The Arahura was late. I had already been waiting in the terminal for over 4 hours. I was hungry and eager to board the ferry which would bring me 3 hours across the Cook Strait to the port town of Picton on the South Island.

I had to make it to the South Island tonight. The Crakers were expecting me to arrive in Christchurch tomorrow. I was a stranger to them—a solo female traveler whom they were entrusting with their pets, home, and vehicle for a week while they took a trip to Australia.

For the first time in weeks, I was without the company of other travelers. I was ready to make my own way from one island to the other. Little did I know, the experience getting there would be yet another example of the benefits of solo travel: Doors otherwise closed suddenly open.

Boarding the ship

I was 6 weeks into my travels around New Zealand with 1 house-sit and 3 back-to-back road trips with other travelers already under my belt. I was looking forward to house-sit number 2 and more road trip shenanigans with new friends ahead. But just for now I was glad to be on my own. I wanted a respite from socializing with other travelers.

Finally, at around 8pm, they allowed passengers to board the enormous Interislander ship docked and waiting. I was among the first to walk up the gangway and enter on the starboard side. The air smelled a bit stale—this is an older ship.

Although there was only the one level to walk on, the Arahura was enormous at over 145m long and 20m wide. There were signs for a lounge and cinema, a café and bar. Arrows directed passengers to the front and back of the deck. Doors leading elsewhere read “Crew Only.”

I’ve been on board boats my whole life which may be why all of the passenger-designated areas seemed a bit too cruise-ship-like and “arranged” for me. Instead, I propped myself outside against the port side railing for a while.  I figured I’d find somewhere to sit down and relax later—at least until after we pulled out of the slip and away from the docks.

I gazed down from several meters high. Men in orange suits walked back and forth across the dock below waiting for signals from the vessel crew. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a figure gazing at the docks from the deck above.

I didn’t want to stare, but from a quick glance he looked like he was dressed in civilian clothing. I turned around and saw stairs going up to him. They were chained off: “Crew Only.”

Another glance up his way and now he was looking straight at me. I smiled and then looked back to the docks. He was a man in his 40s or 50s, shaved head and lots of thick tattoos on both arms. Only one thing popped into my head then. Shifting my eyes back up his way, he stared right back at me. I cupped my hands around my mouth and shouted: “You look like a pirate!”

He put his hand to his ear with a quizzical look. I repeated. This time he heard and was on his way down the stairs with his flip flops flip-flopping under him.

“Hi, I’m Les.”

“I’m Rikka.”

“Where ya from, Rikka?”

“New York. What were you doing up there? Do you work on board?”

“Yes. I’m off tonight. I’m the foreman.”

The ship began moving slowly out into the bay.

An invitation behind closed doors

I told him about my experience boating and fishing back in New York, and he shared some insights into the ship. In operation since 1983, Arahura is the oldest of all the ferries making the trip across the Cook Strait—“…and it has the most elderly crew,” Les chuckled.

He went on to tell me about its 550-passenger capacity and the over 125 vehicles it carries including the rail tracks below deck set up to take train wagons back and forth. I never even considered trains to be something the ferries could or would carry. “Come with me, I’ll show ya.”

He led me passed perplexed passengers through a large metal door marked with one of those “Crew Only” signs. Down stairs that clanged underfoot, we pushed through more heavy doors and then wove between passenger vehicles. After another flight of stairs, we made it to one of two rail decks. Embedded in the floors, tracks were laid to hold nearly 25 wagons. I was so enthralled I had to resist being a touristy type and kept my camera tucked in my day pack.

To my surprise, the tour continued. Next, he showed me the crew’s living quarters, lounge, gym and galley where we sat for a while. He offered me tea and biscuits (my growling belly was very happy at this). We talked about life and New Zealand as we waited for the captain to clear the way upstairs. Then he took me up the elevator to the bridge.

The Captain’s chair

As we entered, the watchman peered back at us from behind binoculars pointed out the front windows. “Ey Les.” The first mate looked over his shoulder at us, too. He stood left of the captain’s chair—which was empty. Les gestured, “Wanna sit?”

“Really? I just shouldn’t touch the red button, right?” I joked.

“Gotta camera?”

Yes! I didn’t even have to suggest it.

After that, I kept the camera out and he happily took more photos, too. The watchman gave me the binoculars to look through. “See the other ferry coming back this way?”

“Yup.” I followed the horizon from the left of the other ferry searching the waters for any signs of life. Just a few hundred meters out I caught something splashing in the sunset. “I think there are some whales out there.”

Nobody responded so I just shrugged and handed the binoculars back. Les led me out to the catwalk on the port side of the bridge for some shots of the sunset.

It was a beautiful summer evening just 3 days into the New Year. I felt lucky to be having such a unique experience while other passengers were downstairs purchasing their coffees and socializing in lounge chairs, confined to a single deck.

Les and I were on our way back inside to the elevator when the watchman announced, “Hey we got humpback whales out the starboard side of the incoming vessel.”

“I know!” I said. We all laughed. I guess they underestimated this random tourist girl’s watch skills!

Arriving in Picton

Les and I stayed below decks chatting for the remainder of the ferry’s course to the Picton terminal. I finally learned the reason the ship had been late into Wellington. Les grumbled when I asked. Apparently it was another ship’s fault—one of the newer ships had something break down at the terminal. It couldn’t leave the dock so there was nowhere for Arahura to land and pick up additional passengers.

“It’s time.” Les said. Wow, three hours flew by. “Let’s go watch us dock.”

We went up to the top deck to view the trucks leaving the ship. Facing the stern, we looked out at the Northern fjords sheathed in darkness. Lights from the Picton terminal twinkled into view and Arahura backed into the slip smoothly.

“Well, it was nice getting’ to know ya, Rikka. Give me a ring when you come back this way.”

“I most definitely will! Thanks for the tour!” Les unchained the stairway and saw me off down the gangway.

My overnight stay

I found baggage claim and picked up my backpack and extra suitcase holding my camping essentials: tent, sleeping bag, bed roll, and stove. I had to ditch the rest of my gear in Wellington because I didn’t sell it in time. What I needed to keep was already weighing me down enough.

Luckily, a free campsite was just a couple hundred meters from the terminal. I walked down the street and into the open park. This was only the second time I would camp alone. The first was the night before I picked Erin up from the airport—only a few hours of rest at a beautiful boat reserve camp near Auckland. This time, it was nearly midnight and I had to set up my tent in the dark.

For breakfast the next morning, I ate biscuits from a packet Les had given me from the galley the night before. I probably would have gone without breakfast if it weren’t for him!

The sun was bright and blazing as I packed up the tent. The South Island was under my feet and I couldn’t be happier after the experience I had getting here the night before. For a most literal interpretation of the quote: what counts really is the journey, not just the destination. Being solo to start my travels here was already bringing with it great surprises. I could only imagine what was ahead!