Posted by: Josh Lokken | August 29, 2011

Top 5 Things to Love About New Zealand

Ahh, the list. What travel blog would be complete without “5 things this” or “10 things that.” So in the interest of being ordinary, here’s mine:

1. The scenery. It’s well established and I’ve said many times that New Zealand is beautiful. No, make that stunning. Google some images and see for yourself.

2. Lack of bureaucracy. I needed a New Zealand Bank Account. No Tax ID number, no permanent address, no problem. God bless you, KiwiBank. A similar story changing the ownership on my car. A five minute walk to the post office and NZ$9.60 later, I was the official and proud owner of a 1992 Subaru Legacy. No registration to mail and no proof of insurance needed. Amazing.

3. Kiwi lifestyle. New Zealanders frequently cite their way of life as a distinguishing factor from their Australian neighbors. Far from lazy but definitely laid back, New Zealanders recognize the need to go have some fun. Obtaining a high-powered career, driving that new Mercedes, and achieving nirvana is just not given the highest priority. That delicate and often fleeting balance between work and leisure is well maintained.

4. Camping. There’s a growing if not disturbing trend where you dole out large amounts of money for the privilege of sleeping in the woods. Pay $30 to join a small city of tents, cook rudimentary meals, and share a bathroom with dozens of people far more disgusting than yourself. Congratulations, you just spent Memorial Day Weekend in a refugee camp.

While those cute little excursions are available here too, there are plenty of options for finding that ‘postcardesque’ spot without feeling like your fleeing some natural disaster. The Department of Conservation does an excellent job of maintaining many small, well located, basic campsites for only a few dollars per night. If you’re really willing to rough it, sites without running water and flush toilets are often free.

5. Cheap cars. Clearly the best and arguably the cheapest way to travel New Zealand, ‘backpacker’ cars are ubiquitous. It won’t be the prettiest thing on four wheels and will actually be pretty darn ugly, but hey, it gets you to where you want to go. Of course it’s reliability can’t be guaranteed. Driving any car with 200,000 miles is a crap shoot of mechanical nightmares. Some get off with only an oil change. Others need timing belts, head gaskets and transmissions. Either way, it’s a story and memory. And a really good one at that.

Posted by: Josh Lokken | August 13, 2011

Working for the Weekend

When you’re traveling, everyday is Saturday. Delightful really. Go to sleep when the conversation fades, wake up whenever you like.

Eventually however, you run out of money and the weekend stops. Sleeping in just isn’t as much fun when you can’t afford breakfast. Inevitably, you must face Monday.

You join the plebeians and get job, and just like in your previous life you begin to appreciate those two short days off.

The great thing about weekends in New Zealand is that so many diverse landscapes are so accessible. Within the compact South Island you’re never more than a stones throw away from a great day trip.

Sunday is my day off to put on the Ray Bans, roll down the windows in my Subaru, forget that I sold my soul to the vineyards, and drive off in the direction of something interesting.

Two weeks ago was the Marlborough Sounds. The week before that, Nelson Lakes National Park. Last Saturday, I felt like sticking around and did the wine tour…again.

Okay, I’ll admit, it’s too cold for the beach. I guess that’s just something that will have to wait till November. Even still, there’s plenty to keep my mind off Monday.

Posted by: Josh Lokken | July 4, 2011

It Can’t All Glow

So I’ve been in New Zealand for nearly two months now. It’s only a matter of time before I have something negative to say, right?

I think I’ll employ the sandwich technique and layer my criticism between two healthy layers of praise – just to soften the blow.

The landscapes of New Zealand are amazing and often jaw-droppingly beautiful. It’s not hard to see why this country is frequently called the most photogenic country on the planet. It will be hard to replicate the smile put on my face by driving around the South Island in my questionably reliable Subaru.

Unfortunately, the stunning and dramatic landscapes are really all that New Zealand has to offer. A search for anything beyond this will likely come up empty.

For starters, the food (and beer) is hardly special. Trips to the local market provide only the basics, and surprisingly, make me wish for the offerings of Lancaster County delis. Fish n’ Chips, New Zealand’s own version of fried mediocrity, is far too common.

The culture hardly makes up for the lack in food. Yes, the people are friendly and the laid back “sweet as” attitude jives well with me. But friendly people are found all over the planet and hardly make a place unique. Society functions in an overly orderly way void of any spontaneity.

The larger cities too provide the same lackluster excitement. Auckland lacks defining character and it’s slightly less vanilla sister, Christchurch, is largely rubble. The creative sparks found in New York, Los Angeles, or even Philadelphia, are just not replicated here. To be fair, Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, is worth a visit. It’s still up in the air whether I agree with Lonely Planet’s description as “the coolest little capital in the world” however.

In short, I like this place and I’m hardly bored. Very few places offer you the ability to stand on a glacier, in the rainforest, while at the beach, all at the same time.

But some nights, I want more than snow-capped peaks and glacial lakes. Some nights I just want to find good company, listen to a random indie-band, drink a little too much, and go home in the back of a shady taxi cab.

Perhaps I can’t, but New Zealand is far from a punishment.

Posted by: Josh Lokken | June 17, 2011

Surviving the Snores

I like English Johnny. If nothing else, he’s got a good accent. Not one of those obnoxiously posh “I want to sound like the Queen” accents, but a “don’t mess with me I’m from the North of England” accent.

The problem is, Johnny is a loud sleeper and sharing a room with the guy for the past week and a half doesn’t make my life any easier. Far too often I wake up wondering how this guy even manages to produce those sounds.

Having always been a fan of stereotypes, I try my best to single out those that might disrupt my slumber. Before choosing a dorm room, it is imperative that I look for the smokers and overweight champs that so frequently provide their own unique nocturnal serenade. Sometimes however, you just don’t have this luxury and get stuck with the Johnnys. Your nights become a race to fall asleep first before the snores can catch you. Inevitably, you lose.

But yesterday I caught a lucky break. Johnny finally sold his car, and with cash now in his bank account he can finally purchase a flight home.

Travelling is funny like that. I had to wait for some guy from England to sell his car in order to get a good nights sleep. But I shouldn’t complain, it’s just a small part of the game I signed up for.

Posted by: Josh Lokken | June 11, 2011

Being Poor and Drinking Wine

Yesterday I played a fantastic game called “go on a wine tour and pretend we’re not dirt poor backpackers.” It was loads of fun.

For the past week I’ve been hanging around Marlborough wine country. While not the most exciting part of New Zealand, it’s a good place to find some work, save some cash and stick out the winter. Last Saturday, I had the afternoon free.

Our very friendly hostel manager and designated driver, Scott, was kind enough to organize a wine tour around the region.

Amazingly, Scott has in-depth knowledge of all the free wine tasting cellars within at 10 kilometer radius of our hostel. With our backpacker ability to sniff out all things free, our international group of eight loaded up the van and headed off.

Using phrases such as “do you ship internationally?” and “what awards has your Sauvignon Blanc won?” we tried our best to pretend that 1) we actually had money, 2) knew something about wine, and 3) maybe, just maybe, might buy a bottle.

I would be an optimist to say that we actually succeeded in any of these, but either way our servers were friendly, sociable, and answered our questions. Four hours, six wine tastings, and zero dollars is a solid way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

Josh – 1, Marlborough wine region – 0.

Posted by: Josh Lokken | May 30, 2011

On to the next one – South Island

So I now just realized that I haven’t given an update in over a week. Sorry about that.

For the past week I have been traveling throughout the South Island and plan on spending the majority of my time down here. Yes, it’s a bit colder, but the consistent stream of dramatic scenery more than makes up for it. Not to bash the North Island, however.

Certainly there were a handful of highlights, notably Tongariro National Park. I particularly enjoyed the hike through the volcanoes, with Mt. Ngauruhoe, aka Mount Doom, providing a nice backdrop. In addition, the recent snowfall provided a nice contrast to the black volcanic stone.

Now I head south via the west coast. For an area of the country that measures it’s annual rainfall in meters, let’s hope for at least a little sun.

Posted by: Josh Lokken | May 18, 2011

My New Buddy

So I’ve been talking with Tom. Tom is a 50 something native New Zealander now living in Germany. Once every several years, nostalgia brings him back to New Zealand. Actually, his exact words for returning were to, “get away from the Mrs, get pissed, and smoke dope.” Taking his advice may or may not have been a good idea. Either way, I’m now headed south to Tongariro National Park and the land of Mount Doom.

Taking me there will be my trusty 1992 Subaru Legacy recently purchased from a trio of Czech skaters. Not that I doubt my car’s capabilities, but the threat of breaking down should add more spontaneity to my travel, in addition to the joy of driving a manual on the left side of the road.

In other news, I’ll share a few photos of the Corromandel Peninsula, a beautiful area two hours drive east of Auckland.

Posted by: Josh Lokken | May 11, 2011

Getting Wheels – Kiwi Style

First off, I have arrived in New Zealand and have been spending the past few days in Auckland. The consensus is that Auckland is a nice city, but lacking any real “wow” factor. I find this to be generally true. There were some things that surprised me, notably the incredible amount of Asians.

Now, the car. When you first arrive in New Zealand, you quickly realize that almost every backpacker buys either a campervan or station wagon. Literally, everybody. Personally, I hate cars. They are nothing but expensive liabilities where invariably something will break and you’ll end up paying loads to fix it. Add the cost of fuel and insurance, and it won’t be long before you’re in tears.

However, the many people I have spoken with agree that there is no better way to see the country than by car. Further, the luxury of a campervan or station wagon gives you steeply discounted lodging throughout the country, so long as you’re comfortable sleeping in your car. I came across a good blog post on buying a car which helped me make my decision to purchase some wheels.

What really convinced me however was the market conditions. Brace yourself, I’m about to get nerdy. New Zealand in May is down season. Most backpackers are packing up and heading home for the winter. Obviously they can’t take their cars with them, so they put them up for sale. With so many cars on the market and so few buyers, assuming you do your homework, you can score a pretty sweat deal. The beauty of supply and demand.

Conversely, flocks of backpackers return to New Zealand come spring. In October, the demand for cars is incredibly high and quantities limited. Consequently, the selling prices are much, much higher. It is very possible that I can sell the car at the same price that I bought it. Even considering the cost of insurance and fuel, it is cheaper than taking the bus and staying in hostels. I know it’s a gamble, but it might just work.

Either way, I’m in the market. Hopefully over the next few days I will find something which suits my needs – then I’ll have plenty of freedom to explore all this place has to offer.

Posted by: Josh Lokken | March 7, 2011

My New Chapter, New Philosphy

I had just finished my best meal in weeks.  After living on fruit, bread, and beer since arriving in the country, local seafood was a rewarding treat.  Our group of eight was the typical demographic you find in most hostels – mainly European, some Brits, and the token American.  While not the cheapest country on the planet, the Colombian dining scene is frequently a bargain.  For less than the equivalent of $10 U.S., we dined like kings.

Like clockwork, as I finished my last bite of food, the lights shut off.  Not just the restaurant, but the whole town.  Rolling blackouts come with the territory of small coastal towns in developing countries.

“Crap!” I thought to myself.  Blindly wondering the pitch-black town in a country infamous for its crime is not something I would welcome.

My seasoned travel companion had a much different reaction.  “Look at the stars” she said immediately.

Sure enough, I look up and see the kaleidoscope of stars never witnessed from the light polluted North East corridor.  With my stomach full of fresh fish and cheap Colombian beer, I relaxed, looked up, and enjoyed the evening.

In retrospect, that small experience embodies how I hope to travel.   Backpacking is all about new experiences.  But there is also something well beyond that.  It is also about embracing the unexpected and truly, truly, enjoying it.

You will spend hours waiting at the bus station.  Locals will give you much needed directions in a language you barely understand.  New foods will put you in a gastrointestinal nightmare.

But heck, it’s all part of the experience.  It’s why we quit our desk jobs and buy the plane ticket.  It’s why we give up following our favorite sports teams for the season.  It’s why we forget what’s it’s like to sleep in a queen size bed.

So that’s my new traveling mantra – enjoy the lack of comforts which I have become so accustomed to.  Always find the positive, forgetting that things could be different.  Embrace the dark and marvel at the stars.

But now, I have a plane to catch.

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