Tag Archives: rock climbing

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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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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