At long last, I was at customs about to leave Bangkok headed for New Zealand. I was in a strange place in my head, sad to leave Thailand behind after only one month there, but excited to be headed to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city.

My arrival to New Zealand happened to coincide with the premiere of the final Hobbit film. I chose Wellington as my destination city because it had been home to the film’s studio and workshop as well as the previous two film premieres. But just a few weeks before my scheduled flight, I learned the final premiere would be held in London instead. At first I was disappointed, but then I remembered why I had planned to visit New Zealand in the first place: to see the gorgeous countryside. So my plan was to get out of the city as soon as possible. Easier said than done.

Landing in the middle of Middle Earth

Like many around the world, the Lord of the Rings trilogy was my first introduction to New Zealand. When I watched the first of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films back in 2001, I was hooked when I saw those sweeping helicopter views of the snowy Southern Alps, the limestone boulders scattered across vast grassy plains, and the rolling green hills dotted with enormous oak trees. Now, I was peering out Air New Zealand’s window, getting my very first real-time glimpse of “Middle Earth”—the cliffs on the North Island’s western seashore.

 
 

Before coming to Wellington, I had already heard the city being referred to as “Windy Welly.” Winds sweep between the North and South Island and gust into its bay with alarming strength. Pilots who fly into Wellington airport have to be specially trained to handle the city’s insane winds.

I was impressed we landed as steadily as we did—I nearly blew off the stairwell as I exited the plane onto the tarmac! Regardless, I had arrived safely in the middle of Middle Earth. Literally.

Who needs a film premiere when the Wellington airport is there to welcome you with this huge display? I had to chuckle. And when I took the above picture, you bet I glanced around wondering if any Kiwis (New Zealanders) saw me take the photo like a nerdy tourist. I also had to wonder if Kiwis get sick of all the Lord of the Rings references dominating their country. Another example is Air New Zealand’s safety video—a hilarious, if not terribly embarrassing, mantra to the films that put New Zealand on the map.

After all the safety videos I’ve watched on flights on this trip, I have to agree, Air New Zealand’s is the most epic.

Finding accommodation

After weaving my way through the airport, I hopped on a bus and asked for the city center. I had to keep myself from wincing as I handed the bus driver $5. I had just given him two nights of accommodation in Thailand! Definitely strange to come back to the reality of Western prices after living so cheaply for a month.

Another distinction was the sparse options for accommodation. Every few steps in Thailand there is one guesthouse after another. Here, several blocks had to be walked between hostels which were 10 times the price and sometimes a tenth the quality. For instance, my assumption that cheap could still be nice lead me to Lodge in the City for my first night in Wellington. I had a mattress with springs poking into my back, the floors were stained carpets, showers had year-old mildew, and the bathroom was a swampy puddle. This was the cheapest hostel in town and it smelled it. For just two dollars more, I upgraded significantly the next night to Base Backpackers down the street. They even gave me a towel and soap at check-in—Oooo! My Eastern exchange-rate mentality faded quickly.

Planning to leave by camper van

A great part of the hostel experience anywhere is the postings on the billboards. Pretty much all Western hostels have one. I snapped a picture of these two for sale signs—a sleeping bag and a camper van—for reference later:

Camper vans are possibly the most common means of getting around New Zealand for the long-term traveler. Lots of travel blogs I had been reading in preparation for this trip said something along the lines of, “If you’re staying longer than two months in New Zealand, then the most economically efficient means of travel is to buy a campervan and sell it back before you leave.” I have a working holiday visa—good for one year of travel in New Zealand. In other words, I knew I was definitely in the market for a camper van.

I spent the following two days setting up my SIM card and phone account. I bought a Spark plan for $39 per month with 1.25GB data, 300 minutes, and unlimited text. Of all the companies and plans I considered, this one won me over. The best part is Spark allows 1GB of data use per day on their Wi-Fi network which is accessible all over the country (i.e., in towns and cities). Perfect for traveling all over once I got outside of Wellington. The talk and text were also important for speaking with local sellers and organizing to meet them for test runs of their vehicles.

After looking at tons of vans online—I realized one major thing about them: They were old (1992-1996) and most of them were high in mileage (200,000-300,000 km). Unless I was willing to pay over $5000 for a slightly newer one with lower mileage—which I wasn’t—I was going to be taking a huge risk. The car could end up with tons of problems, nickel and diming me until it completely kicked the can and then it’d be worth nothing once I was ready to sell it. Some dealers offer buyback deals—but even most of these offers were set above my budget.

I also realized something—if I get a van, then I’m stuck with it. I only really needed my own car for the next two weeks before I was supposed to meet a friend who was flying into Auckland. She and I could share the cost of a rental car during her 10-day stint, then I’d be at two consecutive house-sit jobs through the holidays and into the New Year. This meant I wouldn’t need a car for several weeks!

Furthermore, I might not stay in New Zealand for the whole visa term. I have Australia, Indonesia, Fiji, and other locations in my sights while I’m here. As much as a camper van would be fun and convenient, I didn’t want it tying me down. I decided the idea to get a camper van was a bit premature. Now I needed to figure out how to get out of Wellington without buying a camper van. It was already my third night in Wellington with no way out in sight. As beautiful as this port-side city was, I felt anxious sitting around with the rest of the country out there waiting to be explored.

Planning to leave—revisited

I contemplated taking a bus—but buses don’t offer the freedom I wanted. My ideal travel for New Zealand would be similar to my experience in Iceland—with the ability to stop on the side of any given road at any given time to take a photo or tramp into the hills or wander through the forests. Buses also only stop in major towns, but I wanted to camp across rural New Zealand instead of wasting money in hostels every night.

I managed to couchsurf for a couple of nights in Wellington with a really cool international couple (with a really cute cat named Latte), but couchsurf options were few and far between outside New Zealand’s major cities. Couchsurfing is also about meeting and getting to know the people (and their pets). At this point, I was more interested in meeting and getting to know the land.

In short, I had to either rent a car or camper van or find someone with one who was up for traveling together for a couple of weeks. A needle in a haystack?

My ticket out

As it turns out, I’m really good at finding needles and snatching them out of haystacks before others do. Many budget travelers to New Zealand find themselves in my same position—stuck and unable to get out of a major city to explore. But I was haunting all the right places online at all the right times.

In my search for a van, I had stumbled on a site called Backpacker Boards. This is a New Zealand-specific site dedicated to providing information and ads of specific interest to people traveling in New Zealand. Early the next morning, I checked the notice section of the Boards. A traveler, a 20-something German man, who was looking for a travel buddy had posted just 10 minutes earlier. He had bought a car and was heading North to Auckland. I gave him a call and found out he had to pick up a friend in Auckland around the same time as me! After exchanging some words and social media information, we planned to meet at Base later in the day.

And so my ticket out of Wellington was nearly in my hands, and an epic 15-day road trip with a German man was about to commence.