Monthly Archives: April 2016

Kiwi homesteading

After our North Island road trip and before we returned our rental car we visited cruising friends who’ve swallowed the anchor and bought a farm about 30 minutes from Whangarei. We first met Bryce and Martha of Silver Fern in the Tuamotus and we crossed paths on and off for the rest of the way across the Pacific. Their landfall in New Zealand completed a circumnavigation and now they’ve moved ashore to tame the land and plant kiwi fruit. 

We were welcomed with a fantastic lunch after which Martha took us for a tramp through the woods and pointed out the native plants. They’ve done a lot of improvements already, clearing and draining and weed control, in preparation for planting the kiwi fruit crop. 

Martha paced off the size of the field where the crop will be as she and Bryce discussed whether the future house will have a clear mountain view (unfortunately obscured by haze on this day) once the vines and support structure are in. 

As if the visit to their farm weren’t enough of a treat they drove us to meet their neighbors who grow passionfruit. They are a small commercial operation and ship their fruit via a broker to the States where it’s sold under the Melissa brand name. We learned how the crop is washed, sorted and packed, and I was able to indulge right then and there in my favorite fruit.

Passionfruit grow on sturdy vines similar to grapevines, supported by an elaborate covered structure. The season runs from February through September and the fruit is gathered every morning when it drops to the ground. These small homesteads are human-sized, largely operated by couples with only the occasional outside labor for sorting and packing. It looks like a nice life, but as in all farming operations, large or small, without much time off for vacations or travel. 

We left the passionfruit orchard loaded down with a generous bag of fresh fruit and drove to a kiwi fruit operation so Bryce and Martha could show us what their own land will look like in a few years. Kiwi fruit are also vines and require a similar support structure to make tending and harvesting easier. Both fruits require protection from wind and disease. You can see the incredibly tall hedge-like windbreak in these photos. Every time you see those tall hedges along the road, Martha said, there’s an orchard behind it. And just like the kauri forests we’ve visited, kiwi fruit farms have shoe washing stations to prevent the spread of disease to the vines. 

We were caught up in Bryce and Martha’s enthusiasm and energy to undertake such a longterm project. Modern homesteading is a frequent answer to the question of what comes next after a couple has spent five or ten years sailing across oceans and traveling to some of the more remote corners of the earth. It’s a topic that comes up a lot when we long-distance cruisers get down to brass tacks. What will we do when we get too old to sail? How will we know when we’re done? Where will we go? What will we do? Jack and I don’t know what the answers will be for us, and besides, there’s a whole wide world ahead of us yet. We’ve barely scratched the surface and with the end of the Pacific cyclone season already here, it’s time for us to move on.  

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How about a heads up?

Funny things can happen when you travel in second and third world countries for a couple of years. Ours is a 12-volt world. Even when we turn on our inverter it’s just inverting 12 volt DC from Escape Velocity’s 12 volt battery bank to 110 AC at 60 cycles. So that’s 12 volts DC or 110 AC, all from solar energy, which is good because the generator hasn’t worked for years. Time marches on. 

We were so tickled when we made it to New Zealand where fast Internet and WIFI not to mention olives and real chandleries would be readily available. In short, a first world country. “Well, maybe a one-and-a-half world country,” a smiling Kiwi friend corrected us. We get that now but it’s close enough for us. We’d been dealing with lots of bizarre electrical systems for quite some time now so on our two week whirlwind tour of New Zealand’s North Island we threw our trusty globe trotting bag of electrical adapters into a canvas boat bag and assumed we had it covered. After all, NZ uses 220 volts at 50 cycles which is nothing we hadn’t seen before. The first night, after plugging in every disconnected light, heater and TV in our room, we plugged in all of our electronics and iPhones to charge, only to discover that our globe-trotting adapter bag wasn’t as complete as advertised. So for Yours Truly it was go out and find a big pharmacy and buy New Zealand adapters. The new adapters seemed to work but then stopped working but then started to work again. I got the fix-it-quick-skipper look from crew. I quite frankly was gobsmacked. A little help from the turbaned Paradise Motel desk clerk showed us that not only does one have to plug in every light and appliance but one has to throw a little switch beside each outlet as well. I may have heard a slight snicker. When did that happen Escapees? Things still seemed to operate randomly and morning found our hungry little devises only partially charged. Clearly we’re missing a critical piece of information here. 

We continued to be dogged by intermittent power “outages” throughout the two week tour until the last motel which, for us, was a very modern Best Western. The lap of luxury! We arrived in daylight but soon found that while everything was already plugged in, nothing worked. No lights, no heat, no coffee pot, no TV, no outlets. This was too much. If I told you Dear Escapees what we were paying for this room your eyes would bug out. This time I’m not even a little bit embarrassed, I mean the whole room doesn’t work! The desk guy said, “Did you use your key card?” 

“Of course, that’s how I got in.” 

“No, no in the slot on the wall with the blue light.”

Come to think of it I did see an odd blue light somewhere. When I inserted the key card the whole room lit up with the TV running and the radio too! When did this happen, dear readers? Noone told us. 

Maybe we need a culture break or frequent warnings of any new developments from our Escapees. Please keep us up to date. We’re counting on you. 

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Second chances

From tiny worms that light up in caves to the bright lights of a big city, we Escapees know how to have a good time. We were especially excited to catch up with friends Julie and Ken of Kia Ora whom we met, improbably, in Golfito, Costa Rica, and even older friends Sue and Mark on Macushla, whom we first met way back while still in the intercostal waterway in the US. Both couples were housesitting near Auckland. Hmmm, have we missed something here?

I’m sure, dear readers, you’ll remember that when we were last in Auckland, Escape Velocity was left at anchor in Waiheke Island while we took the ferry over for a whirlwind tour of the city. It was a great day but we missed a few things in the rush. Chief among them was the New Zealand Maritime Museum. 

This time we would not be denied. First we needed a room but Auckland can really book up and as luck would have it this was one of those nights. Marce had to resort to AirBnB for a semi-creepy stayover in someone’s frilly room featuring a plethora of flowery night lights with colored balloons. I had to unplug them all.

With Eggs Benedict nudging my belt we walked past the magnificent KZ1 America’s Cup boat on display just outside the entrance to the New Zealand Maritime Museum. Of course KZ1 lost but it certainly makes a statement. These Kiwis have really influenced sailing skills and innovative design the world over. 

It’s a given that one enters the museum via — all together now — the gift shop, then through the ubiquitous displays of ancient pirogues and ocean-going catamarans of the first immigrants to a small archipelago at the bottom of the then unknown world. An excellent video tribute to Sir Peter Blake, a large collection of in-water heritage sailing vessels and examples of just about every known type of sailboat awaits the nautically obsessed. Lots of fun for Yours Truly.


In the meantime Marce found an Ethiopian restaurant and lined up dinner with the Macushlas. We’d been enjoying all the Indian cuisine down here in New Zealand but this was our first Ethiopian meal since 2014 in Washington, DC, and we four old friends lingered at the restaurant until closing time, enjoying our last evening together for a while. To top it off Marce found a real room at a Best Western Motel. We’ll be back home on Escape Velocity tomorrow and it’s none too soon. This dirt life is exhausting!

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Please pass the Lipitor 

Jack really loves road trips and I sometimes think maybe it’s because he can almost always get Eggs Benedict for breakfast. I forgot to take photos of a few of our road breakfasts, but in 12 days he may have had Eggs Benedict at least half of those days. 


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Feathers and worms

You’ll remember we tried to visit a couple of glow worm caves near Whangarei but were thwarted by high water underground. We knew we wanted to see the famous New Zealand glow worms and with time running out we turned the rental car toward Waitomo, a concession cave that guaranteed we’d get to see the worms without getting wet. It would just cost money but we’d done our best to travel economically so we squeezed the cave tour into the meager budget. 

“Stop the car!” I called out as we drove down a country road toward the caves. You don’t see that every day, we agreed. There were three ostriches that we could see from the road, and a promise of more in the field over the hill. We walked up a  narrow lane to where the largest, fluffiest bird we’ve ever seen was grazing near the fence.  We slowly approached and he came closer, as interested in us as we were in him. We figured he’s used to being petted and rewarded for it but we kept our distance as we quietly observed each other for about 20 minutes. He was huge and powerfully built and we thought it wouldn’t be so pleasant having those muscular legs stomping on us, or whatever they do when attacking. This fellow seemed nice enough though. 

By afternoon we reached the caves and booked an early morning tour. The Waitomo Caves is a well-run operation with a modern shelter over the cafe and gift shop. 

They offer various levels of tours but we’ve both been in plenty of caves and didn’t need to spend much time on stalagmites and stalactites, but were more interested in the glow worms. Our tour took us into the dark caves past the usual limestone formations and our guide told us about the Maoris who lived here and about the glow worms and their life cycle. It was all very interesting, but the best part was when we piled into boats and floated on an underground river through a tall pitch black cave where overhead a gazillion glow worms mimicked the galaxies of deep space. We were not allowed to photograph in the caves at all, but if you do a google image search for glow worms you’ll see how spectacular the vision is. We know we could have seen the glow worms for free in undeveloped caves near Whangarei, but lying back in a boat, staring up in silence at what looks like the night sky was worth every penny. 

We came out of the cave at the bottom of a ravine, disembarked to a small dock and made our way back up through the woods to the car park. It’s a nice exit from the underground world. 

And with that our days out in the country came to an end and it was time to return to the big city. 

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Walk, run, ride

The day dawned clear and bright. From our hostel room window we could see that even Mt. Ruapehu was peeking out from the clouds revealing a clear summit. 

Yes, we’re heading up that way but the brochure I was reading offered options. “Walk up, run up, or catch the lift.” So let’s see if I’ve got this straight. We can climb up over around and through the stark, barren, and boulder-strewn steep mountainside or take a nice chairlift or two up to the highest cafe in New Zealand, have breakfast above the clouds and enjoy a spot of lookout viewing. 

The chairlift won the day but first Marce had to face that fear of heights thing and until today she had successfully avoided chairlifts or anything that lifts you high up and dangles from a cable. But Marce is a team player and after warning the lift helper that this was her virgin ride she clamped onto the bar with a death grip and away we went. After awhile she opened her eyes and I fancied that she enjoyed the ride. A real trooper. 

Two long lifts later and what a magnificent view. We even toyed with the idea of following a route all the way to the summit clambering over boulders, going from white pole to white pole but with no discernible path and an estimated two “Kiwi Hours” each way. One could even hike to Mead’s Wall which was featured in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Instead we sat down at the cafe above the clouds and had breakfast while watching a few hardy souls picking their way through the lunar landscape up towards the summit. 


After breakfast the clouds suddenly moved in and we headed for the chairlifts for a ride through the clouds. Coming out of the cloud cover we were rewarded with another spectacular view. The land of the long white cloud is as mysterious as it is beautiful.

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We reluctantly left lively, windy Wellington, the southernmost point on our quickie road trip, and drove north toward Tongariro National Park, the fourth national park in the the world, New Zealand’s first, and one of only 30 UNESCO World Heritage sites to carry the dual Natural and Cultural designations. 

The drive to the mountains was a stop-and-go photo op extravaganza as we tried to fit the expansive landscape into the camera lens. For two people accustomed to a blue horizon where the sky meets the sea, these constantly unfolding verdant hills and volcanic peaks were a tonic. 

I had to yell “Stop the car!” when we passed a fence festooned in all manner of footwear. Later when we had internet access I read that there’s a massive “original” shoe fence elsewhere in New Zealand and that once the idea took hold, as one forum poster wrote, “it became a thing.”

One of the best hikes in New Zealand is the one-day, 19 kilometer Alpine Crossing. That was not in the cards for us, given our limited time, the state of Jack’s deteriorating knee and my lingering back ache. Using our guidebook and a park map we’d selected a short ridge hike to experience the western, more accessible area of the park but when we visited the park office the ranger on duty recommended instead the six-mile hike to Taranaki Falls. We’d thought ahead and packed a picnic lunch, stretched our cramped road-trip legs and started off. 

As we walked the geological history of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes was revealed to us, and we were reminded of our epic volcano hike on Isla Isabela in the Galápagos. The difference is that this volcano is still active, though not at the moment. 

The waterfall made a good lunch spot despite a brisk wind and we were happy to get moving again to warm up. 

We were dragging towards the end of the six miles. We’d originally assumed a shorter hike and a drive back out to civilization for a hotel so we had no accommodations booked and the sun was getting low in the sky. As we walked back onto the park road we came upon a backpackers hostel and checked at the office to see what they might have available. We’d have settled for a shipping crate and a lumpy pillow but they offered us a tiny private room with ensuite bathroom for a reasonable rate. What’s more they had two hot tubs and booked us a free half hour in the “garden room” and a 7 pm table in the restaurant. Life is good. 

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Squeezing time

Pressed for time we’d decided to skip the Weta Workshop special effects film works here in Wellington. We were in the “business” and even knew a few special effects artists personally back in a former life in Pittsburgh. Marce even got a mention on the IMDB and no small amount of fame as Severed Head #2 in a video game, Black Dahlia. No lines but I wonder if screaming counts as dialogue?


The next morning we were still reverberating from the impact of the Gallipoli… I hesitate to call it just an exhibit, so let’s call it an experience… so we changed our plans and squeezed in a quick trip to the people who designed the amazing Gallipoli experience. The Weta Workshop is located in the suburbs of Wellington, not far from where we were. 

No photos please, greeted us once we were finished with their monster garden entrance, kind of like trolls on heavy doses of steroids. We entered a shabby little bungalow and, you guessed it, into the gift shop. 

Props, swords, T-shirts, knives, masks, kids…the kids weren’t for sale of course but there were a lot of them, and we were encouraged to watch a short movie in the Bat…no the Weta Cave movie house. It was free. What a diverse, talented bunch of blokes these Weta folks are. Not many women but I recognized a lot of Hollywood blockbusters in the video and you soon realize that working on the Gallipoli Exhibit was from the heart and not just another entertainment for them. There are expert craftsmen, model makers, armorers, camera operators, makeup artists, even software developers because very often they had to invent software to do things they needed like having a massive army of creepy things that don’t exist attack another massive army of creepy things that also don’t exist. They called that program “Massive.” Like I said, they’re a clever lot but we gotta go!

Out the door, up Victoria mountain for a spot of lookout viewing. You can see why the Weta folks choose to shoot The Lord of the Rings trilogy in New Zealand. The commute for them wasn’t bad either. 

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So real

The first thing to do, says everyone about Wellington, is visit Te Papa, the National Museum. Bright and early, or as early as we manage these days, we walked the few blocks from our hotel down to the waterfront toward the museum, appreciating the public art along the way. 

We were about museumed out, what with visiting every exhibit in the towns we stayed in so far. Still, we love museums. We love good museums. We have our favorites and as former media pros we both appreciate new more interactive exhibit concepts that make history come alive. Te Papa is huge with a number of very good traditional displays, particularly the Maori exhibit.

The big draw is the year-old Gallipoli exhibit, a deep-dive, multimedia immersion in one of the defining events in New Zealand history. We’d seen the Gallipoli arrays in the smaller museums, the usual collections of artifacts with explanatory placards, and we wondered to the young info-desk girls if it was worth the cruise ship crowd wait to see this one. 

“Definitely!” they both said emphatically. And so we stood in line for about half an hour, inching toward the entrance, not knowing what awaited just inside. 

This photo is not blown up. As you enter the exhibit you’re assaulted by this larger-than-life figure of a real person in a real moment of one of the saddest chapters in the history of human conflict. 

And from that moment we were wrapped up in the experience of an incredible modern museum presentation. We barely raised the camera, so immersed were we in the multivalent, compelling storytelling. I did manage to take a photo of this small detail, a timeline painted on the floor showing the number of casualties by day. 

The exhibit was designed and built in partnership with the Weta Workshop, the people who brought you the Lord of the Ring movies, and I recommend you visit the website and poke around for a sense of how complex and wide ranging it is. It is now my favorite museum exhibit, even surpassing the ground-breaking Holocast Musem in Washington, DC in sheer creativity and emotional effectiveness. There are terrific videos here about the making of the exhibit. 

By the time we left Gallipoli and Te Papa and emerged back into the sunshine we were emotionally drained and just wanted to talk about what we’d seen. At an amazing gourmet food emporium we put together a picnic dinner of fine cheeses, fresh bread, fruit and wine and retired to our hotel for the evening to process the experience and unwind. Wellington delivered again. 

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Blues in the night

Touring is hard work and normally by nightfall we’re tucked away exhausted. But our first night in Wellington lured us a few blocks from the hotel to Cuba Street, the artistic, funky heart of the city. It was getting even colder and we chose seats at an outside pub that had propane heaters, sharing the table with two women who worked in organic farming. We had a great convo with them, learning more about New Zealand, about Wellington and about farming. They also told us that the famous Night Market was about to open in the alleyway nearby. One woman had to go home, but the other, a French expat named Anne accompanied us across the street and into the weekend throng. We were greeted by the exotic aromas of dozens of ethnic food vendors and the competing rhythms of buskers. Jack and I immediately realized how hungry we were and made the rounds of the food stands to make our selections. Jack and Anne chose mixed jerk from two Jamaicans who it turns out both went to college in Philadelphia, one to Temple University where I was born, and the other to Villanova, whose basketball team just won the national championship. We marveled at how small the world really is, and extended our enthusiastic congrats on the win. I’ve got cousins who went to Villanova so we’re proud too. 

Jack and Anne parked themselves in a relatively quiet corner to eat and enjoy the scene while I continued the search for something exotic and vegetarian. I found a tent selling Moroccan falafel wraps and put in my order. It was one of the busiest vendors but it was fun to watch the crowd, listen to the music and enjoy a rare night out on the town while I waited for my food. And believe me, it was worth the wait.

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