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In 2001, at age of 19 (it makes me feel old now to look at those numbers!), I left Canada for the first time (excluding one family trip to Hawaii) to go backpacking with two high school buddies for six months, with a big chunk of that trip spent hiking in New Zealand. I knew the trip would change me, but I had no idea that it would change me THAT MUCH.
Why I Went Hiking in New Zealand
It only made sense to start our trip in New Zealand. Culturally, New Zealand isn’t super different from Canada, making it an easy introduction to backpacking. We could leave an icy cold Canadian winter and be greeted with a pleasantly warm New Zealand summer – one of the most well-known facts about New Zealand is that it is the southernmost country outside of South America.
I probably could have gone anywhere for my first journey abroad and loved it. It was my first time to do so many things; first time to cook for myself every day, first time to be in charge of my own living expenses, first time to be away from my family for more than a week. In short, it was my first taste of genuine independence.
It didn’t hurt that New Zealand, the “land of the long white cloud,” boasts some of the most dramatic and stunning landscapes I have ever seen, even after traveling to nearly 50 countries since. For those interested in hiking, New Zealand is a paradise. There are trails all over the country, ranging from easy day hikes to challenging, multi-day high mountain pass crossings, there is an excellent network of nearly 1000 huts for accommodation on many of the trails.
Keep in mind too that this was ages before Lord of the Rings was filmed in New Zealand (see some of the Lord of the Rings locations in New Zealand here). It was also before the time of Facebook, digital cameras, travel blogging, and smartphones. I had literally just gotten my first e-mail address a few years earlier, and only checked it once a week or so to let my family know I was still alive.
As such, travel was a little different then. In some ways, it was more of an adventure, with more unknowns. You had your guidebook with highlighted passages, tips from fellow travelers through word of mouth, and that was it. No online reviews and pictures of places before you got there. No TripAdvisor and Hostelworld. That’s right, you picked up a payphone and called ahead to book a bed. And generally speaking, there was more focus on the travel experience itself, and not the need to record and share every moment of it on social media. But I digress…
So you take stunning scenery, a 19-year-old boy away from home for the first time traveling with two like-minded close friends, in a land with stunning scenery, super friendly locals, including the indigenous Maori (who, 9 times out of 10, were the ones to pick us up when we were hitchhiking) and what do you get? An awesome, unforgettable experience, obviously.
In those ten weeks, we camped beside waterfalls, hiked into volcano craters, went bungee skydiving over Lake Taupo and bungee jumping in Queenstown, saw glowworms in caves, slept on beaches, trekked through waist-deep water in a severe rainstorm, and swam with dolphins in Kaikoura.
At the tail end of the trip, before flying out from Christchurch, we saw soaked in hot springs at Hanmer Springs and saw wild yellow-eyed penguins up close (so cute that I vowed to return to Dunedin someday with my future kids!)
We did all those things while still keeping within out budget by cheaping out on accommodation, sleeping in our trusty old tent most nights. By the end of the trip the tent was so disgusting that my travel companion traded it with another traveler for a McDonald’s cheeseburger without a second thought.
But my true epiphany wouldn’t come till about two months in, when I decided to part ways with my friends for a while and go off into the mountains alone.
A Decision to Go It Alone
My Moment of Realization
The next morning I was in no rush whatsoever to go back down, nor was I equipped to continue on to the pass, so I decided to just take a leisurely walk in that direction and see how far I could go. Nothing is better than being able to trek without your pack after you’ve been hiking with it on your back for days on end!
The trail followed a narrow river valley upstream. I trekked perhaps two hours, seeing no other soul. At some point I spotted a large flat boulder that had obviously tumbled to the river’s edge from somewhere far, far above, and decided it was the perfect spot to stop for a rest.
As I sat there, looking upstream at the river twisting its way up into the mountains as far as I could see, and the same in reverse as I turned my head and looked downstream, I was suddenly awestruck, blown away by the sheer immensity and raw beauty of the vistas surrounding me.
At that point in my life I’d never done any kind of yoga or meditation before; I’d never even thought about those kinds of things really. But there I sat for some time, in a state of complete clear-mindedness, dwelling entirely in the present moment, free from the mental chattering that more often than not accompanied me on my solo treks, and with the burbling of the river before me as the soundtrack to my contemplation.
I came in and out of it for a while, and then my mind took full control again. “This is it!” was my first coherent thought. Not just this immediate setting or feeling, but this whole thing, this independence, this trip, this lifestyle. It wasn’t going to just be a “gap year” for me. I wouldn’t go back home to finish university (well, I would do that), but I mean after that I wasn’t going to get some office job and waste away my days making money and remembering that one time I was so free. Nope, my life’s purpose was to travel. I knew it with all my heart, in that exact moment. If this is what people call “finding yourself” or “finding your calling” then I guess I found myself right then and there on that rock, in that gorgeous valley, and the moment, the feeling, the surroundings, all of it will forever be etched in my memory.
It couldn’t be an entirely selfish quest, though. I had to share my experiences with others. I would continue to travel alone, but I would get a better camera, learn how to take better pictures, and write more, so I could share all my experiences, all these beautiful places, with anybody who wanted to hear about them. It would take several years, but this is where blogging would come in down the road, and later still, writing a book and contributing to travel magazines. My passion for these things is as strong today as it has ever been before.
As I made my way back down the mountain, my mind was totally preoccupied with planning out the years to come. I felt so at home in those mountains, so my next trip had to be to a mountainous place. But even taller ones. Go big or go home. The Himalayas!
This decision kick started another equally important decision around the same time: to focus my anthropology major (I’d already completed a year of college at that point) on Tibet and write my thesis on Tibetan Buddhism. In my last year of university, I even established and became the president of a chapter of Students for a Free Tibet at my university.
As soon as I graduated (I mean this literally; I dropped my thesis off at my professor’s house on the way to the airport), I got on a plane and flew to the Himalayas. I went to China, India, and Nepal. The next time it was Southeast Asia. After that it was Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and Ethiopia. Then Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh. Japan and Korea. Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and on and on. I was unstoppable.
But I did slow down eventually. I’ve been in Taiwan for ten years now. Staying in one country has allowed me to get to know one place better. I’ve had more time to think and write. Looking back, I’ve been so busy since that first New Zealand trip (15 years ago!!) that I’m only just writing about it now! I’ve got a wife, car, house, and kids. But in my mind, I’m still traveling. That’s Taiwan outside my bedroom window! Every day is an adventure. Every breath is a journey. Things change. Life is change. I must embrace it.
But I will never forget that all of it, this whole crazy series of events that has brought me to where I am today, started right there on that rock in New Zealand.