I’m sat in a cafe in Wanaka and I realise it’s the same cafe where I met a guy called Johnny, on my first trip to New Zealand back in 2014. I’m actually sat at the same table; coincidentally the only one free.
As I sit down I wonder where he is now.
He was wearing a camouflage jacket, and had mischievous twinkly eyes, a beard and a wonderful Irish accent. I have no idea what I was wearing, had messy hair and wasn’t really encouraging conversation. Marsha and I were having quite an in-depth discussion over a beer, I can’t remember exactly what about but probably relationships or travel or what she wanted to buy (but didn’t need) from the op shop up the road.
We discovered we’d both travelled to the same countries in South East Asia within weeks of each other in the previous few months, and swapped some stories like travellers do, bonding over tales of amazing food, culture hits, squat toilets and 24 hour bus journeys. A desperate need for Marsha to buy some cigarettes before the shop closing time and a lack of either of us wanting to stay out late meant the night was cut to a mildly disappointing end.
Heading to the shop, we bumped into him again while I was head first in the chip section wondering what late night carb snack I needed to smash in my face. “Fancy seeing you here, HAHAHA”. Classic.
“He was quite nice” I remember commenting to Marsha, but like many interactions when travelling, was likely be fleeting and insignificant, consigned to the buried memory depths over time.
Arriving back in Queenstown, at the hostel we’d come to consider our temporary home, my heart did a little flippity-backflip at the sight of a camouflage jacket outside the front door. “Hey….it’s the Irish guy…!” I shouted, probably a little too loudly and a bit too excitedly. Way to play it cool. “Fancy seeing you here”. Actually a genuine statement this time, of all the hostels in Queenstown, he’d ended up at this one. Because no, we hadn’t told him which one we were at.
I’d actually planned to leave Queenstown that night and head up to Glenorchy, but I was pursuaded to change my mind and go for another night out, this time avec Irish guy. A classic Queenstown night out followed, and we went for breakfast (actually, I think it was brunch) the next morning. Realising we were both going to be heading in the same direction, we decided to go for a short walk around Lake Wakatipu and then travel up to Glenorchy together, camping at Twelve Mile Delta on the way. The short walk turned into about 14 miles because we got so immersed in conversation which flowed like an overfilled bath.
We bought beers despite the mild hangovers and both drove to the campsite, where it started to spit with rain. He had a campervan, I had a tent and a truck.
He flipped the boot of his van up and we sat on the back sheltered from the rain, beers in hand, chatting about life, travel and the stars. “Why don’t you just sleep in my campervan instead of having to put your tent up in the rain?”
Flippity-flip. “Sure. Why not.”
For the next week and a bit we talked. We walked. I never put my tent up once.
We camped next to lakes and played ‘hit the stick’ for hours. We laid and watched the stars through the glass roof of his camper. We cooked out of cans and drank black tea. We laughed until our bellies hurt. He told me all about his hometown of Portrush and the Giants Causeway. I introduced him to walking and my love of trees. He talked and I listened. I talked and he listened. We sat on the jetty in Glenorchy in the afternoon sun for hours, looking at the mountains in comfortable-as-old-slippers silence. We marvelled at Milford Sound and it’s waterfalls and dolphins. We ate the best pies in Te Anau. We watched the sky turn every colour of the rainbow at sunset.
It’s easy to romanticise these things, but it’s exactly how it was.
We knew we’d be travelling in different directions when we got back to Queenstown. It was always only ever going to be what it was. Towards the end of our time together we both became distant.
He was struggling with just enjoying something that wasn’t going to go anywhere. I was sad it had to end.
He was preoccupied. I hadn’t really spoken all morning. He asked what was wrong. I said I was fine. I wasn’t. He wasn’t.
We could have had one more day together but I decided to say goodbye while it was still a good memory. I didn’t take his contact details. He asked for my email but I don’t know if he saved it. I never knew his surname.
Just Johnny the Irish Guy and a sublime week.