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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A Kind of Magic

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature. -Rachel Carson

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The President stole your land. While easily forgotten thanks to the hundreds of other scandals since, in an unprecedented act Trump reduced Bear’s Ears National Monument by over a million acres and Grand Staircase-Escalante by over 800,000 acres. Recently, documents accidentally released by the Department of the Interior revealed biased decision-making in favor of extractive industries. All the while the Trump administration continues to favor special interest groups and profit, rolling back regulations meant to protect us and the environment at an alarming rate.

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Home Again

Saw this guy our final day in Dubai

Leaving Lebanon, we traveled through the fleshpots of Dubai and Singapore, and after one red eye flight, followed by 12 hours of sweaty subway, bus and ferry rides, arrived back to Tioman Island. We’ll spend the next month working and playing in Malaysia before returning to the states. For now, I haven’t looked in a mirror or worn shoes in the week since I stepped off the ferry, and already being here feels a bit like coming home.

One of these is not like the others

Tioman life

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Echo

I want to live so densely. Lush. And slow. In the next few years. That a year becomes ten years. And the past becomes only a page. In the book of my life.

-Nayyirah Waheed

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The debate between Gary and I began only a couple of days into our trip: Could Lebanon make the cut into our top five favorite countries, or would it wind up just in the top ten? Writing now, on our flight home, the debate has changed to whether Lebanon is top five, or maybe, just maybe, in the hallowed top three. Either way, we absolutely loved our ten days spent exploring only a small fraction of the country, and hope to have the opportunity to return one day.

Beirut!

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King of the Road

On the road to Petra

Thanks to a winning combination of coffee and pseudoephedrine I was able to drag myself out of Dahab and onto a bus, followed by a ferry, arriving late in the afternoon to Aqaba, Jordan. The next day, still feeling a bit rough, we slowly made our way to Wadi Musa. The “Valley of Moses,” this little town draws its name from the biblical miracle that occurred when Moses struck a stone with his staff and a stream began to flow. The town itself wasn’t anything special, mostly set up to cater to the hoards of tourists heading to play Indiana Jones in the ancient Nabatean city of Petra. (Gary feels it is important to note here that I actually haven’t seen India Jones, but I feel like I still get the idea.)

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