We’re back!

When we left New Zealand for home last November, the hospital suggested returning this year in August, maybe for a longer stint. In February, John was officially asked to replace one of the permanent doctors going on sabbatical. Although John and the hospital were in agreement that he was indeed returning, for the next 4 months, the hospital struggled with the approval process, and finally turned the mess(application) over to a placement agency. We thought a repeat work visa would be easier, and in some ways, the paperwork part of it was smoother. By August 1st, however, we were both wondering if this year’s application would go up in smoke. But, on August 12th, the New Zealand Medical Council confirmed his appointment.

After a few crazy days packing and preparing to step out of our lives back home, we left for New Zealand on August 21st. In the week before we left, our daughter’s dog got skunked, John lost his sunglasses, I thought I broke my phone, and the township failed to pick up the garbage. Suddenly, everything moved at hyper speed and seemed out of control. And then suddenly we were on a plane.

Now we are here. The intense anxiety and stress that is singularly American disappeared as we crossed the international dateline. Our second day in New Zealand, we flew to Christchurch to see Carrie perform at Tedx- a magical day. She delivered a flawless performance in front of a huge crowd, and I thought about the shy three-year-old who would hide behind me and refuse to talk to aunts and uncles. I was blown away with emotion.

The next day we began the drive north, first to Whangarei (Fang a ray), then to Keri Keri and on to Kaitaia. Highway 1 winds from Keri Keri to Kaitaia, over a mountain, through the Mangamuka Gorge- the switchbacks are tough, but the views spectacular. The further north we drove, the more zen I felt. The landscape has not changed much in 9 months, and either has Kaitaia- the Pak-n-Save is still the town meeting place; Ahmed, the manager at the Copper Chimney Indian Restaurant, recognized me (it’s one of two decent restaurants in town); and the hospital had familiar faces and everyone was happy to see John.

For the next few months, we get to enjoy another spring, and Carrie helped us plant some vegetables in the small garden of our house. The lettuce should grow well. We are in a different place than last year- the beach is a longer walk, but the mattresses are better. The weather is in the 50s-60s, but colder at night.

Today, the beach is mostly deserted, with the occasional surfer or dog walker, but Ahipara hasn’t lost its dream-like quality. Looking out at the waves and the sand, seeing horses walking the beach, is surreal, especially when the pounding surf creates a fog-like mist down the coastline. Yesterday morning we discovered a dead stingray, about 4-5 feet long, and this morning I watched two seals discuss the condition of the water before charging into the surf. I know the sun sets in other places, but somehow the color show over the Tasman Sea still mesmerizes me. In those moments, I am a lifetime away from Detroit and still can’t believe I’m back.

Mama La

The large storage container, converted into a housing unit, sits on cement blocks 10 feet from the main road winding through Grand Case. This is the French side of the island. Heavy rain the night before has left deep puddles in the dirt surrounding the unit’s stairs. The path from the roadside to the front door is obstructed by a large 6 foot wide pile of dirt and debris, and beer bottles from the bar next door are scattered everywhere.

Inside the unit, the air is thick and hot. Electricity and water have not been installed, although a trench has been dug for the conduit and pipes. The container’s three rooms are sweltering in the midday heat. The only breeze comes from the door being left ajar. The windows are shut tight to keep out the never-ending traffic noise and the bugs.

We yell for Mama La (Eulalia). She has been sick with an infection for the past week, and volunteers have been coming to check on her and insure she has been taking her antibiotic. We find her unable to sit up, sprawled on her bed, overheated and disoriented. The infection is in her face, possibly a bug bite, and it’s swollen and painful enough that she is taking Tramadol.

Mary Beth has been checking on her regularly and directs Kathryn and me into the room being used as a kitchen. With no running water, Mama La has had to use a bucket for a toilet and and another discarded paint bucket to wash her dishes. Old food stands in an uncovered pan on the camp stove.

A donated refrigerator will eventually be installed, but for now, without electrical, Mama keeps her food in a cooler. We have brought ice blocks- frozen, liter-sized water bottles- to resupply. I am ashamed to say the stench from the cooler was so strong I had to step outside for air. I nearly vomited from the smell. Somehow, Kathryn was able to begin unloading the food that was now floating in water, and I found a garbage bin down the road to get rid of everything that was spoiled or rancid.

We spent nearly two hours cleaning her kitchen. When she lived in a tent, Mama used buckets to store things- those were her cabinets and drawers. When she was moved into the unit, she did not want to part with her organizational system. We picked through the mess. No doubt she knew what was in each bucket, but if there was a method to the madness, we missed it. Rotting food full of bugs would be in the same container with a screwdriver and bits of old paper and string. Kathryn organized her meds and canned goods, I swept the floor and took out garbage, and Mary Beth did the dishes.

In the end, the place looked much better, and we were able to take an inventory of what food she had so the word could get passed as to what Mama still needed. Mary Beth heated some soup, and we convinced Mama to eat something so she could take her antibiotic. Her lack of teeth did not seem to slow her down- she seemed ravenous and devoured the soup.

We showed her what had been cleaned and organized and she was pleased. Before we left, Mary Beth asked Mama how old she was and she proudly told us she had turned 86 on the 13th of February. I started a round of singing Happy Birthday and Kathryn and Mary Beth joined in. Mama covered her mouth and giggled like a small child, embarrassed at being the center of attention and, yet, overjoyed to be celebrated.

We each got a hug goodbye.


Relief update:

While the island government and tourist industry works to rebuild hotels and restaurants, locals are still struggling to eat. Many people lost their jobs because the hotel or store where they worked is now closed and under repair. Some hotels, restaurants and retail are closed permanently. Low income housing was devastated throughout the island, in part because of bad location and construction quality.

When we arrived on the island in January, I began looking for volunteer opportunities. John’s supervisor put me in touch with the community outreach coordinator at the medical school. She did have an opportunity for me to help at a medical screening event, but it was a one-time sort of thing. At the screening, the level of poverty on the island was evident. People lined up to be seen by a doctor and waited for well over an hour in the sun. Most patients were over 60.

I looked into the Red Cross, but the island’s office is run by the Netherlands. The posting on their website under volunteering was a donation tab. I found an article about how the Dutch Red Cross had decided to stop relief efforts (providing a food bank, for instance) in September, 2018, because they didn’t want to foster a “dependent” attitude. However, insurance money, if they had insurance, has not arrived for many people and the Dutch government has not released all the funding promised.

I knew the Catholic Church on the island tried not to use volunteers, but rather looked for resources to employ someone to do odd jobs, such as remove lawn rubbish or clean the sanctuary. The same is true for other churches. They did not need some well-meaning American to show up temporarily. Because of past back issues, I had to pass on doing actual physical cleanup in a wildlife reserve. I kept hitting dead ends.

Fortunately, Kathryn, a Canadian and good friend on the island, reconnected with me. Over dinner she told me about an 80-year-old woman who lost everything in the hurricane. The poor woman has been living under a tarp, as are many people, since Irma hit 19 months ago. Residents are also aware the French government did not accurately report all the deaths on that side of the island (close to a thousand). In fact, no one is really sure how many illegal immigrants, mostly from Haiti, died. Without legal papers, they could not go to a designated shelter. Additionally, the number of people in need of food is still being underreported.

The good news: Kathryn heard about two men from The Netherlands, former residents of the island, who decided to do something about the need for food and step into the gap. DJ is a chef who had a vegan cafe back home. So Joost and DJ moved back to the island, and opened the Freegan Cafe. (Free + Vegan ) They spend their days collecting surplus food from restaurants and supermarkets. It’s estimated approximately 40% of food in stores world-wide is discarded-overripe bananas, vegetables that haven’t sold, tofu nearing the end of its shelf life. They turn the discarded food into delicious vegan meals and distribute them in the poorest neighborhoods. A repurposing of food.

Their communication with the locals is through WhatsApp and word of mouth. When the neighborhoods know the food truck is coming, people line up. The program has expanded to include fresh food items (tomatoes, cucumbers, grapefruit, etc.- a quasi-farmer’s market) and non-food items (children’s shoes, bed linens, clothing). Volunteers in each neighborhood let Freegan know what the current need is, as well as communicate to the neighborhood what is available. When they arrived with produce the other day, an older woman told them “You came just in time”. Her refrigerator was empty.

Kathryn, Bhuvana(another friend) and I spent yesterday morning cutting up cucumbers, juicing tangelos and grapefruit, peeling potatoes and washing dishes. The three hours flew by. In the end, we sat down and enjoyed a great meal of yellow curry and rice, vegan Schwarma and a banana chia bowl. All of us were tired, but it was that happy kind of exhaustion you get when you help someone else and forget for a brief moment about yourself. The whole experience gives me hope.


John had a few days off from teaching, so we finally decided to get off Saint Maarten and take a short flight to Nevis, the quiet sister island to St. Kitts. Nevis largely escaped Hurricane Irma’s wrath and a few friends recommended it as a tranquil getaway. Even though we waited to the last minute, the flight was affordable, and we hustled and booked everything within 24 hours.

At nine in the morning, we landed at the tiny Nevis airport. The baggage handler opened the plane’s gang plank and yelled “This is Nevis- Welcome to Paradise!”

We were the only passengers to disembark as the other 5 people on our plane were traveling on to St. Kitt’s. There was no line at immigration, and our luggage was simply brought in from the tarmac and placed near the customs official. After a few questions about guns, drugs, and other contraband, we headed out to pick up our rental car. We were off the plane and through the airport in less than 10 minutes.

Claude (an independent entrepreneur) had told us he would meet us with the rental car, but we didn’t see anyone waiting outside the only building. After a few minutes, the airport supervisor asked “Who are you renting from? Claude? I’ll give him a call.” She had him on speed dial.

When Claude appeared, he had a dirty 2006 Honda CRV. He said it was an upgrade from the other cars he had available, plus we could take it off road. I guess we look like off road people. The car was just missing one door handle on the passenger side. After signing papers and exchanging phone numbers, Claude packed up his office (put everything in a bag) and left.

We buckled up, tried the ignition and … nothing. Not even a starter noise. Several tries later, we decided to give Claude a call to come back when the baggage handler appeared. He figured out how to pop the hood (it really was not obvious), messed with the battery connections, and the car started. In retrospect, the baggage handler seemed to know the car.

We were on our way. Our hotel was 5 minutes from the airport, so we dropped bags at the front desk and headed out to explore. Aside from an occasional chicken and some goats in remote hiking spots, we rarely see wandering farm animals on St. Maarten. Nevis not only has chickens, but free range goats- lots of them, everywhere. The goats enjoy cruising the one main road, crossing at random and eating the grass closest to traffic. The island also boasts a healthy population of burros, no doubt brought to the island by early European settlers. The free range burros also like to wander the roads, as well as the beaches, leaving behind treasures mixed in with the seashells.

Dodging goats and burros, we bumped down the one road that circles the island on the way to the only town. John began sharing what little knowledge he knew about Nevis. I had not bothered to look anything up, so I was eager to hear.

“There are more monkeys on this island than people, ” he claimed. This seemed like a typical “John” comment and I thought there was a high probability of untruth. I gave him a withering look, certain he was just saying random stuff to mess with me.

“There are no monkeys on this island.” No sooner did the words come out of my mouth, then a rather large monkey ran out in front of our car and into the overgrown vegetation. Apparently, Caribbean monkeys are a thing on some of the islands.

We had planned to hike on the island, as it is mountainous and it seemed like a good, free activity, but those monkeys live up in the hills. We thought it best to ask a few local people about them. The island residents consider them pests when it comes to their orchards and gardens, and were clear the monkeys were on the large side and not afraid of humans. The receptionist at the botanical gardens told us one jumped right up on her shoulder and tried to steal her earphones, and she had to fight him off. (Must have been expensive earphones.) We decided we could hike on St. Maarten.

We checked out some beaches on the island, and snorkeled at Pinney’s Beach. John saw a lobster, and there were huge schools of tangs, yellow jacks and sargent majors. We had a good time and then the afternoon turned rainy, so we headed back to our car. It only took five tries for the starter to catch. Every time we parked, we crossed our fingers and kicked the car a few times. Eventually, John would get it to start.

Our last night on the island, we arrived at the restaurant and the car died for good. Fortunately, people were available and the hostess let us use her phone to call Claude. As we ordered a drink, the manager assured us Claude would show up because he lived right down the road. Sometime during dinner, Claude switched out the car and this time we got a true upgrade- a clean car with a full tank of gas, although the GPS was in Chinese. Well, there is just one road.

Despite earphone stealing monkeys, pooping burros, and unruly goats, Nevis was lovely. The primary activity on the island is beaching. Lots of people reading, relaxing, and enjoying the diving sea gulls and the local fishermen. The botanical gardens were very zen, with Asian sculpture, parrots and exotic plants. And the food was great.

But the best part of Nevis? The local people. Everyone was friendly and welcoming and called us John and Mary. And everyone was so relaxed. Their attitude was infectious.

I would recommend Nevis as a relaxing side-trip if you are on another island and want to escape crowds and nightlife. Just be sure to ask Claude for the upgrade.

Sint Maarten

Ten years ago, John stumbled into an amazing opportunity to teach med students at the American University of the Caribbean on the island of Sint Maarten. Every spring, he spent about 6 weeks teaching, usually splitting the term with another ER physician from St. Louis. The pay basically covered expenses, making the time feel like a free vacation, even if John worked for part of the day. Over the years, we discovered the best places to snorkel, the best French pastry, and fell in love with the island’s slower way of life. “Island time” (in other words, it’s not happening today) became our normal for a short while.

That all changed 16 months ago.

September 6, 2017, Hurricane Irma, a Category 5, surged the island. Winds were clocked at 180 mph, with gusts up to 225. The videos posted online of the neighborhood we had lived in and the Marigot harbor were shocking. Old growth trees and landscaping were gone- entire buildings demolished. Familiar landmarks no longer existed, and we were in disbelief when we finally recognized a location in a video.

Parts of the island were without power or water for weeks. Entire neighborhoods were under water, not to mention roads being washed out and debris piled in unusual places. Add a poor existing infrastructure and the typical slow island response, and a tragic disaster beyond the magnitude of Katrina is born. While the press reported widespread looting (because the viewing public loves chaos), most of the grocery stores left standing after the storm opened their doors and gave food away- the alternative was to let it go bad. Surviving became the priority for anyone remaining on the island.

The medical school had little external damage due to its location and construction, but water damaged the school’s electronics and power making the building unusable. DeVry made a decision to relocate students to a school in Manchester, England for the 2017-18 school year. Our expectations of ever returning to the island were low. The school administration had indicated a desire to limit part-time faculty even prior to the hurricane. Enrollment numbers always dictate faculty needs each year and enrollment dropped significantly for the year after Irma.

When John was asked to teach this year, we didn’t know what to expect. We packed a grateful attitude along with our sun gear. Despite the damage on the island and the loss of many of our favorite places, we both felt like we came home. The best part of the past ten years has always been the wonderful friendships forged with people from Europe and North America. We had our own little expat community that we slipped back into upon returning, and we spent the past few weeks catching up on everyone.

Sunday, we went to 9 am Mass at Mary Star of the Sea, our favorite church on the island. The roof is gone, but the choir still sings with jubilation. The pews were packed, and the handshake of peace took forever, because everyone knows each other or acts as if they do. It was reassurance that the generous, loving spirit of the island did not blow away.

Welcome 2019

After his first bout of cancer, my brother’s recommendation was to throw away my to-do list. Jim had read a spiritual, life awareness book that claimed we focus too much on getting things done rather than just “being”. To-do lists were a roadblock to our true humanity. I did not have a strong argument against that assertion because our American culture encourages the treadmill life, leaving relationships in the dust. Yet, giving up my daily list seemed counter intuitive.

A to-do list gave physical structure to my day, a path to follow, a sense of direction. I felt such satisfaction checking off the items on my list, and that feeling of daily completion was addictive. My younger life often felt emotionally chaotic, and the list was my weapon against overwhelming anxiety, fear of losing control and inadequacy. In short, it was my blankie. But Jim’s insightful comments made me reevaluate my list, especially how it impacted my self worth.

Despite my love of list making, I use to complain if I only completed 24 of the 25 things on my daily. I had trouble seeing the day as 24/25ths successful. Nothing short of perfection was acceptable, and getting it done tomorrow was not okay. My own personal rules about the list were the destructive part. I had created a bar so high most days I was destined to fail, and then I felt bad about it. In fact, I felt defeated more often than successful. If this had been a job, I would have quit.

While awareness is always the first step in any change, the idea of letting go of my daily structure still frightened me. I had to consciously work on not making such a big list, on being okay with the incomplete, and some days, just not having a list. This took years. Thankfully, I am easier on myself at this age, and if my no-list day turns into a Netflix binge-watching afternoon, oh well!

However, every January 1st that pressure to make up a magnificent list of goals for the coming year looms large. I rather envy the why-bother-with-resolutions crowd, although I have noticed that people in this group are often embarrassed about all the things that seem to slip away. Just not embarrassed enough to make a list. Most friends fall into the good-intentions pack. I think February is briefly depressing for them, but by Christmas they seem to have forgotten all about the lack of follow through and make a new list. Totally okay. And, then there’s the eternal-improvement people. These folks take the resolution thing seriously, which is also okay. The healthy approach for me is to limit the number of resolutions each year to one or two, instead of tackling a complete makeover.

This year I had some goals in mind, but wanted balance to the list. I did not want to make another daunting list and just be doing, doing doing. So, this past weekend I attended a vision board seminar and created a board that shows my vision for the coming year. The envisioning exercise prodded me to think about what I want to be or become this year, rather than what am I going to do. The underlying theory is if you have a vision of your better self, the right practices to get there will follow.

I think that’s what Jim was talking about long ago. Only took me twenty years to put it into practice.


The past few weeks, I have been asked when I was going to post on my blog again. We have been home outside Detroit for a few weeks, but I honestly don’t have much to tell. Today I raked some leaves, which I miss doing; however, I’m pretty sure no one really cares to read about yard work. We have been busy catching up with friends and getting ready for the holidays. I am also trying to get my writing rhythm back. Moving around is a curve ball to the creative process.

My neighbor asked if it was hard to come home to the Midwest. In a word, yes.

In New Zealand, I walked down my driveway right on to the beach, and the weather was really getting nice before we left. Everything was blooming, and it’s hard not to be uplifted by flowers. I had a banana tree right behind the house. Kiwis (the people not the animal) move a little slower and seem less stressed, and I liked that pace. I could feed carrots to the horses a block from our house, and they started to remember me.

In Detroit, I came home to rain mixed with snow, and lots of potholes. The traffic around Detroit seems insane to me, and the Christmas mania only adds to the already intense levels of hurriedness. I have wet leaves to rake, and a muddy road to navigate. And, there are no horses.

Which place would you prefer? I thought so.

Truthfully, I find myself happy in both places. Despite differences, each has its good points. I have a daughter in Auckland, and a daughter in Detroit and they both bring me joy. And our son seems to show up wherever we are to eat food and go on adventures. We now have friends in both places.

I had a beach but slept in a lousy bed in New Zealand, and I have no beach but a great bed in Detroit. (I am old enough that the bed matters.) I had peace and quiet in NZ, but few restaurants near our town. The Indian restaurant was the best but primarily did just carry out. I have great restaurants in Plymouth, but the traffic… well, I already covered that.

  Kiwis are nice but tough. They have t-shirts that say “Harden the F.. up!”, Which they sell with the utmost politeness. Kids in New Zealand seem to be born with a thicker layer of skin and are oblivious to the rain and cold. And everyone is happy to have a chat. I can see why my daughter loves the country.

Currently, the popular t-shirt in Detroit says “Detroit Against Everyone Else,” which is another way of saying “Harden the F-up.” People don’t put on winter coats here until it’s really winter; otherwise you are not really from Michigan. And Detroit is amazingly friendly. I can see why my other daughter has enjoyed living here.

At the end of the day, a place is not nearly as important as the people you love. For now, Detroit is home base. We will continue to move around and will be back to New Zealand. In the meantime, my husband and I fantasize about a large family compound in some mythical place, with all our children and their significant others and dogs and gardens and maybe … horses. We are calling it Polish Headquarters.

Not Joni Mitchell

  Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone- Joni Mitchell

We leave to go back to the states on the 20th, so I have just a week left in New Zealand. The time here has gone by too fast. My time in New Zealand over the past 11 weeks has been fantastic. A good day for me? When I know what is in front of me won’t last forever, and I need to relish the moment and celebrate how fleeting all of life actually is.

I’m going to miss:

The sunsets in Ahipara- Nothing quite like it back home. It is soul-healing to just sit, watch the waves rolling into the beach, the sky turning pinks and purples and all types of orange, and listen to the sea. If the world was required to spend a half hour on my deck (glass of wine optional), I know we would find world peace.

Bike rides through the countryside- Riding through pastures filled with cows and sheep and wildflowers is so zen. I don’t care that my butt gets sore, or that I get sunburned, or that I am exhausted. I am relaxed and breathing and it’s just the best feeling. Last night, John and I took our last beach ride before sunset. We are going to miss the expansive sense of riding on the sand, rolling through the River of Souls legs outstretched, and crunching seashells.  The ride back is always brutal against the wind, but still a great workout. We got home wet, full of sand, and happy.

Hiking through Kauri forests- Something about being in the middle of the forest, listening to birds, makes me feel like I am walking with God. The New Zealand forests hold so many beautiful surprises-  finding a hidden waterfall,  a river gorge,  being followed by a little fantail bird. Then you come around a bend, and a giant Kauri tree is silently standing guard over the forest.

The friendliness of Kiwis-  Half the time, I don’t know what is being said to me despite the fact that they are speaking English, but they sure are nice! Even when I obviously don’t know what they said, they are too polite and nice to point it out. When they ask “how are you?”, they literally look at you and wait for a real answer.

The sound of the ocean-  I love the sound of the rainstorm on the roof, the birds singing every morning at the crack of dawn, and kids laughing down at the beach. But the rhythmic roar of the waves beats it all!

Horses- Several horses live down the road from me. I love watching them play and chase each other, and they like my carrots. The best week was when Eugene was born. We had an obese horse that always stood in this one pasture, and she was expecting. Her name is Josephine (named after Napoleon’s wife) and when she had her foal, the old man (Josephine’s owner) named him Eugene (Josephine’s first child). I hope they are here next year!

My prayer, when we arrived, was that I honor my time in New Zealand by appreciating everything. I think my prayer has been answered.


After back surgery a few years ago, I was advised to do low impact exercises, such as swimming and biking. Biking is not nearly as zen as swimming, although it can be on a bike trail without traffic.  I often lose my cares and worries pumping up a hill and gliding down the other side. While I could travel from A to B in a car, biking the same ground provides a chance to photograph flowers up close,  pet horses, and picnic on a hillside. Laying in the soft grass, exhausted from pedaling 25 miles, brings back my childhood.

New Zealand is not a country with roads conducive to biking unless you have a death wish. John hoped he could bike the 14 kilometers to work each day and leave me the loaner car. However, the road from Ahipara to Kaitaia is a two-way, two-lane road, with little to no shoulder. (Hikers coming off 90 Mile beach are warned to be cautious when hiking that road as hills and curves impact visibility.) In our quest to continue biking while here, we found great designated trails.

90 Mile Beach:

While not technically a trail, we have used the beach as a place to ride.  The beach at low tide is wide enough to accommodate a plane ( this is the emergency plan for Barrier Air flights that take off from little Kaitaia airport and need to make an unscheduled landing). With hard-packed sand and just a few water crossings, the beach is a nice, no-incline ride. We cross the River of Souls when it is barely an inch deep, and head north. Tua Tua (clam) diggers and torpedo fisherman are out, and if we are lucky, we get to see Josephine and Eugene, a beautiful chestnut mare and her foal.                                                                                                                        Disadvantages: 1) a great back wind going north turns into a wicked headwind on the return trip 2)Cleaning sand out of the gears

The Twin Coast Trail:

This beauty stretches from Horeke eastward across the Northland region to Opua, near the Bay of Islands. The trail replaced a now-defunct rail line and travels through Okaihau (no gas station and one cafe) and on to Kaihoke, which is a happening place in terms of bike towns. The town boasts of a Pioneer Village, a Countdown Supermarket, a New World supermarket (Kaitaia only has a Pack-N-Save), a KFC, and the Bank Bar! The latter is a renovated old bank building with an unusual assortment of characters, including an older Mauri gentleman in cowboy gear. The beer was cheap, but the food limited.  The scenery on the trail was fantastic and so peace-filled, except for the cow we encountered in the middle of the path.                                                                                                                                    Disadvantages:                                                                                                                               Every mile or so, sometimes more frequently, there are barriers to keep out the motorcycles. This means you dismount, pass your bike through as you walk around the barrier.


The Hauraki Bike trail:

This trail can be taken from Auckland all the way to Te Aroha, a distance of 112 kilometers. Before you are impressed, we did not do the whole thing. We started in Paeroa, and did a section that heads towards Waikino, ending in Waihi. We think we did at least 40 kilometers round trip, although probably more. You can stop along the way to do the Windows Walk at the Karangehake Gorge. An old rail line for an abandoned ore mine features spots (“windows”) where you walk through an old mine shaft and look out on the gorge.  If the rain is good, the water rushing through the gorge can be thrilling. At Waikino, a small town on the trail, is a restored train depot, with train rides and a great cafe. A 37-kilometer addition to this trail is planned to be completed in 2019. South from Paeroa is Te Aroha, only 20 minutes by car, and we stayed overnight after a much-needed soak in the Te Aroha mineral baths.                                                                                        Disadvantages: None


Kowhai Trail:

I think one of my favorite places in New Zealand is Kaikoura on the South Island. The town suffered a significant earthquake in 2016, yet remains very charming. Mountains behind you and the ocean in front of you- hard to beat the views. We biked this trail, which is truly mountain biking, through woods and backcountry. We opted to not do the actual mountain climb on bikes, as the trail to the mountain was challenging enough.  This trail is an actual loop that follows the Kowhai and Hapuku Rivers and ascends up the mountains. The forest we biked through was wonderful, and that part of the trail spills out into farmland.                                                                                                        Disadvantages: Just a sore tush from all the bumps.

Alps 2 Ocean:

A popular South Island trail, Alps 2 Ocean stretches over 300 kilometers from Aoraki(Mt. Cook Village) to Oamaru on the Pacific Ocean. We had a blast biking a section of this trail from Twizel to Lake Pukaki. While sections can be challenging, much of the ride was over wide open areas with great vistas. Lake Pukaki is one of a series of lakes in the region and is stunning in color and has Mt. Cook as a backdrop. We stopped by a freshwater salmon farm and watched locals catching fish on the Ruataniwha Dam. The pizza in Twizel at the end of the ride was the best.  I hope to complete more of this trail in the future.


The list of trails left to explore is long, and choosing one to do over another seems impossible. I would like to to do a multi-day bike trip with tents and sleeping bags and complete an entire trail from start to finish. I just need to find someone to cook me a meal at the end of each day.  A glass of wine would be nice as well.


Can’t See the Forest Because of the Trees

Between Ahipara, where we live, and Kaitaia, where the hospital is located, is the Herekino Forest. The track through the forest is part of Te Araroa (New Zealand’s Trail), stretching fom the top of the country to the bottom, spanning both island masses. For the past few weeks, I have been on a search for the entrance to this trail as the Herekino is home to Kauri trees, the largest tree species in New Zealand. Kauri trees are not necessarily the tallest tree, but are an ancient species, dating back to the Jurassic Age, and their width is immense. As they develop, they shed not only lower branches but also bark, preventing forest vines and parasitic plants from clinging to them. They develop an enormous crown, apppearing to watch over the entire forest.

Early in September, John and I drove south to the Waipua Forest to see Tane Mahuta, a Giant Kauri tree, estimated to be over 2000 years old. It was just a small seedling when Jesus was born. In order to enter the walkway to the tree, we had to first scrape our boots on a boot cleaner, then walk over a sprayer that washed the bottom of our soles, and finally walk through a padded disinfecting area to eliminate contamination. To Americans, the measures may seem extreme; after all , it’s a tree. However, the DOC is battling Kauri die-back disease. The disease is spread from forest to forest by footwear of hikers, and the roots of the Kauri, which grow close to the surface, are easily susceptible and die. Sadly, I discovered last week that the Herekino Forest is closed to tramping until further notice. Many of the remaining tracts of trees are suffering from the die-back disease and limiting human contact may give the trees time to recover.

Beginning in the 1820s, Kauri trees were logged in excess by the British. (Didn’t this happen in Ireland?!) Some trees were used for local building, but much of the logging was shipped back to England or Australia. By the 1840s, large sections of Kauri forest were being destroyed. Additionally, ancient swamp Kauri were discovered, and their resin was harvested by “gumdiggers” for manufacturing varnish. Today, approximately 4% of the original forest land remains, most of it in the Northland where we live. And now, having survived the logging onslaught, the remaining trees are at risk from the die-back disease.

This information would be completely depressing except that Kiwis do seem rather keen on protecting what is left. One could argue that so much has been destroyed and then just as easily argue that much is being preserved and protected. I was bummed the forest was closed, but I found hope in a strange place. This week the Waitapu (Sacred Waters) Winery down the road opened for the season, and Eric, the owner, gave us a quick tour, a wine tasting and shared some stories. He and his wife, Sondra, built their house with walls so thick they don’t need a furnace. They use rainwater and have a self-contained sewage system. When his work day is done, Eric sits out on his deck, looks past the valley filled with cows and bamboo trees, pours a glass of wine and watches the sun set over the Tasman Sea.

The hope-filled part? Over the past 25 years, Eric and his wife have planted more than 100,000 native trees on their property, including Kauri trees. Over 4000 trees a year! Perhaps it was the wine, but I felt so inspired by his determination.

Maybe there’s a vineyard in Michigan.