Mar 23, 2015

Boat or no Boat?

Spoiler: no boat :-(
We are in Australia now after buying a plane ticket.

Our search for a boat was rocky and emotionally fast paced. We would go from hearing "yes! go to x place and I'm sure you'll find something!" to "oh...that's never going to happen" in the span of 12 hours as we talked to different people.

Everyone was so nice, either optimistic and excited for us, unsure but thoroughly supportive and wishing us luck, or sadly and genuinely sorry to tell us there was no hope. We met many fantastic and very nice people through our search. Telling people what we were doing was a great conversation starter, and we had an excuse to just walk into marina offices and yacht clubs to chat with people. For Nick this was important because he needs interactions with more than just myself, and having this opener was helpful. For me: my natural inclination is to stay in my own shell, and this forced me out of it.

Entering a yacht club in Opua, I wanted to sit alone, but we had a job, so we joined two very nice gentlemen at their table and had a great time. Good conversation about travel, food, people, and New Zealand. Didn't get a boat, but they did point us to a free place to stay near their home in Kawakawa. (Saved us $12 from where we were originally going to camp that night).

On our way from Auckland to Piha to camp one night we ended up at a beautiful cafe overlooking Auckland, appropriately named Elevation Cafe. It was dark and we ate overlooking Auckland's lights and getting slightly homesick for New York City. "Wait, this is the largest city in the country? 1/4 of your population lives here?" As we were leaving we were the only ones there and we ended up in conversation with the owner and his wife about the journey to Australia. (And about wine as he gave us some samples of his favorite NZ local vintages). They even pulled in the chef to talk with us about ideas for getting to Australia. It didn't end up working out with those ideas either though. Another great time with fun conversation... but no boat. So it went, over and over - great people, great conversation, no boat.

Goodbye to NZ, land of Sheep, vineyards, beaches, and clear skies (all of which are in this photo)

Mar 17, 2015

Camper Car Chapter Concluded

We officially turned in our camper car last night! We had extended it for an extra week because we didn't want to strangle each other yet. So now we have re-joined the world of people who don't try to stuff two people to live within 150 cubic feet.

Most people's camper cars are larger than this and don't require quite the setup/takedown every day.

It's a fun combination of freedom and forced planning. You can go everywhere, but you have to know before too late in the day where you'll be staying that night (and have a backup plan in case the price is absurd).

New Zealand has a huge amount of tourists, and even locals, touring around in camper cars/vans/motor homes. Camping laws, therefore, are pretty necessary and you can't just pull up on the side of any road and sleep there. You can stay in Department of Conservation (DoC) campgrounds, private campgrounds, or if the district is lenient, sometimes there will be a field set aside for campers to stay for free. These will almost never have showers, but they'll have a bathroom. Some DoC campgrounds are free, but generally about $6 per person. Again, rarely showers, but always bathrooms. You get showers when you stay at the private sites (at $10-$20 NZD per person per night).

At the private sites sometimes you feel like you want to just stay forever.

We drove 4169.4 km in this car, and it took us to some amazing and scary places. We saw mountains, valleys, lakes, beaches, vineyards, rain forests, sheep, sunsets, trains, sheep (there are a lot of sheep here), vineyards (there's also a lot of vineyards), and so much more (but mostly just more sheep and vineyards).

22 days of driving around such a beautiful country, meeting people, eating delicious food, relaxing, stressing about boats, and visiting wineries. 21 nights of finding a campsite, setting up the car, and settling down on our pillow (not a typo, we only had the 1 pillow) amid the noises of birds and insects.

Don't let the video fool you, Nick has a strong aversion to making beds in the general use of the term, i.e. putting clean linens onto a mattress. The idea of actually having to make the bed every night was... not his favorite idea. The upside was I had my own personal chef for many nights of delicious ramen, (or as he puts it, "ramen inspired cuisine").
"It's time to set up the bed"
"Ok... how about you do that and I'll make some dinner"

Stove, pots, dishes, all included in our rental car.

Pam, the Super Cyclone that delayed the Volvo Ocean Race from leaving Auckland hit us on our last night with the car. The sound of the rain on the roof was extremely relaxing and we both slept well, but then we had to return it. Last day with the car and nothing bad has happened yet, just get us back to the rental location without an accident!!

The storm blew the beach up onto the road, drive carefully!

"Fords may flood and become impassable for days."

We made it back without incident and in plenty of time, the sun was even out as we wandered toward our lodgings for the night, packs on our backs.

Mar 14, 2015

The NZ -> Oz gap: trials and tribuations

"We're trying to find a boat to Australia."
"Is there a boat to Australia?!?" exclaimed the various fellow travelers and New Zealand locals in 1,000 different conversations.
"No, but we're trying to find one anyway."

From the beginning I knew that the vast Tasman Sea between New Zealand and Australia would be one of the biggest challenges to cross without flying. Our primary plan was to try to crew on a yacht headed toward Australia. We've been to ports and ship yards in Auckland, up the coast in Whangarei, and the main international yachting customs port in Opua, Bay of Islands.

Westhaven Marina, Auckland

The universal consensus has been that we are about 6 weeks too early for any boats that might be headed to Australia. At this time of year the weather typically makes for a rough crossing. This has become abundantly clear through reports of three tropical cyclones currently tracking through the area including category 5 Supercyclone Pam, which is currently bearing down on northern New Zealand after having just laid its cyclonic smackdown on Vanuatu. This has even caused a delay in the Volvo Ocean Race, which had been schedule to depart Auckland tomorrow, leaving their impressive circumnavigational racing yachts wallowing in the harbor down the road.

Six identical racing yachts participating in the Volvo Ocean Race

Apart from being out of our price range, the few cruise ships traversing the Tasman Sea are completely booked up for the coming months, and apart from being further still out of our price range, the freighters are booked up for months to years in advance (now taking bookings for 2017 if you're quite confident in your future availability).

Alas time and money are growing short for our stay in New Zealand.

During our boat quest we traveled through some more stunning areas of New Zealand. We visited with Tāne Mahuta, the largest known living kauri tree. Clocking in at ~2,000 years old, 168 ft tall, and 45 ft around, Tāne Mahuta is the embodied force of nature.

Tāne Mahuta, Lord of the Forest

The kauri was prized for ship-building, particularly masts due to it's superior grain structure and resistance to rot. Kauri gum was Auckland's major export for the later half of the 1800s. The gum is actually a fossilized resin from the trees that was, at first, readily available of pick up on the forest floor or beaches. Later, people began to dig for kauri gum underground in old kauri fields, leading to the substantial gum digger industry. Kauri gum was mainly used as a varnish and is still used in the manufacture of certain high-end violins.

A quick spelunking expedition in the Waipu caves revealed constellations of twinkling green glow worms lining the ceilings. The glow worms glow to attract tiny insects into their sticky threads for summary consumption. Littered across the floor could be seen a few dimmer spots where hapless worms had fallen into the unknowable and deadly realm of the ground.

Waipu Caves, glow worms are invisible in this much light

A New Zealand glow worm courtesy of Wikipedia (note to self: figure out how to do my own long-exposure shots)

The Auckland Arts Festival provided us with some more human-centric entertainment during our stay here, and I could not leave out Hundertwasser Toilets: the most famous toilets in all of New Zealand, and the claim to fame of the town of Kawakawa, where we camped for one night.

Aotea Square during the Auckland Arts Festival

The Hundertwasser Toilets, the most famous toilets in New Zealand

Mar 10, 2015

New Zealand is Amazing

The trip so far has been amazing! It's almost difficult to know what to take pictures of and write about because everything is so phenomenal. It's funny, but I'm experiencing a "strange thing". Having just re-read The Hobbit, I feel like Tolkien puts it very well. Along the journey fraught with hardship and strife, this is from the brief period of respite among the elves at Rivendell:
"Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway. They stayed long in that good house, fourteen days at least, and they found it hard to leave. Bilbo would gladly have stopped there forever and ever -- even supposing a wish would have taken him right back to his hobbit-hole without trouble. Yet there is little to tell about their stay."
- J.R.R. Tolkien

It is true, I feel myself, in the search for interest and intrigue, much more drawn to telling that I've already broken my phone screen and less about a beautiful and relaxing day we spent in the capital city, Wellington. But unlike Bilbo's unlikely friends, our homelessness is not because of an evil and dangerous dragon usurper. We are not trekking across Goblin infested mountains. Our journey is a lot more Rivendell and a lot less Mirkwood. Ok, ok, done with the Hobbit references (for now). Essentially, if I left out the good bits I would tell about the cracked phone screen and that one day that it took us longer than usual to find lunch and I got kind of hungry. Very short post.

Yes, I did break my phone, I really hoped I would get through at least 2 countries before that inevitably happened. Alas, barely 2 days.

But it's also true that Nick and I spent a wonderful day in Wellington. We wandered around watching people jump into the sea in all the various places around the city with diving boards, floating docks, planks (as in "Arr, walk th' plank"), and ladders. We sat in the sun and "cured ourselves" as Nick likes to refer to our pre-Asia base tanning. We sat outside of a wine bar on beanbag chairs drinking wine and reading our books.
And that was just one day!

We got to a bar one night, meeting up with an old grad school friend of Nick's, and when I ordered my cocktail I said to the bartender, "I would say that it's been a long day...but it hasn't". And that's been every day.

Our little camper car has been a dream. It chugs along and gets us everywhere we want to go, and then at night we park, put the seats down, and Nick starts making dinner while I go about converting it into a bed. We've stayed in a thermal area where we could soak in the pools in the evening and in the morning. We've driven up to the beach and watched the sun set over the ocean while cooking our pot or ramen. It's gotten us over, under, and between mountains.
Photos and video of our little engine forthcoming (having some problems with connectivity at the moment).

I will finish off for now with one last amazing thing we've done. Yesterday afternoon we drove up to a cave and hiked inside. After a few twists and turns, when the light from the entrance was practically gone, we started to be able to see hundreds of glow worms. The cave ceiling was covered in glowing dots, almost like stars much more clustered. They don't live on the smooth rock, but only on the textured stalactites that we noticed. The farther in we went (it was a very long cave) the more we would stand there with our flashlights off, just looking up. Leaving the cave, the sun was much brighter than we remembered. We camped there that night and after the sun set we went back into the cave. The ceiling at the entrance, which had seemed empty of the worms in the sunlight, was glowing brightly.

Mar 6, 2015

Working holidays in Hawke's Bay and steamy encounters

A worker at the last winery of the day suggested a campground just down the road where a number of the staff were staying. We subsequently rolled into a vibrant community of travelers, many of them on 'working holidays' to New Zealand and staying in the area to work at wineries or pick fruit. This is a special type of short-term visa that New Zealand hands out to applicant from many countries between the ages of 18-30. I spent some time with a fellow from Italy who was extolling the virtues of the scheme--not only a fantastic travel opportunity in New Zealand, he was also making three times as much picking apples here as he had been making in Italy.

There were also 'holiday' goers from France, England, and Korea. We merrily whiled away the night discussing, as one does, the foibles of different international accents, spaghetti westerns, the ethnolinguistic connections of dogs, and how to take over the tourism economy of certain remote islands while drinking the amateur of local grape growers who had not cracked the barrier into full-time wine production. Ultimately the night was capped with a moonlit swim in the bay.

The next day we were on to the Rotorua region of New Zealand, literally bursting with geothermal energy. after another long day on the road we pulled into a campsite next to a complex of hot springs and thermal pools. The steam poured out of the earth as the setting sun illuminated the clouds above.

Sunset over the hot spring

Steam rising from the thermal pools

The next day I caught up with an old buddy of mine from Cambridge; James generously showed us around Hamilton and his family's hospitality allowed me to at long-last experience the tri-mingling of three -mites on one toast!

Clock-wise from top-right: British Marmite, Vegemite, and New Zealand Marmite

Wellington and Hawke's Bay

We arrived in Wellington around 10:30 at night and were eager to lay down heads onto camper car pillow. First we had to make our way a bit outside of town to one of Wellington's two designated 'freedom camping' areas. After coasting into a slot amid the slumbering camper vans were were interrupted only briefly by a local who had taken it upon himself to serenade to ocean with a drunken lullaby of high intensity. In the morning we awoke to the windy beach:

Freedom camping in Wellington, New Zealand

The opportunity to recharge from our travels was too good to pass up in sunny, cosmopolitan Wellington, but I may have taken it a bit too literally in the mode of solar power having now acquired my first NZ sunburn. Next up was Hawke's Bay, a region famed for it's Syrah, Chardonnay, and Art Deco architecture. The latter proved somewhat underwhelming, though perhaps that's what I get for having spent the past two years working around the corner from New York's Chrysler Building. In terms of the wines our picks are:

1. Church Road - By far by favorite of the trip so far. The Reserve Chardonnay was very well balanced in a new world adaptation of the classic European style, but the 2010 Reserve Viongier really stole the show as a standout wine marrying florality, minerality, and creaminess in an incredible balance. After visiting the winery I was surprised to learn that Church Road has suffered from a poor reputation within New Zealand of being a large, overpriced producer and a having, shall we say, a bit of a snob factor (a certain nonagenarian we talked to would have absolutely nothing to do with it!). Well I'd say it's time to give it another taste, eh?
2. Ash Ridge - This small winery impressed me a great deal with their maverick winemaking. Their 2013 Syrah was my favorite in Hawke's Bay.

Mar 1, 2015

Wine tasting in Nelson and Marlborough

After zipping past the glaciers of the west coast and encountering the ever popular sandfly for the first time, Elizabeth and I have spent the last two days nursing our bites and tasting wine in the Nelson and Marlborough regions. We're approaching harvest time and netting covers the vines to protect the sweetening fruit from birds. Young workers make their way through the rows under the nets banging metal pipes in order to flush out any sneaky birds that made it inside.

Bird patrol at Woolaston

New Zealand has a great deal to offer apart from the Sauvignon Blanc (SB) that it is best known for. Particularly many of the wineries we visited has excellent Gewürztraminer, more experimental takes on the SB, and other aromatic whites. Unfortunately it's difficult to get a hold of much beyond the classic SB and odd Pinot Noir or two back in the US due to the rather limited production volumes of the more interesting wines.

For those of you keeping score, our favorites from the Nelson area were:
1. Woolaston (interesting SB aged in acacia wood)
2. Waimea (my favorite classic Marlborough SB and a Cabernet Franc-Syrah-Viognier blend called Trev's Red)

1. Hans Herzog (eclectic selections, a very fine Arneise and barrel-aged SB)
2. Johanneschof (excellent aromatic whites such as their fine Gewürztraminer)
3. Fromm (oldest Syrah vines in NZ)

As I write we are aboard the MV Straitsman ferry (the first of many ferries during this adventure) steaming our way from the South Island of New Zealand to the North Island. The Northern shore is beginning to form in the distance as if the cloud itself were congealing into solid state. The gentleman sitting next to me tells me that this phenomenon is known as a "sea fret" or "haar". Unfortunately some things cannot be captured on film.

Ferry docking in Picton

Ferry selfie!

Sunset over the receding South Island