet drip of raindrops falling in the forest after some earlier rain, I found the walk to be a powerful experience.

The next day I hiked up to the lookout at Arai-te-uru Recreation Reserve, which has some amazing trails. I walked the cliffs above the coast, which in parts felt almost desert-like — reminiscent of the American West — while in others it was nice, rolling countryside. The different parts varied among extensive plains of beautiful grass, clambering reaches of rock and stone, scatterings of driftwood and stretches of soothing sand.

Down below was an isolated beach, that alternated between sandy and rocky areas. I had it all to myself (except when an interesting family of two people, three dogs and one goat passed through). Sitting on a washed up log in the middle of the peninsula, watching the sea wash in over the sand and crash up on the rocks, was remarkable. Even the lighting was different down there — it was incredible.

The sand dunes across the harbor in Ompaere were also unbelievably gorgeous, and can be a great spot for sandboarding when the ferry is running. I was so glad I made the decision to go up north. Up there, among the quiet, windswept beauty, there was plenty of time for reflection. It was there, on the isolated beach in Omapere, that I wrote the following journal entry, reflecting on my emboldening month-long trip around New Zealand.

I really do think I’ve grown and changed quite a bit since starting this trip on my own. I think I truly have embraced the “Just Say Yes” mentality, which I was inspired by after spotting it scribbled on a van in the South Island. At times, invitations, suggestions, etc. that I’d usually hesitate and agonize over whether or not to do, whether to say yes or no, whether to go or stay, I instead just went with it. Sure, why not? And it’s led to good things — great experiences and memories. Instead of running scared, I pushed through the discomfort and prospered. Now I just do what feels right. And it has all worked out rather well.

I’ve still felt nervous at all kinds of things, but I went ahead with them anyway. From sandboarding to dinner invites, you can feel nervous all the same, but it’s completely up to you if you overcome that and go for it anyways, and that’s what I’ve come to realize.

It’s hard to really think about traveling alone when you haven’t done it. Sometimes it seems like it’d be a breeze, other times it seems nearly impossible. In reality, there are times it’s really hard and really sucks, and there are times when it’s amazing and things happen that you know would never have happened if you weren’t alone. In the end, there will be moments you wish you’d had a good friend with you, but overall you will be glad you went for it, and you can’t help but feel that you’ve grown and changed. You faced up to the challenge and didn’t give in when it got hard.

When I was debating about going solo on my trip to South America in 2009, I went back and read my journal from New Zealand, and this entry (part of a larger reflection on the trip and solo travel) was what really encouraged me to go for it. I now know I would have missed out on a huge, amazing adventure if I hadn’t gone! I am eternally grateful for the lessons I learned on my travels on New Zealand, not to mention the crazy adventures I had (stay tuned for more on that!), the gorgeous places I saw and the wonderful people I met. It was an experience I could never forget.

While I am taking a short break to post this New Zealand content, I will be back to posting about my last trip in Australia, and my return to the US, very soon — I promise!

Interested in more about New Zealand? Read my post on 10 Awesome New Zealand Adventures or check out the Blog4NZ website for heaps more posts on this fantastic country.


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