I spent the first third of 2019 gallivanting around the world, ‘finding myself’ and other such nonsense. It was an exercise in independence, financial management and socialising. Quite frankly, I learned how to give less fucks about the passing thoughts and feelings of strangers, which has done wonders for my self-confidence and my ability to poop in places outside of the safety of my own home.
I started my trip in Australia, where I followed every other backpacker in existence down the east coast, stopping at big attractions like the Great Barrier Reef, Sydney Opera House and Fraser Island. Then came New Zealand, both islands. Seeing family, drinking beer, eating pies, visiting Hobbiton, climbing mountains, making friends…meeting a boy. It was perfection. Then I went a bit rogue. South America isn’t usually on the typical backpacker gap year itinerary, but I could feel it calling me. 6 weeks travelling through Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. Very high mountains, very strong altitude sickness, very good food, truly incredible people. This was a ‘proper adventure’. While I was travel-weary at times (especially in Medellin, where sickness truly got the better of me and I almost shit myself at Pablo Escobar’s grave), looking back it was an experience I will cherish and remember forever. How many people can say they’ve floated down the Amazon river on a rubber ring?
One of my highlights from the whole trip came in New Zealand. I spent my first 2 days staying with friends in Auckland, acclimatising and cooling off after the scorching temperatures of Australia. We went to a black sand beach to the north of Auckland and wandered around the North Shore area on the other side of the famous harbour bridge. In the evenings we chatted about our shared childhood experiences and went to a rugby game at the famous Eden Park. I could already feel myself falling in love with New Zealand.
On the third day, they dropped me in central Auckland at stupid early o’clock with a rucksack full of clean laundry and a belly full of nerves. I was catching the Kiwi Experience bus, one of the most popular ways for backpackers to travel the country. The Kiwi bus is a bright green monstrosity that winds through the New Zealand roads. It’s a great way to get around and meet a fantastic group of friends which I did later down the line.
This first morning on the bus I was terrified. I said goodbye to my friends and found a seat near the front of the coach and instantly felt out of place: why did everyone seem to have friends already? I sat in my chosen seat feeling like the eyes of the world were judging me for sitting alone. I tried to blend in with my seat while simultaneously praying that someone would talk to me. My prayers were answered; a tall Swedish girl caught my eye and asked if she could sit with me! Success!
From that moment on, we chatted for the whole journey and my heart felt lighter for having succeeded in making a friend!
The bus travelled south out of Auckland and then east to the Coromandel Peninsula to the first overnight stop of Hot Water Beach. Once here, we went for a short drive to Cathedral Cove for a 45 minute hike down the cliff path to the beach itself. The beach was busy, and it made it difficult to take a good picture of the natural features that the cove is famed for. But we managed, and then made our way into the sea.
The sea was a totally different creature to the freezing Atlantic Ocean that we are accustomed to in the UK. It was warm and clear and blue and inviting. My friend and I had a wonderful time bobbing around in the tides and body surfing to the shore. And then she looked to me with a grin and said the immortal words: “shall we go over there where the waves are bigger?” I thought ‘yeah, fuck it! We’ll be alright!’ and followed her to where the waves were well over head height.
We laughed and jumped up when the waves came, getting smacked in the face by a surprise wave every now and again, but still able to touch the sand beneath us. But then after a particularly ferocious wave, my friend suddenly turned to me with panic in her eyes and said “Lizzie, my bikini top has come undone.”
I’m not sure if you’ve ever tried to stand still in neck height ocean before, let alone tried to stand next to someone, find their bikini top strings and summon the manual dexterity required to tie the two strings together again. It’s incredibly difficult. I tried my hardest, but a fierce wave ripped her out of my grasp and towards the shore. I was tossed through the sea by a following wave and rolled around in the sand trying to find where she’d washed up. I reached out for her again, we were both kneeling in the sand at this point, and I tried again to tie her up. But alas, once again we were shoved into the sand, shrieking. I popped my head out of the water spluttering, hair a mess, bikini bottoms full of sand laughing hysterically at our misfortune, only to find her lying on the sand like a stranded trainee mermaid, trying desperately to hold everything in place but laughing laughing laughing. I have never scrambled before in my life, but I did so at that moment, and went to her rescue. We were bedraggled, and on hands and knees weeping with hilarity at each other and how ridiculous we must’ve looked being thrown through thigh high waves like a pair of socks on a spin cycle.
After that ordeal we decided that we’d had enough ocean for the day, and hiked back to the bus, giggling the whole way at how the sea gods had punished our hubris. With hindsight, this sounds potentially dangerous and a bit scary. But rest assured, we were totally fine, and the only things damaged were our prides.
I had such a great time with her, and after this day, we parted ways and I haven’t seen her since. If you read this, Tove, I hope the rest of your travels were full of laughter and that you bought a more secure bikini for future sea shenanigans.