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.