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.
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.