I knew I wasn’t crazy. Finally, all of those feelings of uncertainty that I had were whisked away in one quick moment, replaced by the sheer joy of accomplishment and a feeling of validation. No, my plan hadn’t been as crazy as I had thought.
I was within hours of flying back to Canada after having spent a month travelling through spectacular New Zealand. Stopping in a quiet park near the airport, I cooked up the remainder of my pasta using the tiny backpacker’s stove and pot I’d purchased, along with a sleeping bag and some other gear, from a tramping store when I arrived. The word ‘tramping’ still evokes images of shady late-night activity undertaken in a particularly seedy part of town, but in reality it was merely the New Zealanders’ term for hiking, an activity that a good portion of them pursue with great vigour.
While I cooked at a picnic table beside a small pond, an elderly couple shuffled towards me from the nearby leaf-covered path. Smiling warmly, they introduced themselves and asked if I was a visitor. I answered that I was and, at their encouragement, began telling bits of my story, a story that would never have happened the way it did, if not for the plan I’d followed.
Before I got very far into the telling, their wrinkled – but wisened – eyes lit up with a sparkle as they revealed that they’d visited Canada many years ago, and while their plan had not been quite the same as mine, it had been similar – similar enough that I finally knew, only hours before it had been completely executed, that it had not only been the right plan, but the perfect plan.
As I shared my stories, images flipped through my mind in a blur, once in a while coming into clear focus, bringing with it detailed memories of the smells, tastes, sounds, and feelings that went along with it. I remembered an empty field set among the hills outside of Arthur’s Pass National Park on the south island. In the field was the car that I’d hired, a tired old beast with 467,000km on the clock and a front end that growled with the clickety-clack of ball joints reaching the end of their lifespan.
It had served me well. I’d taken it off-road through farmers’ fields full of grazing sheep, forged streams with it, and exposed it to hours of relentless attack from giant Kea birds. In total I'd added over 2,000 hard-earned kilometres to the little car’s long resume of duty, and with the back seat folded down, the hatchback had served as my bedroom and kitchen. In return, all that it had asked of me was an occasional tank of fuel and the minor inconvenience of a new set of front brake pads. A small price to pay for the incredible places it had taken me as my plan gradually unfolded.
The field was just off of the highway and wasn’t, I suspect, particularly interesting-looking to the casual observer. I’d been looking through a Department of Conservation binder containing pamphlets of things to see and do, when I came across a single crumpled sheet tucked in the middle. On it was one short paragraph describing the Cave Stream, a stream that had carved its way down into the field before winding its way underground through the earth below until it emerged from the side of a hill in the valley bottom. It was at the hillside where you could actually enter the underground cavern carved by the stream, follow it back upstream for 320 metres, and slowly wind your way higher until you surfaced in the middle of the field via a small inlet where the stream had cut its way into the earth. That was all the description contained, other than some directions.
When I arrived at the field, much to my surprise I found no entrance fees, no fences, and in fact, no markings whatsoever. If not for the flattened grass caused by the tires of an occasional car, you’d never know the Cave Stream was there. It didn’t take long to find the cavern entrance and make my way inside by wading through the waist-deep water. Soon, all natural light from the sun was gone and I was left with only the faint beam from my headlamp. Deeper inside I began to see the misty vapour from my breath as I exhaled into the cool air hanging stagnantly inside. The roof remained about ten metres high, but the cavern was never wide, varying from about 1.5 metres to barely wide enough to squeeze my body through. The water wasn’t cold, but was actually quite warm, revealing that my shaking was due to pure adrenaline pulsing through me.
Twisting and turning as I followed the flow of the underground stream, I began to feel a little nervous thinking about how deep under the earth and far away from natural light I was. I turned off my headlamp to confirm that it was the only source of light, and sure enough, inky blackness followed. My other senses immediately kicked in as I noticed just how loud the flow of the water was, crashing back and forth as the tunnel twisted, how damp the air felt, and how musty it smelled as I breathed it in. There were several small
waterfalls to climb and the water flowing quickly over them created pools at their
base deeper than elsewhere, making them quite a challenge to get up and over.
It must have been 30 to 45 minutes before I finally rounded a corner and caught sight of a thin beam of light. I emerged into the bright sunlight, relieved to be safely back on the surface and sat for a time as the adrenaline subsided, slowly recovering from the thought of being completely isolated, in utter darkness, beneath the surface of the earth. It was one of the most outrageous things I’d ever done, but I’d never felt so full of life. While I was grateful to have experienced the Cave Stream, I knew that my visit there was inevitable. After all, it was simply part of the plan.
The bark of a small dog across the pond temporarily cleared my thoughts, bringing my focus back to the present and the elderly couple listening intently with enthusiastic smiles. I continued my story, and blurred images began flowing again. This time they slowed at the scene of a quiet road, winding its way through rolling hills dotted with the occasional old, moss-covered barn that had long since seen the end of its usefulness. But more frequent than the barns were the newly painted farmhouses with porches extending all the way around them. I imagined the sweet and spicy aroma of freshly baked pies that were surely cooling on their railings inside. Sometimes there were no buildings, only the unbroken, lush green of the hills, and in the background beyond, rugged mountains jutting into the sky, all of it exactly like Tolkien’s fabled middle-earth.
I’d left the main highway to travel this road, precisely as my plan intended, even though very few visitors had made their way down it before me. I drove for an hour, taking in the sights, until the road abruptly ended at a cliff overlooking a small bay. I could see men fishing on the beach below and found a sandy path that led me down to them. I thought I’d make an attempt to engage them in conversation, but as I got closer, I could see a roughness to them, which suggested they’d rather not be bothered. They looked like men of the land – country folk that had toiled long, and hard to earn a living. In my mind, I thought twice about approaching them – after all, I was way off the beaten track and had a lot to learn about the locals.
But I had a positive feeling in my gut, and if there is one thing I’ve learned about traveling it was this: if crunching all the details of a situation in your head doesn’t yield any sort of acceptable answer, simply toss the details aside and go with your gut. So, while my head abstained from voting, my legs kept moving. Smiling nervously, I greeted them, and not knowing what else to say, mentioned that I was from Canada. Their hardened expressions turned to a look of surprise, confirming that foreigners were, indeed, a non-existent breed in these parts. It wasn’t more than an instant, though, before one fellow reached into the cooler and handed me a cold drink. With friendly smiles, they began to share with me the secrets of enjoying a lazy summer afternoon in New Zealand, whether one was successful at catching a respectable-sized fish for dinner or not. As we exchanged stories, I knew that I’d remember these friends for a long time to come. And as I cheerfully sipped my cold drink, I reveled in how my plan was working out as it was supposed to.
Although these were the images that came to mind as I chatted with the elderly couple in the park, every day in New Zealand had created a rich set of memories. The plan I’d concocted had turned out so well that I decided to do something similar on my next vacation. I suppose you could include buying a plane ticket and packing as part of my plan for five weeks exploring New Zealand, but if so, it certainly was the most complex part of the plan. The remainder of the plan had been simple, but proved so full of adventure and excitement, that I thought it was nothing short of sheer genius.
As I neared the end of the journey that had brought the plan to life, a magical meeting with an elderly couple in a park had confirmed that it was, indeed, perhaps the best plan there could have been. You see, my plan was quite simple. My plan was that I had no plan.