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Wellington, NZ

End of the line. For New Zealand, at least. Wellington is the southernmost tip of the north island and if you want to leave from here, it’s either head back north via car, head south via the ferry or head west via a flight. There’s part of me that would give up the rest of my trip to drive back north or cruise to the south Island, but that wouldn’t be fair to all of the other places we’ve got on this crazy trip of ours.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I want to point out that Wellington in and of itself is an incredible city. One that’s a bit different from Auckland, but distinctly the same culture. Wellington is to San Francisco as Auckland is to New York City. They’re all recognizably Kiwis, but they’re almost mirror images of themselves. That analogy plays out pretty well for the rest of the country, as well. Whereas the middle of the United States (where I’m from) is commonly referred to as “fly-over country”, you kind of get a sense that the folks from Auckland and Wellington think of the center of their country very similarly; a sort of
“drive-by country”.

Our hosts in Palmerston North provided breakfast and conversation–two of my favorite things– so we got a bit of a late start on the road to Wellington. It was the last trip we’d be taking with the only constant of the past few days–our rental car– so it was a bit of a bittersweet moment. That, of course, didn’t mean that we weren’t happy to be out of it when we pulled into Wellington (sorry, hatchback Toyota Camry).

Wellington, much like Auckland, is a city dominated by its harbor; the museums, the restaurants, the people, all seemed to be huddled around the mass of water. It’s pretty evident why: with tall hills surrounding the city and a deep blue water in its bay, it was tough to do anything but sit around in the perfect weather and drink a beer, while watching high schoolers practice crew near the shores.

One of the biggest highlights of Wellington is one that everyone says to go to: its museum. It’s one of the best at accurately recreating a country’s history in a fairly succinct manner. It did a pretty great job of telling us what we’d just seen on the drive down and putting it into some kind of context.

But since I was only going to be in Wellington for about 24 hours, instead of trying to fit everything the city has to offer into a constricted timeframe, Mike and I decided to just enjoy the weather and the people. We walked along the harbor and stopped at any food stand or beer joint that sounded good at the time. For what was ostensibly supposed to be a work day, it seemed like most people in the city were joining us.

Our final couch-surfing hosts for the trip lived just a few kilometers outside of Wellington. We approached with kids playing in the yard and several other people milling about the house. Our hosts were very gracious with their very large home and allowed several people from all over the world to stay at their place.

As we made our way inside, we quickly realized that this was going to be an experience unlike any other we’d had on the trip. Mike and I had been alone with our hosts at all our previous stops; this was going to give us an opportunity to meet some fellow travelers from all over the world. In the kitchen, everyone was pitching in to make dinner. Mike and I joined in, cutting vegetables and stuffing pasta. When it was all finished, everyone in the house– around 10-12 people– gathered around the table to eat the meal that we all had prepared.

Listening to stories of travels from everyone, made me realize how many different ways people go about doing this. We often talk about “traveling” as if it’s a singular hobby; something that fits some kind of mold. But in all honesty, traveling pretty much means whatever the individual doing it wants it to mean. Some folks were traveling for weeks in just New Zealand; bouncing back and forth between the north island and south Island. Some were staying in Wellington at the house for days on end. Some, like Mike and I, were experiencing Wellington as part of a much larger trip. No matter what the story, it was evident that everyone had a passion for traveling, whatever that meant to them.

As part of the group stayed upstairs to chat, the rest of us headed downstairs to a make-shift movie theater. Much like myself, one of our hosts for the night was a huge movie buff and used the opportunity of having lots of people in his house to either screen something he’d never seen or to show people something they needed to see. On the bill for tonight: Pacific Rim. One I’d already caught, but would gladly watch again.

As the night wound down and everyone started to get into their final sleeping places for the night, Mike and I were given a blanket and a pillow and offered one of the kid’s rooms. Because of some troubles with the ferries, there were many more people staying at the house tonight than normal, so there weren’t any more beds, sleeping bags, or sleeping mats. We’re pretty easy travelers, so we burrowed down on the carpeting of one of the rooms and slept with nothing but our blankets and pillows right on the floor. It was a bit different from the past few nights, but I can’t say I’d have passed up the experience for anything.

As morning rolled around, one of the girls needed a ride to the ferry. Mike and I were happy to oblige. She was a Brit who’d spent the past year in Australia and was touring New Zealand for a month before heading back to England. None of us had to be anywhere too early that morning, so the three of us took the rental car up Mount Victoria for some spectacular views of the city and then came down to eat breakfast and chat about our travels and where we’re going. Much like the people in the middle of the country were the highlight of that part for us, she and her stories were easily the highlight of our last few days in New Zealand.

It’s difficult not to think of my time in New Zealand as ending the same way it started; bookended by (arguably) its two greatest cities. We may be off to Sydney tomorrow for just a few hours in Australia, but it’s hard to imagine anything topping the people and the sights of New Zealand. Of everywhere I’ve traveled, I’d say it’s by far the most accessible for Americans to get around and enjoy themselves; if it wasn’t for the distance and price of a flight, I imagine that many people would have already done so. New Zealand may be a long way geographically from the US, but the Kiwis easily make you feel as if you’ve been one of them for forever. What more could you want from a trip?

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