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South Island

Our son flew into Auckland this past Saturday, so John and I hopped a flight from Keri Keri to meet up with Carrie and Mike and fly to Nelson on the South Island. Nelson is Carrie’s favorite city because it’s big enough to have a New World grocery store and yet small enough to still have a walkable downtown. The city has a nice laidback feel. If you drive in one direction from Nelson, you can walk the Abel Tasman Track and head to Golden Bay. In the opposite direction is the Marlborough Sounds, wine country, and the Queen Charlotte Track.

We reasoned Mike would be exhausted from his flight from DC, so we found an AirBnB outside of Nelson for our first night together. We loaded up on snacks at the grocery store, and ordered burgers from Burger Culture. Besides being quick, Burger Culture bakes all its own buns, has homemade condiments, and an extensive menu of out-of-the-ordinary burgers. The wings are pretty good too. A comfort meal after a long day of travel.

The past few days have not been writing days, but Rudzinski-family days. Each day we biked, hiked, kayaked and/or whale/seal-watched, cooked meals together, played cards, and collapsed in the evening listening to music. I sleep through the night from happy exhaustion.

View of the mountains near Kaikoura

Our first full day in Picton, we planned to take a half-day dolphin tour out into the Queen Charlotte Sound, but the weather was rainy and foggy. The tour company offered a shorter trip that basically included a two hour boat ride, drinking wine and eating mussels, all for the same price. We decided hiking in the heavy rain to the lookout point on the Snout would be more entertaining. Despite getting soaked and muddy, we spent the three hours laughing, joking and telling stories. And the views from the observation point were better than from a boat in one the coves. The hot shower back at the rental made the day.

We kayaked the following day out into the sound, and the weather started off sunny and breezy. After 3 1/2 hours of paddling we reached Mistletoe Bay, a campsite area in another cove. We devoured our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and bought hot coffee and tea from the little camp store. Heading back, the wind had picked up, changing not in our favor. In the morning, the water had been glass, but now we were batting significant waves. The late afternoon temps were dropping. By the time we beached the kayaks, our arms and hands ached and were stiff from the cold and wind. We declared the day a success, in that no one capsized and we all came back alive, and ordered a pizza.

Each day has been better than the day before, which is such wondrous thing in life. The past two days we have been in Kaikoura (in Maori it means “eat crayfish”), which just may be my favorite place in New Zealand. Snow- capped mountains rise behind us with the ocean stretching in front of us. In 2016, Kaikoura was the epicenter of an 7.8 earthquake, strong enough to shift the continental shelf and deepen the ocean gorge off the coast. The beauty of this coastal town remains untouched. The true highlight of our day was spotting a male sperm whale and watching it breach, spray, and finally dive, fanning its enormous tail goodbye.

Today we are heading back towards Nelson, stopping in Havelock at The Mussel Pot restaurant. Mike and John demanded a second visit to this little cafe- amazing food, great beer selection, and a friendly staff. The kids have another hike planned for our break from the car ride, and rain is not predicted. No doubt, another good day.

Down Time

For the past two weeks, I have been writing an article to submit to a children’s magazine. Yesterday, I met my personal deadline, crossed my fingers, and hit the submit button. I celebrated by taking my second walk of the day on the beach.

Ahipara is at the beginning of 90-Mile beach and at low tide, the sand is easily a city block’s length from shore to water. Initially, I thought I might get tired of walking the same stretch of sand each day, thinking the landscape would not change much. I find I have to vary my daily walk at home because things look pretty much the same until the seasons start to change. But the beach is different.

I now have an array of shells on my picnic table, collected and rinsed, and it seems to get a little larger each day. I find it hard not to pick up just one more. Some of them are pipi shells- pipi is the Maori name for the edible clam that is found in abundance on the beach. Usually, locals find the clams digging at low tide locating air bubbles in the sand. We haven’t gone digging yet, but plan to do it when Carrie is visiting. Jordan, a high schooler I met on the beach, insisted the pipi could be eaten raw, just rinse off the sand. I think I will soak mine for a night, and cook them.

Yesterday, I found a small shark, less than 18 inches long, dead on the beach. The day before, a stingray lay embedded in the sand, probably dead for a while, but was gone the next day. The stingray lay not far from the “river of souls”, a large stream that winds through part of the beach and out to sea. Maori legend claims when a person dies their soul travels the river, out to the ocean, up 90 Mile beach to Cape Reinga. The Cape is the northernmost tip of the North Island and is the jumping off point for passage to the other side. Maybe the stingray was headed to the river.

Despite the occasional dead sea creature, the ocean is constantly in motion and alive. Earlier this week I saw a small blackish lump up ahead on the sand. Parts of the shore are fairly rocky, but this “rock” was isolated and in an odd place. As I got closer, the rock moved its head and the juvenile seal stared intently at me. I followed the locals’ advice to never get between a seal and the water, as any seal, even young ones, can move very fast and they do bite. I shared my seal sighting with John’s colleague, Sarah, and she asked if I had seen the white-bearded man who walks the beach. I had not, but apparently, he was now out of jail, having served time because one of his unleashed dogs killed a seal on the beach. The seal I saw was rather small and all alone, which surprised me.

Near the river is a large ground-bird nesting area, protected with numerous information signs. Spring is starting in New Zealand, so the dotterels are establishing nests. The dotterel is a plover, and at one time, nearly extinct. Only two places in New Zealand currently have populations, and this stretch of sand on 90 Mile near Ahipara is one of them. The other is Stewart Island off the South Island. I am hoping I get to see chicks before I leave in November.

Sometimes, horses are on the beach if the farm down the road has them out for exercise. The gulls are ever present, standing around, looking for pipi to snatch and squawking at the occasional beach walker. Their sound is usually the only noise on the beach other than the crashing surf. Yesterday evening, I took a walk further up the coast, just as the low tide was peaking and the sun was going down. Lost in thought, I was surprised to hear a cow mooing. Standing up on a dune above the beach were five cows, enjoying their grass dinner with the sunset.

Like I said, the beach is always changing.

Saturday Morning

We left Ahipara late Friday afternoon and drove the “twisty turny road” to Kerikeri, our name for the shortcut through the mountains. The hour and a half drive is a two-way, two-lane highway with lots of blind curves. Scenic and interesting in the daylight, nerve-racking in the dark. We stayed overnight at a small motel in order to catch the early morning flight to Auckland. Security for the NZ regional airports is non-existent so we arrived at 6:20 for a 6:40 flight. At 6:30, the flight was cancelled due to heavy fog in Auckland. After re-booking for an afternoon departure, we headed back to our motel for more sleep. Mid-morning, we wandered across the road to a farmers’ market for breakfast.

The jewelry tables were selling jade and shell necklaces, and the purse vendors had a variety of “possum” items. Vegetables on display included giant New Zealand pumpkins(gray/green and a brilliant orange inside), the world’s biggest leeks, and unshelled macadamia nuts. Orchids were for sale in a wide variety of colors, and the cutting boards were made of kaori wood. The local swim team was raising money with all things lemon: lemon curd, lemonade, lemon tarts- probably because almost everyone has a lemon tree in their front yard, and who needs another candy bar.

We sat down to eat our Thai chicken curry pie for breakfast and listen to the local band do the cover for some Creedence Clearwater songs. The sun was out, but the temp was in the 60s- perfect weather for killing time and reflection. John and I took inventory of how many people looked like they were from the 60s and 70s. Strong “hippie” culture survives here. Back in high school, I wore the same clothes- tie-dyed, loose dresses, and beads. That flashback conjured up Mr. Berkeley, my sophomore English teacher.

Mr. Berkeley was an opinionated, pompous man, who liked to pontificate about life during class time. He assigned the topic “The Good Life” for our class narrative essay. The assignment required us to list five things that we needed to have/do/obtain in order to say “I had a good life”. I don’t remember all five of my requirements, except that number one was travel, and having a family was number two. Today, I would reverse that order. I do recollect agonizing over the list and putting serious effort into the assignment.

Money, however, was not on my list. I reasoned that I knew some really unhappy people who had money, so I didn’t think it belonged in my top five. I still don’t. Money is essential but I don’t want it driving all my decisions. One thing I have learned this year is so much of what I think I need is unnecessary, and, yes, the really important things are truly free, like watching New Zealanders guzzle beer and eat mussel fritters at 10:30 in the morning sunshine.

Sitting at the farmers market was the perfect moment. I was totally delighted with my cup of tea and pies and listening to music and basking in the sun. We were so enjoying “the vibe” we decided that taking that morning hike could just wait. It’s not everyday that I get to hang out with fellow hippies and listen to “Kansas City” being played by a live band. I loved everything about this unplanned, accidental moment.

I got a “B” on that sophomore paper because, as Mr. Berkeley explained, my list was impractical due to my oversight of the almighty dollar. In fact, he admitted to the class that he downgraded anyone who did not include money on their list because he thought it was the most important element

to the good life. He also didn’t feel travel was all that great. The next year I dropped out of the regular high school, and enrolled in an alternative high school program. Mr. Berkeley probably had something to do with my decision- but, then again, here I am traveling, and full-of-hot-air Mr. Berkeley, who thought there was no need to ever leave Oak Park, is dead. Funny how that worked out.

Kaitaia

John’s working assignment for the next three months is at a twenty-eight bed facility in the town of Kaitaia (ki-ti-uh, with long i sound). The name means ample food in Maori, and the town is considered the “gateway to the north” as it sits at the beginning of the Aupouri Peninsula, the north part of the North Island. Population: approximately 5000 souls.

Kaitaia was the last major settlement on State Highway 1 going north, and a destination in the 1800s for missionaries hoping to convert the local Maori to Christianity. The town is not a high destination point today for most New Zealand visitors, although tourism is considered one of its major industries. One website referred to it “as the place dreams go to die”. That’s rather harsh, and not completely accurate. After all, the town has a 24-hour McDonald’s, a KFC, and a really good Indian Spice Restaurant for carry-out. And a Warehouse Store, which is like a giant Dollar Store on steroids.

We are not living in Kaitaia, however, but in Ahipara, a small coastal town 15 minutes from the hospital. Surf fishing and long board surfing are popular in the area, and tour buses come around for Shipwreck Bay. Ahipara is the beginning of 90 Mile Beach, and 4-wheel drive vehicles are a common sight by the water.

In the morning I drive John to work in our loaner car. Usually by 7:30, the horses down the road are out in pasture, rolling around in the dirt. The road is wet from the nightly rain, and the sun, rising over the ridges, makes the pavement sparkle. The drive has a meditative feel to it, with large shade trees and pampas grass lining the way. Such a change from the congested traffic in Michigan.

I’m starting to get the hang of driving on the left, with the steering wheel on the right. Ingrained driving habits are hard to break though, so I am flipping on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal and occasionally driving in the right lane before remembering to go to the left. At the vegetable market today I promptly got into the left side of the car before I realized I was sitting in the passenger seat. I got back out of the car and ambled to the driver side. The market staff no doubt keeps count of the confused Americans parking in their lot.

Winter is ending in New Zealand. While the days are gradually getting longer, the sun sets around 6:30 p.m. Yesterday, after John was done with work, we hurried home to take a walk on the beach before the sun was completely gone. The beach is across the road from our house and an easy scramble over some rocks. Shortly into our walk, we discovered a young seal laying on the sand. He appeared to be dead. He was gone,though, on our return walk, with tracks to the water, so I’m glad we didn’t disturb him. In the distance we could hear our neighbors down the road calling in the horses from the field. Every place in the world seems to have its own bedtime ritual, and horses trotting off to bed fits New Zealand.

As we returned to the house, a copper-colored, Rottweiler-type dog befriended us, searching for his owner. Eventually, he ran down the beach to another evening walker. He clearly was lost. This morning I returned from taking John to work to find our new friend in the driveway. He followed me up to the house, tired and thirsty. I found a plastic bowl for water, and hurried back outside. He had disappeared. I called a few times, and was ready to give up when from around the corner, with a fresh kill of rabbit in his mouth, came “Copper”. He gave me a quick sideways glance, and pranced down the driveway to the road. Just doing his part to get rid of non-native species.

I’m sure he will be back- I have rabbits somewhere in my yard.

It’s All Happening at the Zoo

I made it to Auckland yesterday morning at 5 am New Zealand time after a long, but uneventful, day of travel. Well, almost uneventful, because what’s travel unless you find your heart racing at some point. I worried my bags on the Detroit flight would somehow not be off-loaded in Los Angeles and continue on to Hawaii without me. That didn’t happen, and even better, check-in at Air New Zealand went quicker than I anticipated. The eight-hour layover was a little tough, but I was able to complete work in the crazy LAX terminal. After sleeping more than I ever have on a plane, I arrived in Auckland feeling rather full of myself that I had crossed the ocean without incident. Almost.

Somehow I dropped my phone in Passport Control and didn’t notice until I arrived in customs and wanted to call Carrie. Here’s the heart-racing part. I know I put the phone in my purse- it’s not there, and checking the same pocket five times is not going to make it reappear. I check my carry-on, knowing full well that I did not stick it in the backpack. I can feel the panic start. I know my over-organizational nature is just a cover for trying to control my external world, and it backfires when things get out of place. I can feel a meltdown begin.

I would have retraced my steps, but once you are through Passport Control you have crossed the Styx River. Welcome to Hades. If this was Chicago, I would have little faith of ever seeing the phone again.

But this is New Zealand. Of course the Customs person will call the Passport Control office and, yes, they found the phone, and certainly they are bringing it down to me- no worries! Nothing short of a miracle. My angels were on the job.

Miracles two and three happened at the Auckland Zoo. Carrie had classes to teach all day at the college, so I walked to a cafe for lunch and then Ubered to the zoo. Thankfully, the Auckland Zoo is not as monstrous as Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, and it has great exhibits. My favorite is always the giraffes. The temps were a little cool, perfect for getting fresh air. Rain kept threatening and there was an occasional sprinkle that would quickly disappear, and then the sun jumped out, creating a full-sky rainbow. Full rainbows are good omens. I only remember seeing two other full-arch rainbows in my lifetime. Probably an everyday occurrence in NZ, but a small miracle to me.

Carrie has lived in Auckland for three years, been to the zoo before, and spent time in the “Night” exhibit, hoping to spy a kiwi. The kiwi is by nature extremely shy, nocturnal and easily scared. Even in captivity, it’s hard to catch a glimpse of them. Carrie has never seen one. I’m here just eight hours and I got an entire show of the kiwi mating ritual, including some rather hysterical running back and forth on the part of the male. It was awesome. Carrie declared this a miracle.

All in all, a great first day, except for one disappointment. Walking around the zoo, I found myself frequently crossing paths with a young Chinese couple, both of us taking pictures and lingering at certain enclosures. Many of the animals were sleeping in the mid-afternoon, so no tremendous activity, with the exception of the kiwi. After walking alone for some time, watching the capybaras in solitude, I noticed the couple ahead of me, at the Galapagos Turtle exhibit, intensely watching something through the glass. I hurried over. As I walked up, the young man turned to me, eyes wide and said “They just finish make love”.

What? And I missed THAT? It certainly would have been a miracle to see gigantic turtles breeding, and there definitely would have been photos. But, even though the day was still miraculous, you will have to make do with a rainbow picture.

Don’t Look Before You Leap

I am in the final countdown; I have 6 days until I join John in New Zealand and I think I’m handling packing effectively. I have almost everything from John’s extensive “bring it with you” list, including AAAA batteries, which I did not know existed. Car charger, reflective bike vest, extra sweaters and jeans, his gray gym shoes in the closet. I’m knocking off his requests and sorting my clothes for the next three months like a pro.

The New Zealand decision, which began back in February, has been a roller coaster ride. Despite submitting loads of paperwork and jumping through numerous hoops to appease the NZ government, the final decision to hire John for a rural health position came through July 25th. His start date was August 15th, and could he please show up a week ahead of that date for a final legal interview? So we scrambled, and packed, and figured it out, and he is there safe.

I was feeling rather zen about leaving the States again and changing locations. I had an image of myself in my mind, doing a Yoga pose and throwing things cavalierly into the suitcase.

And then I went shopping at Kohl’s. I had limited time to find what I needed, and that’s never good. I foolishly thought I could find some tops, checkout, and be on my merry way within 8 minutes because I was squeezing shopping in before a 1 pm appointment.  Well, the timeline in my mind would have worked except for the cashiers at Kohl’s that have obviously taken their customer service training to heart. As the minutes ticked by, and the one cashier was just chatting away about the traffic with her new BFF, I started having a melt down. Suddenly, I realized time is running out not just now, but in terms of getting ready. Primarily, the melt down was all internal- no yelling or screaming, no hitting was involved, not even evil looks,  but I did fantasize for a minute about throwing a hanger at the one cashier. What saved me was the Caramel M & Ms for sale on display. I knew that I would cope so much better with the delay if I had that blue bag of candy. So I did.

I get asked daily by friends and family if I am excited- and I am, although initially the excitement felt a little close to dread. Not the kind of dread you feel when you are scared, or when there might be some impending evil. More, I questioned if this was the right thing to be doing. Great opportunity, maybe a once in a lifetime chance, but saying yes to one thing almost always means you are saying no to something else. That’s life, because we can’t do everything or have everything. The trick is accepting the choice you have to make.

So, in saying yes to New Zealand, I have to accept I am saying no to finding a job in Detroit, to getting involved with a college Promise program, to finding a house, and I am delaying creating my social  circle here. I will miss my niece’s wedding and family time.

But saying yes to New Zealand means I am embracing time with my husband and daughter, and I  get to explore an awesome country and culture. But, most importantly, I am saying yes to writing. I am finally picking this path.

 

Farewell, 2017!

In the movie The Hobbit: An Unexpected Adventure, Bilbo Baggins is asked by Gandalf to go on an adventure, a very dangerous adventure. Bilbo asks Gandalf if his safe return to his home can be guaranteed.

Gandalf replies honestly- “No, and if you do, you will not be the same.”

2017 has been a year like no other in my life. John and I have experienced great change- the very things we all use to ground ourselves (job, home, and community) have all been altered in some significant way. We sold a house with 32 years of stuff- I still am not sure how we accomplished that feat. We travelled to countries we had never seen, and had some amazing adventures. And then we came home- briefly. We didn’t face a fire breathing dragon like Bilbo, but the Lucifer heat wave this past summer was a force to be reckoned with.

We also didn’t go looking for a treasure, but we were searching for a new direction. Now, after 5 wonderful weeks in New Zealand, we are starting to feel some certainty about what the future might look like. I am very happy that neither of us felt the need to buy a home right away and set down roots and re-nest. Not that owning a home is a bad thing, but walking away from material possessions and living a down-scaled life helped to highlight what really matters most to both of us.

The most significant change for me was internal- I feel more centered than when I left for Europe in July. I worry less, and try more things. Schedules seem less important, unless the boat will leave without me, but, then again, there will be another boat. Changes in the daily plan are just par for the course. I am slowly learning to be more patient with the unknown future.

During October we moved back and forth between Illinois, Michigan, Washington DC and Wisconsin. A few days after Thanksgiving, we were travelling internationally again, headed for New Zealand and some quality time with our middle child. The past 5 weeks have gone by too fast- we kayaked, rode mountain bikes, hiked mountains, swam in the Tasman Sea, and spent numerous nights playing cards and just talking. I am so grateful to have had this precious month with Carrie.

We head back to Michigan, ultimately with new challenges and decisions to be made, and a wedding in June. I had a friend express concern back in November that we must be exhausted from all the moving around, and we were, but in a good sort of way. Standing in the bookstore in LAX, I realized I am still looking forward with hope- I am searching for more books to read, I have made up my 2018 goal sheet, and I am excited to find out what’s around the next corner.

The Bucket List just got shorter

In New Zealand, there are numerous tracks that visitors from all over the world come to enjoy. Eight of them are designated “Great Walks” and the goal for some avid hikers is to do all of the tracks. Last time we visited Carrie in 2015, we walked part of the Kepler Track and part of the Routeburn Track, but both were day hiking trips with no camping involved. This visit we decided to try three days of true backpacking on the Abel Tasman Track, hiking 12+ kilometers each day and staking a tent at night to sleep.

Abel Tasman is considered one of the easier hikes, although it has a fair share of steep climbs and tough descents. The track climbs up repeatedly into a rain forest-type terrain, wanders onto rock outcrops overlooking the blue waters of Cook’s Strait, and then descends back through rain forest, over waterfall creek bridges, and down to sandy beaches. And then it repeats. The views are breathtaking, and this track is often named the most beautiful of the eight tracks. On our third day, we stumbled upon a covey of quails- a male quail had part of the brood and alerted his partner around the bend of the “intruders”. The 15 baby quails were smaller then baby chickens, and yet sported the same head dress as their parents. Our drama was that one chick got separated from its parents and we were unable to hang around to see if the family reunited. In general, the bird song in the rainforest was impressive- we hoped to see a kiwi bird, but settled for a scary, divebombing encounter with an oyster catcher on the beach protecting its nest. When Captain Cook arrived on the island there were so many birds, he and his crew could hear the birds two miles offshore.

At night, we were surrounded by other hikers from all over the world- Germany, France, Italy, Australia. For a brief time, we were part of a make-shift global community with a similar mindset, sharing repair tape and bandages and stories. Young and old alike were on this track, and very inspiring to see women older than myself hiking in the heat and sleeping under the stars. All three of us got blisters and sore shoulders, but I loved it. We fell asleep exhausted from the hike of the day, after playing cards and devouring a backpacker foilpack dinner. Our favorite was Thai Chicken Curry with Rice. Our tent was not the super lightweight backpacking kind, so pretty miserable to carry, but it kept out the sandflies and super mosquitos. Thankfully, Carrie thought to bring a bite stick and heavy duty bug spray. The Department of Conservation in New Zealand does a great job maintaining the campsites, and every site we camped in had treated water, although no showers.

In 2012 I walked a small part of the Appalachian Trail, suffering through a June heat wave, a variety of unforeseen problems and out of control anxiety, which definitely complicated the experience for both me and my hiking partner. Despite all that, I realized I love hiking a trail and camping, and then getting up and doing it again. The deprivation from our lifestyle comforts resets priorities and adjusts any bad life attitude. And the challenge is outside my everyday life box.

I wanted to retry the hiking experience again, but I have also had a second foot surgery, plantar fasciitis and a discectomy since the AT. When we travelled this past summer, my back reacted badly to carrying a backpack, so I thought my hiking days were done. Initially, we thought about “glamping” because of my back, but the expense was more than we cared to spend. We decided to chance my carrying a pack, and it was a good bet. I made it through all three days without my sciatic nerve going crazy, and managed to sleep on the ground pad without much discomfort.

The first night in Anchorage Bay we camped near the glamping tents, and shared a nearby picnic area. I was feeling pretty empowered completing the first day successfully. And then I looked over, and the glamping host had a tablecloth with real plates, salmon with a side salad, and some white wine all ready for the tired hikers who had carried NOTHING! I decided they had to be jealous of us- we had playing cards!

The Wild West Coast

We took the train, crossing the South Island from Christchurch to Greymouth. A couple of easy days are planned, and we had time on the train to catch up on email, reading, sleeping and writing. Being with Carrie highlights how much I miss my children. All three are scattered, one in DC, another outside of Detroit, and this poet of ours in this magical place Down Under. I am trying to relish each moment with her.

Traveling these past few months has helped me define what I want my life to look like when this moving around is all done. Strange, I know, to be reconfiguring everything at the age of 62, but I guess I finally am tired of waiting. My friend Donna has a an adage: “If not now, when?” And I find myself asking that question every time I try to be practical, and feel the pull of delayed gratification. If I wait until later, at this point, I could easily run out of time. This was a lesson from my brother Jim’s death. At age 49, Jim passed away from cancer and time disappeared in a heartbeat. Much of my sadness when I think of him is the loss of what could have been.

So on this trip I have tried to embrace the opportunities, to see the beauty in everything- we came at the most amazing time, the beginning of summer for New Zealand. The lupin wildflowers only bloom in this month, and the Christmas tree of New Zealand, the pohutokawa, with its bright red flowers, looks like scarlet explosions on the green hillsides. Yesterday, we kayaked the Pororari River outside Punakaike, battling the river upstream for an hour and a half, and screaming with delight on the small rapids on the ride back. Both sides of the river were covered with rain forest vegetation, and it felt like the film set for Jurassic Park.

The sunsets near Punakaike have been amazing- easily some of the best I have ever seen. The clouds and colors were like a painting. I had the impulse to run down the beach, and buy the ocean front property that was for sale. I know now I have to live somewhere I can walk a dog on a deserted beach at sunset. Even better, however, was walking arm in arm with my daughter, talking about life.

Good Morning, New Zealand

We have been on the road now for three days and nights, freedom camping* on the South Island. After leaving Rotarua, we headed back to Auckland, before boarding a plane for Queenstown. After we picked up our camper van, we headed into Q-town for lunch and stopped at Devil Burger to try their version of a hamburger. Heading north to Lake Hawea, a sister lake to Lake Wanaka, we found a lakeside spot with decent toilets. The weather has been hotter than Carrie anticipated, but the van is till very comfortable at night with the cool lake breeze blowing away the sand flies and lulling us to sleep.

Every day in our Jucy camper has been an adventure, and we have worn our selves out hiking, chasing the amazing views and incredible wild lupin flowers. We mountain biked the Pukaiki Flats, hiked in a national park, and bathed in hot pools to soak sore muscles. Our second night we camped near Mt. Cook, the highest point in New Zealand and part of a national park that is home to most of the peaks in New Zealand higher than 2000 meters. Sir Edmund Hillary cut his teeth on this mountain before attempting Mount Everest. It is a place of great beauty and tragedy. Over 200 hikers have died trying to conquer the mountain, most because of the unstable glacial ice. We were content, however, to just hike the 3.5 mile Hooker trek to the glacial Hooker Lake, complete with floating mini ice bergs.

The most amazing night so far was our stargazing in Lake Tekapo, a dark sky reserve. After biking about 30km earlier in the day, we pulled into Lake Tekapo and loaded up on some supplies, and then went for a soak in the hot pools. We booked our midnight star tour, and headed out of town to find a freedom camping spot, eat dinner and watch the sun set on the mountains.. We found the most amazing site near MacGregor Lake. All of us decided to crash after dinner for an hour or so nap until 11:30 pm- mostly so I could stay awake during the stargazing.

On time at 11:30 we tried to pull out of our spot, and the camper got stuck in deep gravel- much worse than snow. We spent 20 frantic minutes, attempting to free our little home and make it to the tour by midnight. Carrie heroically dug out the wheels, John pushed and somehow we maneuvered the van out onto the road. We made it to the stargazing with moments to spare before the shuttle left- the craziness was well worth it. The Milky Way was breathtaking- most of the world’s population can no longer view the Milky Way due to light pollution. I could have stared at it all night. Orion was so brilliant, and the Southern Cross was easily spotted. The hour and a half tour seemed like 15 minutes.

We drove back to the same road we had parked on earlier but pulled off at a roadside spot that was much safer and did not have a gravel pit waiting to swallow our van. Before turning in at 3 am, we spent another 20 minutes enjoying the night sky. We decided not to set an alarm, and sleep in. The road was deserted and the night mostly silent as I fell asleep.

Unfortunately, at about 9 am we awoke to the sound of Chinese, opened the window shades and realized we had parked in a popular lupin wildflower tourist spot (that was amazing!) and were surrounded by tourist groups taking pictures. Nothing like waking up in a public space and realizing the world went ahead and woke up on time without you. That moment pretty much summed up the freedom camping experience- awesome!

* freedom camping- camping outside of designated campgrounds, on public/private property