Weekend at Grampis

G: Soooo…about three months ago, after a taste of country Victoria on the Great Ocean Road, it was soon time for another weekender out of the city. This time we ventured three hours northwest to the Grampians National Park (known as Gariwerd to local Koories), a bushwalker’s paradise showcasing some of Victoria’s most outstanding natural features. The Grampians boast a rich diversity of flora, varying degrees of walking trails, world-famous rock climbing, significant Aboriginal rock art, and the amazingly cute wallabies bouncing around everywhere!

It was the Queen’s Birthday Holiday weekend, so it seemed everyone wanted a little getaway. Because of the three-day weekend, accommodations were full and we almost didn’t go. Luckily, we found a motel (and time-warp back the 80’s) for the first night in Horsham, about 40km away from Halls Gap, the central town of the Grampians. After the drive, we made a quick stop to the information center in Halls Gap to get our weekend itinerary in check.

We went to the Boroka and Reed Lookout points first, with a short walk to the Balconies. The winding drive through the forest took us to great heights and amazing views of the surrounding ranges. The lookout points were an easy walk from the car park and offered vast views of Victoria.

Staying in Horsham actually worked out nicely because we hiked Hollow Mountain on the way there, which is in a part of the park that we wouldn’t have normally gone to. The incline for the trail got steep quite quickly, but for good reason. Our mountain goat mentality got us to the first resting point in 30 minutes, where rock climbers were already testing their bouldering skills above a crash mat. We explored the nooks and crannies of some of these amazing boulders ourselves and climbed into a cave with another amazing view. We continued climbing higher and found more adventurous rock climbers tackling huge faces before it was time to head back with the sun dipping into the horizon. Blake thought we may as well check out of the few rock art sites, so we had a quick look at the Gulgun Manja Shelter which had deep ochre and sienna colored hands imprinted in the sandstone.

B: The next day was devoted to the famous Pinnacles Lookout, an exciting climb through canyons, steep trails, and big boulders to a fantastical lookout. It was a crowded walk to the top, because of the beauty and the holiday, but the view was gorgeous. So gorgeous in fact that we Skyped my parents to show them what we were up to on a Sunday morning! There was a fenced off area where one could get right to the tip of the pinnacle and have full view of the Wonderland Range looking out for miles on the vast expanse of a very beautiful and spiritual place. After a bit of lunch at the top, we started our descent and followed another path down through the Grand Canyon. Not like the one in Arizona, but still pretty cool.

Then it was back on the windy Mt Victory Road to Mackenzie Falls. Now, we’ve seen many waterfalls on our adventure, but these were quite unique. A steep 30-minute walk down into a canyon revealed a gigantic curtain of gushing water over shimmering black rocks. It’s Victoria’s largest and most majestic waterfall.

G: On our way to the hostel in Halls Gap, we made a stop at the Brambuk Cultural Centre to learn a little more about Aboriginal history, culture, and terrain. On our way, we spotted some wallabies near the parking lot so we pulled closer to observe and soon saw a little movement in one of the mama’s pouches! We waited a few more seconds, and sure enough a sweet little Joey popped its head out for some fresh air! We spent what little time was left exploring the Cultural Centre before they closed. That night we cooked up a yummy dinner and sipped on some ciders in the cozy common room, bonfire warming our toes, getting to know some new Aussie’s.  Always a pleasure, and yes, they are as nice as Canadians. 🙂

The next morning, one of the lovely lady’s we met the night before, Nadia, joined us in the Dream Theatre at the Cultural Centre to watch a couple films on the Grampians National Park: one more spiritual and the other more geological and science-based. It was nice to see both versions and take away our own. Soon after, we were off on another hike!

B: We decided to do a circuit trail on Mount Rosea. There were little detours to waterfalls on the way, but main attraction was the view from the top. There was a bit of a landing area with some boulders to climb around to go all the way out to the edge. We each found quiet spot and took a short meditation break (only natural when you reach the top of a mountain). The views were stunning!

Finally, we stopped at the Bunjil Shelter, one of the most culturally significant pieces of rock art in southeastern Australia. It’s a depiction of Bunjil, also known as the creator and subject of the spiritual film we watched at the Cultural Centre. I believe he’s also referred to in the Red Hot Chili Peppers song “Walkabout” with the lyric, “A didgeridoo original man with a dream; I believe the aborigine; On a walkabout.”

All in all, we had an amazing experience in the Grampians. It was a perfect time of year to go, despite the three-day weekend crowds. There are heaps of moderate hikes offering great lookouts that don’t take too long. The Aboriginal rock art also a unique aspect when exploring this part of the world. Who knows, maybe we’ll come back in the summer!

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She said YES!

Just wanted to let all of our followers in the blogosphere know that Gabriella and I got engaged yesterday! Since everyone has asked: I trained a kitten to deliver a message that started her on a treasure hunt leading her to the top of highest building in Melbourne where a plane was writing my message in the sky at sunset while a string quartet was playing the first song we slow-danced to. Actually….that’s a lie. But the truth was even more amazing and she ecstatically (and thankfully) said “OF COURSE! YES!”

We celebrated the day with our great friends here and were skyping with family and friends back home to deliver the good news. Melbourne has already been a special place for us and now it holds one more great memory. I also wanted to make sure we could share it with our friends since we’re so far from home, which worked out perfectly. We look forward to celebrating with all of you the next time we’re back in the US/Canada.

engaged

ps – no, we don’t have a date or location planned. one thing at a time people. 😉

Great Ocean Road(trip)

B: The most quintessential trip in Victoria is the Great Ocean Road. It’s a coastal drive heading west from Melbourne that takes anywhere from 4-8 hours, depending on how many detours and pictures you want to take. We borrowed the car from Rhonda, Gabriella’s boss at the yoga studio, for a 3-day weekend out of the city. We had both been working hard and enjoying the city life for 3 solid months, but now was time to escape back into a natural setting and see more of what Australia has to offer.

We left on a sunny Friday morning and slid out of the metropolis towards Geelong. The first stop was in Torquay and the famous Bells Beach surf spot. This place holds an annual surf competition that’s known around the world. The water was quite frigid, but the surf was up and sprinkled with brave wave riders. Then we continued to Lorne and stopped for a fresh coffee in the quaint town.

G: It was hard not to stop every few minutes to pull over and take a picture, but we kept going until Kennett River. The guidebook recommended this spot as a great place to see koalas, and lucky for us, they were right! The little fuzz balls were dotted throughout the eucalyptus trees; some were even quite low so we could observe them up close. They don’t move too much, unless they’re hungry, and generally stay sitting within the V of tree branches. They don’t have nerve endings in their bum so they can sit there for hours!

Our drive continued along the narrow coastal highway until we stopped for the night in Apollo Bay. Since it was winter the days were shorter, and we didn’t get very far before the sun set.  The weather was quite windy and brisk, so we found a quiet hostel and had a nice dinner inside before we retired for the night.

B: The next morning was a bit overcast and we got a late start on the road. Our first stop was at Maits Rest to do a short walk through a rainforest to see a giant 300-year-old Myrtle Beech tree. The air was fresh and the ferns were huge! Then we continued south to the Cape Otway Lighthouse. We didn’t plan to go up to the top because it’s quite expensive, but the road that deviates from the Great Ocean Road to the lighthouse is right through a koala forest. All along the road we were spotting koalas high up in the trees; some in pairs, others hanging out solo. At one point we got out and walked around to get a closer look and snapped some great photos. From Cape Otway, we stayed determined in getting to the main attraction: the Twelve Apostles.

G: The first site of the Twelve Apostles comes at Gibson Steps. From the car park, we walked down a narrow set of stairs etched into the side of a huge cliff leading down to the beach. The sea was rough and the wind was tearing right through us. Once on the beach, we could see around the corner to the mammoth sea rocks known as the Twelve Apostles. We didn’t stay long because we wanted a closer look at this amazing natural wonder.

The Twelve Apostles used to be part of a land bridge connecting mainland Australia to Tasmania. Now they are colossal rocks that are constantly getting battered by the wind and sea to form uniquely beautiful shapes and colors. These formations are dotted along the coast, but the biggest ones are called the Twelve Apostles. This is the main attraction and sometimes the only stop tourists make on the Great Ocean Road (what a pity!).

B: A few kilometers down the road are more beautiful sites to admire. We stopped at Loch Ard Gorge, The Arch, London Bridge, The Grotto, and Bay of Islands. London Bridge isn’t actually a bridge anymore because it collapsed a few years back. As the story goes, there were two people on the other side when it fell and had to be rescued by helicopter! These are all amazing coastal sites only a short walk from the car park and MUCH less crowded than the Twelve Apostles. If you’re going to do the Great Ocean Road, you have to continue a bit further to see these places!

We stopped for the night in Port Campbell and found an empty hostel to stay in. The benefits of traveling in the off-season! Our only plan the next day was to travel straight back to Melbourne, so we took the opportunity to visit some of the amazing sites again, this time with different lighting. We took a slight detour on the way back and went north from Lavers Hill through Beech Forest instead of south through Glenaire. We did a quick walk to Triplet Falls, but it wasn’t too impressive. The beech forest was nice, but the road was quite winding and took longer than the previous route. Well worth it though!

One final stop before hitting the highway to Melbourne was at the Anglesea golf course. We heard it was a great place to see kangaroos feasting on the fresh green grass, and it certainly got that reputation for a reason. They were everywhere!

We made it back to Melbourne Sunday night after an awesome long weekend out of the city. It was refreshing to hit the road again and see what all the hype was all about. The Great Ocean Road is stunning and certainly one of the best drives I’ve ever done. You gotta go, mate!

Melbournians

G: Sad to leave New Zealand behind, we crossed the ditch to get cozy in our new home: Melbourne, Australia. It was finally time to take off our packs and stay a while, and there was certainly no better city. A real cosmopolitan hub, Melbourne thrives on international cuisine, delectable coffee, contemporary art museums, an eclectic music scene, plenty of green space, and an intricate network of bike paths.

When we first arrived, we couch surfed with a local who was offering up every room in his house to backpackers. We stayed with travelers from Sweden, Finland, Germany, and France for a couple days. We drank wine, cooked, and shared stories over meals gathered around a 6” thick, 10′ long wooden dining room table. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay for long as our host was leaving for Sydney soon. We were already frantically running around city searching for an apartment and jobs while hopping from one wifi hotspot to another in blazing 30˚C (90˚F) heat, and now we needed a place to sleep on short notice!

B: After scouring the couch surfing website and sending out a dozen messages without a welcoming response, we finally were accepted by a host in Northcote. Katrina and Macca are a professional couple who were curious about couch surfing and had bravely accepted us as their first. When we showed up, they had dinner ready and a spare bedroom instead of a couch! Sweet as, mate! We shared nightly dinners to express our gratitude with our amazing hosts and knew we made some good friends to hang with during our stay in Melbourne.

We continued our apartment hunt in between the time I spent looking for a job. Most places we looked at were dingy, expensive, and had housemates packed in like sardines with one bathroom to share for eight people. No thanks!

G: Feeling a bit discouraged with apartment hunting, Katrina recommended checking out the housing board at University of Melbourne. We followed up on several notices, but one in particular felt right. Soon we met Jason, a 39-year-old Melbournian getting a Master’s in Public Health with an affection for Asia and whiskey. The room was one of three bedrooms in a townhouse in the hip neighborhood of Brunswick. The area was built in and around what use to be a brickworks factory, hence our street name Brickworks Drive. The architecture captured components of the old factory building and added new, modern & eclectic designs and bright colors – full of character! And what more could we ask for than to have our front door open out to a beautiful park full of gum trees (Eucalyptus) and an off-leash dog haven. Saweet!

Jason has the master bedroom with attached bath and uses the smaller room as an office. The room for rent was spacious with a huge closet and our OWN bathroom. 😉 The development was quite new and the interior décor showed signs of Asian influence, since Jason had spent about 8 years teaching English in Vietnam. We had seen enough by then to know that this was it and we quickly made our interest known. We moved in on Tuesday, which gave us a few more nights to enjoy as couch surfers with Katrina and Macca.

B: By the beginning of our second week in Melbourne not only did we move into our new home, but I had been hired as a fundraiser with Public Outreach, where I have been working full-time since March. It’s an awesome company and I get to talk to interesting people while raising a bunch of money for charity! I started out working on Cancer Council Victoria, then moved to Save the Children, and now it’s the Australian Conservation Foundation. The people I work with inspire me all the time and it’s been a very rewarding experience, although sometimes stressful. 😉 A couple guys and I also joined a basketball league with games every Sunday night, but our jerseys greatly surpassed our athletic ability. Gabriella happily found a job teaching yoga at a couple of studios. It’s given her the opportunity to branch out in her experience of health and well-being and to learn the art of teaching. She’s gotten great feedback and it has really awakened in her a new-found passion.

Though things slowed down a bit and we fell into a rhythm, we still made the time to explore in and around the city, including the Melbourne Zoo, St. Kilda, CERES Environment Park, and William Ricketts Sanctuary. We also went down the Mornington Peninsula for a weekend at the Peninsula Hot Springs and a day hike at Cape Schank with our friends Katrina and Macca. We’ve kept so busy we haven’t even had time to update this blog, but we’ve certainly been thinking about it and taking mental notes for when we publish more entries. Stay tuned…there’s more to come!

Foraging the Food Forest

G: After our solid three-week tour of the North and South Islands, it was time to rest our bones and give back to New ZeaLAND for a while. We wanted to go somewhere remote and live with the locals for our last WWOOFing experience. It was to be the longest we would stay in one place out of our entire year of travel; three-and-a-half weeks.

Our host, Robert Guyton, picked us up in Invercargill, 40km east of the tiny town of Riverton. Thirty minutes later, as we drove through the town center on a narrow two-lane road no longer than a kilometer without a building higher than two stories, I thought, ‘Oh god, is this a mistake!?’ When we arrived at the Guyton’s home we met Robert’s lovely wife Robyn. Within moments, in her quick and confusing kiwi accent, she welcomed us to get comfortable and settle in. She gestured to our accommodations, a short climb up a wooden ladder to cozy loft space above the garage.

B: Things were looking up!

G: As I climbed the ladder and poked my head into our bird’s nest, it was like a time warp—the space was filled with woven baskets of all shapes and sizes to the left, a small library of books on the right, stacks of photos, old lamps, one double mattress lying flatly on the ground, and lots of dust! The A-frame only allowed for proper posture in the center of the room and insulation was installed with single-size mattresses between the framing held in place by strategically-placed tree branches.

Also staying with the Guyton’s for a few days was Daisy, a sweet 22-year-old from Devonshire, England currently studying at the University of Dunedin. This was her second stay with the Guyton’s and she was envious we had plans to stay for several weeks. Little did we know just how famous the Guyton’s are and what an amazing place we had stepped into. Their home was built in a very rustic and sustainable way. Most of it was made from recycled material including a 150-year old sink in the bathroom, old light switches, two faucets at every sink (hot and cold), only one bathtub (no shower), and an old scale with iron weights for baking measurements. I was in rustic heaven.

On their two acres of land, they have the most developed food forest in the Southern hemisphere. It all started 23 years ago with the planting of their first apple tree. Since then, their permaculture forest has flourished into multiple varieties of apples, plums, and berries, beds of leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, and herbs, a greenhouse full of seedlings, a chicken coop, and more. In the last few years, it has attracted tourists from all of New Zealand and has even gotten global recognition in several books and documentaries.

When Robert wasn’t maintaining the food forest, he was either inside writing articles for the ‘New Zealand Gardener’ magazine or serving on the Invercargill City Council for environmental issues. He’s built quite a reputation of fighting for sustainable farming practices and environmental issues across NZ. Robert and Robyn also host a weekly radio show about gardening and sustainability. They invited us to be guests one week to speak about our farming experience in Hawaii and natural skincare alternatives.

B: Enthusiasts often visit Riverton specifically to meet the Guyton’s and tour their land, some more shy than others. One day, Robert walked out to the curb and saw a couple in their campervan parked across the street. As he walked over, they immediately grabbed a map, pretending to be lost. Robert politely asked where they were going, to which they replied with a location that was at least 30km away (yeah, right). They tried to remain oblivious until asking, ‘Oh…aren’t you Robert Guyton with the food forest?’ He kindly replied, ‘Yes, of course. Would you like me to give you a tour?’ This wasn’t the first time… 😉

Robert and Robyn also founded the local Environment Centre in town. It’s a hub for the environmentalist community, offering local and organic food, natural house-hold cleaners and skincare, gardening tools, etc. It also offers educational resources for children and adults about sustainable farming, seed saving, and protecting native bush. It has become the primary source for sustainable living in all of Southland. Employees are mostly volunteers and get 1% discount for each hour they work during the week (up to 15%). Sometimes we would spend a few hours overseeing the shop instead of working outside. We spent three days sprucing up the kitchen—fresh paint, linoleum flooring, and new shelves—which Robyn and the employees were thrilled about.  We also hosted a movie night to show the documentary ‘Thrive’, which I suggest you all watch. (www.thrivemovement.com)

Most of our time was spent on projects in the food forest: creating teepee-like structures for grape vines to climb, clearing wild weeds by hand to form paths in the permaculture, trimming and transplanting native flax bush, netting plum trees and berry bushes from the birds, building a gate within a wooden fence, and harvesting lots of apples, plums, berries, leafy greens, root vegetables, and eggs. There were so many plums that we took the opportunity to learn how to make plum sauce, plum jam, and preserves to keep in the pantry for the winter.

We also did some bee-keeping, which was pretty awesome! We suited up in full bee-keeper gear from head to toe. Gabriella controlled the smoke while I did the dirty work. The smoke makes them think the hive is on fire, so they quickly rush inside to eat as much honey as they can, then become tired and passive with a full belly. The Guyton’s have about 10,000 bees working in a stack of three boxes. I removed the lids, cleaned the frames, looked for disease, added another box and screen, and got the hell outta there! The buzzing got louder and louder the longer I stayed to work and it was difficult to hear Robert’s instructions. I stayed calm throughout, because bees can smell fear (like panthers), but unfortunately one bee made its way inside of my face mask and stung me on the neck as I was retreating back to the house. Bee-keeper initiation complete! We waited four days for the bees to transfer their work down to the new box before returning to take the top box full of fresh honey. We absolutely look forward to having our own honey-making operation one day!

G: Next time you can do the smoke! Robert said I hadn’t quite become a true beekeeper since I wasn’t stung. I must say, it was quite impressive how quickly Robert moved to pull the stinger our of Blake’s neck by scraping a large knife across the skin. Blake – our true beekeeper. What a trooper!

Another cool story: One day, Daisy wanted to make real English scones and needed buttermilk, but we didn’t have any in the house. Jokingly, I told her to just mix some butter and milk! When Robyn heard that she shook her head and smiled. A few hours later, she called to us in from the garden to come learn how to make buttermilk. In the kitchen were three jars with a half-cup of cream inside each. She told us to shake the jars rapidly and it would eventually separate into butter and buttermilk. Aaaand…it was a competition! Within just a couple of minutes…voila! A chunk of butter began to form and we kept shaking faster until there was no more cream. This was a great example of Robyn’s spontaneity when she wanted to teach us something. It was perfectly normal to interrupt pulling weeds to make some buttermilk or come in for a cup of tea. No stress!

B: One weekend, Robyn took us to help her out with a children’s games day in Tuatapere, another small town about an hour away. This was yet another great example of Robyn’s love for simplicity and sticking to tradition. When we arrived, we quickly noticed the paintball section was receiving the most attention. We rolled up with stilts, quoits, puppet theatre, and potato sacks. I made one hell of a proscenium theatre for those puppets that about 3 kids enjoyed. Gabriella and I had fun tossing quoits and doing the sack race while other kids stayed at the dunk tank and pony rides. We had a blast and got to enjoy the simpler things in life. On the way home, Robyn gave us a tour of New Zealand’s southern coast stopping at Monkey Island, Gemstone Beach, and other scenic lookouts along the way. It was an absolutely beautiful day venturing outside of Riverton.

G: Some other perks at the Guyton’s was their fire-bath, which is a claw-foot bathtub in the middle of the forest with a chamber to light a fire underneath. Once it’s heated up, you can relax in the natural surroundings. Just make sure to sit on the slab of wood so you don’t burn your bum! 🙂 Without a doubt, I am going to have one of those someday… They also have an outdoor pizza oven built from scratch, which we used a couple of times. Much to my dismay I was my unable to sustain a fire every time I tried. Sorry Dad, I know you’ve taught me a million times!

B: Despite our initial apprehension, we had an incredible time in Riverton with the Guyton’s and their amazing food forest. Every day was a new adventure. I had the kitchen to cook and bake to my hearts delight (which was also heaven for Blake) sharing many amazing meals and talks. They even found time to move their youngest daughter (Hollie) off to college just a few days after their eldest son (Terry) brought their first grandchild into the world, baby Leo Archer. Surprisingly, the Guyton’s have never left NZ, nor do they intend to, finding comfort and excitement each day in their town of 1,200 residents. (Well…Robyn still wants to go to Paris…) We learned more in three weeks than I would have ever expected, for which I am eternally grateful. I can see why they have long line-ups of tourists and WWOOFers waiting to experience life with the Guyton’s!

Speechless Southern Serenity

B: Almost three months have passed since we journeyed across the Cook Straight and ventured into the South Island of New Zealand. Although time has gotten away from us, the incredible memories remain; surrounded by sea lions, the panoramic perfection of Bealey Spur, glacier gazing on the beach, and dolphins dancing at sunrise in Milford. The South Island is one of the most picturesque places I’ve ever been. Its wealth of natural beauty literally brought tears to our eyes. “It’s like walking into a screensaver,” said my friend Walter. The descriptions are limiting and the pictures can’t say enough. You’ll just have to see it for yourself…

Our itinerary was packed with hikes as we tramped through Middle Earth, camping along the way. From the ferry port in Picton, we drove southeast through the Queen Charlotte Sound to Kaikoura. As we got closer, the coastline became rocky with an increasing number of seals sleeping on the shore. We did a coastal walk around the Kaikoura peninsula the next day, admiring the geology and thriving sea life. As we were deep in conversation and looking only at the rocks beneath our feet, all of a sudden there was a loud roar warning us we had wandered too close to a sleeping sea lion! When we took stock of our location, they were suddenly all around us, camouflaged on the rocks. It’s important not to get between a sea lion and the water otherwise they feel threatened. Luckily we made it back unscathed, but those blubberous beasts can move surprisingly fast!

Next we headed back north and over west to Abel Tasman National Park. We hiked 13km in to Anchorage Bay and camped. The coastal walk provided countless views of golden sand meeting the glistening sea. This hike was especially challenging because we had to bring all of our food and camping gear on our backs!

We really got a taste for the wonder of the West Coast on our way south to Greymouth. The scenery was simply stunning and it was difficult not to stop every few minutes for pictures. Of course, we had to stop at Punakaki to see the pancake rocks, a geological phenomenon. The pancake rocks have been made through a layering-weathering process known as stylobedding. The Dolomite Point limestone has formed into what looks like stacks of pancakes. When the tide is right, the sea surges into caverns and bursts through blowholes!

Greymouth was…well…grey. We did one decent hike on the Point Elizabeth Walkway, but the view wasn’t too clear. The highlight for me was visiting…BLAKETOWN!! Complete with Blake Street and Blaketown School, I totally felt like Mayor!

Then came the most unbelievable territory as we drove east, inland towards Arthur’s Pass. There are a handful of hikes to do in the area, but we chose the Bealey Spur track. Encompassed by snow-capped mountains within alpine brush, the view was spectacular. Easily the best hike of the South Island. The mountains left our jaws dropped on our way back through Arthur’s Pass. It seemed like any time we started driving again, we immediately wanted to stop and admire our surroundings, filled with gratitude for today’s reality.

G: After the hike, while searching for a place known as Castle Hill, we stopped at Cave Stream Scenic Reserve to find directions. We were strongly urged by some locals in the parking lot that we had to do the cave walk here. Trudging 600 meters in ice-cold water, at times up to our hips, in a dark and creepy cave was not my idea of fun. But after a tiny nervous breakdown 🙂 I accepted this new challenge (face your fears, right?!). It wasn’t all that terrible (Blake loved it!), but let’s just say that I was pretty happy when we reached the small opening of daylight again.

Luckily, we found Castle Hill next and played amongst the massive rock formations in the late afternoon sun. A place that the Maori hold dear and the Dalai Lama claims as the most spiritual place in all of NZ, one could really feel the gravity of this place. Organic boulders of different shapes and sizes spread across acres, reaching for the sky with incredible views in all directions, it felt like a spiritual playground for adults. I could have spent hours there climbing the boulders and nestling into a perfect seat to take a meditation break as the sun beamed down.

Next, it was off to Franz Josef Glacier. The 45-minute walk to view the glacier took us through a valley of waterfalls spilling over massive vertical slabs of slate complete with lush vegetation. On the way, markers identified where the glacier used to reach, which gave a harsh reminder of how much ice has melted in recent decades. We got to within 500 meters of the terminal face, which was enough to truly feel the magnitude of this colossal block of ice.

Then, we stopped to freedom-camp at Gillespie’s Beach! The most amazing part wasn’t that it was free, but the spectacular view. We gazed to the left and saw Fox Glacier nestled in the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps, and then to the right over the vast ocean stretching out to the horizon as the sun was setting. It was a good thing we set up our tent early because the campers kept rolling in and we were eventually packed in like sardines. As we finished up our dinner, we sat on the beach to watch the sunset, awestruck at the beauty in all directions.

We slept like babies under the stars, until 5:45am when we heard scratching at our tent. Soon after, a subsequent deflating of the mattress confirmed an unwelcomed surprised. I decided to get up to check out the area since there was no way I could get back to sleep. At first, I noticed a bird that looked like a parrot, and later while watching the sun rise, a local confirmed it was the Kea, an alpine parrot! I hadn’t seen the signs for it, but Blake mentioned there being indications not to feed these pesky birds, which gnaw like they are constantly teething.

After a bit of patchwork, we took a quick stroll around Lake Matheson in the clear and sunny morning. Then, we drove to Fox Glacier, which was our favorite between the two we visited. On our walk through the majestic valley to the glacier we caught a glimpse of large ice formations breaking off and flowing down the rising river at a rapid speed. We were able to get a lot closer to the terminal face and could see people on their glacier tours—something I would definitely like to come back to do. Larger sheets of white ice up against jagged peaks of turquoise-blue on the inner ice-walls created an incredible view. It reminded me of the Rockies back home, but somehow much more grand and magnificent.

We drove the coast for a bit longer before turning inland towards Wanaka—a cozy lake-town, nestled in the mountains. We had a day to unwind with mild weather, so we hiked up to get a better view of the city. The next day’s rains cancelled our plans for a longer, more challenging hike, so we took the opportunity to walk through town, go on a shorter hike, and make another delicious meal at the campground.

B: Then it was time for the infamous Milford Sound. Hailed by many visitors as the greatest place in New Zealand, it certainly had a reputation to live up to. We stopped in Te Anau briefly and booked a sunrise kayaking trip on the sound. We were told we had to drive to Milford that day because the Te Anau/Milford Highway doesn’t open until 7am each morning. The 90km trip took nearly 2.5hrs because of the curvy narrow lanes and amazing photo opportunities. This highway as rated as one of the top ten drives in the world!

Milford is the tiniest of towns where the only residents are those guiding tourists (through the sound or to their rooms). We awoke before dawn and slid into our two-person kayak as the sun began to color the sky. Our group of eight had the place to ourselves, engulfed by the towering rock faces while floating on water still as glass. We paddled past playing sea lions and through a waterfall taller than Niagra, but the absolute highlight was the dolphin pod that celebrated our presence. They swirled around us underwater and surfaced for air several feet away! There were even a few sea lions that were playing and pretending to be dolphins. We were amazed at the opportunity to see these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat while sitting on the water in a kayak. Apparently it’s quite rare to see dolphins in Milford as they only swim into the sound once every few weeks. We paddled all the way out to the Tasman Sea, about 20km, in perfect weather with brilliant sights. Even our guide said it ranked as one of the top three trips she’s made. Certainly at the top for us! Fun fact: Milford is technically a fjord, not a sound, which is why the NZ gov’t renamed the area “Fjordland”, but couldn’t get people to stop referring to it as “Milford Sound”.

Since we started at sunrise, we were back to the campsite early and decided to do a hike to Lake Marian on the way out of Milford. It took about 90 minutes of tramping until the trail opened up to a beautiful glacier lake resting between rocky peaks.

Our last stop was to the adventure capital of Queenstown. I expected a large city similar to Auckland, but it’s actually just a small, quaint town with lots of adventure sports nearby. The drive here was, again, amazing, and we were fortunate to have sunny, clear weather. We did a hike to the top of Bob’s Peak, instead of riding the gondola, where we got a clear view of the Remarkables and the rest of Queenstown. This is a fun town with lots to do for young thrill-seekers with deep pockets (not us!). Coincidentally, we ran into a guy we had met in Laos (Scrub) as he was now working in town!

We would’ve liked to have stayed longer, but our money was running low and the car was due back. The South Island is truly incredible and we can’t wait to return. We said good-bye to our 3-week driving tour and ventured back into the world of WWOOFing. We made plans to stay with the Guyton’s in their food forest on the southern coast of the south island, in a little place called Riverton, 3 hours south from Queenstown.

yea, that's us again!

B and G at Fox Glacier

Hikes, Honey, and Hot Springs

G: After three weeks at the vineyard, it was finally time to discover the beauty of New Zealand with the freedom of a rental car. As the amazing universe would have it, my best friend Carrie and her friend Andrea joined us to explore the North Island for one week! With a jam-packed itinerary scheduled, we all anticipated a great journey ahead.

The adventure began at 8am Monday morning when we picked up the girls, jet-lagged, but excited and a lot warmer than the Canadian winter they had escaped. We immediately left Auckland and drove the scenic coastline of Coromandel, lined with Pohutukawa trees and their bright red flowers contrasting the shimmering blue-green ocean. We stopped at a quaint café for lunch with a delectable menu and small library on site, and indulged in a bag of fresh plums – yum! Next we visited the Mahamudra Tibetan Buddhist temple for a quick walk of the grounds and meditation. And finally, we celebrated with a toast of manuka honey-flavored vodka to welcome the week (and help the girls relax into the new time zone)!

B: The next day we headed out early to make it to Hot Water Beach while the tide was still low. This place is unique because it’s a beach with geothermal activity just below the surface. At low tide, all the tourists show up with a spade to dig a hole in the sand deep enough to strike hot water. An all-natural hot tub on the beach! Despite all the tourists, this is one place that can’t be missed. Then it was off to nearby Cathedral Cove, a rock-formed archway on the beach that resembles the shape of a cathedral. The rest of the day was spent driving south to Rotorua with plenty of stops in between for pictures and a short roadside hike to a waterfall.

G: The next morning began our most colorful day while exploring around Rotorua, starting with some tree-hugging through the Whakarewarewa Redwoods Forest; a truly oxygen-enriching experience. The brisk morning air combined with the fresh smell of sequoias towering overhead made for a great start to our day.  Next we visited the Blue and Green Lakes for a few pictures, and then stopped at Mamaku Blue Winery to sample everything blueberry! After some lunch, we hiked up the Rainbow Mountain Track. Once we summited, the views were beautiful in all directions. There was also a lovely gentleman at the top in a cabin hoisted on the mountain on forest-fire lookout. He answered our questions about the wildlife, landscape, and anything New Zealand. Although we thought the skies were clear and the view spectacular, he told us that it’s usually much clearer, but the smoke from wildfires in Australia has been blowing over and creating a haze recently. He gladly refilled our water bottles for the return trip and took a picture for his Facebook scrapbook! What a character! Finally, we made it to the geothermal river known as Kerosene Creek where we soaked our aching muscles away…

B: We settled down for three nights in Turangi so that we’d be close to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing – the best one-day hike in NZ, or as others may know it: Mordor. Unfortunately, when we got there our guesthouse informed us that the trail was only open halfway due to the recent volcanic eruption and we could only get there by shuttle, which is $40/person. We took a day to think about it and drove north to check out Taupo the next day. We made a summit of Mt. Tauhara that offered spectacular views of Lake Taupo and surrounding area. We stopped at Huka Falls, the Honey Hive (for all things honey), and relaxed in more natural hot springs as the sun dipped low in the sky.

We decided to skip the Tongariro Alpine Crossing due to the cost and the fact that we could only do half of it, which was absolutely the right decision. Despite perfect weather the previous few days, we woke up the next morning to rain and overcast skies. We tried to do a different hike near Mt. Ruapehu, but the rain lingered and the visibility was incredibly low. We would’ve been so disappointed if we paid $160, woke up at 5am, and were stuck on an 8-hr hike without being able to see anything! So instead we took advantage of the surrounding geothermal activity and went to some more hot springs. 😉

G: With Blake’s enthusiasm (as the girls were too relaxed from the warm soak), we went on a short geothermal walking tour outside the hot spring site. Well worth the leisurely 20-minute walk as we saw bubbling mud pools and geothermal water reserves with a variety of colors and textures. That evening we played some Frisbee in the nearby park, polished off the manuka honey-flavored vodka and cooked another wonderful meal together.

The next day was a long drive to Wellington. Along the way, we made a quick stop to take a picture in front of the world’s largest gumboot, and Carrie finally got to try the Kiwi’s Lamb Burger! When we got to Wellington, we took a driving tour before returning our rental car and saw the theatre where “The Hobbit” premiered (Peter Jackson is from Wellington)! In the evening, we enjoyed walking the city and spent some more quality-time together. The girls even treated us to our last meal together, with some wine to celebrate. Thanks Carrie and Andrea!

It’s safe to say that we were all more than thrilled with our week’s tour of the North Island. The landscape was amazing at every turn and the geothermal activity was unbelievable! Everyone said that the South Island is the place to be, but the North Island was quite impressive. Next, the girls headed off to Australia for two weeks and we took the ferry across the Cook Straight to see the South Island!

I love my Carrie!

I love my Carrie!

Herd it through the grapevine

B: Our next wwoofing adventure took us to an organic and biodynamic vineyard just south of Auckland. The Allen family – Wayne and Mandy along with their kids Sarah (21), Laura (19) and John (17) – own the Turanga Creek Winery and run the Wine Bar on-site. Margi is the farm manager and responsible for maintaining the precious grapes that get sent off seasonally for wine making.

When we arrived, there were three other girls living and working there already – Anya and Ellen from the US, and Marie from Germany. Our accommodations were in a small house directly next to the Allen’s home and about 1.5kms from the actual vineyard. We got right to work the very next day starting at 8am. The typical schedule had us working 8-10:30am, break, 11-1:30pm, lunch, and 2-4:30pm. We would work like that three days per week plus one half-day (stopping after lunch), the idea being we worked half a day for each day we stayed at the vineyard.

G: The land was beautiful with endless rows of manicured grape vines blanketing the hillside. There were about 100 sheep roaming the different sections at any given time. Some mornings we became sheep herders, which can be rather difficult. But Blake got it down pretty quickly. Jess is their new pup and being trained to herd the sheep.

Margi gave us a recap of the basics of biodynamic farming that we learned at Kahumana Farm in Hawaii. Biodynamic agriculture is an exceptional version of organic farming in that takes into account the sun, the moon, planets, and their forces in relationship with the soil, plants and animals. It emphasizes the use of manure and composts, planting based on the lunar calendar, as well as herbal and mineral preparations, all of which are meant to enliven the soil and promote optimal growth. I won’t go into too much detail, but check out schupdesign.com for more info. Chris was our farm-mate/creative-collaborator/photographer and built an amazing website, including a showcase of the Kahumana experience.

Back in Hawaii, I would devote mornings to mixing up preparations with love and spraying them while singing to our crops. At the vineyard, everything was at such a large scale that Margi had a machine mixing up the preps and a tractor spraying the vines. Instead, we did a lot of tucking, which means to tuck the vines under metal wiring to ensure they grow straight up. We also spent hours leaf-plucking and bud-rubbing, which is something the sheep usually do by eating the lowest leaves on the tree. We didn’t eat the leaves (much) but tediously removed them so as to have optimal air-flow and to make harvesting easier. Though it was too early in the season, we tried a couple of grapes and indeed they were sour. It would be nice to go back in March when it’s harvest time, but apparently there are many wwoofers (up to 12) and LOTS of work. I think we’ll pass this time.

B: In addition to the biodynamics, we learned about the different types of grapes to make the different varieties of wine. Unfortunately, at this stage in the season they all look small and green, but entire blocks were organized around a particular type. Whenever we switched working from one block to another, we had to change our gloves to prevent the possibility of disease spreading among the varieties. This was especially crucial because they are organic growers and can’t simply spray pesticide whenever an issue pops up (although there are natural alternatives). The most common illness is powdery mildew, which is why the sheep to eat the bottom leaves and allow the moisture to dry from the grapes after a good rain. It’s important to keep those things under control when you’re relying on your grapes to produce 40,000 bottles of wine per season!

While we were there, we had the pleasure of spending the holidays on a vineyard with Anya, Marie, and Ellen. The Allen family was nice enough to buy us plenty of food, a small present to open Christmas morning (spoiler alert: it’s a keychain), and even a tree! They went out of town as a family, but we spent the day cooking and baking delicious pecan pie and Christmas cookies. The wine helped our creativity. 😉 It was certainly different to be away from home for each of us for the first time, but we spent the day in good company making new Christmas traditions.

G: We also had a great time ringing in the New Year with the family present this time. Another opportunity for wine tasting! Wayne taught us the proper way to taste a wine, which involves letting in a bit of air as you sip to open up your taste buds.

B: I usually just chug it!

G: Anyways…a few days into the new year my best friend from back home, Carrie, came to visit and we embarked on a real journey to see what New Zealand has to offer!

B and G, sittin in a tree...

B and G, sittin in a tree…

Chang is good

Let me tell you about my friend Walter Chang. We worked together in New York as A/V techs at Columbia University. Walter was always seemed reserved and went about his business quietly and competently. As we got to know each other, he would sometimes mention his plans for “a big trip” to Asia. Others would refer to it as “Walter’s Great Adventure”. He was pithy about plans and the eventual end goal. Little did I know that he was discreetly accepting all extra shifts, eating as many meals at work as possible, and couch surfing his final few months in NY to save money.

In September 2011, he had a going-away party before leaving to see family in South Korea. Over the next eight months, he hopped across to Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Nepal, India, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. Then home for 2 weeks in May and back out across the US through Las Vegas, LA, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, back to S Korea, N Korea (crazy!!), Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand. Did I forget anything?!

You may have noticed we’ve traveled through a few of the same countries and in fact our paths have closely crossed. At our first stop in Delhi, we missed each other by one day (because we had to get the hell out of Delhi as quickly as possible). In Indonesia, we were always on different islands as he was moving east about two weeks ahead of us. Finally, in New Zealand we were in the same city at the same time! We made plans to meet up on a sunny Saturday afternoon in downtown Auckland and took a ferry to Rangitoto Island to hike the volcano.

I can’t tell you how amazing it is to see a familiar face on the road when you’ve been traveling this long. Despite everything he’s done and seen over the past 15+ months (and counting) he remains one of the most grounded and humble persons I know. I was oozing with questions about the things he’s done and grateful for the advice he passed along. Walter was a main source of information while preparing for this trip and certainly gave me some priceless tips.

We took a short ferry over to Rangitoto, a dormant volcano with an easy one-hour hike to the top. Along the way we shared stories of our travels and traded reviews about the different countries. The weather was perfect and the views were amazing. Once we were at the top, there were panoramic views of downtown Auckland and surrounding islands closely offshore. The water was a brilliant blue and…well, I’ll just let the pictures do the rest.

Afterwards, we walked around Auckland and continued our conversation about life on the road. The next day, Walter would take a flight back to NY, but only for a brief stay. Then it was off to Alaska for two weeks (so he could be in the North Pole for Christmas) and down to South America for four months. His overall plans include hiking Kilimanjaro in Africa, taking the Trans-Siberian through Russia, backpacking Europe, and pretty much seeing every place in this big, beautiful world over the next 2-3 years. When asked what his favorite places were so far, he answered: China, The Philippines, and New Zealand. It made us even more excited to get out and discover this country, and we just may have to tack on the Philippines to our trip…

So if you thought what we’re doing right now is a big, crazy adventure, you haven’t met my friend Walter. Safe travels buddy!

Gabriella, Blake, Walter

Gabriella, Blake, Walter

Buongiorno, Villa Romantica!

B: Our first wwoofing location was on the North Shore of Auckland at the Italian home of Raffaela and Paolo Delmonte. So much for an authentic kiwi experience! Raffaela picked us up from the bus station and took us to her beautiful home on 7 acres of land, quietly tucked away in the suburbs with a view of the ocean, appropriately called Villa Romantica. This wasn’t a typical wwoofing experience because we weren’t working on a farm, but rather helping to maintain her land and clean up around the house. There is also a small cottage next to the house that the Delmonte’s rent out for weeks at a time.

The home was made of dark wood with lots of natural light and open space. The wood provided just enough insulation that no HVAC system (heat and A/C) was needed, but the acoustics were terrible and every creak could be heard throughout the house. Our room was a large and sunny bedroom with a glass-sliding door leading to the backyard and our own newly-remodeled bathroom down the hall. Quite a treat after coming from some poorly maintained places in Asia!

G: Don’t forget the house cats: Giggo and Briccola! When they weren’t busy cleaning each other, I definitely got my fix of kitty love from them.

Giggio and Briccola

Our work schedule was broken up into four 4-hour days and one 8-hour day for a total of 24 hours per week. The jobs bounced all over, but mainly involved weeding, spreading compost, and relocating native bushes.  To Raffaela’s delight, we worked fairly quickly and moved through many projects. We were the last wwoofers she would host before the holidays, so there were many loose ends to tie up.

One of my favorite projects was the garden out back, facing the ocean in the distance. We landscaped the area to create levels along the slope and dug up various plants to move them using creative aesthetic. The permaculture varied from simple herbs like chamomile and parsley to cosmo flowers and olive and lemon trees and a blueberry bush. We found out pretty quickly that the soil in New Zealand is full of clay and farmers have to work hard with companion planting and composting to break up the clay in the soil. Later, we found out that planting chicory is a great solution for this. Often times, Blake and I would be working on different projects and there were times when I wished I were doing what he was doing. Like when it came to cleaning the chicken coop—ick!—he was fixing an enclosure for the new ducklings that would soon hatch. Or when I was clearing the thick jungle of shrubs and weeds by hand, Blake and his new best friend, the weed whacker, were bulldozing thick grass in no time.

B: You really wish you were swinging around that obnoxious thing?! I had to wear two pairs of ear plugs and even then I couldn’t hear myself think! I was probably weed-whacking over half of the time, while the rest involved hauling the wheel barrow somewhere.

I think the most interesting task was trimming the wings of the chickens. We had to sneak out to the chicken coop just after dusk when they were all settling in for the night. With Raffaella and Paolo’s help, and my creepy red headlamp, we would quietly snatch one chicken, trim the feathers off of one wing, and then put it back inside. The chickens quickly figured out what was going on and it became harder and harder to identify which ones were already trimmed because they would move around and hide. The objective was to make sure that they wouldn’t fly out of their enclosure, and by only trimming one wing they couldn’t fly straight with lopsided aerodynamics. It doesn’t hurt the chicken; it’s like trimming your fingernails.

G: Yeah, I wasn’t too crazy about the idea upon hearing it, but thankfully it really was harmless. It was also fun the day we helped Raffaella prepare for the launch of a new cookbook that used some of her recipes. The book was made by Ceres, an organic foods company, so all of the ingredients were amazing. We helped prepare four dishes that would serve 200 people! It was much better chopping, mixing, and tasting than working outside. Unfortunately, she did not host too many of her Italian cooking workshops while we were there, but I still learned about new products and a few cooking tips just from helping her make the nightly dinners.

A special treat was helping her make natural skincare, too. One afternoon we harvested rose petals from four varieties of rose bushes in the garden. It was a bit of a science experiment to put it together but the end result was truly sensational. It was one thing expecting her to be a chef and learning new things in the kitchen, but it was the cherry on top to make and have an additional cleanser, moisturizer, and lip balm with all natural ingredients. Her big tagline was making “edible cosmetics”! It doesn’t get better than this! 😉

homemade rose water

B: We had our fair share of ups and downs though; with the birds in particular. One day, a neighborhood dog wandered over to the property and jumped into the chicken pen. He thought the chickens were toys and pounced on one after another until Raffaela saw what was happening and chased him away. By then, 3 chickens and the lone rooster had lost their lives, leaving only 4 chickens left. It was quite an ordeal and very dramatic. Animal control came and the owner eventually agreed to replace the chickens.

On top of that, one of the ducks gave birth to 6 little ducklings a few days earlier, but the little yellow fuzz balls didn’t last long.

Unfortunately, one by one, they were found dead or went missing day after day. By the time of the chicken fiasco, there were 2 left, but they died the next day. It was suspected to be the work of the pukekho, a notoriously vicious bird found everywhere here in NZ that looks like a black chicken. I guess that’s just the reality of living with farm animals. Another duck was also sitting a nest of eggs for which I was building the enclosure, but we didn’t stay long enough to see them hatch.

G: All in all though, it was a good start to our wwoofing days in NZ. It was certainly an adjustment coming from Asia, with colder weather and a working schedule again. How lame does that sound, right!? We would soon find out how generous Raffaela was with keeping our tummies full, too.

B: Absolutely. It was quite a humbling experience to go from being a big shot in Asia with our own hotel near the beach, eating out every meal, and doing whatever we felt like doing, to a schedule of manual labor in an expensive country having to clean up after family dinners. We were so grateful to be accepted into the Delmonte home though and given the opportunity to learn and experience New Zealand (and Italy). Raffaela was great about taking us out in the afternoon to go on walks down the coastline or go shopping so that we weren’t cooped up in the house all week. I think this was the best place we could have landed to readjust to life back in the developed world.

Blake, Paolo, Raffaela, Gabriella

Blake, Paolo, Raffaela, Gabriella