By: Anna Idler
Kathleen, Tess and I went to high school together at Gwynedd Mercy Academy almost ten years ago. Three girls from the suburbs, born and raised outside Philly. We were lucky to have traveled with family and friends growing up; all three of us even studied abroad in Europe during college. Fast forward to 2016, and the three of us were now on the other side of the world, following our passions for traveling in southwestern New Zealand.
I’d been telling Kathleen my plans to backpack through New Zealand before meeting my long-term travel buddy Rachel in Australia; since she had some time off from work, Kathleen decided to come with me for the first part of this trip. Before we even left, Tess was onboard to visit us in New Zealand and had her plane ticket booked for late March. She braved the nearly 24-hour journey to meet us for a week.
I haven’t sought out a walking stick on a hike since I was a kid exploring the perimeter of the duck pond in Valley Green outside Chestnut Hill. But hiking in Fiordland National Park on New Zealand’s South Island, I found myself scanning the ground like when I was 10. Tess, Kathleen and I were making our way along the Key Summit track within the national park, a trail that wound its way through a dense rainforest before opening up to stunning views of snowy peaks and alpine lakes.
Kathleen and I were telling Tess about all of the other incredible national parks we’d visited during our three weeks so far in New Zealand. Even though Kath and I were doing the same thing – hiking – in each park, the paths, trail terrain, landscapes, even the people we met on each trek, were all so different and exceptional.
“It’s like when you’re smelling too many candles and have to put coffee beans in your nose,” Tess said as we walked. “You need to step back, neutralize all of the parks somehow. Or else it’s impossible to compare them all.”
I’ve told Tess this often during our friendship: the comments she makes offhand without thinking are some of the most enlightening observations I’ve ever heard.
When you’re smelling candles you’re surrounded by conflicting smells. All are unique in their own way, but could have the tendency to blend together if you don’t take a second to breathe before you try and pick ones you like the best. New Zealand’s nature is like that. The numerous national parks, the unbelievable hikes, the massive mountains that cut through clouds, there’s so much to take in that it’s a sensory overload. The colors are bolder and clearer in this country and almost cannot be described. The air is fresher here. You can’t pick a favorite anything in New Zealand, because everything is bright and brilliant.
We finally reached the top of our hike and excitedly looked across the valley at the mountaintops, which were slightly obscured by a thin layer of fog. We spread out, each of us walking to individual spots to take in the panoramic views and coming back together to walk single file across a little walkway to the other side of the summit. We dipped our shoes in the sponge-like earth underneath the wooden path to test its texture and depth.
As we started to make our way back down, I thought of how lucky I was to be sharing this experience with two of my closest friends. I am a big believer in the importance of being alone. Chasing new adventures on your own is crucial to how we grow and come to know ourselves; it’s how we realize what makes us feel the most alive. But having great friends with you to take part in great moments, that’s just as fundamental.
I did find a walking stick, by the way. I ditched the sturdy stick at the small parking lot where we began the hike, leaving it near the sign pointing to Key Summit. We got into our car and started our journey back to our cottage. Three Philadelphia girls driving on the “wrong” side of the road in an exquisite country none of of have ever explored until now; we were a long way from home, but found familiarity and comfort in each other.