Part 2 – The Traveller
“There is no need to rush. What is meant for you always arrives on time.” ~Frachella
The second part of this series is dedicated to how travellers can benefit from Slow Travel. To begin, allow me to paint a picture for you…
Setting the stage
You’re at a sporting event about to watch your favourite team play a highly anticipated match. However, this time, you were lucky enough to score VIP tickets for a private box. You and three of your friends have a room with a window all to yourselves. As you look around, you marvel at how cosy it is. Everything you need is right there, it’s quiet, and you don’t have any heads obstructing your view.
After a little while, though, you can’t help but feel like something’s missing. “Drinks? Tick. Toilet? Tick. Mates? Tick.” Slightly distracted from the event, you try to place a finger on what else you could possibly need. Suddenly, it happens! Your team scores! All four of you are on your feet cheering while the thunderous applause of other fans can be faintly heard, muffled behind the glass in front of you.
That’s it! That’s what’s missing! In this box, so much may be at your fingertips, but you’re separated from everyone else. In fact, being in a VIP box is starting to feel pretty similar to watching the game in your lounge room. What’s missing is out there with the people, in the cheap seats. The buzz! The energy! The vibe! The roar of the crowd in your ears, bumping into others, giving high-fives to strangers. That’s where the magic is! Up there in your little box, you’re only witnessing the event, not taking part in it.
Applying this to travel
Over the years, this country has been getting busier and busier, with people cruising around in camper vans of all shapes and sizes. Small numbers of friends, couples and families following the steady current of tourism that flows quickly along the winding roads of NZ and trying to squeeze it all in. Enjoying the views from a window or pulling over quickly for a photo and another box ticked, as if taking part in some unspoken orienteering competition, great distances are covered, and much is taken in. Sadly, though, even more is missed. Plenty more.
Campervans are starting to take on the role of private boxes on wheels where, behind glass, we see tourists who spectate rather than travellers who participate. Don’t get me wrong, having owned several vans in NZ and elsewhere, the appeal is understandable. However, racing from one spot to the next in a mobile apartment and taking photos for absent people certainly leaves little opportunity to engage with those around you. Meeting other travellers on a similar mission is one thing, but how many people truly get to know the folks that inhabit this spectacular country?
Time to get personal
Having chosen a path of travel myself, visiting and living in many countries over the past two decades, I’d like to share some personal moments highlighting Slow Travel’s positive impact on my life.
In the beginning, my travel CV was an empty page. Meanwhile, the list of things I wanted to see and do was longer than the runway from which my first flight departed. I was going to visit every little bit of every country on Earth, and in record time. The size of our planet and the scale of my expectation hadn’t fully registered until I reached my furthest point from home at the time and decided to ring my mother.
It was Wednesday in Australia, and I had just finished lunch. I hurried to the nearest payphone and punched in the numbers on the back of my international calling card. Remember those? As the phone rang, my mind raced, trying to decide which stories to fit in before my credit ran out. It had been a few months since we last spoke, so needless to say, Mum was both surprised and happy to hear from me. About to unleash a verbal cascade of storytelling, I was suddenly met with, “It’s nice to know you’re okay. Do you mind calling back another time, though? I’m just watching the season finale of Survivor, and then I’ll go to sleep.” Of course! I hadn’t considered the time change. It was Tuesday night in Canada, and it was getting close to bedtime. Home suddenly felt very far away.
I won’t bore you with my travel biography here – that’s what I have a personal blog for. What I will divulge is that I never did fill my passport with entry visa stamps, nor have I visited every continent, let alone every country. Yet, nearly 20 years after the ‘Survivor Awakening’, I’m still on the move, as slowly as ever. In fact, at the rate I’m going, which couldn’t hold a flame to a snail’s pace, the initial goal of a naive young man setting out to see and do everything will most certainly go unreached. And guess what… I’m absolutely fine with that! The experiences I’ve had along the way have been so enriching that I wouldn’t change a thing.
Now, most people reading this have not opted for a vagabond lifestyle, and this is not intended to try and convince you to do so. Instead, I’d like to share a bit of my Slow Travel experience in New Zealand and describe how it has benefited me.
Preparing for NZ
Wanaka – that’s where I was headed. As a self-proclaimed ski bum, Wanaka was my holy grail. I’d get a bar job at night and ski every day, just like I did in the Canadian Rockies years before. That was it. Aside from bungee jumping in Queenstown and skiing in Wanaka, I hadn’t looked into the country much at all. Well, I did borrow a Lonely Planet: New Zealand from the Whistler library once. However, I didn’t get past the front cover displaying a Maori man in a poncho riding a horse along a beach with a surfboard under his arm. If I had a chance, maybe I’d try following in his footsteps because that looked pretty cool. But first, the list. Wanaka, here I come!
Fast forward to having nine years of living in Aotearoa under my belt, and not only have I never skied in Wanaka, but I’ve never skied in NZ full stop. I’ve never lived in Wanaka, bungee jumped in Queenstown or ridden a horse along a beach wearing a poncho with a surfboard under my arm. So what happened? I stayed flexible. That’s what happened!
Here’s a little secret: If you create your own travel list, you have every right to amend it as often as you like. Better yet, if you forgo the list altogether, it saves the trouble of making changes along the way.
What did I do instead? Too much to list here. My three most notable experiences, though, were falling in love with the ocean, finding a new home in New Zealand, and discovering a community on the West Coast that helped shape who I am today. I came to NZ with a one-year visa, stayed for nine, and now have permanent residency. I came to Glacier Country for a seasonal summer job and stayed for five years. Now, when I say I’m homesick, this is where I’m referring to.
Being welcomed to Glacier Country
It was a Friday evening when I pulled into Franz Josef. I’d been there briefly before with a friend, but we made the common mistake of rushing through, so this felt like the first time. I checked into a campground and asked where I could go for a drink and meet some locals. After explaining I’d be starting work the next day, I was kindly recommended to go to The Landing, where my new bosses would probably be. I wandered up the road, walked up to the bar and instantly got into a lengthy chat with the barman who had lived in Canada and was excited to meet me. Then, I went outside and came face-to-face with the couple I’d be working for, whom, prior to this, I’d only met on a video call. They invited me to join them, introduced me to several people coming and going from their table, and by 07:00 am the following day, people were saying hello from across the street as I walked to my first day on the job. Wow! I instantly felt like part of the woodwork.
It was hammering down with rain when a friend and I pulled into Okarito the following year. I had no idea who my landlord was, where I would find the house I’d be renting, or how I’d get inside once I found it. We stopped near a bach where four men were watching rugby. About to knock, I heard, “Just come in.” Completely unphased by the soaking-wet stranger with a foreign accent standing before them, they thought hard about how I could get into my new house while keeping their eyes fixed firmly on the television. They didn’t have an answer, but they welcomed me to the village all the same.
We tried a second house. This time, I was greeted at the door by a smiling stranger who, unbeknownst to me, would become a dear friend. “You must be Mike. You’ll be working as a kayak guide in Franz and renting the yellow bach. I’m Ian, pleased to meet you. That’s your place over there, and the key will be under the little cup on the shelf. We’ll see more of each other. Welcome to Okarito. Sing out if you need anything.”
The rain stopped a few days later, but not before a sack of dry wood magically turned up on my doorstep two days in a row. It wasn’t until the following summer that I found out who the good Samaritans were. A similar thing happened with a bag of apples, but I never did figure that one out.
The storm and the community
The cyclone hit just after lunch. Trees were literally snapping in half and flying through the air. It was a Thursday, and there was no way I’d be getting back to Okarito, so some friends offered me a bed in town for the night. After ensuring everyone was off the roads and tourists had a roof over their heads, we went to the local Four Square to get some provisions. Oh no! My wallet was in Okarito. “No problem at all. Grab what you need. We’ll keep track in the office and pay when you can once the roads open back up.” How’s that for smalltown trust?
The next day, teams of locals – some paid, some not – worked until the roads were cleared so we could check on people who we knew would be isolated. We made it into Okarito by Friday afternoon to learn that much flooding had taken place, and the villagers had come together with tools and generators to minimise as much damage as possible. We found everyone smiling and talking in the street, happy the storm was over and enjoying the sunshine.
The power would be out for a few more days, which, in a remote location like this, is bad news for food stored in fridges and freezers. Not to worry, though. On the West Coast, people are used to such situations. The following evening, we piled into the community centre – Donovan’s Store – for a potluck dinner. Better to share and be social than let everything go to waste.
These are but three events of many that I experienced in South Westland and my life in general. What’s one thing they all have in common? Each took place over the course of only a few days.
Take a moment to think about that.
Are you following me? You don’t need to travel for 20 years or live in a place for a long time to make memories like this. You just need to be open, and in order to be open, you need to pace yourself. I could write about travelling until my hand falls off, but there’s no need. The best stories have all happened in very short windows—just a few days if that.
Want to get the most out of your travels?
Avoid too much expectation. Have a list of ideas, not plans. Remain open. Slow down. Talk to the locals. Participate, don’t spectate.
Had I stuck with the original plan of doing a ski season in Wanaka and then moving on to another country, I would have missed out on so much. In the end, I may not have found fresh powder, but I found a country I’ll forever refer to as home and a community that will always be a part of me.
My first time in Glacier Country was a blur because we were in a hurry. Little did I know it’s so much more than a quick stop along the way. Luckily, I had a second chance to find that out. Don’t make the same mistake because second chances are often few and far between.
I was born abroad, but I grew up on the Coast. Slowing down will never be something I regret.
Until then, take it slow.
Blog written by Mike Bilo
Mike Bilodeau is a content writer for eco and sustainable tourism operators. He’s an advocate for Slow Travel and is currently making his way slowly around Europe with his dog.