Dedicated with love to Vanessa

IMG_9303While Jenny left Auckland to go back home, Frank and I had a special reason to stay. I was going to meet the pen pal I had been writing to since fifth grade!

Vanessa and I had exchanged countless letters as we journeyed through life – school years, boyfriends, graduation, jobs, marriage, children. As we got older, the letters were less frequent — we’d often disconnect for a decade at a time — but then she’d find me and we’d pick up right where we had left off. When Frank and I downsized a few years back, I came across all her old letters. Wouldn’t it be fun to send them to her? I thought it would be like having a “diary of her life” and was certain Vanessa (and her daughter) would love them. I tried tracking her down online but had no luck. I stuffed the letters back in a box.

Just before New Year’s 2014, Vanessa got ahold of me through my parents, who still had their same landline phone number. We talked for an hour and exchanged contact info. I sent her the old letters but there would be no more long, handwritten letters between us. Times had changed. We stayed connected through Facebook!

Then Frank and I decided to go to Australia and New Zealand. Would Vanessa and I finally get to meet in person? Unfortunately for us, she was living in Brisbane, which wasn’t on our list of destinations. I was thrilled when Vanessa decided to go “home” and surprise her dad after the holidays — while we were still in the country!

On January 25th, Frank and I arrived at an Indian restaurant belonging to a friend of Vanessa’s father. There she was smiling and looking beautiful in a bright yellow dress! We hugged tightly, enjoyed a wonderful meal and caught up on each other’s lives.

The next day, Vanessa toured us around Papakura. It had been a long time since she had been there and she enjoyed showing us her old haunts. I saw the home where all my early letters went, her schools and the home where her dad lives now. We met her dad, a lively cheerful man, who treated us to lunch and a live karaoke show at the RSA (Retired Servicemen Association).

After a lovely dinner at an oceanside restaurant, it was time to say goodbye. I was sad to leave but so thankful I got to finally meet the dear friend with whom I had shared so much. We laughed that it seemed like we had known each other forever, which, in reality, I guess we have!


Nelson, Golden Bay and Abel Tasman

“Lovely property with sea views.” The house was great. The view not so much — unless you like a sprawling, dried up valley. Needless to say, we were disappointed. But alas, a few hours later, we looked out again — a marvelous sea view! And so it went, our view went in and out with a truly remarkable tide. Although I had seen beaches shrink and grow within several yards, none of us had ever seen such a dramatic (and quick!) metamorphosis! Even when Jenny and I would go to Tahanui, the Nelson beach, we’d laugh because our “stuff” would start out close to the water’s edge. Then we’d read for a while, look up and realize we’d have to take a relatively long walk to go cool off!

Aside from the beach, the Nelson area had much more to offer. The city is convenient to Abel Tasman (New Zealand’s most famous park) and to Golden Bay. We took a day and drove to the area, which was very beautiful. We planned on visiting the wine area of Blenheim but after realizing we’d have to drive two hours back through a dizzying mountain pass after drinking, we were happy to discover that Nelson has almost three dozen wineries right in the area! We also found a few good restaurants and since we had a very well-equipped kitchen, we were able to enjoy some of Jenny’s wonderful home cooking. Two nights we had fresh fish (local blue cod and tarkhini) and our host brought over his special marinade(!) for our leg of lamb dinner.

All in all, sunny Nelson was the perfect destination for our final days in New Zealand.



Forgotten but unforgettable

Over half of all Kiwis (New Zealanders) travel during their summer holidays, especially over Christmas and New Year’s. Decent travel accommodations in many of the more popular destinations can be difficult to come by so we decided to make the most of it by opting for the road less traveled. We made a loop from Milford Sound through an area called Southland. Southland spans 13,000 sq. miles and has a population of only 96,000 inhabitants. What it lacks in population, it more than makes up for in scenery and wildlife.

We began our south southern adventure in Te Anau. The house we rented was a bit dated — and unusual — but clean. It served us well as we visited the incredible Milford Sound (see separate post) and Fiordland National Park. Nick and Maddie were able to tour some glowworm caves and we celebrated New Year’s Eve along the lakefront watching fireworks, eating awful corndogs and drinking beer.

We left Te Anau, traveling along the “Southern Scenic Route,” visiting the Scottish city of Dunedin and settling for the night at Kaka Point. From Kaka Point, we began our journey along the Catlin Coast, exploring New Zealand’s southeast “forgotten corner.” “Forgotten corner” could refer to many things: a place that forgot to hook up to the modern world (unreliable internet, poor cell service); a place that forgot to pave the roads (Frank was sure our rented station wagon wouldn’t survive!); or even a place that forgets tourists might be confused (Nick and I were on the beach when a siren started blaring. Could it be a tsunami? We ran off the beach. Turns out it was a call for the volunteer firefighters to head to the station for a fire!). But in reality, these “inconveniences” only added to the magic of this untouched, truly UN-forgettable area of rugged cliffs, sandy bays and encounters with penguins and sea lions!!!


Oh Deer! (and much more)

Frank was obsessed with some red deer we had seen. We couldn’t remember exactly where or when we saw them but Frank was determined to see them again. He found a YouTube video on a Kitenui Deer Farm near Taupo. Could this be the place? We drove there. It wasn’t. We saw no deer from the road. We drove down the long, wooded, gravel driveway and were approached by an older gentleman on a four wheeler. Frank explained what he was looking for and asked if the area was public. The man replied no, that he owned the land. Fully expecting him to direct us off the property, he introduced himself (Murray) and graciously invited us to pull over and he would show us some deer!

It turned out that Murray had a lot more to show us than just a few deer. We spent the next couple hours exploring some of his 500(!) acres of land, which included his art studio, an event space, some unique old airplanes (he even has an airstrip), his home and beautiful gardens (where we met his lovely wife Barbara), and finally, more animals than we ever could have imagined!

In Murray’s studio, we viewed his black and white oil paintings of the different deer species which inhabit New Zealand, as well as a few of his incredible life-size concrete and bronze animal sculptures. Several of the sculptures are exhibited in cities around New Zealand, including Taupo and another city we will be visiting (Te Anau).

We toured a rustic building where weddings and corporate events are held. The dining area is decorated with many rifles and is illuminated with little Christmas lights, which gives the space a more intimate and old fashioned feel. The Antler Room has hundreds of (you guessed it!) antlers. Did you know that deer shed their antlers and then grow a new set? Murray is fascinated by American Indians and is an American movie buff. He shared with us that Burt Reynold’s had dined there!

We climbed in Murray’s truck and were treated to a safari! Down the dirt road, in and out of gates, we viewed several types of deer. Some of them were more timid than others but a couple came right up to us! There was one herd of small gray deer, which were being quarantined prior to being shipped off to South Africa. In addition to deer, Murray has two American bison and a zebra! Frank and I had a lot of questions and Murray was a wealth of knowledge. We asked him if he had to worry about predators.

Did you know that New Zealand has barely any native mammals or reptiles? Although they have many unique native fish, insects, birds, lizards and frogs (no snakes!), the country’s only native mammals are bats, whales and seals! All other species — i.e. sheep, cattle, deer — were introduced. Farmers like Murray never have to worry about predatory coyotes, bears or bobcats!

Our “tour” closed with a stroll around Murray and Barbara’s beautifully blooming “backyard” garden. Murray explained that they had purchased the acreage more than 30 years ago. At the time, there wasn’t a tree on it and no one wanted it. Now it’s filled with life — trees, plants, animals, even two of their nine grandchildren have homes on the property. Murray and Barbara have transformed it into a truly incredible place. We were so touched he took the time to share it with a couple of strangers who wandered in off the road!

Below are a few photos from Kitenui Deer Farm and from our drives around the North Island…

The Search for Mount Frank

Kia Ora New Zealand!

Kia Ora or hello New Zealand! We arrived here late Thursday night. The bags are unpacked, the phones and internet are connected (as you can see), and we’ve located the grocery store, a church and a place for Frank to swim.

Our home for the month is the charming “Little Black Bach” (pronounced “batch”). Bachs are small holiday homes. This one is in Wharewaka, a small suburb overlooking Lake Taupo — a whole different world after the hustle and bustle of Melbourne!

Lake Taupo is in the middle of the North Island. It is New Zealand’s largest lake — 120 miles around, and was formed by debris descending and creating a hole after one of the earth’s most intense volcanic eruptions! We can see the lake from our place and can walk to the edge in about 3 minutes. The nearest city is Taupo, which is ten minutes away by car. It has a population of 23,000 people and pretty much everything we need.