Halfway There Together: Surprises and Changes So Far

Morgan's view of the Sydney Opera House during a recent ferry ride.

The Sydney skyline as seen from a ferry.

As you can guess from the photo, we’ve started the five-week Australian leg of our journey! This past week was a blur as I left Morgan and the kids for a short trip back to California. The three of them transitioned from New Zealand to here, and I rejoined them midweek.

I felt the way this guy looks after I crossed the date line twice in a week. Morgan shot this photo while on a trip to the Sydney Zoo with the kids.

I felt the way this guy looks after I crossed the date line twice in a week. Morgan and the kids saw this koala at the Sydney Zoo.

At first I felt as bushed as a koala who looks drunk on eucalyptus midday. (Little-known fact from Friends of the Koalas: “Contrary to popular belief, eucalyptus leaves do not make koalas drunk. Koalas appear drunk or lazy because they have developed a low-energy lifestyle to compensate for their extremely low-energy diet.” What a bummer to discover — I liked the idea that this lovable species had evolved to be fat, lazy and perpetually buzzed.)

In the midst of the past week, each of us took time to mark the halfway point in our journey by doing the following exercise: write a letter to ourselves and the other family members. Reflect on the trip so far, making note of what memories stand out and our feelings about the past six months. Then imagine the second half of the journey (when we’ll go from Australia to Hong Kong, Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey) and write down some hopes and expectations for those months. Don’t share the letter with anyone yet; seal it up and set it aside. Then, on the last night before returning home, open and take turns reading them to one another and reflecting further — not only about where we went and what we did, but also why we did it, how it affected us and what we’ll do next.

I have my friend Carolyn to thank (the one who hosted us in Queenstown, who’s an accomplished educator and world traveler) for suggesting this exercise, because it prompted me to think more deeply about how this trip has changed and surprised us. There’s no way I can fit all those ideas into a blog post, but I’d like to share some.

Here, then, are some surprises and revelations  in no particular order:

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Cheerio, New Zealand

On the road between Queenstown and Glenorchy (click to enlarge).

On the road between Queenstown and Glenorchy (click to enlarge).

On a run with Morgan this morning, I wistfully said goodbye to New Zealand and its intoxicating, idyllic landscape. We headed out from our friends’ home near Queenstown, where we stayed for over a week, and took a trail that showcased so much of what I’ll miss about New Zealand:

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In the Backwoods of Blackball, Not Your Typical Hilton

When we set out on this journey, I consciously hoped for authentic experiences that would take our family to offbeat, out-of-the-way places. I wanted us to meet locals, learn about their history and culture, and improve our ability to cope with unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable situations.

A recent 24-hour period gave us that kind of experience in a remote corner of the South Island’s West Coast region — in part because I was gullible enough to fall for a joke.

A vintage advertisement for The Blackball Hilton, "Cheapest In the West" (click to enlarge).

A vintage advertisement for The Blackball Hilton, "Cheapest In the West" (click to enlarge).

Many months ago, when I was mostly ignorant about New Zealand and starting to plan our itinerary here, Morgan and I heard of a mountainous trail race that finished at The Blackball Hilton and decided to sign up. The Hilton was part of the draw. What a treat it would be, I thought, to stay at an upscale, familiar hotel chain after so many budget motels and campgrounds — and convenient, too, since it would be right at the finish line. I can still recall the mental picture I had of a typically plush Hilton lounge and lobby.

Only after we registered for the January 16 race did I google Blackball and discover the “Hilton” is a creaky Victorian inn and pub built in 1909, located way off the main road in a dying mining town with only one general store and a couple hundred residents.

“I would never stay here again,” shouted out one TripAdvisor.com reivew. “The rooms had layers of dust and dirty carpets.” Another detailed, “There are many quirky things about this hotel — the dolls staring at you as you turn round a corner upstairs. The poetry in the toilets and washrooms. The gallery in the middle of the upstairs with the drawings and paintings of ladies of the night. The monkeys looking in at you as you sit on the loo.”

In 1992, the Hilton Corp.’s lawyers demanded that the hotel drop the trademarked Hilton name, and the rebellious innkeepers responded by changing the official name to “Formerly The Blackball Hilton,” which it  has been ever since.

Hmmm, I pondered, more curious than appalled — maybe it was meant to be that we stayed there. Perhaps part of the adventure of running the remote race would be staying in a historic hole in the wall. I contacted the owners, Chris and Viv, about our babysitting quandary (initially I erroneously assumed “the Hilton” would have a kids’ club or childcare to supervise Colly and Kyle while we ran the race), and they told me no worries, they’d keep an eye on the kids and let them have the run of the pub. I took a deep breath and had faith it’d all work out.

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The Wild, Wild West Coast

Trails like this (which is the Oparara Valley Track) crisscross the wet and wild West Coast.

Trails like this (which is part of the Oparara Valley Track) crisscross the wet and wild West Coast.

I knew very little about the West Coast region of the South Island before we spent a week here, except for its reputation as rainy, buggy and rural. The average rainfall is 2575 mm (8.4 feet), and a sign at Abel Tasman National Park said, “You think the sand flies are bad here? Wait ’til you get to the West Coast!”

“At least you’ll miss the crowds over there,” a tour-guide type mentioned in a look-on-the-bright-side tone.

We detoured to the West Coast to participate in a low-profile trail running event (which I’ll write about next time), and we’re so glad we did. We have been blown away by the West Coast’s landscape — and not just ’cause it’s windy. This swath of New Zealand is gorgeous, authentic, unspoiled … and, yes, wet.

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Tips for Touring Abel Tasman National Park

For those of you who’d like a glimpse of kayaking at Abel Tasman National Park but don’t want to wade through last week’s narrative, here’s a mini-movie with the highlights of our trip. Just keep in mind that I only put down my paddle and picked up my Flip camera in the calmest of conditions, so this video really waters down the adventure we encountered at camp and sea!YouTube Preview Image

Abel Tasman National Park seems so vast and alluring, with its craggy coves and dense vegetation, that it’s hard to believe it’s the country’s smallest national park (about 57,000 acres). For anyone planning a visit there, I offer these tips and recommendations:

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Our 3-Day Kayak Adventure Around NZ’s Abel Tasman Park

A slice of beach and blue around Abel Tasman National Park.

A slice of beach and blue around Abel Tasman National Park.

New Zealanders use the term “adventure” loosely to market pretty much any activity under the sun. I was skeptical we’d experience a true  adventure here, especially if it were safe enough to involve the kids, but then my lifelong friend Carolyn, who moved to the South Island two years ago, booked a three-day kayak trip for our two families along the coast of Abel Tasman National Park. I had never kayaked before (unless you count an hour in a hotel lagoon in Hawaii), but how hard could it be? I had visions of paddling on glassy blue water and sipping wine with old friends while our kids played on a beach. Besides, we’re all old pros at camping. We were game.

Three days at sea and camping in the forest together seemed like a reunion too perfect to be true. We arranged to meet them on the Sunday after New Year’s.

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Meals with Eels and Other Nelson Must-Do’s

The garden setting of The Jester House Cafe near Nelson, where the food isn't the main attraction.

The garden setting of The Jester House Cafe near Nelson, where the great food isn't the main attraction.

A man I met in Auckland gave me this tip when he learned we’re visiting his home town, Nelson: “You really must go to The Jester, about 40 minutes away, because it’s the best cafe. Worth the drive. Terrific breakfast, heaping portions. And eels — the children will love them!”

He made it sound as though eels were on the children’s menu — a kind of kiddie sushi, perhaps — but a check of The Jester House website revealed live freshwater “tame eels” as a main attraction. It seemed as odd as a B&B advertising pet snakes along with delicious scones.

We put it on our must-do list and found ourselves driving up the Coastal Highway a few days after Christmas to find out if tame eels were an oxymoron or some kind of joke at this place called The Jester.

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Christmas in a Manger at Nelson, New Zealand

The view of Nelson from Harris Hill.

The view of Nelson from Harris Hill (click to enlarge).

Sarah writes: We just wrapped up our most unusual and special Christmas ever, which we celebrated at a rental cottage in Nelson, New Zealand. Ending the year here and being on this journey together is the ultimate “gift that keeps on giving.” Since my 8-year-old son Kyle spent part of his homeschooling week writing about this place, and Morgan took terrific photos, I decided to hand this blog post over to them. I hope you enjoy Kyle’s very own blog post and movie!

Mom and me homeschooling on our deck.

Mom and me homeschooling on our deck.

Right now I’m at Harris Hill. It is in Nelson, N.Z., which is at the top part of the South Island. It is at a farm with animals like a hairy pig, goats, sheep, calves/cows/bulls, dogs, ponies, horses, llamas and chickens. It has a view of the blue bay, and since we’re near the ocean, it’s windy! The wind makes the grass look like waves.

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Playing Around Rotorua

We spent the past week in Rotorua, a North Island city famous for adventure sports and stinky geothermal sites. Perhaps no other city in New Zealand, or anywhere, has come up with more ways to thrill tourists (and make them part with money) with “adventure” broadly defined. You can luge, river raft, sky swing, sky jump, bungee jump, jet boat, kayak, off-road race and mountain bike. Plus, there’s the ZORB, a giant rubber ball that bounces down a hill with a person sliding and rattling around inside it. We went on the luge and let the kids try the ZORB (just once, because of its exZORBitant prices):

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The Rotorua Tourism Board will probably be upset to hear me say these activities generally seem overrated and overpriced. Our best times around Rotorua involved spending free time for free.

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Happy Campers Touring North NZ by RV

YouTube Preview ImageTwenty years ago, on a college road trip to Oregon, Morgan and I stopped by a Winnebago dealership so I could tour some models. I told him then that nothing would make me happier than being on the road with him in a Minnie Winnie. Either that or a pop-top Vanagon.  He bought a small Toyota truck with a camper shell to appease me, but I still pined for a mobile kitchen.

Now I feel like someone should pinch me, because I can’t believe the four of us are driving, cooking, eating and sleeping in a magnificent four-berth camper that seems perfect in every way.

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