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Into the Mystic


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. 


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.


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


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.


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.


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


The summit! Peaks for days!


“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.


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.


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. 


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


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. 


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


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.


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


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. 


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


“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. 


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!


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. 


Isthmus Point


Too much




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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! 


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

Octopus Bay


Starting the trek to the Pinnacles Hut


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


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


Little Gary, big forest


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


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


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


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


The Dawn Wall?


Honestly this might just be a still from Jurassic Park


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


Rotorua! Creepy. And smelly


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


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


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


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


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


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




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


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


Halfway point!


The looooong descent


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


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


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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A Trick of the Light


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. 


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.


I had the sweatiest palms watching Gary climb this beast


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. 


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. 


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. 


Gary at the mouth of Rawhiti Cave


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. 


Cape Farewell


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. 


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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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? 


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. 


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


The inside


… 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!


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. 


“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!


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.


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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