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trip logs

Acquiescence

Fetoko YogaTonga time is a really interesting thing. (I even wrote about it the last time we were here, three years ago.) I don’t know if it’s the way the dateline snakes around this part of the ocean or that it’s so hot and muggy this time of year or that the people of Tonga truly epitomize what “island time” means. Whatever it is, time seems to stop here. And yet it seems like the march of days will never end. Weeks streeeeeeeetch out and it feels like our buckets are overflowing with empty hours.

Two months on a tiny tropical island is a really, really, really long time. It’s sort of like being at sea, except we’re already there. We watch the sky and the sea change, just like on our boat. We do have a small skiff and explore neighboring islands and run into town for food once a week. Our friends aboard Del Viento came by and there were bonfires and slumber parties and giggling girls running all over the place. We swing in the hammocks, squirt each other with the water pistols Santa brought. Books and books have been read. A novel draft completed. Games played. Bread baked. Stuff fixed. Movies watched. Meals cooked with mystery meat and cabbage (again). The cat is nearly bald from the amount of pets he’s been getting.

And thinking. Oh yes, I’ve been doing a whole lot of that. Trying to make sense of our lives, of the general upheaval of the past three years. I think about what didn’t work for us (a mortgage, Auckland, Common Core, shopping) and what is (living small, traveling light, cultivating real-life friendships, pursuing our interests, writing, minimalism). The problem with all this time to think is that I can imagine so many futures, so many lives worth living. But I’ve already lived a lot of them and some times I just want to go back: to our home in the woods, to our cozy little boat sailing on the sea, to the cute Seattle apartment I was living in when I met Michael at 23. But there comes a time when you have to accept that the only one you really have is this one.

2016 will be our year of acquiescence. True acceptance of who we are, what we need, what’s important to us. Right now. Some of this is practical (i.e. money to eat is up there on the list of immediate needs). Many more are intangible: more stability in friendships for the girls, more focus on my diabetes health (which travel is not so kind to). We want to live in a city again, where ideas and people collide in so many interesting ways. We’ll keep living small (the girls comment daily how they miss the coziness we had aboard Wing’n it). We want to plant some roots for a bit; this shy, introverted family needs time to cultivate deeper friendships. And we love New Zealand, despite all the challenges of living on a small island nation thousands of miles from our loved ones.

It is a lot like being at sea here, the more I think of it. Just like being on passage, I love all these hours with nothing else to do but simply be. Having spent weeks at a time at sea I know you can’t keep looking forward to the destination. You will drive yourself crazy with the desire for a cheeseburger, and a cold beer, and perfectly salted chips. No, you have to take each day, each hour, each minute at a time, focus on what’s directly in front of you before it slips by. I don’t know if we’ll ever get such a vast spread of empty days again so I don’t want to forget it, this time.

Santa brought water pistols for Christmas. Isn't he clever? (That's our lighted Christmas palm behind them.) They only each got one thing on their Santa wish lists (ebooks) but later said they got everything they wanted.

Santa brought water pistols for Christmas. Isn’t he clever? (That’s our lighted Christmas palm behind them.) They only each got one thing on their Santa wish lists (ebooks) but later said they got everything they wanted.

There's a bit of Christmas here, too. We miss the coziness of a northern hemisphere holiday, but not the crowds, shopping, traffic...I think it's just right here.

There’s a bit of Christmas in Tonga, too. We miss the coziness of a northern hemisphere holiday, but not the crowds, shopping, traffic…I think it’s just right here.

The Neiafu market. It's tomato salad for dinner. And pasta with tomato sauce.

The Neiafu market. It’s tomato salad for dinner. And pasta with tomato sauce.

They have no trouble keeping busy (as long as I ignore the "I'm bored" complaints)

They have no trouble keeping busy (as long as I ignore the “I’m bored” complaints)

Sand Cay

The Voyaging With Kids cover girls reunite aboard Del Viento, four years after the original was taken. They've grown a tad.

The Voyaging With Kids cover girls reunite aboard Del Viento, four years after the original was taken. They’ve grown a tad.

Exploring Swallow's Cave, courtesy of Del Viento (photo by Michael Robertson)

Exploring Swallow’s Cave, courtesy of Del Viento (photo by Michael Robertson)

The girls love taking care of the Fetoko animals. They know what to do as the temperatures have started soaring lately.

The girls love taking care of the Fetoko animals. They know what to do as the temperatures have started soaring lately.

Dad and daughter make bread. We don't have an oven aboard Wing'n it and are sure making up for lost baking time here.

Dad and daughter make bread. We don’t have an oven aboard Wing’n it and are sure making up for lost baking time here.

Wondertime Family, Tonga 2015

Wondertime Family, Tonga 2015 (photo by Michael Robertson)

Tonga Interlude

Fetoko from the airMonths and months ago, before we even left Olympia for New Zealand, our friends Ben and Lisa contacted us and asked if we were interested in watching over their island resort in Tonga for three months while they traveled over the austral summer.

Um, does the sun set in the west?

While we traveled aboard Wing’n it in New Zealand we communicated back and forth and eventually our plans coalesced: we would fly to Tonga in mid-November and stay through early February. In the meantime, our friends would brave the cold and take over Wing’n it down in N.Z. to do some land-traveling of their own.

We met Ben & Lisa on Waking Dream waaaay back in 2002, when Michael and I were working our way down the California coast aboard our Alberg 35 Pelican. (Yeah, those were different days.) Along with a handful of other boat crews also in their late 20s, we went on to have an epic season exploring Mexico together. While we returned to Seattle afterwards, they spent another season in Mexico, then continued on to the South Pacific. When they got to Vava’u, Tonga they fell in love with the place and stopped. They’ve been here ever since living the entrepreneurial dream: opening up a restaurant, adventure tourism company, and now their latest project, beautiful Mandala Resort on tiny Fetoko Island.

But everybody needs a break, even in paradise, so they’ve been having caretakers watch over the island the past few years while they do some overseas travel in the off-season. There’s a lot to do here, like feed their two adorable dogs Bosun & Higgs and cat Benzini, sweep the floor, make sure the hammocks and kayaks are in working order. I think we’re up to the job.

Our first view of Fetoko in over three years. Wondertime anchored in front for weeks and weeks in 2012. It's a little weird to not have her here with us.

Our first view of Fetoko in over three years. Wondertime anchored in front for weeks and weeks in 2012. It’s a little weird to not have her here with us.

There's even wifi.

There’s even wifi.

Leah scored the treehouse fale. I don't think she's ever going to leave.

Leah scored the treehouse fale. I don’t know how we’re ever going to get her to leave.

Leah in her treehouse palace.

Leah in her treehouse palace.

The girls are over the moon to have their own rooms, for the first time in seven years. I estimate we could fit 4 Wing'n it's in each one.

The girls are over the moon to have their own rooms, for the first time in seven years. I estimate we could fit 4 Wing’n it’s in each one.

Here's the view from my bed. Pretty much the same view from every bed, since the island is barely 3 acres big. I truly forgot how blue the South Pacific ocean is.

Here’s the view from my bed. Pretty much the same view from every bed, since the island is barely 3 acres big. I truly forgot how gloriously blue the tropical South Pacific ocean is.

We can't keep Holly out of the water.

We can’t keep Holly out of the water.

One last dinner with Lisa before she's off to NZ.

One last dinner with Lisa before she’s off to NZ.

And I've saved the best photo for last: I delivered a copy of Voyaging With Kids to my coauthor, Michael Robertson. He and his family aboard Del Viento have been working their way across the South Pacific this year and he hadn't seen it yet so that was great fun. It's also great fun to spend time with one of our favorite families, who we hadn't seen since La Paz in 2012. As is typical, all four girls picked up right where they left off.

And I’ve saved the best photo for last: I delivered a copy of Voyaging With Kids to my coauthor, Michael Robertson. He and his family aboard Del Viento have been working their way across the South Pacific this year and he hadn’t seen the actual book yet so that was great fun. Of course, as our girls did, his grabbed the book from him and wouldn’t give it back for an hour. It’s also great fun to spend time with this awesome family, who we hadn’t seen since La Paz in 2012. As is typical in the cruising world, all four girls (and all four adults) picked up right where we left off. They’re here for the cyclone season so we have plenty of time to catch up.

We Are Learning

Throwing stones - Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown, South IslandA well-meaning family member recently asked us the question that every single long-term travel family hears, and often: but what about school? Aren’t they going to get behind?

I must admit that I am a reluctant homeschool mum. When we moved back to Olympia last year and the big yellow school bus picked the girls up for their very first day of American public school, I went back into the house, turned up the stereo full blast and may have danced in joy for a couple hours (or at least that’s what it felt like). I had hours and hours to myself to read and write with Michael off to work and the girls off to school.

But then the homework was sent home in my all-day kindergartner’s backpack. And the tears from dealing with mean kids at school. Also, complaints about the computer reading tests foisted upon our 3rd grader and how so-and-so got a higher score than she did. Fall conference time arrived and we sat in front of our daughter’s kindergarten teacher and tried to pay attention as she went over pages of data on our 5-year-old’s current progress. On her 6th birthday I brought in class cupcakes and asked when I should come back for the party. “Oh, I don’t know when we’ll eat them,” her teacher told me. “I like to surprise the kids sometime during the day.” In other words, get lost.

A month later I took Holly out of school. We played. Read books. Counted stuff. Shopped together. Made art. She was a happy 6-year-old again.

I took Leah out a month after that. She was becoming increasingly distressed about school. She had made some very good friends, but was bored silly in class. Most of the kids didn’t listen to her teacher and they would have to stay inside and miss recess. Totally makes sense, right? Ever since she was little she’d pick her fingernails when she was anxious; hers were bloody and sore.

So even though my days since have been a little more hectic and it’s been a challenge to carve out time for myself to write, I know that we made the right choice. The past five months of traveling aboard Wing’n it has only reinforced that: not worrying about tests, evaluations, curriculum and pointless busy work has resulted in them being kids again. Happy, curious, thoughtful, patient, and pure sponges of knowledge.

Together, we are learning constantly. We read things, we count things, we draw things. We look up topics that interest us. We look at maps and decide where to go next. We talk about history, geology, wildlife, ecology, conservation, sociology, economics. We visit libraries and read for hours, picking books off shelves that strike our fancy. We’ve learned how to get along living in a teensy space. We talk about budgeting and how we must give up one thing to choose another. We’ve learned how it’s far better to have experiences rather than wasting money on climbing the “property ladder” or buying the latest plastic junk. We’ve learned how to set goals and then go for them.

I honestly don’t know if they are ahead or behind in school. But I do know they are leaps and bounds ahead in life and I think what we’re learning together will serve them well.

Puzzling World, Lake Wanaka

Puzzling World, Lake Wanaka

Queenstown/Cardrona Snow!

Queenstown/Cardrona late spring snow…first time in the white stuff in over 5 years!

Clifden Caves near Fjordland. (I totally chickened out when crawling became necessary. Luckily Michael is braver than I and he and the girls kept exploring underground.)

Clifden Caves near Fjordland. (I totally chickened out when crawling became necessary. Luckily Michael is braver than I and he and the girls kept exploring underground.)

McLean Falls, Catlins, South Island

McLean Falls, Catlins, South Island

Dunedin Telephone Booths

Dunedin Telephone Booths

World Famous Moeraki Boulders

World Famous Moeraki Boulders

Learning about earthquakes in crumbling Christchurch

Learning about earthquakes in crumbling Christchurch

Center of downtown Christchurch, 5 years later. The stones in the giant cairn are each written upon with a wish for the city's rebuild.

Center of downtown Christchurch, 5 years later. The stones in the giant cairn are each written upon with a wish for the city’s rebuild.

NZ fur seal pups frolicking in a waterfall. It's a 10 minute walk from the ocean; the mothers leave them here in a sort of seal pup daycare. Cute overload. (Kaikoura)

NZ fur seal pups frolicking in a waterfall. It’s a 10 minute walk from the ocean; the mothers leave them here in a sort of seal pup daycare. Cute overload. (Kaikoura)

Beer tasting in Marlborough Wine Country

Beer tasting in Marlborough Wine Country

Happy to be back in Welly

Happy to be back in Welly

Our Shoes Are Made For Walking

Ship Creek walking

Up until now, nearly midway through spring in early October, it’s felt like we’ve had New Zealand to ourselves. Up on the North island, we might go days without seeing another campervan or motorhome. But now we’ve been working our way south down the west coast of the South Island and are nearly to Queenstown. We’ve found ‘em.

But the whole island hasn’t been this way. After getting Wing’n It WOF’ed in Nelson (which included having her rear brakes rebuilt, some minor electrical issues fixed, and a new clutch cylinder put on—causing a night’s stay at a hotel while she was in the shop which nobody complained about one bit) we headed out to Abel Tasman National Park and Golden Bay. On our way back through, we stopped at a tiny coffee/wool shop atop Takaka pass and chatted with the barista. “We see a lot of locals out here, but not many tourists. It’s just too far off the beaten track. They don’t have the time.”

Pelorus River walk

After, we made our way to Nelson Lakes (which are stunning, but still frosty at night so our stop was quick at NZ$45/night for a powered campsite where we could plug in our space heater). Then back out to the coast again to make our way down the wild west coast. In sleepy Westport we felt like we’d driven through a portal to the Oregon Coast: slight gray overcast, wide sandy driftwood-covered beach, a breakwater to cut the swell for incoming boats, blooming yellow gorse (a relative to scotch broom and just as invasive).

A couple of days later we found ourselves down the road in Greymouth. What used to be, like most of the towns on this coast, a rip-roaring gold rush town has been turned into a tourist trap. Not only is Greymouth the terminus of the Tranz-Alpine train which crosses the island from Christchurch, it’s also where rental motorhomes make the right turn to cross the island via Arthur’s Pass back to the barn in Christchurch.

Wharariki Beach dune walk

In working our way down the coast from Greymouth, we found ourselves in a whole other country. The locals down here call the South Island the mainland and we’re still trying to figure out what they mean by that exactly. But considering that tourism provides 7% of New Zealand’s GDP I think we understand quite what they mean.

Life in rural New Zealand is pretty slow. We’ve passed quad-bikes on the road driven by sheep farmers, a couple herding dogs riding on the back, all of them smiling in the breeze. Sheep look up at us lazily, sometimes, as we drive past. The prancing newborn lambs seem to be the quickest thing around. Shop keepers always have time to chat. When they learn that we actually live here they are quick to divulge local secrets: from the best (cheapest) shops to buy groceries in to hidden trails perfect for kids to good free places to camp.

Takaka Labrynth Rocks walk

Yesterday we stopped at a small roadside stand that was selling whitebait patties. (It’s the season to catch these tiny juvenile fish at river mouths. They are about 2” long with clear bodies. Each delicious mouthful consists of at least 5 of these fish, which taste like sweet cream fishy butter. I wish I could show you a photo, but I left the camera in the camper). The couple who’d stopped along with us, took some photos, gulped down their patty, then jumped in their rental car and drove away. We stood around chatting with the stand owner while she finished frying ours up. “Tourist season must be starting up?” I asked her. “Do people fly in to Queenstown and start there?”

“It’s getting busy, for sure,” she replied. “Most people fly into Christchurch, then do a loop through Queenstown, up the coast then back across the pass to Christchurch. We call them ‘loopies’.”

We all laughed at that, then I mentioned that we were off to Haast to hopefully find some groceries for dinner. She grabbed her local map and gave me directions to the shop that didn’t raise their prices in tourist season.

While we chat, the tourists zip by outside. They’ll stop to take a quick photo to Instagram, then they fly away again on to tick the next box on Lonely Planet’s Must-Do List. Trails longer than 30 minutes are virtually empty. People here for two or three or four weeks just don’t have the time for anything longer it seems.

Lake Rotoiti, Nelson Lakes walk

But look, maybe we’re just jealous. While we’re currently rich on time, we’re poor on cash (it’s either one or the other, right?). At the Franz Josef Glacier visitor’s centre we held a brochure in our hands for helicopter rides over Franz and nearby Fox Glaciers. The girls were pleading please please please. Franz Glacier has receded so much that the only way to really view it is to land on it via air (earlier that day we’d walked the hour to the viewing point but were still a kilometer or two away from the face). All of us really wanted to get on that glacier.

But in the end, we just couldn’t do it. NZ$600 for a 20-minute ride (20-minutes!) was just too dear. Our denied helicopter trip joined Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland (NZ$85/family), kayaking in Abel Tasman (NZ$200/pp/day), Shanty Town (NZ$75/family), and beer tasting at Tui Brewery (NZ$20/tasting). I’m going to bet we skip skydiving in Queenstown and heli-skiing on the Tasman Glacier, too.

Cape Foulwind walk

But what we can afford to do, we do a lot of and that is walking. We only need to drive an hour or two each day until we find another interesting spot to explore on foot. We’ve hiked to waterfalls via the Pelorus River; along the Abel Tasman coastal track; along the dunes to Wharariki Beach; licked anal tube excretions of insects living in trees on Lake Rotiti in Nelson Lakes (tastes like honey, I swear); through ghost towns and a 140-year-old cemetery in Lyell, Buller Gorge; atop cliffs misty with crashing waves at Cape Foulwind; read historical signs along the Hokitika river; walking along the river in Nelson we heard a Tui’s call in a tree overhead and stopped to listen to his enchanting guttural chatter. Yesterday we pulled into a small park along the west coast, meandered through native Kahikatea  (white pine) swamp and learned most of these huge trees had been shipped offshore in the form of crates for butter and cheese that the cows make that live on former forest land.

Franz Josef Glacier walk

But listen, you don’t have travel slowly to experience slow travel as we are, trail by trail. There’s an intimacy in getting to know a place step by step and we’ve always relished walking wherever we’ve traveled, even if we’re only there for a week or two. And there’s a lot of walking in New Zealand; the entire country is connected by trails (someday maybe we’ll even attempt some of the Great Walks). But the hour or two we spend on each trail with our young crew is enough for now. Each path is uniquely it’s own in history, nature, and beauty. All the things that make this country so lovely, what’s it all about.

Ship Creek swamp walk

Abel Tasman tidepool

Abel Tasman view

Abel Tasman drive

Lake Rotoiti, Nelson Lakes

Nelson beach walk

Lake Wanaka

World Class Wellington

Wing'n It family in Welly

For the past three weeks aboard Wing’n It, we’ve been meandering our way southward, trying to move fast enough to see all there is to see, but slow enough so we don’t catch up with the frost that’s still popping up now and then south of us. We really enjoyed our visit to Napier on Hawke’s Bay (freedom camping right on the beach in town, walking distance to the library, swimming pool, grocery stores, laundromat, shopping). We’d planned the perfect field trip: taking the girls to a winery that had an education center but sadly found this one, and most, wineries closed for the rest of winter. After that, we were all kind of anxious to get to the big city and zipped through the Wairarapa region (more farms and closed wineries) to get southward, frost be damned.

Freedom camping is welcomed in Napier. Many places it's not...better get down here before freedom camping is a thing of the past!

Freedom camping is welcomed in Napier. Many places it’s not…better get down here before freedom camping is a thing of the past!

Watching the daily shark feeding at National Aquarium of New Zealand (Napier)

Watching the daily shark feeding at National Aquarium of New Zealand (Napier)

You can't tell from this photo, but this random place in the seeming middle of nowhere was heaven. There are free hot unlimited showers in the building on the right and the shed next to it has couches, a TV and a VCR(!) with piles of VHS tapes. So retro.

You can’t tell from this photo, but this random place in the seemingly middle of nowhere was heaven. There are free hot unlimited showers in the building on the right and the shed next to it has couches, a TV and a VCR(!) with piles of VHS tapes. So retro.

We did stop at the Tui Brewery for a wee tour

Pit stop at the Tui Brewery for a wee tour

But first, we had to stop at Rivendell:

We only saw two elves at Rivendell. (Kaitoke Regional Park, Wellington)

We only saw two elves at Rivendell. (Kaitoke Regional Park, Wellington)

Kaitoke Regional Park, Wellington

We’ve been to Wellington before (Anzac weekend, April 2013 to be exact). But this trip was a little bit different. Our last time here was a whirlwind long weekend drive down the North Island with a stop at Lake Taupo and two nights in Windy Welly. (It wasn’t windy that weekend, but sunny, clear, and calm which we were told not to expect again). They were right.

Spring sprung upon us while we were in Wellington this time, with typical weather: sideways rain, howling wind, and enough sun breaks just to tease. But we didn’t care. We’d built Wellington up in our minds, as someplace we might like to stop and work for a while, make some friends, put the girls in school once we’re done with our Wing’n It wanderings. But we’ve done that before and sometimes the actual place fails to live up to our vision of it. But this time, Wellington did no such thing.

We spent a week in the city and loved every minute–even with the rain and wind (we figure this is why Welly has the best beer and coffee in the entire country). The city is spotless. We felt safe walking anywhere at any time of day which is definitely something I can’t say about any town in America these days. There are beautiful museums, libraries, parks, bookstores, night markets, art galleries—all free to explore.

First day of spring (Wellington)

First day of spring (Wellington)

Downtown Wellington: clean, safe, and beautiful

Downtown Wellington: clean, safe, and beautiful

Exploring our new nation's capital (Parliament buildings, Wellington)

Exploring our new nation’s capital (Parliament buildings, Wellington)

We toured Weta Cave and learned a few movie-making secrets.

We toured Weta Cave and learned a few movie-making secrets.

Wellington's AMAZING Sunday Market (and this is in late Winter!)

Wellington’s AMAZING Sunday Market (and this is in late Winter!)

New Zealand has the BEST swimming pools ever. (And we've enjoyed showering at each and every one.)

New Zealand has the BEST swimming pools ever. (And we’ve enjoyed showering at each and every one.)

Wellington's central library. We had to drag the girls out of here, literally.

Wellington’s central library. We had to drag the girls out of here, literally.

And just outside of the city, wild New Zealand remains:

A 10 minute drive to the other side of the city's peninsula finds you on wild Cook Strait with the little blue penguins and seals.

A 10 minute drive to the other side of the city’s peninsula finds you on wild Cook Strait with the little blue penguins and seals.

Yes, we can’t wait to return but first, we’ve got another island to see.

Crossing Cook Strait aboard the Bluebridge ferry to the South Island

Crossing Cook Strait aboard the Bluebridge ferry to the South Island

Journey to the Far East

East Cape Lighthouse

“This is what they are talking about, when they talk about New Zealand roads,” Michael shouts back to me over the whine of the Canter’s diesel engine. He’s in the driver’s seat, hands clenched on the steering wheel.

I’m sitting behind him, right hand gripped onto the metal bar behind his seat that doubles as the ladder to the girls’ bunk above. My feet are wedged against the settee opposite, to keep myself from sliding off my own seat. I’m being bounced and jolted around violently with the motorhome’s rough motion. It kind of feels like sailing.

We aren’t going fast, maybe 30 km/hour. But to me it feels like we’re about to hurtle off the cliff below any second, especially when I lean over and look out the front window, to see what Michael’s talking about. We’re traveling down a one-lane gravel road. To the left of us is the southern ocean, a narrow band of beach and rocks, a cliff, and a good part of the road missing, gone to join the sea below. Someone has put some rickety wooden guardrails around these AWOL bits of road, which was thoughtful.

At the start of the East Cape road, 20 km of rough travel out to the most eastern lighthouse in the world (at 178 degrees east), there is a sign which reads: “Extreme Caution/Reduce Speed”. They were not kidding when they had that one made up.

When the road widens again a short time later to a full single lane, we can breathe evenly again. Eventually it turns inland a bit, winding through acre after acre of green pastures chock full of sheep and cows, eating and shitting all over 100% pure New Zealand. Finally we reach The End of the road and park next to an old outhouse. When we look up up up we see the lighthouse, nestled atop a hill of native bush.

There is another motorhome there, an older couple from England we’d spoken to the day before. They’ve just gotten back from their climb up and back. “It doesn’t take long, 20 minutes or so. Only 750 steps up. Have fun!” they say cheerily and jauntily hop in their sleek and modern rented motorhome and start back down the road.

“I don’t WANT to go up there!” Upon hearing that our plans are the same, Leah stands with her feet apart, hands on her hips.

“We’re doing it,” I say. “We came all this way and we’re going up.” Not in the mood to negotiate, I hand the pack to Michael that’s got our passports, laptop, water, and snacks in it and sling the camera around my own neck and start walking.

“Come on Leah, let’s gooooooo!” Holly calls out, running up ahead.

Leah sighs and starts stomping. We find the trail head and begin making our way up the hill. It’s not long before the girls, followed by Michael, are out of sight up ahead of me.

Step after wooden step winds up through the nikau palms and silver tree ferns. “150” is carved into one; here I start to wonder if this was such a good idea myself. By “450” I’m cursing whoever had the stupid idea we should climb up to this lighthouse in the middle of nowhere. My feet and legs feel like they are plodding along in concrete. My thighs are starting to quiver. I can’t hear the birds anymore due to the blood pounding in my ears. It starts to rain. The damp, spicy smell of the earth is almost overpowering. Up and up and up. I slow down but I don’t stop. I realize how much I am enjoying this.

Step. Step. Step. The rough wooden treads twist and turn up the steep hillside. Suddenly a thought occurs to me: how much this is like life, plodding along even when you don’t want to. When stopping sounds like such a good idea. I think about all the steps I have taken, all the turns and decisions that have led me to this very day, right to this very staircase. A great many of them unpleasant, some exhilarating, a few regretful, but each vital to the path that has led me here.

Finally, I round one last bend in the staircase and the bright green hilltop opens up before me. The tidy white lighthouse towers in the middle of it. My girls come running towards me, smiles and eyes wide, eager to show me around.

I walk over to Michael and take his proffered hand. Together we turn and look around at the sapphire-blue sea below, tossing itself against towering cliffs and beyond, rolling green fields. Our little motorhome is down there, a tiny white dot at the end of the winding road. The girls run around us, around the lighthouse, in circles, in joy. It’s perfect moment, a miracle in fact.

East Cape Lighthouse, NZ

Going down (East Cape Lighthouse, NZ)

East Cape road, NZ

Thoughts after two months on the road

No TV

As of this writing, we’ve officially been Wing’n It for 61 days and 7 hours. With our little Mitsubishi Canter diesel puttering away, we’ve explored around the Bay of Islands, Whangarei, Auckland and the Waitakere, the Coromandel peninsula, Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty. We have camped by marina boatyards, bridges, city streets, driveways, parks, forests, and beach after beach after beach. Right now, we’re freedom camping at a small reserve in Rotorua (the home of geysers, boiling mud, and steaming, sulfur-emitting hot pools). Earlier today, our family went on a walk together here along a small but thundering river, water-falling and pouring down a small gorge into a series of peaceful-looking pools that look perfect for swimming.

Except for that it’s still winter here (a fact that doesn’t deter local surfers any). And while our friends back home are enjoying the hottest summer on record, New Zealand is having one of their coldest winters ever. Temperatures are supposed to drop to nearly 0°C tonight which is a wee chilly in a tiny motorhome with no heater. But this is when the camper’s small size most comes in handy: four bodies sharing 100 square feet keeps the temperature inside….tolerable. It at least keeps ice from forming on the windscreen. Michael and I still sleep with our sub-zero mummy bags zipped together with two blankets on top. And flannel pants, a fleece shirt, and wool socks. It appears a year of central heating has made me a bit soft.

But spring will be here in less than three weeks and the sky tells me that’s true; the sun has warmth again and the bluish white sunlight I remember of New Zealand is growing in intensity. Truth be told, we’ve had feelers out ever since we arrived for jobs, a place to stay for a little while. We even got a P.O. box up in Paihia. But life in this old, small van has been growing on us. It is the simplest we’ve ever lived: the most basic clothing for all, a truly minimalist galley, a few drawing supplies, games, Legos, and Kindles for the girls. Our routine is down pat: every three days we find a dumping station and empty the graywater tank and Porta-Potti and fill up our tiny 60L water tank. I go to the store and stock up on meat, vegetables, dark chocolate, and Pinot Noir. Then we open up the road atlas I got used at an Auckland library for NZ$0.75 and we decide where to drive next.

It’s not a bad gig, not at all. Because while some things are scarce, such as the aforementioned heat, along with internet (it took me 4 days just to find a cell signal strong enough to actually upload this post), interior (and–cough–personal) space, and good hoppy beer, we are rich once again in the things that truly matter: the wonder that is exploring a stunning island at the bottom of the South Pacific Ocean and the time to do it together as a family. I think we’ll keep going.

Camping near the Whangarei bridge.

Camping near the Whangarei bridge.

Auckland: our most favorite waterfront in the world. Except maybe Wellington. Or Pahia. Or Mt. Maunganui...

Auckland: our most favorite waterfront in the world. Except maybe Wellington. Or Pahia. Or Mt. Maunganui…

Breakfast with a view (Firth of Thames)

Breakfast with a view (Firth of Thames)

With a negative outflow of cash, we stop to pan for gold in the Coromandel (no dice however).

With a negative outflow of cash, we stop to pan for gold in the Coromandel (no dice however).

Lego night

Lego night

Million dollar view...for free. (Mercury Bay)

Million dollar view…for free. (Mercury Bay)

We had stunning Cathedral Cove nearly to ourselves. One of the prime benefits of wintertime roadtripping.

We had stunning Cathedral Cove nearly to ourselves. One of the prime benefits of wintertime roadtripping.

Winter will not deter the surf sisters.

Winter will not deter the surf sisters.

Now that we're officially permanent residents of New Zealand, off go the shoes.

Now that we’re officially permanent residents of New Zealand, off go the shoes.

18 days until spring...and we're counting down each one.

18 days until spring…and we’re counting down each one.

We explored amazing Karangahake gorge, complete with old gold mining tunnels and ruins. Amazing!

We explored amazing Karangahake gorge, complete with old gold mining tunnels and ruins. Amazing!

Learning continues even though we're still officially on summer break (Holly reads her Bob Books to Michael)

Learning continues even though we’re still officially on summer break (Holly reads her Bob Books to Michael)

We woke up on Papamoa beach near Tauranga to a beautiful sunny day...and so did this NZ fur seal

We woke up on Papamoa beach near Tauranga to a beautiful sunny day…and so did this NZ fur seal

Wing'n It girls at the summit of Mt. Maunganui near Tauranga

Wing’n It girls at the summit of Mt. Maunganui near Tauranga

We love steamy, smelly Rotovegas

We love steamy, smelly Rotovegas

You can spend a fortune in Rotorua, or just go to the park in the middle of town and enjoy the free sights and mineral foot baths.

You can spend a fortune in Rotorua, or just go to the park in the middle of town and enjoy the free sights and mineral foot baths.

Oh how we love libraries. Books, wifi, HEAT.

Oh how we love libraries. Books, wifi, HEAT.

Wintertime beauty, Lake Rotorua

Wintertime beauty, Lake Rotorua

Living in the slow lane

Somewhere over the rainbow

Motorhomes and caravans all have names here, just like boats do (perhaps this is true everywhere though?). Ours is called “Wing’n It” which we at first thought was kind of silly and planned to change it as soon as we could. Until we realized it pretty much fits our situation perfectly as we’ve been taking each day as it comes. Wing’n it. We know we’ll settle into a little corner of New Zealand sooner rather than later, but for now we’re letting our path come into focus as it will.

But I woke up the other morning and had no idea where I was. My arm was freezing, having escaped the warmth of Michael’s and my zipped-together mummy bags sometime in the early morning. I tucked it back inside to warm it up again. Then I heard the Tui bird in a tree outside. The Tui’s call is the most fantastic bird call I’ve ever heard: a chorus of high and low, short and long notes, chattering and chuckling. A hundred birds all in one. Then I remembered exactly where I was and curled up to sleep a few minutes more before the girls woke up.

Michael was up a short while later to make coffee. It’s not a fast process: he grinds the beans by hand (unless, by chance, we’ve remembered to do that the night before). The kettle is put on the gas hob to boil and he measures the grounds into the Aeropress. Once the water is near boiling, he pours it in and presses the steaming espresso into a mug. He divides it between our two mugs, then pours hot water into both for perfect Americanos. We lay in bed for at least another half-hour, sipping our rapidly cooling coffees. The rest of each day is much the same: slow, measured, and just enough to make it a full one.

One of the wonderful things about NZ is that you never know just who will stop by for Tea. Here, my publisher, Lin Pardey stopped by when we were camped in Auckland. I'm sure she's used to small spaces.

One of the wonderful things about NZ is that you never know just who will stop by for tea. Here, my publisher and mentor Lin Pardey stopped by while we were camped in downtown Auckland. I’m sure glad she’s used to small spaces.

My friend and coauthor Michael Robertson asked me a few weeks ago if it is taking time to acclimate to our new life or have we just fallen into it? It’s taken this long, but I think I finally have the answer: it’s both. This experience is both familiar and completely new at the same time.

What I’ve found most interesting is how moving back to a foreign country can be so familiar. I know which brands of cheap Pinot Noir are the best (admittedly that’s an easy one as I haven’t really found a bad one yet). We’ve got our Sistema box full of Whittaker’s chocolate bars stashed in the cupboard again. The girls feel right at home swimming at the Tepid Baths and remember all of their favorite parks and playgrounds. After a day or two we recalled our way around the roads and are even remembering not to switch on the turn signal when it starts to rain. Everyone’s Kiwi accent is like a familiar singsong, joyous to our ears. The best part is we’ve been meeting up with friends all over; even Gloria who works at the Freeman’s Bay laundry was happy to see us, lugging our bulging Ikea bag of laundry in (“The girls are so big now!”). We’ve had dinner nearly every night with old or new friends…something that just doesn’t seem to happen often enough when we’re not traveling. But it should.

This may be familiar to us, but, as always, the girls always notice something new.

This scene may be familiar to us but the girls always notice something new. (Opua to Paihia trail in Bay of Islands)

What is different is living life in a tiny motorhome, but even that feels oddly familiar. Land cruising is a whole lot like water cruising, right down to spending a good majority of our time filling and dumping tanks and looking for free internet and showers. We look for places we can “freedom camp” rather than spend big $$ at holiday parks (just like we tried to avoid marinas). I make simple meals with fresh food purchased from farmer’s markets. My galley is the simplest yet, with a few pots and pans, a handful of utensils, and a bowl and plate for everyone. The girls occupy themselves with Legos, or a notepad and a pencil. Or better yet, I can toss them out the door and they can go and run play…without a dinghy ride or a swim.

What also is decidedly different is that we took off five days after buying the motorhome, which we’ve certainly never done in a boat. That, and we sleep soundly each and every night. Space is tight (have you seen that Portlandia sketch about life in a tiny home? That’s pretty much what it’s like for us right now. You’ll have to google it to find it. My internet is dog-slow too.) This entire experience has made me give daily thanks to my years of living aboard small boats; mere mortals may have been driven mad by now. But I know we’ll move on eventually to a bigger space and will miss all this closeness and the freedom of the open road. A flat? A boat? Who knows? We’re just wing’n it.

P.S. Just for fun, follow our NZ wanderings via our friend Tucker’s amazing new website, Farkwar. It’s designed for boats…but why not land yachts? http://farkwar.com/boats/wing-n-it

We've help our friends aboard Nyon with their mast a number of times over the years (the last being after their mast breakage in Mexico in 2011). This time the stick was out for a touch of varnish and Michael was glad to lend a hand again.

We’ve helped our friends aboard Nyon with their mast a few times over the years (the last being after their mast breakage in Mexico in 2011). This time the stick was out for a touch of varnish and Michael was glad to lend a hand getting her aloft again. (Opua, Bay of Islands)

See? Can't seem to get away from boats.

Still can’t seem to get away from boats. (Paihia, Bay of Islands)

A tour of our wonder wheels

How could we possibly pass up a campervan adorned with knitting?

How could we possibly pass up a campervan adorned with knitting?

We’re currently parked next to our most favourite beach in the world, Piha, just an hour’s drive from Auckland city. We set off just yesterday, after finding the perfect motor caravan for us our second day in Auckland (considering ourselves very lucky to have grabbed it just minutes after it was posted on Trademe!) Good, clean, reasonably-priced caravans go fast apparently, even in “winter” (put in quotes as the girls are off running on the beach barefoot and with short sleeves. But it’s early still in the season….). One thing is certain: we’ve never taken off on a boat five days after purchasing it.

Tonight, we’ll camp over by Kitekite falls just outside of town, but right now we’re in front of the Piha Surf Lifesaving Club and burger & chip shack which has free wifi so I thought I’d give you a little tour of our new teeny, tiny home. Firstly, I don’t miss my writing desk in the woods–here’s what I’m looking at now:

Writing desk

That’s the beach right outside, with a view of Lion rock. And more knitting (not done by me, but maybe I’ll find the time to knit again….). And that’s our cat, Chi, in the window keeping a lookout. Below is a view of our living area. The benches are very long, about 7 feet each. The table drops down to make an “emperor” sized bed–it’s huge! The girls share the double bed above the cab (right now it’s full of the bags of clothes I’m still figuring out where to store).

View forwardHere’s our little fridge. It runs on propane, 12-volts or 240-volts. Pretty neat.

Fridge

Here’s our front door, with what I suspect is a permanent pile of sandy shoes.

Door

The galley is across the aft end of the van. There is even instant hot water! Seriously, this thing is luxury like we’ve never had underway.

Galley

A tiny head (also with perpetual Ikea bag of laundry).

The head

Plenty of storage for the essentials.

View aft

In Piha

The girls sit up front, where there are three seat belts. I sit in the back, and hang onto the knitting with white knuckles.

The girls sit up front, where there are three seat belts. I sit in the back, and hang onto the knitting with white knuckles.

How to Move Back to New Zealand in 59 Easy Steps

Back in NZ!Despite all our years of writing about sailing, the most popular post on our blog ever remains How to Move to New Zealand in 31 Easy Steps. We’ve gotten hundreds (okay, maybe 99 or so) emails from people all over the world asking for more details on how we did it and how do they get started in their own immigration process. We’re not immigration consultants, so we can’t give any advice other than just do it, you won’t regret it. Which is but one of many, many reasons we decided to follow our own advice, again.

I’m typing this from the friends’ couch we’ve been surfing on for the past few days in Auckland, New Zealand. We arrived, bleary-eyed from our 14 hours of flying, two days ago and I can report with definity that it is SO good to be back in this beautiful, happy, peaceful country.

But it’s been a busy, busy, six weeks.

1. Decide to finally listen to the voice in my head that’s been screaming the past year this is not right! you were where you were supposed to be! sure the woods are beautiful and the house comfortable…but there is so much more out there….

2. Drink a wee dram or two of scotch on a late-April Friday night with Michael.

3. Fantasize about giving it all up and moving back to New Zealand to continue our residency.

4. Start planning to give it all up and move back to New Zealand to continue our residency.

5. Look up plane tickets online.

6. Find one-way tickets at a great price.

7. Decide to sleep on it.

8. Wake up.

9. Realize that we weren’t that drunk after all.

10. Buy plane tickets.

11. Decide to rent out house.

12. Realize there’s no way in hell we’d be able to rent house for enough to cover mortgage even if we worked day and night for six weeks to finish the basement doubling the size of the house.

13. Put house on the market.

14. Give stuff away.

15. Sell stuff on Craigslist.

16. Clean house.

17. Give our dog to the family who’d fostered her from the shelter originally and were over the moon to have her cuteness back.

18. Give our kitties to my sister-in-law’s mom who now adores them (thank you Lisa!!!).

19. Give stuff away.

20. Sell stuff on Craigslist.

21. Reopen our NZ bank account.

22. Wire some money over.

23. Michael quits job.

24. Get storage unit.

25. Start filling it with stuff.

26. Pack stuff.

27. Give stuff away.

28. Start making piles of stuff to bring, trying to stick to the essentials (clothes, shoes, toiletries, electronics, 4 stuffies per each kid, basic drawing supplies, journals, Legos, coats, books, sleeping bags, Kindles, Aeropress).

Packing for a year or more for a family of four? Not my most favorite step.

Packing for a year or more for a family of four? Not my most favorite step.

29. Make arrangements to stay with friends our first few nights.

30. Start researching motorhome market on trademe.

31. Sell our family car.

32. Cancel gymnastics & dance classes.

33. Cancel cell phones, internet, garbage service, car insurance.

34. Keep house clean between showings.

We made the last bubble bath in the house a good one.

We made sure the last bubble bath in the house was a good one.

35. Invite friends over for a final Bon Voyage Bonfire.

36. Give stuff away.

37. Return shitty mattress to Costco.

38. Pack everything into six large bags to check and four small backpacks to carry on plane.

...but I did it!!

…but I did it!!

39. Give food to neighbors.

40. Lots of teary goodbyes.

41. Load up our little old pickup and drive to Grandpa’s house.

42. Enjoy a last weekend with family.

43. Give pickup to Grandpa in exchange for a ride to the airport.

44. Pile in Grandpa’s car and head to airport which includes a ferry ride to Seattle.

45. Another teary goodbye.

46. Unload all 14 bags.

47. Check 6 of them.

48. Wait to board flight. Enjoy the first hours with nothing to do in weeks.

The secret to travelling long distances with kids? ELECTRONIC DEVICES.

The secret to traveling long distances with kids? ELECTRONIC DEVICES.

49. Enjoy the last free and fast Wifi we’ll see in a very long time.

50. First flight to Los Angeles (2 hours).

51. Second flight to Auckland (12 hours).

We flew on Air NZ's brand new Boeing 777. The economy seats are as small and agonizing as ever, but the entertainment can't be beat.

We flew on Air NZ’s brand new Boeing 777. The economy seats are as small and agonizing as ever, but the entertainment and free wine can’t be beat.

52. Arrive Auckland at 6:30 am.

53. Try not to jump up and down with giddiness when immigration officer stamps our passports and says “welcome back!”

54. Enjoy amazingly delicious flat white coffees.

55. Grab new sim cards right at the airport.

56. Shuttle to Jucy rental car facility to pick up our El Cheapo.

57. Upgrade car to next larger since can’t fit all bags in the super compact.

58. Drive to bank to see if debit card is there waiting for us as promised.

59. Disappointed that it’s not. But who cares? We’re back in New Zealand.

Best friends, reunited. Traveling has always been about the connections we make with people along the way and we are so grateful to be on this path again.

Best friends, reunited. Traveling has always been about the connections we make with people along the way and we are so grateful to be on this path again.