New Zealand

When I rolled my throbbing head over on the unwarranted light of morning attacking through the half-drawn curtains, I saw it was already past eight. “Kirra, wake up. We should have left already,” I mumbled unconvincingly. In typical fashion we hadn’t done anything we needed to prepare for the trip returning me back to the states after a year in New Zealand. I was barely packed. Our beat-up and lovable van had not been cleaned out since the last excursion to the east coast. Our dishes were still covered in sand, the sheets still dirty with days spent living on the beach. My laundry sat wet in the washing machine. Today we headed to Arthur’s Pass in the heart of the Southern Alps. I had only five days until my flight was to leave from Christchurch to Los Angeles and the desire to find adventure one last time in this epic nation boiled in me.

Four hours of melee and tearful goodbyes later, we found ourselves on the road north from the tiny lakeside town of Wanaka. With the windows down and the Southern Hemisphere summer sun shining on our February faces we made our way to meet two unendingly endearing Aussie boys. They had stayed with us a few weeks before, couchsurfing as they cycled around the country with a cheeky and entertaining American boy, all in search of Kiwi hospitality and the chance to experience something bigger than they were. We opened our doors to them and fell in love. Reuben, Tom, and Dan were sweet and easy as a day in bed. Their effortless humor sank into flawless rhythm with ours and we found ourselves convincing them to stay another night, and another. Reuben and I were instantly attracted to one another, but only the taunting prologues of an affair began with the young Aussie before it was time to bid them farewell. Unsure if we would ever see them again, we kept in touch as they made their way around the South Island. Once again frustrated that every boy who sparks something in me always has to leave, I was filled with giddy excitement that we found a way to cross paths again before we all had to depart from this astonishing place.

Six hours from Wanaka we threw the boys and their gear into the back of Billy the Red Dragon and hit the road further north to Arthur’s Pass. As the sun began to set behind the crumbling grey peaks, we pulled into a campsite on the banks of Lake Pearson, just outside the entrance to the national park.

Moonlit Lake Pearson

With a fire burning brightly and the near full moon reflecting in the winded folds of the lake, we relaxed quickly into each other’s company. A box of wine, a fire pulled dancing in the wind, and three good friends made me smile the way you only can when there is nothing to want for in the world. Soon our trips were coming to an end. The boys were headed back to Melbourne just a few days after my flight back to the States. We recalled the moments that coruscated like comets, and the people who had indelibly chiseled us on our journeys. Reuben sang and played the mandolin while we sat in round agreement that the current company was by far the best we had found, and knew that this excursion was undoubtedly going to make the list.

The next morning we enjoyed a brisk swim and bacon breakfast around the fire before continuing on to the pass. Unsure of our plan, as ever, we headed to the Department of Conservation to find an overnight hike that would lead us to the hot springs, plentifully sprinkled across the geologically unstable landscape, straddling the very fault line that created its overwhelming horizons. With half the maps we needed and a vague idea of where to go, we continued on north following the subtle turquoise that belied the power of the forceful Otira River. As we found the car park at the entrance to the Taramakau Valley, we enjoyed sandwiches and cider while we packed up the gear for the seemingly simple overnight trip. With a late start and the energy of excitement pushing limbs earnestly forward, we followed the trail across some farmland as Tom chased sheep across the field with childlike abandon. No more than two hundred meters into the walk was the first of, what we didn’t know would be many, epic river crossings. The glacial water pushed and pulsed, careening around rock beds and tossing stones half my weight with the unforgiving carelessness only nature can bestow. How were we possibly supposed to cross?

"Many have fought the Otira, and lost..."

We took off our socks and boots, prepared to ford the icy waters. Tom, fearless to the point of stupidity, was the first in and across the daunting river. Kirra and I watched him struggle as the water rose above his waist and the current buckled his knees beneath the surface. Holding footing was impossible as rocks were pulled away beneath our feet, sharp and uneven on soft soles, and the water began to numb my shaky legs. I was scared. On a bed of rocks halfway across the river, we struggled to find a place to cross. As we stood, trapped and barely able to stand in the thigh-deep water, Reuben quickly returned and told us we wouldn’t make it. Less than half a kilometer into the hike and we were already stuck. Almost a foot shorter than the boys, I knew I couldn’t withstand the strength of the current. Over an hour had passed and it was time to man up or go home. I wasn’t going to let this trail beat me before we ever even got to it. Realizing it would be impossible for us to cross barefoot with the unbalancing weight of our packs, we put our boots back on with a fresh determination. We were overcome with relief. The crossing was still difficult, but manageable, and we waded slow and steady across to the other side without issue. Waiting for the boys to meet us from up river I rolled a much deserved reward of a cigarette as the last minutes of our second hour passed by. Onwards we went into the valley with sun-warmed shoulders and smiles on our faces.

Summer Sun in Taramakau

Along the valley through the edges of the forest, we crossed deep streams, clear to the floor and enjoyed the serene beauty of unblemished nature as a chorus of native birds whistled their unique songs around us. This was New Zealand. The one you miss on the frequently traversed Great Walks. This seemingly untouched trail was sometimes barely visible beneath the thick twisting roots and carpeted moss. The track progressed on through the valley until we came to a creek. Unsure of which way to go, we cursed ourselves for buying only the lower two maps, and kept our eyes sharpened for any orange trail markers to guide us. Trying to recall remnants of directions from the information desk, we followed the unknown creek upstream, hoping to reach the Otehake trail before nightfall. The sun still high in the summer sky, we continued on, Kirra and I lagging and finally submitting to the knowledge that we could never keep up with two boys that had been cycling a hundred kilometers a day for the last three months.

After a few hours steady tramping with relatively few mishaps, we made it to Lake Kaurapataka. A small clearing opened up to the midnight blue waters, surrounded by lush evergreen forests blanketing the surrounding peaks. We stopped to simultaneously catch and lose our breath. The moment we stopped moving, however, the sandflies began their descent. Kirra and I, exhausted and skeptical of the boys’ plan to continue on, quietly voted to set up camp at the lake for the night. “The trail down to the river is only about a kilometer from here, eh?” Tom announced as he held the only piece of map we had, “and another k to the hot springs. It’s only seven now, we’ve got plenty of time to make it before dark.” Already frustrated with the sandflies, we conceded to the boys’ endearing accents and eager faces.

As we winded our way up the mountainside the track became more and more difficult. Uncertain we were on a trail at all, we stumbled as we climbed through fallen trees, and carefully hoisted ourselves up mazes of roots. The sun continued its daily descent towards the horizon and the water in our boots squished and gurgled with each step. To my right was a tangled mess of dense forestry clawing itself into the mountain. To my left was a near vertical drop through the same gnarled bush four hundred meters above the sound of the ever-rushing river and the rocky ravine below. I was beginning to get scared again. Despite my life as a city girl, the last year I developed an insatiable taste for adventure. An overwhelming need to challenge everything I thought I knew about myself pushed me to test every boundary of my fragile, aging body. But the fearlessness I once felt as a reckless teenager had somehow faded to a cautious calculation of risk that once again aged me in the face of my twenty year-old companions. Knowing we would never make it to the hot springs before nightfall, we climbed and crawled through the non-existent trail, relieved each time another orange triangle appeared to remind us we were still going the right way.

The sun had gone and only the diluted light of the moon through the clouds illuminated the now menacing forest. With only one head lamp and a small lantern between the four of us, finding footing was difficult and slow-going. Each time the sheer trail descended toward the river, I let relief rise in my chest, until it chopped its way back up in elevation as the longest half-kilometer of our lives. Finally, sometime around ten p.m., we came across a steep creek bed with a little orange arrow pointing down. We had finally found the way to the river valley. Wondering how anyone could possibly navigate the unsteady rocks when the rain and snow flooded the creek in spring, we carefully made our way downwards with stones tumbling down in the darkness beneath our feet. Ecstatic to be back at the river, we refilled our empty water bottles in the clean, fresh water and re-hydrated from the exhausting trek. But walking on the river was no easy task. My legs were tired and every third step I rolled my ankle on the unstable stones in the unrelenting dark. Luckily the moon was almost full and, through the haze of clouds, cast a glistening grey on the steady flow of the river. I would have camped anywhere, given anything for the chance to rest my heavy legs and withered constitution. But with only the cold, unsheltered river bed beneath our feet, and the unapologetic cliffs to our right, we continued on. Reuben and Tom bounced merrily along, hopscotching on the shadows of rocks like school children, and the guilt of my own frustrating exhaustion silently embarrassed me. But as we trudged on through the two kilometer walk, the pungent scent of sulfur began to penetrate the air. We were getting closer, and hope-filled adrenaline fueled my acid muscles.

In the stone glow of the cloudy moon, we finally saw the island. Knowing this would be our last river crossing before the hot pools, we went without hesitation into the waist-deep water. Tom crossed first, with Reuben second, as always, to test the depth and strength of the current. Reuben remained, just under a third of the way from the bank of the island with his arm outstretched. Kirra went before I did, and as the freezing water reached her thighs, I saw the current unbalance her from below. I grabbed her arm to keep her from collapsing into the pumping river, and Reuben instinctively did as well. “Taylor, let me go!” Kirra snapped, as my pale-knuckled hands pulled her counter-productively against Reuben’s stronger arm. Always the last to cross at five inches shorter than Kirra, and closer to ten than the boys, I carefully continued on, glad to have Reuben there to bring me through the deepest part. There was something about this boy, a kindness and earnest honesty that I found rare and compelling, and ever wanted more of. But four people camping in a van does not a recipe for romance make, and so we settled for occasional glances and fleeting comforts as we winded our way around the South Island.

Once we all made it across, we were flabbergasted to discover a huge group of high school students were on their first tramping trip here. It was eleven-thirty at night and the island and opposite shore were speckled with spots of yellow and red tents glaring against the darkness of the midnight bush. With the embers of their fire still crackling in the stone-lined pit, we hurriedly stripped our soaked socks and clothes and made our way to the hot pools. Glad I had decided to bear the weight of a box of wine; I pulled out the plastic bag and followed behind in my underwear to find the hot stones emanating the geothermal heat from the fissures below. With shallow pools dotting the opposite side of the island to the shore, we realized we had done almost everything the hard way that day. And then we found it: steam rose tempting in the chilly night air and the four of us lowered ourselves into the scalding water. The heat instantly loosened my screaming muscles and my body sunk into the soothing weight of relaxation. Keeping the water the right temperature took constant adjustment with some burning while others froze. But the miracle of a natural, steaming, hot tub was beyond worth the journey. We spent over an hour enjoying the rewards of our perseverance while we passed around the bag of goon, opening the spout into our eager mouths.

With Reuben and Kirra respectively too hot and too cold, they headed back to the camp to start dinner. Tom and I stayed behind beneath the starless sky and spoke of the adventure we had endured that day. Tom was utterly fearless with the pale, pink-cheeked face of a mischievous cherub. His youth-filled vigor was like a drug I had forgotten how to be addicted to. I admitted how scared I had been on the mountain that day.
“I can remember the time I didn’t care if I died,” I said in reminiscence. “And now in every adventure, I’m tangibly aware of each danger, conscious of my body’s instinct to stay alive. I feel more scared now, but more determined to overcome it than ever before.” As the words left my lips I realized the power of their veracity, and thought on the things that had brought me through the seven year difference in our age.
“I think, if I were out here alone I would have been scared, but as long as you’re with someone, it’s easy not to be, eh? It was an adventure!” Tom countered excitedly. Knowing I live heavy with regret only from things I don’t do, and never from chances I take, I continued to discover through articulating,
“I guess you don’t have a choice when you’re alone. It’s too late to turn around so you just do it. But with someone else leading the way I think I let myself be scared. Maybe because I know there is someone to be fearless for me?” I questioned to no one, “or maybe I am just always scared no matter what.” I laughed as I thought of how many times I had been petrified on my own in this world over the past year, and how I got through it.
“You’re like a Norwegian,” Tom began, somehow both playfully and seriously, “they have this untranslatable word that means to have to do something to prove it to yourself. And so in their culture, they are always testing themselves. It’s why they’re all so bad at team sports.” I laughed, agreeing, and realized how different we truly were, and from where our strengths come. We curiously discussed how we come to be the way we are, and why we were driven to lead the lives we lead. I had felt heavy with the knowledge I was heading back to the real world soon knowing I was going to struggle to continue to live the life I had found here. People were different in New Zealand: desiring a life on the road, devoid of make-up, judgment, and high-heels, where living in a van doesn’t mean homeless, and showering in the ocean counts. But Tom reassured me that I could always make the life I wanted, and as we made our way back to the campfire, I felt confident in the knowledge that D.C. could never take away what New Zealand had given me.

Reuben had the curry almost ready when we returned, and we bundled ourselves close to the struggling fire. The instant the nourishment touched my stomach, exhaustion took over. My body was too tired to be hungry and I made my way to the pile of three sleeping bags, two mats, and no tent we were pretending was a bed. We cuddled into a people pile and I curled myself close into Reuben, contented in the spark of companionship between us. He was the first boy in a long time to offer me the comforts of love in a transient life. I let myself revel in it knowing in just four days we would be nine thousand miles apart. It was already past two in the morning when we finally lay down and the sleep was restless and cold.

Before I felt my eyes had even closed, the highschoolers and sandflies began their buzzing with the dawn. We tried, unsuccessfully, to keep our faces covered from the incessant insects, and remorseless light. I turned around to rest my head on Reuben’s chest, and pressed myself closer once again, knowing what we both wanted, but couldn’t have. “Think anyone would notice if we had sex right here?” I laughed suggestively at the absurdity of the comment on the tiny island packed with bustling campers. We surrendered to the inevitability of our frustration and took simple pleasures in the joy of each inch pressed against another. Unable to get back to sleep, I got up and tried to make a fire for some peanut butter toast, unsuccessful with the rain-soaked wood. Bringing a slightly warmed piece of bread spread with peanut butter, I enticed the others to rouse from their fitful sleep, save for kirra, who could soundly sleep through an earthquake. We were alone on the island again and after a quick breakfast put our freezing, wet socks back on our tired feet. We had the favor of daylight today, and the knowledge that the track through the river valley was far more manageable than the flood trail we had navigated the night before. In the light of day, the muted turquoise of the river over the pale greywhacke distinctive of this side of the Southern Alps was unimaginably and quietly beautiful.

Island on the Otehake

Playing on the Swing Bridge

Five More Crossings = Puddles for Boots

This time, we crossed the river with ease, growing accustomed to the cold water and quick currents. We hopped playfully along the rocks laughing and taking pictures until we reached the swing bridge. Our little orange arrows pointed us upwards and so we ascended, assuming the trail took us up from the base of the bridge. The climb we began was more frightening than anything we had attempted the night before, but I was ever more determined to overcome it. The mossy mountainside was an almost completely vertical ladder of gnarled roots, each upward movement testing the strength of dead and dying braches. With barely enough room to find a footing, the drop down to the ravine exceeded thirty meters, and grew quickly as we climbed. Again, I was scared, but kept it to myself trusting in the boys’ fearlessness to guide me, and knowing how silly I always feel once I make it in one piece.

With Tom leading the way he turned back and called, “Hey guys, I don’t think there’s a trail up here, eh?” Sure enough, we hadn’t seen a reassuring orange triangle since the bridge, and the pseudo-ladder we were on became impassable further up. With my heart quietly pumping mortality through me, I began the even scarier descent. Being last, I was now in the lead to head back. Looking down the sheer drop to the river bed I focused only on maintaining my delicate footing and checking the strength of each and every branch. Suddenly, the sound of dead wood cracked loud and sharp like splitting thunder. I turned upwards to see Reuben falling from at least three meters above me. His head hit a tree and twisted his body as he continued to contort in free fall. Swiping Tom’s shoulder on his way down, I knew I would never be able to brace his weight with mine and only a few inches of footing between me and the edge. If something didn’t stop him we were both going to fall to our deaths in the thoughtless surge of the Otehake. I held out my arms as Reuben twisted in the air, his back now racing straight toward my open embrace. Then, the unbelievable happened: just two feet above me, a twisted branch extending from the cliff caught Reuben’s leg. With the tree supporting the majority of his weight, he landed softly in my petrified grasp. He was safe. We were safe. I immediately kissed his head, frantically stroking his face, “Oh my God! Are you OK? Jesus, Reuben! I thought we were both gonna die!” A small scrape marked his forehead and his hand was bleeding, but through it all, he was unfazed. “Holy shit, that was crazy. How far did I just fall?” We stopped and each recounted our vantage point of the miraculous event. Kirra seeing the weak branch just before it snapped, Tom and I both believing nothing would be able to stop Reuben as he accelerated towards the ravine. Once we made our way back to safety, I hugged Reuben tightly once again. “I can’t fucking believe that just happened.”

I couldn’t stop repeating it. The moment ran, seconds stretched to minutes, in my head again and again. It was unfathomable. And that moment recalled a blind acceptance of death that I couldn’t remember when I had lost. Throughout the last careless decade of my life, standing drunk with arms spread wide from a high-rise rooftop just to feel the thrill of the drop, I believed I cared not for when or how I died, so long as I was really living. Somewhere along the way I had become more aware of my own mortality, and missed the freedom that confidence I once had had given me. Death is an inevitability for all of us, so what is the point of living in fear? There are too many things of which to be afraid in this world. I was afraid of my friend dying, and afraid of dying myself, but we didn’t. And remembering that if I was gonna go, falling off a cliff in New Zealand was a pretty spectacular way to do it, I smiled knowing my reckless youth was still tucked within me, even if tinged with the knowledge that I had a lot more living I wanted to do.

We headed back on the proper trail this time, knowing we were all meant for at least a little bit more on this planet. The trek back was quiet, and tiring, but far faster than the trek in. As we came through the clearing in the Taramakau Valley, we knew we would soon be facing the awesome Otira once again. The river we were warned was “not to be taken lightly” stood before us in a massive plain of dry river beds sliced by intertwining arms of seizing waters. Unsure if the crossing would be as menacing as the first time, we went in without a second thought.

Us vs. The Otira: Round Two

The Otira, however, was far stronger than any piece of the Otehake, and as the water rose above my thighs, the current began to pull my feet from under me. A rock was sucked from my footing, my balance wavered, and I felt the rushing water winning out against my weakened, frozen legs. Reuben, seeing me struggle, stepped back into the icy waters to offer his arm to me. Instantly stabilized, I forced my legs through the powerful pull of the river, and found myself safely on the other side. We had done it. With the van in sight, we excitedly began talking about the salami, cheese, and crackers we were going to eat, and the joys of clean, warm, dry clothes. The last river crossing was the end for me. My ancient limbs were wobbly as Jell-O and sore as if I hadn’t moved in months. I had nothing left. When we got back to Billy, I stripped to my underwear and collapsed on the mattress in the back. I could barely move.

This night was to be our last night camping with the boys. We headed out from the pass to find a spot to set up camp. Most of the DOC sites just parking lots on the side of the highway, we decided to look a little harder for the perfect place. A solid twenty kilometers and five campsites later, we took a left over a bridge crossing the Waimakariri River into a vast valley of flat, featureless plains. There was no one in sight for miles in any direction. The plains followed the massive, braided river bed to the peaks that surrounded us on all sides. As we parked the sun sat hanging just above the rugged horizon and the soft yellow glow overwhelmed us all to silence.

Epic Freedom Camping in Hawson Valley

Full Moon Campfire

How could this place continue to stun to speechless? How could anyone take such majesty for granted? In a country the size of California with fewer people than metropolitan Los Angeles, it is the only place I have been where you can feel truly alone and at peace with the world. We collected driftwood from the river bed and parked the van to block the sweeping winds. The fire consumed the dried wood quickly as the flames contorted high into the whipping winds beneath the finally full moon. We shared laughter and the last few beers over the last of our food. Reuben lay his head on my lap as I ran my fingers through his hair, and over the small abrasion on his forehead from his brush with death earlier that day. We were leaving this place in the morning, and I leaving New Zealand just two days later. Despite the stone-sunk sadness that enveloped me at the thought of returning to America, and having to leave the loves I had found here, I knew that no part of New Zealand would ever leave me. And when I returned home, it was only time to find another adventure to scare me enough to remind me just how incredible this life can be.


On Wednesdays they clean out
the fridge. Milk, two days expired.
A jar of homemade cranberry sauce,
unlabeled for the taking but you will
never eat. The bread dusted with
mold like an early snow won’t hurt
you. Be kind to the travelers. One gives
you peanut butter before he
leaves. They will always leave
their scraps behind with bigger
things to eat out there. Read long
books and sleep as much as your tossing
thoughts will let you. I know without
the wine restive feet will churn the sheets
to butter but you still will wake up
hungry. Toast peanut butter toast
free jam. But only enough for one
PB&J. Free tea, sugar, steal someone’s
milk, just a bit. Talk to strangers and
give up smoking. No, not when you’re
this lonely. I’d love a glass of wine.
Bitter velvet chill too soon passed.
Can I bum a smoke? But never take
their last. Call the one who always
understood this brand of poverty. Steal
his affections cloaked and stashed
like the squirrel who knows
there’s always a winter next. But those
won’t keep for long. Best if Used By:
someone else. Grilled cheese
grilled cheese grilled cheese peanut
butter toast clean the toilets make the beds
take a hike but you don’t have the right
shoes for that. Maybe steal hers
she’s left them out. What a foolish
girl to trust this world like that. No,
you aren’t that famished yet. Watch only
your tattered feet as you walk
sharpening ragamuffin eyes
to the elusive spark of change
on pavement. Stack five dollars and forty
cents into piles by your bed like discarded
trophies and watch them not go
anywhere. The very first thing you
have managed to save in your life.

The morning was cloudy, but as Paddy and I stumbled down the main road of Paihia, curved smooth as a bow around the bay, we wore our hangovers heavy on our shoulders. To our disappointment, the sun broke through those saviors of clouds and beat our weary faces further. We were on a mission to see about a tattoo and had only a vague idea of where we were to go. Heading to the gas station across the street from the supermarket in Waitangi we were to find a man covered in moko, the traditional Maori tattoos that cover the bodies and faces of the native tribes. The moko tell the stories of those who wear them and today I was searching to be read by a Maori and blessed to have my moko forever inked on my eagerly tattooed skin. For three years I have wanted a tattoo on my left side, twisting from my ribs around my back. I wanted something that would represent me, from where I have come, the never ending struggle for personal growth in my life, and my need to be free from the chains whose burdens our souls heavily bear. Curiously we entered the gas station to inquire about the tattooed stranger. “Oh you mean Damien, eh?” The cashier responded without pause, “well ‘e’s jus gettin’ into that car right there to be on ‘is way, eh? But if it’s the moko you’re after jus’ walk down to that roundabout there, eh? Take a left and find the house with the totem out front and ask after Tracy.” We thanked the Kiwi clerk with a cheers and made our way to the house with the totem. Not far past the roundabout, just as the helpful clerk described, we came across the house we assumed to be Tracy’s and instantly confirmed that fact as we came up to the driveway and saw the makeshift tattoo parlor set up in the garage. It was either that or a crazy dentist, anyway. I hesitantly knocked on the frosted glass door and a small blonde boy around ten or so peeked his head out and called for his mom. As Tracy came around the corner my eyes were immediately drawn to the moko that wound its way from her lip, around her chin and down to the top of her neck. Her hair was black, her skin the deep sienna of a true blooded Maori, and she wore years of laughter in the lines of her eyes and mouth. She escorted Paddy and me to the garage and we started talking shop. The moko are sacred to the Maori and Tracy was pleased as Paddy remembered to request permission for the symbolic language to be inked on my foreign body. She granted us both permission and I set up an appointment to return the next afternoon to have my reading done. When Paddy asked how much the tattoo would cost, she jokingly replied’ “five hundred an hour and a bag of oysters” and we left a bit perplexed and still unsure of how much the tattoo was going to cost. Upon returning and excitedly relaying the story to some Kiwis that work at our hostel, we learned that payment for the moko is a gift from the person receiving it, and one is to offer as much as they believe the tattoo is worth. Early as it is in my trip, I was prepared to give her several hundred dollars, the equivalent of what I believed the tattoo would cost in America.

Anxious from the moment I woke, excitement bubbling in my belly, I made the thirty minute walk and arrived early for my one o’clock appointment. Hungover yet again, Tracy invited me to sit on one of the couches in the garage overlooking the bay and offered me a much needed glass of water. She pulled out a stack of photos of her work and we began discussing the meaning behind the animals represented and the flowing lines within each of the tattoos. Each tattoo must have the Manawa, the lines of the heart and blood flowing through it, represented by the negative space created by the ink. If the Manawa cannot flow through the moko, the body is dead. As I flipped through the stack of pictures she handed me, Tracy began to explain the moko on her chin. Her partner had died just over a year ago and she was asked to wear the moko on her face, a sign of respect and something which greatly humbled her, and which she is honored to wear. With her neck lifted up you see the shape of a stingray, and with her face forward the symbolic image turns into the eyes and face of an owl, which represents her fatidic connection to the spirit world. It is here that she tells me her name is no longer Tracy, but that she was given the name Paitangi when she was asked to wear the moko after his death. Knowing the day he was going to die and seeing his spirit still often in her home and the sacred Maori temples of Waitangi, Pai is an honored and respected member of the local Maori community.

Felix's fresh and bloody moko

For the next four hours Pai and I bared guts to one another. Being as unapologetically open as I, the story of my life, and in turn hers, poured from our mouths dancing easily between us. I told her of my family’s past, of the distance and alienation felt between my brother and sisters, the lack of any real parental connection between myself and my father and mother, and the independence I had defiantly willed from them in turn. We talked about spirituality and our mutual distaste for organized religion. We talked about booze and drugs and vices and addictions (one of the rare things we do not share) and of the unraveling I felt in the last year that brought me here to her. But more than anything else, we talked about love. Incapable of anything but unconditional love, and willing to give it completely freely, we found a true bond. Her husband was a proud man, a distant man, and a hard man to know. And while she was willing to give him everything of herself, she found hurt again and again. Always falling in love with damaged goods, we are. Thinking through the countless times I have loved those unable to reciprocate the love in return, I told Pai that perhaps people like us are always meant to love those that can never return it. Our hearts are simultaneously too soft and strong, endlessly willing to give, no matter what blows are struck against us. Perhaps we are the only ones able to take on these closed doors, these projects of loves. And though it may be hard at times, when the next love comes along our hearts are no worse for the wear. I felt a bit better as we laughed in resigned agreement for our collective fate.

The four hours passed without pause and by the time her fourteen year old son returned from school, I needed to get to work and we made an appointment for the inking in the early afternoon of St. Paddy’s Day. When the morning finally came, the excitement emanated from my eager face. I made the thirty minute walk with music in my ears and a lilting stride. We took our time easy when I arrived and chatted over a cup of tea. After an hour, it was time to begin. Stripping down to my bikini top I climbed into the deranged dentist’s chair and laid on my side for her to draw the tattoo I had yet to see. The pen ran smooth from my ribs down to my hips in curls and tips as the anticipation to see the creation boiled stronger inside of me. When she finished the outline I jumped from the chair to gaze for the first time at what would adorn my body until I die.

Pai's Tattoo Parlor/Garage

It was perfect. I smoked one final cigarette, and laid back on my side, preparing myself for the excruciating pain I knew was to come. As the hard buzzing of the needle began I closed my eyes tightly and Pai reminded me to breathe. The first piercing vibration penetrated my tender skin and my eyes winced tightly shut as I forced myself to take oxygen into my tensed body. The breaths in wavered through the pain and then exhaled in miniscule relief. After the twenty seconds of tension, she lifted the needle, my muscles relaxed, and I opened my eyes onto the sage-toned waters of the bay. And in just two sweet, deep breaths, the needle was tearing into my skin again. With each successive torture and release I could never prepare for the pain that was to follow again. At times it ate my nerves for breakfast, chewed them tense and down to pulp. Others grinded and carved my bones, sure they bore the same pattern as my sore, swollen skin. And in each relief of breath as the needle paused its relentless assault I again opened my eyes to the pale Kiwi sky and remembered that the pain I was enduring was not for naught. This symbol, this moko, this ink was the same as all of the pain we endure in life, and I would be the better for it in the end. With each tortured, tenuous breath I fought the urge to squirm and retract from the needle, and was occasionally blessed with a simply irritating vibration in place of the ingratiating pain. My private prayers to no one for the tattoo to be finished were granted after only an hour and a half. Beyond relief, I peeled my sore, sweaty side from the leather of the chair and hopped excitedly to the mirror. I was stunned.

View from the Dentist's Chair

We stood in the mirror as I admired the work and Pai described the various symbols that married themselves to my ribs that afternoon. The Huruhuru, the Maori word for feather, swept itself down the soft indent of my waist, barely peeking out onto my back. Simultaneously representative of my windblown soul and the ancient writer’s quill, it was the perfect symbol. Knowing the freedom of my spirit would be blown wherever Tawhiri, the guardian of the wind, wanted to take me, Pai etched my Maori guardian in the negative space along the Huruhuru. The three seed pods of the Kapé that curled up my ribcage represented my three brothers and sisters and the seed we share. The tiny curling point that offsets the negative space of the Manawa line, the Te Ao Hurihuri, is symbolic of the ever turning world and the constant change for which we search as we spin. Three curly cues lie sleeping like peas along the lower ridge, forever reminding me of the three most influential people of my life: my three best friends. I gave Pai three hundred dollars, for my three siblings, for my three best friends, for the three times I have truly been in love in my life, and a firm and honest hug to boot. Pai will forever be in my memory, her art will forever be on my body, and she assured me I was not one to be forgotten either. Walking back to the hostel with a furtive, knowing smile that couldn’t be beaten from my face the only thing left to ponder was where my next tattoo will land and on what continent will it be done.

All finished!

The days in Paihia seem to slip out from under you. This small beach town and main port on Bay of Islands is the Mecca for backpackers in the north. The beaches and bars are filled with traveling twenty-somethings, largely European, looking for a drink and a tan and staying at any one of the hostels littering themselves from the shore down Kings Road as if washed in with the tide. After three drunken, sun-drenched days casually flirting with a couple of Irish boys, I dragged my half-drunk, loudly stumbling body from the top bunk of my hostel bed in the still dark hours of morning. I heard the bodies of my sleeping dormmates stirring as I attempted, unsuccessfully, to pack my bag without waking them further. The boat ride from Paihia to Urupukapuka passed quickly as I slept awkwardly in the rigid seats, sheltering my throbbing head from the adamant sun that grasped selfishly at every corner of the sky. As the boat arrived at Urupukapuka, I stretched the soreness from my limbs and wondered in sleepy anticipation what my second couch surfing experience held in store.

Still half asleep on the water taxi from the shuttle to the island, I looked out over the spring green ridges of the island, speckled with the deep piney tones of native bushes and trees until I heard someone call my name. Turning to my left I met vibrant blue eyes with blonde hair tumbling in salty curls over dried, sun beaten skin. His surfer look and mentality could do nothing, however, to hide the Midwestern accent I heard peeking out from his friendly banter. Still in a bourbon induced daze, I apologized for not remembering his name. When he introduced himself as David, I realized this was not some guy I had drunkenly danced with at the bar the night before, but was, in fact, my next couch surfing host. I apologized for my lack of mental clarity as I stumbled through tales of the genesis of my debilitated state and we made our way onto the island for some much needed breakfast and coffee.

As soon as I finished eating, David got me set up with a kayak to explore the many isolated bays spotted along the twisting shoreline. Knowing well that the ocean is the best cure for a hangover, I packed my camera, phone, cigarettes, journal, and a pen into a wetbag and paddled out around the bend of Otehei Bay. Barely before I began, the various warnings and advice about winds and currents David had rambled through as he pushed me off vanished from my mind like a dream. I’m sure I’ll be alright, I thought, as my paddles sluiced through the soft jades of the South Pacific, propelling me forward, my muscles still potent and fresh as I passed the first of the secluded bays. I recognized a young, bearded backpacker from the boat setting up his camp on the quiet, grassy knoll above the shore and decided to push through to the next beach, leaving him to the seclusion most come here searching for. Sharp rocks in deep grayish browns jutted out from the tips of each of the bays, the water deceptively shallow over them. And as I recalled David’s advice to stay close to the shoreline, I found the bottom of my kayak scratching their surface as the ebb and flow of the currents sucked the ocean back, exposing the massive, jagged plateaus. With small struggles I made it around the bend from Sunset Bay, tucked into the scalloping coastline like a well-kept secret, and came upon Cable Bay. Its sandy length swept itself across the southern coast in a lazy smile that welcomed mine.

Smiles from the Bay

There were no secrets on this exposed stretch of arching sand, crawling in soft greens up to the island ridge, and I made my way to shore to relax and let the scenery and the sun warm and dry my salty skin. After an hour of swimming and writing, I packed up the kayak, satisfied, and continued on tracing the coastline. Around the threatening rocks I winded until I came upon a few patches of sand, barely large enough to be considered beaches. As I pulled my kayak up onto the small cove and swung my feet over the edge I began to sink. Each foot swallowed by the sand, six or eight inches deep until I pulled it out against the vacuuming force, pressed in the next, and began the struggle again. Suddenly the “Prohibited Anchoring” sign posted in the thin strip of dry sand before the thickly forested incline that I had chosen to ignore started to make sense. An eerie feeling crept its way up my body in uneasy vines and I felt frighteningly alone on this beach that could disappear, or make me do the same, without a trace. Though I had docked here with the intention of swimming out to a small cave I had seen in the base of the rocks nearby, the unsettling feeling this forbidden corner gave rise to in me had me shortly back in my little vessel and on my way.

Warnings Unheeded

Paddling away from the beach the subtle whisper of discomfort stayed with me. I wasn’t sure how much farther I was to go before David told me to turn back. How many bays was I to pass? Recalling warnings of strong currents and open oceans around one last bend, I started to turn back. Just before I did, I recognized the silly fears getting the best of me for what they were, and felt with some certainty there was at least one inlet left to be seen. My arms were starting to tire from fighting the strong currents and relentless winds, but I pressed on, determined as I approached the last rocky corner to conquer. As with the others, the stony tips peeked above the water far from the actual coastline and I found myself grinding against them as I struggled to push myself further out. But each time I did, a surge of water from the open ocean, now just on the other side of the bay, slapped me back into the razor blade coast. Again I pushed and fought to beat the wave I could see rolling towards me, scared as I knew my weak paddling a sorry match for its careless power. Determined now to make it to the final bay, I pushed my ore in long, hard strokes, deep into the water, quickly flipping it, straining the muscles in my now sunburned arms, until finally I broke free from my laughing, crashing opponent and into the calm, deep, turquoise waters of Urupukupuku Bay. I paddled my way to shore and collapsed from the tiny boat, letting my muscles relax in the warm sand as the amiable waves of the protected bay rolled and crashed over my newly browned toes. This place was incredible, I had made it here on my own, and I let the sun pierce my eyes as I looked out over another place in the world I had never seen before, until now.

No one for miles.

Calmer waters.

Once my skin was dry and my strength returned, I pushed off once again into an ocean like none I had seen before. Varying from rich sage in the shallow bays to vibrant cobalt on the endless ocean it is hard not to feel awe with every breath. I wonder if the people that have seen this every day of their lives still feel the same overwhelming sense of beauty each time they set their eyes upon it again. I couldn’t imagine ever taking something so serene, yet so powerful, for granted. Proud of myself for making it to the final bay before the calm waters turned to turgid ocean and the sweet secrets of beaches to towering unforgiving cliffs, I found new strength in my acidic muscles and stopped at nearly every beach on the return trip to write , and to explore. The pristine isolation of this place haunted me as I climbed to the top of a ridge through grass that deceptively swallows your legs the same as the sand on that mysterious beach. Looking out over what I could see of the island from the quick climb, I knew I would be returning here to hike the twisted trail round the island, rising and falling like breath with the rolling hills.

After a beer and Barbie filled weekend with my endlessly positive host, I did return to Urupukapuka. With the same essentials for my kayak excursion hanging from my shoulder, I began the slow climb in the relentless midday sun. The stunning, lonely hike was as long and hard as it was rewarding. And though my legs burned in protest on the twisting ascents, and my flip-flops fearfully slid with the dirt rolling under my tractionless shoes like marbles in each countering trek down, every second, every struggle, every heaving breath was beyond worth it. Amazed, overwhelmed, exhausted, contented, and inspired, I was back at Otehei Bay in fewer than four hours for one of the more rewarding beers of my life. As I have already passed fifteen hundred words in my rambling descriptions, I will let the pictures say the next thousand or so.


I stepped off the three hour bus ride from Auckland to Whangarei brimming with curious excitement. The verdant, hilly landscape had my face pressed to the glass the entirety of the ride up in wondrous awe. Here I was to meet my very first couchsurfing host. Matt and I had been exchanging emails for a few weeks as I was planning my trip up to his hometown on the eastern coast of the North Island, but all I really knew about him at this point was that he was adventurous, loved to travel, loved to surf even more, and was thirty-six years old. I wandered about the small bus stop with the confused, searching face of a lost traveler until I caught the eye of a weathered, oddly handsome stranger who wore his travels in minute canyons etched like dry river beds from his eyes. The questionable recognition in our glances slowly transformed our curious faces to smiles and reserved introductions. “Taylor?” He said with a note of apprehension. With a wide smile and a firm handshake, I introduced myself to the stranger who would be hosting me for the five days as I settled my plans to head up and explore the rest of the Northland.

It was past seven when I arrived and after stopping at the store to pick up the necessities (milk, bacon, eggs, cheese, bagels, and beer) we headed back to his house, a cozy summer style ranch with a stone edged pool in the welcoming backyard. An older German woman with windblown strawberry blonde hair like straw (another couchsurfer being hosted by the gracious flatmates) sat at the table overlooking the pool. She reclined in front of an open journal and a glass of white wine sweating in the warm summer night, a pensive look draped across her face. This was the last night of her travels in New Zealand and once I got settled the three of us rolled through beers, wine, and the easy conversation of cultural and linguistic nuances that make for good entertainment between any travelers. Around midnight on the Friday night as I was getting ready for bed, Matt’s flatmate, Stu, arrived to a quiet house save for the quiet clicking of my keyboard. An eccentric looking man with wiry grey hair sprouting from his head in scattered patches, his smile was instantly hospitable. We chatted briefly in introduction and by the time I slid myself beneath the sheets, I felt nothing but welcome in the comfort of their home.

The boys wasted no time getting started on Saturday morning, and after a seven a.m. trip to the farmer’s market with Stu, Matty took me his parents sheep farm about twenty minutes outside of Whangarei. As we entered the barn, consumed with the smell of sheep and shit, I pulled out my camera to begin documenting the day. I was instantly interrupted by Matt’s father, “You never seen a sheep before?” he asked incredulously with a hint of sarcasm. After informing him that I had, in fact, seen a sheep before, we continued on with our chores for the day.

Matty's Parents' Farm


And by we, I mean I watched Matt, snapping photos as he dirtied his hands, both of us grateful for the cover of clouds from the unforgiving sun. Between bouts with a chainsaw and the massive Australian Eucalytpus that had fallen during the last storm, Matt pointed out the various trees his parents had planted from around the world, the history of the farm, and the miraculous fact that American Monterey Pine had saved the native New Zealand forestry. I sat smoking cigarettes and watching his wide, toned arms struggle to load the cross sections of smooth trunk into the trailer, feeling utterly and completely useless, but glad to have a ticket to the show.

Big PuttPutt


This used to be a tree.

After the work was done, we headed back to the house for a home cooked meal and an ice cold drink. I spent an hour or two chatting with his garrulous parents, happy to have a willing ear, about our respective travels while the sounds of Matt heaving and grunting as he chopped the wood wafted into the living room. Exhausted just from watching Matt, we headed back to his place with a sense of accomplishment and a bag full of freshly picked apples.

The remainder of my days in Whangarei were relaxed to say the least. I passed the time lazing by the pool reading in the strong New Zealand sun. I took full advantage of the free internet to catch up with the people I loved and missed the most back home, and began forming tentative plans for my sojourn north. I wandered into the center of the small beach town on a bike the boys had for me to use taking care of various errands in preparation for my departure. For the first time in my life, my travels had no expiration date in sight and I was taking full advantage of the ability to lackadaisically enjoy my days at what would become my unofficial base camp in the Northland. On my fourth day in Whangarei I bought a prepaid phone and, in predictable fashion, sent my very first text from the future to the poet. In the days before I left the States, the embers that were left of our complicated flame had begun to slowly burn again, and his desire that I had craved so urgently before, began to show its elusive self. But this time, something was different. Where before my very breath hung on every word he dared to give or keep from me, something in me was unchained. I was free to hold his affection close but free to find love on these rolling roads in this mystical place. I was boundlessly happy with or without him, as everything here was still brimming with the sparks of the unknown. And as we spoke through the summer twilight, he could hear the smile stapled to my face for this adventure that was nourishing my soul. Either way, it was good to hear the earnest caring in his voice, and I missed him in a way I didn’t think I would.

Bacon egg & cheese Kiwi style...fresh from farmer's market and on the barbie

Pataua Beach

On Tuesday afternoon, after five days of my first couchsurfing experience, Matt drove me into town to catch the six thirty up to Paihia. My newfound friend gave me a firm, lengthy hug and said with honest sadness in his eyes that he was going to miss coming home to my cheerful greetings after a long day at work. As I left about half of my stuff at his place and was using his address as my personal post office box, I assured him I would be back soon enough. Besides, he still owed me a surfing lesson after our plans were dashed once by tsunami warnings, and once again by less than ideal conditions. With his promise to pay up upon my return, we hugged one last time and the next leg of the rolling unknown unfolded.