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Snapshots: New Zealand Lessons in the Making

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It’s hard to believe my expedition to New Zealand is almost over. I suppose you could argue that the “expedition” part of my journey is already history, now that I’ve returned my camper van, had a hot shower and a few real meals, and am settled on my cousins’s comfy couch with a cup of tea. I am now simply traveling.

Yesterday I got a National Geographic newsletter entitled “What Do You Learn While Traveling Female?” I’m looking forward to the stories they referenced and may submit something myself — after I figure out the answer to that question. One friend referred to my travel blogs as “field notes,” and I like that concept. They are snapshots. The lessons, meanings, and new perspectives will come over time as my brain sorts through and categorizes my experiences and my heart decides what to embrace.

The National Geo article stated that “Travel is about defining our place in the world.” I might re-phrase that to say, “Travel is about allowing the world to define our place.” It’s not a directive, intentional defining on our part. If you are open-minded and hearted, you don’t “do travel,” so much as travel does you. It’s very humbling. I don’t know if that makes any sense.

I have begun the meaning-making and processing in my journal, but it’s not ready for these pages, let alone National Geo!

Although I avoided cities and even avoided people much of the time, I think I’ve learned a lot about human nature here, and it’s encouraging and hopeful, particularly in the areas that cause me pain and passion: confronting racism and climate change. Many words yet to come.

For now, a few photos from a coastal town on the South Island called Kaikoura. By the time I arrived there, I was in the process of pushing north to get back to Auckland and return my van, so I only got a little taste of what the place offers. With its whaling history and diverse wildlife, I could have spent several days exploring. Instead, I had my Thanksgiving meal of spinach-potato soup, salad, and local honey mead at Hislops Wholefood Cafe, took a walk along the coast for a few hours, and then got back into the van and drove north. Next time.

Shoreline at Kaikoura

Close the hatch, Captain, they’re trying to get in!

Seaweed dons its Christmas colors

 

I think she wanted me to leave

Rock Art

One of my fave NZ critters, the friendly Silvereye

This fur seal gave a tremendous bark and sent me scurrying right after I took this photo

Merry Christmas from the Maori community in Kaikoura!

Giving Thanks for Things Growing in New Zealand

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This evening I’m camped next to a Horse Chestnut tree, a being I’m not sure I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting before. Very solid vibes.

The Horse Chestnut is the little round fellow to the right of my camper

New Zealand knows how to do trees, no doubt about that! It’s easy to see why people might see trees as objects of worship. I’ve fallen for any number of the lovelies and made more than a few u-turns to capture photos.

Tree with friends

 

The vegetation here is remarkably diverse, from cactus to moss to eucalyptus, from temperate rainforests to tiny alpine daisies to towering tree ferns, one of which — the Silver Fern — is the national symbol that graces their rugby uniforms and their airplanes. The Silver Fern gives off a majestic but humble vibe, if you can imagine. Strong and formidable, yet with growing centers that are vulnerable and gentle. Much the way I imagine the person of Jesus to have been. 

 

Silver Fern Fiddleheads

I think my favorite plant is the Red Tussock grass, and its proper name is almost as cute as it is: Chionochloa rubra. I can’t decide if these little guys belong more to the Star Trek genre or to Dr. Seuss, but I love how they just march up hillsides and take over entire landscapes. They wave enthusiastically in the wind, and the sun brings out the red in them. They are native to New Zealand and the country has created a preserve for them on the South Island — one of the few places I did not see sheep or cows!

 

One of the more ubiquitous plants is flax, which you see along the roadsides and also growing as an ornamental in many gardens. It’s not at all like what we call flax in the northern hemisphere, the plant that produces seeds for our backyard finches. The Maori traditionally used fibers from the sword-like leaves of the flax plant to make everything from coats and sandals to river rafts and eel traps. Our Maori tour guide at New Zealand’s national Te Papa museum spoke about working with flax the way African American elders in the southern U.S. speak about braiding sweetgrass. It’s as if the flax fibers are woven into their very beings.

Since I’m in New Zealand, there will be no Thanksgiving for me this year. However, I am in a constant state of thankfulness as I “live and move and have my being” among the green beings of this glorious landscape. Have yourself a blessed Thanksgiving stateside!

Scenes from New Zealand

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If you’re as old as I am, you’ll remember a time when you had to limit the number of photos you took. There was this stuff called “film,” and there were only so many images you could capture on a roll of it. Then you had to send the rolls away and wait a week or more for a magician to turn the film into pictures, for which you paid him or her handsomely.

Now, of course, a person can go on a trip to New Zealand and have hundreds of pictures in a day or two. There are no longer any limiting factors to picture taking. You don’t have to put much thought into a picture, because you can just take another. And another. As a result, I’ve taken a mind-numbing number of pics in the past twelve days, and I have no idea how to categorize them or find themes from which to write a blog post. So how about I’ll just share a few more?

A quick update: I’ve spent the past two nights at a lovely campsite on the edge of a turquoise bay and will hit the road again in the morning. This campsite has a merciful check-out time of 11:30, so tonight I can take my time doing laundry and sharing a bottle of local wine with a frenchwoman I met today — it’s her first night in a camper van, and I’ve enjoyed playing the role of experienced sage.

Tonight – sunset in Duvauchelle

Today I went to a little town settled by the French many moons ago, but before their government could send more of them, the British arrived and history happened. But the town has retained its heritage, if somewhat pretentiously, and I had a decent crepe for brunch and bought some cheese. I also went to one of the most incredible places I’ve ever been, called “The Giant’s House.” You will hear more about this, it’s worth a separate blog and besides my phone and computer haven’t done whatever magic they do together in the mysterious cloud, so the Giant’s House pics haven’t yet downloaded. At least I don’t have to wait for the film!

Anyway, some random photos:

The view from here . . .

Beach detritus, Kina Beach

Some of these Maori images are frankly just a little unsettling. Te PaPa museum, Wellington

A Kea, I think. Otari-Wilson Bush near Wellington

A Weka

“Moving Along” in New Zealand

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I’m one of those travelers who likes to move along. As much as I’m a proponent of slowing down, reflecting, and “living in the present moment,” when I’m on the road, I always want to see as much as I can. I want to know what comes next. I’ve had to adjust my expectations here in New Zealand because everything takes twice as long as I think it’s going to. I can’t drive the speed limit for the life of me (literally), partly because of the death-defying narrow, windy roads next to precipitous drop-offs, and partly because I am always looking at the scenery or pulling over to take a photo or look at at a map. 

When I take a “one hour” hike, it always takes me two. At least. There’s an interesting bird call I have to investigate or a bumblebee in a flower I have to watch or a mysterious rustling in the bushes I have to wait out. There are rock cairns to be built, side paths to be followed, bark and leaves to sniff — something around here smells intoxicating and I haven’t discovered what it is yet.

So while I’m “moving along” in spirit, in practice I’m not covering as much ground as I’d imagined. Which is fine, except I was starting to feel rushed. So rather than reduce my aspirations, I’ve asked the camper van company for a few extra days, because life is short and what if I don’t get to come back? My new mantra is “Why not?”

Tonight I decided to stay in a little villa on the west coast of the South Island; after nine days of sleeping in the van and a day of driving in torrential rains, I thought it was time for some heat and a comfy bed. Maybe even a bath. And a blog — because WiFi!

Most of the places I’ve visited have quickly become “my favorite place so far.” Here are a few highlights from several of my evolving favorite places:

My first night after staying with my cousin in Auckland, I stayed at a camp in Rotorua, a town known for its geothermal activity and strong Maori presence. I visited a Maori village and experienced a high-energy dance and musical performance and walked through a natural geothermal reserve. That night I soaked in hot mineral springs for way longer than the recommended twenty minutes.

Interesting mix of Christian and Maori traditions at St. Faith’s Church in Ohinemutu in Rotorua. “It was easy for us to accept Jesus,” one Maori woman told me. “He was all about peace and kindness, like our God.” The carving was done by local Maori and is inset with paua shell.

 

 

My new friend on the left is exhibiting the Maori warrior stance. I think we’ve all had a bit too much excitement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pukeko – a very sociable swamphen that’s common around these parts

Maori wharenui, a tribal communal house where they hold meetings, funerals, weddings, and celebrations. In the Whakarewarewa village.

Thermal pool

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maori sentinel watches over boiling lake

Black swans on Lake Rotorua – my first morning on the road

 

Hitting the Road in New Zealand

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I promised blog posts from New Zealand and pictured myself snuggled into my camper van each night, tapping away on my laptop. I mean, what else is there to do during those long, lonely evenings? Yet by the time I’ve found a campsite, made dinner, and tried to get a grip on the chaos in the back of my van, I have little energy for words. The crosswords, playing cards, and coloring book I packed against the solitude sit untouched at the bottom of my suitcase. By 8:30, I’ve put up my curtains and am searching for my toothpaste and floss.

Driving on the left takes it out of me, but even worse is having the driver’s seat on the right. I’m just not used to having all that car over on my left and have nearly side-swiped cars or lost the side mirror several times. Tunnels and one-lane bridges are especially nerve wracking. I’m also swerving off to the shoulder every few minutes because I just have to have one more picture of sheep.

Cute sheep

Sheep with landscape

 

Cutest sheep

These stops are a constant surprise to the drivers behind me because although I dutifully switch on the windshield wipers every time I pull over, a turn signal would no doubt be more helpful. But the wipers and signals are also reversed from U.S. cars, so other drivers will just have to watch for my wipers.

Plus my brain is exhausted from the constant input. Non-stop, with nary a “routine” moment when my brain can relax: the lush vegetation, the huge birds, the wild Maori place names like Whanganui, Whakarewarewa, and Waimamaku. And of course the occasional volcano or waterfall.

A volcano near Whakapapa

Huka Falls, Waikato River

In the States, I just switch on cruise control, lean my seat back, put my left foot up on the dashboard (which drove my dear brother to distraction), and cruise for an entire day without any fuss. Not so here in NZ. Two or three hours  on the narrow, curvy roads is plenty, and then I have to stop for a tea or a walk. Fortunately, there is an abundance of both here. Around every bend is a scenic area, an overlook, or a public garden. My Fitbit probably thinks it’s been stolen and is being worn by someone new. 

There’s just so much to tell you! But as I say, the evenings have been short, plus the wi-fi costs are nuts.

I drafted this blog on the ferry ride from Wellington to Picton, between the North and South islands. I camped outside Picton last night and am now at a place recommended by campers on my Campermate app — a must-have if you’re traveling in NZ. Lots of people gave a thumbs-up to Kina Beach Reserve, so I decided to give it a try. For the grand total of about $2.75 per night, here are my digs for a few days . . .

Kina Beach in Tasman, a little slice of heaven

Going Around the World to Escape America

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At long last, I have found a reason to thank Donald Trump. I’m not certain, but there’s a good chance that without his spectacular take-down of my country, I would not be here in Auckland, New Zealand at the start of a Grand Adventure. (I also want to thank the Accidental president for dictating that random capitalization is a Big and perfect Win.)

Pondering the Grand Adventure

I hadn’t realized that America’s Great Embarrassment had anything to do with my impulsive exit from the U.S. of A., but this morning as I pondered my maps, I realized for the first time that I have journeyed to the far side of the earth from my home near Washington, D.C.

As far away as I can get.

Note: In actuality, the antipodes of D.C. is a 15,912-foot-deep trench in the Indian Ocean called the Diamantina Fracture. These waters are known as some of the stormiest and loneliest in the world — could it be that the vicious D.C. vortex penetrates the earth’s core, ruptures rock, churns magma, and agitates the depths of the Indian Ocean on the other side of the planet? I’d believe it. At any rate, New Zealand is one of the nearest land masses to the trench, and this is where I have landed after seven hours of hanging about in three airports, eighteen hours of flying through the air, and the total loss of November 5th, 2019, which was left hanging somewhere over an ocean.

Blessed Space

I’ve written a bit about my motivations for coming here, but thus far they’ve been in the “life is short and I’m not getting any younger and you only live once” category. I feel I’m in a dynamic transition after long years of grieving family losses, leaving my pastoral role last year, and shedding thirty-plus pounds this year. Exploring the wilds of New Zealand in a camper van seems as good a way as any of spending a month while I try to open my spirit to sense what God has next for me.

I had not identified the need for escape as part of my motivation. Yet last night over spinach cannelloni and salad, as my Kiwi cousin implored me to explain what in bloody hell is going on in America and who ARE these trump voters anyway, and I struggled to articulate what I have spent three years trying in vain to grasp, I felt a familiar sense of heaviness descend, a physical sensation of added weight, as if I were carrying not just those lost thirty pounds, but another hundred as well.

In America, I walk around with this heaviness all the time, sometimes in the form of dread, sometimes despair, sometimes grief, sometimes horror, sometimes numbness. And it never entirely goes away because there is a Malignant Narcissist in the White House who is trying to destroy my beloved homeland. Here in New Zealand, the heaviness seems to be lifting. This morning when I saw on the news that there is a big rally in D.C. tomorrow calling for the impeachment of our Great Embarrassment, I thought, “Excellent, I hope a million people turn out.“ And then I thought, “I wonder what I’ll have for breakfast.”

I finally have some blessed distance from America’s crisis: 8,774 miles, to be exact. Or 12,742 miles if you go straight through the center of the earth. I have space to breathe. This morning I lounged in bed with my tea and gazed out the window, where I swear a bird was singing something very like, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” I scrolled past atrocity after atrocity on my newsfeed, but instead chose to read Mike Tidwell’s fun example of travel writing about his 1998 expedition to a place I will not be visiting: a big rock that juts out of the lower Indian Ocean and is the actual antipode of Washington, D.C. 

Morning view over the rooftops of Botany Downs, Auckland to the volcanic mountains beyond

Have I Mentioned I’m Going to New Zealand?

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One month from today, I should be somewhere over some ocean (my geography isn’t all that it could be), winging my way towards New Zealand. Yes! In case you missed the “big reveal” slipped in at the end of my recent post Courageous Middle Age, I am in the midst of planning a solo camper-van trip across the two islands known as “Land of the Long White Cloud,” or Aotearoa, in the indigenous Maori language.

Otago Peninsula (photo in public domain)

It’s All About Me!

Most people’s first response when they hear this is, “By yourself??” Why yes, by myself. It’s usually my favorite way to travel. Go where I want and do what I want when I want, be alone when I want, make friends if I want. See a theme here? It’s all about ME!

So yeah, solo. I wouldn’t go to Afghanistan or Yemen on my own, but this is New Zealand. They speak English, and it’s one of the safest places in the world. These people call themselves “Kiwis,” for heaven’s sake, how threatening can they be? I recently asked a Kiwi friend if there are dangerous animals I need to know about, like crocodiles or tree pythons or eight-inch spiders. He thought a minute and said, “Well, we have opossums.” 

This week I figure I’d better move beyond dreaming to serious planning. I am surrounded by travel books, maps, and random notes from conversations with Kiwis. My Chrome tabs are open to articles like The Best Secret Beaches in New Zealand; November in New Zealand: What to Pack and What to See; and A Guide to the Wellington/Picton Ferry. Even my leisure reading is all New Zealand, all the time: Janet Frame, Katherine Mansfield, Owen Marshall.

What Could Happen?

Until recently, I’ve been feeling confident and excited about my trip, except the part about driving on the left-hand side of the road. But as I wrote last week, anxiety has been worming its way into my brain. My misadventure with my financial planner has shaken my confidence, and things I thought were certain are not, like American Democracy.

I need to give myself a good talking to: I will not be governed by fear. I am a capable, experienced traveler, and what could happen? I mean, well, yes, I was robbed and lost everything including my passport in Costa Rica. And I sprained my ankle and could barely walk most of the time I was in Uganda. (Ice is hard to come by there.) I got lost hiking in a fog bank in the wilderness of Yosemite and was pretty sure I was going to have to spend the night with only bears and mountain lions to keep me warm.

Flying Solo

OK, so maybe asking “What could happen?” isn’t helpful. Instead I will envision myself tootling along an ocean-side cliff, Maori music on the radio, the turquoise waters of the South Pacific stretching out to infinity on my left, the Southern Alps looming on my right. 

One of the things I love most about traveling solo is the feeling that not a soul in the world knows where I am. I don’t know why that’s so compelling, but it gives me the same arms-outstretched feeling of unbearable freedom that I get from flying dreams. How I wish I still had flying dreams!!

Still, I guess it might be a good idea to inform someone about my whereabouts, once I plan my (very) flexible itinerary. I suppose if I drove off a cliff while gazing at Fiordland penguins or searching for blue whales, my camper-van company (aptly named Mad Campers) would eventually come looking for me.

OK, back to my maps. Thanks for reading today’s ruminations on my upcoming New Zealand adventure!

These aren’t Fiordland Penguins, but I love that New Zealand advertises a same-sex penguin couple (Thelma and Louise) on their tourism site.

 

Official Fiordland Crested Penguins (Photo: TravelWayOfLife)

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