World Travel with a Twist of Zen - Fields of Indulgence  
 
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Jeff had the guts to take a dip!
As we drove to Milford Sound, we knew we were entering the most popular part of New Zealand, and for good reason. The soaring alpine heights and majestic glacial views make this region an eye popping delight. The only downside is that the increased popularity leads to overcrowded campsites and reduced opportunities for freedom camping but it is an acceptable sacrifice for the region’s beauty. We were moving quickly through the east side of the island trying to catch the good weather on the west, where it is known to rain 110% of the time. The drive to Milford was somewhat cloudy, but the weather started to break as we approached the heart of Fiordland. To cap off the day, we climbed the rugged Marian Lake Track, which led us to the edge of a glacial lake nestled in a hanging valley. Jeff washed off the heat of the climb with a dip in the chilling pure blue waters!

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Beautiful glacial Marian Lake
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Full rainbows at the Milford waterfalls!
Next day was PACKED as we boulder hopped and waded up the riverbed to see the 270 meter high Humboldt Falls. The base was a cascading stream of splintering waterfalls that almost made us forget about the tiresome journey to get there! Then off to the Gertrude Valley Track where we found ourselves in a valley surrounded on all sides by majestic alpine peaks. A slightly misjudged clamber up the base of a waterfall to refill our chilly bin had us fearing getting caught in a landslide, so we scrambled down and headed off through the engineering feat of the Homer tunnel and into the famous Milford Sound. The sound is actually a “fjord” or inlet created by the retreat of a giant glacier millennia ago. We hopped on a Southern Discovery cruise of the sound and were awed by the sheer granite rising up out of the sea and the force of the waterfalls that pounded down from the high cliffs. The ship took us right into the falls making for a wet and fun experience as we tried to snap photos while being buffeted with glacial mist! 

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This is what 170 meter high waterfall looks like up close! It is a wet one!
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Milford Sound - the rocks here are hard granite so it is harder for the rains to erode them, which is why they just come out high from the waters.
The foreshore walk the next morning was a perfect time to snap a few great photos of Mitre Peak rising out of the 400 meter deep waters as the sun glistened off the water. 
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Earland Waterfalls
We saved the best for last with the Key Summit track and its stupendous alpine views of Lakes Marian, Gunn, and McKellar and the three valleys they rest in. We decided to continue after the Key Summit along the Routeburn Great Walk for another few hours to the Earland Waterfall that splash right down on the walking path. The time of the day to do this one is in the late afternoon when the waning sun projects a double rainbow through the water wafting up from the waterfalls base. As we emerged from the sound, the night’s stay at Henry Creek had a surprise in store for us, when we went to brush our teeth – Jeff had left his trusty companion for the past year and a half, his toiletry bag, all the way back at the Milford Sound Lodge. Out of all the places to forget it, this one happened to be 200 km away down a windy, hilly, dead-end road. Lucky for us, a one way road means everyone going there, must come back, and we were lucky enough to find a sweet couple, who agreed to retrieve the bag and drop it off for us in Te Anau, while we embarked on our greatest day hike yet.

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Double Rainbow!!!!
As if the 8 hour Routeburn jaunt wasn’t enough, we decided to tackle the Kepler Great Walk with a 12 hour return trip starting down at Te Anau Lake all the way to the highest point of the track, the peak of Mount Luxmore. A leisurely stroll through the beech forest led to a grueling 2 hour switch back packed ascend, which found us practicing walking meditation as we stepped and breathed in rhythm while pushing the limits of our physical endurance. Much like a Zen sesshin, pushing yourself to your limit, whether it be physical or mental can be an effective way to force the ego-mind to wear itself out, leaving only the fertile field of the present moment for the senses to graze upon. After finishing the walk and cooking up a king’s breakfast of eggs, shoulder bacon, and toast the next morning, we got a call from the local i-Site, that the couple dropped off our toiletry bag. Excitedly, we picked it up and left Fiordland complete again!
For all the photos from our Fiordland adventure, click here: http://flic.kr/s/aHsjE9X98T.

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So happy to make it through the ascent!!
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Basket of dreams on Queenstown Hill
Next stop was the crazy duo of Queenstown and Wanaka. Known as the “adventure capital” of the world, we found Queenstown’s manufactured adrenaline highs (bungee jumping, jet boating, hang gliding, etc.) to be overcommercialized and overpriced. The city has a beautiful location surrounded by the Remarkables Mountain Range on the edge of a clear blue lake. In the end we opted for some “natural highs” by climbing Queenstown Hill to get 360 degree views of the area. Wanaka is like a laid back version of Queenstown with a similar setting of mountains and lake. The environment was chill enough, however, to enjoy hangout time reading by the lake and some truly spectacular hikes, including the Rocky Mountain Loop Track overlooking Lake Wanaka and the surrounding environs. The most memorable was the Rob Roy Glacial Valley Track in Mount Aspiring National Park. The three hour roundtrip hike takes you to a magical valley, where the Rob Roy glacier perches atop the mountains. Meanwhile, the alpine parrots – keas – keep you company while they swoop down to feed on the brilliantly yellow wild flowers spanning the valley or on any tidbits that tourists inappropriately give them. Oh, and did we mention that there are maybe five waterfalls pouring down the crevices of the mountains – truly a magical place. For all the pictures from this leg, click here: http://flic.kr/s/aHsjEaeMMf.

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Rob Roy Glacial Valley
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Crazy keas at Rob Roy Hanging Glacier
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Fox Glacier Snout
After Rob Roy, we were primed and ready for more glacier fun as we headed north through the Haast Pass to the sandfly-ridden west coast, where the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers awaited. These remnants of the ice age past, continue to retreat up the amazing valleys they created and into their origins in the high mountain peaks. Walking to the snouts of each glacier, we found them impressive reminders of what the world once was but less atmospheric than the wondrous setting of Rob Roy.  

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Nowhere else in the world, can you see a glacier surrounded by jungle! Fox Glacier view from the Chalet Track.
As we finish off this post at Lake Kaniere outside of Hokitika, we are huddled inside of our van taking shelter from the hoard of blood thirsty sand flies that ravage tourists’ skin each dawn and dusk (and during the day in the really bad spots!). Still, they couldn’t take away from Hokitika’s charming driftwood beaches, abundance of pounami jade stones, and damn good mac ‘n cheese! 
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The winner of the driftwood art competition - Hokitika
 
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Arriving on the South Island
 Ahhh, the south Island of New Zealand! For many it is THE destination of the country, with the North Island only getting a cursory few stops on the way down. Having had such an amazing time on the North Island, we were eager to see how the south would compare. It didn’t start favorably, as the ferry ride over Cook Strait was cloud ridden (though still pretty) and the rain started to fall once the driving started. We didn’t get far that first day, but were pleasantly surprised about our ability to freedom camp along the eastern coast in a little car park with a pleasant lakeside viewing platform. 

The next morning our wildlife encounters began as we drove through the downpour to Ohau point, a known breeding grounds for the New Zealand fur seals. The little fellas could care less about the pouring rain, and as we watched amid the drenching we saw them frolicking about, both adults and cubs alike. What a wondrous introduction to New Zealand wildlife.
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Cute fur seals lounging in the rain!
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Strange formations at Castle Hill
From there, having to make some tough choices about where to go with the weather remaining relatively foul, we headed up a bit to Arthur’s Pass to see the city of stone that is Castle Hill. Featured in the “Narnia” films, this limestone outcropping features a variety of bizarre shapes and found us climbing and laughing at the various oblong shapes created! From there we bypassed the large city of Christchurch due to time and weather and along the way to Mount Cook stopped for a quick hike at the Rakaia Gorge. 

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Beautiful Lake Tekapo
  Then it was on to the main event! The weather started to clear as we drove west towards Mt. Cook, the tallest peak in New Zealand. Our first stop was the phosphorescent glowing waters of Lake Tekapo. The lake is glacier fed and as the water flows from the glacier to the basin of the lake, it grinds the surrounding rock into “flour”. This flour serves to refract the light in the lake, making it glow almost like ectoplasm! The view is even grander after a drive up to the hilltop observatory outside of town, where you can compare the glacier fed lake to the more typical Lake Alexandria. 
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Lake Tekapo vs Lake Alexandrina
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Lake Pukaki
After Tekapo, we drove the long length of Lake Pukaki on our way to Mount Cook. Lake Pukaki shares the same lineage as Lake Tekap so the 55km drive was pure delight on our first crystal clear day on the south island as we drove the turquoise waters with Mt. Cook beckoning from the horizon. If that was the ice cream, the cherry on top was arriving in the Mount Cook National Park and doing the glorious Hooker Valley walk, which passes several swing bridges before breaking views of the stunning Mount Cook holding court over the valley. We slept at the Mount Cook camp with the wind buffeting Faith (the name of our van) and dreaming of our humbleness before the rocky towers that the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates have created in their millennia long embrace. 

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The stunning view of Mt. Cook, freshly capped with snow, as we turned the corner of the Hooker Valley Track
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The Clay Cliffs outside of Twizel
The next day saw us overwhelmed with what to do next as the weather in Mount Cook was already souring. A quick peek at the Tasman glacier was followed by a visit to the Clay Cliffs of Omarama. The experience was almost ruined for Neda when she was climbing behind me and I dislodged a soccer ball sized stone that nearly took her out. But the cliffs, which rose like a giant striated clay organ into the sky, were a sight to behold. Still, afterwards we found ourselves a bit frazzled as we drove towards the town of Oamaru, wondering how to make our schedule work. Now let me tell you a true piece of wisdom from the road – if you ever feel in a funk, find some penguins! For us, a drive off the coast outside of Oamaru to Bushy Beach at dusk was just the ticket. It is at this time in the evening that the world’s most rare penguins, the yellow-eyed variety, waddle up out of the ocean to bring food to their waiting chicks. Neda spotted one of the sea birds while it was still in the waves and we watched as it let the tides bring it to shore and started its ritual walk up the beach. How special to witness this nature made domestic ritual! We bedded down that night at a DOC (Dept. of Conservation) campsite, feeling amped up and recharged for our trip down the east coast of the south island.

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  And it did not disappoint! In one of our best days of the whole trip, we hit all the high notes. A trip to Katiki point to start the day saw us surrounded by lounging fur seals and penguin chicks burrowed in their nesting holes off the hiking track. Wildlife was followed in quick succession by wild things as we bounded off to the famous Moeraki boulders, beach bound balls filigreed with quartz-like calcite crystals.  If that wasn’t enough sexual allegory, our next stop was the peninsula at Shag Point, where a hidden tidal shelf holds mysteries of ages past. It is here that ancient dinosaur skeletons were discovered, having been entombed in spherical stone over the ages of sediment buildup. These “dinosaur eggs” were a delight to discover and explore. 

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Sediment build-up like this at Shag Point led to the creation of these "dinosaur eggs" over millions of years - entombing goodies for scientists to discover years later, including NZ's largest dinosaur fossil of an 8 meter long Plesiosaur!
The night reached its apex down in the car park off of Shag Point, where we freedom camped with sweet little spot right on the beach. We partook in some Raglan hospitality as we watched the seagulls butcher a slew of fish on the beach before digging into our own delicious meal of pan fried local salmon, seared zucchini, and bottle of a local sauvignon blanc, the NZ specialty. We were thinking of our friend Jane back in Austin, who introduced us to delicious sauvs and grilled fish off the balcony of the Roc!
The wandering continued down the coast to Dunedin where a quick visit to the city’s Otago museum showed us the Plesiosaur that had been discovered at the aforementioned Shag Point. Then it was off to some hikes on the barren and majestic Otago peninsula where we stood on the edge of 300 meter drops at lovers leap, meditated at the chasm loop and finished off the day descending the homemade passageway through the rock to the beautiful tunnel beach. The waves thundered around us and the scenery swept us away, only to find us freedom camping at a cozy little surf beach in the tiny village of Brighton. The morning was a fine one for yoga and meditation on the shadow lapped beach and the cold public showers felt like a premium sauna after 3 days of roughin’ it!
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The amazing tunnel beach also featured a scary land bridge (bottom right) that you could walk over while listening to the waves booming onto rocks beneath
I know this post seems likes a whirlwind, but trust me the real wind didn’t begin until we got down into the “Roarin’ 40’s” of the Catlins. This southernmost region of NZ is among the windiest part of the planet and it’s normal to see near horizontal trees who have been bent but not broken by the ceaseless airflow of the region. Though we stopped for a scenic hike to Jack’s blowhole (where we saw a penguin narrowly escape the sea surging waters), the true purpose of the journey might be have been our favorite spot of the whole trip – Curio Bay. The near southernmost part of the island, Curio Bay is one of the most unique places on earth. It has a tidal shelf which at low tide reveals the remains of a 170 million year old petrified forest that was preserved there after a volcanic eruption.
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The eerie naturalistic landscape of Curio Bay - a petrified forest preserved by volcanic ash and only visible as the tide lowers each evening. The not-so-discerning eye will also notice our yellow-eyed penguin friend making his nightly stroll up the shelf with his gullet full of fish, ready to feed his molting chick!
If that wasn’t enough, the shelf is also home to the friendliest group of yellow eyed penguins on the island. We watched slackjawed as one of these rare penguins came within 10 meters of us, called to his chick, and then waited as the partially molted chick emerged from his burrow to retrieve the fish his parent was holding in his gullet. We watched this amazing feeding process up close! It was at once intimate, wild, and humbling to be given this window into these creatures’ lives.

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The eager chick gets his feeding. He is almost fully molted now and will soon be ready to go out into the wild. His final molting, however, created a cute little afro - see more pics on the flickr link below!
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Jeff hangs 10...
This spot couldn’t get better right? Well it does. The adjacent Porpoise Bay, just a few minute walk away is home to a pod of the rare mini Hector dolphins, who feature a dorsal fin that resembles a Mickey Mouse ear. The Hector dolphins are somewhat unique not just due to their small size, but that they tend to live close to the shore, making for a good bet you can see them swimming there. For us the perfect solution came in Nick, the proprietor of the Catlin’s surf school. We took a surf lesson from him on a perfect windy day. Not only did Neda and I both get up and hang ten multiple times, we also got a show from the resident dolphins as they jumped around the waves while we surfed. It was endorphin overload to the max. Could anything top it? After all, it was the west coast of the South Island which receives all the hoopla…can’t wait to see what awaits!

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...but Neda shows him up!
 
Having broken in the van with our beach side escapades, we had yet one more beach to explore before heading to Taranaki region’s crown jewel, Mount Egmont. Unfortunately, our search for the low tide boulders at Tongaporutu beach was a wild goose chase, but we were rewarded of views of sea rocks in the remarkable likeness of an Asian elephant.
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Enchanted Forest Track
Then off we headed to a windy freedom camping spot at Dawson’s Falls carpark high in Egmont National Park. Freedom camping used to be the norm in New Zealand, where campervans could park in public car parks and rest stops. However the burgeoning tourism here has led to some abuse of this lenient policy, and as a result choice freedom camping spots are a bit harder to come by, especially in the popular areas of the islands. The down side of this is not only the obvious factor of cost, but the fact that tourists tend to be huddled in characterless motorparks with little privacy. Freedom camping offers the opportunity to experience New Zealand the real kiwi way with just you and the bush. We got a good taste of that when we inadvertently observed a stoat (a pest introduced to kill rabbits, who now eats native birds) catching and killing a rabbit (which have becomes pests after being introduced for hunting by the European settlers). Our morning hike showed the weather ‘becoming fine’ as we tramped through a gnarled goblin forest and crossed wobbly swing bridges. The highlight was when shy Mount Egmont revealed herself through the fluffy clouds.

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There she is! The pay-off as the shy lady comes out for a brief viewing!
On our way out of the mountains, we couldn’t resist a stop at Waverly Beach for a famed sea arch that has since collapsed. Luckily, the trip was not in vain, because we saw the remains of petrified trees on the beach that one of Egmont’s eruptions preserved many years ago.

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no arch, but still some "wow" moments on the off-the-beaten path Waverly beach
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a flight of local brews with seafood stew
Our final stop before heading to the South Island was the capital city of Wellington, which is so windy that it puts Chicago to shame. A drive to the Mount Victoria view point saw Neda almost take flight as the wind gusts there can frequently reach near hurricane levels. We had a noteworthy experience at the Fork and Brewer downtown Wellington, where the Joe, the local bartender, gave us tips and tastes of a variety of local craft brews. He also reassured us that freedom camping on the Oriental Parade street facing Oriental Bay and just a 10 minute walk from downtown was not a big deal. We were concerned as the closest camping spot we found was 20 minutes outside of town, and the hostels didn’t have parking spaces. Sure enough, we pulled into Oriental Bay and found a host of campervans all sleeping for free for the night and using the public toilets across the street. In New Zealand, we call this set up ‘sweet as’ and to top it off, the guy at the front desk of the local gym gave us the ‘traveler discount’ of much needed free showers. We are loving the kiwi hospitality! 

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an extinct Moa at Te Papa
The morning saw an interested but convoluted visit to the renowned Te Papa Museum, where we learned about New Zealand culture and wildlife but found the rather scattered displays difficult to follow.  The true highlight of the day for us was the drive around the bay to the Weta Cave, the home of the now famous special effects studio driven to world fame when it partnered with Peter Jackson in the creation of the Lord of the Rings films. The fascinating ‘Windows into Workshop’ tour would make my uncle Tony drool as we got a firsthand look at the work of the highly skilled sculptors, painters, smiths, and computer gurus who have brought to life not only Lord of the Rings but also the Narnia films, District 9, Avatar and many other films. So how could we top off such insight into the world of Middle Earth? 

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The trolls from the Hobbit look to Jeff for a nice stew!
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How about a visit to the famous Embassy Theater where the Hobbit had its world premier! The Embassy had specially equipped speakers to screen the premier to celebrities, and the 3D high frame experience there was a true immersion experience. We felt like we were visiting middle earth after having just visited middle earth! Our action packed time in Wellington left us breathless and eager for what lay beyond as we boarded the early morning ferry to the South Island, where the scenery would really heat up! Coming soon!

To see the pics from this region, click here:


For all you LOTR fanboys out there, I couldn't resist a few extra pics:)
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Neda gets in trouble with an uruk hai
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my precious....
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What Gandalf and I? Yeah, we hang sometimes...
 
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Leaving Auckland a bit late due to the post celebratory sleeping, our campervan experience began in earnest. Our destination was the fabled Waitomo caves with their fascinating glowworms, but as we set out we realized we weren’t going to make it there in time. Thus, our first “freedom camping” experience was a hilarious stopover in a residential neighborhood outside of Hamilton. Just imagine us furtively looking out of our curtains as we slept under the street lights of a cul-de-sac. We made a beeline out of there at the crack of dawn and made a bunch of minor fixes to the van to prepare her for the journey. Our road trip began with a string of fresh local fruit and veggie shops on the road, and we could hardly move a few kilometers before we kept pulling over for succulent kiwis, bags of zucchini, broccolis the size of Neda’s head, and heaps of avocados (mm, guacamole galore, miss you Austin!).

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Our first night in the van was dinner at a beautiful river before our freedom camping :)
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Before we knew it, we were in Waitomo, though the hyper commercialized and uber expensive cave tours left us searching for the right way to tackle the area. Our answer came in the form of the godsend New Zealand Frenzy guidebook series by Scott Cook. The books focus on campervan travel throughout New Zealand, with a focus on DYI adventures and off the beaten path treasures. In Waitomo, Scott recommended Ruakuri Bushwalk twice – during the day the walk is a pleasant stroll through the area of the caves and the native bush, but at night it really shines! We were mesmerized by the thousands of little azure colored lights throughout the woods and along the limestone walls. The little critters have evolved this beautiful glow to attract small insects for them to feed on. As we walked in the dark, it became hard to distinguish where the glow of the worms ended and where the glitter of the stars began (the night sky is crystal clear here). How amazing that from this perspective the tiniest of worms were indistinguishable from the enormous gas giants burning far away from us. It was truly an experience of the finite merging with the infinite - the heart of the Soto Zen teaching. 

Next, we decided to head out to the relatively isolated West Coast of the Central North Island with a couple of tramps (what kiwis call hikes) along the way. Our first stop was the Tawarau Falls off of Appletree Road. Turns out this road is an unpaved overgrown forest road that leads to a small hill parking lot from where the tramp to the waterfall begins. Let’s just say that the Estima’s low frame height didn’t agree with the road. Clinking and thumping noises accompanied our every turn as our anxiety grew that the car would fall apart as the trip had begun. With rain approaching and our fears of not being able to get out before dark, we skipped the trek and headed back to the main road. This time, the car really did tear some pieces off as we got back to the main road with plastic and metal dragging ominously on the ground. With the help of a few friendly locals, we were able to get the pieces off and got a piece of mind, that the only damage was to the unnecessary safety guards at the bottom of a car. We brought the pieces to a mechanic later, who assured us that they were Japanese add-ons not necessary and we can drive. As the noises reverberated in our ears and Jeff continued to push on the gas, hoping for minimal damage, the car earned her name. We called her Faith. The rest of the road was more peaceful as we wooed under the Mangapohue Natural Bridge and ahhed in the personal rainbow that Jeff created standing in the mist of the stunning Marokopa Falls.
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The Marokopa Falls were amazing! This rainbow was only created one I clambered up onto this rock and deflected the mist in just the right way!
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Kiritehere
Our night would end riding a locals only gravel road to the Kiritehere Beach, a beautiful black sanded cove backed by the pastoral farmlands and rolling hills common to the region. The only other camper there for the night was a local from Raglan, who offered us a beer and other Kiwi hospitality that made for some far out conversations! Lying in bed that night, listening to the waves rock us to sleep - does it get any better? 

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Through the tunnel
The isolated beach theme continued as Scott led us next to Waikawau Tunnel Beach. Accessible at low tide only, this beautiful spot can only be reached via an 80 meter long manmade tunnel (built so that shepards could get their sheep out for sea pickup) through the sandstone cliffs. Emerging through the gusting winds of the tunnel, the beach provided a brilliant walk along colorful bluffs, cute waterfalls surrounded by verdant moss, and fascinating forms that the rippling eddies created in the sand. To top it all off, we were completely alone. 

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Just us and the waves at Waikawau Tunnel Beach
That sweet remoteness would continue as we bedded down at our destination of the evening, Mokau beach. This sweet spot on Scott’s itinerary saw us literally opening our van door to the sparkling black sand beach littered with picturesque white driftwood. Being more than just beautiful, the wood provided for a warm fire in a nook carved out of a beach cliff. We felt like kings of the world, drinking beers, eating homemade guacamole and curried chickpeas in front of the warm fire gazing out at the never-ending ocean.
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We'll always have Mokau ;)
Sure, there were some bumps along the road but our first week of the campervan chronicles was a smashing success. Next, we would tackle Mount Egmont and see the birth place of the Hobbit in Windy Welly.

For the beautiful pics from this leg of the trip, click here
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The sand eddies at Waikawau tunnel beach
 
Our mission was simple – find and acquire a campervan to tramp around New Zealand with while still partying with our travel friends Chris & Lauren for New Year’s on the beach. The challenge was in doing it all in two days! We flew into Auckland on a redeye from the Gold Coast, arriving at 1am. The airport shuttle into town rang in at $16/per person, the beginning of our New Zealand “sticker shock” having just come from Malaysia and India! Flying in on a redeye Sunday morning wouldn’t be such a big deal, if it wasn’t for the fact that the well-known Ellerslie Car Fair happens to run only on Sunday mornings! That means after checking into our hotel, Neda and I only grabbed a few hours of shuteye before catching the bus out to the fair to find our van.
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Beautiful Gold Coast, Australia
First a little history about why we had this mission in the first place. While traveling in Cambodia we ran into a great couple, Chris & Lauren. Chris is a Kiwi and the couple had recently bought a campervan to travel around New Zealand’s two stunning islands before returning to sell the van and continuing with their travels. Their stories inspired us and logistically it seemed the best way to see NZ. To rely on public transportation leaves you missing the plethora of off-the-track destinations that make New Zealand so special and to rent a campervan for 2 months rings up between $5-8k. On the other hand, you can buy a decent minivan/full size van with a simple bed frame put in the back for around $3-4k. Then, at the end of your trip, there is a good chance you can sell the van at around the same cost or with a slight loss. 
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Auckland Skytower on our first night
When we walked up to Ellerslie, the parking lot had a string of about 10 campervans to choose. The sellers were made up of either German backpackers or seedy looking locals. We had heard that rip-off artists abound at the fair and so were hoping to deal with backpackers, who seemed less likely to outright lie about the history of the car. After perusing the vehicles though we found that there are two classes of vans – those that have been fully modified to include a sink and a table and those that really just have a bed in the back. The modified ones all had price tags in the 5k+ range, which was beyond what Neda and I wanted to risk in this endeavor. But the non-modified vans were in pretty bad shape, so we took some phone numbers but left the fair by hitchhiking with some Czech backpackers who wanted to sell us their 1989 Toyota Hiace, which a mechanic had told us might struggle over the hills in the South Island.
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Ringatoto Volcanic Island near Auckland
Back in Malaysia, I had used the precious internet time there (internet is costly and sparse in New Zealand!) to research campervans online. The best sites I found were Gumtree and the Backpacker Board. People had recommend trademe.co.nz, but I didn’t want to buy a car without looking at it first (its sort of like e-bay in that way). As soon as we got a NZ phone (I recommend Skinny for a cheap, good provider if you have a smartphone), we texted the people I had previously researched and found that most of the vans were available. So we woke up on New Year’s Eve, still jet-lagged with a mini car fair coming to our hotel parking lot! In the end, we turned down Germans with a Mitsubishi Spacegear and found the preferred model I had been looking for – the Toyota Estima. The Estima is a popular car in New Zealand and we see families riding around in them all the time (meaning high resale value to kiwis and tourists alike). It also has more power than some of the older models like the Hiace and is quite durable. Nigel (the seller) wanted $4,500 for the 1996 Estima with 222k km and a futon in the back that he had put in himself, as well as a customized little counter for storage and cooking sitting behind the futon. I offered him $3,500 pending a mechanical inspection and we had an agreement, but it was already getting late on New Year’s Eve so we agreed to put off the sale until the 3rd, since the 1st & 2nd are holidays in New Zealand. 

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Our new lady overlooking the beaches of the west coast of the north island
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BBQ'd Coromandel mussels!
 Yay! Relieved that we had a solid prospect on our mini-home, we met up with Chris and Lauren, who were visiting New Zealand for a wedding and holidays. It’s always fun to meet up with those we have traveled with over our trip, and this was no exception. On New Year’s Eve we went to a friend of Chris’ house on the beach and partied the night away. New Zealand has lots of craft beers, which I heartily enjoyed while we cooked up Coromandel mussels, shot air guns, and BBQ'd the night away. Almost like being in America for the 4th of July, except it was New Year’s Eve! New Zealand is the first major country to usher in the New Year so while we were kissing and drinking champagne, it was only 6am on New Year’s Eve on the East Coast!

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Neda wields fire as the party progresses
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The sitting lion on Piha beach
New Year’s Day found us traveling with Chris’ friend Mike over to spectacular Piha beach, which has some crazy riptides. They are so bad that a baywatchesque reality TV show is filmed there where unsuspecting swimmers get pulled out of the raging rips by a darting raft filled with lifeguards. In the evening we spent some time with Chris’ fascinating parents (his dad was backpacking around the world back in the 1950’s as part of the British merchant marine!) who hosted us for a few days. This left us time to explore the volcanic Ringatoto island off the coast of Auckland (which is essentially a city built on top of volcanoes) and walk around the Auckland harbor, marveling at $18 hamburgers and $17 gyros as our sticker shock continued! Ringatoto had great views of the Skytower and it was interesting to see the unique kidney fern as well as the breeding grounds of the black back gulls.

When the holiday was over and 3rd rolled around, we had to finish the deal with the car. The seller picked me up and we went to one of the only mechanic shops I could find that was open. FYI, much of Auckland closes down between Christmas and the first two weeks of January as the locals take their summer holidays. Not a good time to visit! The pre-purchase inspection yielded some minor fixes needed on the car like windshield wipers and a new radiator cap, though nothing major for a Warranty of Fitness (WOF). The WOF is the main car inspection in New Zealand and is required every 6 months for cars older than 3 years. In the end the car seemed in pretty good shape so we decided to take the plunge and have been loving it ever since!
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Ed, Chris, and Midori playing Carcassone at the beach mansion where Ben hosted us
I have to admit that juggling the purchase of a vehicle, its registration and inspection, as well as insurance while still hanging out and partying with our friends was a challenge sometimes. But once we actually paid for the van and it changed hands, the excitement set in! We had a mobile home by which to explore this beautiful country! The next couple days also offered pure indulgence and relaxation as we hung out with a friend of Chris’ at his business partner’s mansion overlooking Ringatoto on the coast. We had but to walk down the back stairs to head to the beach and we hung out all night playing board games and sleeping in luxury. Not a bad way to preface a trip in a campervan! After Chris’ b-day smash at Ben’s bar we crashed with Ed for the night (thanks again buddy!) and set off the next day to see what the road awaited!
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Fireworks on the beach - New Years Eve
Huge thanks to Lauren and Chris and his family for everything to get us started here in NZ! To see all of our pics of Auckland and partying with Chris and Lauren, go here!

For all the details on the process of buying, check out this wiki.