It’s been twenty months since I left Canada, the country I'd called home for twelve years. I flew from Vancouver on a one-way ticket to Sydney, Australia on January 6, 2019. At the time, I was loosely considering three months of backpacking around Australia, ultimately intending to return to Vancouver.
Well, life happens so, in the end, I didn’t go home, instead booking another flight to another country: New Zealand. I arrived just after my 23rd birthday.
Again planning just to go for a short while, it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with this far-south country and I ended up applying for a working holiday visa on which I spent a year working and traveling. It's truly a brilliant scheme that allows young travelers the chance to see the world and make a bit of cash to fund that dream while they’re at it.
I explored the South Island on a bus tour for my first month in New Zealand, hiking, exploring, wandering, reading and discovering.
After that trip, I settled into to the rhythms of life in Kaikoura, a small town of just over 2000 people a few hours north of Christchurch, to work, ponder, reevaluate and figure out what I wanted from life. I settled into a steady pace of working in a restaurant in town in the day time, working (and occasionally managing!) a hostel in the evenings and exploring the surrounds and local wildlife in between.
Winter began to arrive in June, a month I have for my entire life associated with summer and, with more than three months of being in the same place, I became restless to travel again. A few weeks earlier, a Tinder match (you read that right) and a 4am conversation due to heavy rain storms lead to Nico showing up in Kaikoura to meet me. He initially booked four nights at the hostel I was working and ended up getting a job there, too. We spent three weeks together at the hostel getting to know each other.
The bug to travel didn’t go away and soon enough, Nico and I embarked on a chilly, beautiful, eye-opening and lesson-learning winter roadtrip around the South Island, sleeping in the car, bundling against the cold and taking in the gorgeous views. They say the best way to know if it'll work with someone is to travel together. I knew it would work from day one.
Having originally agreed that we would not be able to stay together if he returned to Belgium what with me being fairly fresh out of a 2 1/2 year long-distance relationship and not keen to do so again with someone I barely knew, we quickly realized how desperately we wanted to make what may well be a once-in-a-lifetime-sort-of-love work.
What ensued was four months of messages, video calls, struggles with spotty hostel wifi, thousands of photos and plenty of love. During this time apart, I returned to New Zealand to work in Wellington, the capital city.
In October, we realized that the excitement we had had when we first got together was fading - distance does that to the heart. So, instead of pursuing separate lives on opposite ends of the planet, Nico made the most incredible decision to put university aside for a year, get back on a plane to New Zealand and fly 19,000km to give this thing a go.
I picked him up at the airport, nervous, thrilled, unsure and absolutely beaming with excitement. Nico picked up some agricultural work in Martinborough for a few weeks in order to rack up enough time to be eligible for an extension to his working holiday visa and then we spent December together under the sunshine living and working in Wellington.
At some point, my parents decided that a year without seeing their only child was simply too long and so we booked tickets to California for Christmas. I was so lucky to spend the most magical time of year with the three people I love most in this world.
We returned to New Zealand in the new year, rented an apartment in Wellington (SO nice after living only in hostels for an entire year!), went back to work and enjoyed the city a little bit longer before our working holiday visas ran out. The biggest highlight of this time was buying ourselves a self-contained campervan which we named Bongo with the intent of taking her on a roadtrip around the North Island.
We took Bongo on a few test weekend trips around the Wellington region to places like the Putangirua Pinnacles and Castle Point.
In the beginning of March, just a few days before Nico's extension visa was due to run out, we packed our bags, moved out of our apartment, finished our final days at work and flew to Samoa for two weeks in the sunshine. It was around this time that the COVID-19 crisis was picking up, which made our trip to Samoa strange as we often found ourselves to be the only travelers at the various places we stayed.
We returned from Samoa two days before New Zealand closed the borders to all foreign nationals and entered into an unprecedented time of varying levels of lock down. New Zealand extended all temporary visas which would allowed us to stay put until late September. Initially, we spent the first few weeks in our van, social distancing as recommended. As the levels ramped up and level 4 lock down loomed on the horizon, we found ourselves struggling to find a more permanent place to spend what would be nearly two months of 'stay home'.
A phone call from an old colleague of mine saw us spend the first ten days of lock down living on her orchard, still in our van. A chance encounter at the local grocery store saw us move into a flat attached to a local's house where we enjoyed comfort, our own shower, privacy and wifi! We ended up living there for two months.
We had flights booked to Belgium at the end of April - this flight was cancelled as Emirates ceased flying and Belgium closed their borders, too. So, once lock down eased, we decided that, with no set departure date in sight, we would pick up where we had left off and moved back into our van to explore the North Island.
We spent two months on the road, traveling slowly, enjoying each place, feeling no pressure to rush on to the next thing and enjoying the fact that there were barely any other tourists with whom to share New Zealand's beauty in. We visited places that normally see thousands of people a day and would oftentimes be in the company of just a handful of others. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I'm so glad we decided to stay in New Zealand for lock down.
While on the road, we often struggled with not being able to plan or know what was coming next. We focused as much as possible on simply enjoying what was around us and taking it slow, but with the inability to work and the knowledge that our futures were entirely up in the air, it wasn't always as wonderful as our Instagram feeds made it seem!
So, when Nico applied and got accepted into university in Belgium, a dream of his for years, we finally had the timeline we had been hoping for. We had to be back in Belgium for September in time for classes to begin so we were subsequently able to start looking into flights, apartments and visas (for me as a British citizen and trying to navigate the complicated Brexit thing).
We spent the last two months of our time in New Zealand back in the flat in Carterton so we could organize our belongings accumulated over the past months (including 83 books?!), successfully negotiate the sale of our little van Bongo and prepare for what was to come next.
A few days before we flew out, we stopped in at the local hospital to get tested for COVID-19; Emirates required negative test results in order to be allowed to board the plane. And then finally, on September 8th, we flew from Auckland to Brussels via Kuala Lumpur and Dubai. The journey from our flat in Carterton to our AirBnB in Brussels took us 59 hours on a train, an overnight bus, another bus, three flights and another train. We wore masks the whole time and were knackered by the time we arrived in Belgium.
In the end, I traveled pretty much non-stop for 612 days between January 2019 and September 2020 while checking seven countries off my bucket list. It was an epic journey and I can't believe how much I've been fortunate to experience.
The current plans are to settle in Brussels for the next three years while Nico completes his degree, get jobs and have a place to call our own. We've got plenty of projects up our sleeves that we will be focusing on and the traveling won't stop - not by a long shot - as there's so much we want to see around Europe.
And then? Who knows!
We vlogged the entire experience of traveling from New Zealand to Belgium during a global pandemic for our YouTube channel - check it out below!