If you have been following along with our adventures (we love all of you who are!), you can see that we split our time between working on farms and traveling in our tres chic van, Ms. Serena Williams. You may also know that our plan is to be here in New Zealand for about a year, with no income other than the occasional odd jobs here and there. One thing we are constantly minding is how we spend our time and money. There are endless opportunities to spend money on really enticing looking adventures like rafting, zip lining, jet boating, zorbing, and alpine climbing expeditions, but we would be flat broke after a week of that. We didn’t save for that. We saved enough to live very simply and to see the country by exploring on our own. This post is a break down of how we are making it work without an income.
By balancing our time between working and travel, we get different benefits and can live fairly inexpensively. WWOOFing (working on farms) gives us the opportunity to learn valuable skills, get to know people, and our meals and lodging is provided in exchange for 4-5 hours of work. We have been lucky enough to stay with farmers who want the work to be something that we are interested in, while also being of use to them. They ask questions like, “What do you want to learn and do while you are here?”
While WWOOFing, we spend most of our time on or very close to the farm. We get to know the surrounding area well, taking occasional afternoon trips to the mountains or the beach. Our only expenses are on extras, which are usually just wine and cookies. Except that our current hosts provide plenty of both. (Thank you L&S!) Who needs packaged cookies when Lyndal made mousse au chocolate on a Tuesday night?
In the last two weeks of WWOOFing, our expenses totaled $74.50:
- $50.00 Doctor’s visit and antibiotics for my foot (which is slowly, but surely on the mend)
- $20 Torlesse Vineyards Pinot Gris
- $4.50 Foccacia from the Farmer’s market
While traveling in the van, our costs are higher, but we have the freedom to make our own schedule, to sleep late, to spend the morning sitting on the beach, wearing my straw hat and sewing up the holes in the armpit of my denim shirt, or to keep going on a dirt road just to see what is at the end of it. With that freedom also comes the challenge of stretching the dollar by buying day old bread and brownish bananas and finding activities that are free. (Hello, hiking and biking!)
Our costs for one week of living in the van and exploring come to around $600.
- $400 gas
- $50 campsite fees (Freedom camping when possible and shelling out for a Dept. of Conservation campsite when we really need a shower)
- $100 camping food (box of wine, pb&j supplies, oats, nuts, canned beans, lentils, farm stand veggies)
- $20 entry to Lake Tekapo Thermal Pools (50% off thanks to bookme.com, kinda like a Groupon)
- $25 breakfast at a farm stand cafe.
It is the balance of these two ways of living that makes our long term travel work financially possible and rewarding. Balance between time spent with new people and time alone. Balance between boxed wine and vineyard tastings. Balance between sleeping in the van and in a bed. It all evens out to make it work pretty well so far.
Oh, and the money we save by eating canned beans will allow us to afford a few splurges like bungee jumping and knife making
While we are at a farm we usually have the afternoons off, but I have come to enjoy a quiet afternoon reading books poached from the farm bookshelves or puttering in the garden. I have also been nursing a bum foot, so we haven’t been out exploring much. It is in between our WWOOFing gigs that we get to see the country and much of what we see isn’t too far off the main road. Here are a few pictures from the past few weeks.
For some reason, New Zealand businesses haven’t caught on to the “bring customers in with clean bathrooms and free wifi” ploy. So, despite our hesitance to patronize fast food joints, we recently found ourselves at a McDonald’s restaurant outside of Taupo. Somehow we avoided the siren song of freedom fries and lamb burgers – though the latter is particularly tempting. Lambs are even cuter when sandwiched between two greasy buns and a quarter-inch of mayo. Trust me.
Anyway, it had been about a week since we’d checked our email – practically an eternity for two former members of the smart-phone set, and we were starting to twitch and scratch ourselves raw with withdrawal. Finally, the golden arches answered our call. I slid past a massive man knuckle-deep in an aforementioned lamb burger and glued to his appropriately massive laptop as I sat down in front of Christina, anxious to see what junk mail I’d accumulated in such a long period of disregard. There was a blonde German woman fussing with her connection behind us, swearing under her breath in a way only Germans can.
“Must be the computer club,” I said.
The large man at our table smiled and laughed. “You guys in town long?”
“No, unfortunately, we’re leaving early tomorrow.” I asked him about a free place to camp nearby.
“Go back up the hill out of town and follow the signs for Huka Falls.”
“Yeah. The campground is on the way. And you should go to the falls tomorrow morning before you go. The gates will open around 7:30 or 8. It’s just an immense amount of water. Oh, and–,” he looked at the ceiling and thought to himself in careful consideration. “You got a pen?”
Nope, I had no pen. But I was curious as to what this kind local would tell me. Was this an offer for free accommodation? Maybe a secret watering hole with cheap booze and hot showers? I could use lots of both after a week sleeping in the back of our van. Kiwi hospitality was legendary, so with dreams of silk sheets I eagerly found a pen. He tore his receipt in half and started scrawling on the back. He was a lefty, just like me. This is what he produced:
“Ok, so when you get to the falls, there’s this big parking lot. I put a P here, for parking lot. You can go over on this side where everyone else stands – but – if you want to see something cool, follow this.” And he described a secret trail that led down to the river after the falls and ultimately, underneath them.
“At the end of this metal fence,” he pointed to the map, “there’s a trail, you can’t miss it. After about ten meters you’ll see a rope tied to a tree. Last time I was there it was an electrical cord,” he said with a toothy grin. “But yeah – use that to get down. It can be pretty slippery so be careful. Then you’ve got to follow the trail along the river until you get to the falls. There’s a part where the ledge is really narrow. I’m only telling you this because it looks like you’re solid on your feet, just be careful.”
A huge smile crept across my face. This was going to be an adventure.
“When you get near the falls the rocks get really wet so it’s slippery. Creep up to the falls and reach in, there’s a really good handhold just inside.” He latched his hand onto an imaginary hole above the McDonald’s table. “Water will just be pounding down on your back. You’ll get fucking drenched, but you can go inside. It’s a really cool spot. Climb in on your hands and knees if you have to. There’s room for about seven or eight people in there.” I went from excited to a bit scared. I get nervous around open water, forget about immense waterfalls pounding on my back. But it was too tempting to pass up a genuine local adventure.
The next morning, we set out for Huka Falls. After checking out the scenic lookouts with all the tourists and being bowled over by the volume of water that was headed over the falls, our nervous energy turned to real worry. Was this guy messing with us? Was he a crazed local sending travelers out to their death? The whole thing seemed a bit insane.
We walked down the path he described, to the left of the falls, and noticed several potential trails. Doubting my ability to recollect what he instructed, I examined each one before deciding they weren’t trails at all and moving on. My apprehension grew stronger. But soon we reached the end of the metal fence and an obvious trail emerged, exactly as he’d said. No more than a few feet into the woods we came to the rope tied to the tree that he described, and gingerly lowered ourselves down. This was definitely the way.
“How are we going to get back up?” Christina said after we’d both descended. I scratched my head, examining the sheer wet rocks and soaking wet rope. It didn’t look easy.
“Hmm. Well, we’ll deal with that later.”
Pushing on, we followed the trail back upstream, closer and closer to water level and the pounding of the falls. There were long-fallen trees in places over the trail, but also signs of life – beer bottles and snack wrappers half-buried in mud. Yep, we were on the right track. My confidence grew. Descending on the rope proved to be no problem, maybe he was exaggerating the difficulty of this detour.
And then we came upon the narrow ledge he described. Tiny and covered with wet moss, stepping on it was akin to ballet on a hockey rink. We’re both experienced rock climbers that would have no trouble with such an obstacle if we were wearing our climbing shoes instead of hiking boots, and if it weren’t just after dawn and barely above freezing.
But we’d come too far to turn back. After carefully traversing the ledge with icy fingers and clumsy feet, the path leveled out and tucked into some very interesting caves. The acoustics of these structures gave the river a intense bass that rattled the ground better than any sub-woofer in an Escalade. It was the kind of noise that wasn’t even heard by your ears, but deep within your stomach. As if our stomachs weren’t already unsettled enough.
We continued on through a few more shallow caves and over some more fallen trees, and found the secret room just as he’d described, underneath Huka Falls. Sorry, pictures don’t begin to do it justice. The morning sun shone through the thundering water, sending delicate rainbows into the sky. The sound of millions of gallons tumbling overhead was surreal. Mother Nature, you are one powerful lady.
Thanks, stranger in the McDonald’s in Taupo. It turns out you didn’t want us to die a soggy death, you were just being accommodating and picked us for hearty adventurers. I’m flattered.
We hiked out a little damp but unscathed and saddled up for a four-hour drive south. And it was a great drive. Adrenaline is the real breakfast of champions.
Last week was spent driving, sleeping, reading, cooking, eating, and not showering in our Nissan Serena van, who we have aptly named Serena Williams. Serena Williams has provided us with adventure that we didn’t even know we were going to have, and would not have had if we were backpacking or staying in hostels. We have to park her at a campground (many grocery store parking lots have No Van signs), so each day inevitably ends at a campground. And from what I have seen thus far, New Zealand doesn’t have KOA campgrounds just off I-95, wedged between the truck stop and the dump. Each one has been tucked away in a gorgeous spot, not listed in our Fodor’s guide.
The speed limit on the road to Coromandel Town was 100km/hr, but we never went more than 60 km/hr. We frequently pulled over for locals to pass us, as the road curved sharply, in and out, with each bay and peninsula that defined the rocky coastline. The sun began to set as we turned inland onto a gravel road that wound back and forth through brilliant green sheep pastures, climbing the mountains of the Coromandel range. At each turn, the road on the map became narrower and narrower and after we lost the sunlight, we were just kind of following a map through the darkness. What started as a windy, but exciting gravel road up the mountain, became a terrifying, dirt path descending through the pitch black bush in toward Stony Bay. And then it started raining. We drove the last 30 minutes in first gear, trying to avoid mud puddles and not thinking about old kidnapper men that might be lurking in the jungle. That’s when I started to wonder if we would make it through the mud, and if we did, if we would be able to get back out.
We ate our bread and carrots, set up the bed in the back of the van and read on our respective e readers until we fell asleep. I just started The Art of Fielding, which had my attention at page one, so I was up longer than anticipated.
It was rainy, dark and muddy when we closed the curtains the night before. When we opened them, this is what we found:
I have been nursing a variety of foot injuries* and Zach was itching to go climb a mountain, so we decided to split up. After importing our pictures, Lightroom organized them by the timestamp on the file. It’s pretty fun to see that while I was diddling around on the beach, Zach was in a sheep pasture, or while I was basking in the sunlight at the look out, Zach was barefoot, crossing a freezing stream.
While I was at the lookout, I met a local, Keith, who was baiting traps for weasels, stotes and possum. “I suppose that was your partner I saw a bit ago,” he mentioned. Beard? Yup. Ponytail? Yup. Orange backpack? (Go CUSE!) Yup. Well then, it sounds like you did. I sent him on a different route; the one where he was headed was quite boring. See that green patch in the saddle between the two peaks? He pointed at where the mountains meet the sky. You get 360 degree views from up there. That’s where he is. You all should have mirrors so you can send signals with the sun.
He sat down to roll a cigarette and I sat because that was the plan for the afternoon. We talked for about an hour while he smoked cigarettes and I ate my PB & J. The weasels, stotes and possum are predators of the ground dwelling Kiwi bird. They snatch up their eggs. The Kiwi was on the verge of extinction with less than 1,000 in all of New Zealand about 12 years ago when conservation efforts really started. Stony Bay is one of the first Kiwi preserves that began with 13 birds and is now up to 138 birds, with most of it’s population approaching breeding age. (Go Kiwis!) Somewhere in our conversation about living in the bush, mountains, and backpacking, we got onto the topic of how food tastes better when you go without something for awhile. I mentioned that we were planning to eat pb & js for dinner because we had yet to procure a pot, to which he quickly offered one of his. I didn’t have to tell him where Serena Williams was parked. He and the other park workers saw us come in last night and were laughing at us, creeping through the rain.
We made mashed Kumara (NZ sweet potatoes) with garlic, onions and a fried egg on top. By dinner time it was freezing cold. I finished cooking in my full on winter gear and we scuttled inside to eat at our dining room table/fold up bed. Never before has a HEAP of hot potatoes out of the back of a van tasted so good. So that is kind of how living out of our van goes. You do without some stuff and everything else gets that much better.
We are in the midst of a transition, from Waiheke Island (A), through Auckland, to Coromandel (B) for a few days, Martinborough for a week (C) and ultimately down to Canterbury (D) on the South Island by the end of the month. We need a vehicle to make this transition and continue on with our travels. It is time.
On Sunday we attended the Auckland Car Fair, held at the Ellerslie Racetrack outside of Auckland. We have known about the car fair for awhile, but were hoping to buy a van through word of mouth. We tried that, but it didn’t work. Time to turn to the professionals. (Professional used car salesmen? Mechanics? Scam artists?)
We got off the train with the rest of the tourists and traveled in a herd of languages: Japanese, German, Spanish, to the racetrack. Lost tourists trying to navigate their way may sound different in each language, but looks exactly the same: swiveling heads, scouring the streets for clues and signs. My instinct was to walk faster and beat the pack, but I am nursing a stubbed toe and had to accept that we were not going to be the first ones in. Dammit. I like being first. (Oh, hello little New Yorker tendency.)
We headed to the camper van row and started sizing up the cars, none of which I had heard of before. Toyota Estima? Hiace? Nissan Largo? A middle eastern guy had gutted his dented 1990 Toyota Estima taxi cab, complete with cigarette stank and stained seats, but was only asking $2,700. There was the 1985 Toyota Hiace with 300,000 km on it and completely gutted of everything except the two front seats that was going for $7,000. Then there was the dready guy and his gal pal who were lounging in tailgate chairs in front of their lifted, purple, 1999 Toyota Hiace with a bed, kitchen, and collapsable table inside. Too bad they were asking $9,500.
It seemed as if everything was either too expensive, too old, too many miles, expired this, broken that, too ugly, too small, too big, too whatever. We spent the rest of the day calling individual sellers, other car dealers, and mechanics. Twice we thought we found something, but after the pre purchase inspection, were told to stay far, far away from the vehicle. We across town and back again to look at vehicles, which by the end of the day, all looked about the same. After the fair had shut down and we were waiting on another van to arrive, the fair mechanics offered us a mid day Heineken, which was much needed and took the edge off before we geared up for another round of “How tall are the tales you’re telling me?”
In the end, we found a car that passed inspection. It is a red, 1992 Nissan Serena, which I dismissed it at first because the interior is ugly as sin (think frayed, beige poly-rayon curtains, with a possibly used mattress covered in primary colored geometric print fabric in the back) Thank god that Zach can see beyond that stuff. There will be a funeral pyre as soon as I can find some cheap material to redecorate with. It has a good engine, good cooling system, new tires, brakes work, whatever. That’s the important stuff. And that the search is over. Now off to explore!
It turns out we were both working on posts about how things have changed since we left New York. Written individually but presented together, we hope they offer some insight.
It was a difficult decision to drop everything and travel. I gave up a job I liked for an organization that I believe in. I said goodbye to an amazing group of friends that continuously brought new and exciting things to my life. I left behind the best city in the world. In the days and months approaching my departure, I spent many sleepless nights wondering if I was doing the right thing. Would I miss it? Would I regret making this move? After a month on the road, I’m confident that I made the right call.
But I wasn’t wrong about the things above. I miss my job. I still check in on my old projects religiously – and the paycheck was nice. I certainly miss my friends and family, whom I think of often. New York restaurants make my mouth water from the other side of the globe.
It was still the right decision. In a few weeks I’ve realized immense clarity about myself and my future, a clarity that has eluded me for my previous twenty-eight years. A supernova-sized weight has been lifted off my shoulders. If that weren’t enough, I’m learning how to do things that I’m excited to take back home and having a blast. Without this fresh perspective, filled with new people living different lives and new experiences outside of the cocoon I’d constructed, I never would have been able to examine my priorities this way. I didn’t even realize that I was unhappy in my old life. So I guess there’s one less thing to miss.
If, unlike me, you’ve got the self-awareness to acknowledge your own unhappiness, make a change. The answer might be hidden in one of those cracks that you haven’t examined in years. Sometimes shaking things up is the only way. Yes, you have responsibilities you should be aware of, but all too often we create a false sense of obligation. Give your two weeks notice, put your couch on Craigslist, take care of the things that are tying you down, but don’t let them dictate your life. You aren’t obligated to live a life that doesn’t completely fulfill you. A job is mostly just a way to pay your rent; a couch is just a collection of fabric and wood. Give up the things standing in your way.
This doesn’t necessarily even equate to an extended time traveling. Maybe it’s moving to a new city, or separating yourself from an unfulfilling situation, or opening yourself up to a new experience. Travel is just a convenient way to remove oneself from a previous life and force the kind of introspection required for real answers. Plus you get to meet new people, experience new cultures, and become inspired along the way. If you have the tiniest of inclinations to travel – do it. Find the means. There was a time in my life when I thought I might never discover what I wanted to be. Escaping from that over the last month has been one of the benchmarks of my life, and I want everyone to experience this euphoria. Please join me.
3:45 am Woke up to pee like an hour ago. Can’t go back to sleep. Writing always helps. The BIG IDEA here is that life is changing in a major way and I don’t think I can or want to go back. I like living simply. I like growing food. I like being on a farm.
This trip started out as a bit of an experiment. When we first set out, farming was something that I was interested in, but working on farms was largely a means of traveling. Not any more. The more I learn and do, the more this way of life makes sense and feels right.
For example, composting table scraps makes sense. We have yet to fill one garbage bag in the three weeks that we have been here at Uma Rapiti. We eat as much as possible from the garden, compost food waste, then put it back into the garden. All while reducing the grocery bill and eliminating the need for soil mixes from Home Depot. Having chickens that lay eggs make sense. All you do is feed them and they give you eggs. It is like getting a present every morning! Oh really, Stina? You’re impressed that chickens lay eggs? Did you miss that part in first grade? No, I didn’t. I have just never seen it happen. I have never had free eggs. FREE! (Note: Free Range, Organic eggs are $8 at the Union Square Farmer’s Market)
Maybe that is my favorite part of all of this, that we are helping to produce the best tasting, healthiest food and it is free if you just put in the time and work. I can totally do that. I can only imagine having a pig and eating that, too. So many delicious parts… loins… chops… ribs…. And that is what now guides our next step. I can only imagine having a pig. Okay, so let’s go see what having a pig is like. September is a vineyard, October is TBD and November is pigs, cows and chickens. Or chops, milk and eggs.
I learn something new every single day. Whether it is through talking to Chad and Lizzy, the farm managers here, who have worked with all sorts of animals on farms of all different scales, through the books we are reading, or by getting my hands dirty in a new project. How to keep slugs out of the garden, use a table saw, brine and marinate olives, use a sewing machine, how to fish. Doesn’t it make sense to know how to fish if you eat fish?
I’ve also figured out that my interest in farming stems from a good meal: good for you, good tasting, and sustainable so you can do it again and again. I love learning about food and spending time preparing something that makes others happy. There is some combination of plants, animals, cooking, eating and sharing with others will be how we make our way in the future. I’m not sure what it is yet, but I’m curious and excited to find out. We are going to spend this year exploring anything and everything that seems interesting. What do we like? What could we see ourselves doing? Our trip has become a workshop for our next phase of life.
In a previous post, I mentioned that we had recently witnessed the dissolution of a sand mandala at the local marae. That day also happened to be Christina’s birthday. It was a pretty rockin’ party:
Ok, so the party wasn’t for her. And it wasn’t a party. But it was amazing nonetheless.
We found Jon through the Couch Surfing website, but didn’t meet him until Friday morning right after arriving in Auckland. He showed us around, gave us a set of keys, introduced us to Leandro, another traveler staying at his apartment, and then took off for the weekend to celebrate his neice’s birthday. He left us with a booklet that said “The Bridge…” on the front of it, with some information about how to work the television and his restaurant recommendations in the area.
Who does that? Just hands over his home to complete strangers?
Over the course of the next five days I saw exactly what he meant by “The Bridge.” As travelers arrived in Auckland and dragged their inevitably jet lagged bodies through the door, Jon’s apartment served as a bridge from one leg of a journey to the next. It was a crash pad for those getting off the plane, a computer lab where I could Skype with my sister, a writing center for Leandro to work on his resume, a hot shower and comfy couch for watching the Olympics, and most importantly a friendly place in a new city. It quickly felt like home, and our fellow travelers began to feel much like room mates, instead of strangers sharing a roof.
By Monday, there were seven of us staying in Jon’s two bedroom apartment. Zach and I representing the US of A, Leandro and Javier from Argentina, Paul from Russia, Vinnie from Brazil and of course, Jon from New Zealand. During the day, each of us went about our business, opening bank accounts, getting cell phones, hiking volcanos, Skyping in Portuguese (that wasn’t me), doing laundry, and exchanging money. As cocktail hour rolled around, each one of us trickled back to the apartment with a bottle or two of wine in hand. Obviously, no one would rather spend cocktail hour in a bar with strangers.
From the time the first glass was poured, to when dinner was served, until after the plates were cleared, the “bullshit conversation,” as Jon called it, flowed. “What guides your travels? Your mind, your heart or your soul?” Jon asked over roast chicken and pinot noir. “Is it reason? Do you choose what makes most sense, or is it love?” My initial response was that the answer can’t be categorized like that, but before I could express why I didn’t like the question, the Brazilian had already started answering. And thank god, because the conversation that ensued was thoughtful and revealed a little more about each personality at the table, whereas my response was dismissive and would have squashed the conversation.
I get why Jon hosts couch surfers. He creates a warm, welcoming space for people who need it and is responsible for something that other people are going to remember forever- more so than anything else Auckland has to offer. And at the same time, he gets to participate in something really, really fun and meet all sorts of new people. I’m looking forward to doing the same when I get home.
Dear Every Airline Ever (besides Air NZ),
I suggest you send your top brass on a holiday to NZ, post-haste. If for no other reason than studying what air travel should (and can) be. You’re welcome. Contact me for banking info so you can send me a cut of your inevitably skyrocketing profits.
The precedent is set early. A gate attendant quickly and deftly helped me resolved a lingering visa/passport issue with a simple call to NZ immigration. I can imagine your policy in a similar situation: “figure it out yo-self.” Why, thank you. So helpful.
As we pushed back from the gate, a friendly flight attendant (yes, friendly) inquired about what I’d like to drink with my special meal. Bwah? I’d requested a special meal? Turns out I had! Thanks for remembering, and for the delicious Sauvignon Blanc, or “Sav” as they call it in NZ. Loogit me, learning local slang!
But the in-flight entertainment was the real kicker. I watched about five movies and ten television episodes between nodding off from the sleeping meds I’d taken (sadly not airline provided, so there’s one point for improvement) and the tasty meal service. There were even movies I’d been trying to see for some time: Contagion, The Descendants, Fantastic Mr. Fox, 21 Jump Street (lowbrow! brilliant!); and some classic comedies: Anchorman, The Hangover. The list of television available goes on and on: Arrested Development, BBC/NatGeo nature shows, Modern Family, Family Guy, Family Ties (jk). I know, in-flight entertainment isn’t a new or unique thing, but it’s often done so poorly its hardly worth bothering. Usually either the selection, sound, picture, or interface are so terrible that I give up and go back to reading. How primitive!
Oh! I nearly forgot the seats! The seats in coach class are easily more comfortable than my chairs at home. They have headrests adjustable in infinite ways, they’re wide, and they lean back nice and far. Why pay for first class? Which reminds me, who are the crazy people spending $10k on a first class seat for their toddler? That kid has no idea what he’s got going for him, and will be rudely awakened when the real world (and coach class) comes calling.
So, in short, that was the fastest twelve hour flight I’ve ever experienced. I was even a little disappointed when it ended. How will I ever know what happens to the Bluth family?
International Air Travelers Everywhere
P.S. Maybe some other airlines do it right. If you know of any that pump Ambien into the air above toddlers, let me know.