The Ever Changing Plan
Auckland – City of sails and home of REAL SUSHI!
Yup BELIEVE IT! I finally found sushi that wasn’t KFC in a roll of rice with soy sauce and LOVED IT. Going 9 months without sushi has been similar to scraping the ice off a windshield in the winter before you can drive while freezing to death in mittens that don’t even cover your fingertips…it’s not a good time. While I have no complaints about the quality of my Poke bowl, it was pretty comical that the restaurant I ordered from was a chain based out of San Diego. I traveled 6,502 miles for sushi from my local neighborhood Poke bar. But hey, beggars can’t be choosers and I’m still salivating over the thought of Ponzu and Spicy Tuna.
In the days leading up to those life changing bites of fish, the Canadians and I made quick work of the North Island while trying to see as much as we could before breaking up the band. When I last wrote, we had just left Taupo/Rotorua and the smell of rotten eggs has yet to fade from my memory. I know what you’re wondering…did we go Zorbing? Unfortunately not due to time restrictions, but have no doubt that I’m still planning on it. Why wouldn’t I voluntarily climb into a massive ball of bubble wrap and roll down a hill like a hamster on a wheel? While we weren’t Zorbing we were exploring deep and relatively sketchy caves, admiring glow worms, trying really hard to photograph baby sheep (and failing) and playing an unbelievable amount of cards.
The North Island of New Zealand is home to over 400 caves varying in depth. Those that are accessible and (relatively) safe for the average traveler are scattered throughout forest and farm land alike and you’d have absolutely NO idea that you were driving over them while in the car. Most of the caves have rivers flowing through them which makes navigating that much more difficult. Oh yeah, did I mention that the caves are home to freshwater eels?! The slippery little guys get pretty damn big and scared the shit out of me the first time I saw one swimming my way. Turns out they're harmless but I didn’t exactly feel like getting too close to them and once you're trudging through waist deep water in the dark it gets hard to relax. But like all things in New Zealand, the final destination never disappoints and the same can be said for the caves. A few meters in, the natural light from the entrance disappears and the walls and ceilings are illuminated by thousands of pulsing turquoise glow bugs.
The silence in the caves is different from that of a mountain top. Without your sense of sight, the rip of the river and sound of the condensation falling from stalactites is heightened. You feel every bug brush past your skin and have to fully submit to being out of your element in the pitch black. The water level was pretty high the day we went in so we gave the locals something to laugh at and dressed in our wetsuits, booties and headlamps looking like complete kooks.
Sometimes when I sit down and reflect back on what I’ve done while writing these posts I realize how insane it all is. Living in a foreign country is a trip in itself and living in a van has added an extra level of crazy to it. The things that you miss out on materialistically don’t even come close to what you gain in new experiences and isn’t that what we’re truly seeking while traveling? New experiences that widen the scope of possibilities for us?
Van life is incredible but it takes much more planning then you think. The simplest tasks that typically wouldn’t cross your mind now take priority in your day to day and moving around spontaneously only works when you're super prepared. For example:
Water is the most important thing to keep an eye on but is luckily pretty easy to get. The van’s water tank holds about 40 liters which we used for dishes/washing our hands and face. On average this would last about 3-4 days when used conservatively. For drinking water we had about six 2-liter jugs that would last around the same amount of time depending on the weather and how many hot chocolates I needed to stay warm. Once out of water, we’d fill up (for free) at any gas station with a spout. Our most common issue (with our small tank) was running out while camping somewhere remote where fresh water didn’t exist. Lesson learned– carry a spare 10L water tank at all times just to get you through. This might all sound like common sense but when you've never had to monitor your water intake before you don't realize how much you use.
This one is tricky. First of all, you need lights. It gets super dark after the sun goes down and you don’t want to cut carrots in that…trust me. Battery and solar operated light strands are your new best friend. If you’re like me, you want the cute fairytale string lights above you (actually our brightest light source) and a few hanging lanterns. I use Luci Light cubes which are SO bright (and cute) and come in a few different colors if you’re trying to set the mood…Then you need to think about your fridge, assuming you have one. Leaving it on overnight uses a considerable amount of battery but turning it off for a few hours will thaw everything. Chances are, your fridge is connected to your second (deep cycle) battery that charges when you drive. In our experience, the small amount of charge we got from driving wasn't enough so we needed a more consistent power source. That led us to solar power. This is a lot, I know. By installing a large panel on the roof and connecting it directly to our second battery we were able to leave the fridge running AND charge our laptops, cameras and phones whenever we pleased. You never really think about how you’re going to charge your electronics until you're sitting on the floor of a laundromat drying the same load for the 4th time just to plug in…
As you know from my previous posts, this is the hard one (for me and probably every girl ever). Showers can be tough to find and oddly expensive when you realize you’re paying per minute. Pack your shower essentials in a little backpack and always have it ready to go. Pools are usually the best value because you can swim, use the hot tub/sauna and shower for around $5-8. They also tend to have hair dryers and outlets which I now view as a luxury…who am I?!
It was fun watching Curtis and Alexia get used to all the quirks of living in a van for the first few weeks but man do those rentals have some SPACE! While Lucy was amazing, I didn’t realize how small she truly was until I lounged in the back of their Britz. Now that is traveling in style. Towards the end of the month, we left the geothermal stink and wondrous caves of the central North Island behind us and set off for the Coromandel. In true NZ fashion, the cliffs were steep, the waves were big and the beaches were wide open and jaw dropping. Over the next few days more fishing was followed by more hiking and more hiking always led to more afternoon beers….tough life I live. As we continued up the coast towards Cape Reinga/Te Rerenga Wairua, we stumbled upon one of the only landscapes I hadn’t seen yet, sand dunes. It’s hard not to smile while standing on a silky sea of golden sand with nothing but ocean in every direction. Again, I was reminded of how small I really am and how much of the world I want to see.
Another 20 kilometers north on Highway 1 (the only road to and from the Northland) is where you’ll find Cape Reinga/Te Rerenga Wairua, the western most point of the North Island. In the Māori language, “Te Rerenga Wairua” means leaping-off place of spirits and “Reinga” translates to the underworld. According to Māori legend, the spirits of the dead travel to Cape Reinga on their journey to the afterlife to leap off the headland and climb the roots of the 800-year-old pohutukawa tree and descend to the underworld to return to their traditional homeland. Once they depart the mainland, the spirits turn around at the Three Kings Islands (a chain of islands north of the tip of NZ) for one last look towards land before continuing on their journey. From the moment I stepped out of the car at the lighthouse that overlooks the cape I could feel something. A strong spiritual presence that you can’t describe to anyone else but feel in your bones. There’s a strange harmony between the calm in the air and the thrashing of the waves around the cape that breathes life into a quiet peaceful place.
Cape Reinga is just one of many places in New Zealand that has made a lasting impression on my heart. Each hidden bay, baby animal and gorgeous sunset has made the last 9 months extremely special. I never could have imagined myself actually doing this a few years ago and now I can’t imagine my life any other way. So many things have changed for me this year and learning to adapt and trust myself has been a pretty meaningful lesson. That being said, a few big things have changed lately. I left New Zealand last week to visit my sister in Taipei and travel through India with her. I'm already smiling just thinking about all the chai I'm going to drink!
Leaving NZ was bitter sweet but I’ll be back after my travels to pet a few more sheep and say my final goodbyes. In the meantime, I’ll be stuffing myself full of dan bing and xiaolongbao while trying ALL of the spicy chips and Asian beer that 7/11 has to offer. After all, how lucky am I to have a Chinese speaking tour guide/sister who knows exactly what kind of weird earrings and pillows I'll like. If I know one thing for sure, It’s that tea eggs are my new favorite snack.