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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

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)

Packing for life

Books

When Robert and I decided to take Bobs, our daughter of nine, and spend a summer cruising the intricate coastline of British Columbia, the procedure appeared to be comparatively simple. We’d buy a boat, stow supplies aboard and depart. Bobs had never been on shipboard, and Robert and I had never navigated or lived in a cruiser, but freshness would add zest to the adventure.

Having made our decision, we put it into execution in our usual forthright fashion, for we get on faster by trying out a scheme than thinking about it.

-Kathrene Pinkerton, Three’s a Crew (1940)

One of the things I miss the most while living on a boat is my books, or more accurately having my books where I can actually see them. Wondertime only had a single tiny bookshelf in the forward cabin. That didn’t stop us from having books aboard, of course. The girls had fabric bins at the base of their beds filled with them; they were also stuffed into their lockers and stacked next to their pillows. There were three plastic crates of books in the pilot[storage] berth in the hallway and baskets of library books in our aft “family room.” When we moved all of those books off the boat, the waterline went up three inches and we gained at least a knot and a half in boatspeed.

We left a great many behind in New Zealand, but shipped (too many) back to Washington. And it was a glorious day when those books met up with the ones I’d left behind in our storage unit in Olympia upon the shelves of an old china cabinet I found secondhand. I could stand and gaze at them all lined up there neatly, so happy, on those shelves for hours. I’ve actually read a lot of them. Our used cruising guides are all there, as are the first books that introduced me to the idea of voyaging under sail. But many just sit there, waiting, filled with promise of stories yet to read.

So it was with great sadness last week that I took each one down off their temporary shelves, held it in my hands for a moment, then tucked it back into a plastic storage crate. Another pile destined for the Goodwill grew, but not one of those was from the four shelves of travel/sailing books. (It only takes a glace at our bookshelves to see where my heart lies.)

One of those books was one I’d not yet read, but that I had found on a marina book exchange shelf years ago. It was a paperback reprint of a book written in the 1930s, before The Curve of Time even, of a small family that ups and moves from San Francisco onto a small power cruiser they’d just purchased in Seattle. They had suddenly got the crazy idea (“going foreign” Gasp!) to explore the B.C. and Alaska coasts for the summer. They didn’t stop for seven years. Kathrene Pinkerton wrote about her family’s adventures in the 1920s, in what is likely the first book ever to describe family adventuring on the sea.

On page 18, of Three’s a Crew, Kathrene writes:

For the first time I wondered if we had been sane on that day when we had so abruptly decided to cruise along the British Columbia and Alaska coasts. Twenty-two months of steady writing had entitled Robert to a vacation, and those months had completed five years in one locality. Almost unconsciously we had been relinquishing our foot-loose instincts and accepting the creed that a family should “stay put.” We deserved no credit for this attitude. By the time we had followed the usual parental routine of proper schools, dancing classes, the inevitable orthodentia for a growing child and a decent neighborhood in which to bring up a daughter, had added a few outlets for ourselves in golf, theaters, concerts and dinner parties, there were no funds with which to do anything but “stay put.” And after we had bought these routine requirements with our writing, there was no energy to expend in wandering.

It’s hard to believe that was written over 75 years ago, but it’s true. What’s even more true is that we feel the same way, 75 years later. Our money is finite. Our days are finite. The only thing that really makes sense is take full advantage of each and every one.

(As a side note: it never seems to fail that no matter if my books are on a shelf, or in boxes, or on my Kindle: just the right one always seems to land in front of me.)

And so I pack the books away. We sell the furniture. Give outgrown toys and clothes away. We tearily pass our cats and dog onto friends and relatives. We sell the cars and the house. There is a tiny pile in my closet of things to bring with us: we each get to check a 50 lb. bag on our Air New Zealand flight, along with a small carry-on.

It’s stressful, but we’re all tingly with excitement. All four of us. It’s invigorating to pare down to the truest essentials of living, what is all we need. I suppose we’ve finally accepted our wandering blues. It feels so good to shed the stuff that I thought we needed to make a home. The girls ask each and every day how much longer until they get to go back to New Zealand. They think they are going home. I think they may have been right all along.

All that matters in the world: our family and our tickets to freedom.

All that matters in the world: our little family and our tickets to freedom.

We are bringing thousands of books with us.

I always thought the birthmark on Holly's calf looked a little bit like a map of New Zealand. So I thought to compare it to an actual map. Am I crazy or...? (Wait. Don't answer that.)

I always thought the birthmark on Holly’s calf looked a little bit like a map of New Zealand. So I thought to compare it to an actual map of the South Island. Am I crazy or…? (Wait. Don’t answer that.)

Video: Riding the bus home to La Cruz

While there is a ton of live music around La Cruz and Banderas Bay at night (for example, on our boat here at the La Cruz anchorage at 10 pm we can hear at least three “musical” events coming from the beach right now), due to our having young crew we don’t get to stay out late very often to hear it close up. No matter, more often than not we are treated to live music right on our bus rides to and from Puerto Vallarta. Truly the best live entertainment around.