Roadtripping Part 1 – North Island

Life moves pretty fast when you are on the road. You have all of the regular life stuff (except for jobs, I guess) but with a logistical layer of accommodations, route-planning, activity-research and Tetris-esque vehicle packing, layered on top. Clearly blogging has fallen to the wayside along with exercising and vegetables. Here I will try to summarize a bit of the adventure without putting too much pressure on myself to completely relay all the details. I make no apologies for the delayed nature of this post – we had stuff going on!

Leaving the South Island was hard. We packed our car the night before because we had to hit the road before sun-up. In our bleary, early morning haze we saw this crossroads and realized we were really leaving.

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It was a sad irony that one of our most beautiful drives on the South Island was our last – from the Moutere to the Picton ferry. We watched the sun rise as we wound our way through the slowly evaporating mists of the morning. We boarded the Interislander ferry and crossed the Cook Strait to New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, in the south of the North Island.

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Being in a real city (pop. 200,000!) after so long was a bit shocking. Tall buildings! Crowds! Cable cars with LED-lit tunnels – madness! We were invigorated by tripping again.

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We stayed at Airbnbs, while also Airbnbing our house back home. Love/hate relationship (mostly love). Here I get a nice surprise in the boudoir. I miss my brother-in-law but not that much.

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Te Papa is The Museum of New Zealand and one of the best I’ve ever been to. We started with the Gallipoli exhibit (New Zealand’s first engagement in WWI and a major nation-building event). They personalized it with a series of massive photo-realistic sculptures. Each one filled a room and we learned these real people’s real stories.

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Then a trip to the legendary Weta Studios – the go-to place for practical effects for films. It was an inspiring creative space and now we have a couple modelling projects on our to-do list.

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Lyla shows no mercy while defiling Azog the Defiler

It’s fun (for me, anyway) to see how different places and people do things differently. Check out this garbage can. It uses solar energy to compact itself so it doesn’t need to be collected nearly as often. Cool tech.

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While Julie and Lyla spent the day nursing colds in front of the fire, and biking around Turangi, Camille and I had the chance to do one of of NZ’s ‘great walks’ the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

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We walked up a volcano (past Lord of the Rings’ Mount Doom) and down the other side. These other-worldly bodies of water are called the Emerald Lakes.

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Afterwards, we all met up and braved the hordes rewarding our efforts at the local hot springs pools. Seriously, where are the people?

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In Rotorua we went on an elevated 1km hike that was entirely in a redwood tree canopy. We went at night to see the amazing wooden lanterns (of designer David Trubridge) light up the forest in a way that was novel and unforgettable.

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We also visited a centuries-old Maori village in a geothermal area. I did the haka but we won’t be showing pictures.

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I was a doubter but our friends the Bisbys insisted that visiting Hobbiton was worth the detour and money. This place could use a dedicated post – it was fascinating but I’ll just leave you with a round door photo. (fun fact: Peter Jackson couldn’t find the perfect oak tree to transplant above Bibo’s house so he had one made out of steel with 200,000 handmade leaves sewn on. Standing in front of it, I couldn’t see it was a fake. Considering the budget to make this place made my head spin.

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Like so many other things, L&P is world-famous in New Zealand. We had to visit the birthplace of the kid’s favourite decadence. (We tried sending a couple cans via mail back home to the girls’ friends but they exploded en route).

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There is a place called Hot Water Beach where volcanic activity below the surface heats the ground to spa-like temperatures. Due to the tides this part of the beach lies mostly underwater but reveals itself everyday. Holes must be dug anew and they fill with heated sea-water for the ultimate chilly beach day hack. We always knew that we had to go there and so by 10am the beach engineering project had begun.

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The Coromandel Peninsula. Making picnics 3000% more picturesque since forever.

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Cathedral rock.

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Our ‘off the grid’ airbnb. Solar powered with rain tank water and a composting toilet. Also, a 2 hour super windy road to the closest town.

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In Kawakawa we visited public toilets (on Lyla’s request) designed by the architect/artist Hundertwasser. As a rule one of the things New Zealand excels at it public toilets. Generally public space is respected and maintained. It is a physical manifestation of a ‘we are all in this together’ attitude and it’s refreshing. Yes, I just wrote that toilets are refreshing.

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Whangarei Heads. We hiked to the top and I rediscovered just how nervous Julie is of heights without restraints.

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As a natural spendthrift I would not have been attracted to an extravagance such as a family parasail in the Bay of Islands (the first European settlement in NZ but now just a collection of villages and multi-millionaire vacation homes). Julie on the other hand isn’t handicapped by mere pricetags. She is much more interested in experiences…thankfully. Fun fact#2: 1,300 feet is a long way up.

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We did a boat tour of the islands including this remote one. Maori boys would come of age by venturing out solo to this rock in the sea (multi-day journey), scale it’s cliffs and pluck a feather from a flightless bird unique to the island. Our captain decided to show off by taking the boat through the hole in the rock to our delight.

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Russell, was once considered the ‘Hell Hole of the Pacific’ due to the whorehouses and taverns rather than the nearby scenery.

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Next up the Adventure Forest outside of Whangarei. This was a park that consisted of several obstacle courses of various difficulties and heights that are completely off the ground. There is a 5 minute instruction that shows you how to use your gear and then they leave you alone. This independence is what truly sets it apart from other similar experiences.

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A couple videos that fully illustrate the experience:

View from mid-obstacle

Flying fox selfie

https://youtu.be/nqmBJ65gtHY

And then, at last back to Auckland, where we landed in September. 1.5 million people – a metropolis! We bought a luggage scale, ate good Indian food and watched Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs. We also had to close our bank accounts and sell our car on the Kiwi Craigslist.

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Bye, bye, Little Birdie. You served us well. Good luck with your new owners.

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The big repack.

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Our final day. We took a ferry out to Waiheke Island which is only a 30 minute ride from the bustling Auckland but feels a million miles away. We did cartwheels on the beach, drank native wine, chatted to locals about the Royal Wedding, hiked through jungle-forest and generally just took one last gasp of New Zealand.

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Later that day with one year’s worth of possessions.

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Next up…Los Angeles!

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Unfinished Business

Outside our window in New Zealand lay the Kahurangi Mountain Range. In addition to providing a view it also created a geographic barrier that mostly shielded us from inclement weather. We hiked up to a public hut halfway up the mountain a couple times but never managed the time to summit. The hut was just above the treeline and provided a stunning vista of Tasman Bay and it’s surrounding area. The places we frequented and all the people we knew were somewhere in that view. But when you turned around there was another view – the top of Mount Arthur. I knew we would get there eventually and it felt great to keep that day in my back pocket for later.

Almost every day I would drift from my laptop, look out at my mountain and imagine standing on that speck at the top. But as the months drained away I started to get nervous that the stars might not align (weather, time, family motivation). In our final days we joined forces with some of our friends and made the journey. We had some business with a mountain that required finishing.

The summit didn’t disappoint. For the first time we we’re finally able to see over the range as the clouds rolled by below us. The best part was sharing the trip with our friends. Shared experience bonds you with people but a shared challenge is even more powerful.

Farewell Spit

Late breaking news…on Easter weekend, knowing our time in the Top of the South was nearing it’s end we decided to go on a weekend trip to the very tip of the Island – the place that looks the most interesting when looking at a map and also where the land formation looks most like a kiwi…the Farewell Spit.

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The Farewell Spit was named by Captain Cook as he bade farewell to New Zealand.

The spit separates the Tasman Sea (named after the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, the first European to set eyes on NZ) and Golden Bay. Golden Bay was originally named Murderer’s Bay by Abel Tasman after he watched members of his crew get killed by the locals who didn’t take kindly to visitors. He left the area and didn’t go ashore again. It was 127 years before another European returned…Captain Cook (that guy really gets around!)

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We started by picking up this lovely hitchhiker named Maria from Poland. She was unfazed when Lyla started puking after making the hundreds of turns climbing up and over Takaka Mountain. (Locals refer to it as ‘going over the hill’.  In the town of Takaka we stopped for a bite at the legendary “Wholemeal Cafe”. The food was so delicious that we decided to buy the Wholemeal Cafe cookbook to attempt to bring home some of these kiwi yummies. Personally I think cookbooks make great souvenirs.

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Near the playground in Takaka was a war memorial that had a little monument dedicated to each war New Zealand had fought in. At the end they had one final monument dedicated their enemies. A deft and thoughtful touch and very typically kiwi.

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Next stop: Waikoropupu (Pupu for short) Springs.

IMG_20180331_153731The natural spring is a sacred spot for the Maori. It takes rainfall 10 years to filter through Takaka hill and down the valley until it passes underground and bubbles up into a little lake at the rate of 14,000 litres a second. It contains some of the clearest natural water in the world with a visibility of 63 metres!

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You can see the water gurgling up from underneath by the disturbance in the centre of the water.

On to the sleepy little village of Collingwood (which comically was a contender to be the nation’s capital in the 19th century) where we had rented an Airbnb.

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There was an article about the house’s original owner/builder which I found fascinating. He climbed the world’s tallest mountains, sailed the biggest ocean’s, built a NZ Department of Conservation hut at high altitude on Mt. Cook, and found a patch of moss while, you know, hanging out out at the South Pole, which ended up being the world’s southernmost flora ever discovered. He then ‘settled down’ in Collingwood to build an off the grid ecohouse while dying from cancer.

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He had since died and the vegetable gardens and fruit trees surrounding the property were sadly neglected but happily full of free groceries for us. We got to eat apples right off the tree – they don’t get any fresher than that. How you like them apples?

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Julie enjoys an espresso with milk foamed using the french press plunger trick. (new to me)

His woodworking friend down the street made this extremely funky and meaningful kitchen table using various pieces of wood from different parts of his old sailboat.

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Cape Farewell (above) sits at the base of the spit. From here the sandy spit stretches about 30km. There are no roads and there is only one way to see it: on the Farewell Spit Ecotour 4WD bus at low tide.

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Lyla snags the choice seat.
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On my way back after the wind grabbed my hat. It comically rolled on the brim along the spit at exactly the speed that I managed to run as the tour watched in amusement. I got a round of applause after finally snatching it. Camille provide moral support.

The lighthouse at the end of the spit provided some protection for sailors as the winds can be strong and the water extremely shallow (sadly many whale stranding here). Three (8 hour shift) lighthouse keepers (and their families) lived on the barren end of the spit permanently to maintain an oil lamp. Once a week they would make the daylong journey to the closest settlement for provisions. Now a cable supplying data and power run under the sand to automatically control a simple 50 watt halogen lamp bulb. Progress.IMG_20180401_161222

Here we are beyond the end of the spit at low tide. When the tide comes in it does so quicker than a person can run. Not a place you want to be caught out. Godwits that nest nearby take flight for their migratory trek to Siberia!

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On our way back the girls get a chance to play on the dunes. In parts the width of the spit shrinks by 10 kms (!) when the tide come in.

IMG_20180401_172635There are several bird species that call the spit home. There are no trees though so the Pied Shag isn’t one of them because they like to sit on branches to dry their wings. After a large storm, this dead tree showed up on the spit after floating for miles in the Tasman Sea. And suddenly the Pied Shag decided to make an appearance!

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Fully relaxed.

The next day we headed out on a tramp (hike) to the picturesque Wharariki Beach. Microsoft Windows features it in not one but two of its desktop wallpaper options.

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The kids just couldn’t get enough of running down the dunes. Good with me.  Go ahead, expend every last bit of energy.

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Oh, and obviously because the beach was so packed it was difficult to secure a lounger.

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This shot is comedy to me:desktop pic

You can check out my 360 panoramic of Wharariki Beach: Go here and click on the photo.

After the long drive back home we arrived to a smouldering bonfire and easter egg hunt in the neighbouring paddock. Sue and Runar, our loveable landlords hosted a dinner (cooked in foil in the ashes of the fire). It was a beautiful evening with their family, friends and the occasional sheep. Chocolate stuffed roast bananas, who would have thought?

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By the way if any of you are looking for the perfect spot to experience this area of the planet it would be difficult to find a better spot to base your operations than Sue and Runar’s holiday home named Ribbonwood. Kiwi hospitality is on full display here.

A Second a Day

Two years ago my friend Eddy told me about an app he’d heard about.  He then pointed his phone at the room and captured first “second”. The idea is that you record one second of video every single day to create a frenetic video of memories that showcase your life’s awe-inspiring moments as well as the mundane. Recording the moment in a single second relieves you of the pressure to fully paparazzize (new verb) every event. The app’s motto is “record less, live more”. Eddy tried to convince me to try it with him but it seemed like an awful lot of work for what would essentially be a year-long project to create an unwatchable mashup of random second long ‘scenes’.

A year later he showed me the result and it blew me away. There was a thread you could follow in the staccato moments and the smuggled-in emotional weight of witnessing time passing was huge. Think of what Boyhood did for cinema. There were tears in my eyes and it wasn’t even my life (although I made the odd appearance). I immediately pointed my phone at him and recorded my first ‘second’.

Now a year later I have finally finished my year of seconds. The app was a pleasure to use as it doesn’t require you to actually use it daily as long as you remember to take a video every day (which it can remind you to do). The snippets are saved in the cloud so all is not lost if your phone dies (which mine did during the project…see below). Each and every second (actually I chose to do 1.5 seconds) of this video builds a vibrant memory around it in a way that is materially different from a photograph. This year was a year worth documenting and I think that my experiment with 1 Second Everyday was successful in making a compelling, digestible and thought-provoking chronicle.

Without further ado I present my last year in 365 extremely short scenes:

The Mums

golden bay.jpgI remember the seemingly endless drives to Florida in our white 1974 Chevy Impala. Seat belts were really more of a suggestion back then as I recall spending lots of time curled up on the floor behind the driver’s seat or in the back window ledge with the kleenex box that lived there my entire childhood. A kid today will never know such boredom as being an only child on a roadtrip in the pre-internet age. Occasionally mom my would take pity on me and promise me a round of mini-golf for my troubles. I’m guessing mini-golf was my first experience in beating my parents at something and it was glorious.  So most people have had some version of this experience: being a kid on a family vacation and bobbing to and fro, powerless as flotsam and jetsam on the oceanic predetermined plans of your parents.  Now, decades later Julie and I felt lucky to be able to return the favour.  They came to visit us and we delighted in playing cruise directors.

Our two moms are already travel buddies and amazingly, the two of them had already done a lap around NZ together a decade ago and had been to the Nelson area in a bit of whirlwind tour. They were eager to buy their plane tickets and they bought them months before we did.  We also were excited to host them.  This time we were in charge of the family vacation. We wanted to show them where and how we live, at a slower pace and from an insider’s perspective, but also to share with them our unique life here, and to prove that despite very little planning our year away was actually working out reasonably well.

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Arriving at the Nelson “Airport”. (Really just an airstrip and a room with chairs)

They were great guests and didn’t complain as we whisked them from festival to festival and up and down the spectacularly tropical summer coastline of the Top of the South. I was able to take some time off work and we shared a special 3 weeks together without the distraction of jobs for the adults or school for the kids, a bitterly cold winter or the infamous traffic jams on the Allen “Express”way.

riversideOn their first full day, we took them to an all day music festival that was fortuitously only a few minutes down the road.  It was unique from festivals back home in that it was alcohol-free and didn’t have any sponsors or advertising. Food was seemingly at cost ($1 for a salad, $2 for a sausage). Kids free-ranged all day (their entrance was free) and played on the giant hillside slip & slide, slack-line, silks hanging from trees and various other juggling/circus equipment available for parent-free fun. Not a single waiver was signed. It was all very ‘cruisy’ as kiwis like to say.

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Next up: Golf. And not the mini variety. There is a course 10 minutes away on top of cliffs over looking the ocean. I hadn’t played a round yet and figured it was super expensive. I was wrong. Except for another foursome we were the only ones on the links that we could see. Very different from home.

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Not only did my mom brave the 30 degree heat and soundly beat me but she insisted on searching for and finding any of the balls that I had accidentally sliced deep into the woods.

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The first week was all about showing them around our hood before we headed off on our big tramp.

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Another festival. This one, 10 minutes in the other direction.
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Beach days. (Note that this solid concrete table was lifted and moved by the raging sea into a nearby parking lot when a cyclone hit the area the following week…more on that later)
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Day hikes

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River swimming on the Motueka
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Even salmon fishing. BTW, this sign is so idiosyncratically NZ.

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New Zealand has 9 “great walks” and the Abel Tasman is the most famous of them due to it’s golden sand beaches on one side of the coastal track and lush tropical jungle on the other. There are also huts along the way which you can book a bed in (think hostel in the bush) if you don’t want to carry a tent (or force your septuagenarian mums to sleep on the ground). We booked our spaces in the huts and permits months out but just as we were heading out, New Zealand was preparing for Cyclone Fehi.  We mulled over cancelling but in the end decided that we would never get another chance to hike in a cyclone so decided to give it a go. map

Our plan was to begin in Marahau and spend the day hiking to Anchorage where we booked a spot on a floating hut called the Aquapackers. Then we would set out early the next morning and hike all day again to spend the night in the Bark Bay hut. Finally, on the third day we would hike up to Awaroa where we had pre-arranged a water taxi to take us back to Marahau.

IMG_20180131_113104.jpgEverything started out fantastic. True, instead of glorious blue skies as advertised in all the promotional materials we had the foreboding clouds of an incoming cyclone but hey – at least it wasn’t raining.

Eventually the weather started to clear and we figured all this cyclone talk was overblown.

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We made it to the boat in Anchorage Bay, jumped off the roof and had a delightful meal with other guests while we all shared plans of the following day.

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In the morning, despite being in a completely protected anchorage, the 40 ton houseboat heaved up and down with the relentless waves. The crew seemed to nervously run around checking ropes and re-anchoring and running the engine while telling us everything was ok. The sea was too rough to navigate the dinghy to the shore to let us off, in fact there was no shore! Cyclone Fehi wreaked unprecedented havoc on New Zealand because a bunch of factors aligned that raised the sea to levels nobody had seen before. 1) The extremely hot summer had created unseasonable temperatures that created the swirling storm in the first place creating huge waves. 2) It hit the shore, not only at high tide but during a king tide. King tides are rare and occur when the earth is closest to the moon and both are closest to the sun. They really only last a few hours a year. Bad timing. 3) The winds had pushed the sea to shore in a giant surge raising the water level even higher. 4) Surprisingly, the air pressure has an effect on sea level and the lower pressure system relaxing it’s downward push on the water. All over NZ homes and streets were flooded, slips closed highways and any infrastructure around the shorelines were pummeled. We watched as a deck and staircase on the shore was swallowed up by the sea and smashed to bits.

Eventually by 2pm, after many hours of nausea, things calmed down enough to make an attempt at heading for the shore and begin our long hike to the Bark Bay hut.

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All along the coast was evidence of where the sea had been. Either by debris left or infrastructure ripped away.
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We crossed this “bridge” the previous day. It was 15 feet over a river. Now it was completely filled up with sand.
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Even sections of the track had been washed away.

Since we left later in the day we were able to take the “low tide” shortcut.

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But even as we walked we could see the track slowly get swallowed up.

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Eventually we made it to our hut where we found out how lucky we were to have a bed. The entire campground was destroyed and ended up underwater and all around the higher ground of the hut were campers drying out. The water was still too rough for water taxis so everyone who had arranged to leave was stuck for another day.

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We spent a dry night in the toasty hut swapping stories with other hikers of everyone’s experiences of the storm amid damp clothes drying from every rafter.

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The next day was a slow start. I tried to get the crew going but mountains may have been easier to budge.  I mock-threatened Jenny that she would be up to her neck in water if we didn’t make our tidal crossing at Onetahuti. We didn’t make it.  The water was up to our waists when we arrived. I quickly changed into my bathing suit and started ferrying bags over my head. Soon the water was at my chest. It was a mad panic, there just wasn’t time for photos. The girls and Jenny swam across and by the time I brought the final bag the water was at my neck. We had just barely made it! We all took a deep breath, got dressed and posed for a group shot as the day because magnifique!

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We caught our water-taxi home from Awaroa and spent the rest of our visit hike-free until we said good-bye for another 6 months.

Julie and I can only hope that when we’re our Mums’ age we’re equally as keen and able to be dragged on an adventure halfway around the world. At least we have some pretty good role models as a guide.

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Love these guys! See you soon Mums.

New Zealand Day

The NZ Prime Minister performs the hongi.

Today we celebrated New Zealand Day. It was a wholly different experience for us than Canada Day. Firstly it isn’t even called New Zealand Day, September 6th is Waitangi Day and it celebrates, or perhaps more accurately commemorates, the signing of the Waitangi Treaty in 1840. This document is generally regarded as the founding document of the nation, the moment when the Maori and the Pakeha (non-maori kiwi, aka the White Man) joined together as partners. The Maori became full British subjects and received the rights and protections that afforded as well as the right to maintain ownership of their land. In return they would cede their sovereignty and only sell land to the English Crown. Of course it hasn’t been exactly smooth sailing since. There were problems with the translation. How do you translate ‘sovereignty’ into Maori anyway. This all resulted in the ‘New Zealand Wars’ which I think is quaint since only about 3,000 people died. Regardless, relations have come a long way. It is a national holiday but not one of fireworks and parades but rather reflection of the past. Some politicians tried changing the name to New Zealand Day in the 1970s but it only lasted a couple years and it was changed back.

Today we experienced a very different sort of national holiday. Maori meeting places known as Marae celebrate by inviting anyone and everyone for a ceremony and some food. We didn’t know much more than what the ad in the local paper told us but we decided to go as a family. Lots of ‘as a family’ this year.

Incidentally the Maori must have some awesome designers on staff as evidenced by some pretty amazing tattoo work but I guess their A-team wasn’t enlisted for the newspaper listing below.

We listened to 3 speeches in Maori (oddly, to my eyes anyway, one of the speakers and many of the listeners nodding in agreement were Pakeha). Then, finally, the keynote, and thankfully it was in English. He gave us a history lesson and I was rapt as he spoke about Maori ideals, concerns and his feelings about how to pave the way forward. He was an inspiring speaker and a true leader complete with strong opinions defended with context and a strong sense of morality. He was bold but not confrontational. As he spoke he guided the attendees along a journey of his way of thinking instead of taking the aggressive ‘with us or against us’ approach. He was learned, gentle, open and spoke without notes. I haven’t seen a Western leader like that, maybe ever. He talked of hospitality as being an important Maori value. He also criticized our governing system which only looks 3 or 4 years into the future when we need to look generations (both forward and back). I reflected on our big city life and our lack of respect for the land that we live on. How our busy lives have truly fragmented our attention in dangerous ways. And with the decline of religion in the West there are very few formalized traditions around respecting the elderly, mentoring youth, building community and encouraging spiritual wellness. These are things which don’t naturally fit into our fairly recent culture and if we are going to survive I’m pretty sure we are going to have to make some adjustments.

Afterwards the guests all lined up in post hockey game formation but instead of shaking hands and grunting ‘good game’ with the local iwi (tribe) we performed the hongi where we pressed noses and foreheads and shared breath with each person. It was a very intimate experience and a powerful symbol of welcoming. Afterwards one is no longer considered Manuhiri, a visitor, but rather Tangata whenua, one of the people of the land. I loved watching my children press noses with widows (who press twice, a second time for the dead) as well as the aforementioned speakers and leaders and even massive football player sized men. I wish I had pictures but I also really like that you aren’t allowed to photograph in the Morae.

Later, our ever generous landlord Sue treated us to four hangi which are a traditional meal that is buried underground with hot rocks. It consisted of pork with a huge cap of fat, chicken, squash, silverbeet, potato, sweet potato, some sort of mystery stuffing and garlic.

It was a fantastic afternoon, for me anyway. I think the kids were a bit shell-shocked by having to sit still for so long but I’m hoping they got some intangible benefit out of it. A dogma-free, traditional ceremony with unique cultural customs, an educational and moral lecture outside of a school environment topped off with good food…it was right up our alley. And yet, I can’t help feel conflicted about the fact that I haven’t experienced Canada’s own aboriginal culture so intimately.

FreN.Z.

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Trigger warning…I’m about to engage in some pretty privileged ruminating about our embarrassment of riches.

I’m not really sure what to call this year. Often people ask us if we are on vacation and I always hesitate. Up until now I’ve always known if I was ‘on vacation’, it’s a simple question really. I think I would lose patience or interest in someone that hesitated about their present state of vacation/non-vacation. Many of the holiday indicators are present: tropical weather, novel experiences and buying beach towels. But there are other decidedly ‘real world’ experiences too: going to the mechanic, enrolling the kid’s in after-school programs and vacuuming. Although I am working, I’m not working as much as usual so it feels different. Another clue that it isn’t business as usual is seeing Julie writing her book and making pavlova and pate instead of coming home desperately ferreting around for a post-work glass of wine. So yes it is a vacation of sorts. But then something funny happened. The summer came upon us in earnest, the kids left school for their summer holidays and our friends from Canada arrived in N.Z. to join us for a couple weeks touring around the South Island in an epic road trip dubbed the NZ Frenzy and then further truncated to “FreN.Z.” You know what that means…we went on vacation from a vacation. Yes, I’m fully aware of how that sounds. It a hodge-podge of emotions from embarrassment to excitement to convincing myself somehow that we had ‘earned it’. Well, there is nothing to do about it now but go with the flow and try to appreciate it as best I can. Poor me.

Although the kids have met new friends at their school they still longed for the easy comfort of their Toronto pals and the idea of having their friends visit us here was probably the most exciting part of our trip so far for them. Lyla couldn’t contain herself and announced that she was preparing a new hug for when Gracie arrives. So filled with emotion and physicality it was dubbed the “fight-hug” as it would probably be aggressive and end up with them on the ground with any promises that it would end injury-free.

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The infamous Fight-hug. Who can understand the affection rituals of 8-year-olds?

It was strange after being alone together for so long in such a remote part of the world to have a little piece of Roncesvalles show up at our door. Let the FreN.Z. begin!

For the first week we were able to show them around our neck of the woods, “The Top of the South” and prove that our blog wasn’t just a photoshop festival from an internet cafe in Bracebridge.

We showed them our local cafes.

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And our local mountains.

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The ‘Littles’ reveled in the adventure.

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As did the “Bigs”.

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And of course with the kids so entertained our lives became easier. No complaints from Lyla on the hike into Abel-Tasman!

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Suddenly meals were fun!

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Tandem family caving.

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My favourite thing about the Christmas break is getting to spend quality time with family and friends. Although we missed the rellies back home, we had our surrogate family to share the holidays with in a surreal Kiwi Khristmas.

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Thankfully Santa went easy on the presents this year.
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Turkey dinner? You can’t have the oven heating up the house when it is hot. Steaks on the BBQ!
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Just because we are in New Zealand doesn’t mean we have to endure Christmas dinner without a decorative headgear made from the finest, most durable tissue paper known to man.
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Our nativity scene complete with Baby Jewish Jesus.
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Gandalf pulls a Taco and rocks up wondering where her present is.

And then despite our car’s satnav telling us we were in a Yokahama suburb we headed out on our roadtrip down south.

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“The Littles” put on a dab clinic showing us how to spice up the essential Roadtrip road shot.

The first week at our place was about us sharing our world with our friends but the next couple weeks on the road were about making discoveries together. There were lots of firsts: Hiking out to a glacier.

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Swimming in said glacier’s waters.

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My first ever dive from a height. I was either ‘inspired’ by Adam or felt tired of being emasculated by his headlong feats.

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Epic rope swing. There was actually handlebars from a kid’s bike at the end of the rope.

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My first ever cricket game.

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How’s that?!!

I ordered a Dungeons and Dragons adventure and dice from Amazon about a year ago after watching Stranger Things. I finally busted it out on the trip and to my amazement the kids found it just as compelling as any screen.

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Beheading goblins is hard work.

Luckily the Bisby’s enjoy the Art of the Mug as much as the Furbellies.

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Milford Sound was without a doubt the most touristy thing we did. Literally nobody lives there. It is just a tourist destination. I was skeptical. It won me over though as the beauty of the place overwhelmed. Some smart kiwi recognized that a hotel or village would detract from the natural setting and although a lot of tourists come visit it is immaculately managed. I’m sure the hotel chains are champing at the bit to get in there and I hope they continue to be rebuffed.

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Milford Sound is actually a fiord and not a sound at all. The didn’t want to reprint all the brochures so they didn’t bother changing the name. Reminiscent of Columbus’ “Indians”.

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One of hundreds of rain-dependent waterfalls. The good side to ‘bad’ weather.

It rains 225 times a year here so we were expecting the gloom but we were surprised and delighted when it cleared up

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The day (New Years Eve incidentally) continued with a tramp through the Gertrude Valley. Although only minutes from the tourist mecca of the Sound this equally majestic landscape was absolutely deserted.

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I know what you are thinking…nice mountains, but what about the jam? Well the ‘world famous in New Zealand’ Barkers of Geraldine jams and preserves has a tasting room in Geraldine which bombarded with gusto. I went in hungry and left stuffed. I ate a huge meal consisting only of jam. If my teenage self could only know what quaintness was in store for his future.

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The life-affirming ecstasy of a good beetroot relish

The 401 is an efficient highway but I’ve never pulled over to the side of the road for an impromptu swim.

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Originally Aoraki, Mount Cook, NZ’s highest peak in the background, provides the runoff water for Lake Pukaki. I saw not a single man-made structure on it’s shores.

Camille’s only request for the roadtrip was to visit the Margaret Mahy Playground in Christchurch which is the largest in the southern hemisphere.

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Marlborough is the adult version of a playground.

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The wineries were strangely kid-friendly. There were large open spaces, bean-bag chairs, tree swings and a bocce court. Strangely my daughters were still interested in the tastings, in particular comparing the Chardonnays with the Sauvingnon Blancs. It’s all about the flinty passionfruit on the nose.

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Eventually like all good things (all things really, good or bad) our vacation from our vacation came to an end. We are back home now and oddly happy with a slower, quieter existence of play-dates, work, and alternating between filling up and depleting our pantry.

Many moons from now when we are back in Toronto and wonder if this all actually happened we can turn to the Bisbys and they can assure us that yes, it was all true – and we had heaps of fun!

The Sentinel

Tramps (a.k.a. hikes in New Zealand) are great for getting past small talk, which usually runs out in the first few minutes. Over the next couple hours, the mind takes an amble of its own, and as a family we tend to cover quite a bit of ground. We tell stories of our youth, make up games, soapbox about screens, practice secret handshakes, justify our political leanings and brainstorm marketing ideas for Apple’s next line of smartphones. (We particularly liked the idea of naming models after apple varieties like Braeburn, Eve, Empire, Jazz, Honeycrisp, etc.)

Although our kids seem to hate tramps before we actually head out, they always come around in the end. It’s a mystery to me why they still haven’t learned that they actually like hiking. Still, we persist. On our last tramp above the Marlborough Sounds, we listened to Julie talk about Shakespeare. Specifically, she talked about the nature of a Shakespearean tragedy; it is not inly about death, but about the acute feeling that accompanies the loss of great potential: what could have been. We all know that sick feeling, how no amount of wishing for a different path can change the past. And yet we persist.

Outside our window is a Shire-esque, lamb-strewn paddock with a backdrop of the Kahurangi mountains. Just beyond the paddock is a gigantic, regal gum tree that stands watch.

The only problem is that it has been horribly disfigured by an over-zealous arborist. The canopy has completely disappeared and only the trunk remains. Their chainsaws couldn’t get around it so they left it there to rot, which won’t happen any time soon.

The city arborists were called to remove branches that were obstructing the highway below. They promised they would only trim it. Our landlord cried for 4 days when she saw their handiwork. A less majestic tree would simply have disappeared into the chipper but the mighty sentinel refused to be felled, and still stands guard.

But in its mutilated new form there is a strange beauty. It now harbours a nest for newly hatched birds. It is a defiant landmark on the Moutere Highway. It is a reminder of what could have been. It watches over our family and reminds us to make the best of the good times. This real-life Giving Tree has seen better days, and yet even in death it persists.

Chickens

eggs.jpgOne of the great pleasures of my life is eating fresh eggs. This sounds like hyperbole but I love food and an egg is usually the first thing I eat everyday. When I first tried eggs outside Canada I realized that the cheap supermarket eggs are the equivalent of a Domino’s pizza or a Labbatt Blue. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a pig in shit if you offer me a slice of pizza and a Blue after a hockey game but I also realize there are other, more refined, places to go on the pizza and beer front. I perfectly poached country egg is more like a King Slice arrabiatta and Dragon’s Tears Stout. It’s a beautiful thing really. Buttered fresh bread, salt and pepper and a self saucing protein glob of rich goo and I’m a happy man.

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(Fun fact: in NZ “egg” is a mild insult. It is a lighter, more playful way of calling someone an idiot.)

The owner of our house has a chicken coop and 6 hens. She generously shares the eggs and lets us participate in the care of the chickens. By the way, the term ‘animal husbandry’ is either an exalted term for managing the affairs of livestock or more probably a window into the concept of managerial marriages of old – just another beast to tame, domesticate and maximize yields of progeny.

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The girls named the hens and I really took to caring for them. Maybe it filled a hole that leaving Flashman at home created or maybe it just brings me in touch with the idea of managing resources which directly aid to the sustenance of life (rather than being paid in a universal currency to alter and manage computer files). Anyhow it wasn’t long until I asked around and found a farmer who sold me a couple pullets to call my own and add to the flock. Luckiest hens in the world. They free range all day in the NZ sun and chill in the shade of the gum trees uncovering squirming or crawling goodies at the roots. Then for supper we feed them grains, corn and layers pellets in the evening. We even cut up our kitchen scraps into hens sized morsels for dessert. Spoiled!

We tried to name them but there were just too many options. Since I’m a proponent of ranked ballots I figured this was a teachable moment. We all suggested names and wrote them down. Then we all had 4 votes. 2 votes were worth one point and 2 votes were worth two points. It was gratifying to scrap ‘first past the post’ in some small way. After all the votes were counted we ended up with Gandalf and Taco! (We are making our way through The Hobbit before bed.)

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Taco happily settling in to her new home.

Life was good. The eggs were divine. Occasionally Gandalf’s magical eggs were double yolked. And then one day the was a knock on the door of the house. The glass sliding door, and not at regular knocking height. It was more of a peck actually. It seemed Taco and Gandalf were much more adventurous than the other hens.

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The wise surveying eyes of Gandalf.

Our new hens also seemed friendlier than the others and often ran over to us for love (probably food but it felt like a more noble bond). This all seemed cute until Taco shit on the carpet. Enough of that. So we brought them back over the fence and plugged what we thought was the hole. When I bought them I asked the farmer to clip their wings so they wouldn’t be able to fly, so we figured they were getting under somehow. Then began a frustrating yet challenging war of wits. Everyday I would plug a potential hole in the fence (they have quite a big area to range) and by afternoon they would show up with their stupid little faces wanting to hang with the grown-ups. Shit on the deck was my main concern, but there is also a road nearby which doesn’t see much traffic, but it does see cars going at chicken-killing speeds. After about a week, we thought we had licked the escaping problem and were focusing on new issues like the chickens laying in the reeds by the river instead of their nests. We outsmarted them on that front by putting a golf ball on each of their nests to cue them to add to their clutch. all was peaceful and productive in the land of free range chickens.

Then, two days ago we got a text from one of our friends that there was a dead chicken down the road, wondering if it was ours. Dread ensued as Julie and I walked 100 metres down Harley Road to a brown pile of chicken to confirm what we already knew. Taco was no more. She had met her inglorious end at the business end of a speeding car. Although not learned in forensics, I can say with absolutely certainty that she didn’t suffer. I felt gutted and didn’t really feel like writing this post but I guess it is all she has in this world as a testament to her short life. That and her last egg that sits on my counter waiting to be poached.

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The Intrepid Taco the Chicken (Too soon for “why did the chicken cross the road” jokes in case you were wondering.