New Zealand: Milford Sound is a primordial dreamland

New Zealand: Milford Sound is a primordial dreamland

Milford Sound is not a sound. European explorers mistakenly labeled it as such, but in fact, as its waterways were formed by the Tasman Sea filling up glacier-carved valleys, it's a fjord. Or, fiord*, if you speak Kiwi.

Kea begging outside the entrance to the Homer Tunnel

Kea begging outside the entrance to the Homer Tunnel

Fiordland National Park is remote, even by New Zealand standards. Like most of the South Island's destinations, you have to travel windy, rugged two-lane highways through mountains and farmland. Entering Milford Sound even involves a portal.

The Homer Tunnel, started in 1935 and completed in 1954, is a .75mi/1.2km-long, one-lane passageway that descends through a massive granite mountain and transports drivers to the other side, where they're greeted by more lush rainforest and mist-shrouded peaks. With such an epic reward at the end of the tunnel, there's no shortage of tour buses loaded with sightseers from all over the world making this slightly risky trek on Milford Road.

On the other side of the tunnel, the steep road lead us down and around sharp switchbacks and finally flattened out as we neared our home for the next two nights, Milford Sound Lodge.

After checking in and parking the van in our tree-lined gravel spot, we opted for dinner in the lodge's restaurant before snuggling into the van for a rainy night's sleep. 

Meeting the Locals

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On February 13 -- the 7th anniversary of Jared's and my first official date -- we woke up to more rain. After a chill morning of breakfast and some writing time in the van, we drove to Milford Sound proper, where all the tourists congregate for boat tours and photo ops, and killed some time before our 4pm twilight kayak paddle.

We walked around the forested shoreline trail, then up to a lookout to get a better view of the "sound" and its jagged granite peaks. On our walk, we saw our first Weka -- a flightless bird about the size of a chicken with a short beak and brown feathers, not to be confused with a Kiwi (I totally thought it was a Kiwi). We also saw cicada up close, loads of lichen and multiple varieties of fern trees, which might be my new favorite tree (it's a fern! it's a tree! what's not to love?).

Three things are a given in the summer in Milford Sound: rain, cicadas and sandflies.

  1. The rain reminded us of home -- much of our drive was reminiscent of the Olympic Peninsula, at least until we began to see clumps of fern trees and kea begging for tourist handouts on the side of the road. Still, we were prepared for any weather, especially now that we had our luggage, and were happy to hang out in the van and just relax and listen to the rain pounding the roof. At night, we slept with the roof vent open, and drops diffused through the screen would sprinkle our faces. It rained so hard and so much that on the morning of the second day, I awoke to wet sheets against the wall on my side of the van. Vanna's old and cracked window seals had failed. It wasn't the first or last time Vanna would leak on me -- even while driving, rain would spray through the van's front grill and sprinkle my feet. #vanlife
  2. When I first heard them, I thought the cicadas were birds. Lots and lots of tiny birds with metallic, whirring chirps. Jared correctly ID'd the source of the sound as cicadas. Lots and lots -- oh, sorry -- HEAPS of cicadas. This winged insect's song is New Zealand's ultimate summer jam. Some people aren't fans of the noise, but I loved it. Even driving at 100km/hr on rural highways, you can hear the cicadas buzzing in the trees. It's a very comforting sound, perfect for lulling you to sleep in the back of a van. Back at home, we use a fan to mask street and neighbor noise. I think we might need to upgrade to cicada.
  3. As I shared before, sandflies were spawned by the goddess of the underworld, to either keep humans away, or to make them get back to work and stop gawking at this beautiful place. Depends on who you ask. Our kayak guide Amanda shared the first theory, after watching us swat at swarms of sandflies during her pre-paddle spiel. The rain seemed to deter the sandflies a bit, but they really don't care about what the weather's doing -- they must feed at all costs. Despite our best efforts to keep the van's doors and windows sealed against these beasts, a few managed to sneak in, as evidenced by the bumps on our heads and any other body parts left exposed as we slept. 

Kayaking Milford Sound

By the time we got out to the meeting spot for our kayak tour, the rain had let up. There was even a little sunshine breaking through the persistent cloud cover. Our guide service, Rosco's Milford Kayaks, has a tiny gear shed at the terminus of Deepwater Basin Road, off highway 94 between Milford Sound and the lodge. Inside the shed, we met our guide for the afternoon, Amanda, and two Australian tourists. She gave us the rundown on the tour and soon we were kitted out in striped-wool base layers and kayak skirts and rain parkas.

Amanda and our fearless skipper (the water was ROUGH)

Amanda and our fearless skipper (the water was ROUGH)

Amanda's accent -- slightly Kiwi, mostly North American -- tipped us off that she wasn't from around these parts. A native of New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Amanda had been living in NZ for the last four months, and had picked up a little bit of the local lilt and a lot of Kiwi and Maori lore. We were very appreciative of her knowledge of the area, as well as her terrible, yet endearing, puns. 

To begin our 3 1/2-hour paddle, a motorboat ferried our group and the kayaks out into the sound. I'd never gotten into a kayak from a boat before. It was a lot easier than I'd imagined -- especially since the water was positively glassy compared to the rough waves we'd chopped our way through to get to the drop-off spot. 

On the tour, we spotted fur seals lazing on rocks, paddled as close to the base of a waterfall as the crushing water's currents would allow (Amanda called the spray from the falls a "glacial facial" -- it was lovely), and learned heaps about Mitre Peak, Maori legends and how much European explorers love to name things after their wives.

We also learned that Amanda is a badass. She's traveled the world working as a sea kayak guide for the better part of a decade, and yet she still has to prove herself to her colleagues in the male-dominated adventure tourism world. Amanda told us about the time a male coworker underestimated how many kayaks she could carry (she's petite, but this is what she does for a living, ffs). Once she revealed her brawn, he cautioned her against advertising her strength if she ever wanted to find a husband. Oh. Kay. Jared and I assured her that any man worthy of her would appreciate her muscles.

As with our alpine guides Anna and Jane, I'd hoped Amanda would be able to tell us that New Zealand was a magical place where women in the outdoor industry were equals -- in numbers and status -- to the men who work alongside them, but alas, that is not the world we live in.

Toward the end of our paddle, my kayaking posture and technique -- thanks to Amanda's expert instruction -- were finally starting to click. And I was grinning like an idiot as I sat in the front seat of Jared's and my tandem kayak. Sure, I knew my arms were going to hate me for the next couple days, but I was having SO MUCH FUN. I didn't want the trip to end.

So. Much. FUN.

So. Much. FUN.

Fishing boats at Deepwater Basin

Fishing boats at Deepwater Basin

As we aimed our boats at the Deepwater Basin shore, the rain resumed. We quickly changed into our own clothes, said our good-byes to Amanda and the Australians, and hustled back to the van to outrun the rain and sandflies. 

*Yeah. I know. It should be spelled "fjord." Apparently, European explorers misspelled it and left it that way, so now "fjord" and "Fjordland" are spelled with an "i" in New Zealand. 

New Zealand: Holiday park highlights

New Zealand: Holiday park highlights

I have Sublime's "Santeria" stuck in my head because a long-haired French dude wanted to listen to some tunes while we were both making lunch in the shared outdoor kitchen. But also because this place is chilllllll.

Jared and I are at Solscape, a holiday park in Raglan on the west coast of the North Island. It's our last stop before finishing out our trip with a night in Auckland, and it's the first chance we've really had to do nothing but sit and enjoy the view.

Not that we've been completely idle here. We both took a beginners' surf lesson last night (after a frustrating start, I got up several times and road two or three actual waves). This morning, Jared went for a private surf lesson while I got a one-on-one yoga session, only because no one else showed up.

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nd now we're sitting in bean bag chairs under a shade tree, sharing the first proper IPA we've found in NZ (Good George Brewing, Hamilton). It's perfect.

Every holiday park -- campgrounds that cater to tents, vans and sometimes offer huts or cabins -- is different. Before we came here, I was envisioning something akin to our nicer state parks, but these places are DELUXE. Most have shared kitchens (with or without provided dishes, cookware and cutlery), laundry facilities, showers and some kind of wifi offering.

Style, extras and layout are where they vary the most. Solscape, for instance, is a lush hippie-surfer hangout. I mean. There's a yoga studio. They grow their own veggies for the onsite café.

#Bliss

Here's a rundown of the holiday parks we've stayed at on this trip.

SOUTH ISLAND

Glentanner (2 nights, near Mt. Cook)

We stayed here the night before our Plateau Hut overnight and again on our return to lower elevations. Because this was our first holiday park, I was pretty impressed. The shared kitchen was outfitted with ample cookware, although we didn't need much beyond what was already provided in our van, and the lounge area felt similar to our hut experience in Switzerland.

he wifi was okay, but not great, and the showers were decent. In hindsight, this was all very basic when compared to other holiday parks. The views of Mt. Cook at sunset and sunrise can't be beat, however.

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And there are bunnies EVERYWHERE. Which gets less cute when there are so many of them and then you see a hawk snacking on one that wasn't quick enough to outrun a car on the highway.

Milford Sound Lodge (2 nights)

If most of the holiday parks we stayed at are kinda remote, this one is the remotest. Milford Sound isn't easy to get to -- you have to pass through the one-lane Homer Tunnel, which was carved through a freaking mountain and only completed in the early '90s. Roads are steep, windy and long. Jared was way into this part of our road trip.

The lodge is situated in a forest, so there are likely to be some trees and bushes separating your campsite from your neighbors. We weren't so lucky, but it didn't matter. It rained most of the time we were in Milford Sound, and yes, there were sandflies to contend with, but this place is so magical that the campground doesn't have to do much to make you happy to be here.

View from camp at Milford Sound Lodge -- welcome to the jungle.

View from camp at Milford Sound Lodge -- welcome to the jungle.

That said, the bathrooms were super nice and the shower heads -- OH MY GOD. Best shower head of my life and I don't care how that sounds. I want one at home. And for the record, it's the rectangular shape that makes this shower head awesome. It is not detatchable. 

The kitchen was well equipped (hot water on demand FTW), but the lounge space left us wanting a more communal experience that promoted conversation with fellow travelers.

Jared and I also went kayaking here, which we'll cover in a separate blog post once we get all the photos off of his camera.

Haast River Top 10 (1 night, west coast)

Good morning, chickens. 

Good morning, chickens. 

Clean, modern and relatively new compared to the other Haast holiday park, which is closer to the beach. The sites are just on a gravel lot with no trees or shade. The main building is a big, red Quonset Hut.

This was our first experience with a fully open-air kitchen, which was great. It would have been even better if the weather hadn't been so wet and windy. Our van got rocked by a squall that night, which was kind of exciting.

Haast River was decent, but I wouldn't list this place in my top 10 -- there are actually more than 20 Top 10 Holiday Parks, so. Yeah.

Jackson Retreat (1 night, near Arthur's Pass)

We stopped here the night before we did a hike of Avalanche Peak, off Arthur's Pass. This place is ADORABLE. Terraced lawns and gardens play host to van and tent alongside forested streams that promise after-dark glow worm sightings. Hobbits would probably dig it. For some reason, Jared and I took zero photos of this place. Sorry.

The common kitchen and hangout area was also very cozy. We met a couple from Anchorage (he a pilot for Alaska, she a former substitute teacher, both avid hikers) and a family from Holland.

The woman who runs Jackson bakes and sells bread every morning -- we can attest to its deliciousness -- and she was the most informative and organized camp host we'd yet to meet. She had maps and information for everything, which was much appreciated, even if we didn't follow her advice to hike something other than Avalanche Peak (no regrets).

Punakaiki Beach Camp (1 night, west coast, near Pancake Rocks)

This place is separated from the beach by a row of trees. It was our first proper ocean sunset and night-sky star viewing on our trip, thanks to sunny and clear weather.

Punakaiki Beach sunset

Punakaiki Beach sunset

We didn't use the shared kitchen, so I can't comment on that, but the covered patio seemed like a nice place to eat. I can say, though, that I wasn't happy when I discovered that the showers require you to push a button to activate the water, and then keep pushing the button every 12 seconds to complete your business. I get it. It saves water. But the shower head at Milford Sound raised my expectations and lowered my tolerance for low-flow push-button shower BS.

The Barn (2 nights, Marahau, Abel Tasman National Park)

The Barn has huts, if you're feeling fancy

The Barn has huts, if you're feeling fancy

10/10 would stay here again. Next to Solscape, this is the fanciest holiday park where we had the pleasure of plugging in our van. Lots of outdoor hangout spaces -- including a pool table -- plus an indoor fireplaces for rainy nights, which seem to be a theme of this trip and NZ summer in general.

This is also where we finally did laundry, which was fortuitous timing because on our second day here, we went for a hike and got absolutely soaked. It was so nice to return to our van and change into clean, dry, fluffy clothes.

Green-lipped mussels! So good. 

Green-lipped mussels! So good. 

We'd made dinner in the sweet as outdoor shared kitchen the night before -- BYO everything -- but on our second night, opted to eat out. There are two places to eat near The Barn -- one was closed for a wedding, so we ate at the cafe at the head of the Abel Tasman track entrance. The best thing we had here was a bowl of green-lipped mussels from Nelson.

Art museum facade thingy in New Plymouth

Art museum facade thingy in New Plymouth

NORTH ISLAND

Fitzroy Beach (1 night, New Plymouth)

Sometimes it's the little things that matter the most. Fitzroy was all about the details for beach-going campers. Multiple outdoor showers for sandy feet, ample hooks inside clean and modern bathroom showers (don't get me started on the lack of hooks on this trip).

There was also a trail that ran the length of camp and all the way into town, about 3.5km/1.8mi. Maybe that's why there were campers who appeared to actually live there. 

New Plymouth was CUTE. I'd expected it to be a cheesy tourist town, which is partly true (as evidenced by the "Americarna" classic car show rolling into town Feb. 22, and store windows all bearing bits of red, white and blue for the occasion), but it's a pretty cool industry-meets-art town. Tons of galleries, big art museums and music shops everywhere. Plus, sandy black beaches and many swimming spots.

Solscape (2 nights, Raglan)

Again, this place is all about R&R. Multiple outdoor patios, bean bag chairs and a view of the bay take the guilt out of being lazy. It helps that summer has finally decided to appear (sooo sunny!).

Oh, and Wednesday night is Curry Night at the café, which is worth the drive up from town. With fresh ingredients and a side of stunning view, this was one of the best meals we had in New Zealand.

Maxin'. Relaxin'.

Maxin'. Relaxin'.

Our van campsite is on a grassy patch with alternating rows of tent and van sites, and there's a shared outdoor kitchen nearby. Bathrooms are a little weird -- finding them was a challenge, then finding one with or near a sink was a second wrinkle. I actually got lost in the dark on my quest to find a full sink-and-toilet set. I've got it sorted out now, thankfully.

Oh, hello. 

Oh, hello. 

There are signs in every bathroom and near every sink proclaiming "Water = Life" and asking people to be considerate of their water usage -- and only flush if necessary (aka, If it's Yellow, Let it Mellow). Solscape is billed as an "eco-retreat," after all.

One universal truth is that holiday park wifi is never as good as advertised, whether it's paid or complementary. At Milford Sound, they told us not to bother -- it was nice being totally out of touch, especially in such an amazing place, for two days. It's working out pretty well here, and it is FREE, as long as you sit close enough to the Solscape reception office to maintain a signal.

Which is why I had to leave my beanbag chair under a tree and am now sitting at a table on the covered veranda. With the same gorgeous view. Poor me.

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Clearly, I prioritize showers and hangout spaces. Probably because it feels really good to relax and refresh after a long day of hiking or watching Jared drive. 😁

We're off to Auckland tomorrow morning to spend our final night in New Zealand before flying out on Friday, which will be the longest day of our lives -- at least 28hrs of travel.  We'll keep updating the blog with posts on our adventures even after we get home. There's HEAPS more to share. 

New Zealand: #KiwiFacts

New Zealand: #KiwiFacts

Fact: New Zealand is an amazing place filled with generous people and unique plants and animals. Here are a few #KiwiFacts we've picked up from our alpine and kayak guides, as well as a few general observations about how things work in New Zealand.

1. Kea dig kidneys. According to our alpine guide, Anna, the Kea -- a ginormous, wicked-smart parrot found on mountains and in forests -- adapted to the arrival of sheep in New Zealand in a rather monstrous way. Being omnivorous and opportunistic, the Kea would perch on top of a sheep's back, peck at its sides and then PLUCK OUT THE KIDNEYS. Bird's gotta eat, I guess.

Kea taking off from the summit of Mt. Avalanche

Kea taking off from the summit of Mt. Avalanche

Of course, this practice didn't go over well with farmers, who killed Kea in order to protect their herds. Fortunately for everyone, Kea gained protection in 1986 and somewhere along the way, forgot how delicious sheep kidneys are. 

2. Sandflies are from hell. Captain James Cook described sandflies as "mischievous creatures." This is most definitely accurate, but I prefer the Maori origin story, which Milford Sound kayak guide Amanda tipped us off to, for these little blood suckers:

"... the god Tu-te-raki-whanoa had just finished creating the landscape of Fiordland, it was absolutely stunning... so stunning that it stopped people from working. They just stood around gazing at the beauty instead. The goddess Hine-nui-te-pō became angry at these unproductive people, so she created the sandfly to bite them and get them moving."

Milford Sound, looking a bit underworldly

Milford Sound, looking a bit underworldly

Hine-nui-te-po was actually the goddess of the underworld, which makes sandflies her minions. Having collected countless sandfly bites at this point in our trip (they don't just fade away like a mosquito bite -- they flare up repeatedly), this checks out.  

3. The tutu berry is poisonous af. New Zealand has a lot of berry bushes and trees. We sampled a couple of benign varieties while hiking to the Red Tarn near Mt. Cook Village with Anna. When I pointed out a berry on the trail that looked like a dark purple, shriveled currant, she told me it was very poisonous. So poisonous, in fact, that it can kill an elephant. One snacky circus elephant died in 1956 and two more visiting elephants died in 1968. Still, the berry is everywhere on the South Island.

New Zealand: Not for elephants. 

Okay. Not all #KiwiFacts involve death. Here's some less terrifying trivia.

4. There are more than 3,000 glaciers in New Zealand and at 18 miles long and as much as 2,000 feet thick, the Tasman glacier accounts for 1/3 of all glaciated terrain in NZ. Our alpine guide Anna said that 1,000 of the country's smallest glaciers could fit inside the Tasman. Neat!

The Tasman Glacier, looking like an ice river, as seen from the summit of Glacier Dome

The Tasman Glacier, looking like an ice river, as seen from the summit of Glacier Dome

As the glaciers continue to recede (#wompwomp), that number will get less neat, however. The Tasman has retreated 590 ft a year since the 1990s and there's now a 4-mile-long lake where its foot used to be. 

Tasman Lake, as seen from our helicopter to Plateau Hut

Tasman Lake, as seen from our helicopter to Plateau Hut

5. People don't just drive on the wrong side here. On trails and sidewalks, you're also expected to keep left. New Zealand hosts many tourists from all over the world, so this doesn't always go smoothly.

6. The toilets don't swirl the opposite way. At least, it's impossible to tell because everyone has those toilets with the buttons for #1 or #2 that release a burst of gushing water when you flush. I've tried to see if I can tell which direction the rest of the water swirls, but I'd rather not hang out in the toilet long enough to get to the bottom of this mystery, tbh. 

New Zealand: Plateau Hut & Glacier Dome

New Zealand: Plateau Hut & Glacier Dome

Morning came easy after a night's stay at Glentanner Holiday Park. The weather looked promising. Sun warmed us as we made coffee and toast out of the back of Vanna White. Given our late arrival, we settled up with the camp host upon our exit.

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An intermission of sheep, cattle dogs, and their shepards was an entertaining delay to our short drive up the road -- a sure sign we'd finally arrived in this foreign land. Soon, we would be tossing our gear with the our guides Anna and Jane.

 Alpine Guides Limited (AGL) is based in a cabin immediately adjacent the the Aoraki visitors center in Mt. Cook Village. From the car park, a small series of stone steps through bush lead up to a surprisingly secluded setup in an otherwise bustling mountain town.

We were warmly greeted with cheers upon our arrival.  Due to my somewhat frantic phone calls and emails, office admin Daniela was well aware of our luggage and car troubles. Turns out our mountain guide Anna was considering driving out to Twizel to pick us up that morning -- an early sign that we would be in generous and capable hands. Thanks to Russell Armstrong, this wasn't necessary.

Anna has crisp blue eyes, curly dirty blonde hair, and the rosy completion of an individual who spends countless days in the alpine. In particular, the sun had disclosed a childhood scar across the bridge of her nose.

Jane is slighter in build, with fair skin, dark hair, and a sneaky smile. Her giggles are contagious. As the senior guide, she would function as a supervisor to Anna on our trip. Soon, we learned that this was Jane's first trip into the mountains in quite some time. Earlier in the season, she had a run-in with some rock fall while descending Mount Tasman on the Emmes Ridge route. She suffered a compound fracture of her humerus and now has a metal bar holding the bones of her upper arm together. Her recovery has been slow. Too slow for her pace, anyhow.

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Approach Notes: Helicopter. A first for Suzanne and I both. The ride was a short 10 mins up the Tasman Glacier drainage to "The Grand Plateau" and the sharply painted red Plateau Hut. That's right, no bushwhack, no river crossings, and no tired dogs from a full day of hiking. Instead, stunning views and color commentary over the headset via Anna. "See those specs in the moraine? Those are boats. Just to give you a sense of scale. Over there, the south aspect is the steepest face on Aoraki."

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Later, we would discover that this face had a name: Caroline. And that Jane had once soloed a stiff line up this seemingly vertical terrain. For us, she happily mentored Anna and played resident one-armed photographer for our outing.

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Anna got us acquainted with our digs for the night. A gracious bunk room just off the entry / gear locker area. We tossed our bed rolls out and then had lunch. There in the kitchen and common area, a small party of seven was practicing anchor building and swinging of leads. The six clients were being instructed by Andreas from Aspiring Guides. Greetings between the guides were collegiate, intimately friendly, and vacant of any sense of competition. Soon we would all be scampering around on Glacier Dome, a bump on the ridge running up and away from the Plateau Hut leading to Mount Dixon.

Our Climb: The weather was perfect. For our ascent, Anna roped up to Suzanne and I, leaving Jane free to snap photos of us all. We switched back up the broad shoulder leading to the ridge crest. Approaching an ascending traverse, Anna short roped us -- a snug way to ensure we didn't pendulum down into the crevasse below. We soon reached a broad crest. There, our guides made fun of how we say "Glay-shurrr," in contrast to "Glay-see-er."

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The vistas were already second to none. Beside us, the other teams were now ascending a steeper face applying the skills they were just practicing in the safety of the hut. We arrived at a tiny moat below a step on the ridge. We swung climbers left onto steeper terrain. Here, Suzanne's trepidation was building -- the runout looked dicey and climbing up such sheer snow in crampons was a new endeavor.

Anna lead out then prepared to belay us. I tried to mansplain the safety of the system to Suzanne. Encouragement from Anna and Jane proved more beneficial. Privately, while setting up the anchor on top, they'd debated whether Suzanne was too nervous to finish the climb. Jane, ever wise, assured Anna that Suzanne "wasn't over the edge yet."

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"Climb on." Suzanne soon stepped over and up to the rocky col while I tired to keep up with her pace. After a short drop over to the other side, we waited while Anna lead the next pitch -- another short ascent up snow then along a narrow snow ridge to the base of the summit block. Here, Suzanne's will would be further challenged. "Rock climbing in crampons, first time for everything."

 Jane and I both coached her hand and foot placement. In no time flat we were summit lounging. Smiles all around. We descended the back side and traversed through the Grand Plateau. The scale of the special cirque is difficult to convey.

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Back at the hut. More coffee and tea.

Another helicopter arrived. This time, a rescue team. Jane and Anna both were hoping it was merely a training exercise. This was not the case. A party of two triggered their Personal Locator Beacons high on Aoraki. They had ascended the east ridge and were descending back to the hut via the Linda Glacier. There they could not discern a safe line through broken upper Linda. Both were safely extricated and soon gathering their gear to head back home. We shared snacks and warm drinks with them as they sorted their gear. The rescue team departed and another lift came an hour or so later. This emergency assistance is offered free of charge in New Zealand.

Evening came and Anna prepared a lovely dinner of a cream sauce pasta with smoked salmon. The evening round of radio call and response soon began. One of the rescue team leaders was now calling from a base to all the various huts within the Canterbury region. Starting north and working south. Weather reports and party status at each hut was confirmed.

Following these formalities was an open mic night of sorts. A relay of "hellos" and "how are you mates." The banter was at times cryptic, riddled with scratchy feedback and kiwi slang. But the pertinence of this strange network was not lost on me. It was easy to sense just how tight-knit the community of hut keepers, climbing guides, and trekking guides is. They are colleagues who do not see one another all too frequently. This radio was a life line not merely reserved for emergencies but daily comfort.

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We closed out the night with Bananagrams (or "Bah-nah-nah-graaahms" in Kiwi) and more tea. Our education in Kiwi slang continued -- and while those words were fair game, American slang was not, much to competitive word-nerd Suzanne's chagrin.

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Late that evening, after many of us had gone to bed, a party of two arrived having just completed the "Grand Traverse" of Aoraki. These two gentleman were employees of the Department of Conservation. It was very apparent that both Anna and Jane were proud of their success. Jane had been anxious checking on the progress of their descent, keeping an eye out for approaching headlamps. She prepared some additional food and hot tea upon their arrival. Both men were thankful and flattered by her offering.

High winds and a full moon on a starry night made after-dark pissing off the cantilevered Plateau Hut deck equal parts beautiful and precarious. Morning came and we waited out a small storm system to pass. Once clear, we flew back to Mt. Cook Village, this time with Grand Travese team in tow. Our pilot was the same one who'd flown the rescue mission the day before -- according to Jane and Anna, he was the best in the fleet.

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In-flight headset chatter debated the rescued party's reasons for bailing on their descent from the summit. The consensus seemed to be that the climbers would have been fine if they'd continued, but let their heads get the better of them.

 Having arrived in early afternoon, we had time for lunch and a short hike. Anna lead us to Red Tarns -- little alpine pools filled with a striking red algae -- just above town. Her tales of childhood farm life in New Zealand and knowledge of local flora made for a very enjoyable jaunt. Soon, we parted ways and said our farewells.

Hiring a climbing guide was a reluctant first for me. In this instance, the cost could be validated with, "It's our honeymoon, let's splurge." The scope of the trip was well within our abilities, especially as humble followers. But us as "clients" -- this was foreign territory. I was concerned that the comradery found in the mountains might somehow be tarnished by the paid arrangement. Would our guides feel like partners?

The answer was a resounding YES. I'm so deeply grateful to have connected with Anna and Jane -- two very talented, interesting, and badass women. In such a short time, we shared not only mountain views but the gifts of friendship, including frequent ribbings, intimate stories, and hugs.

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New Zealand: Christchurch

New Zealand: Christchurch

The weather was much like I remember in October 1989. A muted grey sky with a warm breeze, yet brisk enough that you knew seasons were in flux. It was a momentous time to be a baseball fan residing in Northern California.

"The Battle of the Bay," they called it. For my family, fans would be an extreme exaggeration. "Better to do than watch," so said my pops. Yet, on a few occasions, we made the car trip to the Oakland Coliseum. The only place almost large enough to contain the steroid-swollen Bash Brothers' balls from flying beyond the fences.

Marc McGuire and Jose Canseco were not my heroes, but I certainly kept tabs and chatted up my rudimentary understanding of stats at school. So I was most certainly disappointed that the game wasn't on TV. It was, after all, the World Series.

I would root for the As. But homework first.

I was at the kitchen table with my back to the dormant television. My mother was in the kitchen preparing dinner. The clatter of pots and pans was interrupted only by her occasional inquiries on my progress. Heads down, I lost track of my dad's whereabouts. He was puttering around taking care of something around the house. The workday was not through for any of us. Such is life.

I felt a slight wooziness. A lick of crisp air entered through the back patio slider, rustling my papers on the table. I heard the familiar sound of water lapping against the lip of our swimming pool. Is Dad swimming? Surely not. Maybe he fell in?

I sprung from the table and hurried to the backyard. What should have been a placid kidney bean of blue was heaving white caps of water beyond the brim. The pool was vacant. There were no wet footprints spoiling some sort of stealth cannon ball.

Dumbfounded, I retreated to the kitchen. I tried to explain what was surely some supernatural event to my mom only to be interrupted by the arrival of family friend. He had been listening to the game on his car radio. We turned on the TV.

The documentation of rescue efforts, the accounts of survival, and the tales of loss went on for weeks.

The Richter scale does not reconcile the devastation of an earthquake. The magnitude of just one life is lost in the severity of such natural disasters. Only later did we discover the long crack in the poolside concrete. A far cry from the perils of so many closer to the San Andreas Fault. Yet somehow we all move on. Progress. Rebuild our infrastructure, culture, and community.

Since the 2011 earthquake, New Zealand's Christchurch appears to be in its infancy of succession. Restoration seems favored only for historic buildings, while newer structures deemed unsafe are left standing without a purpose. Barricades litter the sidewalks to keep pedestrians a safe distance away. Of Christchurch's nearly 400,000 residents, we saw all of a dozen locals during our evening walk.

It is a city eerily vacant, but nonetheless beautiful.

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New Zealand: Everything happens for a reason

New Zealand: Everything happens for a reason

Planning a multi-week international trip is hard. No matter how much research you do, or how many checklists you make, there are going to be surprises. Guaranteed.

Our first ah-ha moment happened right off the bat, at Sea-Tac. While checking in with Alaska Airlines, we discovered that we were missing an Electronic Visa, which is required for anyone traveling to or passing through Australia. OK. No problem. We quickly got an Australian visa for each of us online and finished checking in.

After watching the third quarter of the Super Bowl and destroying a plate of nachos at the Hawks Nest, certain the Falcons had this one in the bag, we leisurely wandered over to our N gate.

Discovery two: Sometime between checking in and getting our hopes up about the Patriots finally losing, our gate had changed -- all the way back to the D gates in the main terminal. OK. No problem.

We backtracked and boarded our flight to LA in the nick of time. Then we sat around (in first class, thanks to Jared's MVP status, NBD) for an additional 45 minutes due to de-icing and/or the pilots wanting to hear the final Super Bowl score.

Maybe -- I'm not saying for sure, but MAYBE -- it was this slight delay that caused our luggage to miss our LA to Brisbane, AU, flight. Or maybe it was Tom Brady's fault. Screw that guy.

Discovery three: We'd have to buy a whole new set of mountain clothes (and underwear) to take on the first adventure of our trip, an overnight stay at the Plateau Hut and climb of Glacier Dome in Mt. Cook-Aoraki National Park. Fine. Not great. But fine.

But at least we weren't homeless. We picked up our sweet camper van, aka Vanna White, and tried to look on the bright side. Soon, there would be showers! 

Following a restful night in our Christchurch Airbnb, we dropped heaps of cash at Kiwi outdoor retailer Kathmandu and then were on our way to Mt. Cook Village. We stopped to refuel in Twizel, a sleepy, but growing outpost near the junction before the highway to Mt. Cook. With a full tank, we continued on HWY 80 past the impossibly blue waters of Lake Pukaki.

We were enjoying the spectacular views while listening to Grace Love & the True Loves' "Everything Happens for a Reason" when Vanna started to sputter and Jared hurriedly pulled over. (He's an ace at driving on the wrong side of the road, by the way. It'll be interesting to see how he adjusts when we get home.)

Two Australian tourists pulled up alongside us and reported they'd seen white smoke coming out the back of the van. We checked our gauges and everything looked fine. Then it dawned on us....

Discovery four: Putting regular fuel in a diesel vehicle will kill that vehicle. In the U.S., green pumps = diesel, and black pumps = regular. Everywhere else, it's the opposite. There are a lot of things the United States gets backwards when compared to the rest of the world, apparently.

Anyway. We were screwed, stranded on the side of the road with no way to call for help. Jared's phone wouldn't ring through to the rental company at all and mine kept teasing me with ringing sounds, then dropping.

Rather than dissolve into panicked tears because we killed Vanna (did I mention we also had no luggage and were wearing the same clothes we had on in Seattle?), we tried to find a passing motorist with a phone that could make NZ calls. On our second try, Jared flagged down a couple of Swedish tourists (also on their honeymoon) who just so happened to have a local number, wisely given to them by their car rental company.

Jared connected with our rental company and they said they'd send someone from Twizel to give us a tow. Relieved that help was on the way, we gave our thanks to the Swedes (with hugs from me) and then retreated to the safety of our van to avoid the sand flies (sneaky biting gnats) and play cards while we waited.

The man who rolled up in a flatbed tow truck was gruff and grizzled, with a mop of white hair and coveralls labeled "Russell." He grunted at Jared's greeting and then proceeded to get to work winching our van onto his truck.

Yes, we were the dumb tourists who needed a rescue from a local mechanic from a town with a population of less than who cares. That's how it felt at first, anyway. Once in the truck cab with Russell, things started to soften quickly.

First, he got politics out of the way -- we were on the same page about Trump being a terrifying mistake. Then we learned a little bit about his personal history. A former mechanic at gold mines in Australia, Russell has lived in Twizel now for the last 45 years. People know him if you mention his name: Russell Armstrong.

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We jokingly haggled about when he could fix our van. It would require flushing to remove all the fuel, but hopefully nothing else because we hadn't driven it that far and it'd had half a tank of diesel in it when we'd refueled. My best-case scenario was that he could fix it the next day, so it could be ready when we returned from the Plateau Hut.

Of course, this meant we had nowhere to sleep for that night and would require a hastily arranged shuttle from Twizel to Mt. Cook Village (about an hour's drive) early in the morning, or canceling our trip. But that was our problem, not Russell's.

After Jared and I pushed the van into Russell's garage (honeymoon adventure!!!), Russell started to jack it up in his lift (or whatever that's called). Then his phone rang. It was his wife, wondering if he'd be home for "tea," aka dinner.

 "I think I'm going to fix this one tonight," he told her.

Stunned, we thanked him for going WAY above and beyond to help us -- and then I went outside because there was something in my eyes.

"Do you have plans for tea?" Russell asked.

"You mean dinner? No."

"There's a wood-fired pizza place on the side of the road over there, through the golf course."

"What do you want on your pizza?" we asked.

Jared and I walked over to the pizza place and ordered Russell the chicken satay and a Margarita for ourselves. They of course knew who Russell was.

By the time the pizzas were ready, so was Vanna. Russell picked us up and took us back to the garage. Before settling up with him, we invited him in for tea in the van.

We shared pizza and stories and I managed not to burst into tears at the immense display of kindness this stranger had shown us. Because of Russell, we would be able to make our trip to Plateau Hut. Because of Russell, we had a place to sleep. Because of Russell, VANNA WHITE LIVES.

 Discovery five+: There are more good people in this world than bad people, and human kindness is more powerful than any wrench thrown in your carefully orchestrated travel plans. And Russell Armstrong is a freaking angel.

But Russell wasn't finished yet. When we left the garage to fill the van with DIESEL, we ended up at a self-serve station that only took local credit cards. Just as Jared was about to give up, Russell materializes in his pick-up truck.

He'd gone by the other filling station (maybe on his way home, maybe to check on us, who knows) and when he didn't see us, he swung by this one to make sure we were OK. He escorted us to the other gas station, pointed with a wry smirk at the correct pump, and then we said our farewells.

About an hour later, Jared and I were at Glentanner Holiday Park, just 20 minutes shy of Mt. Cook Village. On our way in, we passed a tent camper who waved at us -- it was our roadside hero, Henrick the Swede!

After we realized who it was -- he and his wife Alex had mentioned they were staying at Glentanner that night when we'd used their phone -- we parked and quickly walked our way back toward his spot. Henrick intercepted us with two beers in hand and asked, incredulously, "Is it really you?"

We could hardly believe it either.

We'd made it here, the next day we would be on our way via OMFG helicopter to Plateau Hut, and our New Zealand adventure was back on track.

Our Wedding Day

Our Wedding Day

June 18th was such a special day. We are so thankful to all who joined us on our wedding day and to those who were there in spirit. After enjoying the warm summer months of our newly formed union, we now find ourselves settling into the sweater weather of fall with time to slow down and reflect on our amazing party.

So grab your favorite warm beverage, a loved one, and check out our wedding photos. Hope you feel as warm and fuzzy as we do.

Suzanne and I look over Elliot Bay and an approaching summer squall.

Suzanne and I look over Elliot Bay and an approaching summer squall.

In other news, we've booked our airfare for our honeymoon. Come February we'll be headed to New Zealand for three weeks. Check in here for updates on our adventure. We'll use this blog for journaling our time abroad.