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One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

Sunrise at Aisling Quoy

Saying things out loud makes them seems more real. And what could be louder than broadcasting something to the world via the internet? It’s probably obvious to those of you that have been paying attention, but for the slackers (and myself) I need to declare my latest and greatest revelation: I want to be a farmer.

No, not the conventional “rows of corn as far as the eye can see” farmer of yesterday, but the “self-sufficient 10 acre plot with a diversity of animals and plants” farmer of tomorrow. Or the day before yesterday, depending on your point-of-view.

When we left New York I was leaning in this direction, but I hadn’t admitted it to myself yet. So we didn’t plan to travel with any kind of specific purpose. We knew we wanted to try farm life through WWOOFing, but we weren’t sure that it would work, so we built in some flexibility to do other things – things like lay on the beach in Thailand for a month, sipping local hooch and sweating it out immediately.

But we were right, we want to be farmers. And now I don’t want to do other things. I want to do things that continue my education and development as a farmer. So maybe we’ll still go to the beach in Thailand, but we’ll keep it to a week then hop on a bus to a peanut farm.

In some ways, the best plan was not planning at all. This allowed us the space to explore and get more focused as we went. It can be difficult to set out into the unknown, but if we’d followed a prescribed pathway we never would have found the right direction for us.

Travel with purpose, but don’t let it determine everything. Maybe you want to learn to cook in Europe or build houses in Mumbai. Or you might just want to test drive life outside of your comfort zone. Vague purposes are the best of all, by nature they allow the kind of flexibility necessary to focus on something clearer later on. Take a step back, and then two steps forward.

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Nose to Tail Butchering

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According to the Great Code of the Omnivore, we should try our damnedest to use as much of a slaughtered animal as possible. Our recent experience butchering a pig has given us a chance to put that in practice. Here are some of the things we’ve done with commonly discarded parts of a pig.

Head: Pâté de Tête. Also called headcheese or brawn. Not pretty to process, but delicious. Every soft part of the head, save the eyes and ears, is used. Cheeks, tongue, neck, snout, lips, etc.

Ears: Crispy Pig Ears. Fry ‘em up. “Sounds” good, eh? Eh? Sorry, that pun was “offal.” Oooooh!

Brain: Again, fry it. A helluva challenge to extract in one piece, but, like most things deep fried: tasty. Unique texture. Watch out for shot.

Heart: Some of the inner bits are very tough, but cooked right the meaty parts can be interesting. Note I didn’t say “good.” Could also be thinly sliced and layered in a terrine with a pate for a completely different texture. Maybe with some fried brain?

Blood: Black pudding, also known as blood sausage. Delicious.

Liver: Pâté, duh.

Kidney: Deviled Kidneys. River Cottage has a recipe that looks good, but I haven’t tested it.

Small Intestine: Sausage casings. Not sure what crazy bastard had the idea to clean the poop out of the small intestine and stuff it with bits of spiced meat, but s/he was a genius.

Stomach: Some people love tripe. I’m not one of those people. I prefer my food to smell like things other than poop. Pretty much anything else.

Caul: This is a net-like layer of fat attached to the stomach. It’s handy for wrapping up roasts and rolled loins. Or herding cats.

Skin: Left on the meat for delicious cracklin’, or could be processed for fine. leather. goods. Treat yo’ self!

Trotters (feet): Added to brawn, or their gelatin extracted by boiling and reducing and used in place of, well, gelatin. Bill Cosby would be so proud.

Tail: Also added to brawn. Watch out for a million increasingly tiny bones.

All joking aside, imagine how many of these items are discarded daily, and how much food they could produce. A little bit of creativity makes the animals killed for prime cuts go lot further. Any other ideas for making use of these or other commonly discarded pig parts?

1,330

From Pig to Pork

Knives set up for skinning and butchering

We’ve spent the past four days up to our elbows in either pig or pork. Literally. Part of me thought that the process of slaughtering and butchering a pig was going to be sad and disgusting. But it just wasn’t. It was intense and it was challenging and there absolutely was one sad part and one disgusting part. But that is nothing compared to the rest of the process, which was absolutely invaluable. This is the story of how it went. Note: I feel that pictures are absolutely necessary to this post, but some images are quite graphic.

Around 2pm, Lyndal and Steve’s friends came over to shoot the pig. After discussing whether to use a .22 or a shotgun, and how to kill the first pig while keeping the second calm, the six of us headed out to the pig pen. Lyndal gave Squeak a pile of acorns to munch on while their friend quickly and calmly loaded the gun and BANG! Bubble let out a short squeal and fell to the ground.

GATE! EVERYBODY GRAB A LEG! NO CHRISTINA, LET THE BOYS! DRAG HER OUT, QUICK! SOMEONE MAKE THE GUN SAFE! BUCKETS, GET THE BUCKETS!

Bubble was dead within seconds of being shot, but the muscles in her legs continued to thrash violently, making it tricky to grab on. Squeak barely noticed that anything had happened. She was eating acorns while we were outside the pig pen, holding Bubble still and collecting the blood from Bubble’s jugular, both to drain from the carcass and to use for blood sausage later.  The four guys loaded the pig on to the back of the trailer and drove her around to the front of the barn to hang in the gallows. “You alright?” Lyndal asked as we walked across the warm, sunny field, back toward the barn. “Yup. Just a little adrenaline-y” I said, as that was the only way I could describe it. Watching Bubble get shot and collecting the blood was uncomfortable. But after that, the pig stopped being a pig and became a carcass.

After the pig is killed and before it’s butchered, it has to be either skinned or scalded to remove the hair and then gutted. Otherwise we would have hairy bacon and our tenderloins might smell like poo. If a farmer is going to sell the meat, slaughtering, scalding and gutting must be done at an abattoir. Since this meat is for personal consumption, it can be done at the farm.

Bubble in the gallows

The boys took Squeak to be scalded in a bathtub full of hot water while us girls skinned Bubble, who was too big to fit in a tub. Using a skinning knife and starting at her ankles, Lyndal and I carefully cut the skin away from the fat and meat. This took about an hour and required intricate knife work since we didn’t want to damage the meat or puncture the belly, where the organs were held. When we got to the head we stopped, cut a circle around the head, and removed the head and the skin from the rest of the animal. This went into a wheelbarrow to bury in a hole.

Bubble with large intestine exposed

Next, a line was cut down the center of the body to expose the organs. Not going to lie, this was the disgusting part. It smelled like hot poop. Because it was hot poop. Most of what is inside the pig is a gigantic large intestine that looks like a very full balloon, about to explode. Lyndal asked me to press against said warm, gigantic poo balloon to keep it from falling out. This way, she could remove the organs that she wanted to use for pate and terrines. I stepped to the side and gingerly put one hand on the large intestine.

“No, I mean really hold it,” she said.

So I lifted the other hand and leaned into the sack. Am I going to barf? No, you’re not. We’re cool. You got this. FUUUUCK that smells bad. Oh my god. Stop being a baby. But my finger is sliding in. And if it explodes… A few minutes later we were done. It didn’t explode. The mass of intestines slid into the wheelbarrow. It was bad, but the impending shit storm never came.

Shortly thereafter the boys returned with Squeak. We compared pigs, shared about what each technique required, cleaned up and collapsed with a glass of wine and a plate full of cassoulet, made from last year’s sausages.

 

 

To get ourselves warmed up for the Day 2, day of marathon butchering, Zach and I had watched Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Pig in a Day, a DVD about butchering and preparing cuts of meat. The DVD was an hour an a half. While both instructional and exciting, it turns out they skipped some parts.

The first step to turning our two pigs into pork was to saw the pigs in half down the middle and then in to quarters so that they could be carried into the house where they would be butchered into cuts of meat. They skipped this part in the DVD. This first step took two hours. I was pretty bad at sawing. The handle got slippery with pig fat and it was a very awkward task, moving in and out of the gutted body cavity, but I tried. Zach picked up where I fell short. (Thanks, Zach!) I do think that we will raise and butcher our own pigs, but I am also keen on getting a fancy electric saw to make the job a little more bearable.

Once inside, we were set up so that Zach and I each had a half a pig and Lyndal had two halves. She would demonstrate on one half and we would watch, then we would each make the cuts on our pig. After staring at my pig for a few seconds, I had a Eureka! moment, “OOH! I think I found the tenderloin!” I did a little dance and pointed at it, nestled next to the ribs. I was very proud of myself for recognizing it from the DVD. “Cool, cut it out!” Lyndal told me. What? Stop. These pigs are their livelihood. They will provide meat for the next year, and here she is telling me, a totally inexperienced non-butcher, to go cut out one of the most prized cuts of meat. Just go do it. You’ll be fine. If you need help, just ask. That is kind of how they run things around here. They trust us to do a good job and to ask for help when necessary. It is wonderful to be trusted, but I often feel like, Who? Me? Do that? Okayyyy…. Which is exactly how I felt as I carefully cut away the connective tissue that held the tenderloin in place.

Trimming the silver skin off of the noisettes

We cut tons of bacon sliced noisettes, deboned hams and removed ham hocks. We trimmed cuts from the belly and back and rolled them up for roasts, butterflied loins that would later but stuffed with pate, and cut up bits for stir fries, stews, and sausages. They butcher for the cuts of meat that they like to eat, which meant no chops and no ribs. Because they had not had good ribs. Okay, fair enough. But I make good ribs. So I took on making convincingly good ribs and Lyndal let us butcher them out.

This went on until both carcasses were gone, which was about 7pm. The sun had gone down and the foot and a half  tall piles of bacon were threatening to fall over. Cutting boards and piles of fat littered every imaginable surface and each of us just stared at each other, knives dangling beside us, totally exhausted. Time to call it a day.

I by saying that this experience was intense and challenging. Carrying a quarter of a pig, or sawing through bone requires strength and the tiny knife work it takes to debone a piece of meat requires focus. It is no wonder that I was wiped out at the end of each day. I just had no idea how much work went into making something as commonplace as bacon. Just throw it in the pan, right?

Ribs for dinner

We feasted on plates of huge ribs, mashed potatoes and Caeser salad. After a few bites, Lyndal pointed at her bone and said. “I like these.” Simple as that, and yet it meant loads to me. I represented Amer’ca well and won the approval of a farmer, our teacher, and fabulous chef.

1,221

Filleting Blame

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Over the last few days, we’ve participated in the slaughter and butchering of two full-grown saddleback pigs, Bubble and Squeak. These pigs lived a good life. They had plenty of room to run, root, and wallow in the mud. They had shelter from the rain and shade from the sun. They ate vegetables multiple times every day. They lived and died so that we could slaughter them humanely and eat their meat.

This is a stark contrast to the life of an animal raised in a factory farm. They spend every minute of their life confined in a box so small that they can’t turn around, sleeping in their own shit and piss, and being force-fed a cocktail of chemicals designed to get them to optimal size as quickly as possible. You may think that the villains here are the owners and operators of factory farms, but they’re simply providing us with a product that we’ve asked for: cheap meat.

The real criminals are the consumers, loading their grocery carts with beef and ham that’s easy on the wallet at the cost of cruelty. Is your conscience really only worth the few extra dollars that it costs to buy from your local independent farmer? Does convenience trump morality? I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve been guilty of these crimes every week of my life, until now.

I’m happy to pledge that, beginning today, I won’t buy or eat meat of questionable provenance ever again. It’s a difficult step to take, but it’s the right one. It means that, when ordering at a restaurant or dining at a friend’s home, I’ll have to awkwardly ask if the meat they’re serving is humanely raised. If enough people ask, restaurants will be forced to buy better meat. Perhaps in the meantime I’ll be eating a lot of salad, but that’s not a terrible option. The alternative is far more disgusting.

Will you join me?

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Before We Butcher

On Saturday we’re butchering two nine month old Saddleback pigs named Bubble and Squeak. They’ve lived the last nine months together in a big paddock between the goat pasture and the pines at the edge of the property where they have plenty of room to run, root, and roll in the dirt. In addition to their grains, Lyndal and Steve feed them everything from table scraps to garden weeds to castoffs from the local fruit and veg store. Sometimes, if they’re lucky, they get tummy rubs between meals. The pigs live a great life, but they’re being raised for their meat.

A few years ago I watched Food Inc. and read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which was how I became interested in where my food comes from. It pissed me off to see a billion chickens crammed into a tiny little box, pooping all over each other, gobbling antibiotics for breakfast, just to make a profit. And there I was thinking that chicken is healthy, while it’s full of chemicals that can kill you. I felt like I’d been lied to.

So I started paying attention to where my meat comes from. It turns out that meat from local, small scale farms is usually more expensive, which just means that you can’t afford to eat a lot of meat. And that’s fine by me. Let it be special, and tasty, and exactly what it claims to be.

We came to this farm specifically because Lyndal and Steve invited us to participate in butchering Bubble and Squeak. Their pigs are raised humanely, and they’re killed with a single shot in an environment that’s familiar to them. They’ll be killed together, so that neither will be traumatized by the loss of their friend. Then they’re butchered into the cuts of meat that Lyndal and Steve prefer, reducing waste.

I suppose I’m writing this because at some point, I’ll be helping to cut off a pig’s head and I’m a bit apprehensive about that. But, some animal’s head had to come off every time I eat a pulled pork sandwich, or a steak, or a salad with grilled chicken. Someone had to raise that animal, to care for that animal, and then butcher that animal so that I could buy it’s meat in the store. I feel that if I can purchase meat in the store, I should be able to stomach where it comes from. It also makes sense that everyone involved cares about how it’s done.

784

Between Here and There

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.

 

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Day-old Baby Goats Playing on a See-saw

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A Day in the Life: Brodie Estate

Making some new friends

James Brodie demonstrated how to tie down the canes, or branches, of the Pinot Noir vines in the vineyard behind the house he shares with his wife Anne, here at Brodie Estate. He grabbed the cane, twisted it around the wire, snipped off the end, and secured it with a twist tie, like the kind you would find next to the plastic bags in the produce section of the grocery store. “So, you think you got it?” he looked at me and Zach.

“Uh. Yeah.” We all kind of looked at each other.

“All right then, I’ll leave you to it,” and he lumbered off to buzz around the property on his ATV. Zach and I spent the day twisting the canes, initially wincing at the cracking sound they made as we wrapped them around the wires, but growing more confident in our ability to handle the vines without knocking off the precious buds that would ultimately produce the Brodie Estate 2012 Pinot Noir.

Between the opened bottles leftover from the weekend’s Cellar Door tastings and those opened for prospective salesmen, there is always a selection of Brodie wines at the dinner table that need drinking. Their 2008 Pinot Noir was my favorite from the moment I stuck my nose in the glass. One of those wines that doesn’t require any thinking. I like it. That’s it. I don’t need to try any others. It has dark berries, mushrooms and a rich earthiness on the nose and palate.  With smooth tannins and a finish that lasts into the next topic of conversation, it is a wine that feels special.  I wish we could afford a case to keep in the back of Serena Williams.

What we drink in the van VS. What we drink in the house

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And though I found the one that I like, we did go and try the neighboring vineyard’s wines. Just to make sure they weren’t making something better.

Brodie Estate is located in a Martinborough, a boutique wine town. Not boutique as in snobby, but as in small and full of people who put everything they’ve got into their wine. After the morning’s work and lunch with Ann and James, we have the afternoon to ourselves. Guess what we have been doing? I’ll give you a hint: not running. That’s right, we have been judging, er tasting the neighbor’s wine.

Pinot Noir is the red and Chardonnay is the white in this town. People grow other grapes, but these two are where it all starts. We visited 10 out of 15 vineyards in town, and of those a few stood out from the rest.

Cow crossing on the way to Cabbage Tree vineyard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cabbage Tree

Is a 3 acre vineyard in town that produces very fine wines. 3 acres is tiny. Basically a backyard operation. Except that the product of this backyard operation tastes better than many of the large scale vineyards around. The winemaker’s eccentric wife led us through a tasting of three of their wines, which took about 45 minutes. If you have ever tasted three wines, you know that it doesn’t take 45 minutes. Between each sniff and swill, she yammered prolifically on topics from organic wine making to property prices to god knows what; we couldn’t understand half of it. And then she offered us a job to take over when they “inevitably get too decrepit to run the place.” I respectfully declined. It was the first thing I’d said in 45 minutes.

The Chardonnay was awesome and I rarely say that. It was full bodied, smelled like vanilla cake, and was kind of funky like a Viognier can be. It had more character than your typical full bodied California Chard and has me thinking about it days later. I’d give Cabbage Tree Best Chard in Town. 

Schubert

Other than Brodie Estate, this place is producing the most distinct and exceptional red wines in town. Their Cabernet Merlot blend (which usually does not excite me) smelled almost like a spicy, jalepeno pepper. It warmed you up with a familiar, dark berry taste and stayed with you after drinking.

 

Haythornthwaite

Another place that was run by a real character. An older guy in a red and black plaid flannel shirt that fell almost to his knees, led us through a tasting of nine wines. He asked us if we wanted to share a glass because “it is just so hard to pour a small amount.” Melissa, I smiled at you here. This seems like a problem you could appreciate.

“Thanks, but we’ll have our own,” we told him.  Five of the nine wines were Gewurtztraminer, which happens to be one of my personal favorites. No one else in Martinborough is growing Gewurtz. From dry to off dry to sweet and dessert wines, these were what set him apart. They all had hints of lychee in them, with varying degrees of sweetness and weight. The off dry was almost like a floral Pinot Grigio while the same vines produced a wine a few years later that tasted more like a Sauterne dessert wine. It is crazy how much the wines varied from year to year, while the only variable was the weather. We stood around and picked his brain about wine and his vines. He told us stories about how he and his wife split a bottle between two big glasses and go for walks around the vineyard to “check on vines.”

And then when it was time to go, he waived the tasting fee since we were WWOOFing at a neighboring vineyard. What a pleasant surprise. And yet, it fits so nicely with Kiwi hospitality.

When I asked Zach if I should mention any of the other vineyards in this post, he said, “those are the places I’d take people to,” which I think says it all. There is a lot of very good wine grown in Martinborough, and amongst the good wine is some really exceptional wine. It is a shame that it is such an expense for small winemakers to ship to the US. With each of the wines that I get really excited about, there is a friend or family member that I wish I could share it with.

Maybe I’ll come home with no clothes and a backpack full of wine.

1,663

Underneath Huka Falls

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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.”

“Hooker 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.

1,300

Living in a Van, Down by the River

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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.

Stars at Stony Bay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was rainy, dark and muddy when we closed the curtains the night before. When we opened them, this is what we found:

Waking up at Stony Bay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

What appears to be a milk carton is really a wine glass. For our boxed wine. Because we keep it classy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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