Behind the Scenes: How have we been making this work?

March 6, 2016

It’s hard to digest that we have been gone from the US since January 15. Road trip living is a surreal time warp on many levels. The funny thing is, I am beginning to get used to the rhythms of being a nomad. There is so much we have seen and done in just five week of New Zealand travel, but what’s been equally interesting to me is how we’ve organically slipped into the lifestyle of travelling homeschoolers, how much of our normal day to day existence we’ve left behind and how our sum total of our earthly belongings has been compressed into one small van. I have had a few friends ask me about the details so I thought I’d share with you. Otherwise, you can just skip to the pictures of what we’ve been up to. 

What’s in the van?
Us, first and foremost. Jake almost exclusively in the driver’s seat (I am starting to drive in this left-handed country slowly now, but he’s really got it down like a boss) and me, navigator extraordinaire and general child-wrangler. The kids are eight feet behind us and good thing that because whether they are playing or fighting, they’re just plain less noisy way back there. Between us and the kids, we have a suitcase for Jake and I with about four changes of clothing stacked on a container of kids clothes. I won’t lie, we wear dirty clothes often and don’t really care. Running out of underwear though is the trigger for a laundry day. Once, we drove out of a campground and left the majority of our clothes in the dryer there and were several hours into a pretty distant destination before we remembered. So we wore the little bit we had left and came back through town four days later and collected it. The lesson here: we brought very little clothing and need even less of it.

We also have a dry bag duffel with sleeping bags and pads and another duffel with footwear and raingear. To maximize space in the van, we squashed these two bags up against one of the side doors of the van and just don’t use that door. We bought a bunch of small bins that fit beneath seats that hold toiletries, swimsuits, various critical hardware, cables and tools and we installed some clever bins in the front to hold travel books, ipad and maps. Bungee cords and binder clips are essential pieces of gear for all this to be MacGyvered into service.

The kids have a small milkcrate that sits on the ground between them with their workbooks, reading, drawing pads, playing cards, small games and is easily reachable by both of them. They also have their backpacks with hats, a warm layer, water, their blankets, a couple of stuffed animals, an e-reader for Milo and Kyra’s always changing collections of tiny things that she curates compulsively. That is the sum total of toys and stuff that they have. Milo mostly reads and draws in the car and Kyra loves her “boogie board”, an erasable drawing tablet that she uses for hours every day. 

There is usually a bag of car snacks back there too: fruit, nuts, crackers, biscuits. We pull it out when cranky boredom sets in.

In the small space behind the kids seats, we have packed all the food-related stuff. A jerry can of potable water and a small propane tank for the stove, two half-size coolers for food (the top one always contains lunch stuff) and then a plastic container of food basics like oil, spices, dry bulk goods, coffee and tea and on top of that a crate with pots and pans and plates, cups and cutlery. a 2-burner campstove slides beneath one of the seats. Also back there we fit a small folding table, folding chairs and camping stools and the tent. I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s a complex geometry problem to fit all that in a tiny space but we’ve got it down to a fine art by now. We buy food for about three days at a time because of our space limitations, but that has not really been a problem. There are grocery stores everywhere and we always have provisions for a backup meal or two in a pinch.

One deficiency: our van is too old to have an ipod jack and the radio does not work. But there is a CD player so we’ve bought four CDs from a used record store in Wellington and our travels have frequently been soothed by the ministrations of The Band, The Pogues, Macy Gray and JS Bach. As a result, the kids are walking around singing “Dirty Old Town” constantly and changing the words to include lots of poop references. Our family listens to music almost all the time so no “music on demand” has been a little hard on all of us.

Where do we sleep?

I’ve been forgetting to photograph our different sleeping locations. We’ve done pretty much every variation of lodgings from campgrounds to the rare cottages (or cribs, as they’re referred to here on the South Island). There are so many beautiful places to camp but we stick to the holiday parks mostly, for refrigerators (our food travels in a cooler with a frozen water bottle to keep it from spoiling) and for the creature comforts that keep the kids spirits’ up like pools and trampolines. More primitive free camping requires the ability to contain your human waste and since we don’t officially have a campervan, those sites are off limits to us. We camp mostly when we are going to spend at least a couple of days in a place, since setting up shop can be a lot of effort. In many places, we are only stopping over for a night and then we’ll usually rent a very simple hut or stay in a hostel. Also, if the weather looks like rain, rain and more rain, we opt for indoor accommodations since we only have a very basic, borrowed hardware store tent that will not withstand really inclement conditions. For example, in the Fiordlands, with their average of 4 to 7 METRES of rain a year, we found a stunning little solar-powered hut perched on a mountain with glorious views of the mountains and fjords for less than the price of a tent space at a holiday park. 

We have stayed in over 20 different locations since arriving in New Zealand on January 26th. With the exception of 2 (which were invitations to a home), we’ve had to research every stop along the way. It’s not trivial, especially with limited access to internet and it being peak tourist season, when the island is full of travelers and we need to be mindful of our budget.

When we camp, two of us will sleep in the tent and two in the van. The kids never want to sleep together because they inevitably scrap like wildcats. Kyra has staked out the van as her preferred bedroom and Milo loves the tent. Jake and I switch it up. At night, the back seats fold up against the side of the van and we covered the floor in a foam mat that makes sleeping in a van a little more comfortable. We sling some towels over bungee cords to block out light and we even bought some battery-powered starry lights to string up for reading at night in there. Instant cozy. 

The tent is nice because there’s lots of room to spread out -  a desirable trait when sharing a tent with a kid who sleeps sideways often. The hard moments have come with the prolific sandflies of the west coast (like black flies, only their bites itch a lot longer) because somehow they get into the tent, and with the occasional cold nights that overwhelm the summer-weight sleeping bags that Jake and I brought. But all in all, the camping goes pretty smoothly and when everyone pitches in, the logistics don’t feel as burdensome. We have all developed the capacity to pretty much fall asleep anywhere.

What are the rhythms of our days?
All over the map. We arrived here with a loose plan to travel and that was it. So, just as with accommodations, we have been deciding our itinerary a few days at a time on the go. At first, it mainly happened at night, after the kids were in bed but we were usually pretty burnt out by then so now we just take a leisurely morning every few days to plan out the next leg of the trip, call to book accommodations and activities and set a rough schedule. Having a somewhat firm plan for three or four days out has been really important because then we can put down the books and maps and brochures and just really be in the moment a lot more rather than scrambling to figure out the next step all the time (that’s how we spent the first couple of weeks - not ideal). 

A frequent view from the navigator's seat: Balancing our GPS, the guidebook and my cappuccino in my lap simultaneously. Also, flip-flops and wool long underwear is totally fashion-forward.

A not-uncommon picture of the backseat with one kid asleep in a weird position, the remains of car forts and shit everywhere.
Taking on some of the work of daily life. 
Anywhere we’ve been so far, there has been no shortage of amazing things to do. But we have two young travelers with us who don’t have as much control of the schedule and so we’ve had to dance a delicate dance of embracing the crazy adventure and keeping little kids feeling sane and stable. I don’t exaggerate here, there’s a lot of pushing limits that happen when you take kids to hike glaciers or cross wobbly swinging bridges over cataracts or have to steel themselves on a tumultuous whale-watching excursion or ride horses up the sides of mountains. It’s thrilling to me and to Jake, but it can be nerve-wracking to push your limits too many times in a row when you’re 6 or 9 years old. Kyra was becoming a walking risk management brochure, citing all the ways we could die with every activity we were undertaking. 

She runs across these swing bridges every single time. So she can get off them as fast as possible.

Sea kayaking at Abel Tasman National Park. We followed that up with smoothies and wood-fired pizza hidden down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. 

Whale watching off the coast of Kaikoura. It's a good thing these dolphins (and one sperm whale) put on a show to offset the terror of 15-foot swells and a boat full of hurling tourists. 

Doubtful Sound, Fiordlands National Park. No. More. Hiking.

And sometimes, they get to choose the activity of the day.

"It's like biking on marshmallows!"

Punakaiki. She spent a whole afternoon at our campsite getting to use a pocket knife and making her own flax-leaf dolls.
Duntroon. Digging out fossils from nearby sandstone. You couldn't tear her away and the docent finally just let her take the while chunk with her.

Wanaka. We'd been plagued by rain for days but a sweet traveling circus saved us from a night of being huddled in the van at the campground,

We got the message. 

We are learning to intersperse days of mellow with days of adventure and days of being tourists in the city. It doesn’t come easy to either me or Jake but it actually is good for us to sit still too. We spent four nights at a friend’s bach (holiday home) in the Waitaki Valley and gave ourselves plenty of time to do nothing at all, between bigger hikes in Mt Cook National Park or cool local sites. We were convinced to have a stay home day, the two kids happily played at home all day long, making up elaborate fantasy games, playing with legos and each spending a good chunk of time doing math or writing in their journal. I took a nap. Jake read a book. It’s almost unheard of for us to be so still. It felt great, though; we had a lot of wonderful conversations throughout the day. It helped us to decide to park ourselves in a beach cottage for another five days to slowly explore Dunedin and the Otago peninsula with lots of time to just play on the beach or curl up with a book on the sofa.

Sheep: Nature's playdate.
A day at 'home". They never took their PJs off.
Even spaghetti and sardines feels like a luxury meal when it's at a table and with actual cutlery.
Homeschool morning in Kaikoura. 

Bookstore in Dunedin + woodstove in Long Beach = happy family.

One of the real delights of this trip has been to take the lead of one kid or another who’s interest is sparked by a particular activity or place. We had an amazing morning of horseback riding a couple of weeks ago in a hauntingly beautiful area called Farewell Spit. I wouldn’t have put riding horses on my list of “must-do’s” except that Kyra asked us no less than 10 times if we could do it. We finally agreed to book a horseback riding excursion with a lot of trepidation, given that she had never been on a horse before. True to her word, that kid not only overcame her nervousness, but she looked like she loved every minute of the three hour excursion, even the mountainous parts. And both kids enthusiastically list the horse trek as one of the best things they’ve done in New Zealand. 

Riding horses on the beach, Farewell Spit.

Two weeks ago, as we made our way south on the West Coast, we spent a night in the quaint town of Hokitika. Milo got totally enraptured by the gold mining history of the place (not to mention the gold nugget on display) and so we spent the next day and a half visiting museums and gold stores, old mining towns and we even rented a pan and panned for gold at an active mine site on the Hokitika River. Jake and Milo successfully found a fleck of gold dust, which Milo has kept in a small vial of water. One kid’s fixation led us to really immerse ourselves in a vital piece of this island’s history that I know I would never have paid much attention to on my own. On our way out of Hokitika, I bought the novel The Lumineers which is set in Hokitika during the gold rush of the 1860s. It’s been really fun to read because I can picture the places they reference in the book, thanks to our foray into the gold mining past of the west coast. 

Panning for gold on the Hokitika River.
Our learning curve has also incorporated the need for Jake and I to carve out some alone time in the midst of all this very intense family time. We try to take turns going for a run or even a walk on our own. I try to make time for meditation or yoga. I don’t need a lot but I do need it regularly. We even have taken to splitting the kids up and taking one or the other out for a mini-date to a cafe or for a bike ride. This is a vital ingredient to sanity. But again, it took us a while to clue into how important it is. The lesson here: an ounce of prevention is worth 10 pounds of cure when you are all together every day. Also, a glass of wine or beer goes a long way to restoring sanity on a hot day after too many hours in the van.

Sampling the microbrews and signature dish at the Mussel Inn, Takaka. Tire swing  bought us enough time for a couple of beers.

So that’s some of the behind the scenes aspects of this trip so far. In just one more week, we head back up north to settle into our first home on the beach. A whole new rhythm to adjust to. There is a lot of excitement about it here. Although, I’ll admit, there really is something very bewitching about being on the move a lot, and the anticipation of what’s coming around the bend all the time. I wonder if I will have an easy adjustment back to a more sedentary existence...


Where we head south to Wellington

Feb 3, 2015

Wellington, NZ, North Island

Last night’s camping was not exactly a success; all that “patchouli” smell (at least, that’s what I called the smell wafting out of other camper vans at dusk because, well, pot ain’t on my discussion list with the kids at this point in time), late night music and overtired kids did not make for great sleeping. So it goes. At least we got a little sweet revenge with Kyra’s bright, chipper and LOUD morning voice bright and early next to those tents full of night owls. But that’s what “free” camping buys you. When we navigated around the clotheslines, kayaks and empty beer bottles, the campsite’s charms really shone: a rope swing into the glorious Waikato river, unbelievably clear and aquamarine, like the Mexican Caribbean, but freshwater. Our midwestern kids marveled at handfuls of water that ran clear, with no algae in it. Cold, clear and fast, a morning swim in the Waikato reset us all for the long drive ahead that day.

We grabbed a cappuccino from a local cafe (coffee everywhere in New Zealand has been, across the board, outstanding) and headed for nearby Huka Falls. If you were to jump into the river at our campsite and let the ferocious current carry you about a kilometre downstream, you would see this voluminous river squeezed into a narrow chasm and become a roiling, boiling series of epic cataracts that look like they eat kayakers for breakfast. and the higher we hiked up the edge of them, the more impressive they became. Truly one of those moments of being humbled by the awesome power of the natural world.

That night we opted to stay at a backpacker hostel in Wellington, mainly so Jake can get a decent shower and be at his orientation bright and early the next morning. I’ve always loved hostels but they are especially ideal with kids. They’re lively, people are social, and the experience of cooking in a communal kitchen and soaking in everyone else’s travel adventures is interesting in a million ways. Kyra got to socialize with new people (I am stating here and now that she has a radar for cool German women) and Milo got to hear about three-month long treks through New Zealand. Plus, bunkbeds! We talked with one woman who had hiked the length of the entire north island for three months and was preparing to embark on her second three months of trekking on the south island. It had taken her a month of hiking to cover the distance between Lake Taupo and Wellington - a distance we covered by van in six hours. I can only imagine all the things she saw up close that we missed as we zoomed past all those beautiful landscapes. And she earned a knowledge about that place that we won’t ever know. Funny update: we picked up this same lovely woman and a companion as they were hitchiking to their next trailhead on the South Island five days later!)

As part of the orientation to New Zealand, Fulbirght fellows and their families were invited to experience a traditional powhiri, a Maori welcome ceremony. We visited a marae - the communal gathering place of Maori for religious or social events - and were treated to a warm welcome and a wonderful history of the place. The concept of marae was introduced by Polynesians and so variations exist in many Polynesian societies including New Zealand, Hawaii, the Cook Islands, Tahiti, and other island nations. But while in many other places the tradition died out, marae are still very active part of everyday life for Maori in New Zealand. We were treated like honored guests, fed extremely well and even got to sleep in the wharanui (meeting house) in a kind of giant 40-person slumber party.  This particular marae has a storied history and a most poetic name which translates to "Goodwill toward all people". The Maori of this iwi (tribe) were renowned for their effective non-violent resistance in the face of historic land grabs by the government, employing the principles of Mahatma Gandhi in fighting the New Zealand government. Today, this marae serves as the vibrant, beating heart of this Maori community, operating preschools and language and cultural activities for youth, and even a beautiful museum.

On our last day in Wellington, we visited Zealandia,  a renowned ecological sanctuary in Wellington. I'll admit, Jake had to sort of prod me on this one. In general, I am not enamored of zoos or reserves, they often feel like sad, neglected places full of diminishing creatures living out a shadow of their wild lives. But, man, this place was incredible, a mash-up of the mundane and marvelous. In New Zealand, conservation is the single-minded art of killing things, mainly the multitude of non-native mammals that have been accidentally or intentionally introduced over the years and that have decimated the native fauna of the island. In an effort to preserve the remnant populations of bird, including the kiwi, New Zealanders have systematically excluded, trapped, exterminated and poisoned these pest animals with some great success. Zealandia is one such place, where an $8M high-tech, maximum security fence was installed around the perimeter of the valley and staff managed to rid the area of all invasive predators (save for mice). As a result, the reserve has become a safe haven for some of the world's rarest bird and reptiles species, right in the heart of a major city.

As a side note, The New Yorker published this terrific 2014 article about New Zealand's quixotic quest to restore its native fauna and it's really a great story about what is possible.

Happily awaiting our morning cappuccino after a rough night of camping

Just another fabulous playground by the sea with a treacherously high climbing structure. 

The wharanui, or meeting house, at the heart of a Maori marae

Preparing for our 40-person slumber party at the marae. "It's exactly the way I want to sleep every night!" says Kyra

A Waka Taua or Maori war canoe. Carved from a single tree trunk, this war canoe seats 20 men and weighs almost one metric ton. One look at the bow carving and I understood immediately why Captain Cook never set foot on his first sighting of New Zealand when a flotilla of these came out to meet him.

Working on their paddling technique

Some of the stunning carvings adorning the fence around the marae 
We were assured that football is indeed a perfectly welcome use of the marae. 

Wellington was a pretty charming city, we stayed way longer than we thought we would.


Milo and a model of a blue whale heart at New Zealand's National Museum Te Rapa in Wellington

And Kyra discovers the delightful lightness of being pumice!

Birds of Zealandia included this robust flock of shags - a native cormorant

Kakas - native parrots at feeders 

This crazy fellow is one of the most endangered birds in the world, the flightless Takahe


Settling into New Zealand, the near-death by a thousand details.

Feb. 2, 2016
Lake Taupo, NZ, North Island

It’s 10pm and the cicadas outside our tent have finally settled down. But the kids haven’t; I can hear the giggling through the windows of the van. Their muffled laughter mingles with nearby conversation in a language I can’t decipher and Simon and Garfunkel wafting over from a neighboring site. And the very base note of this sonic perfume is the dull roar of nearby rapids. We’re camping on the banks of the Waikato River. Up here, in Taupo, near Tongariro National Park, the volcanic center of the north island, the river has teeth and draws rafters and kayakers from around the world. We’ve crashed their free campsite and, without a doubt, our family is simultaneously far older and younger than anyone else on these grounds tonight. 

This whole area is so incredible for both its environmental and cultural significance. It is the oldest national park in New Zealand, encompassing three volcanoes. The site is so imbued with meaning for the Maori that it has been designated as an UNESCO cultural and natural World Heritage site. 

Lake Taupo is the big lake in the middle of the North Island. It is a crater lake created over 26,000 years ago in the supereruption of Taupo volcano: a blast that was larger than Mt Saint Helens and Krakatoa combined. The ash cloud was recorded around the world. Roman skies glowed red for days when the eruption occurred.

Leaving our sweet Hamilton hosts with a case of sauvignon blanc to hopefully dull the pain of our prolonged visit, we finally left Hamilton and headed for the hills. In the last seven days, we had opened bank accounts, navigated bus routes, left-hand driving and cell phone plans. We had shopped for and bought a used van, scrounged up all our camping gear, we had tricked out the van to be a crash pad for half the family (a tent holds the other half) and paid a visit to both our upcoming Raglan and Hamilton neighborhoods (and snuck in a quick weeknight trip to glorious Piha for boogie boarding and fish and chips). We did it all with two slightly homesick kids in tow, in 90 degree weather. 

And our first night of camping embodied all the awkward growing pains that come with starting a new groove: missing items, forgotten fuel for the stove, tent shenanigans, rain, the game of tetris to pack the van. I’m sweating again just writing these sentences. But it always comes together in it’s own way. We had sandwiches for dinner and marmite-flavored bagel chips. The back hatch of our Nissan Serena is enormous and doubles as a very effective rain shelter.

Tomorrow we'll take a morning to explore some of the the rich volcanic activity around here (again with the volcanoes!). It will be just a taste since we have a six-hour drive ahead of us. We’ll be back to really explore this area once we are settle into Hamilton, just two hours away. But for tomorrow, we will take a short hike to Huka Falls, on the Waikato River. And then we head to Wellington, on the very southern tip of the north island, for Jake’s Fulbright orientation. From there, we’ll launch to the South Island.

Welcome to Auckland. Traditional Maori carvings as you enter the terminal from the tarmac.

One can find wonderful things in the grocery shops!

Our Auckland accommodations were waaaaayyy in the 'burbs. On the plus side, this treacherous zip line in the neighborhood playground provided hours of non-CPSC-approved fun!

Once we figured out that you have to actually wave the bus down even if you're standing expectantly at the stop, we made it to downtown Auckland. Here, we're on K Road, feeling the warm familiarity of coffee served by bearded baristas in vintage t-shirts.

Sweet murals like this all over the Central Business DIstrict.

The coffee in New Zealand is truly a thing of beauty. We have yet to have a disappointing cup. We've spent a lot of energy trying to understand what makes it so good. How are so many people so skilled at making a cappuccino? Deep thoughts.

Sometimes, walking through car yards full of used cars can yield surprising finds. At least they finally found a shady spot to stand in while we undertook the drudgery of car shopping.

After three days, we found our sweet 2004 Nissan Serena with only 110K kilometers on the odometer from a private seller.  This baby is going to be our home for the next month and our wheels for the next six months. It's so big, we can actually lay down a persian rug on the floor back there. And we can't hear them when they bicker!

As a break from all the logistics, we took a drive to the coast to see Raglan, a quite famous beach town about 40 minutes from Hamilton where we will live for the first portion of our North Island life. Milo is having no trouble adapting to the Raglan barefoot culture.

Or the Raglan ice cream culture

The beach is a powdery black sand surrounded by high cliffs. And waves. Huge ones. This is going to be our neighborhood beach. I am still absorbing the delicious fact that we will have a neighborhood beach.

Our first night of camping. It's raining. And we don't have enough tent pegs to set the fly on our tent. And we forgot to buy propane for the stove so we're eating peanut butter sandwiches. BUT WE REMEMBERED THE WINE THANK GOD SO IT'S ALL OK.

The fine art of packing the "trunk" of the van. I photographed it because we need to replicate this geometry exactly to make it fit.