Phone, keys, wallet… gone. Swept away along with half the contents of my backpack during a disaster river crossing.
Thankfully this didn’t happen, but it could have … if we ignored the DOC ranger who advised us against the Pouakai circuit we had planned for the weekend! We drove to Egmont National Park Friday after work. Five hours in the car with Stephen King’s new audiobook Mr. Mercedes. When we arrived at the visitor center it was storming like hell. Nobody but us. The wind was blowing sideways, gusts of freezing rain skipping across an empty black parking lot. The van shook that night as we “slept”. But between the crackling sleet on the roof, creepy isolation and audiobook nightmares, sleep didn’t come easy.
When we awoke the storm was still surging. I ran into the visitor center and asked for a weather update. The news wasn’t good. More wind and rain coming. Snow at elevation. Rivers were likely to be flooded. The ranger recommended we alter our plans and instead of ascending the mountain we walk around it west to Maketawa Hut — a shorter walk through the shelter of trees. As I considered our options, I saw Jess in the parking lot chasing an unraveling roll of toilet paper — her arms outstretched as she ran around grasping at pieces. The decision was clear.
We grabbed our shit and set off for the hut. It rained the entire way. At one river crossing Jess handed me her phone for safekeeping as she attempted a tricky rock hop. Apparently she forgot what happened to my phone last time we played in the water.
Soaked but in good spirits we arrived at Makepawa Hut around 3pm. The place was empty. Our last hut experience was crowded so we were excited to have the hut to ourselves. Nipples like stone I started a fire. We sipped hot tea and listened to Mr. Mercedes. I threw playing cards into my Jetboil while Jess read her Kindle fireside. We stretched on the wood floor. Somewhere Justin Vernon was writing a song about us.
After a dinner of curry beef stew, we settled in for a quiet game of gin rummy by headlamp when suddenly someone burst into the hut. A middle-aged german named Peter. The conditions outside were horrendous — I can only imagine his sense of relief to find shelter quickly dampened at the realization he was stepping into our Justin Vernon song.
After explaining to us why he doesn’t eat at night, he promptly went to bed and we had the place to ourselves once again.
In the morning we got our first view of Mount Taranaki from the front porch.
Inspired, we began walking. No particular goal in mind. Just hypnotically toward the beauty. We wound our way up and up and up for a few hours before reaching the Tahurangi Lodge — a private hut that serves as base camp for many summit climbs. The second deadliest mountain in New Zealand behind Mt. Cook, Mount Taranaki is just accessible enough to be dangerous. In the summer we could have scrambled our way to the summit. But winter is a different story. Climbing it safely requires more of everything … gear, experience, intestinal fortitude. We vowed to return this summer and summit the sonofabitch. I ache for it.
From the tuna lunch turnaround point we began our long meander down the snow-covered face … the Tasman sea to the left, Mount Ruapehu and Mount Ngauruhoe to the right. In front of us unfolded an endless gradient of happy. White snow giving way to forest green giving way to sun-soaked fields, all the way to the grey blue ocean.
I decided then and there I would stop calling Taranaki Street in Wellington “teriyaki street” and show it the respect it deserves.
More photos on Flickr.
My camera died on day one. From that point I began shooting pics of our weekend trip to Coromandel on my iPhone. Then when I dropped that in the ocean, I turned to Jess’ older iPhone. That said, here’s a look at our weekend in one of the North Island’s top beach destinations.
Wednesday we flew from Wellington to Auckland. Same as last weekend in Sydney – I worked while Jess explored the city. Then when the weekend came we rented a campervan and drove two hours south to the Coromandel Peninsula – a favourite among kiwis for its natural beauty.
As I’ve hinted at in this blog, and will now say bluntly: New Zealand is fucking expensive. Almost everything is 40% more than reasonable. I say almost because we’ve found a few items to be actually cheaper than expected … and one of those is off-season campervan rentals. This Mercedes Sprinter with a bed, fridge, toilet, and shower cost us only $90 for three days. Thank you high competition.
Rolling uber luxurious, we crossed the bridge to Coromandel Friday by moonlight and drove another hour to the town of Coromandel. We parked for the night at one of the many pull-offs along the road. At 8am we awoke to a knock. $200 fine for freedom camping in a restricted area. Dammit! Apparently residents have grown tired of vacationers parking their motorhomes anywhere they please, then leaving trash, burning fires, etc. So the city is cracking down.
I get it. But I also hate crowded, ugly, spiritless campgrounds. What’s a young couple to do?
Post-temper tantrum we continued clockwise around the peninsula. Next stop: New Chum’s beach, rated one of the world’s top 20 beaches. Also rated number one for killing Scott’s iPhone. It was a 30 minute walk from the parking lot where we found the place deserted. Of course there was only one thing to do.
Back in the Mercedes, we cruised past one postcard beach after another until we reached Cathedral Cove. The first scene of The Chronicles of Narnia was shot there. Again, a 45 minute walk to the beach (kiwis make you work for it) to where we first set eyes on this spectacular rock archway. We ate smoked mussels and talked about shit.
Further up the road we bit the bullet and paid $36 to park legally for the night at the Hot Water Top 10 Holiday Park. From there it’s a short walk to Hot Water Beach, another natural phenomenon whereby thermally heated water rises from beneath the sand to form natural hot tubs. It was cool beyond words.
That was yesterday. Today we’re sitting in the Auckland airport. It’s Sunday night and I’m a bit blue. Coromandel lived up the hype. A wild corner of the world with isolated beaches, tropical mountains and funky little settlements for the occasional beer and coffee. A part of me thinks it broke my phone as if to say ‘stop looking at your phone … up here buddy.’
After too many weekends in the city, we eagerly piled into walter white on Saturday and drove six hours north to Rotorua. The main attraction here was mountain biking and geothermal activity – two things that compliment each other nicely it turns out. With temperatures cooling and autumn leaves ablaze, we had no choice but to crank the Neil Young and roll over a thousand green hills into the heart of the north island.
You smell Rotorua before you get there. Thermal activity – which draws tourists by the busload – gives the town a sulphuric odor, and with geysers, mud pools and steam vents on every street, the whole town feels like a volcano waiting to explode.
First one to smell Rotorua’s a rotten egg!
We arrived at sundown and freedom camped at the Blue Lake lookout (happily ignoring the $40 a night holiday park 1KM away). Headlamps burning, we set off around the lake in search of the NZ’s famous glowworms. And guess what: we found them! This picture is shit but it shows the electric blue light these guys put off. They dotted the rocky embankment along the trail, and though they are technically “maggots of a fungus gnat” we were psyched about our first glowworm sighting.
In the morning we drove to Whakarewarewa Forest (AKA the redwoods) for a day of mountain biking. With two rented hardtails, lunch and a map, we rolled into the forest determined to work off the previous night’s pizza.
The trails were stunning. Giant California Redwoods (up to 230 feet) towered over the mountainside. Sun rays pierced the jungle canopy and danced upon clear mineral rivers while steam billowed from the underworld. We gained our confidence on the easy trails. After an hour, we moved up to intermediate, where gentle tracks grew steeper and more narrow. Roots, boulders and bridges came into play. We hung tough together until late afternoon when I broke off for the advanced trails while Jess counted her bruises and her lucky stars.
After six hours of intense biking, we returned to the campervan for a celebratory drink before setting off to the polynesian spa.
Six months into my marriage I’m learning that adventures go down better with a spoonful of pampering. We rented a private pool with lake views and enjoyed a long hot soak in the mineral water to soothe our aching muscles. It was a little bit of alright. I’ll admit that.
Monday was a public holiday – the Queen’s Birthday – which gave us an extra day to explore. After skipping the overly commercial natural attractions … Te Puia Geyser ($48.50), Waimangu Volcanic Valley ($34.50), Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland ($32.50) … we stumbled into the equally magnificent and refreshingly free Rainbow Mountain Scenic Reserve. All the wonder. None of the crowds or price gouging. We scrambled off trail and got up close and personal with middle earth.
Another $100 in gas later and we were back in Wellington. As a tourism mecca, “Roto-vegas” lives up to its name. The town could use a faceliftt, but its natural assets are worth the trip. Between the A+ mountain biking, remote lakes and intensely cool and omnipresent volcanic activity, Rotorua won us over.
We’ve now been in New Zealand for three months, and with the realization that not everything on this blog has to be razzle dazzle, here’s a general update on how our international move is playing out.
In a word, good. Ups and downs of course. Given the stunning beauty of this country, it’s hard not to sensationalize everything. JUNGLES MOUNTAINS OCEANS DOLPHINS MEATPIES. But the truth is, we really miss our friends and family. We constantly talk about who we wish was here. Skype helps. But it’s no substitute for your real and oily faces.
What we lack in company we make up for in adventure. Wellington is gorgeous beyond words. And proven itself safe, edgy, active, friendly, artsy and generally rad – all the reasons we love it. As highlighted on this blog, we’ve gone on some cool trips, and our growing to-do list is like the Mona Lisa staring us in the face.
I wish we could just hit the road, but my job – which is the main reason we moved here – might have thoughts on that. Things at SAS are good. The people are brilliant. I’m starting to move beyond the formalities and make friends. I wish I could fast-forward a year and walk into the office tomorrow with a network of contacts and foundation of knowledge. But short of a time machine, I’m left to slowly learn the business with the realization that one day things will click and I’ll be able to make some big contributions.
Jess is in a similar position, working hard to piece things together at Allscripts, where she’s helping the international sales team expand their footprint in Australia and New Zealand for 20 hours a week at home. She’s currently on the hunt for a part-time job as a means of getting out and meeting people.
Beyond the occasional happy hour, we’ve done several things to engage in our new community. As I write this, Jess is at a drawing class. She assures me the nude model isn’t her type but who knows. We joined a meet-up group called Adventure Wellington. Last week I met for rock climbing and Thursday we’re meeting for a moonlight hike of Mount Kaukau.
Things still feel like vacation to me. To Jess, I think the magnitude of the move has hit home, and as always, her feelings are more advanced on the matter. Despite some gloomy days in April, things seem to be blooming in May. She left me on Saturday for a girl’s night of Japanese food, birthday parties and stand-up comedy. While she was off, I stayed home for a night of marveling at the kiwi language. I’ll save it for another post, but the dialect here is fascinating. A whimsical flurry of strange words and expressions. Yeah nah I meant the capsicum. Sweet as, mate. It’s so great. I’m secretly recording everything my colleagues say to share with you guys some day.
Let’s see, what else … TV is weird. Everything costs a mint. The food is wildly diverse and delicious. Breakfast is $19. Your coffee options are long black or flat white. Biking to work along the ocean is wonderful. Jess cooks a lot. We have a campervan, but I can’t share anything until I get the right picture. I’m obsessed with this. The only animals you really see are birds. People aren’t afraid of great whites but they’re around. As are cuban cigars. Netflix doesn’t work. People are tough and friendly. They exercise in converse all stars. And butter comes only in huge blocks.
So there. The general feeling these days is raw excitement with a touch of homesickness. We’re flying back to Raleigh in July for Jon and Al’s wedding. Can’t wait to see everybody and eat some Justin’s almond butter.
From the sauvy grapevines of Marlborough we continued our trip west to the golden beaches of Abel Tasman National Park. The plan was to spend the night in Nelson and stock up on groceries before hitting the trail for five days. Upon arrival, we realized to our horror that kiwis are dead serious about their holidays, and every store in town was closed because of Easter! Smash cut to us running through the grocery store ala supermarket sweep the next morning at 7 a.m. in an attempt to shop and make the 7:20 bus to Marahau.
In the morning we continued north to Mosquito Bay. Despite the ominous name, the bugs – which we had been warned about – were tame, and that night we stargazed to the Flaming Lips.
Day three brought the highlight of the trip. Leaving the shore behind, we paddled to Tonga Island in search of a seal colony. And what we found on the north side of the island was nothing short of a seal orgy! Check out the video. It was pretty magical. One even popped up to kiss Jess on the arm.
We’re back in Wellington after our nine-day hippie easter in the south island. I say hippie because we showered only twice in nine days. It was awesome. Our trip was basically split in two parts – the first was a twirl around wine country; the second was five days in the bush of Abel Tasman National Park. Lots to share so I’ll talk first about our spin around Marlborough
I’m 90% sure our bartender at Moa was trashed, as our five-beer sampler seemed way too tall an order. Despite the many beers on tap, and against our wishes, the first two “beers” in our sampler were ciders. The next three brews were served up with mismatched names and a shaky hand. Don’t get me wrong – I slugged em with joy, which only helped me imagine what the place could be with a sober staff, bigger seating area and Warpaint on the jukebox.
But nevermind that. On to the highlight of our day and hippie easter part 1 … Cloudy Bay Vineyards!!! Jess would drink this wine back in the states and was super jazzed to visit the home of her favorite Sauvignon Blanc. Unlike most wineries in Marlborough, Cloudy Bay charges a fee for their tastings. We opted for the $10 “experience” tasting, which included five wines – four of which were new to us. They all tasted fine and dandy to this humble blogger … I was more interested in the lighting outside. The figurative and literal shining moment of the afternoon.
That specimen of raw power and masculinity above is a Sachs Besbi and it’s ours! Bought it used a few weeks back from Scooterazzi in Wellington. It stayed at the shop while we sorted the legalities, and she’s finally in our possession. Neither of us had ridden a scooter before, so you can image our delight these past few days. What a turn-on! Especially around those curvy ocean roads. Man.
We didn’t plan on buying a scooter. But after seeing heaps of them on the road, and considering the hell that is driving in Wellington, the choice became clear. We can walk, bike and bus – sure – but there’s just something about zipping to the store on a scooter. The $7 fill-ups aren’t bad either.
But it’s not all fun and games. In fact, obtaining a motorbike license in New Zealand is quite a hassle. Anything over 50cc (ours is 125) is treated as a motorcycle. So despite it’s unassuming stature, we were forced down the same road to legality as any other bogin on a Kawasaki.
Funny looking back. We were so naive when we strolled into that store, thinking we could just ride off into the sunset. Nope. The first step is passing a basic handling skills test, which is administered at only a handful of locations in town, and book up weeks in advance. Our turn came Saturday with a three-hour beginners course followed by the handling skills test. We were shaky at first, but soon got the hang of it. One of us was so nervous she had to run off and pee the moment we arrived. All told, we passed! We were given the certificate and another clue to the puzzle.
The next step was passing the motor code theory exam. 35 multiple choice questions on who “gives way” to who and what to do if your scooter becomes engulfed in sheep. We missed a few, but in the end, passed this one as well, and were handed our learners license.
So although we’re now street legal, there are restrictions. We cannot ride outside the hours of 6am-10pm, or with a passenger, for example – which is a shame given the Besbi is made for two. However, we’re happy to be on the road. Jess is loving the daytime rides and texting photos of herself enjoying the countryside while I’m stuck in the office. Our next step is a restricted license and then finally our full motorbike license. Meaning that sunset ride isn’t far off. With matching jackets and helmets if Jess has anything to do with it.
Life as an expat is amusing. Some days it’s ecstasy – biking down an ocean road to a wine tasting. Other days it’s confusion. Why does the toilet flush so aggressively it splashes on your clothes, while a bottle of water costs five bucks? In our first few weeks in New Zealand, I’ve observed some aspects of the kiwi culture that make sense … and some that leave me scratching my head. I’ve decided to start documenting these observations in a series called sense/senseless. A look at one aspect of life in NZ that gets it right and wrong.
SENSE: Tipping is not expected at bars (or restaurants). And tax is included in the price. So when you see $12 beside the whitebait fritters on the menu, that’s the price you pay out the door. New Zealand is considered a true merit-based tipping culture, and yet despite excellent service pretty much everywhere, I’ve not seen a single person tip. Waiters and bartenders instead are paid at least the minimum wage of $14.25, meaning their salary is not passed on to the patron as it is in America. Which makes sense!
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of New Zealand’s great walks. At 19.4 kilometers (12 miles), the distance isn’t the killer, so much as the terrain. In 2007, alpine was added to the name by the Department of Conservation to warn flip-flop-wearing tourists of just how unforgiving the terrain can be.
Our adventure began in Wellington when Jess picked me up in the campervan. (Details soon!) Our first foray into the bush, we drove four hours north to Tongariro National Park where we turned down a remote gravel road and set up shop on the outskirts of nowhere.
After a night in the wild, we awoke the next morning and caught a shuttle to the start. Along with a bible belt football stadium’s worth of fellow hikers, we began the parade north from the Mangatepopo car park in pursuit of a thorough beating. The trail meandered through a valley without much elevation change before switchbacking up to the south crater – the point where sensible folks continued on while the masochists among us stared up at Mt Ngauruhoe like a gambler stares at four aces.
Three hour return trip to the summit, the sign read. I checked my phone. Despite our late start, we (I) was determined to climb it – so after a lunch of avocado and salami, we (I) began happily up the real-life mount doom while Jess questioned why she married me.
The higher we climbed, the steeper it got. Not to be outdone by the occasional frumpy chick passing us, Jess trudged along behind me without much conversation. A mix of sand and ash, the ground beneath us slipped with each step. I watched the sun move through the sky as we made our way to the top.
Three hours later and we reached the summit. A million mile view of Taranaki to the west, Raleigh to the east and Taupo to the north. Peering into the volcano exposed an otherworldly pit – black, red, doom, gloom … you could just see the lava spewing from it. We circled the rim, made the sketchy 45-minute decent and continued on.
Another couple kilometers and we came upon the emerald lakes.
Eight hours in, we stopped to pump water from a lake. Sip, sip, munch, munch and thus began our ultimate decent to the Ketetahi carpark. Steam billowing in the distance, we wound our way down the mountain, eventually passing the hut that was damaged from a 2012 eruption. The entire crossing smelled of danger, as signs everywhere warned of exposure, extreme temperatures, lack of drinking water, falling rocks and volcanic activity.
11 hours later and we crossed the finish line. Hot dog. Our headlamps ablaze, we returned to the campervan, both giddy to have finished and famished like the master cleanse. The side trip up mount doom put us around 14 miles. Hardest hike ever, second only to day three of my bachelor party in the Tetons. This was a stunner you guys. Wish you could have seen it!
As is customary on massive hikes, the last two hours were spent fantasizing about the feast ahead. I had scouted a few restaurants in advance, and was drooling at the thought of prime rib and one too many pints. But to our sheer horror, every restaurant in town was closed by the time we arrived, save for Burger King. So there we were, dirty and tired, pregaming wine in the back of a messy campervan, in the middle of New Zealand, about to drop $32 on some dogshit food.
It’s a brave new world and sometimes you’ve gotta be brave just to eat it.
We spent the past week in Sydney – a work trip for me that spilled into a stayover weekend for us. Keen to cash in on the free hotel, Jess joined me, seizing the opportunity to visit a partially-subsidized Australia while I worked to subsidize the rest.
Our start was shit. The cab from the airport swallowed my corporate AMEX, forcing us to plunk down a personal card at check-in. Five minutes later, I found myself wrestling a broken couch-bed, working up a pissed off sweat in a humid room that, fittingly, smelled like piss.
Things improved rather quickly, as our first stroll exposed a positively grand city. Ornate brick buildings set beside Manhattan-scale skyscrapers, a skyline made epic when framed with the harbor bridge and Sydney Opera House. Fit and fashionable people. Clean streets. Nude beaches. What’s not to love?
And love it we did. I spent my days at the SAS office while Jess explored the city. We came together at night over something from the guidebook. Mojo Record Bar. Glenmore rooftop. Macquarie park.
And as you’d expect from the meltiest of melting pots, the food and drink was on point – not only exquisite but affordable compared to Wellington’s $12 pints.
One standout experience for Jess was a tour of wine country. As described to me through red wine teeth, she was driven two hours north to Hunter Valley, home of New South Wales’ finest dry whites. A single price afforded her a day of wine, cheese and chocolates – indulgence capped by long, and I’d imagine, thirsty ride home.
The next night we saw Yo La Tengo at the Sydney Opera House!
When the weekend hit, we checked out of the Vibe and ventured north to the home of our new friends Marissa and Ian. Jess met Marissa in high school, and though they ran with different crowds, they stayed connected on Facebook. A few conversations later and we found ourselves at their flat in Artarmon, just over the bridge from the CBD.
It was great bombing around the city with these guys. Sweet and well-travelled, they were good hosts and even better tour guides, despite moving to the city from Malaysia only a few weeks prior. Saturday started with the Taronga Zoo. The gorillas were my favorite. Jess liked the penguins.
From the zoo we took a ferry to Manly, a suburb with promise of local flavor. Here, on the outskirts of Sydney, camera-wielding dads were replaced by surfboard-wielding 20-somethings. After a storm came and went, we found ourselves alone on the beach with our duty-free Jameson to watch the sun set cream over the aqua water. It was a scene every tourism ad tries to replicate. Dream city.
All told, six days in Sydney was about right. This clean capital of Australian cool will impress, but like the sharks that patrol its waters, it will bite you as well. I sit aboard this plane both sunburned and broke – satisfied with the passport stamp, but eager to return to the cozy, welcoming arms of Wellington.
View the entire photo gallery on my Flickr page.