When people ask me what it’s like to be in New Zealand right now, I tell them that it’s normal.
There’s still an element of surprise, though, when I explain that it’s normal normal. New Zealand hasn’t had a community case of COVID-19 for two months, and even that cluster was composed of just six people, so life continues on.
There are crowds, there is appreciation, there is fearlessness, there is joy.
Life in this country right now feels exactly the same as it did pre-pandemic, and we’re all so grateful to be here.
I’ve worn a mask once in six weeks (on my flight down to Christchurch, as masks are mandatory on planes). I rush inside of bustling restaurants, I think nothing of heading to a concert or festival or cricket match or market. In fact, I actively search these events out, because I only want to be around people now. As many people as possible. I slept in a fully-booked 80-bed dorm this month, then followed it up with a series of 40-bed huts.
Sometimes I get into bed and realise I haven’t even thought about COVID that day, let alone discussed it or analysed it or panicked about it.
I’m so fortunate to be in this position.
Unsurprisingly, December was incredible for me. Here’s what I got up to.
When I left you last, I was coming to terms with my newfound normality in the Bay of Islands. I felt as though I’d been thrown in at the deep end at times as I navigated my way from a sheltered life in the U.K. to two weeks in managed isolation to a sudden burst of freedom.
I entered a cafe. Went to the busiest of bars. Shared food with friends. Drank from the same glass as they did. Wandered around a farmers market. Visited a winery. All while feeling like I was doing something I shouldn’t. It was all so unsettling at first.
Dave and I drove south to the Coromandel, and it was there that I began to feel myself relax.
We set out on a hike to the summit of The Pinnacles and stayed in the aforementioned 80-bed hut. Gradually, it began to feel normal to be around other people — there were no community cases in the country, so what was there to be afraid of?
For the first time in my life, I felt gratitude for being able to
sleep lie down and grit my teeth in a room full of snorers.
Most visitors to the Coromandel come for one specific reason: to see Cathedral Cove! And it was at Cathedral Cove when I discovered I was doubly-fortunate to be in New Zealand at this time.
With the country’s borders closed and tourist sightings as rare as the kiwi bird, it means that attractions that would typically look like this:
Were now mostly void of people.
What a privilege it is to be able to explore such a beautiful country and see the biggest attractions without a thousand people swarming around us.
Mount Maunganui was up next and from the moment I arrived, I was smitten with the town. In fact, there was a part of me that almost considered flagging my next few months of travel just to stay put.
My days in the Mount were spent hiking, beaching, and eating delicious food, and it made for the most perfect few days. Dave and I even celebrated our nine year anniversary while we were there!
And then, it was time for something new.
The East Cape.
And I was so excited for it.
Fewer than 1% of tourists to New Zealand choose to travel to this rugged part of the North Island and it was that statistic that had me itching to visit.
This is a part of the country that’s all about going slow, dancing across deserted beaches and bays, learning about Māori culture, and marvelling at how few people there are. You could see most of the East Cape in a day, but we gave ourselves four so that we could really dive into it.
We ventured from Waihau Bay to Hicks Bay to Tokomaru Bay to Tolaga Bay to Gisbourne to the Mahia Peninsula, seeing a whole lot of beauty along the way.
We sunbathed at the cove where Captain Cook stopped in 1769 as part of his circumnavigation of New Zealand, climbed up to the lighthouse that sees the world’s first sunrise, stopped off at black-sand beaches with nobody else on them, walked the length of a 660 metre wharf, pondered whether we could live in Gisbourne, and marvelled at some of the best sunsets we’ve ever seen.
The East Cape? I loved it!
If I had to choose just one highlight from my North Island road trip, though, it would be the Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk. Just look at that view!
It was such an incredible hike and one that I can’t wait to write about. This particular Great Walk is often overshadowed by the more popular alternatives in the country, but it has so much to offer.
One of my favourite moments was rocking up to our hut after six hours of walking through the rainforest. Dave and I dropped our bags immediately, ran to the lake, stripped off, and dove straight in. There’s something about the waters of Lake Waikaremoana that feel so pure, refreshing, and healing.
Despite the freezing temperatures, it was a moment that had me feeling more alive than ever before.
We chose Taupo as our recovery destination from the Great Walk, and had a couple of chilled-out days there, walking alongside the lake, eating fish and chips, and marvelling at the lack of tourists.
We spent one afternoon checking out the Blue Spring in Putaruru and I was taken aback by just how blue the water was. Seventy per cent of New Zealand’s bottled water comes from here, and it looked so, so pure.
I was so excited to return to Raglan.
This laidback surf town had been one of my favourite spots from the North Island road trip I’d done back in 2012, and I was eager to see if I still loved it.
Obviously I did — there wasn’t a single spot on my itinerary this month that I didn’t like! Much like my time in Mount Maunganui, I was all about the sunbathing, eating, and hiking here, and I even managed to squeeze in a visit to the picturesque Bridal Veil Falls.
With Christmas now on the horizon, it was time to wrap up our North Island travels and start celebrating.
We spent a wonderful sunny afternoon ogling at plants at the botanic gardens in Hamilton, squeezed in some family time with Dave’s aunt and uncle in Auckland, then flew down to the South Island. We reunited with Dave’s parents at Christchurch Airport, then drove to their holiday home in Hanmer Springs.
There, Dave and I took the opportunity to pause, reflect, and attempt to process exactly what we’d been through over the past month.
We’d had the most incredible four weeks of travel, but there was still a part of us that felt as though it had all been a dream. We just weren’t sure if it was December that had been the dream or the entire pandemic.
Our reality had changed significantly over the space of a few weeks and we felt so far removed from the rest of the world.
Is this real life?
We spent our time in Hanmer Springs just as we always do: we went for a swim in the local hot springs, hiked in the nearby forests, ventured over to a winery to gorge ourselves on platters, and even spent a day spotting seals in Kaikoura.
All that was left was for us to do was to say good riddance to 2020.
We did so in a mediocre pub that was crammed full of people, and I couldn’t stop looking around me in awe.
And that was the month!
Countries visited: 1
Places visited: 21
Auckland, Gisbourne, Hamilton, Hanmer Springs, Hicks Bay, Kaikoura, Karangahake Gorge, Lake Waikaremoana, Mahia, Mount Maunganui, Putaruru, Russell, Taupo, Te Puke, Thames, Tokomaru Bay, Tolaga Bay, Waihau Bay, Waipara, Whakatane, Whitianga
Distance travelled: 2,836 km
Photos taken: 4,409
What Happened Over On Patreon
I have a Patreon! It’s my second travel blog, where I share more personal stories than I’m comfortable doing here. Signing up for it helps support my creative work and you’ll receive funny, long-form travel essays in exchange.
$5 gets you access to 5-10 travel narratives each month, along with vulnerable updates, personal announcements, and behind-the-scenes reveals. $12 a month gets you a handwritten postcard from me on top of that. You’ll also gain access to the 100-odd stories I’ve previously published on Patreon. And! I’m currently offering a 10% discount on the prices if you sign up for a year in advance.
Here’s the essays I shared there over the past month or so:
In My Underwear at New Zealand’s Hottest Attraction: Yes, there’s photos. OnlyFans next? In reality, this was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life.
Swept Away By the Pinnacles: My first incident of the trip! It took place on my hike to the Pinnacles and involved me belly-flopping on to a slimy rock.
Merry Christmas! I love you!: A Christmas update from Hanmer Springs, including photos of Dave’s family trying to chase a bird out of their house with a hiking pole. Plus A Very Awkward Christmas Present.
On Day Six, Home?: I’m in New Zealand to try to hunt down the perfect place for me to live. I think I may have already found it.
Highlights of the Month
Feeling so far removed from COVID: Dave and I have likened being in New Zealand right now to witnessing a disaster from afar. You know, like when Syria fell apart and the whole world was like oh shit and maybe discussed it every now and then, stayed informed and all, but mostly just got on with their life.
People cough and I think to myself, huh, that would be terrifying if I was somewhere else. When we tell people here that we spent time in the U.K., they’ll be like, oh, interesting, what was it like? And we’ll discuss it for a minute or so before moving on to something else.
Of course I’m not entirely removed from COVID, as my loved ones remain in the U.K., where they’re far from safe. And I worry about them often. I’m hoping my parents can be vaccinated within the next month or two.
But on a personal level, wow.
It took getting to New Zealand for Dave and I to discover just how utterly depressed we had been in the U.K.
We hadn’t quite realised how far we had slipped, as it had all happened so gradually. Suddenly, we’re smiling again! Having conversations. Holding hands. Doing things. Having energy. We both feel so light and buoyant. The apathy and exhaustion has faded, and we’re both so very grateful.
Seeing New Zealand without the crowds: Not only is it magical and weird to be in a country that’s been insulated from the worst of the pandemic, but it’s also magical and weird to be in a country that has close to zero international tourists.
“This is what New Zealand used to be like when I was a kid,” Dave keeps telling me excitedly, reminiscing about his island home of 30 years ago, before Lord of the Rings and Instagram put it firmly on the map.
There have been moments where I’ve even felt awkward to be British because there’s this belief from everyone that if you’re here, you must be a Kiwi. And so everybody automatically assumes I’m a New Zealander and I never know if I should correct them or go along with it.
Most excitingly of all, now that the summer is in full swing down here, Kiwis are starting to pick up the travel mantle. They’re not venturing overseas for their holidays, for obvious reasons, so they’re taking the opportunity to see their own country this year.
We’ve asked dozens of guesthouse owners and tour operators in New Zealand how business is doing and have been so heartened to discover that most are well on their way to recovery. With increased local travel, many are back to pulling in the same profits as they have in previous years.
Discovering a love for wild swimming: Over the past year, I’ve been working on taking responsibility for my shortcomings and building myself back up into the happy, confident human I used to be.
Most of all, I’ve been working on building resilience. Stopping second-guessing myself. Living without regrets.
On the Lake Waikaremoana trek, I mentioned above about how I dove straight into that icy cold water after a hot day of hiking.
The previous version of me would never have done it.
She’d have been too reluctant to get cold. She’d have worried about slipping on the rocks and hurting herself. She’d have wondered if there were fish waiting to nibble on her. She’d have tiptoed in, got her ankles wet, then wandered back out again.
That’s not me anymore! I stood up, stripped down to my underwear, and ran into the lake without a moment’s hesitation. It was so invigorating.
I felt so bold and, yes, resilient. There’s something about jumping into freezing cold water that makes you feel alive.
Lowlights of the Month
I’m not sure if I can share my yearly round-up: I’ve published a yearly round-up since I first started this blog, with two exceptions. In 2015, I was writing my book and didn’t have the time to publish anything on Never Ending Footsteps. And in 2019, I spent the entire year sick from a mould-related illness and hadn’t done anything worth writing about.
And now we come to 2020.
I’ve actually written my 2020 year in review post, but can’t quite bring myself to hit the publish button on it. It’s so dark guys. Really dark. As much as this specific blog post is full of highlights and happiness, 2020 has been a brutal year and I’m not sure if I’m willing to share it publicly yet.
I’m super uncomfortable about all of this: It’s taken me a full week to write this post because I start curling up with guilt whenever I begin to type. We’re so lucky here in New Zealand.
I find myself in such a fortunate position — one that 99% of the world’s population would likely give anything to be in — and it makes me feel so uncomfortable.
Because when my job revolves around writing about my life and my life is pretty fucking incredible compared to so many others’ right now… just how much is appropriate to share?
I broke my website’s theme. Um, over two months ago: A couple of months ago, I finally updated the version of WordPress that my blog runs on, and I thought the upgrade went smoothly.
Except, it didn’t.
In fact, my sidebar hasn’t been showing to 96% of the people who visit this site, for some reason. But because it was being shown to me, I had no idea this was the case. I only realised when Dave proof-read a post and was like, um, why is your site broken?
I normally have a couple of ads in my sidebar, and by accidentally removing it, I’ve probably lost out on a thousand-odd dollars in earnings. Bummer!
Fixing it is going to require me to move to a brand new theme — something that will take me weeks to do — and, well, I have an awful lot of travel coming up. I’m hoping I’ll be able to find the time to make the transition.
Incidents of the Month
The windy lighthouse: One of the biggest tourist attractions of the East Cape is the lighthouse at Hicks Bay. Due to the curvature of the earth, it’s the first place in the world to see the sunrise each day, so it’s a must-see spot if you’re in the area.
Well, we were in the area, but unfortunately, so was the wind.
After bumping over a gravel road for a solid hour, I opened the door to our car and screamed when it slammed shut in my face.
It turned out it was seriously windy.
But after driving for an hour to get there, we felt as though we needed to see the lighthouse regardless. So we stumbled up this huge cliff, slipping on the damp steps and clutching at the railings to prevent ourselves from getting blown away.
When we reached the top, the wind howled around us and I was blown several steps backwards from the force of it all. My hat flew off my head and into a nearby bush.
And the views from the top?
Let’s just say I’ve seen better in New Zealand.
My Next Steps
If December was all about exploring the North Island, January is going to be focused on the South Island! I have so many exciting travel plans coming up this month.
After wrapping up my time in Hanmer Springs, I’ll be heading down to Christchurch to hone in on a whole bunch of admin. Things like getting my hair cut for the first time in well over a year, getting a mole check, gathering a bunch of paperwork for my residency application, and catching up with all of our friends who live in the city. And cricket! I’m so excited to watch New Zealand battle it out against Pakistan!
We’ll be driving down to Wanaka next, via Oamaru, for a couple of weeks to see if it’s a place we could one day call home. I loved spending time in Wanaka earlier this year, so I’m giving myself plenty of time to investigate whether it fits. I’m also going to be using this time to catch up on blog posts, as I have so much to write, but have had no time in which to write it!
The west coast of the South Island has always eluded me during previous trips, so I’ll be taking a week to drive my way up there. We’ll be hiking, camping, and getting way off the beaten track.
I’ll be rounding off my month in beautiful, sunny Nelson! That’s another spot in New Zealand that Dave and I love, so we’ll be trying that on for size, too. I can’t wait to see if it feels like home for us!