Author Archives: Marce

We may never pass this way again

Sixteen days is a very short time to fully appreciate the legendary beauty of the South Island but that was all we could squeeze out of our budget so it will have to do. Every day we were mindful that we may never get here again and we tried to burn the breathtaking images into our memories. As we stumbled exhausted into Christchurch for our last day we were in full-on, end-of-vacation mode, which is to power through and promise ourselves a long sleep when we get home. 

Christchurch is an odd place to end after so much natural beauty. The city was hit with a devastating earthquake in 2011 and they’re still trying to recover and rebuild. One hundred eighty-five people died in the quake, memorialized in a temporary art installation of white chairs. I found the variety evocative, from office chairs, to dining, lounge, beanbags, garden, bar stools, even a baby carrier. You’re invited to sit in any chair that beckons you. We stayed for a while, meditating on the lives lost and the capriciousness of nature. 


The damage is still very much in evidence, especially at the Anglican Cathedral, which is fenced off and shored up for safely, reminding us of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche in Berlin, left unrebuilt as a reminder of the pointlessness of war. I don’t know what the parish plans to do with this building, but in the meantime it’s a powerful demonstration of what happens to our feeble attempts at posterity when the ground beneath us shifts. 

To accommodate the religious communities they’ve built a temporary “Cardboard Cathedral,” the soaring roof supported by giant   paper towel tubes resting on shipping containers. 


Much of the Central Business District was destroyed or endangered, sending a lot of the population to seek homes elsewhere and threatening the livelihood of many who stayed. The business leaders wisely came up with an ambitious plan to reopen within sixty days by clearing the rubble and importing and outfitting shipping containers to create temporary storefronts, cafes and other businesses to serve shoppers, tourists and downtown workers. As each area is rebuilt the containers are removed, but you can see there are still quite a few remaining, and they’ve become an attraction in themselves. Smart move! 


Between seeing the cyclone destruction in Fiji and the earthquake damage here in New Zealand, we’ve come to appreciate the efforts of relief organizations of all kinds, from foreign governments to NGOs to volunteers. We especially admire the design and construction of temporary buildings that get people back to some kind of normal as quickly as possible. By contrast, we’re watching Treme, a short-lived HBO drama about the aftermath and slow recovery of New Orleans after Katrina and we’re saddened at how little was done for so long, how much people suffered just trying to live in a place they call home that was rendered unrecognizable and uninhabitable, in America, one of the richest countries on earth. The trauma and ongoing stress of losing everything is unimaginable for most of us and my heart goes out to those who suffer the loss and those who pitch in to help. 

There are areas of Christchurch that were undamaged and we could still appreciate how lovely the city is, despite the brisk and gloomy weather. 

Eventually the cold got to us and we took refuge at the International Antarctic Center, which turned out to be a ridiculously overpriced waste of time, with barely a mention of the great Antarctic explorers and science displays rooted in the 1950s. The only saving graces were a short film of aerial shots of the continent and a penguin habitat similar to what we saw in the North Island last year. We could only justify the entrance fee by consoling ourselves that at least they are rescuing and caring for injured penguins. 



We took the free Penguin Bus back to town and hit a Falafel stand for takeout. Our flight is the dreaded 6am, which means a pickup at the hotel at 3:15am. We’re definitely looking forward to a long sleep back home. 

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Backtracking

 We’d planned a complete circumnavigation of the South Island but shortly before we arrived we discovered that the coast highway from Blenheim to Christchurch was severely damaged and completely gone in a couple of sections, thanks to a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that centered over Kaikoura in November 2016. There is now only one way to get to Christchurch and that is to backtrack over the mountains, a long slog joined by everyone else who needs to cover this territory, including the trucks now necessary to move goods that were previously delivered by train, as the rail line is parallel to the highway and also closed for at least the coming year. 


We are obviously disappointed as this section of coastline is by all accounts spectacular, but really, how much more “spectacular” can we take? We will miss seal and penguin colonies but we were lucky to see them further south, so we put the best face on it and started out early on what would be a very long day of drive, stop, shoot photos, drive, stop, shoot photos. Ha! So boring! 

Having to go back over previously covered territory gave Jack the opportunity to order for the second time a pulled pork sandwich he found particularly good at a cafe in Murchison. No complaints from the skipper. 


Hour after hour we squiggled over mountains and through pasture lands, knowing our days in New Zealand were about to end. 

After a while the view starts looking like a mall painting, the winding road, the puffy clouds, the artfully placed fence. How can this be real?


We drove all the way to Akaroa on the Banks peninsula, a former French settlement nestled in an old volcano crater. We would love to spend a week here. The towns are charming, the setting is awe-inspiring yet homey.  We arrived on Anzac Day but after the municipal activities had ended and it was quiet and largely free of tourists or even many locals. 




We found an outdoor cafe and had lunch in the sun, then started the long twisty drive back up over the crater rim to a cafe we’d passed on the way down for a restorative coffee. At the top we found where everyone had gone. Seems the soldiers and dignitaries who’d celebrated Anzac Day at the town monument were continuing their celebration with the best view in town. And who can blame them? We lingered as long as we could then reluctantly made our way to Christchurch with one day left in our New Zealand adventure. 

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 Three years on and so much richer

Three years ago today we experienced a disaster at sea when a critical fitting failed and our entire rig toppled into the ocean. We were 450 miles west of the Galápagos Islands en route to the Marquesas, on a dream passage with high confidence in our boat and our abilities, confidence that was dashed in the 8 seconds it took from the time we heard the break to the rig hanging over the side deck threatening the hull. The loss tested us not only in our seamanship and decision-making under stress, but in the day-to-day struggle we faced in the following months to keep the dream alive while we repaired the damage. At first we railed against the loss of an entire year of cruising. But as time went on, and especially now in hindsight, we realize how much we gained from the event. 

From the moment we notified the insurance company we were treated with kindness and concern for our well-being and safety by our agent and adjusters until the claim was finally closed more than a year later. The cruising community, both in person in the Galapagos and online, were supportive and sympathetic. The crews of Dancing Bear and Deesse took care of us when we limped back to Isla Isabela, especially Dirk Aardsma, who guided us through the preparations for our long motor back to the mainland while we were still in a daze and could barely put a thought together. 

Because of our dismasting we visited Costa Rica, a place that was never on our itinerary, and met for the first time my cousins Arturo and Roberto and their families and were embraced and surrounded by family love. My cousin Douglas flew in from Colorado and took us to some of his favorite places in the mountains and generally eased our stay in an unfamiliar place. While we struggled with the Dragon Lady at Costa Rica Customs we lived in the warm cocoon of the boating community at Land-Sea Marina, as comfy a home as you can have in our situation. We met the crews of Georgia J and Kia Ora and they became friends. We were given the TV remote for the local bar so we could watch the Grand Prix races early Sunday mornings before they opened for breakfast. We saw whales in the bay, turtles in the anchorage, monkeys and sloths in the trees, orchids in the gardens and spectacular scarlet macaws every day. 

Because of our dismasting we joined the incredible ex-pat and cruising community of Bahia del Sol, El Salvador, and were taken care of by Bill and Jean and Lynn and Lou and the ever-changing cast of characters who pass through that little piece of paradise every season, and when we eventually left for our second try at the Marquesas they gave us a rousing send-off. 

Because of our dismasting we were able to fly back to the States for our niece’s wedding and enjoy reunions with both sides of our family and many of our old friends. The whirlwind extended trip also made us happy to get home to Escape Velocity again and confirmed the decision about our chosen life, even after suffering a setback. A sunrise over the estuary beats almost anything you can see out a window in the mid-Atlantic states. 


Because of our dismasting we road tripped to Honduras and Guatemala and saw inspiring art and culture that will stick with us always. We arranged for a long-stay visa in French Polynesia and got an earlier start on the long ocean passage than we had the year before. That meant we had time to visit all the populated islands in the Marquesas, an accomplishment we’re very proud of and a highlight of our voyage so far. 

Because of the yearlong delay the dismasting caused we reconnected with Caribbean cohorts on Macushla, Flying Cloud and Field Trip, and met new ones on Enki II, Toucan, Rehua, Silver Fern, Full Circle, Moondancer, Qi, Palarran and so many others, dozens of amazing and inspiring people, both cruisers and locals. They have all enriched our lives more than we can measure. It’s true we would have met other, equally wonderful people the year before, but circumstances brought us to this time and place and we can’t imagine it otherwise. 

Because of our dismasting we have learned to slow down, to appreciate where we are every day, to cherish time with friends. We are now more than five years in and not yet halfway around. But what’s the hurry? Every day is a winding road and we’re so much richer for the twists and turns it brings. 

“The moon and sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. From the earliest times there have always been some who perished along the road. Still I have always been drawn by wind-blown clouds into dreams of a lifetime of wandering.” —Basho, Narrow Road to the Interior

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Road discoveries

We are starting to get a little burned out and agree with everyone who warned us that two weeks is really not enough time to appreciate the incredible South Island. It’s no problem covering the short distances, but we don’t have time to spend in each place to explore, to hike or kayak or visit museums, etc. Given the cold weather, we’re ok with not kayaking and we do hike every day but some areas are by necessity being left unexplored. This is one of those areas. 

We left our little beach cottage early on the day of the International March for Science. The closest sister march was in Christchurch, many miles and days away, so we had our own private march and posted a photo on Facebook and Twitter to show our solidarity with everyone who showed up in cities all over the world to support science and the people and agencies who work to advance our understanding of the world around us. 


The road along the coast into Abel Tasman National Park ran through this rock formation that I had trouble squeezing into the frame. All the scenery in New Zealand is BIG and mostly beyond my ability to photograph it. 


For the first time we were near a marina and the magnetic pull of the boats revealed a placard promising coffee. Unfortunately that didn’t pan out, but we did talk to a young man crewing on a big squarerigger who invited us to have a look onboard. Jack took the trip down the rat lines while I waited on the dock in the sunshine. The ship is mostly a construction site but the young man insisted they are days away from sailing to Fiji. We have our doubts. 





 We were still undercaffeinated when Jack spotted a handlettered sign on the unsealed road toward Abel Tasman: Totos Café and Gallery. The sign pointed straight up. We followed the steep and narrow switch-backed road, barely able to pass a cyclist chugging along at such a good tempo that I leaned out the window and gave him a thumbs up and an attaboy. We had no idea what to expect but we reached the top to find an absolutely stunning view and a charming cafe with a woodfired pizza oven. Totos has moved into our top five of favorite cafés. 


A few minutes later the cyclist summited, and a few minutes after that his wife arrived by car and they joined us for a mid-morning coffee and pastry. What a find this place is! 


We wish we could come back later for pizza and beer but we need to keep moving. Back down the narrow driveway, back along the unsealed road and we were once again on our way through the stunning landscape toward Nelson. 


We found a cozy lunch spot with amazing vegetarian food and topped off the day with the best gelato we’ve had since Waiheke Island last year in the North Island. Is it a Kiwi thing? Not sure, because the man who made these complex flavors — blackcurrent-wine and boysenberry-Glühwein were our favorites — is Israeli, not Kiwi, but nevertheless, we’ve had our best ever in this country. Reason enough to come back some day. 


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Take me to the beach!

Our South Island vacation coincides with Easter and Anzac Day, two back-to-back long weekends and a school holiday, and that necessitated more itinerary decisions and prebooking than we’re used to. As it turned out, an overnight stay in Greymouth was kind of a bust and we could easily have driven a few more hours after Franz Josef Glacier to reduce the long drive time the next day. But it is what it is and we set out on our last little bit of territory along the west coast. Boy, did it deliver! 

This is spectacular coastline where mountains meet the ocean and the power of the Tasman Sea is evident in the dramatic rock formations at every headland. It’s beautiful from land but completely inhospitable by sea so we’re happy to be touring in our little Yaris rather than on Escape Velocity. In the interest of time we originally thought to head inland on a more or less direct route to our next destination but friends on Facebook and our B&B host Mary reminded us to continue along the coast to Pancake Rocks, a geological wonder created in limestone through the millennia by pressure and erosion. 

There are blowholes and powerful surges and you could spend hours watching the play of wind and water on rock. The sounds are as dramatic as the sights. 


And then it was time to move on and we turned inland once again for another day of narrow switchback roads. Compared to the US the distances we cover each day are minuscule, but because the Kiwis refuse to destroy their gorgeous landscape by blasting through mountains to build straight roads, our drive time is slow and laborious (for the driver) as we veer left, then right, then left, then right, up and over every hill and dale. Actually, whenever I look over at Jack he’s got a bit of a smile going and I think he’s imagining piloting his old Porsche rather than the little Yaris. In any case, every minute of driving is beautiful with a stunning new vista around each curve. 


After a while we stop taking photos because really, how many calendar-worthy photos of New Zealand can you sort through? 

We arrived at our night’s accommodation late in the afternoon, a tiny cabin right on the beach just outside the boundary of Abel Tasman National Park. We had just enough time to unload the car and check out the channels on the Sky TV lineup before enjoying a sunset bottle of wine on the beach. It doesn’t get any better. 

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Anticipation. It’s making me wait.

Today is one of those days we’ve been anticipating with high expectations. Like Milford Sound, our destinations are iconic in the South Island and the focus of much of the posters and brochures of the tourist bureau: the glaciers. Somehow we’ve both missed glaciers in our previous travels, and with global warming doing its best to melt away the remnants of the last ice age, we wanted to see what we could before the Southern Alps become beachfront property and Miami swims with the fishes. It will be a long day.

We left Wanaka early, reluctant to leave our spacious lodging. Our first stop was a throwaway, something called the Blue Pools, and only put on the itinerary because it was relatively close to the road and wouldn’t require the usual hour-long Kiwi waldlauf that characterizes many of the side trips we’ve experienced in NZ. A short walk from the car park brought us to a swing bridge.

A little bit further and we were delighted to find that the blue pools really are blue. 



Another swing bridge gave us the reverse perspective and we saw why so many people were bent over the riverbank. They were building stone cairns, adding to the hundreds of cairns of varying heights and complexity, making a walk among them an exercise in caution and wonder.




We haven’t seen this many cairns since Block Island in 2012. The stones are so tactile, the process of building so addictive, and the desire to leave something of yourself behind so magnetic that we had a hard time dragging ourselves away. Jack noted that a cairn is so much better than carving your name in a tree or tagging the rocks. It doesn’t defile the place, and Mother Nature (or a park ranger) can easily return the beach to its original state. 

We drove over the Haast Pass to the west coast and turned north toward the glaciers. It was slow going both in the mountains and along the coast and we didn’t reach Fox glacier until mid afternoon. By that time the sun had disappeared and the wind chill in the river valley was plummeting. We piled on extra thermal clothing and started the long trek over rocky ground toward the face of the glacier. We had lots of company but once again the scale of the landscape swallowed up busloads of tourists and we never felt either hindered or hindering. 




It’s easy to envision that the glacier had once filled this whole valley and we would like to have seen some signage indicating where the glacier was at different times in the past to illustrate how quickly it’s receding. I need to write a letter to TPTB. 

After miles of upping and downing on ankle-challenging terrain and crossing a dozen rivulets over well-placed flat boulders we finally saw the dirty face of the receding glacier. Because the rocks are so unstable and there are frequent rockfalls or “slips” we were stopped quite a distance from the ice, a disappointment after so long a difficult trek. 


We took the obligatory selfie and started the long trek back after re-upping on Advil for Jack’s knee and my back, realizing it was absurd to think we could have done both glaciers in one day. Fortunately our night’s lodging was booked for the town closest to the second glacier so we reasoned that a glass of wine, a pizza and a good night’s sleep will put us right for Franz Josef in the morning, Inshallah. 

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The Pittsburgh-New Zealand connection

We need to replace a few coffee mugs that have been broken or chipped over the years. Here we are in New Zealand, we reasoned, and a new mug is a good souvenir. This one instantly got snatched up, based as it is on the iconic Marilyn Monroe silkscreen series by Andy Warhol, who was from Pittsburgh. 


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Up and over

By morning the wind had moderated and the tandem paragliders were out in full force. We watched as we packed up the car and planned our day’s drive, a relatively short run to Wanaka over our first mountain pass of the trip.

First we stopped at the quaint village of Arrowtown, looking exactly like any charming 19th century settlement in the Colorado Rockies. We’d read about a place that made bagels and cinnamon buns and that’s speaking our language so of course we made the short detour for brunch. We ate fresh toasted bagels and shared a plum and basil focaccia and Jack had a sticky bun. No wonder we pack on the pounds when we go on a road trip. 


Just outside town we climbed the steep switchback road over the Crown Range with more spectacular long-distance views. It’s been a long time since our eyes could focus on such distances except for the horizon at sea and we paused frequently to drink it all in. 


On the other side of the mountains we drove through sheep and dairy farms. Dairy and beef cows are gaining on the traditional sheep farming in New Zealand, so we saw far fewer sheep than we expected the whole time we were in the South Island. In fact I think we saw bigger sheep herds last year in the North Island than we did here. 

Near Cardrona we stopped for the bra fence, an ever growing collection of over-the-shoulder boulder holders, most of which have been signed by the owner with date and national origin, and offered up for breast cancer awareness. We were happy to make a donation and of course Jack had to do his own research on type, color and size. No conclusions; more research required.

We ended the day in Wanaka, a smaller, quieter version of Queenstown with a similar roster of thrill rides and concessions. It was just a convenient overnight for us in preparation for a long day of mountain touring to come. Our lodging was our favorite of the whole trip, a huge self-contained unit with cathedral ceiling, a well-equipped kitchen, a comfy sectional sofa, a balcony with a mountain view and a big bathroom with a great shower. All that space is a luxury for boat-dwellers and we cooked dinner “at home” and spent the evening watching TV on the sofa.  

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Queenstown quickie

It’s an easy and gorgeous drive from Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland National Park, to Queenstown, the capital of adrenaline sports. We will not be bungy jumping, skydiving, paragliding, jet boating or any of the other high speed or high altitude adventures offered in nearly every storefront but we will appreciate the continued stunning beauty of this part of the world. 

As we drove I noticed that the place names suddenly changed from Scottish to Irish, a phenomenon we see wherever Europeans emigrated to new territory, that they choose a place that feels like the home they left behind.

The drive reminds us that park boundaries are arbitrary and the landscape continues well beyond the exit sign. Once we entered the small town of Queenstown, jam-packed with young backpackers, families with small children and now us, we sought out a cozy pub where we could soak up the youthful energy and plan our day. Travelers at the Fiordland Lodge where we’d stayed in Te Anau suggested the luge, or at least the gondola to the top of the mountain. Once Jack heard “top of the mountain” he would not be denied. 

We timed our ascent so we could see the town at magic hour. We watched as cyclists and lugers and paragliders all rode to various points on the mountain, then continued hiking up to the launch area where we waited and waited and waited to see the tandem paragliders launch. Then we heard a call that the flights were canceled because of too much wind over the water and we turned away disappointed, only to see one after the other solo pilots glide over the valley. We assumed the concession flights were canceled for patron safety but the individual experienced pilots took off anyway from another launch site we couldn’t see from our vantage point. They were beautiful to watch in the golden light. 




On our walk back to our hostel I ran up a hillside to a small cemetery, as I often do. Most of the graves marked people born in Tipperary, confirming my earlier thought. “It’s a long way,” I said to Jack, and we went back to our cozy home for the night. 

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Pining for the fjords

Fiordland National Park is New Zealand’s largest, and so beautiful it almost hurts. We visited only the top teeny little bit, the most touristed, most developed area, and yet the scale of the landscape diminishes the intrusion of humans to the point where we felt we were having a private spiritual experience despite the bus loads of other travelers.

You can drive all the way into the park to where the boat tours begin, about two hours, but our friends had said, “Relax, take the bus” and we’re glad we did. Appreciating the ever-changing perspective of moving through steep mountains on twisty roads requires your full attention and it was wonderful to have someone else do the driving. Our small van stopped often for short walks and photo ops, any one of which would have been reward enough for visiting this special place. 


Our tour started early in the morning which meant despite it being Easter Sunday we were able to board an earlier tour boat than the after-lunch one usually filled to capacity with busloads that originate in Queenstown, further away. We were maybe at one quarter capacity, with plenty of space and a quiet group. We also opted for a longer cruise than the standard. Both tours make the same circuit, along one shore of the fjord, kiss the Tasman Sea, turn around and cruise back in along the other shore. We just took longer, stopping periodically to soak in the majesty of the place. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. Note the kayakers or boats for scale in several photos.





After our cruise we still had another two hours of driving through the park with more stops to walk or just breathe in the crisp mountain air and try to fit the scenery into the itty bitty camera lens. That effort was doomed to failure but the experience is burned into our memories and Fiordland earns a spot on our list of most beautiful places alongside Fatu Hiva and Hallstatt. 


In the evening we went to the movie theatre in Te Anau and watched a 30-minute film of Fiordland photographed almost entirely from the air, since most of the park is otherwise inaccessible. The scale is nearly unimaginable and the variety of landscapes is breathtaking. The play of light on sea, sky and mountains is constantly changing; you could spend a lifetime here and every day would be different. Sadly though, we must move on.

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