After living in New Zealand for nearly four years, the Wotrings are back in America.
I could blame our decision to move back on New Zealand’s watery avocados, which go from concrete to overripe in a matter of minutes. But the truth is: we were gone a long time. Family matters. Friendships matter. And with our newborn son starting to come online, Jess and I felt the timing was right to come home.
But the decision wasn’t easy. New Zealand is magnificent beyond words. We knew only bits and pieces about this tiny island nation before moving there. We expected jaw-dropping scenery, but what we discovered was a clean, safe, progressive country full of interesting people from all over the world.
Top 10 reasons we love New Zealand
1. Ridiculous weather. Wellington is the world’s windiest city. The average wind speed is 18mph – with gusts strong enough to relieve you of your roof. The country is located in the roaring forties, meaning strong wind blows around the clock. And while you’re chasing your fedora down the street, you better slap on sunscreen. Kiwis suffer from the world’s highest rate of skin cancer (not that we love that). And if that’s not enough, earthquakes rattle the country so often, New Zealand is known as the shaky isles.
2. Mixomatosis. Stumble into any house party or office and you’re likely to encounter a wide mix of people from Australia, England, China, Canada, South Africa, France and elsewhere. This cultural surplus makes life more interesting. And with more restaurants per capita than NYC, Wellington dishes up authentic takes on every cuisine – Vietnamese being the best, of course.
3. Good goods. From fruity sauvignon blanc to Icebreaker jackets, New Zealand makes high quality products. If something is made in New Zealand, buy it. Unlike in America, where value often trumps quality (think 99 Taco Bell cent burritos), kiwis value fewer, nicer things. Consumerism is no path to happiness, and New Zealand has this figured out.
4. Work and life are equals. In New Zealand, money matters, having a good job matters. But equally important is your next world trip. Kiwis are intrepid travelers, often leaving the country for months on end to explore parts unknown. People held in highest esteem aren’t those working nights and weekends to afford their next McMansion. But those who make equal time for work, family, friends, hobbies and travel. Workers in New Zealand get a minimum of six weeks off annually.
5. Less junk in food. Growing up in midwest America, you’d be a legend to score a great deal on a mediocre lunch … versus paying full price for a high-quality lunch. Mmmmm, cheap poison. Food quality is a higher standard in New Zealand. Peruse your average grocery store and you’ll find natural foods are the norm. There, peanut butter is 100% ground peanuts – not peanuts and oils and sugars and chemicals. Pound for pound, their food is simply healthier. And the coffee!
6. Oh baby. We had Luke in New Zealand. And because we hold residence visas, he was born with dual citizenship. The idea of giving birth in a foreign country is intimidating, but New Zealand made the whole process straightforward and priceless – literally. All the hours of professional consultations, scans, midwife appointments, surgery, recovery, meals, medical checkups … all free. That cost is baked into taxes, of course, but the convenience of leaving the hospital without a bill is worth every penny.
7. Stop it already. From wild oceans to forests to soaring peaks to deserts and volcanoes. See them all in a day. The country’s size makes it easy to travel from one dramatic landscape to another. New Zealand’s natural beauty is arguable its best quality. And no better way to experience it than behind the wheel of a 90’s “big steamer” Toyota campervan.
8. Tree huggers. Parched? Go ahead: drink straight from that backcountry stream. Kiwis are fiercely protective of their natural environment. Just try to sneak dirty hiking boots past border security. 30 percent of the country is protected land, and the government does a good job with its limited conservation budget to maintain an awesome network of walking tracks and nearly a thousand backcountry huts. And don’t worry about dangerous animals – you’re on top of the food chain.
9. Tidy kiwis. One could attribute the lack of litter on the streets to hurricane force winds blowing everything to sea, but I’m chalking it up to attitude. Kids are taught to be tidy kiwis, a concept that prevails into adulthood. When you live in a clean place, you want to uphold that standard. It’s an unspoken bond that unites Wellingtonians and makes you feel privy to a secret: that you’re living in one of the world’s great cities. Shhhhh.
10. Positivity polite. Most kiwis are delightful. Ask your workmate how it’s going and you’re likely to get a positive answer – even if a wizard put a curse on his dog that morning. Servers and mechanics? Relaxed and friendly. Airplane attendants? Smiling as they pour you another pinot noir. Decorum is the golden rule, as more people choose to bite their tongue than make a scene. It’s a better way to be.
There you have it. With so much to love about New Zealand, I’ve barely scratched the surface. When we first arrived, most of these cultural aspects felt weird – but over time they became normal. Now that we’re back in America – Golden, Colorado to be exact – will New Zealand’s charms stay with us or will we fall back into our old ways? I’m keen-as to stay good as gold, matey potatey 🙂
One of my wishes for Luke is that he cherishes his New Zealand citizenship. I hope his connection to the shaky isles keeps us connected as well. We look forward to many visits and who knows … maybe residency again some day? When he’s old enough to walk, I want to take him up Hawker Street (where he got his middle name) and through the forest to the summit of Mount Victoria – a walk I did hundreds of times and it never lost its magic.
Thank you New Zealand for being so good to us. We’ll treasure these memories forever.
–Scott, Jess & Luke
On October 23rd at 11:41am, I found my breaking point. It happened 2100 metres up Mount Hopeless, on a calm spring day, when my climbing partner and I decided enough was enough. I stood breathless as we watched the other members of our group rope up and turn a corner into the void. They were willing to accept the risk. We were not.
Truth is, I didn’t expect to summit. I’d heard (and read) Mount Hopeless was a difficult climb. My climbing partner Sirius Buisson and I had little technical experience. If we were going to summit, it would be our good fitness and grit that got us to the top.
Our trip was led by Simon Williamson, Wellington section chair of the NZ Alpine Club, and secretary Carolyn Ellis. From Picton we piled into a NZAC-rented bus, big enough for the All Blacks, and drove two hours south to St. Arnaud where we arrived at 11pm and camped by the lake.
The next morning was calm and cool, the kind of morning the eels of Lake Rotoiti live for. At 7:30 we met our taxi boat driver and forked over $30 apiece for a 15-minute ride that saved us two hours of walking. We began our hike at Coldwater Hut. My shoulders immediately begged for mercy under the weight of my pack. Like climbing and camping gear, whisky is essential for dealing with Mount Hopeless.
From there it was a five-hour walk to Hopeless hut. Three hours in, a DOC sign warned us that our hut was closed due to avalanche risk. After a brief chat and a collective fuck that, we continued past the sign, suitably titillated by the added danger.
Hopeless hut was built by members of the NZ Alpine Club and opened by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1967. Given the warning sign, we weren’t surprised to find the hut empty. We settled in and enjoyed a leisurely afternoon of swatting sandflies by the river.
We awoke the next morning at 4am and set foot up Hopeless Creek for the summit. Torches ablaze, we bashed our way up the east side of the creek before emerging onto the subalpine scrub. Behind us the peak of Mount Angeles glowed pink under the rising sun. We continued upward, following cairns for another hour until we reached the snow line where we strapped on our crampons.
Then disaster struck. A technology disaster, that is. Seeing his Instagram moment, Sirius whipped out his phone for selfie and then FUDGE – the phone slipped from his hand, hit the crusty snow and slid 500 feet down the mountain face and over a cliff into phone heaven. It was a sobering reminder of our fate should we be as careless with ourselves.
We continued zigzagging up the late morning snow. My anxiety rose as we approached a steep couloir. Simon lead the way, the group following in lockstep. At the top of the 200 metre chute was a corniced ridge. I noted to myself that a fall back down the way we came would feel like a massage compared to the guaranteed deathfall on the other side.
From here we began scrambling up loose rock, the consequences of a fall now lethal. It didn’t take long before Sirius and I threw in the towel. The exposure was just too scary. I knew it was time to call it quits when I wanted to cry, shit and vomit simultaneously. Simon and Carolyn didn’t seem phased – but for Sirius and me, this was our riskiest climb to date. We pushed ourselves further than ever before. So with mixed emotions we shouted our goodbyes and belayed two pitches down to the relative safety of the snow bowl below.
It was an emotional lunch as we sat looking at the massif. On one hand, I was relieved to be in relative safety and pleased with our accomplishment. We agreed to turn around at the same point, which made our decision easier. On the other hand, we lost to the mountain. Failures. Denied. I pondered our decision as a spider moved in on my cheese. I wondered if the elusive summit was just beyond. If we had braved that last pitch, would we have topped out shortly after?
With our minds and bellies full, we descended 1,000 metres back to the hut, and didn’t waste time cracking into the celebratory-turned-consolatory whisky and pastis. The hours ticked by as we waited for Simon and Carolyn. Soon it was 5pm. Then 7. When darkness fell I began to worry. Finally, at 10pm, the door swung open and in marched our weary climbing partners.
Turns out they’d continued climbing for several hours, ascending to great heights but stopping 40 metres shy of the summit. It was too dangerous to press on they said. After 15 hours and no dinner, I would been homicidal. But they seemed oddly content as they recounted their afternoon. I was relieved they were back safe, and soon allowed the sound of their Jetboil to lull me into a deep sleep.
On our walk out the next day, we spoke about risk and our decision to turn back. I confessed that Sirius and I were probably ill-equipped to tackle what turned out to be a grade 3 route. I also confessed my presumption that a trip with NZAC instructors would mean personal instruction. Club trips, I learned, aren’t structured this way. They’re trips for members by members but are not instructional by nature. This keeps risk the responsibility of the individual and not the trip leader. What frustrated us the day before as we watched our trip leaders disappear into the clouds made perfect sense then.
What doesn’t makes sense, however, as I ponder the trip weeks now, is how a weekend climb can be satisfying yet an objective failure. I suppose if I ever want to get serious about climbing I have to make peace with failure. But what would Walter Bonatti say to that? When is failure smart and when is it weakness? I’ve got a lot to learn.
Since moving to an island in the South Pacific two years ago, Jess has been begging me to take her to an island in the South Pacific. A smaller one, she said. More tropical than New Zealand. Hot too, with nice beaches and lolly blue water.
With our childless days coming to a close, we found ourselves on a flight to Rarotonga. The most populous island in the country of Cook Islands, Rarotonga is the quintessential castaway island. On the map it’s a speck in the ocean, much like its rich uncles Fiji and Tahiti. It’s currency is the New Zealand dollar, and at 3.5 hours from Auckland, it’s an easy getaway for kiwis.
At midnight we arrived to ukuleles strumming in the airport. From the backseat of a beater minivan, we rode a bumpy 30 minutes to the south coast – our young kiwi driver cheerfully mocking the tiny town centre as we passed through it. We eventually reached Te Ava Villas, our Air B&B for the next six days, and drifted to sleep with dreams of magazine cover beaches that awaited us.
What we got instead was a bloody cold rainstorm! Well, cold for Rarotonga. According to the property manager of our house, a weather system in South Carolina had brought heavy rain to the region. I found it difficult to believe a storm a zillion miles away could have that sort of butterfly affect, but agreeableness being a benefit of holiday making, I slowly nodded my head. “Well how about that.”
In my suitcase was a sealed envelope containing the results of our anatomy scan. The plan was to reveal our baby’s gender in an adventurous sort of way, perhaps underwater with the GoPro filming. However, facing a day of downpours and a wife – I won’t say obsessed, let’s say preoccupied – with learning the sex of our child, we chose a suitable palm tree near our house and opened the envelope.
I’m now very proud to announce on this blog, and with great anticipation for a future of trail-blazing, slingshot-making and omelet-flipping, that we are having a BOY in January!
With the main event behind us, we shifted focus to the many things to love about Rarotonga. The island is a 20-mile circle. In the middle are untamed mountains. On the edges are resorts, shops and restaurants which pepper the road around the island. We sought a balance of activity and relaxation which came easy thanks to a surplus of both idyllic beaches and fun things to do.
First things first. The snorkeling is fantastic! The island is surrounded by a lagoon, often several hundred feet from shore. This provides calm (and shark-free) water to swim, snorkel, kayak and paddleboard with impunity. Our beachfront bungalow (which cost half the price of nearby resorts) came with a car and two snorkel sets, enabling hours of exploring the hotspots. The water was clear and the ocean life plentiful. The best snorkeling was outside Charlie’s cafe on the south side, perhaps explaining their best-on-the-island fish sandwich.
Another can’t-miss activity is the cross-island walk. Going north the south, a steep and technical track bisects the island, topping out at the needle, a bushy monolith visible throughout Rarotonga. The 10K track is slippery, with death falls in places, so Jess joined for the first 30 minutes and left me to finish the walk solo. A guide is recommended but the track easy to follow and absolutely delightful if you like to be alone with chirping birds and banana trees.
The walk is a good way to burn off the atomic calorie bombs you’ll absorb at the many cafes and restaurants. Unlike other tropical destinations we’ve been to – which cater to us hungry North Americans – the food on Rarotonga is quite average. Nearly all of it is imported, leading to fresh-yesterday flavours and high prices. I found the service dreary as well, with waitstaff understandably gazing beyond us and into the horizon of tomorrow’s dreams.
No bother though. This smoothed the way to breakfasts and lunches at home, time spent sunbathing to our own music and drinking from coconuts we shucked and cracked ourselves. In the evenings we’d sniff out beach bars on the west coast where sunsets, migrating whales and affordable wines were on special (just don’t expect craft beer). Shipwreck Hut was the best of the bunch.
Having circled the island several times (including once on bike – props Uncle Jessie!), I’d say the west coast is the best coast. The north is largely unswimmable. The east is crowded. The south where we stayed is nice for snorkelling but just can’t compare to the sandy and sunny west coast.
I hope you all get a chance to experience Rarotonga. With its unique sheltered lagoon, plentiful private beaches and pinch-me setting, we give it two snorkels up!
Here’s a five-minute video with highlights from the gender reveal and our favourite activities. Enjoy!
The Wellington section of the New Zealand Alpine Club summited Te ao Whekere in the Seaward Kaikouras over the Queen’s Birthday weekend in spectacular fashion.
At 2590 metres, Te ao Whekere (the world of the gods) is the second tallest peak in the range. Following a cold snap, the mountains wore a fresh coat of snow, transforming the trip from a basic tramp to a class 1 alpine adventure.
Joining the trip were Simon and Carolyn of the Wellington committee, club members Leo and myself from Wellington, and Summer and Matt from Christchurch. We arrived at the Puhi Puhi campsite Friday at 11pm and jumped straight in our bags.
In the morning, following a lesson from Simon in transceiver mechanics, we drove 30 minutes to the road-end and met Matt, operations manager at Kaikoura Wilderness Experience. Matt graciously allowed us to cross the property and approach the mountain via the most direct route, Happy Valley. He noted that had we come when the property was exclusively booked, we would have been forced to ascend the longer and steeper route up Jordan Stream.
With our boots laced and lollies at hand, we set foot at 10:30am. Matt kindly escorted us to the edge of the farm where we began our journey into the bush. We made quick work of the overgrown track, with bellbirds providing the soundtrack. Jackets were soon stripped off.
After 90 minutes, we emerged onto a 4WD track which snaked down to Shearwater Lodge, a luxury six-room accommodation ran by Matt’s company. We peered through the windows and gawked at the regal appointments, admitting we’d all be fine with canning the trip and spending the weekend here.
Despite the temptation we carried on up the poled south bank of Happy Valley Stream. At a confluence, we crossed the river and climbed a bushy spur to a plateau at 1636 metres. We spotted several deer along the way. Leo, the hunter in our group, foamed at the mouth, wasting precious water.
Our initial plan was to camp at the saddle below the summit. However, facing a setting sun and dropping energy levels, we opted to make a final push to 1910 metres and pitch camp there. This turned out to be a spectacular setting, with Kaikoura twinkling below us and the mountains towering above.
Our cookers struggled against the sugary snow and altitude. Tea eventually came, then dinner, then it was into the bags at 7pm for a long night of summit dreams.
The next morning we rose with the sun. Leaving most our gear at camp, we left for the summit at 9:30am under a still blue sky. We strapped on our crampons and traversed a snowy hill, cutting off peak 2109M and gaining the summit ridge. We marvelled at our luck – another cloudless sky and but a breath of wind.
1pm was our turnaround time. At noon, still well below the summit, we stopped for a snack and contemplated the next part of the climb – a grade 4 scramble up steep snow chutes. Not to be denied the summit, Matt led this section with confidence. In a flash, we were past the hard bits and onto the final exasperating slog up the snowy scree to the false summit and indeed the proper summit at 12:59:05 – less than a minute to spare.
From the top, we took in Wellington to the north, Tappy and the Inward Kaikouras to the west, Kaikoura to the east and the infinite snowy peaks of the Southern Alps to the south. The summit didn’t come easy and I was damn proud to make it.
After a round of summit selfies, we descended the way we came. Throughout the entire climb, the rock was loose, which raised the threat of rockfall, but we returned without incident. We arrived at camp just before sunset and enjoyed a celebratory whisky before retiring to bed at a geriatric 7:30pm.
Sunday morning, we broke camp after brekkie and made our final descent, highlighted by a screen run down to Happy Valley Stream. There we enjoyed limitless water for the first time in days and spotted more deer on the hills. Soon after, we dipped below the treeline and finished at the cars where our focus shifted from cold toes to cold beer.
This was my first trip with the alpine club and I’m so grateful for the wonderful learning experience. A special thanks to Kaikoura Wilderness Experience for allowing us to cross their land. Also to Leo for the good company and enduring my snoring like a gentleman. And finally to Carolyn, the trip leader, who did a masterful job of organising what turned out to be a weekend fit for a queen.
Hi again from the trail. Saturday I competed in the Xterra Wellington Starlight Run, race number 4 in a series that’s now taken me and my masochistic peers over the searing hills of Red Rocks, into Belmont’s bush, under the towering turbines of West Wind Park, and this weekend, sliding around the muddy tracks of Makara Mountain Bike Park.
At 10K, this was the shortest long course of the series. But before you scoff at it – this wasn’t your mum-in-laws 10K. It was 1,600’ of climbing. On slippery, narrow tracks. At night. In a rainstorm.
AKA mega fun!
My workmate Troy was to join me. This is the man who introduced me to trail running back in 2014. I remember the run … my lungs rebelled as we switchbacked up Tinakori Hill. I wished death upon everything he held dear. Eventually we topped out and I stood panting in awe of the shimmering turquoise harbour and white peaks of Kaikoura just beyond. My love for trail running was born.
I thought the nasty weather might deter him. Rain, wind, hail – not exactly inviting. As I drove to the start line, rain pounded against the windshield, drowning out the sound of his text: “The scarier the better. Where you at?”
The race began at the end of St. Albans Road in Karori. With enough nervous energy to power a shoe factory, the airhorn finally blew at 6pm. 331 of us set foot under a brooding sky.
The peloton of spindly try-hards emerged quickly, leaving a mass of humanity to jockey for position, which after a kilometre or so, more or less remained in place for the duration of the race. This was especially true on the first ascent to Makara Peak. The track was narrow, slippery and technical, making passing difficult. I fell into a pack and ran the 1,400 feet to the top.
Sweat-soaked, I emerged on the summit ridge and enjoyed a spirited tailwind propelling me down a wide gravel road. Here, the fit and fearless powered past the masses before returning to the single-track. What followed was my favorite part of the race. Great flow under the bushy green canopy of Sally Alley. Eventually our course merged with the short course, causing a bottleneck which most runners were courteous about, but indeed slowed the pace.
I ran headlamp in hand. Dim light kept my speed in check. My fastest spurts came when I tucked in behind someone with a strong light and followed them in lockstep. On one occasion, my pacesetter slipped on a muddy corner and went tumbling into the bush – letting out a comical “ahhhhh!” as he crashed. I restrained my laughter and checked if he was alright. I was relieved to see was laughing too and I kept going.
I neared the bottom of the hill with scepticism, knowing that Tomo – who we’ve already exposed as a sadist – wouldn’t let us off the hook that easily. Sure enough, with the finish line within earshot, the course curved satanically back up the mountain for a final lung-busting loop before eventually dropping down to the pizza party and smiling faces at the finish line.
Exhausted, drenched, mud-caked and lactic to the max, I never felt happier. I simply cannot overstate how cool these races are. Tomo puts it best: “beats another dinner party every time.”
Soon after, Troy crossed the finish line. This was his first Xterra race of the year and he absolutely crushed it. Basking in the afterglow, we chatted excitedly on the walk back to the car, making plans to tackle harder mountains, paying no mind to the cold rain pissing down on us.
The final Xterra Wellington race of the season is 12 June at Mt. McKerrow.
I don’t know Tomo but I already don’t like him.
I’m midway through the 18K course at Makara wind farm, race three of XTERRA Wellington’s five-race series. The sun is shining. I’ve just been handed a chocolate fish. But the only feeling that registers comes from a handwritten sign reading “Heartbreak Hill … thank Tomo.” I crane my head skyward and gulp at the line of runners-turned-walkers-turned-zombies shuffling up the steep dusty track into thin air. My legs beg me not to.
First let’s start at the beginning. XTERRA started in 1996 as an off-road triathlon in Maui. Since then, it’s grown into the gold standard of swimming, mountain biking and trail running events worldwide. XTERRA Wellington has been organising trail races around the capitol since 2008. Each race includes a short, medium and long course.
Today, I’m joined by 500 runners keen to test their strength against the coastal cliffs, ankle-breaking beach rocks, thorny bushes and never-ending, soul-crushing, sheep shit-covered hills. I have to remind myself I paid for this.
Although this hill wants me dead, deep down I’m excited to have a go. I’ve been training hard for this race. Last year I finished in the top half of the field. My goal today is the top quarter.
Halfway up heartbreak hill, I take a FaceTime call from a mate back in the states. I normally wouldn’t do this, but I thought a minute of New Zealand scenery might make him jealous. My plan backfired however when he showed no interest in the race whatsoever, and instead delighted in torturing me with video of the cheesecake and IPA he was consuming. I hung up and choked down another packet of citrus slime.
I eventually reach the top and enjoy a fine stretch through the wind farm. The turbine-covered tops of Meridian’s West Wind park is usually closed to the public. Today we’re lucky enough to have access to the park and its sweeping views of Wellington’s spectacular west coast. My runner’s high is in full affect. I want to hug Wellington and never let go.
The good vibes soon evaporate when I see what awaits me. The track, which last year continued lazily to the finish, this year demonically takes a hairpin turn and drops steeply back to the valley. One last foray along the gorse-lined bottoms, is it Tomo? Fine – bring it on. I scurry down the hill, dip and weave through the prickly bush and emerge for one last climb … the biggest one of all … up into the clouds, past heaven and onto the race’s summit, before descending to the finish.
I completed the race in 2 hours and one minute. Although I’m pleased to finish in the top quarter, the time elicits little response in me. I’ve never been a numbers guy. While others look at their watches I look at the birds. For real. What gets me out the door is the buzz that comes from the fresh air, mud, sweat and the general feeling of well-being that comes from leaving Tomo’s sign in the dust.
If I’ve painted a daunting picture of this race, good – it is daunting. But that’s why we compete, isn’t it? For the transformation that occurs somewhere between the start and finish lines, where the mind drifts and the body dutifully propels you toward a better version of yourself.
Truth is, I secretly like Tomo and his heartbreaking hills. And I’d venture to say that once we all return home and wash away the mud, leaving only the sore muscles and memories of a fun, beautiful and well-organised event, we all do.
The XTERRA Wellington trail running series continues 28 May with the Makara night run and 12 June with McKerrow’s Revenge. Register at xterrawellington.co.nz
Jess and I hit the South Island for the holidays. Instead of the usual rigmarole, I thought I’d share some GoPro footage instead…
Scott & Jess
We finally made it to Asia! A continent that’s alluded us for 34 years. Well no more. Last month Jess and I travelled to Thailand for 10 days of what’s this place all about? Here’s what we discovered.
We arrived in Bangkok after 15 hours of travel from Wellington. At the airport we cashed up and jumped in a sketchy pink taxi for 90 minutes of stop-and-go traffic to Chinatown.
Our senses were the first to notice. Hot, loud, smelly, crowded – everything we hoped it would be. We dropped our bags at the hotel and set off.
We couldn’t have looked more out of place. Jess in her cocktail attire, me steering us down dead-end alleys, camera and map in hand. It felt like a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. I was certain an ambush was coming – our identities would be on the silk road by midnight.
But the ambush never came. Intimidating at first, the mean streets of Bangkok began to feel manageable. We hit the markets and temples. We bartered with street vendors. We hopped in Mad Max golf carts and zoomed around to Lonely Planet destinations.
Before traveling to Thailand, all everyone said was EAT THE FOOD. Eat everything. Try the fish head soup. Try the fried bugs. Try the asphalt off the ground, so long as there’s satay sauce handy.
Despite these proclamations, I found the food in Chinatown – though cheap and abundant – to be super weird. Piles of uncooked chicken sat out in the blazing sun. Fly-swarmed meat sizzled in woks down deserted alleys. In a world of sanitary scoring, Bangkok’s Chinatown is incomprehensible. Save for the odd mango slice, none of it was familiar. It was a culinary explorers paradise.
At one particularly memorable al fresco dinner, Jess pointed and nodded her order to a no-English chef. When the plate of brown fish arrived, the man next to us began hacking up loogies, something the stray cats didn’t seem to mind. It wasn’t your average dinner at Outback.
I think one of us enjoyed the experience more than the other. 🙂
After two days in Bangkok, we hopped an Air Asia flight to the jungly northern reaches of Chiang Mai. There we met Jess’ long time bestie Erin and Trent, fresh off the plane from Chicago.
A walk around the city revealed a quieter, quirkier Thailand.
Here the street food was Thai to the max. Jess ordered a banana leaf bowl of fresh pad thai for 75 cents.
Everybody rides scooters in Thailand.
On day four, we escaped to Spicy Villa, two hours north of the city.
Our solar powered, no flush, no hot water, open air bungalows were connected by a sitting area where we drank shitty lager and listened to Thai music in the sticky, nowhere-to-be afternoon hours.
Spicy Villa is one of a kind … an eclectic jungle oasis … a far-flung place where world-traveling twenty somethings can gather and enjoy a few days off the grid, living out their Jack Kerouac fantasies. The place screams no-iPhones. Shoes are forbidden. Communal rice wine is passed around in an old water bottle. It’s everything new-gen whitey could ask for.
In the morning we met our elephants and trekked around the jungle for a couple hours. Jess made a special connection with hers.
On day six, we hugged goodbye to Trent and Erin and flew south to Krabi, where we waded into the ocean and climbed onto a long boat for the rock climbing party island of Railay Beach.
We stayed at the Phutawan Resort, a 10 minute walk from the beach. We splurged for this top floor room overlooking a 2,000 foot limestone cliff and the Andaman Sea. Worth every baht!
Jess swam and got massaged while I climbed the limestone. The rock climbing outfit at the resort offered half-day climbs for $20.
It was my favorite day of the trip.
After the climb, we strolled down to the beach and set up shop. The sunset was an Instagram dream come true!
Phi Phi Island
Saving the best for last, we ferried 90 minutes to our last stop, Phi Phi Island.
Here we met up again with Trent and Erin, who had stayed in Chiang Mai for a few extra days. Jess and I dined near the pier while we waited for them to arrive.
At this glorious moment, Jess got nauseous. We thought it was motion sickness, but the feeling persisted.
On our boat ride to the resort, I laughed at her misfortune from the bow.
As we drifted toward the resort, I jumped out and swam. I couldn’t contain my excitement … three days of snorkelling, climbing and exploring this remote island … come on!
And then it hit me too. The moment we arrived in paradise, Jess and I were both smashed with two days of food poisoning. Confined to our bungalow, we took turns on the toilet. We couldn’t hold anything down. At night I left our room in search of food. All I could forage was a red pepper which I stole from the restaurant. A few bites each and it was instant karma projectile vomit. Hell would have been a lateral move.
But we eventually came right and soaked up the 100 degree temps.
Despite our gastropacolypse, traveling with Erin and Trent was great. In a world of we totally should some day, we made it happen. An eye-opening trip which at some point was relaxing, frenetic, delicious, horrendous, sexy, filthy, luxurious, sticky, and most often, good fun.
“We’re going to die out here!”
Scary words from a scared girl. And understandably so. We recently found ourselves stranded in a remote river gorge, forced to camp overnight without a tent or sleeping bag. Whitewater thundered behind us as we stood soaking on the riverbank at dusk wondering: How the hell had we gotten into this mess?
Let’s start at the beginning. In 2011, Andy Morrison hired me to guide whitewater in Alaska. For Jess and me, it was our Girdwood Summer. Bare feet. Endless pine trees. Guiding smiling tourists down a tame, scenic river. We eventually moved back to suburban America and Andy and I lost touch – that is, until he emailed out of the blue to say he was in New Zealand and that we should catch up for a beer.
As these things go, one beer turned into three, and soon we were poring over maps on my living room floor. We hatched a plan to kayak the Ngaruroro River in Hawke’s Bay. A wild and remote part of a wild and remote country. He’d brought a couple boats with him from Alaska. Jess and I would take the inflatable kayak. He and Patty would take the two-person raft he picked up for $50 at a garage sale. Little info exists on the river beyond “wilderness and worth it.” That’s all we needed to hear.
We arrived at the put-in at 11am Sunday. We’d read the 39K section of the river takes 4-10 hours. Although a two-day trip is advised, we opted not to weigh down the boats with camping gear and run it in a day. Figured we’d smash it out and be in the pub by dark. This is where you scream “dumbasses!” at your computer.
The first two hours were pleasantly challenging. Fun class II boulder gardens. The scenery was remote mountain wilderness. We found our rhythm: run a few rapids, eddy out and talk shit. I felt cautiously confident. I had kayaked class II a few times, but it was Jess’ first whitewater kayaking trip. Knowing the hard bits were still ahead, my heart thumped as we ventured deeper into the gorge.
Suddenly our luck changed. We turned a corner to find Andy standing over his half-deflated boat. A sharp rock had ripped a 10-inch tear in the front tube. Now let me pause here to paint a picture of isolation. We had travelled 40 kilometres west of the tiniest of towns to reach the take out. From there, it was another hour deeper into the bush to where we shoved off. At this point we were five miles down a winding river gorge. No cell service. No trails out. No turning back.
Andy attempted a repair with a sewing awl, epoxy, patch kit and duct tape, exhausting most of his repair supplies. After 45 minutes, we nervously inflated the raft, testing the patch. We gulped when the patch blew. From this point, they’d be forced to keep the raft buoyant with an air-stuffed dry bag, leaving them in a slow, unstable, non-bailing raft for the crux of the river.
We soldiered on. Their raft had gone from so-so to sluggish. Hours ticked by as slowly paddled into progressively harder rapids. Jess and I had taken a few swims. Boulders were the enemy. Hit one dead on and your boat would be turned sideways and flipped before you could tell the river gods to suck it.
In one particularly memorable moment, Jess – having recently been ejected from the kayak – maneuvered herself not to look downstream toward danger but rather upstream toward me just to flip me off and yell something unrepeatable on this blog.
The day was slipping away. Soon, it was 5pm, then 6. At 7:15, with darkness closing in, we made the hard decision to camp for the night. To carry on in the dark could be deadly. We would build a shelter, share what food we had left, and stay up all night stoking the fire if we had to. Andy’s family would be left wondering what happened to us. We had no other choice.
So we got to work. I collected firewood while Andy built a shelter. We had beer but nobody felt like drinking. After a hobo-certified dinner, we cozied up on the rocks with our space blanket and life jackets and attempted to sleep. When the fire was hot, life was bearable. When the flames died down, one of us was up stoking it. This carried on until sunrise when the great fire in the sky showed up to handle the work for us. Having endured the night, a sense of satisfaction came over me. Jess will go on record saying the whole thing was a disaster. Me, I think a cold night in the bush is a test – and we passed.
At 9am we reluctantly donned our dry suits and shoved off.
Based on our estimated location, we had another 2-4 hours on the river. Then it was straight to wine country to wash away the trauma in a river of chardonnay. That was the plan, at least.
As we ventured deeper into the canyon, the rapids grew harder. Class II morphed into class III, a major leap in difficulty for a newish paddler like me. This resulted in frequent stops to scout the river, and in most cases, portage the rapid by either carrying our boats over the increasingly steep and slippery riverbank or shepherding them down the river by rope.
Having spent 20 years on the river, this was just another day in the office for Andy. Jess and I, on the other hand, were intimidated. Whatever chemical your body produces to cope with anxiety was depleted long ago, making us zombies – hungry, sleepless and frankly, scared of the river ahead. Around every corner was a new challenge, hit your mark or it’s back in the drink, gasping and pinballing through cold, boulder-strewn, potentially-lethal whitewater.
Like the previous day, the hours ticked by. Four hours. Then five. We were still in the gorge when POW – a thunderbolt cracked overhead. Lightning lit up the sky. Then came rain – then hail. We scurried into the forest for shelter. We’d wait five minutes from the last lightning bolt. A few cold minutes would pass and the counter would reset. Rain streamed into our drysuits as we huddled together wiggling our fingers and toes.
At this point, Jess had run out of curse words. Venomless, she was reduced to a near catatonic state. Each new twist of fate was met with an exasperated sigh and a moan which I roughly translated to, “that’s one more massage you owe me, ranger rick, I mean dick…”
In hindsight, I can’t help but think … of course that’s what happened. We attempted a two-day river in one, with a late start, too little information, too little experience (for Jess and me), too slow a boat and too little gear. As we sat on the riverbank shivering, I contemplated our many mistakes. I was grateful we’d escaped serious injury to this point but mad at myself for putting us in that position. It won’t happen again.
The lightning passed and we paddled on. The hard bits were behind us now. Eventually, the gorge gave way to farmland and the class III rapids were but a distant memory. Those beers we left chilling were now cracked. The sun popped out as we floated the last two hours in peace. I can’t be certain but I may have caught Jess in a moment of weakness smiling.
We reached the car on night two at dusk. What we thought would take 8 hours on the river took 17. Another storm was blowing in as we chucked our wet gear in the campervan and headed back to the start. I marveled at how two hard-fought days on the river could be erased in just one hour-long car ride. At last, we reached Andy’s car. Hugs were exchanged as we parted ways – them east to their waiting family in Napier, us west to Wellington, a five-hour drive in the dark, over a narrow mountain pass, exhausted, into the wee hours of the morning.
Finally, something easy.
It’s Autumn in Wellington, which means the weather is turning sour, and just like the daily temperatures, our visitor count is dropping. In fact it’s now zero. Everyone who said they’d come visit us has. It’s been the summer of love. Can I tell you about it?
Adam & Kelly
Our first visitors this summer were my sister and brother-in-law. As detailed in previous blogposts, we borrowed all the world’s fun for a week. Fears were conquered, and in turn, new fears were created, such as what if I get hit in the head with a softball someday and forget all these great memories?
Kerry & Debbie
Next off the plane were Jess’ folks, Kerry and Debbie – AKA dirty money and splitster. It was their first trip outside of North America, and after a few days of eating and drink our way through Wellington, we hopped on a ferry to the south island and promptly put ourselves in harms way. From Picton we rented kayaks and paddled two hours over the open sea to Lochmara Lodge. Beachy drinks were charged to faraway tabs. A parrot watched over us. Merriment was at an all-time high.
Following the return paddle on Sunday, I ferried back to Wellington while the Swansons continued west to Golden Bay. Photos of deserted beaches were heartlessly texted to me while I stared out my office window and daydreamed of the not-so-distant past in which wine hangovers were easily outweighed by the good company.
Later that week, we picnicked at Moa point in Wellington. When night came we laid on blankets and scanned the sky for shooting stars. Moments later, the sky lit up with a one-in-a-million meteorite and sonic boom. That’s the kind of week we had.
We maximized every day with those guys. If vacations were bocce ball tosses, there’s would be an inch from the jack. That’s as close as Kerry could get against me. 🙂
The next person through our turnstile door this summer was cupcake. Cupcake is a friend of ours from Raleigh. She’s tall and skinny with crimpy hair, and an eminence so strong, she requires only a single name. Like Madonna.
Cupcake’s visit came with stipulations. Something like, “I can only do this once in my life so it better be good.” Candy-coated threats which when said with a smile were 100% undetectable as to whether or not she meant them.
I’m only half kidding. Cupcake is a beloved friend of ours and we were grateful to host her. Whereas other visitors came without plans, cupcake came with an agenda. So after the obligatory two days of wine-hopping and exploring Wellington’s city trails, we found ourselves back on the ferry, this time en route to the fairytale beaches of Abel Tasman National Park.
The hike into Anchorage Hut is second only to the hut itself. In a country where hut can mean a sheet of plywood leaning against a dead tree, Anchorage hut is fit for a queen. Newly built in 2013, it comes with modern appointments such as flushing toilets, solar lighting, tidy bunk rooms and filtered water.
After a couple days of frolicking on the beach, it was back to Wellington for me while the girls continued south, ticking off a west coast beach lodge, sightseeing in Arthur’s Pass, thermal pools in Hamner Springs, kayaking with seals in Kaikoura and a drinking tour of Marlborough’s sauvignon blanc wine country. A special week, that one, by the sounds of it.
Her last night in town we saw Sharon Van Etten at Bodega. And although the acoustics were dodgy, the mood was jolly. Cupcake left the country the next morning both exhausted and happy, as every vacation should end. I heard that during the goodbyes, tears welled up, causing her frosting to melt down her cheeks and into the waiting cup of my sugar-addicted wife.
Bruce & Sue
Our final visitors this summer were my parents. Like Jess’ parents, mine had never left North America, so I was curious to see how they’d react to the land of kilometers, $10 pints and opposite side driving. Turns out great despite my best effort to adventure them into the ground. With Wellington in our rearview, we started their visit with a four-hour drive north to Tongariro for a long weekend of fly fishing and trekking – capped off with a soggy yet rewarding hike across New Zealand’s quintessential day hike, the Tongariro Crossing.
This was followed by a five-day bike tour from Nelson to Kaiteretere on the south island. Of all the visitor activities this summer, this bike trip was my favorite. As a DIY man, I rarely use vendors to plan adventures. However, this time I sought the help of Gentle Cycling Company to organize a supported bike tour. For a reasonable fee, they picked us up from the airport, gave us bikes and set us down a bike path with a custom itinerary to the region’s best cafes and wineries. They booked us B&Bs and transported our luggage each day. Luxury on wheels.
At the end of our five days, fat and happy (except for Jess who was squirming on the beach with food poisoning) our transportation arrived and drove us back to the airport. Our tour of the Great Taste Trail was money well spent. Despite a bit of rainy weather, I reckon it was the most fun a family can buy. Especially with that seafood chowder at the Grape Escape cafe.
And with that, our visitors were gone. Poof. Over before it began. And now it’s like old times again – Jess and me, alone, arguing about why I bought cow’s milk instead of almond milk, and looking down the open road. Thank you to our friends and family who came to see us this summer. We had the time of our lives.