A van, some volcanoes, one bag of apples and an unexpected journey through New Zealand's medical system...
After dropping in on Dad and Evan in Vietnam I loaded up my bags (I'd sold the whale sized gear bag, left four kites, a harness and a kiteboard behind) and walked onto a plane destined to arrive in New Zealand on Valentines day. Renée was waiting, and I was happy to know I was arriving to a nice date filled with wine, chocolate and an Airbnb'd guest house.
But then our plane hit a bird.
Classic chivalrous man meets romantic demise by bird strike scenario. Valentines day was a burger in Brisbane, Australia, with a Kiwi guy. Renée drank wine by herself in Auckland, New Zealand. We should've seen the signs.
A few days later in Auckland we bought a 1990 Toyota Hiace van with 4x4, manual transmission, long wheel base, high top roof and the bullet proof 3L diesel engine. It looked like a big white bulbous headed beluga whale. I nicknamed it Migaloo after the albino humpback whale of the same name and we hit the road armed with two year work visas searching for a job and a place to live.
**For the record #vanlife is an over idealized hipster lifestyle that doesn't account for showers, rain, bathroom breaks or jobs, however, despite eye rolling at every Instagram ready bikini couple we've ever seen fulfilling their life goals of taking pictures of themselves for their followers while wearing products for large companies keen on invading our private lives with micro targeting and well placed product drops, vans are still cheap things to live in. So we reluctantly bought a van knowing all of the stereotypes we were by default entering into. But, for the record, it was a fucking epic van.**
We abandoned the grey overcast sun burn and sweaty skies of Auckland, said goodbye to our gracious 'Workaway' hosts Gail and Floyd and cruised south towards Raglan, home of one of the worlds best waves and theoretically some kitesurfing. It felt like a mashup of Tofino and Salt Spring Island. We liked it, but the draw to keep heading south pulled us away.
Taupo lake and its white floating pumice stones and crystal clear waters were the next stop. We accidentally stole gas here, but that came up a month later when the police knocked on the door of our 'Workaway' hosts looking for criminal Keegan. Surprise! From Taupo we followed the little blue line Google Maps penned for us back to the west coast. We were impressed by the route it chose. Three hours later we'd left the geothermal heat and steaming hills around the lake and were still rattling along over dirt roads through lush sub tropical bush, climbing up and down steep winding hills in second gear.
Eventually the ocean appeared again and the anxiety of being trapped inland for any coastal person abated. Taranaki was the volcano of choice to circumnavigate and New Plymouth was the next town on the "maybe we'll live there" list. Photographically, the area delivered.
A short hike up Taranaki, some sun, burning calf muscles and a surprise buzz by a Hercules sized Canadian armed forces transport aircraft a couple hundred feet off the mountain (us with our arms in the air excited to see the Canadian flag, and also wondering if Canada was invading New Zealand?) we continued south. For reasons beyond us, the southern call continued to beckon.
The nicest drink we had was a cider in the sun to the backdrop of live music on the Kapiti coast, a near endless low angle sandy beach. It was also the first drink we had. Drinks were $12 each. We didn't go out for drinks again...
Across the Cook Strait on a massive(-ly overpriced) ferry we cruised over to Blenheim, soaked in a hot tub, showered for the first time in weeks, inspected the wineries and then continued over to Nelson following my dads 30 year old memories and recommends. We liked the Okanagan-esque vibe of the area with it's orchards rolling out amidst low flung hills and mountains. I also hoped there'd be kiting. I hadn't been kiting yet. It was an itch I really wanted to scratch. The beaches were top notch.
We slept in parking lots, swam at beaches and in salt water pools and got a job through a guy on the beach who told us to talk to the general store owners, who told us to talk to an old guy, the old guy gave us his sons phone number, and two hours later we were being interviewed. Old school tactics, I know.
Given that we'd spent all of our money on the van it was time to pick fruit and make some quick cash. Hamish, the son, grew apples. So apples it was.
Turns out apples are really hard to pick fast. Two days later I felt the mesh from the hernia surgery I'd had last August tear out. We went to an old wood boat show in the mountains and hiked a ridgeline that weekend while I thought about it. Seven days later Renée fell off a ladder.
I couldn't believe I'd spent a month a half kitesurfing and got taken out by a bag of apples.
It was time to go back to Wellington. Cue several weeks of medical appointments and general travel insurance hell. We gave up on living in the van in the rain and booked into a hostel and started the process of selling it. Renée got a job in a sporting goods store. I read books and explored the city (it's a cool city and has an amazing museum!).
Hernia number two accounted for, it was time to go home and get sliced up again. But first, there was one last stop to make. We flew down to Christchurch to finally meet my Mom's pen pal Maryanne and her partner Ray for the first time. They'd been writing each other for 47 years.
They are absolute beauties. I accidentally got drunk and spilled peas everywhere on the first night. I also thanked Maryanne and her mom Val for knitting me sweaters as a baby. We spent ten days exploring the area, visiting friends and farms, fall fairs, botanical gardens, and spending time with Olivia at her families cabin in Akoroa.
Then finally, three months after leaving and 22 months earlier than excpected, just as another cyclone was smashing into the south island (we were there for the anecdotal 'wettest summer in 40 years...') the plane took off for Vancouver. Twelve hours after landing, I sat in the surgeons office, booked a date for surgery and went home to Salt Spring Island.