Overwhelmed by New Zealand; the beauty, the grandeur, the force, and its rejuvenation. I am overwhelmed by the souls I connected with and what I have accomplished on this solo journey. I am undeniably different, yet the same. When I go to parks, I never want to leave; a natural, majestic force penetrates the outer layers and pierces my heart, like falling in love or coming home. New Zealand is one big park with splashes of civilization, and although there are still Teslas and WiFi, people are much more at the mercy of ever-changing natural environment.
Since I heard of New Zealand, I wanted to experience it, and the more I learned about it, the more I was drawn to it. It would be a journey not only to get to New Zealand but to get around; and so, it became one of my travel-Everests and remained on my travel-bucket-list for over twenty years. At times I would look up currency exchange rates and flights to New Zealand, but planning the rest was too immense to fathom. A great deal of stamina would be required. How would I do this paralyzed? Surely someone would have to accompany me to help at times, I assumed. I couldn’t do this on my own, could I? People don’t often travel solo to a different country, and even fewer do so with such limited mobility, but I have, and very much enjoy it. It’s freedom and assurance that yes, I am alive and can do this. Perhaps the timing was right or I was just ready, but travel plans to New Zealand clicked into place smoothly and rapidly. People responded incredibly fast and clearly to my access inquiries, so I knew what to expect and could prepare accordingly, and then I booked my flight.
Excited and a bit nervous, I pushed forward, trusting my abilities in unfamiliar territory. No matter what I may or may not be able to do in New Zealand, I would be in park heaven; a place I’ve always wanted to be. I booked a few outdoor activities, but left flexible space for hiking and miscellaneous exploring. This type of travel planning keeps me busy, but not just bouncing from one thing to the next, which is too physically draining. It’s relaxing to just be for a while without having to be anywhere. The main goal was to just be in nature, all-day, every day. This is what I was waiting for; this is New Zealand. Based on research and local communications, I was confident that New Zealand had plenty of outdoor opportunities. In fact, I would need to be selective. What a blissful feeling–so many options.
Every day was like a dream I welcomed with open arms. It was often hard to fall asleep because of my level of enthusiasm, but I made sure that I got enough rest, ate healthy and even avoided consuming alcohol to improve my body’s performance. This adventure in New Zealand was a park-Ironman, I wasn’t here to mess around; I was here to see and do all I could in the parks, whether it was classified as accessible or not. Auckland was the starting point on the north island and Queenstown on the southern end, but I would also make my way to the tropical West Coast and down to the farmland and Fiordlands at the southernmost end. Between these points are countless majestic lakes that appear to go on forever, and surrounded by towering mountains, ever-climbing due to New Zealand’s location on colliding continental plates.
Maybe it’s because I was left-handed, but driving on the left side of the road was an easy adjustment; it was never problematic, I never forgot. Driving, though physically intense on windy roads, was exhilarating with stimulating scenery. So much so that it wasn’t until arriving to the West Coast that I noticed how my phone wasn’t plugged in, nor was the radio playing, and it remained quiet throughout the trip.
I didn’t ease into New Zealand; I hit the ground running. Once I arrived in Auckland, my journey began with a scenic drive that included a stop at a farmstand for a freshly baked frittata, followed by plum ice cream, and then cheese tasting, which was all easy-breezy, but then my local friend, Sharon Stewart, and I went for a hike. She wanted to show me the Te Waihou Blue Springs Walkway, a pretty stroll along the water on a boardwalk, but getting to the boardwalk ended up being harder and farther than she had recalled. Still, it was the perfect beginning to toughen me up for many hiking days to come.
The trailhead has the unfortunate barrier of being narrow and tough to maneuver through, but I was determined to get on this first trail, and somehow, I wiggled and wedge through with my manual. A power wheelchair couldn’t fit as it currently is, though it would be an easy access modification, but if it could, this trail would have been a piece of cake for me to do, but I had my manual. This trail was my first taste of rocky surfaces that I would encounter again and again throughout New Zealand. Fragments of the surrounding mountains are eroding constantly and carried by water rushing down to rivers, lakes and oceans. Needleless to say, rocks were everywhere on trails, few large enough to detour my route, but the smaller ones varied in size, thickness and abundance; either way, it was important to watch where I was wheeling at all times.
After skillfully wheeling down a couple of hills, I asked my friend once again laughing, “Where is the boardwalk you speak of?” It remained a running joke, and when we finally reached it, I chuckled teasingly, “Eureka! It does exist!” It was narrow with no railing, but a no-slip mat was in place, which was seen throughout New Zealand. It was my first real look into the wild of New Zealand, and my heart melted. The water was incredible shades of blue yet crystal clear; clean drinking water from the Blue Spring Putaruru that rises up from deep within the earth. White butterflies danced all around as ducks fluttered and dove in the waters. I’d never been anywhere else like this, and a part of me wanted to stay here for the remainder of my trip because I thought I had found the most beautiful place in New Zealand, but I was wrong. Every day was jaw-dropping to the point that the only words I said were “Oh my God,” and so when we got back into the car, I realized the dream had started, “…and this is only day one.” Sharon smiled, “And tomorrow we go kayaking through a canyon filled with glowworms guided by Lake District Adventures.”
After tomorrow, Sharon would remain in Auckland, and I would venture on, but first glowworms. Glowworms can be seen on New Zealand’s north and south islands. Two short trails may be accessed on the West Coast near the glaciers, but my first glowworm experience was kayaking on the New Zealand North Island.
To witness this natural illumination, means being active and navigating in the dark. When the moon is bright, the glowworms’ light is diminished, so on the darker, visible nights, it’s best to carry a headlamp to stay on track. Patches of lights catches the eye, slightly hidden or on full display on a rock or tree. Rainy nights are great too, which I experienced on the West Coast, but it was a clear, dark night with the Southern Cross constellation overhead while kayaking. Just an hour earlier, I passed a flock of black swans before entering the canyon where I was surrounded by lush, untouched jungle, dating back to the dinosaurs. ‘Wow’ gasped from lips as a broken record. What a special place. How grateful I was to be here.
Mt. Cook and the surrounding ‘FernGully’-like rainforest on the New Zealand South Island is what drew me initially to New Zealand. Rows of large ferns nestled in rocky, rich soil near flowing water among a dense canopy of trees. The beauty of the West Coast was more specular than I had imagined. It was overwhelming. The Franz Joseph Glacier and neighboring Fox Glacier are stunning and visible from a variety of access points, including the road. It’s extremely rare to have such accessibility to a glacier, let alone two, and witnessing their transformation under rising clouds to blue and pink skies, felt like being the womb of mother earth. A force far older and wiser than I that surrounded and penetrated through the outer layers; it was protecting and nurturing. The oxygen was exceptionally invigorating; delicious, like inhaling ambrosia or some Godly, revitalizing nectar.
Many trails exist in the area, and no matter how far I traveled on one, I would be sure to take a number of deep, sweet conscious breaths. I hiked nearly every day, often multiple trails, and yet there was more to explore; daylight and physical speed has limits of course, but part of the mystery of adventure is that I don’t know exactly what will happen. Weather changes a lot on the West Coast, so it works to be flexible. The many, many helicopter tours are weather-dependent, so I booked two different days, and easily canceled the unused trip.
Rescheduling a 4-wheel, ATV ride for the following day was also no problem. The area exists solely for tourists, so if it’s possible, they will accommodate. Clear communication on what’s needed, etc. benefits everyone, so speak up and ask questions. If physically possible and within budget, get up in the air somehow for the birds-eye-view experience of the glaciers. The ATV ride is certainly not for the weak-handed. Even though I’ve driven an ATV several times now, the route I did was by far the rockyest and most challengeing ones yet, and included a lot of stopping to physically adjust myself.
When I finally arrived in Fiordlands National Park, I was in a comatose of loveliness, and there was still more beauty to behold. Every turn on the road was scenic with the sun and bright blue river peeking in between layers of lush greenery, and then golden valley meadows would be dramatically contrasted by surrounding dark-blue mountains. Lakes, streams and waterfalls flowed plentifully. I imagined what it was like in the park during the rainy season; it’s not open during the rainy season. A few short trails and points of interest are right off the road, and it’s often best to go early in the morning or late afternoon after the tour buses from Milford Sound are well off the road. One of my favorite trails was along a short boardwalk called the Mirror Lakes Walk. Getting to Milford Sound, a special scenic part of the park, is an all-day journey. A limited number local, pre-approved vehicles (mostly buses) are only permitted to drive on the road at a certain point, so plan transportation in advance. If you cannot walk up a few steps, like myself, the only way to get there by land is to hire a driver with an electric car, then people get on a boat to see the Milford Sound. The most wheelchair friendly boat I found was called the Cruise Milford.
Helicopter tours fly in and out of Milford Sound from Queenstown, but if you can’t make it, then maybe you’d be interested in learning about New Zealand agriculture by exploring the farmlands. Just outside Te Anau and Queenstown is the countryside, and in between is a lovely little town surrounding Lake Wanaka with a bordering, paved pathway. Just beyond the lake on the sloping hillsides, is where Wanaka Paragliding takes flight. Michael Mildoon, my tandem pilot for paragliding, has a lot of experience flying with people who have a spinal cord injury. Making Trax, Jezza Williams, is a regular with Wanaka Paragliding, who has successfully completed many solo flights.
Hiking and driving around New Zealand is one of my most cherished moments, and the natural beauty is undeniably overpowering and unforgettable. When I was planning the trip, I saw many photos and videos, but the magnitude of nature cannot be felt in a frame on a screen, pixilated to perfection. Nature has to penetrate your being. You have to experience it. The amount of New Zealand natural beauty far surpassed my ability to capture it on camera, despite taking over three-thousand photos. I was hit hard every single day, on every road, with a divine feast for my soul. Sometimes the river floods and sometimes the lakes run dry, but not matter the season, I am dazzled and inspired by nature.