The Life of a New Zealand Backpacker

Sally, in short khaki shorts, climbing New Zealand’s Franz Josef Glacier.

“You all traveling together?” asks the waitress wearing a white blouse, clearing our tea cups and saucers. There is a collective nod amongst the four of us sitting at the faux wood table, old portraits of Greymouth’s city centre bordering the wall around us.

“Where you from?”

“Uh,” I volunteer. “Germany.” I point to Wiebke, a smiley environmental engineer taking a year off to travel Australia and New Zealand. “England.” I point to Michael, a tall and spirited university graduate on a spontaneous round the world trip. “Holland.” I point to Reiner, a curly-haired, sweet-natured university student taking some time to meet extended family in New Zealand. “America.” I point to myself, a sun-induced blonde and recently retired nanny ready to explore the islands of New Zealand, with the help of the touring Magic Bus.

“Wow,” she laughs.

So goes the backpacker scene. We all met a few hours prior, on the Tranzalpine Train from Christchurch to Greymouth, and are now fast friends, eager to share experiences – such as brewery tours, kayaking trips, and glacier hikes – yeah, an actual glacier.

Travelers from around the world come to Franz Josef, a village of approximately 300, for primarily one reason:  the large glacier wedged between a rainforest.

We are provided thick wool socks and heavy mountain boots that make me feel (and dare say look) like Lara Croft, especially in my short khaki shorts. Handed a blue raincoat and metal crampons, my fellow climbers and I are bussed to a park entrance – all that separates us from the ice is two kilometers of rocky streambed and dense rainforest.

Exhilarated by the sound of the water and the scent of the green, moss-ridden forest, I take heavy, purposeful steps, maneuvering atop craggy rocks and through narrow streams. I grip branches to climb small waterfalls and step over fallen logs.

Hikers climbing Franz Josef Glacier.

Finally, we reach the foot of the massive glacier, stretching upwards into the blue sky. A cool breeze comes off the jagged blue, white, and brown peaks as we attach our crampons and receive safety precautions from our guides – Greg and Robin.

“If you feel you can handle a bit more of a challenging, fast paced trek, join Greg in group one.”

After my rousing rainforest trek, the Lara Croft mentality is full-fledged.

“Heck yes!” I am thinking. “Group one, baby!’

After I have committed to group one, Greg reminds my fellow climbers and I to “hang on to the rope palm up. Don’t go off my course – you might fall through a crevasse, through a pool of water – they might look pretty.” I wonder if I should have joined those that did not overestimate their glacier-climbing ability.

Tense and a bit frightened, heaving myself up carved out steps, through turquoise and white crevasses, and past pools that may drop all the way to the rocky bottom of the glacier, I pound my feet into the icy stairs and slushy slopes, more forcefully than necessary. Michael, leading the group, asks Greg about his job like they are sipping coffee. In fact, I notice Michael saunters along, his red hair blowing as he turns his head to and fro, like he is wandering the halls of a museum instead of a dangerous and uneven block of ice and slush. So, I concentrate on his steps and finally, giving my knees a break, “let the crampons do the work,” as Greg instructs.

We take a breather near the top of our trek, a sizable bit of the glacier still extending upwards. Greg takes the time to shake our hands, asking our names and where we are from.

“Wisconsin,” a man wearing a Badgers hat says with a petite brown-haired woman beside him. “It’s near the top – middle – by Canada – not a lot of people have been there.”

Backpacker friends Michael, Sally, Wiebke, and Reiner.

“I’m from Wisconsin,” I wave from across the semi-circle of Germans, Dutch, and English.


“Small world,” says Greg.

I sit by my new Wisconsin friends on the bus ride home.

“Are you traveling alone?” the woman asks. “What does your mother think?”

“Where you headed next?” the man asks.

“We are headed to Wanaka,” I say, gesturing to Wiebke, Reiner, and Michael.

“Oh, so you’re not alone!”

We spend a few days in the lake town of Wanaka – kayaking, sun-bathing, cooking fajitas, and sharing a bottle of wine lakeside, as the sun goes down. And I learn in those few days that we backpackers do more than simply share experiences; we share bathrooms, sleeping spaces, meals, cell phones, moisturizers, milk, sunglasses, and unknowingly, our quirks, changing moods, and makeup free faces. A closeness and comfort that may take months or years to achieve is realized within days. With that, comes the bittersweet nature of backpacking – one by one, we move ahead or stay behind, embracing and wishing safe travels. But often, as quick as new friends part, new friends are made.

I sit on one of eight beds in the hostel room, knitting a purple scarf. A card slips in and out of the lock outside the door. Oli, a blonde English boy, radiating with a natural and uncalculated kindness, smiles and shakes my hand, dropping a heavy pack and duffel bag. He is followed by a German lumberjack on holiday, Sebastian, complete with flannel shirt, suspenders, and rosy Santa-like cheeks. After five minutes conversation, they invite Michael and me for a lakeside dinner:  baguettes, salami, cheese, tomato, and a bottle of wine to share.