1,311

Instagram Round-Up, Yeehaw!

For folks who don’t follow us on instagram (@bringasnack), we post lots of pics of the in-between, day-to-day sort of stuff. The Frenchman with no pants on, the misspellings on a lunch menu, the sort of stuff that isn’t really blog-worthy, but are still excellent little tid bits of life on the road.

1,614

Know When to Fold: East Timor

Timor Microlet

Last week Zach and I went on our first visa run. We flew from Bali to East Timor so we could come back to Indonesia and stay longer. We booked a one way ticket and thought we might do some exploring. If we liked East Timor, we would stay a week. If not, we’d come back. Spoiler alert: by the end of our first day, we had flights booked back to Indonesia.

The internet told us that there had been a war that ended around 2002 and that the country was a budding tourist destination or an “Adventure Travel New Frontier,” as Outside Magazine boasted, with “Edenic beaches, soaring mountains, and dense forest. It was cheap, gorgeous, authentic.” (March, 2013) East Timor is host to the Tour de Timor bike race and is a spectacular, secluded dive destination. We couldn’t find much information on the internet detailing restaurants and accommodation and assumed that there would be plenty to choose from once we got there, just like in Indonesia. “Maybe they’re just not on the internet,” we thought. It didn’t really occur to us that there wasn’t much on the internet because there isn’t much there.

The most important thing that we didn’t know is that Dili, the capital, is prohibitively expensive. The United Nations was present until last December and because many people staying and working there were on the company bill, the cost of living is high. Our hot, dingy room in a hotel surrounded by barbed wire cost us a gobsmacking $60 USD for one night. To put this in some context, we have been paying $20 per night in Indonesia for an airy room with an outdoor shower, surrounded by palms, breakfast included. We couldn’t afford to stay in Dili, nor could we afford to rent a car and get out of Dili, taking the chance that the next city, 120km away, would be cheaper. We were stuck. I was sick. It was hot, dilapidated and expensive. And it was the only place I’d ever been where my smile was only returned half of the time. Dili was weird and I didn’t like it.

 

We stayed in the center of the downtown area and walked for 30 minutes looking for a place to eat. “It doesn’t really matter where we eat, let’s just go to the first place we see,” Zach said as we walked over gaping holes in the sewer system and dodged waist high pieces of rebar protruding from the ground. The city is poor and recovering from years of war. Buildings and sidewalks are crumbling, but nothing is being rebuilt.

They need the tourist dollar, but I wasn’t about to spend my hard earned dollar on something that wasn’t worth it. I worked hard to save. I want to see the world, but I also want to enjoy it.

East Timor may be an “Adventure Travel New Frontier”, but new frontiers are a totally different kind of travel, a kind that we didn’t expect. If you get out of Dili and into the countryside, I’ve heard it is gorgeous, raw, and secluded. But we didn’t. I couldn’t muster the spirit to go on adventures with a fever and we decided it wasn’t worth the dent in our budget to stick around. So we came back to Bali, where we can live comfortably for a price that works for us and that supports the local economy.

1,376

Island Time: Visiting Nusa Lembongan

Nusa Lembongan, a small island just south of Bali, will teach anyone the fine art of patience. Here you have no choice but to let your western aggression slip away and go with the flow, because anything else gets you nowhere fast. As soon as you recognize and embrace this, you begin to appreciate it. You start moving slower. Really. Maybe its the uncomfortable sandals, but I honestly walk slower now than I did a week ago. You bring a notepad to lunch so you can scribble out a blog post while you’re waiting for your nasi goreng. And you realize how silly it is to rush through life searching for something while it’s is right there in front of you.

We’ve met a lot of people here in Indonesia that moan about the way things used to be on Bali or the Gilis. They whinge poetic about the good old days before Eat, Pray, Love ruined Ubud and how there’s no paradise left in paradise. But they’re all here, and they all say that Nusa Lembongan is the last island in the South Pacific that hasn’t been invaded by droves of shirtless, fist-pumping Aussies. Please don’t tell.

Lembongan is both paradise and rough around the edges. The streets are tiny and littered with trash. The beaches aren’t easy to get to and the surf is rough. There are chickens and cows roaming freely through town. But for all its faults, it’s still gorgeous. The surfing is awesome and the diving is world-class. The people are welcoming and it’s easy to get to. Flights arrive in Bali daily from all over the world and there’s a cheap public boat (with chickens!) every morning from Sanur for a mere $6.

If you come to Nusa Lembongan:
-Stay at Pondok Baruna in a seaview room on the beach ($30 per night).
-Take a 4 day PADI Scuba Diving certification course at one of the many dive centers ($395 per person, including 4 open water dives). World Diving was awesome (more to come on them in the next few days here at Bring a Snack) but I have no way to compare.
-Eat at Maria’s (meals from $1.50-$4) at the north end of Jungut Batu village, where the road turns sharply right toward the mangrove forest.
-Take yoga classes at the Yoga Shack, an open air bamboo hut where the singing birds and the call to prayer are your soundtrack ($8 per class).
-Rent a motor bike ($6.50 per day) and drive to nearby Nusa Ceningan, where you can jump off a 20m ocean cliff into Blue Lagoon ($5).
-Enjoy a large Bintang Pilsner ($3) while watching the sunset over the water as the local seaweed farmers pull in their harvest.
-Most importantly, relax and settle into island time.

1,247

A Long Weekend in Melbourne

We arrived in Melbourne at 7:30 on a Friday night, people staggering in high heels down cobblestone streets and smoking cigarettes in grafittied alleys. With our backpacks still on, Zach and I made a beeline down Little Bourke Street to Chinatown for dumplings. I’d never been in this city before, yet it felt so much like home. We asked a dude eating out of a takeaway box where he got his dumplings, followed his directions, and proceeded to order a tableful of garlic drenched Chinese broccoli, sesame pancakes and dumplings. We didn’t have much to say at dinner, mostly because chowing down was a much better use of one’s mouth.

We didn’t really have a plan for Melbourne. “I just want to go and sit in a coffee shop and spend the day writing,” Zach had said of our four days in the city. So instead of planning, we went armed with a list of cafes and bars, an appointment at Alchemy Tattoo, and no real agenda for much else. We didn’t do any museums or see kangaroos. We went to eat and write, drink coffee and feel the vibe of the city.

Birdman Eating, Fitzroy 

Robyn and Stephen, our beloved roomies from Wanaka, recommended this brunch spot in Fitzroy. A minimal space with excellent espresso and tasty, interesting food combos. The highlight of the meal was lunch dessert of homemade blueberry, rosemary and pistachio nougat and a glass of rose.

The Carlton Club, CBD

Annita, the tattoo artist that did my tattoo, sent us bar hopping in the CBD as a rainy afternoon activity. Did I mention that I like her style? We started at this swanky bar with massive taxidermied animals and a covered outdoor space that felt like a rainforest in the mid afternoon downpour.

Penny Blue, CBD 

At the end of an alley off of Little Bourke, we found this craft beer bar with Gatsby inspired vibe and comfy, vintage couches. They let us in even though they weren’t quite opened yet and being only 5:00, we were the only people there. We popped out the computer and worked on some wedding plans while sampling local beers from Little Creatures and Bridge Road Brewers.

Trippy Taco, Fitzroy

Nothing fancy. Just really good tacos. Chewey corn tortillas, black beans, smoky hot sauce, fresh lime. You don’t need much else. It had been awhile since we’d had good, cheap tacos and Trippy Taco delivered.

A few months ago, one of our friends confided that he felt “lost in travel”. He said, “don’t forget why you travel, don’t just do it for a stamp in the passport.” Why you travel can be a very personal thing, something that can’t be dictated by a guidebook of sights that you just have to see. For us, Melbourne was a familiar, comfortable place to stop and think after a life changing year in New Zealand and before diving into Asia.

2,285

What’s Your Lady Traveler Like?

lady traveler 2

My friend Gunta travels with a hair straightener and heels. She bops from city to city, Queenstown to Bali to Tokyo, and can jump off a flight, check into a hostel and hit the clubs, lickety split. Courtney is a badass rock climber and currently lives out of her van. She travels with mascara. Meike carries nail polish and a tiny bottle of remover in her backpack. And my friend Fran tried to argue with airport security when they took her tweezers, “You just don’t take a girl’s tweezers!” It’s true. You don’t.

There is a whole spectrum of packing and traveling that ranges from your ultra light backpacker, not concerned with showers or shaving (known more commonly as a dirty hippie) and a super posh vacationer, loaded down with bags of shoes and accessories. Some of how you travel and what you carry is based on the length of travel and what you plan to do. Obviously, you can’t cram a business suit into a backpack, but you might be surprised what some folks pull off. Most of what you pack has to do with being comfortable. Pack too much and you’re uncomfortable trying to carry stuff. Pack too little or don’t pack what you actually need and you may find yourself feeling a different kind of uncomfortable. (The kind of uncomfortable you’d feel when you’re trying to go out to dinner in running shoes.)

When I left New York, I left behind bras and bangles. I chucked my Diorshow mascara, hair spray and beloved bronzer. My saggy crotch long underwear doubled as leggings, I embraced my missing tooth and experimented with not shaving for extended periods of time. I learned just how feral I can go. But somewhere in there, I forgot how good it feels to feel good about yourself. I forgot that some little things (like razors and dangly earrings and the occasional haircut) can make a big difference. That Lululemon leggings make me feel like Lara Croft, like I can conquer the world, even when I wind up wearing my hiking boots in a city.

We have been away from home for a year and are packing our bags again. We are packing for a week in a hip city, summer in the jungle and winter in the mountains. All in one bag. The key is in having versatile layers, things that are functional and lightweight. Each item has to make you feel comfortable, fit well, and be able to be work with anything else in the bag. What this means is that your long sleeve shirt should be something that you can layer when hiking and also wear to the bar because when you only have one and it is cold outside, you’re going to wear it. May as well like it.

Some of the things that WILL be in my bag:

  • One of very kind of shirt (tank, 2 tees, longsleeve)
  • Lululemon leggings. Judge away, they’re stupid expensive, I love them, the end.
  • Jeans
  • Patterned tights and a black mini skirt (to be ditched after Melbourne and Bali)
  • Shoes (hiking boots, running shoes, Vans)
  • Socks and underwear, including a thong
  • A real bra. Just one. Uniboob is fine 80% of the time, but sometimes you need two. Like when you go out to dinner.
  • A scarf that doubles for style and warmth
  • A pair of dangly earrings
  • Fleece and rain jacket
  • Electronics (Kindle, Computer, Phone)
  • Toiletries (Toothbrush and paste, Khiels SPF face lotion, Mach 3 razor, emergency medical kit, small stash of daily contacts, sparkle nail polish)
  • Ziploc bag of of important things (passport, vaccination records, visas, back up Credit Card, etc)

Some things that WILL NOT be in my bag:

  • Books. Heavy. I came to NZ with 3, but am fully wedded to my Kindle.
  • A purse. Pockets do just fine.
  • Shampoo. I’ve been using baking soda instead of shampoo since November. Easy to pack, doesn’t spill, works the same and you can get it anywhere.
  • Nice sunglasses. I’d rather have cheap ones that I can lose or break.
  • Camping gear. Didn’t use it at all this year. Having talked with others, we won’t need it in SE Asia or India, either.

I feel pretty confident about living out of a backpack, but I am also quite aware that I’ve only ever lived in a 1st world, non-Muslim country. My Czech friend Iva told me a story that started with, “I used to say ‘ay fuck’ to the Muslim way, but after week in Turkey, I say okay, it’s easier just to cover the body.” So on that note, I’m looking forward to seeing how this incarnation of my lady traveler evolves as we set off to explore totally different cultures.

1,555

Our House

Our house it has a crowd/There’s always something happening/And it’s usually quite loud
-CSNY, Our House

Our house on Warren St. is a 3 bedroom house. Last week there were nine of us here. “How do you come to have so many gypsies crashing at your house?” one of my coworkers asked me the other day. Well, it usually happens while hiking or at a hut and goes something like this:

Friendly stranger making conversation: “Where are you living?”

One of us: “Wanaka”

FS: “Oh man, I want to get there at some point.”

Us: “If you are ever in town, shoot us a text and you can stay at our place.”

And then a day or a week or a month later, someone turns up. With a massive pack. Needing a shower and a couch and so excited to bake in an oven. Sometimes they stay for a few nights, sometimes a week, sometimes two.

It might sound strange, having someone stay at your place that you’ve only met for a few minutes, but there is an unspoken understanding that makes it work. Everyone that has come through keeps the kitchen tidy, chips in for toilet paper and laundry detergent and adds warmth to the house. Sometimes they go to bed early, sometimes they’re up until two am, but never in a way that affects anyone else. It is exciting to come home from work at 12:30am and not know what the vibe is going to be. When Nico and Lena from Germany were here, we played games and Nico sang and played Tenacious D on his guitar. When Comi, a veterinarian from France who is hiking the length of New Zealand, was here, he made crepes and mousse au chocolate while we watched movies. There always stories and conversation to be had, but sometimes quiet is necessary and it is an amazing thing when there are 4 people in a room, all reading by the fire. When everyone needs a little book reading and internetting.

 

You never know who is going to be in the kitchen when you wake up, who is making scones or their grandma’s onion tart with caraway seeds. I came home the other night to a Chilean couple making Capiroska cocktails and had a really good conversation with a girl who was a school psychologist in Chile. For the first time in a long time, I spoke with someone who understood my teaching experience in the Bronx. Except that hers was in Chile. Amazing, sparkling kids, massive amounts of paperwork, overcrowded classrooms, hungry stomachs and nine year old sass. I didn’t have to explain anything, she knew. It was awesome.

Nicki from Australia makes art to brighten up the house

When we got to Wanaka, we needed a shower and a home base. A place to relax and not think. Robyn and Stephen, the original tenants of 60 Warren St, opened the doors and were super generous. We learned so much from sharing a space with them, be it about cooking, or finding cheap flights on Air Asia, or British TV series that we’ve carried it on and plan on continuing the trend when we have a place in the states.

Sometimes it is nice to have alone time. Sometimes we take a time off from having people stay over. But having people stay, who are independent and respectful and happy, is a fun change of pace. We used Couch Surfing, a website that provides travelers with free places to stay, when we first got to Auckland and had a great time as travelers, and are enjoying the other end as hosts as well.

 

Who said adults can’t have slumber parties anyway?

 

 

 

 

2,374

NZ: The Things They Don’t Tell You

My parents have been here for two weeks, romping up into the mountains, across the South Island, and down to the beaches in the Catlins. The following post is contributed by my dad, Judd Anderson. Thanks, Dad!

Crossing the swing bridge to the Rob Roy Glacier in Mt. Aspiring Park

New Zealand is so much more than you can imagine from the Internet or anywhere else. Some of both the silly, serious, wonderful and inspiring are the following:

A Kiwi is a person (New Zealanders actually like being called one), Kiwi-bird is THE bird, which most Kiwis have not seen, even if you go to Stewart Island where you have the best chance of seeing one. More common and beautiful are the Kea which are like mountain parrots, green with bright orange armpits. They meow like kitties when they fly over. They visit you in the mountain huts, looking for camper food. Most common phrases in NZ are, “No worries” (if you say thank you to the person giving you a latte, this is what they’ll say back); “It’s all good”, which can be substituted for “no worries”; or, less common, but fun is, “She-be-right, mate,” which actually means “It will be all right, dude.” Short e sounds in words such as neck, deck, pest or Czech (someone from the Chech Republic) are pronounced nick, dick, pist and chick. So you can actually have a barbecue on your “dick” or store a kayak on your dick (so says Jacob, one of Christina and Zach’s NZ climbing buddies).

There are no big animals in NZ, so possums, rabbits and everything else small are called pists (pests) cause they have no predators. What’s great about hiking and camping is that you don’t have to worry about bears, wolves or anything else that might scare or eat you or your food. NZ doesn’t even have foxes or coyotes which could do a great job on the overabundance of rabbits and other pists. But they have something called a sandfly which is so small and bites without being felt that only later do you realize the ring of bites on your ankles is from their having had you for dinner. But if you walk they are so slow they can’t keep up. The yellow-eyed penguins are unafraid of you, especially the unfledged whom we walked up to, examined, photographed and watched star-struck for 2 hours near Moereki (barely touched on in the guidebooks) as are the sea lions and fur seals which roll on the beaches like large blubber bags, flipping warm sand onto themselves. The Hector dolphins swim around you off the Catlins (the southern most beaches) ride the waves and play by jumping in the air, right along side the human surfers. Of course the sheep are everywhere, both inside and outside of the fences, on the roads and in towns and are herded by tall manly-men in really short adidas soccer shorts like we used to wear 20 years ago. Even the flag men on the road construction crews have tenaciously held to the 4 inch inseam.

The colors of NZ are really striking. The mountain lakes and rivers (which you often cross on beautiful simple suspension cable bridges that look like Indiana Jones bridges, warn you of the number allowed on at any one time – 1 to 5 and sway and bounce as you walk across with your pack) of both the Mt. Aspiring range (we hiked and camped for 3 days there) and the Mt. Cook National Park (4 days) turn multiple shades of blue/green/slate and often look like aqua milkshakes, thick and creamy. No need for bringing your water on mountain hikes: just dip your water bottle into any stream. When you hit glaciers, eat the snow but stop to listen for avalanches which we heard and saw numerous times on our way to Mueller Hut (dedicated by Sir Edmund Hilary in 2003) in Mt. Cook Park. The sound of an avalanche is, first delayed by many seconds and, second, as loud as a sonic boom.

Avalanche watching at Mt. Cook, en route to Mueller Hut

In two weeks of living and traveling with Christina and Zach we have eaten a breakfast out once, split a breakfast (at the Mountaineer’s Cafe at Mt. Cook), dined at Francesca’s (an elegant place where KCA dishes and preps) and Fleur’s Place in the Catlins. Otherwise, we have always eaten together out of our campervans, up in the mountains, on beaches and have never eaten so well. Food is always better at a campsite, especially when you pick your own mussels from your beach walk (Cathedral Caves Beach), or from an unattended roadside vegetable stand where you find new potatoes, that, when cooked, taste creamy even without any butter.

For all of NZ’s incredible God-given beauty (we still have Fiordland to pry open in the next week), wonderful people (or should I say NO people…hardly anyone lives here) it has been the traveling, tramping, hiking, trekking, exploring and “hanging” with Christina and Zach that have filled us with incomparable joy.

JOY!

JOY!

1,006

The Broken Window Saga

Sad Window

On the spectrum of ways I’d like to be woken up, “icy rain on my face” is somewhere between “gentle puppy kisses” and “SWAT team battering ram.” Well, that’s what I’ve had to deal with for the last month, as the window of our van, Nissan Serena Williams was stuck a few inches from the closed position. Or so we thought. Did I mention it rains a lot in New Zealand?

About a month ago, in the middle of the night, we were wakened by a mighty gale. Branches from the trees above whipped the side of the van and we were shoved back and forth on her well-aged suspension. Giant drops of rain came horizontal through our open windows, threatening our warm and dry cocoon of sleeping bags, pillows, and most importantly, electronic gadgets. We scrambled to close the windows, only to discover that the front passenger window wouldn’t shut completely. With heavy eyes we made a half-hearted attempt to solve the problem then plugged the hole and returned to our nest.

The next morning we decided we’d wait and deal with the window problem when it was more convenient to get it fixed. We had plans. No time to sit around an auto mechanic shop. We got used to it.

We spent the next few weeks driving around with the window nearly closed. I say “nearly closed,” but nearly closed is very far from actually closed, when precipitation is involved. Of course if it were stuck completely down, we would have done something about it sooner. We thought we could deal with it. We drove through snow, sleet, rain, wind, and what seemed like alternating freezing and miserably buggy nights hunkered down in Ms. Williams’ backseat, cursing the window that wouldn’t quite close.

Eventually, we caved. We took it to a mechanic to have it looked at. He puttered around for a few minutes, pressing the button that we’d tried hundreds of times before. He took the switch apart and hooked up some kind of electrical testing system. He fiddled with fuses and muttered something about a motor. Soon he gave up and sent us on our way the same way we’d drove in, but with our wallet a little lighter. He suggested we take it to an auto electrical specialist, as it was out of a normal mechanic’s depth. This sounded like it would be an expensive solution to an inconvenience that didn’t really impact the performance of the car. So we waited another few weeks to follow up.

In the interim, Nissan Serena Williams developed a different, slightly more serious issue that needed prompt attention, so we took her in to a different mechanic. We’ll call him Rob. I mentioned the window, but almost in passing, and asked him to take a look, if he had time, as a lower priority item. He wasn’t an electrical specialist so I had little hope he’d be able to solve it.

The next day, Rob called. “Nissan Serena Williams is ready,” he said. Ok, he didn’t address her by her full name. “Your car is ready.” He didn’t mention the window. I didn’t ask because I was sure he hadn’t fixed it, and I was resigned to the fact that it would continue to be a problem.

I arrived at his shop to pick it up, and to my surprise the window was up! It was fixed. The broken window saga was over! Rejoice! But of course, the story doesn’t end there.

He walked me through the work he’d done: replace the clutch master cylinder, fluids, some parts and a gave me a reasonable total. There was no mention of the window or any switches or motors on the bill.

“And the window? I saw it was fixed on the way in.”

“Oh, that,” he said, with a grin. “You know that button that’s above the window controls, on the driver’s side?”

“Uh, no.”

“That’s a lock for the windows.”

“What?”

“It locks the window controls in the rest of the van.”

“Are you serious? That was it? Can you show me?” And he took me outside and pointed out the button. It was there, exactly as he said.

Photo proof: I’m an idiot

I couldn’t believe it. I’m familiar with power windows and their child locks. This wasn’t a great revelation. I’d just been too focused on other things to actually think about the problem.

We walked back in and settled the bill. “No charge for the window repair,” he said, grinning ear to ear.

“Thanks. Just keep it between you and me.”

“And me, ” said another mechanic said from behind a stack of tires.

“And me,” a teenage assistant with grease all over his face and hands added.

And for the final insult: “And me!” said a customer leaning into the shop from the waiting room.

This is the shame I must live with. Just remind me not to take the car back to the first mechanic. If I ever see him again I’m going to insist (not so politely) that he find another profession.

3,935

Hiking Mt. Somers

mt-somers-5424

If the Mt. Somers hiking trail isn’t one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks,” I’m excited to see what’s made the cut.

We began our hike, or “tramp” in the local lingo, at the Sharplin Falls parking area, near Staveley, about an hour from Christchurch. Our route was Sharplin Falls to the Woolshed Creek Hut (bypassing the Pinnacles Hut), where we’d spend the night, and then to Woolshed Creed parking lot the following day. We met an affable Czech named Jan overnight in the hut, and he graciously provided us a ride back to our car.

Our first day was the longer of the two, with five hours on the trail broken up by a leisurely lunch at the Pinnacles Hut. The morning featured a steep climb up to 800 meters followed by a wonderful jaunt along Boyers Creek. Due to spring runoff, the creek was more like a raging river, taking parts of the track down with it and slowing our progress, but the challenge of hopping from rock to rock along the riverbed with our packs did nothing but add to our enjoyment. We climbed out of the river valley and into the sub-alpine bush above and arrived at Pinnacles Hut for lunch around one o’clock. At our stop there, I learned that the rock formations directly behind the hut (the “Pinnacles”) are home to some excellent sport climbing routes. As I salivated over the lines, I concocted a plan to return with ropes and gear for an extended stay at Pinnacles Hut.

The weather turned worse as we departed the hut, with rain changing to sleet and eventually, snow. We felt two worlds away from our humid morning jumping from around in the creek bed, but again, the journey, and its attendant challenges, are the point. As the weather continued to decline, the terrain eased and we hurried our pace, eager to dry off in front of a fire at our day’s destination. A few hours and several frigid river crossings later, we had arrived, hanging our soggy socks behind a crackling fire.

I’ll reiterate Bill Bryson’s point from A Walk in the Woods: besides the beautiful scenery and physical rewards, hiking’s appeal comes largely from deprivation and then return of basic comforts. As I sit in front of that fire, warming my frozen toes, I felt tremendously fortunate to have simple warmth.

As we patted ourselves on the back for our decision to bring our camping stove, we enjoyed a simple vegetable soup and chatted over tea with our new Czech friend. I discovered that he was also a rock climber in need of a belay partner, so we exchanged contact information and discussed the lines at the crags we’d gawked at on the way in. Tired from our long day fighting the wind on the trail, we turned in early to read a few pages of our book before nodding off to a restful sleep.

We awoke to find our fire burnt out and a strong chill in the air. The hut sat down in a deep valley, so while the sun was shining on the hilltops, it hadn’t yet reached the few inches of snow that accumulated overnight lower down. The cold motivated an early start, so we were on the trail again before eight o’clock. While the signs outside the hut indicated it was a three hour trip to the end of the track, we hustled through it in half that and were back at our car and relaxing in the Staveley Village Store, drinking hot coffee and snacking before 10am. This was backpacking at its most luxurious.

New Zealand’s backcountry huts provide an unprecedented and unequaled level of comfort, especially compared to those I’ve visited in the northeastern United States. They’re equipped with wood stoves and firewood, sleeping mats, sinks with clean running water, and, most importantly, four walls and a roof. The shelters in the United States are simple platforms with leaky roofs, open on one side to the elements and, if you’re lucky, near a running stream or fire pit. New Zealand’s backcountry huts are the Ritz-Carlton to the United States’ Motel 6.

Tickets to stay in one of the country’s extensive system of huts ($15 per person or $120 for an annual pass) are available at Department of Conservation offices, many visitor’s centers, in the general stores at each end of the Mt. Somers Track. The Staveley Village Store is worth a stop anyway for a delicious savory brioche and a cup of coffee after a few snowy and windy days on the trail.

This hike came recommended by a few different guide books (Fodor’s, Lonely Planet), so I had high expectations. Despite (or possibly even because of) the weather, it exceeded all my hopes. The terrain was challenging but not difficult while changing from lush forest to rocky alpine terrain. There were exciting river crossings and comfortable huts spaced relatively close together. At the beginning of December we’re scheduled to hike the Heaphy Track, which is part of the “Great Walks” system. These are the most popular tramps in the country, and come with special (higher) rates and an online booking system. If Mt. Somers didn’t qualify as a “Great Walk,” I’m excited to see what has.

1,848

October Camping Journal

As Christina mentioned in her last post, we’ve struck a nice balance, both financially and mentally, between jobs and time off to explore New Zealand on our own. Most recently we’ve been in adventure-mode, spending the last week bouncing around the Canterbury region of the South Island. Here’s what we’ve been up to:

October 10: Camped in Little Akaloa, a tiny village on the sea on the Banks Peninsula. The drive along Summit Road at sunset was stunning.

October 11: We had a lazy morning reading and relaxing in Little Akaloa, then rode our borrowed bikes up the hill beside town. We chose our destination because the street at the top had a nice name: Long Lookout Road. It turned out to be very poorly named, but the descent back to town was steep and exhilarating.

October 12: Spent the night in Peel Forest. Paid $30 to camp in a Department of Conservation site and be harassed by a power-tripping warden when we didn’t vacate the campsite promptly at 11am. Did I mention we were the only ones there? He and I had serious communication issues. The hikes around Peek Forest were tedious and I wouldn’t recommend them. But to make myself feel that it was money well spent I took a shamefully long and hot shower. And I’d do it again! I hope you’re reading, Ranger Dick.

October 13: After refusing to pay for the world’s most expensive parking spot again, we camped under a tree on the side of the road. This isn’t explicitly allowed in New Zealand, but there weren’t any “No Camping” signs and there was a public bathroom nearby. We don’t need much else. We paid for our bravado with a sleepless night, fearing our shade tree would collapse under a relentless gale and sheets of rain and awoke to find the windows in the van were stuck in the down position. In the rain. ‘Twas a challenging string of events.

We spent the day resupplying in Geraldine and visiting some very odd tourist attractions: the largest knitted sweater in the world and a handmade reproduction of the Bayeaux Tapestry with millions of tiny pieces of metal. As we limped up the mountain out of town the pounding rain relented into a gorgeous, peaceful snow.

In Lake Tekapo we spent the evening soaking in piping hot thermal pools, with giant Christmas-y snowflakes gently falling around us. The snow continued to fall as we went to sleep – nearly a foot was forecast.

October 14: We awoke to van doors frozen shut and thus minor panic set in, but we took a deep breath and rolled over for another quick snooze to let the bright shining sun go to work. Soon we were freed from our early-90s winter tomb and greeted by a high blue sky and blinding sun bouncing off the white hills around. The forecasts had proven to be aggressive and only a few inches were on the ground. It was too cold to relax, so we donned our thermal underwear and went for a hike around Lake Tekapo in the snow. By the time we returned, most of the snow had melted and the newly-shorn sheep were relieved.

October 15: After an off-road adventure in Nissan Serena Williams, we found a nice secluded camping spot on the shores of Lake Pukaki, with panoramic views of the Southern Alps and Mt. Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand. We took a very muddy and bumpy bike ride in Ruatawhini Conservation Park and came to the realization that some kind of suspension is pretty much essential for mountain biking to be fun. I spent the afternoon getting my monthly dose of adrenaline, bouldering along the Mt. Cook highway.

October 16: Stayed a second night at our gorgeous spot near Pukaki. Awoke to more potential van problems, but (we think) they were quickly corrected with a fluid top-up at a mechanic in Twizel after a half-hour on the highway in second gear. Cross your fingers for us that Nissan Serena Williams holds together for another ten months. We feel that we’ve already dodged a few bullets.

Back on the road, our plans were again derailed in Mt. Cook National Park. We’d planned to do a short hike in the morning then go up to Mueller Hut for the night, but our discussion with with the ranger at the visitor center went something like this:

“Mueller?” He looked down at our feet. “In those boots?”
“Uh, yep.”
“Do you have skis?”
“Nope.”
“Hiking poles?”
“Nope.”
“Any avalanche training?”
Fully emasculated now: “Nope.”
“You’ll never make it. Come look at this.” We walked to a window of the sparkling visitor’s center and he pointed at a giant icy blue shelf that looked like it was about to tumble down on the mountainside and us below it. “That’s where you’re headed.” We quickly changed our plans and made the prudent choice: relaxing in the Old Mountaineer’s Cafe with a glass of whiskey.

October 17: Hey, that’s today! We’re back at the Old Mountaineer’s, caffeinating and writing. Today we’ll head back to the Tekapo hot pools for another soak and a day off from hiking/biking. We’ve both got a knee that’s barking and could use some extended R&R. Tomorrow we’ll be back at it with a hike around Mt. Somers on the way back to our WWOOF hosts.

Traveling like this provides constant freedom, but with that comes a few challenges. We’re always making plans then scrapping them with changes in the weather or our attitude. We’ve learned its useless to have more than a very rough sketch of your next few days, and the best skill you can have is flexibility. The Mueller Hut hike is on my NZ bucket list, so I was bummed to learn that it wasn’t possible this time, but I’m content in telling myself that it’s a reason to return to the area later in our trip.

Despite the challenges of the last few days, I still feel incredibly fortunate to be here. I only need to look out the window at the jagged mountains surrounding us to be reminded that this is a special opportunity.

Mt. Cook/Aoraki

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