How Hiking in New Zealand Transformed My Life

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This is not one of my typical “how to” travel guides, on the subject of hiking in New Zealand. Rather, it’s a personal story of transformation going back almost two decades, to a zen moment I had alone in the mountains of New Zealand, when I realized my life calling. If you are nature lover looking for a travel guide, check out this New Zealand South Island itinerary guide, or see here if you are traveling to New Zealand with kids!

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.

Trekking the Abel Tasman Coastal Track in New Zealand
The best photo of our trip 17 years ago: sunset on the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, South Island, New Zealand

Making a stopover in Singapore after 24 hours or so of sleepless flights, we were ecstatic and fully awake. The heat, the smells, the food centers, the crowds, the vertical cityscape; it was love at first sight. I was hooked on Asia the minute I stepped off the plane. I guess that’s why I now call Asia home!

But our primary destination was New Zealand, where we would focus on hiking (called “tramping” in New Zealand), hitchhiking across the country and traveling to some of the most beautiful places in New Zealand, for as cheaply as possible, so that we could stay as long as possible. The goal was two and half months, and then on to Australia for a month and half, and finally Thailand for another two. As we rode from Auckland airport into the city, we could tell we were in for something totally different than our brief but exhilarating Singapore stopver; the anticipation was indescribable.

Why I Went Hiking in New Zealand

Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest peak, reflected in the waters of Lake Matheson
Mount Cook, New Zealand’s tallest peak, reflected in Lake Matheson

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.

Skydiving Lake Taupo, New Zealand
Skydiving over Lake Taupo
Waterfall in New Zealand
Me atop a waterfall that we camped beside
Milford Sound Track after a severe rainstorm
Trekking or “Tramping” in New Zealand can be a very wet experience!
Hiking Milford Sound Track in a rainstorm
Crazy waterfalls we had to cross during a rainstorm on our Milford Sound tramp (trek)

A Decision to Go It Alone

Before we had set off on our trip, Graeme, Tyler and I had made a drunken yet surprisingly wise pact one night when we’d gotten together in a pub to discuss the logistics of our trip. We promised that if at any point during our trip one of us was feeling annoyed with the others or needed some alone time, he could go off on his own, with no hard feelings, for as long as he wanted, and then meet up with the others again before moving on to the next country. Seriously, I would advise any groups of friends traveling together to do the same thing. It could save your friendship.

One of my two mates was the first to take advantage of this agreement, when he realize he’d missed out on a chance to lose his virginity and resolved to backtrack to a city we’d already passed through to pursue the romance he’d started (successfully, I’ll add). Shortly after, just as we were ferrying from the more populated North Island to the remoter, mountainous, and sheep farm-filled South Island, I decided that I wanted to do most of the South Island on my own.

We’d already done a fair bit of hiking on our trip, but I wanted to do even more, and I wanted to do it in solitude so that I could fully absorb my surroundings. I started with four days on the Abel Tasman track, a stunning coastal route (you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to hike through sand with a fully loaded pack on your back). Needless to say, by the end of all this, I was probably in the best shape I’ve ever been in my life. I even had the faint outline of a six-pack (see pic below), which disappeared shortly after the trekking-focused New Zealand portion of our trip, never to return again.

After that hike and a few nights in hostels, I was eager to get myself back onto a trail. I did an overnight trek in which I slept alone under a massive rock overhang called the Ballroom Overhang. Returning to civilization the next day, I nearly checked into a hostel before spontaneously deciding to forget it, catch a ride to my next destination, and get back into the mountains as soon as possible.

My next stop was Fox Glacier, a gorgeous glacier sandwiched between Mt. Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak, and the ocean. New Zealand is amazing in that it boasts much of the diversity of landscapes that my own country does, but crammed onto two (comparatively) minuscule islands.

After a night in Fox Glacier village making arrangements and picking up supplies, I headed into the mountains the next morning to do the first (easier) section of the challenging Copland Pass Crossing, a trail that leads right up to Mt. Cook itself. I would only go up to the first hut on Welcome Flat, which features natural outdoor hot springs.

My memory of the hike isn’t very clear because it was so long ago, but I do remember it took a half day or so, enough to kick my ass but not enough so to be unenjoyable. As I look up details on the Internet to refresh my memory of these place names, I see that Welcome Flat today is apparently crowded with backpackers. Well it wasn’t back then. Mostly they were older (I was 19 at the time, so anybody above 25 or 30 seemed old), serious trekkers who were continuing further up to the pass.

At night, everybody in the hut went to bed early, and I had the natural hot spring pools outside all to myself, and a few brushtail possums that is. While I don’t remember the hike in such detail, I can say that I do vividly recall how awesome it felt to lie in those hot pools in the dark, below a vast expanse of stars, with the occasional sound of mini-avalanches echoing in the surrounding valleys.

Nick Kembel hiking in New Zealand
The time I grew muscles hiking in New Zealand
The Welcome Flat hot spring on the Copland Pass Crossing in New Zealand
Welcome Flat Hot Spring all to myself on the Copland Pass Crossing
Boat ride at the end of the Milford Sound Track
Me 17 years ago after hiking Milford Sound in New Zealand

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.

18 thoughts on “How Hiking in New Zealand Transformed My Life”

  1. Absolutely love your story. Me and my boyfriend just finished our one year experience in New Zealand this March, and I totally feel you 🙂 We also did a lot of hiking, and would love to go back there. It is just one of those countries you want to go back over and over again.

  2. Wow, I really love reading about trips that took place before the internet scene really hit. There’s something more adventurous about going somewhere that isn’t documented in 100s of places. It’s why I hate researching before a trip – don’t want to spoil the fun! I really enjoyed reading this memoir, and wish I’d thought about the “someone can go alone – no hurt feelings” pact on a few trips before. LOL at your friend who used it to get the girl – kudos, I guess? Also – your hair’s gotten much darker since then. Looks like you’ll need to trek somewhere sunny to lighten it up? (jokes, of course.)

  3. Wonderful post! Boy, hiking in New Zealand would surely change my life too! beautiful scenery! Where else do you like to hike?

    • I’ve been living in Taiwan for 8 years now, and it’s a great place for hiking! But I hike less now that I have two little kids 🙂

  4. That was a truly engaging story – amazing that it took you so many years to finally get it out. It makes sense that the vastness and enormity of New Zealand brought about a moment like this for you. I have to say, I’m a bit jealous!

  5. Hahah! Tent for cheeseburger!? That’s how you know you really made the most of your camp.

    The going solo with no hard feeling is a great travel rule. The trips I use to do with family or friends, we use to make sure everyone was doing everything together. But now with more experience, we will do certain things together and leave time for people to do things individually or just stay back and take naps – that would be me haha

    It is great that you have been to so many places and it sounds like you really get a full experience of them as opposed to the tourist view.

    • Thanks, Jojo! I think this rule works best for longer trips. I think I can handle my family members every day for like 2 weeks, but if you are traveling for six months or something, it’s really good and healthy to have some time to yourself!

  6. I enjoyed every bit of your post. Very inspiring and I can totally relate to your feelings. Sometimes a simple thing like a trip or a moment of quietness can change our life. And it simply amazing how your life changed after this trip. And really congrats on what you have accomplished so far!

  7. I can very well understand your feelings and emotions and the transformation that happened within. The magnificence of Nature touches you and transforms your entire being.

  8. It is wonderful how you learn more about yourself and the kind of transformations these experiences bring to yourself, isnt it? I totally understand how you had felt after this experience. Apart from the beautiful nature, it is the connect you get with yourself that makes the entire thing so amazing.

  9. Thank you so much for taking me back to the times when we traveled without Internet and guys had their hair dyed like Eminem 😉
    I enjoyed reading every word from this post as I remembered how we went traveling around India and Nepal being almost at the same age as you.

  10. How wonderful to hear how New Zealand changed your life! New Zealand and India are the next two countries I would most like to visit. I knew of its natural beauty, but not that it was specifically known for hiking. It sounds marvelous!

    • Yep, some of the hikes are so popular (such as Milford Sound) that you need to make a booking several months in advance since they only allow a set number of people per day!

  11. New Zeland is awesome for hiking and other outdoor activities! I really would love to go there and skydive. Good read.


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