Ripple

It is not in sorrow that I am moved to speak or act, but in the beauty of what remains. -Terry Tempest Williams

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The most beautiful example of coral bleaching I’ve ever seen

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My happiest place

After a delayed connection followed by a frantic, sweaty run between airport terminals, Gary and I just barely caught our flight to Tahiti… only to have the plane get struck by lightening. Throughout all the turbulence and the loud flash/bang that struck the wing right outside my window, Gary remained completely unfazed, barely looking up from Keanu Reeves’ riveting performance in ‘Point Break.’ I, on the hand, squirmed and sweated while compulsively tightening my seatbelt, until the pilot  announced over the loudspeaker that we would be forced to turn back. After a night in a hotel and a long day twiddling our thumbs at the Auckland airport, we finally reached Tahiti at 3am, shuffling bleary-eyed off the plane into the balmy Pape’ete breeze.

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The Hilton Moorea

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Totally worth 48 hours of unplanned travel

The main impetus for the trip was to visit Gary’s Aunt Linda and Uncle Chuck, who have lived full-time on a sailboat for the past 14 years. Before staying with them we decided to mix up our normal dirtbag m.o., unable to resist a night in one of those Pinterest-worthy overwater bungalows. Using my extremely rusty French 101, I was successfully able to navigate us onto the correct ferry, and then to a bus bound for “Le ‘ilton.” For two nights we very much enjoyed an upgrade from the van, and the change from New Zealand’s arctic winds.

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Our favorite hotel of all time

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Spotted some crazy fish underneath our glass bottom bungalow!

Initially I was a little apprehensive about four people sharing a 39-foot sailboat for a week… but after living out of a mini-van for half the year, all the space felt practically luxurious. A bed with a real mattress, where we don’t have to fall asleep pressed shoulder-to-shoulder? A kitchen? The ability to sit up straight, or even STAND up?! What a treat! Another concern was the potential for sea-sickness, but I luckily had no issues, and at night the slight rocking motion actually helped lull me to sleep.

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Geez Moorea!

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Linda and Gary being the cutest

The whole trip was extremely relaxing, with the days spent rotating between eating, snorkeling and reclining around the boat, either reading, doing crosswords, chatting or playing cards. Most nights we were asleep shortly after 9pm, what Chuck explained as the equivalent of midnight for boat folks. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time life was so easy. I felt like I’d reverted back to being a child— no planning, no worrying about meals, and basically a giant cradle rocking me to sleep every night.

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Chuck and I living our best lives

 

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View of Tahiti from Moorea

The ease of this South Seas dream was entirely thanks to Linda and Chuck, the most gracious hosts imaginable. Since they’ve been in the area so long, and have such a presence in the boating world, hanging with them kind of felt like being part of a celebrity entourage. It wasn’t hard to see why they decided to stay in French Polynesia, the setting is pretty unbeatable. Their home is moored on a bay of crystal clear turquoise waters honeycombed by sunlight, with verdant, volcanic hillsides and palm-lined beaches for a backdrop. On top of all the natural beauty, there are also all the French goodies I love— crusty baguettes, buttery croissants, macarons that melt on your tongue, and a whole supermarket aisle devoted to stinky cheeses.

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Unreal

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My dream house

A week on the boat gave me a nice little taste of what the “cruiser” lifestyle is all about. You’re rich in time, and while there is plenty of idleness, there always seems to be something that needs cleaning, or adjusting, or fixing. You enjoy a great deal of autonomy and must be incredibly self-sufficient, yet at the same time, you also are a part of an extended, supportive global community made up of other nomadic boat-dwellers. Most of the cruisers we met were easygoing and cheerful — I suspect years in a confined space subjected to all kinds of weather helps develop that equanimity. Cruisers know one another by their boat names, and they all moor together just offshore, the equivalent of a gypsy camp at the edge of town.

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Pincushion sea star in my favorite color

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Made friends with these eagle rays

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Grandpa stingray

Living on a boat requires a great deal of ingenuity, with everything stored in its proper place, and no room for superfluity. Not everyone has the capacity for living together in such in close quarters, but for those that can it seems to foster a certain kind of interdependence forged by teamwork, effective communication, and plenty of patience. After watching Chuck and Linda for a week, I believe that the bonds formed in these kinds of conditions are as solid as possible for a human relationship to be.

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Cutie lil coral

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Hi!

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Took awhile but I eventually convinced this moray eel that we could be friends

Every day the highlight was always snorkeling. The coral on the outer edge of the reef spanned in all directions as far as I could see, gradually sloping down and disappearing into the deep, mysterious blue. Every so often this coral expanse was cut through by a little sandy trench, with all kinds of colorful fish using them as superhighways. In the inner, sheltered parts of the reef, the coral was close enough to touch, making it really easy to dive down to closely inspect wildlife. I loved having this little window to another world so accessible.

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Mind-blowing macro coral

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Besties

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Christmas tree worms!

The wildlife was pretty incredible, with plenty of aloof turtles, curious eagle rays, shy moray eels, regal black-tipped reef sharks, little spiraled Christmas tree worms, colorful big-lipped clams, and countless pairs of yellow butterfly fish flitting from coral to coral… I was in heaven. On our final snorkel, just as we were about to head back to the boat, I noticed a strange cloud of sand over the reef. When I swam over to investigate, I found a giant sting ray happily feeding on the sandy bottom. He let us swim with him for the next hour as he casually snacked across the reef, totally unbothered by our presence. After much debate we had opted not to do the sting ray feeding trip popular with tourists (even though we reaaaally wanted to!) since we weren’t sure if it was upsetting the ecosystem’s natural balance, so getting to swim up close with this big ol’ sea pancake was the greatest end to our trip.

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Big-lipped clam

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My favorite little patch of coral, melts my heart

The visit to French Polynesia was like living in a dream, and I feel incredibly grateful to have spent some time there, especially with the increasing destruction of our coral reefs both in Moorea and around the world. In the thirty days prior to our arrival, 50% of the coral around Moorea suffered from bleaching due to warming ocean temperatures. This warmer water also allowed for the mass spreading of an underwater weed (we kept calling it a turd plant, I never did figure out the actual name) that is now furthering choking off light to the the corals and preventing them from photosynthesizing. While coral reefs are only found on 1%  of the ocean floor, scientists estimate that they produce between 1/3 and 1/2 of our planet’s oxygen. We didn’t see a single section of the reef that wasn’t affected in some way, and it shocked me to see such an in your face example of climate change.

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Can you see all the bleaching?

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Purple pincushion and bleached out coral

From the death of reefs to the wildfires raging in California, the effects of global warming are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. It’s really easy to feel completely overwhelmed and powerless, especially because most of us have very little control over the way governments or corporations operate. However, I have to believe that on a planet with 7.7 billion people, if each of us takes a critical look, we all can find individual ways to reduce our impact. We all occupy different social, economic and geographic spaces, but we can still strive to be better in whatever ways are personally attainable. In turn, all these small, individual changes can add up to create a movement, leading to a mass cultural shift in values, which would ultimately compel governments and corporations to change their behavior as well.

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A clownfish hanging out in his newly bleached home

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Please know that as I write this, the environmental toll of all my flying is not lost on me. With time I’m realizing that travel isn’t actually what I love, what I actually value is how being removed from my usual routine allows me to be really, truly present. Presence is a skill I’m continuing to cultivate while I work towards shifting my lifestyle to not include quite so much motion. In the mean time, I plan on offsetting my carbon emissions from all flights here, and I’ll continue fixing whatever else I can. For me this involves reducing meat and dairy, avoiding excess packaging, using reusable utensils and water bottles, and avoiding new purchases all together, but when necessary buying used or from companies with a good environmental track record.

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A black-tipped reef shark cruising over a partially bleached reef

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I’m convinced that saving our reefs, our glaciers, our wildlife, and ultimately ourselves doesn’t require perfection. We don’t need flawless environmentalists, we need millions of us imperfectly making an attempt to do a little bit better. Collectively, we can all still try, which means that if nothing else, we all still have hope.

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Final sunset in Moorea

 

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Shelter from the Storm

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Beachy paradise found

‘Scuse the profanity, but goodness gracious great geezy peasy, this last week in Vanuatu was the best spontaneous decision I’ve ever made. To be honest, the stress of wrapping up our lives in New Zealand left Gary and I pretty exhausted, meaning that the trip was slightly ill-planned and under-researched. I’ve never flown to a new country knowing as little as I did about this one, and spent the flight frantically googling as much as I could about this South Pacific archipelago.

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Crazy plant lady

Port Vila is the capital, and the country’s largest city, but after landing we still had to find our Airbnb from written instructions due to a lack of a street addresses. After flagging down one of the numerous local buses (that really operate like taxis since they take you wherever you request), we were dropped off at “the bakery.” After sampling a croissant or two, we walked north while keeping an eye out for various landmarks, successfully reaching our little cottage for the night.

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But seriously

We were pretty sweaty and also pretty exhausted from our 4am start, but we resisted the temptation to nap and instead headed to the downtown area. Gary always strides along with purpose, a true New Yorker, and I’m constantly trying to convince him to slow to my California crawl. But here even while sauntering along the waterfront at my speed, we still found ourselves cruising along at three times the speed of everyone else. We were now operating on island time, a realization cemented when we found ourselves greeted over and over again with big friendly smiles, waves and warm hellos. I was instantly in love, and that first night all my stress seemed to simply melt away with the setting sun.

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Emua

After each sleeping for twelve full hours (!!!), we set off on another local bus to the village of Emua. On the drive we passed various billboards where I was able to see my first example of Bislama. Vanuatu is considered to have the highest density of languages per capita in the world, with over 100 indigenous dialects spread across the islands. While English and French are taught in school, Bislama is the common unifying language. Unfortunately I didn’t hear it spoken, but it was still really fun to read. On our drive we saw the following, see if you can translate: An ad for an off-road truck, “Numbawan, eni rod”; a billboard about no longer eating the endangered coconut crabs, “TABU”; an ad for a phone plan, “Wao! Tok mor!”; and on the door of the bus “Plis no sawam doa.”

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Best sunset of my life

Emua wound up being a little slice of perfection. Initially we thought we would use the village as a base to explore some of the smaller islands just offshore, but we wound up being too charmed to leave. Instead, we spent three days sleeping in a bungalow steps from the ocean and passing our time snorkeling, tide-pooling, napping in hammocks, and subsisting on a diet of peanut butter on crackers, paw-paw, pineapples, tubers and “tin meat.” I wasn’t in love with our roots and mystery meat from a can, but the pineapple was so sweet it almost tasted fake.

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There were so many of these funny little crabs, I named them water tarantulas 

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A little water snake also out exploring the tide pools 

The reef seemed a little over-fished, so while snorkeling we didn’t encounter much wildlife. Luckily, the variety of corals more than made up for it, I’ve never seen so many types of soft corals in all kinds of gorgeous pastels. The tide pools, on the other hand, were unbelievable. At low tide the entire shoreline was literally sizzling with life, I’ve never heard anything like it. The air crackled with the same sound as when you have a mouthful of Pop Rocks, a phenomenon caused by all the minuscule animal activity underfoot.

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First view of Yasur 

Feeling totally relaxed, we hopped on a short flight to Tanna to visit Mount Yasur, arguably the country’s main attraction. Mount Yasur is one of only six continuously active volcanoes in the world with a visible lava lake, and its relative accessibility draws tourists from all over the world. Driving across the island on the only dirt road everything was ridiculously green and lush, until we crested a hill for our first view of the volcano, its barren grey a stark contrast to the surrounding landscape.

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Skirrt skirrt, Mad Max, vrooooom

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I LIVE HERE NOW BYE FOREVER

After a bumpy ride we checked into the coolest place I’ve ever slept, a treehouse straight out of my childhood dreams. The afternoon was spent nestled high up in the tree branches, playing cards while watching shock waves roll through the smoke emitted from the volcano, the “boom!” rattling our ramshackle treehouse a few seconds later. That night we visited the volcano, and WAO, my mind was blown.

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Volcano post office!

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The crater

After a hasty safety briefing and a rough ten minute ride in the back of a pickup truck, we walked five minutes up to the crater rim. The lake is only visible from one particular place, but when you first arrive the sounds and the massive clouds of swirling smoke on their own are incredibly powerful. Far below, the rhythmic churning of the magma sounded like a cosmic washing machine. It somehow felt like witnessing the earth’s heartbeat, and without prompting the entire group began to speak in whispers, awed and humbled. That first night the wind wasn’t in our favor, so we weren’t able to see the lake itself. Still, the intermittent explosions sending chunks of flying magma high into the sky before they arched to the ground in apparent slow motion was like watching the world’s greatest fireworks display.

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River walk to the ash plain

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“Giant steps are what you take, walking on the moon…”

The next day we hiked through the river out to the eerie ash plain. With bizarre salmon-colored hillsides on one side, a smoking volcano on the other, and a flat, ash-covered landscape in between, it was like we’d somehow entered a portal to another world. That night we attempted to see the lava lake again, this time with success. Now situated on the other side of the rim, each unpredictable explosion blew my hair back, and lava bombs landed dangerously close to where we stood. I couldn’t take my eyes off the lake below, mesmerized by the frothing, golden waves of magma. When the guides told us it was time to head back down I could barely bring myself to walk away, I could have sat there all night, entranced. After one more sunrise visit the next morning, it was time to head back to Port Vila and catch a flight back to New Zealand.

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Mount Yasur just smoking away

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It was really hard getting a good picture on an iPhone, this was the best I could do, and it doesn’t really do it justice 

Despite how much I loved our week here, in actuality we barely scratched the surface. We didn’t have a chance to attend a meeting of the Jon Frum cargo cult, or drink the natural sedative, kava, and we only were able to visit two of the area’s 80+ islands. It’s tempting to say “next time,” especially since this trip piqued my curiosity about the many other Pacific Island Nations. The people in Vanuatu were perhaps the friendliest I’ve met anywhere, and I think I can safely say that the lava lake was the coolest natural wonder I’ve ever seen… which has me wondering what else is floating out in the deep blue sea, waiting to be explored.

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Volcano toilet 

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Aspiring volcanologists 

 

 

 

 

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Slip Slidin’ Away

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For me Yosemite has always been my gold standard for the best that nature can be, with Zion National Park close behind. The Milford Sound changed all that, and had me seriously evaluating if I’ve ever been anywhere more beautiful.

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Lake Gunn, on the way to Milford Sound

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On our way to Gertrude Saddle

The hike up to Gertrude Saddle was the highlight, although coming out of the forest to find perfect mountain reflections on the emerald Lake Marion wasn’t too shabby either. We opted not to do the boat ride around the sounds, in keeping with the theme of being hipster travelers, but the sunset from the dock was worth all the sandfly bites. Maori legend says that a god carved out the sounds with his spear, and when his wife saw how beautiful they were she sent sandflies to keep humans from forgetting their mortality, and I think that sounds about right.

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A close up shot of a kea from Gary the bird-whisperer

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Look how beautiful their wings are underneath!

From Milford area we drove back up to Queenstown, where I enjoyed having access to some city amenities (beers! hot showers! flat whites!), but did not enjoy the hoards of other tourists. We spent the week alternating between hiking and climbing as usual, with the climbing at Wye Creek being my favorite of the entire trip.

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Lake Marion

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Key Summit

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The Milford Sound

I knew our luck with weather couldn’t last for ever, and sure enough, once rain decided to settle in, it really stuck around. Almost overnight the weather turned, and stayed, apocalyptic, and there seemed to be nowhere to go to escape it.

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An attempt to show the fall foliage in Arrowtown, a cute, old-timey town just outside of Queenstown

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Remembering how to lead at Arawata Terrace

We did our best to make the most of things, visiting the Moeraki Boulders and Curio Bay in the rain, to see what looked like giant dinosaur eggs and great long logs of petrified wood embedded in the sea bed. Another day we attempted to walk to the lighthouse at Fossil Bay, and failed. Even with linking our arms and bending our bodies completely at a right angle we literally couldn’t move forward, the wind making it impossible without crawling on all fours.

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Moeraki Boulders

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Curio Bay

Abandoning our plan to try and find fossils on the beach, we instead drove to a different beach known to have the world’s rarest penguins. We hiked out to a viewing structure, rain soaking through two of my layers in the process. Luckily, within five minutes of searching I peered through the binoculars at what originally looked like driftwood and spotted a yellow-eyed penguin swimming up to shore. The soggy group cheered as we watched him waddling pompously towards his nest, the win we all needed to boost our spirits.

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I will miss waking up in places like this…

Realistically though, we were kind of stuck, the weather really putting a cramp in our style. After a week of feeling like I was on a boat and being unable to sleep from the wind rocking the van, we decided we’d had a perfect trip, but now it was done. In a decision perhaps brought on by the delirium of being stuck in a vehicle for days on end, we bought a last minute ticket to Vanuatu. The van is sold, our bank accounts are closed, and we fly out tomorrow. New Zealand was everything I always dreamt it would be, and I’m so grateful for my time here.

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Goodbye, New Zealand! You’re just the best

 

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Into the Mystic

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I love this picture, taken by my favorite travel friend out here, Alina. Check out her pictures on Instagram @alinasphotos for more New Zealand shots!

We’ve left the coast for the Southern Alps, and for me, this is where the country really shines. I thought the North Island was great, but now the South Island has me gasping and pulling the car over with each new bend in the road. It’s honestly like living in a movie, with the scenery just slightly too grand to feel real. 

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Autumn in Wanaka. I’m always too busy ogling the foliage to actually get a good picture, but hopefully this gives you an idea

Wanaka has been our base, the first place out here so far that I’ve felt I could live permanently. Fall seems like the best season to be here, with every tree around the lake changing color, and the golden hills and distant snow-covered ranges providing a stunning backdrop. With a reputation for being sport climbing heaven, and easy access to the mountains for alpine hiking, Wanaka was the perfect place for us to bounce between our two favorite pastimes. It’s really the perfect place for us in general, with Gary spending a lot of timing mooning over the perfect boulders and cliff faces, and me swooning over the foliage and impressive peaks.

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This has happened a few times out here and I love it so much

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Our plan was to do a short but steep hike to the Brewster Hut, but when we arrived and saw how close the summit looked behind it, we decided to go for it. See the little hut down below? See the way I’m lunging straight uphill? This wound up being a real Type 2 fun kinda day.

Our first day in town we woke up to rain hitting the van ceiling in the middle of the night. The weather delayed climbing, but it also meant that we got to wake up to the first dusting of snow on the surrounding mountain tops, a pretty nice silver lining. Rather than wait out the storm, we decided to chase the sun, and headed to Aspiring National Park with our friend from the North Island, Alina, to hike to the Brewster Hut for the day.

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Gorgeous, weird lil’ alpine plants

The Department of Conservation has a reputation for inflating hiking times, so when we saw that a less than two mile hike was supposed to take three hours, we laughed. And then, we suffered for two hours and forty minutes. New Zealand seems to not really have heard of switchbacks, which means that we were lunging and pulling on tree roots to propel ourselves straight uphill. It was absolutely exhausting, but once we were out of the forest the views of the Alps went on for days. Following a scenic ridgeline through golden grasses we at last arrived at the little red Brewster Hut, an absolute charmer, and the perfect place to rest on the porch while taking it all in.

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The Brewster Glacier? I think? I was so excited by this first close encounter with one of these big boys

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The summit! Peaks for days!

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“The longggg and windinggg rooooaaaad…” We didn’t get back to the bottom till it was very dark and we were very hungry.

Once we caught our breath, we realized that Armstrong Peak looked like it was just right uphill, close enough to tempt us. After calculating how much daylight we had left, we decided to go for it, our plan for an easy little day hike turning into an epic. Two hours of lunging up loose scree past glaciers (glassy-urs, as the Kiwis say) and a couple false summits later, we were at the top. After a quick snack with a view, we had to turn around to scramble down, reaching the parking lot after dark, hungry and tired and happy.

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Clay Cliffs! Fun little detour on the way to Mount Cook

Another detour from Wanaka was a night up in Mt. Cook National Park. Driving that morning we could barely see the highway through the fog, and the famous views of the mountains from Lake Pukaiki were nonexistent. We debated just turning around, but decided to at least drive in and hope the day improved. As we moved deeper into the park the fog began to lift, swirling orange and pink over the turquoise lake. As the sun rose, through the technicolor fog we saw glimpses of picture perfect Mount Cook in the distance, a totally surreal moment.

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Bluebird day out to the Ball Hut

 Being the hipster hikers that we are, we opted to do a day trip to the Ball Hut rather than the more popular Mueller Hut. As such, we were practically the only people on trail, walking in towards the snowy mountains alongside the massive, sediment-covered Tasman Glacier. I’ve always heard of native cultures referring to mountains as gods, and this was the first time I really understood. When we reached the little three-person hut, cradled by mountains on all sides, I practically wanted to fall to my knees. While Gary flirted with a falcon trying to capture the perfect photo, I lay on the edge of a cliff in the sunshine, taking in the views while listening to the glacier shifting below. The little crackles and moans and sighs drifting up felt like witnessing something sacred, like hearing the earth breathe, and I’m not sure I’ve ever felt quite so grateful and content. 

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I lazed in the sun listening to the glacier, while Gary chased a falcon and got this shot with the Tasman Glacier (covered by sediment) behind him

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Mount Cook! Where we slept for a night, and were treated to a sunset that lit up Mt. Cook neon orange. Also where we woke up with a flat tire. Paradise trying to keep us humble, I guess.

Perhaps my favorite hike of the trip was up to the French Ridge Hut. We woke up in the morning to the first frost of the season, and after trying in vain to scrape ice off both the inside and outside of the van windows, Gary drove with his head out the window to a patch of sun to thaw out. The day was totally clear and sunny, but painfully cold, the message loud and clear that winter had arrived. Gary opted to stay in town and climb, so after breakfast I set off with three friends for the night. After 30 kilometers of rough road and several sketchy river fordings in a nearly defunct mini-van, we made it to the start of the hike. 

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“The hiiiiills are aliiiiive!!!!” On the way to the French Ridge, before I knew about all the uphill waiting for me

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So. Many. Waterfalls.

The first half of the day was spent walking through a stunning valley, surrounded by countless waterfalls. As I picked my way across streams while walking through golden fields surrounded by snowy mountains, I felt like Julie Andrews, and had to stop myself from twirling through the meadow. After telling a crusty older local where we were heading, his only response was “You’ll live,” and I knew we were in for it. The hike ended with us racing daylight, rock climbing and pulling up on trees to slowly work our way uphill, making the Brewster Hut hike feel easy in comparison.  After two hours of brutal uphill I finally made it up above the tree line, where I crawled slowly uphill for one more hour, past frozen tarns, inch by rocky, icy inch.

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Chasing daylight and trying not to slip on all the ice and slide back down the mountain

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Mount Barff. Not pictured but nearby is Bonar Glacier. Heehee.

In the end, it was all worth it. I arrived crunching through snow patches to the hut just as the setting sun turned the surrounding mountains magenta. I kind of wanted to cry, the view was just so spectacular. The rest of the night was spent playing Monopoly Deal and chatting with our other hut mates, a group of kiwis who arrived in shorts and jandals an hour after I did, having completed the hike in about half the time it took me. This was also the best night sky of the trip, the stars and Milky Way made the cold trip to the outdoor toilet in the middle of the night worth it. 

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Arrived just in time to see the surrounding mountains turn the same color as the hut. Managed to put my bag down, pick my jaw up off the floor, and take this picture before the light completely disappeared

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“and i wake to a perfect patience of mountains”

After the hike back out, I was incredibly sore the following day. Gary and I flailed up some walls for a morning, until we decided that we were maybe, actually, finally all climbed out. After a late lunch, despite my aching legs, we hiked up for the sunset at Isthmus Peak. The 5 mile slog uphill paid off in epic views of Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka, the perfect way to end our trip. 

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Good morning, little kea! This was my first encounter with these infamous mountain parrots. They’re big (they nearly come up to my knee!), have a really sharp beak, and are both curious and intelligent. They have a reputation for stealing hiker’s shoes, lunches, even entire backpacks!

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Look hard and you’ll see the Liverpool Hut on the opposite ridge

It will be hard to leave, but after three weeks in the Wanaka area, it’s time. I’ve loved being able to spend so much time in places that make me remember how small I am. Despite feeling beat up and exhausted, we are rushing down to the Milford Sound to take advantage of a short window of nice weather. No rest for the weary just yet, but I really can’t complain. 

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Isthmus Point

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Too much

 

 

 

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Most of All

So far the South Island has been good to us. While the West Coast is famous for its rain, we were treated to perfectly sunny, crisp autumn days. In our three days exploring the area around Karamea, I saw more primary growth rainforest than anywhere else in the country so far. I loved being afforded a glimpse of what the entire country used to look like, and I was just about ready to pick one of the gnarled, mossy trees, build myself a little treehouse, and stay forever.

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My favorite kind of hiking

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This was a nice place to wake up

Aside from the giant granddaddy trees in Karamea, I loved the quirky town of just over 500 people, and how easy it was to find areas to freedom camp. Since it’s a little off the well-tread tourist path, most of the time we had the trails leading to limestone caves and arches all to ourselves. Because nothing can be perfect, the sand flies were next level. If I left the van door open for 30 seconds, I’d spend the next 30 minutes murdering a swarm of them, and the rest of the night itching. 

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Spelunking

 

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Little fantail! They follow us whenever we’re on a hike, I loved this guy’s eyebrows

From Karamea we continued south to Punakaiki. The area’s famous Pancake Rocks were just okay, but the climbing offered some killer views, plus a whole easy wall for me to remember how to lead. One of our nights there we reunited with friends from Christchurch for a beach bonfire. After so much time with just Gary, having other people to talk to was both weird and wonderful. The stars here have consistently amazed me, and that night was particularly breathtaking, without a cloud in sight.

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Pictures couldn’t capture the scale of this place

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Beam me up!

After two days climbing around Punakaiki, my forearms were so sore I couldn’t even unscrew the lid on my water bottle without whimpering in pain. That night we camped in the tiny goldrush town of Ross, seemingly unchanged since its heyday. I soothed my sorrows with a couple pints at the only bar in town, before joining some of the locals for a Sunday roast. I’m a big fan, turns out I’m actually a meat and potatoes kind of gal.

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Tree worship

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Pancake Rocks

On the food front otherwise, my love for flat whites is only growing stronger. I still haven’t found a soft spot for the ubiquitous meat pies, which is a shame because they’re probably the most economical meal we could buy. The highlight out here for me has been the sweets- I continue eating pavlovas every chance I get, each one somehow better than the last. A friend introduced me to ginger crunches, and now I can’t stop myself from buying one every time we pass a bakery. Gary has cut me off from buying anymore chocolatey delicious TimTams cookies at the grocery store, but even he can’t resist nabbing a bar of Whittaker’s, truly the best chocolate either one of us has ever eaten. 

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The Welcome Flat Track

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This water was so cold!

As we left the coast and cut inland, the streams began to turn a distinct, milky-blue from glacial runoff, and we began to see flashes of distant snow-capped peaks through the forest. Eventually we rounded a bend to find an impressive view of Mt. Tasman and Mt. Cook. Unfortunately most of the roads around the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers had been washed away by recent rains, so we weren’t able to get up close and personal with the glaciers, but I still enjoyed them from a distance. 

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Gary crossing the first one person at a time swing bridge

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Just when I was feeling cranky about all the uphill, the forest opened up to this view, yowza

We spent our final night in the area out at the Welcome Flat Hut. The first half of the hike meanders along a wide expanse of river, and across several intimidating one person only suspension bridges. I got a little too confident with how quickly the first part of the hike went, wondering aloud why people had told us it was challenging, and had to eat my words as we slogged uphill for the last two hours, fueled by squares of Whittaker’s for morale. Luckily the hut’s main draw is some natural hot pools for resting your weary bones at the end of the 11 mile day. After an early dinner, we spent the evening soaking while watching the stars come out, totally relaxed. The next morning I almost ignored my alarm, but it was worth an early wake up to have the pools all to ourselves, watching as the first light slid like honey down the mountain tops. 

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So glad I have my own personal photographer

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Made it to the hut! This picture was taken from a little bridge just a couple minutes away

From here we veer east up into the mountains for more of the same. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the weather gods keep being kind!

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Sunrise bliss

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Waters of March

I accidentally let time get away from me! And now I’m already back on the South Island, and there’s no way I’m going to be able to do my time up north justice. So for now, here are a few pictures, and a promise to try and do better capturing these final six weeks! 

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The Coromandel’s beaches in the summer are pretty hard to beat…

Octopus Bay

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Starting the trek to the Pinnacles Hut

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I spy, with my little eye, a little hut in the middle of all that green

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The Pinnacles! Can you see me climbing up the first set of ladders?

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Little Gary, big forest

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Success! After sitting at a trailhead for a month for work, this hike kicked my butt super hard

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I couldn’t get enough of this view. Thank god Gary had the presence of mind to take some pictures

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After a night in the hut, we woke up early to watch the sunrise, and we were not disappointed

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At first it was too cloudy to see anything, but as the sun rose the fog turned all kinds of oranges and reds, swirling around the mountain tops as it evaporated

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The Dawn Wall?

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Honestly this might just be a still from Jurassic Park

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Living in a van has its challenges, but sometimes freedom camping in places like this makes them feel worth it. If you look hard enough you can see the super moon rising

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Rotorua! Creepy. And smelly

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Papatūānuku (Maori for mama earth) was being very uncooperative the entire time we were working at the base of Mount Taranaki. But behind those clouds is a picture perfect volcano, I swear

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But the cloudy weather made the sunsets at our campsite all the more epic, so ya lose some ya win some, I guess

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Sat at the Tarawera Falls trailhead working for a couple days, and I never stopped being mesmerized by just how clear this water was

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In a country full of waterfalls, this one might be my favorite

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We hiked through misty darkness to be here in time to watch the sun kiss the top of this volcano, and it was really special

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The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the most touristy things to do on the North Island, but it definitely lived up to the hype

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Happy!

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The Red Crater! Also a thing from the Lord of the Rings movies, apparently

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Wish an iPhone could better capture just how vibrant that green was

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Halfway point!

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The looooong descent

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After an early, 12 mile day, this hot spring in Taupo felt like the best treat

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Decided that one 12 mile hike wasn’t enough, so the next day we hiked 6 miles in to Kawakawa Bay at Lake Taupo for a day of rock climbing

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This view was absolute heaven. But after a day of multi-pitching plus the hike out, the next morning I was so sore I could barely get out of bed… ya win some, ya lose some!

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Wandering Eye

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Wowowowowow

So far I’m loving summer on the North Island. On our way to the Coromandel we stopped at various crags to rock climb, passing through lots of charming little towns full of extraordinarily nice people. In fact, everyone we’ve met here has been so friendly that I’ve actually started to wonder if they aren’t all secretly just a little crazy. 

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Gary in his element

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Suffering on weird, balancy, volcanic fun

Whakapapa was the most scenic spot we climbed at, and the most fun to say. After a little hike across weird Martian-meets-alpine terrain, we spent the day multi-pitching, a distant cinder cone serving as the perfect backdrop. A bit further north we found our favorite campsite yet, nestled alongside a peaceful little lake that we had entirely to ourselves. The next couple days were spent avoiding a heatwave that rolled through the valley. Mornings were spent climbing, the echoing bleats of distant goats somehow managing to make the entire area sound like a wild frat party. Afternoons we floated in the lake and played Monopoly Deal in the shade, before miserable nights sweating and swatting mosquitos in the van. 

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World’s greatest place to camp. Took this picture while lying in bed.

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Sheridan Hills, monopockets for daysss

Feeling pretty destroyed and in need of a rest, we at last reached the Coromandel Peninsula, our home for the next six weeks. The road to our first campsite wound and wound, through dense jungle and past giant ferns. Our arrival felt like the potential storyline for a horror movie: there wasn’t another soul around for miles, and we were completely out of cell service; we had accepted this job without interviewing and had been told very little prior information; and we’d just discovered that we were located in an old mining settlement, the hillsides full of of abandoned shafts and tunnels. As the sun set we nervously cooked dinner in a secluded clearing next to the river, hoping we wouldn’t be those dumb tourists you read about in the paper.

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Four-legged friends

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Still haven’t managed to spot one!

The next day we had job training, and were relieved to find out that we hadn’t been set up for some Kiwi version of the Blair Witch Project. Currently in New Zealand kauri trees are dying en masse thanks to the spread of a fungus-like pathogen that lives in soil. During the mining boom the forest was heavily milled, so already it had been struggling to bounce back, making it even more challenging to fight this new threat. Kauris are the biggest trees in New Zealand, as well as a keystone species, so their well-being is crucial to the preservation of the entire forest. To stop the spread, the Department of Conservation has created cleaning stations at the beginning of each trail, with the hopes that people will clean the dirt off their shoes before and after walking in the area. 

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Emerging from a 500 meter long mineshaft, creepy and amazing

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Glow worms! They live in some of the old mining tunnels. Their butts glow neon blue, and they make these little mini chandeliers that are extremely sticky. What a weird, weird creature. 

Our job is working as research assistants on a behavioral study. Week one we simply observe how people clean their feet and record that data, then ask them to fill out a short survey. Week two one of us will be an “ambassador,” standing in front of the station and basically acting as an educator for all things kauri related. The other person records that data and gives the same survey, to see if the ambassador has a positive effect on people’s behavior. We will complete this process at three different locations, over the course of the next six weeks. Eventually these cleaning stations will be rolled out on all DOC trails in the kauri zone, and this research ultimately will be used to help perfect the final cleaning station prototype. It’s actually a job I enjoy and that I think is valuable, so I feel incredibly lucky to have basically fallen into it. 

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The Lookout. Green, green, green

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The kauri dieback cleaning station!

Finishing up this first week, life already has fallen into a routine. After grumbling my way out of bed, we eat a quick breakfast and walk to the trailhead just as the first light is hitting the tips of the trees on the highest ridge line. Katabatic winds keep us hunkered in our fleeces for the first couple hours, which is fine because so far we haven’t seen a single person for at least the first two and a half hours of work. Even once people show up they are still usually few and far between- on our busiest day there was only a total of 50 people over the course of 12 hours. 

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How most of the day is spent

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The mamaku I sit under all day, the best shade umbrella

A lot of the passing trampers (see my use of local lingo here?! I’m trying to adapt!) grimace when I tell them how I’ll be spending nine hours a day at the same spot for the next couple weeks, but I actually love it. The cicadas are so loud my chair practically vibrates from the sound of them, and I find their discarded husks everywhere. There’s one bird that sounds exactly like a phone notification, a constant reminder that service is absolutely zero. Occasionally little fan tails will come dance around for our entertainment, and stick insects crossing the road become our play things.

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I’m still creeped out by cicadas, even though upon closer inspection they are really beautiful!

This is most likely the most remote I will be the entire time I’m in New Zealand, and I’m trying to take advantage of it. Being disconnected and forced to be stationary provides the perfect place to think and to read, free from all distractions. I’m working my way through When Women Were Birds on my Kindle, and I finally decided to tackle Murakami’s IQ84, an author I love, but a book length I’ve been intimidated by for years. I’ve also been slowly savoring a paper copy of Braiding Sweetgrass, sent to me by one of my best friends as a parting gift just before I left. So far it is one of my favorite things I’ve ever put in my brain, and I can’t stop singing the author’s praises. I’m only allowing myself a couple chapters a day, like a little treat to look forward to. 

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I will never stop being amazed by just how many ferns there are in this country

Once I’m finished for the day I’ll walk down trail and pick blackberries for a snack, then practice yoga. Afterwards I wade out to the middle of the river where I lay on my back, letting the current gently carry me down stream while I commune with the day’s clouds. Dripping, I then tenderly walk barefoot back to our campsite, where I cook dinner listening to Cat Stevens, or a podcast if I need voices to break up the babble of birds. Once Gary’s off we sit in our little camp chairs, passing a pot back and forth before a little evening walk to search for kiwis (still no luck!) and then crawl into the van and curl up for the night. The stars out here are insane, emerging shivering from the van into the inky blackness and looking up to find the Milky Way slashing dramatically across our clearing feels like the best kind of gift. Honestly, it feels like magic. 

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Letting this little waterfall beat its frozen drum on my head during my lunch break counts as a shower these days

Just when I thought this might be the perfect country, it seems Gary has developed an allergy to New Zealand in general, and we’re both kept up by his sneezing throughout the night. My penance has arrived in the form of sandflies. I heard about them before arriving, but for some reason I was under the impression that they only lived on the beaches of the West Coast. I am very aware now that they love being near flowing water, so our prime riverside campsite means trouble. 

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Our river, ten steps from where I lay my head and a harbinger of sandflies

To make them even more insulting, they are tiny. They look like little flecks of pepper, smaller even than fruit flies. But their bites are killer, they really like to dig in, and I have to pluck each one forcibly from my skin after they bite. Luckily they don’t leave any visible mark… until about 8 hours later, when the bites swell up to about the size of a nickel, and start to itch and burn. The current count is 26 bites on my right foot, and 20 on my left… and that’s just my feet. I’ve never hated any living creature more. 

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A Trick of the Light

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First night in our new home! Can you see her?

After getting everything squared away, we had two weeks to be tourists before work started. For Gary’s 30th I bought tickets to a mini festival in Christchurch where we partied with all ages, from little babies with noise blocking headphones to scantily clad octogenarians. I didn’t know the headliner but still danced like a maniac for two hours, the eight piece ensemble put on an amazing show. 

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Castle Hill!

I “felt a bit dusty” the next day, my new favorite kiwi phrase, but after spending a day in repose nursing a hangover we managed to get out to Castle Hill for a weekend. Leaving Christchurch we wound through the middle of mossy green mountains, their tops obscured by cottony grey clouds. I half expected to see a dragon flapping overhead, or round a bend to find a knight galloping down a hillside. Eventually the mountains opened to a tranquil valley, criss-crossed by streams and dotted with wildflowers, hulking grey boulders scattered across the hillsides. The climbing was not my favorite (too hard!) but the location really couldn’t be beat. For the first time since our arrival the sun finally came out, and while Gary tired himself out, I dozed on the grass surrounded by perfectly sweet little white daisies and soft pink clover.

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I had the sweatiest palms watching Gary climb this beast

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Views for days over Akaroa

After our trial weekend living in the van we set out to work our way north. The challenges of van life became evident pretty quickly, these next five months are sure to be full of high highs and low lows. Our first day driving back the scenic way from Akaroa after swimming with Hector’s dolphins (the smallest and rarest in the world, endemic to New Zealand) we got a flat tire. To access the spare we had to take apart our entire setup, and this process slowed us down so much that we opted to stay an additional night at a different friend’s place to reconnoiter. As frustrated as we felt, that extra night wound up being really wonderful. We were spoiled and treated like family, fed freshly caught smoked fish and venison (I was told you could taste how happy the meat was, and Bambi really was delicious), presented with a fancy cheese plate, and I had my first ever pavlova, which was basically like eating a cloud. 

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Boy it was fun getting all this organized and then taking it all out again! It’s also neat seeing all your worldly possessions in a pile on the sidewalk.

On our second official attempt to leave we spent the night on the coast in Kaikoura. After a sunset dinner we sat on our roof watching thunderheads pass across the full moon, enjoying the warm breeze off the water. When we got back in the car to sleep for the night, we found it brimming with mosquitos, hovering hungrily overhead around our twinkle lights. After committing mosquito genocide we calmed down with the help of the waves singing us to sleep, and waking  up maybe twenty steps from the ocean was wonderful, but then gale force winds made cooking breakfast miserable. Later while driving up towards the Tasman our aircondition-less vehicle became a sauna, eventually causing us to resort to stripping down to our underwear. Finally we gave up trying to drive through the heat and stopped to stand in a wide, meandering river, staining our lips red with freshly picked cherries and skipping stones in the shade. 

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So many rivers in one little country

I feel like we are really getting a full experience, seeing plenty of sweet and just as much sour. I will say that on our drive north we were able to start to appreciate the country, it feels somehow like the  Pacific Northwest and Hawaii had a love child. The water is a shocking electric blue that butts up against lush volcanic mountains. The roads are lined by towering ferns that run along black beaches, the sand like millions of tiny chia seeds. But then you’ll round a corner and be in a pine forest, alive with humming insects, encircled by wide, lazy rivers. And in between all that, tons of agriculture (sheep outnumber people!). Lucky for us right now pastures are filled with baby animals, horses and cows and sheep, sometimes even deer. It is a magical and slightly disorienting combination. 

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Gary at the mouth of Rawhiti Cave

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Morning stretches at Dancing Sand Spring

In an effort to skip the tourist mayhem of Abel Tasman National Park we instead spent five days rock climbing nearby. The crags were some of the most scenic I’ve been to, after belaying between ferns at Payne’s Ford or alongside dramatic ocean cliffs at Pohara, there were plenty of refreshing clear swimming holes to cool off in at the end of the day. On our rest day we did a short but challenging hike to Rawhiti Cave. Pronounced raw-feety (wh’s sounds like f’s here, just for an added challenge), it was full of phytokarsts, basically stalactites covered in lichen that actually causes the rock to grow towards the sun. Nature is so neat! We also visited the crystal clear Dancing Sand Springs (aka Pupu Springs, heehee), so sacred to the Maori that you’re asked not to even touch the water. Finally, we drove out to Cape Farewell, the northernmost point on South Island, and after watching the sea lions surfing the waves spent the day getting blown around on the sand dunes of Whariki Beach. 

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Cape Farewell

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Whariki Beach

Some of our nights have been spent in meadows surrounded by the sounds of chirping birds or on beaches where we enjoyed the fresh sea breeze and starry nights, but an equal number have been spent in super glamorous stripmall parking lots or in the alley alongside a bar. You haven’t lived until you’ve shaved your legs in public, or used a converted port-a-potty cold shower (which I actually loved), or tried to fall asleep while listening to people drunkenly warble “The Girl From Ipanema” on karaoke night. 

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Pictures just don’t do this ferry ride justice

Right now I’m writing from a laundromat in windy Wellington while Gary buys groceries at the cheap shop on the other side of town, this is practically the first time in 2.5 weeks here that we’ve been farther than an arms reach from one another. Taking the Interisland Ferry across the channel this morning was basically a religious experience, the sun rising to greet a clear, cloudless summer day, our boat nestled between emerald mountains as we glided serenely across placid turquoise waters, gently scattering the occasional group of sea birds nestled together on the water. Today will definitely be chalked up in the ‘sweet’ category, and I’m looking forward to exploring a little of the North Island in our final five days before work begins. 

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Unshaken

Kia Ora from New Zealand, land of the long white cloud! The 13 hour flight from Los Angeles to Auckland was actually not so bad, and as an added bonus, neither was the jet lag. Time wise California is technically only three hours ahead… except it’s yesterday… which means I’m living in the future? 

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The first picture I took in N. Zed. Also the first of many sheep that I have seen.

Before we left I was in my normal pre-departure state of shambles, except this time I had basically planned nothing, and my inner control freak was extremely stressed out. It turns out I didn’t need to worry, as everything every step of the way has been incredibly easy. Gary’s friends graciously picked us up from the airport in Christchurch, and in that first week staying with them we managed to set up a bank account, get our tax numbers required for work, set up our phones, and buy a van to live in. We also were basically handed a job for six weeks with the Department of Conservation helping to research Kauri dieback in the Coromandel. See? Almost too easy. 

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Home for the next five months! #minivanlife, amirite?!

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The inside

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… and our little outdoor kitchen!

While sorting our lives we were able to see a lot of cute little Christchurch, even with the cold, rainy, “summer” weather. I was surprised to see how much evidence there still was of the 2011 earthquake, tons of construction and crumbling buildings. Another surprise was how many people I saw walking around without shoes throughout the city in practically every setting. We also kept musing about how little traffic there was, until we realized that the entirety of the country is the same size as California, except with the same population size as Los Angeles spread throughout. No wonder everything feels so easy!

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Godley Head, nice little getaway just outside Christchurch

Food has been pretty whatever. Shopping for ourselves has been great, because of the season there is lots of delicious stone fruit, and the best arugula I’ve ever tasted. Every grocery store carries this kumara (sweet potato) and coconut hummus that I can’t stop smearing on everything I eat, although it’s especially delicious on Peckish brand rice crackers. Eating out, however, has yet to wow me. On one menu I saw a cheese and pineapple sandwich, and on another a Brie, cranberry and chicken pizza, highly irregular. While working through a mediocre plate of fish n chips I decided to wash it down with an LnP (“World famous in New Zealand!”) and now they’re all I want to drink, zesty lemony bubbly perfection. 

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“Put a bird on it!” I think having birds on your money makes buying things more fun

Of course, I am loving the coffee culture. I discovered flat whites at the many kiwi-run cafes when I was living in NYC, but it has been a treat to get my daily dose straight from the source. Plus, nearly every grocery store has a little cafe, as does practically every block, so basically life has been a highly-caffeinated dream. My only complaint is how tiny portion sizes seem, a large drink here is an American small. We’re not one of the most obese nations on the planet for nothin’, rah rah, pew pew, freedom, ‘merica!

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Experimenting with portrait mode

Speaking kiwi has been a bit of an adjustment- people are so smiley and really helpful, but, they also talk fast and every vowel seems wrong. Dad becomes Ded, pen is now pin, it’s dick instead of deck, and on and on. Other things? Bodegas are called dairies. Sandals are jandals. Hiking is tramping. A lot is heaps. Z is zed. People actually say crickey. And I hear “sweet as” constantly, although I’ve also heard “shit as” and even “kiwi as.” I don’t love it, mostly because I keep thinking “as WHAT?”, but I’m learning to be tolerant.

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Bye now!

To conclude, remembering to walk on the left is a challenge, and I keep bumping into people. This does not bode well for driving… and I will report back once I finally work up the courage to give it a try. 

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This Will Be Our Year

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It’s been a while since I last wrote, and in that time life decided to scramble my carefully arranged plans. Rather than finishing my fourth season with Naturalists at Large, I instead was evacuated from Catalina to deal with a severe kidney infection caused by two large stones. The infection and subsequent surgeries rendered me more or less immobile for six weeks, and honestly, the whole experience really shook me to my core.

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