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Looking ahead, looking back

It’s been a little over a month since we disembarked from a plane at Burlington International Airport, looking about as bad as we felt after 30 hours of travel time. Despite the idyllic green image of home we held onto for our 16 months away, we were greeted by tired, wet, brown, mid-spring surroundings—a truly disheartening time of year.

But, home would not be home without our friends and family, and good times have been had. The world is now green and beautiful, our garden is partly planted, and our wiffle ball field has already seen plenty of use. It is good to be home.

There are days when it seems we might never have left, like we’ve awoken from a dream. But others bring back memories from lands far away, such as the lupines blooming along our driveway. Along that vein, we thought we’d share the whole collection of title page banners that we used rather like calendar photos along the way. Viewed together they present some beautiful contrasts that capture a bit of what travel is like.

We are not quite done posting to this blog and we’re also cutting together hours of video into a short film for entry into some film festivals later this summer. Until then, enjoy the photos. Click the pictures to see the related post.

The relentless snowfall of Hokkaido, Japan. January, 2011.

Frosted peaks in Daisetsuzan National Park. January 2011.

Birch trees clinging to steep slopes on Yarigatake, Hakuba, Japan. February 2011.

Windows into old Japan, Kyoto. February 2011.

Close up on the Buddhist temples dotting Luang Prabang, Laos. March 2011.

Burning rice fields cloud the Nam Hou river, Laos. March 2011.

The best beach ever.  El Nido, Palawan, Philippines. April 2011.

Lush eucalypt forest along the Great Ocean Road, Victoria, Australia. May 2011.

First light on the Tasman Sea. Croajingolong National Park, Victoria. May 2011.

Mandarin harvest, South Australia.  May 2011.

Watching over Uluru. Australia’s red center. June 2011.

Floodplains at Ubirr, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory. June 2011.

Filtered sun through fan palms, Daintree, Queensland. July 2011.

A sea of vines, Marlborough, New Zealand. August 2011.

The Kaikoura Peninsula, New Zealand. September 2011.

Tree fern silhouette, Abel Tasman, New Zealand. October 2011.

Glacial meltwater, Fiordland, New Zealand. November 2011.

Lupines. Omarama, New Zealand. December 2011.

Vine leaf, Marlbourough New Zealand. January 2012.

The dry and golden Wither Hills, Blenhiem, New Zealand. February 2012.

Morning light on a distant glacier, Aspiring National Park, New Zealand. March 2012.

Ferns in the kauri forest, Northland, New Zealand. April 2012.


49 reasons to fly home

Well, the day has come at last for this trip of ours to come to an end. Among many other things, travel allows you to appreciate what makes home, home. This is a quick list of the many things we are looking forward to in the days, weeks, and months ahead. Having fit in well below goldfish crackers and barely above grilled hot dogs, our family and friends should take note that this is in no particular order.

  1. Annie’s mac and cheese
  2. A pint of Heady Topper
  3. A pint of TLA from American Flatbread
  4. A flatbread from American Flatbread
  5. Cabot cheese
  6. The price of gasoline
  7. The price of alcohol
  8. A hot, green summer
  9. A crisp, colorful autumn
  10. A cold, snowy winter
  11. A dresser full of different clothes
  12. People speaking English the way we speak it
  13. Being a local
  14. Maple trees and maple syrup
  15. Gerard’s sourdough bread
  16. Good bagels
  17. The view of Mt. Mansfield from our front window
  18. Our favorite swimming holes
  19. American sports on television
  20. Baseball on the radio
  21. Goldfish crackers
  22. Being able to have a campfire when you go camping
  23. Kettle brand kettle chips
  24. Rolling hills covered in trees
  25. Fireflies
  26. Wiffleball
  27. Friends
  28. Family
  29. Grilled hot dogs
  30. Large pizzas that are actually large
  31. Having a house
  32. Seeing animals other than sheep
  33. Farmhouses
  34. Good mexican food
  35. Fast, free internet
  36. A night out in Burlington
  37. Thunderstorms
  38. Accurate weather forecasts
  39. Having a job
  40. Having money
  41. Men wearing shorts that cover their white thighs
  42. Cheerios
  43. Christmas in winter
  44. Thanksgiving
  45. The 4th of July
  46. Being able to forget that the sport of cricket exists
  47. Road trips to Maine
  48. Pandora radio
  49. Living in a country where rat tails are not considered fashionable

We do have several more things to share here before our lives slide into un-bloggable routine, but it will have to wait till we are on the couch stuffing our faces with a nice fat bowl of Cheerios.


Along the edges

For the final four weeks of our trip, we set out to fill in the blanks of our New Zealand map and explore the sandy edges and green interior of the nearly subtropical North Island. While the South Island is famous for the Southern Alps and the accompanying awe-inspiring scenery, it quickly became clear that the North Island’s beaches are second to none in this corner of the Pacific.

At the northern tip of New Zealand, the road ends at a dramatic curve of cliffs dropping into the ocean. The Indian Ocean and Tasman Sea meet just offshore in a frothy line of clashing waves. For the Maoris, this was both a place of creation and the point where the dead enter the spirit world — an impressive spot to gaze across the water.

The far north also holds relics of a time when New Zealand had no human inhabitants. Massive kauri trees fill the forests here, not impressively tall by redwood standards but enormously wide and undeniably ancient — some of them are more than 2,000 years old.

At night, we crept silently through the forest listening for the telltale piercing call of New Zealand’s beloved icon, the kiwi. We could hear a couple of them calling to each other somewhere in the pitch black forest, but knew the chances of one wandering right next to the path were extremely slim. Just as we were heading back to our tents, we heard a rustling in the bushes, exactly like a long beak probing the undergrowth for bugs. Quickly flashing on our headlamps, we spotted a small feathery back before it melted back into the night.

As we dropped Alex off at the Auckland airport for his flight home to Canada, an incessant drizzle and a forecast for a week of rain almost made us wish that we could join him. But, if there is one thing we have learned it’s to never trust a New Zealand weather forecast. A day’s drive led to the rugged and little traveled coastline of the East Cape, and the rain clouds were nowhere to be found. Kayaking through an aquamarine playground of rocky shores and roasting marshmallows over an open fire (a novelty here in NZ) proved an idyllic way to take advantage of the weather.

Afternoon rays fall to the left of White Island, New Zealand’s most active volcano.

This corner of New Zealand is Maori country, and further down the coast in gathering clouds we pulled up to St. Mary’s Anglican Church in the town of Tikitiki. The church blends Christian themes and Maori design — even the stained glass is cast in traditional black, white and red Maori patterns, and six ancient deities support the lectern. A husband and wife were practicing music for the next day’s Easter service, and she spoke to us for a while about the church interior and the struggles to keep this town of 200 alive. Most of those left are older, she said, and it these days it’s hard to keep the young people here. This weekend was the school reunion and old pupils had returned from far and wide to celebrate the school’s 125th anniversary.

Eventually, the predicted rain caught up with us. Eastwoodhill Arboretum, a 300-acre park with thousands of tree varieties, was a perfect spot for two damp nights. We wandered miles of peaceful paths under the familiar branches of maples, oaks, birches and chestnuts, just showing the first blushes of fall color.

A fantail says hello.

After a couple days, the sun returned, and it was back to the beach to try our hand on a borrowed (thank you Natalie!) surfboard. We took brief and exhausting turns paddling out and getting battered around by waves that were much to large and sloppy for our skill set. We finally found a mellower break in Gisborne, and Nate managed to stand up once.

A couple hours inland, a large and untouched block of native forest makes up Te Urewera National Park and Whirinaki National Forest. After the recent rains, the tree ferns and mosses were a brilliant green, and we walked along spongy paths under a canopy of jungly vegetation. We are going to miss these forests!

The Coromandel Peninsula is a favorite vacation spot of just about every Kiwi we’ve met, and for good reason. The peninsula is lined with unbelievably gorgeous coasts, beaches, and bright green sheep paddocks. At this late time of year, we barely had to share it with anyone.

Just off the main road, Otama beach is a long arc of white sand, backed by sand dunes and rust-colored cliffs. We walked up and down the long, empty beach in both evening and morning light.

At the far end, a swing hangs on thick ropes from the limbs of a pohutukawa tree. Kids voices carried down from the collection of summer homes above, and we wondered if they realize how lucky they are. What a place to grow up.

The drive to the top of the peninsula was possibly the most beautiful we’ve ever taken – and after 45,000 kilometers of driving down under, that is saying something. A hazardously narrow dirt road winds along a scalloped coast, lined with the graceful spreading branches of pohutukawas and nikau palms. Sheep farms, of course, hug the steep hills, and we must have pulled over to gawk a dozen times.

We spent a day and a half here, wandering the hillsides and watching a pod of dolphins offshore, and it was about at this time—two hours down at the end of a long dirt road—that our car decided it was just about done.

A loud, erratic crunching noise made us wince and pray that the axels would not pop off and send us careening over the edge on the whole trip out.  In the end, it was just one more adventure and another beautiful drive. Rolling into Auckland that night was a relief, having put 30,000 kilometers of New Zealand roads behind us.

We have just one more day in this country we’ve grown to love. A long spell of spectacular weather seem to be trying to lure us into forgetting past downpours. It is going to be sad to leave after so long, but home is calling.


One last walk

If you’ve been reading this blog for a few months or more, you’ve probably noticed a trend. We walk. A lot. Yes, it may be free, easy, and often one of the best ways to experience a new place. But by this time you must be wondering — aren’t we sick of hiking?

Well…no, not really. It’s safe to say that New Zealand is home to the most varied landscape on the planet. The topography, climate, and vegetation all change drastically as you travel up, down, or across these small pieces of land. Each trail has proved to be undeniably unique, beautiful, and full of surprises, and the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which will end up being the last long walk of our trip, was no different. Traversing 20 kilometers of the central North Island’s volcanic highlands, the Crossing navigates volcanic peaks, wide lava plains, and thermal hotspots.

But first, if you are going to have an enjoyable day completing the Alpine Crossing, you should temper your expectations. Piles of travel brochures proclaim it to be the best day hike in New Zealand — or even, ambitiously, the world. A bold statement, and one that lures tens of thousands of people a year to the trailhead. We’ve walked many beautiful trails in New Zealand and I’m sure the rest of the world has a lot to offer. Let’s just call it a nice walk and leave it at that.

So, we were expecting crowds, but were still quite shocked to see several hundred other people joining us at the trailhead on a cold, windy, cloudy morning. Hiking up in a steady stream of tourists with views partially blocked by the back of some stranger’s head, we got the strange feeling we were part of an Old West covered wagon train rather than experiencing a South Pacific wilderness. We neglected to photograph this portion of the trip for obvious reasons.

Grandiose titles and crowds aside, Tongariro National Park holds a captivating landscape. The trail winds through vast empty sweeps of land filled with chunks of black volcanic rock, pressure-warped pieces of brown and red pumice, and hardy gnarled shrubs. It’s beautiful in a stark and dramatic sort of way, and, once again, completely different from anything we’ve seen so far.

As we approached Mount Ngaurahoe—the brooding volcanic peak that served as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies—the clouds shrouding the summit evaporated. It looked like a long, boring climb, but we had to do it.

Surprise, surprise, it was a long, boring climb. Loose ash and pumice slid down the sides of the steep cone with every step, requiring nearly twice the effort, and a cold wind blasted us, numbing our fingers and noses. The crowds were left behind, though, and views opened up with each step upwards. By the time we reached to top we had forgotten about all the effort to get there.

Thin wisps of volcanic steam rose from the bottom of the ice-crusted caldera, mixing with the passing clouds. Broad sweeps of barren land spread out below us, dotted with emerald lakes and plumes of sulfuric steam from geothermal vents. Lake Taupo glittered in the distance and 130 kilometers to the southwest, the tip of Mount Taranaki poked out from above the clouds. It was utterly freezing at the top, with ice-cold winds threatening to blow us over the edge.

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Mmmm… beer!

Thirsty travelers take note: New Zealand does brew excellent beer, and we now know where to find it!

Wellington is New Zealand’s capitol city, and has a reputation that precedes it. Everywhere we travel across this country, a mention of Wellington usually garners a comment on how great the city is or how crappy its weather can be. Unfortunately for us, it was the latter that came true, as wind-driven rain pounded down for all three days we spent in the city. This meant that most of our time was spent in free museums or looking forward to the next meal, snack, or drink, in a search that eventually led us to the mighty lineup of taps at The Malthouse.

Bare wood beams, a wall full of bottles from far and wide, and a beer list as thick as the Bible. Immediately, we felt at home.

After a few generous samples we secured respective pints of a Belgian white and an IPA from Blenhiem-based Moa, the Armageddon IPA from Epic, and a delightfully hoppy American IPA from Wellington’s own Tuatara.

We could have spent the night here, devouring pint after pint and curling up under the bar for a sound slumber if not for one thing: $10 beers have a nasty habit of adding up quite quickly. Thus, the evening saw us torn between far off looks of contentment and bitter shakes of the head, muttering things like, “it’s a damn shame.” After two apiece we ripped ourselves off the stools and shuffled home through the drizzle.

But despite the weather, we’re left with fond memories of New Zealand’s favorite city. We’ll just have to imagine the views of glittering steel and glass against a bright blue bay and autumn sunshine… because the only photos we have are from inside the bar.


So Long, South Island

As a way to say goodbye to the South Island that we’ve called home for over 7 months, we recently made the full day’s drive down to Wanaka for one more mountain adventure. The beautiful West Matukituki Valley lies in the heart of Mount Aspiring National Park, which has captivated us time and time again with beech forest, tumbling glaciers, and mountain meadows. The chance to spend two days high above and encircled by the Southern Alps proved the perfect farewell.

Ascending 4,000 feet in just 2 miles, the route from Aspiring Hut to the north ridge of Mount Tyndall is a punishing ascent through snow grass and precipitous crags.

But the view helps take the mind off burning legs and lungs.

A small hollow at the top of the ridge makes for a perfect campsite: just enough protection from a stiff east wind, and incredible views across the valley to Mount Aspiring. (more…)


A taste (or two) of Marlborough’s finest

Just beyond the leafy green hedge out back and past a noisy lamb next door, our small home in Renwick is besieged on all sides by vines. Hedged to perfection, and now carrying ripening grapes, row upon row makes for a mesmerizing ride every time we drive into town.

When else might we be living in the heart of one of the world’s great wine regions? Ignoring the wineries just down the road would be a crime, akin to skipping sushi during a trip to Japan. So, late one morning, we set off on the two trusty bikes parked in our garage, armed with a vineyard map and picnic lunch.

It was a perfect day for biking. A late summer sun shone down onto infinite vines, the rising temperature tempered by fluffy clouds and a light breeze. It took all of three minutes to roll up to the first cellar door at Gibson Bridge.

There are dozens of small, family-run vineyards scattered across the map, producing small vintages that never make it to the States. Marlborough is famous for its sauvignon blanc, though most wineries offer or even specialize in other varietals: pinot gris, gewurztraminer, chardonnay, riesling, pinot noir. It is all good. A far cry from the ubiquitous box wine we drank in Australia, it is pleasantly surprising to be able to relate to the detailed and pretentious tasting descriptions. Some of this wine actually did have slight flavors of mango and pineapple, while others were peppery or had a hint of citrus. It didn’t take long to be able to navigate the wine lists and figure out our favorites.

We had picked up a wine touring book at the library which included a list of other notes and flavors we might come across on an afternoon of tasting. Thankfully, we have yet to sample wine with hints of leather, cigar box, coffee, or — why not? — manure.

The patio at Isabel Vineyard.

A typically happy vineyard dog.

After several months of cheap living, it was wonderful to feel like a tourist again. We parked our bikes next to white limousines, pretended to be interested in $60 bottles, played petanque on a court surrounded by roses. Best of all, there are enough wineries within pedaling distance of our house that several more days could be filled in the same manner.

Admiring the view from Highfield Estate.

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Australia Through Five Eyes

Between some lazy days enjoying our idyllic back yard and the late summer sunshine, we’ve finally been able to catch up on some editing.  This is the first of two videos covering our 82 days and 10,000 miles across Australia.

Strung around the outskirts of a vast, empty interior, Australia boasts a captivating array of landscapes— lush rainforest, snowcapped mountains, miles and miles of rugged coastline, towering gum trees, some of the world’s finest swimming holes, the beautiful city of Sydney. And, of course, in the middle of it all, the most famous rock in the world

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A few of our favorite things

In the months and weeks before we left home, reading how other travelers have packed for round-the-world trips helped our preparation immensely. We scribbled countless shopping, packing, and to-do lists and took over an entire room for our “staging area.” Now, for those of you setting off in the near or not-so-near future, we can return the favor and help you remember the obvious items (pants; your passport), the small, forgettable items (nail clippers; headlamp) and everything in between.

Getting organized.

But first, we thought we’d share some of the more obscure pieces of gear that we’ve found immeasurably useful. Some of these are rather specific and if you’re using an iPhone for a camera or if you hate the outdoors you can probably ignore half this list. Regardless, here are a few of our favorite possessions:

Mini extension cord/splitter – These days, most people travel with at least one piece of electronic gadgetry (ipod/laptop/cellphone), and if you add in a camera with batteries to charge a cord such as this one will prove useful time and time again. Ours is six feet long and splits one socket into three, meaning we can charge everything from the comfort of a nearby table instead of crawling around on the floor. No joke, this might be the most useful item in our backpack.

Outdoor Research PL Base Gloves – After years of putting up with numb hands on winter video shoots, we finally found a fix for our month of skiing in Japan. These liner gloves are perfect for shooting photos out in the cold. Just thin enough that you can still feel every button and lens ring, and warm enough to take the bite out of the winter wind.

LaCie 500GB Rugged Drive These are far and away the best hard drives for steady travel. While a flash drive may suffice for a shorter trip, if you’re going to be taking a few hundred GB (or in our case, several TB) worth of photos or videos, look no further. These drives are small, light, and, appropriately, quite rugged— I once saw a co-worker drop one to the floor from waist height, plug it in, and continue his work. As an added bonus, they’re powered through the computer via Firewire or USB, so there’s no need to trip over more cords or use up another power outlet.

Dakine Sequence Camera Backpack– This backpack has been used and abused every day since we left home, on top of three years worth of use beforehand. It’s awesome. It has a snug and stable fit, and is protective enough that you can ski or ride full tilt and not worry about crushing your gear in a fall. The internal camera block is removable, which we carry along on multi-day hiking trips inside our larger backpacking packs. A perfect pack for travel or action sports photography. Steph has a Dakine Heli-Pro ski/snowboard pack, which is equally excellent in its own right.

500mL Nalgene screw-top containers – Nothing beats this 16-oz container for food storage on a backpacking trip. Fill it with snacks during the day, eat dinner out of it at night, store leftovers or wash it out and brew a hot drink. It’s rigid so your food doesn’t get crushed, has a solid screw on lid, and it’s just the right size. Plus, it’s cheap—no need for anything fancy. Find them at any good outdoor store.

Pacsafe antitheft bag – We brought this to curb the nagging paranoia that comes with carting around lots of expensive camera gear. This 35L model is a metallic mesh that fits over our bag of camera and computer gear and locks around anything solid (bathroom pipes or the bed, usually) in a hostel room. While it’s hard to tell if it ever thwarted any thieves, the piece of mind it provided made us glad we had it along. Definitely recommended if you’re bringing along a DSLR, a laptop, or any large valuables and don’t want to bring them everywhere you go.

25L Dry bags – We kept our clothes in these, and put the camera in one during kayaking trips. They double as compression sacks and it’s quite nice knowing that even if it starts pouring you’ll have dry clothes at the end of the day. We’d recommend buying one with a transparent window so you can see where your things are instead of digging around blindly for the right t-shirt. (more…)


The best of the worst

Along with all the incredible memories of beautiful places and good times, travel is filled with moments that are unforgettable for other reasons. Moments that bring a sick feeling (sometimes literally) to the pit of your stomach and make you wish you had never left home. It’s about time we share seven of our worst travel experiences. Hopefully, you can learn from our mistakes, or at least get a good laugh.

1. Possibly the lowest moment of the trip came early on, at the end of five otherwise flawless weeks in Japan. We checked in at the Osaka airport, ready for our long flight to Thailand with a 16-hour layover in China. As we prepared to board, however, the attendant grew confused over our lack of a visa and told us to grab a seat.

The U.S. and Chinese embassies both state that you only needed a visa for layovers exceeding 24 hours, but apparently China Southern operates by different standards. To make the matter even more frustrating, the flight attendant kept tacking “Is that OK?” onto the end of statements that were definitely not OK. As in, “We’re not going to let you on the plane. Is that OK?” or  “You’ll have to buy a new ticket. Is that OK?”

Finally, she told us she would take us out to the front desk so we could discuss a refund. The woman dutifully led us out through customs and the busy airport, and told us to proceed to a counter just around the corner. In fact, there was no one waiting to help us just around the corner. China Southern had packed up its operation for the day, leaving us tricked and abandoned in a busy foreign airport. Many failed phone calls later, it was clear there would be no refund. Time to buy tickets to Thailand… again.

2. Funds were getting uncomfortably low a few months into our Australian road trip, but that was OK, because we were still expecting a nice fat tax return. It seemed to be taking a while, though, so we logged on to the IRS tracking website and quickly discovered where the money was. It had arrived right on time. We’d already spent it, weeks ago.

3. At least after the tax return debacle, we could still expect a tidy sum for the buyback on our car. No such luck. Though we’d had conversations with the folks at Traveler’s Auto Barn after hitting an unfortunate wallaby, they’d assured us that we should just leave the dent in the car and they’d take a reasonable sum off the $1,200 buyback price.

We should have kept in mind that they are, after all, used car dealers. Something that became glaringly obvious when they handed us a check for a measly $400.

4. You may have noticed a common theme up until now. Let’s take a break and review a medley of low moments that generally comes along with Southeast Asian overland travel.

-Getting dropped off on the curb in Bangkok at 3 a.m. at the end of our “overnight” bus ride from Koh Tao.

-Being awoken at approximately 1 a.m. on a bus ride Koh Phi Phi by the loudest, most horrendous music you can imagine. It was time for our “complementary meal.” Which apparently was mandatory.

-Being awoken at approximately 1 a.m. on a bus ride to Vietnam because the bus was mysteriously filling up with noxious engine fumes.

-The 14th hour of our 14-hour train ride from Sapa to Hanoi. Also, the 11th, 12th and 13th hours were pretty bad.

– All eight hours of an impressively curvy bus ride through northern Laos. Made worse by a killer hangover from a few Beer Lao Darks the night before, and the many locals puking out of windows.

5. Nate’s intense bout of sickness in Bangkok. Along with several hours spent on the bathroom floor, it included a lot of moaning, writhing, and a next-morning statement of “I feel like I didn’t take that like a man.”

6. Up in a remote corner of Australia’s Northern Territory, we woke up one morning to find that our car simply wouldn’t turn on. After a failed jump-start, we hitched a ride to the nearest tiny town, Pine Creek. The town mechanic was nowhere to be found, and a few phone calls revealed that it was going to cost $500 just to tow the car to a shop an hour down the highway. Not good. We spent an hour wandering around the depressing confines of Pine Creek, wondering if this was the end of the road.

Thankfully, that’s not the end of the story. After asking around some more, we were directed to an old guy named Roscoe, who had a yard full of broken down cars and seemed buried in other projects. It wasn’t long before he gave in and kindly agreed to bring us out to our car and got it running. Thank you Roscoe!

7. More recently, we returned from an overnight hike to Brewster Hut, tired, hungry and ready for some relaxation. Instead, we found our car window smashed and many of our belongings missing. They grabbed two bags containing nearly all of Steph’s possessions—clothes, jewelry and souvenirs from Thailand, journal, toiletries, etc.— the tripod and random camera accessories, battery chargers and USB cords, Deborah’s backpack and everything in it. Luckily, everything of real value (passports, wallets, ipods and the Macbook) was safe in the DOC office for a $5 fee.

A few days later, we got a call from the police department—Steph’s pack full of clothing had washed up along the river.  Another somewhat happy ending to some dark times.


How to be homeless

After calling our trusty tent home for about seven of the last 10 months, we like to think we have become experts in the camping life. Some of you have no doubt found this blog while researching for your own travels, and we thought it might do some good to pass along our wealth of knowledge on camping in Australia and New Zealand. Hopefully the rest of you, clean and content under a solid roof, will still find amusement in our degenerate lifestyle.

First, let’s face it, you’re not choosing to live out of a car because you thought it would be fun. Judging by the amount of dirty young people on the road, the only way to travel for an extended period of time in a first-world country is to live out of your car. Which brings you to your first decision:

Tent vs. campervan

Though we’re by far the minority, we swear by our little red tent. For one thing, you already spend all day in the car, do you really want to sleep in it too?  Unless you’re traveling solo your vehicle is going to be trashed, no matter how hard you try. Pulling into a campground, setting up a tent, and escaping from the clutter of the car brings everyone a little much-needed space at the end of each day. It’s like a little house, separate from the stress and frustrations of travel… and prone to leaking when it rains.

Tenting also gives us a definite advantage in securing a prime camping spot. On numerous occasions, we have breezed into a grungy parking lot packed with vans and had a lovely adjacent green space all to ourselves. There have only been two occasions when we have wished for a van: an unexpectedly sodden night in Blenheim, and at an Australian rest stop infested with brazen mice that enjoyed crawling up the sides of our tent.

Finally, it allows you a bit of anonymity. Drive around in a campervan, and you are immediately pegged as a backpacker. We like to think people look at our packed car and think we’re locals. Locals with no place to live… and American accents.

Home away from home.

Where to sleep

While it’s possible to pull over and sleep on the side of the road for free, unless you have a bathroom on board it’s technically illegal. Your choice; it will surely save money, but we like to pay a nominal fee for running water and a place to take a shit.

DOC Sites (NZ) – Our homes away from home. There are a few hundred Department of Conservation sites scattered about New Zealand’s two islands, and they are excellent. Found in National Parks and elsewhere, they are generally low on amenities, but are very cheap ($6/person) and sometimes come with a view:

Near Cannan Downs, NZ.

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A home in the vines

It’s amazing how much life can be improved by a roof.  After months of wandering around the south island, we’re quite pleased to pack the tent away and park the car in the driveway of our own place.

Our lovely little stone house is in the small town of Renwick, surrounded by miles of neatly hedged vines. It came complete with colorful flower beds, a cheery picnic table, and, possibly the most exciting of all, a grill on a backyard patio. A previous tenant also left us a flourishing garden full of corn, potatoes, onions, broccoli, cucumbers and zucchini.

A secondhand store provided cheap if somewhat battered furniture, and soon we felt completely at home.

Though we’d been assured of a couple months work in the vines, unseasonably cool weather slowed the work to a trickle, and soon left us unemployed once more. When not hunting for a new job, we fill our days of free time with baking, reading, and revisiting some of our travels. In the midst of what I hear is a mediocre winter back home, perhaps we could all use a day at the beach… here is a look back to the beautiful Philippines.


A Tramping Trilogy: Golden Hour

The second to last day of 2011 found us, once again, climbing high into the Southern Alps in search of a view.

A late start, a steep climb, a long rest, and some blind route-finding (lesson: always bring a map) meant we were behind schedule… and not even standing on the true summit of the peak we came to climb. No matter. The sun lingers on late into the evening at this time of year, leaving us plenty of time to savor the glow from the slopes of Mount Armstrong.

Our false summit was a crumbling, rocky pinnacle along the ridgeline, barely wide enough to fit our party of six.

Nate, Steph, Alex, Aeryca and Deborah (pleased to find themselves 3,000 miles away from the Portland rain), and a friendly Spaniard to take the shot. (more…)


A Tramping Trilogy: Above the Clouds

It only took a few days of slothing around Wanaka’s cafes and public library to fully recover from our 64-kilometer Gillespie Pass adventure. Though we were due in Christchurch in just three days, the weather forecast for the weekend was promising and we had our sights set higher.

The two-day climb up Mount Adams, a prominent peak halfway up the island’s west coast, had caught our eye months ago. Deemed in a tramping book as “one of the finest viewpoints on the coast that can be reached without the need for serious mountaineering,” the upper reaches of the climb are on snow and still require crampons and an ice axe. After stocking up on snack mix, we rented some gear out on a Friday afternoon and rallied for the five-hour drive over Haast Pass and up the coast.

Loaded down with mountaineering gear and the typical array of camping supplies, we started out on the banks of Dry Creek on a sunny and promising morning. It’s actually a rather misleading moniker, and the route upriver requires lots of boulder-hopping and countless river fords. Looking back over our shoulder after an hour of progress, we noticed we were starting out disturbingly close to sea level for a climb up a 7,286-foot mountain.

Looking back down Dry Creek with the Tasman Sea beyond.

At last, a cairn marked the start of the proper trail, and after a snack break we started up. And by up, we mean straight up— 4,000 feet up in 2 miles.

Looking up at 4,000 feet of climbing.

Adams is not a popular climb, and the route is accordingly rough. In fact, we’d been told that Department of Conservation officials hadn’t been up here for maintenance in two years, which explained the downed trees. We climbed—literally grappling tree roots and branches—along the narrow, gnarled, and often faint footpath. It was clear from quantity of spider webs that we’d have the mountain to ourselves.

Mount Adams falls in a slender section of the west coast known as the “beech gap,” and the lovely beech forests we’ve grown to love were replaced by dense, tangled woods. We did not love it, and after three hours we were pleased to break out into open slopes covered in snow grass. The marked trail ended here, allowing us to find our own way up along the ridgeline, which was now engulfed in afternoon clouds. Mercifully, they obscured how much further we had to go.

By now, our heavily laden packs were wearing us down, and I could have fallen asleep with my backpack on. Actually, I tried this on one short break, worrying Nate enough that he kindly took some of the gear off my pack. This was by far the hardest hike we’d ever undertaken, and it was taking a serious toll. Alex relieved me of my crampons, and I slowly made my way up, up, up.

Just as fatigue seemed to be settling in for good, the sun started to poke through, and a few minutes later we had the first of many rewards. Bright, silvery clouds parted to reveal windows of snowy mountains and rugged alpine country. We continued up a series of several humps in awe of our surroundings.

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A Tramping Trilogy: Gillespie Pass

A few weeks back, while the three of us were lazing by the lakeshore near sleepy Omarama, we realized it was time to stop being, well… lazy. It had been more than four months since we arrived in New Zealand, and over two since we met up with Alex and began our full-scale South Island exploration. Though we’d traversed the island several times over, our 90 L packs had remained neglected and the soles of our shoes had seen only a handful of day walks. It was time to load up our gear and head for the hills to participate in the beloved Kiwi pastime of tramping.

New Zealand is laced with an unbelievable number of walking trails, and it’s actually quite overwhelming trying to decide which piece of wilderness to explore. Though we had been eyeing an alpine crossing under the shadow of Mount Cook, an inconclusive weather forecast forced us to look further south. We settled on a 64-kilometer route connecting the Young and Wilkin river valleys in Mount Aspiring National Park, spent a day organizing gear and food, and set off with clear skies and high spirits.

A typically enchanting beech forest cloaks most of the Young valley, the fat and peeling birch-like trunks hanging with moss. The river —boasting that bright blue color we’ve only seen in New Zealand—tempted us with clear pools, though we knew it was painfully cold from our crossing earlier in the day. Every once in a while, we’d come to a wide meadow and get a spectacular view of the peaks all around us.

After seven hours and 20 kilometers, the last part steadily uphill, we came to the impressively posh Young Hut. Though our legs were exhausted and the bunks were inviting, we all agreed we didn’t hike all this way through the woods to sleep in a hostel. After a short rest we hoisted our packs and pressed on for another hour and few hundred vertical meters.

At last, emerging from the last of the sub-alpine brush, we could see the headwaters of the river we’d been following all day. A huge grassy plain spread in a near-perfect circle, culminating in a craggy cirque at the head of the valley. Alpine daisies and large mountain buttercups dotted the pale grass, and cliffs hemmed us in on all sides.

Nate reviewing the day's progress.

After a predictably delicious mac and cheese dinner, the sinking sun lit up the mountains before dropping behind them. We couldn’t have been happier. This was worth walking for!

The next day held the shortest, but by far the steepest, section of the hike: 600 meters up to the crest of Gillespie Pass. The trail turned sharply up the south side of the valley, orange poles marking the route among the tussocks. The scenery kept improving with every step, and stops to catch a breath soon became chances to soak up the view. (more…)


A year ago today

Time flies! Exactly one year ago, we took off from the Burlington airport with 16 months in the eastern hemisphere spreading out before us.

We’ve completely worn out a pair of shoes, our clothes are tattered, half our belongings were recently stolen, then recovered (no joke), Nate’s passport is two stamps away from being full, and we are in desperate need of a job (again). Between all that we’ve collected some excellent memories, and we are not done quite yet.  Here’s to four more months!

In Seattle enroute to Hokkaido, Japan!


A summertime Christmas

Though this was our very first Christmas away from home, we think it’s safe to say that we mastered the recipe for a memorable summertime holiday. Just mix together…

A coastal scene,

perfect weather,

a spot on the beach,

and a good book to read.

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Two familiar faces

Right as the best American holiday, Thanksgiving, was about to pass by unnoticed here in New Zealand, some long-awaited visitors from home arrived. Nate’s parents, Jan and Dan, traveled with us for 12 days, bringing near constant sunshine along with them.

We decided it would be a mistake to try to recreate the classic holiday meal, especially over a campstove. So, we all gathered around the picnic table for a southern hemisphere Thanksgiving of greenshell mussels, local sweet potatoes and asparagus. Delicious!

From left to right: Steph, Jan, Dan, Alex, Nate.

Along with the perfect weather, they came bearing treats from home. After all these months of camping we could finally construct proper s’mores with some graham crackers!

And our favorite beer, Heady Topper, was the perfect addition to a sunny afternoon on the West Coast.

Along with repeating some favorites, we also used the trip to explore some new places.

Hmmm… caulk the wagon and float across?

After some debate we rolled across and continued up the valley to a place that could be mistaken for paradise. It was just like “The Oregon Trail,” without the dysentery.

The beautiful West Matukituki Valley quickly became one of our newest favorite places in New Zealand.

They also treated us to perhaps the best Christmas present ever: two cruises on the sounds of Fiordland… (more…)


True New Zealand

Think of New Zealand, and the first thing that comes to mind is probably sheep. There are currently 40 million of them (and only 4 million people) in the country, filling any and every patch of useable land not occupied by people or rugged mountains.

Really, it would be hard to say you’ve experienced true New Zealand without spending time on a sheep farm, so back in early November we decided to do just that. Recommended whole-heartedly by good friends back home, we called up Ken and Sandra Closs to arrange two weeks of WWOOFing (working for room and board) at their farm, Te Hapu.

In the far northwest corner of the south island, just before you run out of land, Te Hapu is sandwiched between the Tasman Sea and Kahurangi National Park. It is a bumpy two-hour drive down a dirt road to the nearest town, giving the farm a sense of remoteness and discovery. Rugged green pastures broken by clusters of tree ferns and Nikau palms roll down straight into the sea.  Mobs of fine-wooled merino and sturdy Romney sheep—along with a few surprisingly nimble cows—graze continuously, looking like big balls of wool with sticks for legs. A narrow drive leads in to their house, surrounded by a bountiful garden and tall trees, which act as a fortress against a relentless southwest wind.

Looking out to sea. The shearing shed on the left, with the house tucked into the tall trees.

Ken and Sandra spent years working in one of the shearing gangs that roam the country, saving up enough money to purchase the land back in 1980. They have a wealth of knowledge about the land and their animals, and they were always willing to take the time to patiently answer our questions. The farming has never been easy, and along with a couple thousand sheep and hundred cows they operate several holiday homes scattered about their property. Listening to them tell the story, it is obvious they are proud of the life they have built— and rightfully so. Te Hapu is simply beautiful.

Within the first afternoon, we were smitten. It is hard believe anyone just lives somewhere this incredible. Every curve of the hill holds an unexpected stunning vista, a hidden cluster of foxgloves, a yawning secret cave, or a perfect sweeping beach. Limestone outcroppings dominate the dramatic coastline, topping the steep hillsides and harboring tide pools and crab-filled crevices along the sea.

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A Lazy Sunday

Here are some snippets from a hard day in the life of us.

An afternoon in a tree…

…and an evening in a sea of lupines.

Taken in and around Omarama, New Zealand.


Vietnam Through Five Eyes

Flashback to last April, and our 40-hour train ride from the steamy Mekong Delta to the fog of the Sapa Valley. Here is Vietnam viewed from the rails of the Reunification Express.


Some time to spare

Earlier in November, for not the first time in our travels around the South Island, we found ourselves in an unexpected place with a lot of time on our hands.  The Marlborough Sounds are a convoluted maze of sunken river valleys, and are quite striking when viewed on a map. To do all the waterways justice you’d need a week in a sailboat or a lifetime in a kayak, but we did our best on shore in some fickle spring weather.

After paying our former hometown of Blenhiem a brief visit, we drove a curvy road— the first of many in the next few days— to a campsite across the road from a rocky bay.  The tidepools were festooned with mussels and, as it was approaching dinnertime, we decided to collect some for an appetizer. Being not completely sure of the legality of harvesting and the correct cooking method, we plucked only three from the rocks and fried them up in breadcrumbs and salt and pepper.

Mussels have a somewhat disturbing appearance that makes you wonder who first picked one up and thought, “yeah, I think I’ll eat this.” They also require a cleaning step called “debearding,” which is never a term you want applied to something you are going to consume. Anyways, they were quite good and we made a note to do more research on the collection and cooking of the little buggers.

Once again, however, dark clouds rolled in after sunset, and soon it began to rain. And rain. It completely flooded our tent, soaking our sleeping bags. To make a bad situation pretty much unbearable, hordes of mosquitoes found refuge in the gap between our tent and our fly, and swarmed in every time we unzipped the tent door. Not cool.

Steph, after a restful night's sleep.

The next morning dawned with tentative sunshine that illuminated the hundreds of mosquitoes we had massacred during the night. On the drive back to town, the morning light brightened our spirits and delivered a photo-worthy rainbow. We like to think it was nature’s way of apologizing for the malicious deeds of the night before.

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Gone tubin’

Driving through the Marlborough Sounds a few weeks ago, we stumbled upon a small slice of Vermont half the world away.  With green mountains rolling down to fields of dairy cows and a rocky gorge carved by a crystal clear river, the countryside around Pelorus Bridge is a near perfect rendition of home.

It fast became one of our favorite spots as the first night we stumbled upon a free buffet- mutton, roast potatoes and whole chickens for the taking!  The rest of our time was spent playing cards, trying to drink enough 4% beer to feel something, and – one of our favorite summer pastimes back home – tubing down the river.

As an added bonus, we discovered that next month Peter Jackson and Co. will be taking over the campground to film sections of The Hobbit here— specifically, a scene in which Bilbo and the dwarves clamber into barrels and raft the very same river!


The Shaky City

Last fall, the city of Christchurch made international headlines for a devastating earthquake, followed by another, more destructive one last February. Multitudes of tremors and aftershocks since then (over 7,000!) have earned Christchurch the nickname displayed in our title.

Though aware of the damage, none of us realized its full extent until we attempted to drive into town. A chain link fence peppered with ominous warning signs blocks off the entire city center, so that no one other than construction personnel can enter what was once the bustling downtown. Countless restaurants, hotels, bars, shops, and other businesses stand forlornly empty, their imminent demolition scrawled on the walls in spray paint and posted notices.

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