What in the world did I just get myself into? The thought crossed his mind, but Drew Port had already booked his flight to New Zealand and enrolled in the University of Auckland. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision, but he doesn’t regret his decision to study abroad. Drew’s days consisted of class from Monday to Thursday, road trips on the weekends and even a side trip to Sydney and Tasmania, Australia during a break.
I asked Drew some questions about the life of a Kiwi in Middle Earth. Here’s what he had to say about his semester abroad thousands of miles from home:
Q: If I’m headed to New Zealand, what are the can’t-miss sights and activities?
A: There are more can’t-miss sights and activities than I could even try and list here! I will narrow it down to five of my favorites however.
- The Tongariro Alpine Crossing: A half-day walk through Tongariro National Park (most famous for the location of Mt. Doom in Lord of the Rings). We started our walk under the starry sky around 4:30am and trekked the 19.4km path through volcano passes and sulfur pools in the first half of our day — don’t forget to check out Tawhai Falls (Gollum’s Pool) while you are in the park and take a leap off of the waterfall if you need to cool down after a long day’s hike! This is a classic great walk of NZ and is worth all the time and energy to complete it.
- Aoraki / Mt. Cook National Park: When I think about my time in NZ, this is the first image that comes to my mind. Everything about my visit to Mt. Cook was incredible, and it is by far my favorite experience from my time abroad. The drive to Mt. Cook Nat. Park is stunning on its own; make sure to leave enough time to pull over and have some fresh salmon from a local farm by the crystal blue water of Lake Pukaki. The most popular walk is the Hooker Valley Trail, which is a flat boardwalk through the valley offering stunning views. If you like to take the road less traveled, however, I recommend taking a walk (climb) up the Mueller Hut Trail and spending the night on top of the glacier. We were treated with stunning moonlit views of Mt. Cook and the valley as well as an incredible sunrise from the top of a glacier. Make sure to bring crampons and an ice axe if you go in the winter!!
- Milford Sound: Fiordland National Park is probably one of the most pictured places when you think of NZ, and it definitely lives up to the hype. I had originally planned a sunrise kayaking tour of Milford Sound; however, when we arrived, we were in the middle of a torrential downpour! At first, I was disappointed that the weather had turned sour, but that thought quickly faded when I saw that all of the fiords had turned into absolutely immense waterfalls connecting the sky to the sea! Rain or shine, this is one spot you can’t miss.
- Arrowtown in Autumn: Now we can’t always pick the absolute best time for our trips, but if you ever have the opportunity to travel to NZ, I would recommend going in autumn. The hillsides of Arrowtown turn into a palette of yellows, oranges and reds, capped by peaks of white snow. It is hard to capture just how beautiful this little mining town becomes when the trees are turning! If you are all tired out from climbing and backpacking and the crazy adventure of travel, here is where you will want to curl up in a coffee shop and journal for a few hours. Bonus points if it is snowing!
- Mt. Roy: Another classic peak that has become pretty accessible to the general public. This peak overlooks the town of Wanaka and is accessed by a 16km winding road. During the day time, it is quite crowded and will leave you with big crowds in your pictures. To avoid, this we started our hike around 5 a.m. and reached the top for sunrise. Alone in the snow, we watched the first few rays of light burst through the clouds and light up the mountains in the distance. This walk was my second favorite view following Mt. Cook.
Q: What did you learn about yourself?
A: I learned that the hustle and bustle of constant adventure and travel isn’t as rewarding as it seems. There was a point in time where I thought that being a solo adventurer always on the move sounded pretty awesome; however, after doing this a bit in New Zealand, I have changed my mind. You absolutely learn a lot about yourself and how you function independently through solo travel, which is very important, but I think I have been designed to experience the world alongside my friends and family. Creating memories with the people I care about is where the real joy is found. At the end of the day, we come home from trips and go back to work, school, life. Looking through my pictures and videos all the experiences seem surreal and distant. What is concrete, however, is sitting down for lunch with my friends and laughing about the moments we shared together.
Q: What did this time abroad teach you about the rest of the world?
A: I learned that at the end of the day what everyone really wants is to be a part of something, to feel loved and to feel known. No matter the culture, age or language barrier, there are things in life that are universally true. I saw this in the relationships I built with my roommates, the conversations I had with classmates, the adventures I took with friends from the USA and the connections I formed in a local church.
Q: What was something that surprised you?
A: I was surprised at how many locals had never really been out of Auckland. In hindsight, it isn’t that surprising — there are a lot of people where I am from who have never traveled around the U.S. — but as someone visiting the country with the mindset of “I need to see it all!”, it was a bit shocking when I couldn’t find any locals who wanted to travel around all the time with me. In the end, I relied on my other study abroad peers as my main travel buddies.
The only thing Drew would’ve changed is that he would’ve stayed longer, much longer. Oh, and maybe brought a fan for New Zealand’s hot summer since the entire city had sold out of fans. “Like, how does that even happen!?” he says.
“Sometimes that change of environment is exactly what you need to solve a problem, figure out a plan or understand things differently,” Port says. “I didn’t go abroad seeking some life-changing self-revelation, but I did leave with a new perspective on people and relationships that I would never have had otherwise.”
All photos courtesy of Drew Port.