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Where Oh Where May Bazils Rest? Locating Campsites in New Zealand

Bay of Islands (North Island)“How about right here?” I would ask.  “S*$%, this is someone’s private drive.” 
“Greg, this looks good,” Ashley would point out.  “Wait, nope.  Too exposed to the road.”
Having a home on wheels in New Zealand is fantastic until the sun retreats West.  About the size of Colorado and with just 4 million folks, one would think finding a hidden spot to pull over for the night would be a cinch.  Negative Ghost Rider the pattern is full.  Thus for twenty nights the same song and dance was performed.  Broadway won’t be calling us for auditions any time soon.

The ideal spot for “freedom camping” revolves around being hidden from the world.  If your campervan is exposed, concerned citizens will wake you in the middle of the night to ensure everything is AOK.  Or passing police will knock on your window until you begrudgingly move along into the pitch black night after parking in a prohibited area.  But we were focused on the first syllable in the phrase “freedom camping.”  A success rate of one in four nights (mainly within National Parks) planted the seeds of frustration each evening.  We seemed vexed until utilizing Department of Conservation (“DOC”) campgrounds.

Cloudy Bay Vineyard (North Island) Doubtless Bay (North Island) Navigator

DOC campsites are no frills to be certain: no showers, treated water on occasion, and roadside style toilets.  For what these sites lack is made up for by being inexpensive ($5 per person), no crowds, and offering sensational views.  When our patience grew thin searching for a free spot, helpful DOC brochures directed us to their locations.  Sometimes we would arrive prior to daylight giving way to shimmering stars.  Other times not so much.  Such as the night we drove through the rain, fog, and darkness of Waipoua Kauri Forest completely lost.  Over two hours of madness and an incredibly lucky siting of a nocturnal Kiwi, we arrived at the campground.  Our favorite DOC campsites were found in Merita, Lake Moke (outside Queenstown), and Mount Cook.  When we began smelling ripe due to hiking and lack of showers, it was time to pony up for legit campsites ($12 per person).

We fought like hell to avoid campgrounds (called Holiday Parks) such as these because they were expensive versus the alternatives, overcrowded, and offered lesser views.  But certain needs must be met like charging the auxiliary battery (powers fridge and internal lights), obtaining fresh water, and bathing.  The hippies of the 1970′s would never have condoned our “shower every third day” behavior.

Cook Strait Ferry Bay of Islands (North Island) Cable Bay (South Island)

For twenty nights, we slept beneath the stars in Bazils, our 1990 Toyota HiAce campervan from ExploreMore.  Like brushing your teeth every morning (let’s hope anyway), we were trained to snap a photo of each campsite.  Below is a brief slideshow portraying Bazils’ bed each day:

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) DOC campsites are not equipped with personnel to check in/out guests.  Payment is on the honor system.  So don’t be a jerk and short the National Parks.  After all, your money goes towards these incredible places of nature.
2) As mentioned above, freedom camping is more difficult than it would seem.  Secondary roads don’t exist like in the USA.  New Zealand has main thoroughfares and side roads typically lead to homes.  Asking locals and conferring with the friendly folks at iSites (green signs) provide good leads on where a suitable overnight place could be found.
3) Find a camping spot well before nightfall.  We learned this quickly having searched in the darkness on several nights only to end up paying for a Holiday Park.  Pick a time at least one hour before sunset to be settled in a location.  Then toss the migraine medication out the window (not literally, that would be littering such a beautiful country).

3…2…1… Action: Fiji

Take a peak at the beauty of Fiji through the lense of our Canon cameras.

1) Greg channeling his 10 years of age on an uninhabited island within the Mamanuca Islands of Fiji.  Ignore Greg’s stupid commentary, focus on the beauty.

2) Ashley continues to push Greg to greater heights of athletic ability.  This time in the pool.

3) A brief look into the incredible villa at Tokoriki Island Resort.  Hands down the most incredible place we have ever rested our eyes.

4) O Come All Ye Faithful by John Wade.  As performed by the adorable child choir of a local Mamanuca Island school in Fijian (Polynesian).  See if you can follow along.

Bula,

Greg and Ash

Next Petrol Station: Fiji

Twenty-one nights catching Zzzzzs on couch cushions atop plywood in a cramped campervan had us longing for a comfy mattress in a room that didn’t shake from the breeze. Prior to embarking on our round-the-world adventure, we reckoned mini-vacations would be necessary to refuel from the draining world of independent travel. Bula (Hello) Fiji!

Denarau Island SunsetSanta and his elves (Mr. and Mrs. Miller, Grandma June, the late Grandma Rausch, and Kiley & Adam) spent some serious time in the workshop having pulled together some greenbacks to help foot the food and beverage bill on Denarau Island. Home to numerous resorts, private mansions, and a championship golf course, the master-planned island provided private viewings of sunset each night. I suppose the mosquito eating, upside down sleeping, and starlight masquerading bats had an even better vantage point atop the palm trees. Ash found these nocturnal creatures disgusting, but I wanted a closer look and ended up concussed from an enemy coconut.

Climbing Palm Tree HUGE Bat Concussion Coconut

During our three day stay on Denarau we made sure to make up for lost calories while cooking inside a van down by the river in New Zealand. Ashley was greeted with early wake-up calls from yours truly pleading to gorge ourselves via the breakfast buffet (included). Bottomless cups of coffee, pancakes, fresh pineapple, three egg omelets: it had all our favorites. Eating to the point of feeling ill, we would settle down near the salty water of the South Pacific or Man’s best attempt at emulating nature, only with fresh water. After such breakfast bonanzas, we filled our minds and thoughts with novels during the lunch hour. Then we would settle in for Mother Nature’s lightshow as the fiery Sun boiled the sea in the vast distance. On one such occasion, Ashley felt compelled to dawn her leotard from the pre-teen years and perform front-walkovers, round-offs, and back-handsprings all set to The Very Best of Aaron Neville. After sand-removal showers, we would prepare ourselves as normal vacationers and patronize one of the many seaside restaurants. Ash looked like a beautiful celebrity in her black dress and long golden locks while I wore a fishing shirt with a built in tacklebox and sported the birth of a mullet.

Gymnast Fake Reading Dinner and 10 Glasses of Wine

We bid adieu to Denarau Island after three nights as we had other fish to fry in the Mamanuca Islands of Fiji. We packed our Osprey backpacks and some spirits after having nightmares concerning the cost of booze in such a remote place. And like that, we were aboard the Cheetah Catamaran headed for Tokoriki Island Resort. We drank Fiji Beer (awful) en route with fellow travelers as we passed incredible island retreats and the location where Castaway starring Tom Hanks was filmed (Monuriki Island). We watched patiently as the catamaran ferrying island vacationers slowly emptied after being met by each resort’s transport boat. After an hour, Tokoriki Island Resort came into view and like two school girls having overdosed on Lick-A-Sticks, our excitement bubbled.

Beachcomber Resort Monuriki Island - Castaway Movie South Sea Cruise Ferry Ride

Pool Side Villa #5The Fiji Guidebook says this about Tokoriki Island Resort: “if you aren’t married or engaged when you arrive at Tokoriki, you will be when you leave.” The place was oozing with romance. Gulp. We were amazed by the condition of the villas, grounds, and common areas having been dealt a direct shot by Cyclone Mick just eight days earlier. The normally lush hills had turned brown after the foliage was uprooted and the path leading to a mountain lookout was closed due to debris. Somehow the pleasurable workers at the resort had turned the war zone into a honeymoon escape. Though much work lies ahead, the place looked serene. Our poolside villa was beyond compare. Never have I seen anything like it: climbing tree out over the South Pacific, Infinity pool, floor to ceiling windows, outdoor shower, daybed… the list goes on. Beer can even be consumed underwater! We have high praise for the architect behind the layout as each room had an incredible view (even the closet) and the airflow kept us cool. Once again, the sun’s encore was magnificent each night and gave way to an equally brilliant half moon. What a place to hang your hat.

Climbing Trees... Over the South Pacific Drinking Stella Underwater Voyeurism

Sunset View From Bed If I Could Lasso the Moon Sunset From Pool

Vanna White As if Tokoriki Island didn’t exude enough romance already, the Miller’s treated us to an incredible time on an uninhabited white sand paradise all to ourselves. I really think Ashley’s family was giving us not so subtle hints about getting hitched. Armed with a bottle of red wine from Martinsborough, New Zealand and a cooler of cheese, sandwiches, and fresh fruit, we boarded a small watercraft and leisurely made our way to a nearby strip of land where the humble boat captain dropped us forty-five minutes later. No one in sight, no footprints, nothing. Just the two of us and a pristine canvass from which to view. We explored the lengthy beach then planted our headquarters atop a rise in the glistening sand where we assumed high tide could not reach. But as the waves lapped near our towels, I summoned the magic from my days as a child along Myrtle Beach and dug a moat to protect Princess Ashley.

En Route Moat Built By Man Picnic Beauty

While she drank the pinkish wine and read thrilling novels about the risque lives of shrewd women, I slipped away to explore the world within the blue water via snorkeling. The villa’s pool where I spent most of time was outfitted with an incredible turquoise colored rock, which I discovered in its natural state in the shallow water along the rocky shore. Someday I hope to build a pool fully tiled in this Fijian rock for Ashley’s water aerobics. One must have a dream you know. For the most part though, we frolicked in the warm water, ate the delectable picnic, and debated important issues such as how to get to Miami, Florida for the Super Bowl should the Bengals return to their proper glory. In a flash, our time in this paradise free of humans was up and were whisked away back to civilization at Tokoriki Island Resort only to leave the islands for good the next day.

Snorkel Dude Fijian Rock Uninhabited Island

Fiji was just the mini-vacation our battered bodies desired. Fuel tanks “full” with many miles to go!

- Greg

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Whether at a hostel or five-star hotel, take advantage of everything included in the price of admission. If breakfast is included, stuff your belly and smuggle a couple danishes in your pocket for later. Ash hates to be woken up, but if our $15 a night hostel includes stale toast, you betcha we won’t miss it. Same goes for Internet, plan a time around your agenda to use the included service rather than a local e-Cafe. If the price for lodging includes an amenity, you are doubtlessly already paying for it, so use it.

  2. Traveling without a mobile phone is real freedom. But when you need to make a phone call, it can be expensive. Some countries have mobile plans based on pre-purchased credit making borrowing someone’s telephone troublesome. Payphones have an insatiable thirst for loose change. Thus, plan ahead to use Skype or gather toll-free numbers of hostels or transportation that you may need.

Being Good Boys and Girls This Christmas Season

Bah HumbugThe tenors outnumbered the baritones three to one. However, it was 5:10 in the morning on Christmas Day within Fiji’s Mamanuca Islands. Initially thinking I was trapped between a sweet dream and a strange reality, I hurriedly woke Ashley asking, “Did you hear that?” “What, huh, nope,” she sleepily whispered. “No, listen,” I demanded in an effort to establish my state of mind. “Yeah, I hear some faint singing,” she registered still clinging to the body pillow. Christmas 2009 was off to a strange yet incredible start: the staff of Tokoriki Resort was caroling “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” at sunrise outside our oceanside bure.

Ash Talking to Her Fam Ashley must have been a good girl and Santa certainly turned a blind eye to my misbehavior. Because here we were, 1,000s of miles away from anything resembling snow while the good ‘ole USA dealt with blizzard conditions and Europe’s Chunnel was shut down due to drifting snow. Santa Clause (Brad and Cathy Miller) really went beyond a candy filled stocking. Most of December was spent in New Zealand and a homecoming would have been costly… so Ash’s folks sent us to beautiful Fiji. An elf even left Ashley pearl earrings underneath Tokoriki’s Christmas Tree. This is not to say we didn’t miss our families dearly. Ash phoned her family prior to breakfast as the Millers (all 75+ of them) gathered at Grandma June’s home in Claflin, KS on Christmas Eve (our Christmas Day). Crocodile tears streamed down her sunburnt face the entire time. I reached my family celebrating in Cincinnati, OH at home with the Fleges, only after my Mom was kind enough to hang up on me the first try! The phone connection was poor, but I believe my Dad (Herb) got my Mom (Susan) “parrots” for the occasion. I can only hope the static on the line made deciphering the gift difficult. Though not married (expected to occur Summer 2017), Ash and I agreed we feel equally comfortable in the company of either family and love them just the same.

View From Under Glass Bottom Boat Thanks Santa! Hobie Cat

Roundly sad and missing home, we engulfed cups of coffee, eggs benedict, pancakes, and danishes. It was a quick breakfast because Mass began at 10:00am. We didn’t understand a single word during the thirty-five minute ceremony that was given in the local Maori language. But it was a pleasure nonetheless sharing the celebration with the good people of Fiji. After Church, we felt compelled to participate in a traditional Midwestern USA activity in the Winter… snorkeling. Josua (Tokoriki Island Resort’s man of the sea) boarded us on the glass bottom boat and a short time later it was fastened to a buoy above the intoxicated saltwater below. After dawning snorkels, masks, and fins, Ashley held fast onto my hand as we floated along the reef’s edge before it gave away to an incredible deep blue abyss. The tepid water was teeming with colorful fish and the occasional white tip reef shark. Though they were just baby maneaters, Ash was scared enough to not leave my side. Having swallowed enough sea water, it was back to the island for more body fuel.

Xmas Day SunsetYet another massive meal (is dessert really necessary after lunch?) then we hit the Fijian water once more. This time Captain Dietz was at the helm of a Hobie Cat. Pretty simple, even for a novice, to maneuver the small vessel. When the wind was just right and we had the proper position in respect to the gusts, the small catamaran felt like it was moving at light speed. But for the most part, it was feast or famine regarding velocity. Ash played the part of a paying passenger quite well: relaxing, sun bathing, and gazing at the reflective water. When she tried ordering a pina colada, Captain Dietz pointed at the resort and promptly swung the boom her way, knocking her overboard (in my mind). Just when I was getting a grasp on the proper sail tension and headings, it was time to locate the port ‘o call and freshen up for Christmas Dinner.

Xmas Day Mango Belini Santa and Greg! Santa and Ash!

Upon entering the tropical lobby, Joe, a friendly Fijian, handed us complimentary mango belinis. As if we needed more champagne after drinking a bottle of Moet in our bure. Before being seated at our pool side table overlooking the ocean, a sled could be heard landing in the white sand. Low and behold, Santa made his grand appearance! Then on cue, a contingent of 40 children clad in white and carrying candles lined up and sang a few classic Holiday songs along with some local ones. It was truly beautiful to watch the elated kids perform. After several rounds of applause, the children choir and chaperones boarded two boats bound for their island located thirty minutes away and just as fast as Santa appeared, they disappeared into the dark ocean. Dinner was yet another feast, this time a smorgasbord of lobster, crawfish, prawns, clams, and oysters. All local and oh so fresh! We enjoyed a nightcap back at our bure and concluded that it was such a remarkable Christmas in a magical place.

Island Children Choir Xmas Dinner Xmas Dinner with a View

But we look forward to next year’s Holiday Season surrounded by family and friends. Instead of carolers outside an island bure, we may awake in a Midwestern home and clamor down the stairs to look under the Christmas Tree.

 - Greg

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Fiji has a plethora of options in terms of accommodation. The main island (Viti Levu), where the capital Nadi and international airport is located, has numerous resorts with a wide price range (Coral Coast is most popular area). If desiring a more remote island experience, the Mamanuca Islands are a great choice. Most backpackers looking for a cheaper island experience choose the Yasawa Islands. Most islands are accessible by ferry.

2) Resorts charge a king’s ransom for drinks. So plan ahead and bring a few bottles of wine and your favorite spirits. This will allow you to splurge for a fruity drink here and there and not worry too much about your budget.

Rest for the Travel Weary… Vanuatu

Overnight bus schedule quizzes, Spanish/Portuguese vocabulary exams, and meteorology tests were near daily experiences in South America.  Time for a slowdown.  Enter lazy beach days, cuddly pets, and the warm sun of Vanuatu.  No brainbusters here.

Paradise CoveLet’s face it.  Any island, whether it be the Caribbean or the African East Coast, is expensive.  Particularly for backpackers.  Remoteness has a price and the South Pacific is no different.  After intensive research via the World Wide Web (Internet) we reckoned the Blue Pango Motel was our preferred inexpensive option.  But not before electronic mail messaging (Email) the South Korean proprietor and negotiating a reduced rate based on our seven day stay.  Solomon (Blue Pango owner) even provided a lift from the smallish international airport (saved us $30).  Driving through the bush of Efate (Vanuatu’s main island, though not the largest), provided ample evidence of the tourist economy.  Resorts abutting squatter settlements and once fertile farmland now on the sales block for development.  Alas, we pulled down a gravel driveway, approached the ten unit motel, and saw the blue water crashing along the rocky shore.  So it wasn’t a five star resort, but it was on the Pacific Ocean, was serviced daily, and had the necessary cooking equipment.  Oh, and the premises was outfitted with furry animals that made our stay oh so memorable.

Surise at Blue PangoWe dropped our backpacks in Unit #7 and politely asked for a small loan of coins from Solomon to get to the local grocer.  Knowing that restaurants were obscenely priced for a vagabond’s budget, we had grand plans on how to spend the money saved by cooking most meals ourselves.  $250 later at the checkout, we weren’t so sure.  The cost of pasta, onions, bananas, ramen, baked beans, flank steak, cleaning supplies, pancake mix, eggs, cheese, bread, peanut butter, cereal, milk, jelly, two bottles of red wine, and some Aussie beers added up rapidly.  Like a cannonball to the groin, I was stunned.  Cooking the friendly animals of Blue Pango seemed to be an economical solution, but Ashley kindly pointed out that companionship is more important than cheap nourishment.  So with that, we flagged down a bus back to the Motel with five plastic bags each in tow  (they double as trash bags, yep, so cheap).

Yohan and a Fearless Crab Comfy Bed Yohan's Collar

Even before Ashley could clean the cooking surfaces, Unit #7 was overrun with hairy rapscallions.  “Yohan, stay!” I exclaimed.  “Ah, ah, ah… bad kitty!” Ash pleaded.  Aside from the proprietor’s family, the Blue Pango Motel had five additional inhabitants: Chellie (mother dog), Yohan (four month old puppy), Momma Cat (momma cat), Tiger (kitten), and Black Jack (kitten).  Perhaps they sensed our sincere love for animals because they targeted us for food and friendship without hesitation.  Each morning was met with tripping over Yohan as he awaited our presence on the doorstep, kittens infiltrating our room with the slightest crack of the door, and constant pleading for grub from every four-legged friend.  Certainly my favorite time each day with the Blue Pango animals was at dusk when Black Jack would cozy up on my lap, Momma Cat implored Ash for milk, Tiger toyed with fruit blossoms, Yohan attempted (quite successfully) to steal flipflops, and Chellie guarded the Motel entrance.  Whether I was drinking a cup of Joe in the hammock or Ash was gazing at the surf, Yohan was there wagging his tail and itching his fleas.  Ghostbuster Dr. Peter Venkman was correct, “cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria.”  So it wasn’t the end of the world at the hands of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, but the canines and felines were happy co-inhabitants of the Motel.  In the midst of two Animal Whispers.

Rocky Shoreline Shoreline Paradise Cove - v3

You would think Vanuatu is simply a sanctuary of animals, but there is actually a lot more to it, believe it or not.  We took a daytrip to Paradise Cove (location of the hotel we wanted to stay, but deemed too expensive) where we packed a lunch of PBJs and four cans of beer.  Here we happened upon two Aussies who pointed out where we could see octopus while snorkeling.  We had been carrying snorkels and masks for over three months, so we hit the turquoise water straight away.  Though we failed to spot tentacled sea creatures, Ash was looking good.  So good in fact, that small fish literally wanted some of her flesh.  After numerous nibbles while 200 feet offshore, we turned back for the white sand beach.  After our only dinner not prepared in the motel, we waited impatiently under the starry night for a bus as cockroaches scampered across Ashley’s flip flops.

Ferry Dock to Erakor Island Starfish Erakor Island

Still reeling from the grocery bill, we were elated to hear about a free ferry to Erakor Island, a heavenly place across the bay from Blue Pango Motel.  The flatbottom vessel chugged across the shallow blue water and as we approached the sandy island, starfish the size of frisbees came into focus.  Finding refuge from the blazing sun below a palm tree, we chatted with an unlikely French and Argentine couple about the greatness of Ignacio’s country: provoleta, malbecs, and scrumptious beef.  All was right in the world on this day, except that we were 1,000s of miles away from the Argentina taste explosion.

Natural Pool of Spring WaterAside from our Thanksgiving Day adventure of scuba diving and kava tasting (Ash will never imbibe again), our big excursion while in Vanuatu was the Mele Cascades.  Picture crystal waterfalls in the jungle.  We were psyched as we plodded our way uphill on the worn path ($15 entry per person) and spied our first pool of clear fresh water.  Ash was less excited about the massive spider that nearly lured her into its web.  Regardless, we continued on until being rewarded with a massive waterfall with ferns and green moss clinging to its vertical channels.  While tourists in watersocks frolicked in the spring-fed pools below, Ash watched in fear as I climbed up the falls until I was suitably frightened.  We then discovered a nice rock from which we could soak in nature’s beauty.  Here, Ash noted that this venue is similar to a place we all dream about when needing to seriously mull over a decision.  It was that serene.  But the sun was setting and the dense forest is nowhere to be left in the moonlight. 

Mele Cascades Come Close to My Web... Sunset over Port Vila Harbour

Tuskers (Vanuatu’s national beer) in hand, we watched the fiery ball dip beyond Port Vila Harbor into the Pacific Ocean one last time.  This slower pace of life on the road was like a 1600 SAT score… perfect.  
  
- Greg         

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Inspect food packages closely before cooking.  Even sealed packages.  Ash was preparing pancakes one morning and noticed the batter had a mind of its own.  Black little bugs (harmless) had somehow infiltrated the sealed bag of mix and some were still alive.  That batch of flapjacks found the trashcan, though we did eat my pancakes the day before, bugs and all.
2) Countries all have different entry requirements.  And some enforce them more strictly than others.  Had we not had an exit flight from Vanuatu, our carrier would have prohibited us from boarding in Los Angeles.  If you come across the requirement of an onward ticket, but don’t know where you will be going next you can do two things: a) roll the dice or b) buy a fully refundable ticket.

LA LA Land

Tarmac glowing in flashing red lights, the Boeing 747 was surrounded by ambulances and firetrucks at 2:15am. We weren’t supposed to be in Central America let alone an airport yet. No more than ten minutes earlier, the 200+ nervous passengers were awoken by the Captain explaining, “we will be making an emergency landing in Panama due to smoke in the cockpit.” Sleepy mechanics sorted out the problem and four hours later (customs issues prevented us from leaving the aircraft) we embarked for Miami once more. Needless to say, Ash and I missed our connection to Los Angeles. Such is life flying with American Airlines. I digress.

Though our time in Los Angeles was short, we set ambitious goals: spend lots of time with friends, inhale Chipotle burritos, consume Budweisers from the can, enjoy fluffy pancakes, indulge in sushi, and experience IN-N-OUT Burger. We ended our thirty hour stint in Hollywood batting 0.833 (no sushi). Not bad!

Tired and smelling ripe, our dear friend Bill was kind enough to fetch us from LAX. I was expecting a witty comment from William about my modern hobo look of pajama pants with a torn crotch, flip flops, and greasy hair. Instead we were met with his smiling face and like that we were off to Chipotle. When living in Chicago, we ate there at least once a week. A three month hiatus was painful, but the reconciliation was monumental. Bill then whisked us to his seaside one bedroom apartment in Seal Beach where we took the necessary steps to feel welcome again in public places like laundry and showering.

Nice Mo!Rocking the Combover Mutt!

Then we shot over to our good friend Mark’s pad in Newport Beach for a BBQ and Budweiser from the can. The only can of Budweiser spotted in South America was in Paraguay. I love the stuff, but when a man wielding a wheelbarrow icechest offers you a can of beer with half the label rubbed off, I decline. So thank you Mark for procuring this delicacy. How did you find it? My aspiring musician/reality TV personality/anti-virus pioneer/linguist buddy Joe even made the one hour drive to catch up. Hanging out in a neighbors apartment, we traded stories from the last three months and watched Joe sing on YouTube. I think the comparisons of him to Tracy Chapman are a bit off. Voice comparisons that is, not talent. Patronizing some local beach bars was last on the agenda though gaining access to a couple with Ashley’s photocopied passport proved difficult.

An American breakfast was in order the following morning. Ashley had to have her pancakes. Mark had been raving about Mutt Lynch’s: filling breakfast and unique schooners. We knew the establishment wasn’t messing around after seeing the billboard that read “to beer or not to beer, Shakesbeer.” A slogan Herb (Father), Jeff (Brother), and I discovered in Western Europe in 1999. Ash had her pancakes while the men drank coffee and oversized goblets of PBR. Bill’s presence was required at work, so we said our “see you in a year” goodbyes. Not shopping while in LA would be like not eating Skyline in Cincinnati. So Ash found a darling bikini that came in a strange Chinese carryout package while Mark explained the art of surfboards in a suitable way to fit into my small brain. It was back to Newport Beach and the seemingly endless beach. All the concrete and congestion of downtown Los Angeles can be unnerving, but the beach communities seem to know how to live the high life. IN-N-OUT Burger was our last California institution where we met Ashley’s cousin, Jonathan. After chowing down on a entire day of calories, we thanked Mark for hosting us and it was back to LAX with Jonathan behind the wheel. Enjoy your impending travels to South America, Jon!

Coffee and PBR ComboSufing USA Trash Collecting

Many thanks to Bill, Mark, and Jonathan for chauffeuring us around Los Angeles. Bill, gracias for the clothes… my rotation of three shirts was wearing thin (clothing joke). Mark, we are reminded of you daily by the Saint Christopher surfer medallions (lots of compliments on these too).

As we waited for the lengthy flight to Vanuatu, Ash and I agreed that we should have scheduled a few more days in Los Angeles. Good friends, tasty food, and great times. And we prayed for a smooth flight not requiring any emergency landings… the Pacific Ocean is massive.

- Greg

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) When traveling without a mobile phone, don’t be afraid to approach a stranger, explain your situation, and ask to borrow their cell. It can be hard to find pay phones in airport terminals when you need to make an urgent phonecall. We met a nice gal who turned out to be from Cincinnati (my hometown) after needing to call Bill.
2) If an airline causes you to miss a connection for any reason, be sure to file a complaint. We were happy with American Airlines’ decision to land in Panama, but it did require new flight/ride arrangements. We each received 3,000 miles… better than nothing I presume.

Tempting Fate on Volcano Villarrica

Volcano Villarrica View from PuconToxic fumes, molten lava, and suffocating ash. An active volcano has many potently destructive tools at its disposal. Add “swallowing” to that list.

The feature presentation of Chile’s lake district for adventure sports is reaching the summit of Volcano Villarrica ($65 including guide and equipment). Rucapillan, as it is known locally, is the tallest volcano in the Chilean Andes (9,340 feet). Why not climb an active volcano? Right? Rising at 6:30am, we met six other climbers and our two guides. After a quiet forty minute ride to the base of the sleeping giant, we checked our gear and began the four hour snowy hike. But not before our instructors showed us how to properly utilize the ice axe as a brake if we were to slip and slide down the snow. Not even half way up, two Brazilians became immensely fatigued and had to turn back. But the six of us twenty-somethings (British and Australian couples) had enough gas in the tank to keep motoring.

Volcano Villarrica View from PuconClimb for twenty minutes. Rest, water, chocolate. Rinse, repeat. We moved slowly in diagonal paths up the snowy pitch towards the billowing smoke. The snow was compact in some areas allowing firm footing.  In others it was mushy and every step was tough.  Either way, the grade of the incline made progress incredibly difficult. Reflecting unmercifully against the white powder, the sun baked our exposed skin as we poured with sweat. Towards the summit though, Ash’s tank-top became the first among five layers. The wind howled, the snow blew, and the temperature dipped sharply.

Destroyed Ski Lift Climbing Volcano Villarrica Required Rest

Like a window seat aboard a Boeing 747, we were high above the clouds enveloping Pucon far below. In the distance we gazed at two other active volcanoes and the azul water of the surrounding lakes. It was a peculiar feeling being so high above sea level. When not being taken away by the panoramic views, our eyes were focused on each carefully placed step. We came along an abandoned ski-lift shelter that was destroyed when Volcano Villarrica erupted in 1971.

View of Another Volcano Lakes and Clouds Endless Views

After four hours, the summit was in sight! We could see and smell the sulfuric white smoke emanating from Volcano Villarrica’s circular crater. The last bit of trekking required crampons because the snow had turned to ice and was quite slick. Upon reaching the top, we dawned gas masks to have a peak closer to the crater. No lava or crater bottom could be seen due to the sheer amount of toxic smoke being spewed into the atmosphere. Proud of our achievement, we relinquished our backpacks and followed the guides to the western side of the volcano for some photos. Big smiles temporarily.

That's No Campfire Smoke Sulfuric Smoke Cheers!

“HELP!!! HELP!!!” gasped a young woman. It was over as fast as it had happened, so it seemed. I was following tracks in the snow where several others had walked on this day. I was charged with photography duties and I took a couple quick shots, dangled the Canon SX10IS around my neck, then proceeded empty handed about ten feet from the crater’s edge. Ashley was twenty steps ahead of me carrying my ice axe on her way to the backpacks. Then as if a trap door were opened below me, I dropped straight down. Right through the ice. Remarkably, my two arms instinctively shot forward and I caught myself on the ice with my forearms before falling any further. I lack any memory of the next two to three seconds. The next thing I remember, my legs were dangling above the abyss below and I kept telling myself to stay calm and not move a muscle. A bearded guide (not from our group) wearing a red parka inched towards me over the now obviously thin ice. Careful not to fall through himself, he reached out and grabbed my arms. Perhaps a combination of his Chilean strength and my status as a featherweight, he was able to pull me out. Dazed, shaken, and stunned, I thanked the heroin and made a bee line for more solid footing.

Potential Icy GraveThe “what if” and “why” questions are haunting. What if I didn’t catch myself? What was below me? Why didn’t my arms break through too? If I survived the fall, how would I get out? No answers here, just conjectures. Our guide suggested the stone exterior of Volcano Villarrica was some feet below me. But he was quick to point out that he was simply guessing. As the photo suggests, it appears to be a black abyss. This experience is eerily reminiscent to a book I read three years ago, Into Thin Air. The author, Jon Krakauer, recounts the story of climbing Mount Everest. One particular passage tells of a Sherpa falling through the ice where several other climbers has walked previously. He fell over 100 feet, but miraculously survived. Regardless, every soul on the summit made a quick exit after recognizing the delicate state of the ice.

SleddingAnxious to get down the already treacherous volcano, we fastened rusksacks to our bums and did some sledding! Like human torpedoes, we cut paths down the slope. It may have taken us four hours to reach the top, but less than forty minutes to get back to ground zero. Ashley was hilarious to watch as she flipped, rolled, and twisted her way down the volcano. It was clear that gravity and friction were in control, not her.

Not wanting to tempt fate any further the following day, we decided a leisurely time in the vibrant mountain town of Pucon would suit us well. Indeed. We caught up on sleep, ate a hearty breakfast, and drank some beers as pedestrians strolled along. Ash and I had fallen in love with Negra, the hostel’s black lab of three years. So we took her on a gorgeous walk to Lake Villarrica where she enjoyed swimming in the chilly water and playing fetch. Only problem was that she liked to break the sticks, so fetch was more challenging than usual. It was the perfect antidote for the all the excitement from the previous day.

Pretty Gals Greg's Best Friend Playing Around  

We met up with the British and Australian couples from our trek for some beers and pizza in the evening. They informed us their hostel was abuzz concerning the “guy who escaped death on Villarrica.” Perhaps. Who knew a volcano could potentially swallow its victims too?

- Greg

Note: I write with sarcastic dry humor most times. Even when things aren’t so great, I try and find the best in it. Finally putting this story to typepad brought back some scary memories and confusing thoughts/feelings. My hands literally shook as I recounted what transpired in those fifteen seconds. Life is fragile, no doubt. Climbing a volcano shouldn’t have to remind you of that. But life is short (cliché, I know) too. If life is a bull, grab it by the horns.

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Going down Volcano Villarrica can be tedious. That is unless the trekking company allows you to sled towards civilization with a rucksack fastened to your bottom. Ensure your tour group allows this before booking. Of course, if snow has been replaced with stone, the Shoe String Express (walking) is your only option. Others hiked with skis and descended in grandiose style.

  2. Check the weather forecast with tour operators and pick a day with favorable conditions to summit Volcano Villarrica. Windy conditions blow the toxic sulfur smoke down the volcano into climbers’ faces forcing them to turn back prematurely. And don’t sweat a bad forecast for Pucon… you are well above that weather when on the volcano.

  3. Just after you are taught not to eat dirt as a young child, you are taught to be safe. Even in seemingly safe environments with qualified professional guides, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Better off safe than sorry as they say. Investigate your surroundings as well. It never occurred to any climber that the snow/ice was the roof of a cavern below.

Driving Chile’s Lake District

Sweet Ride“Oh, I can drive a stick shift, no problem,” claimed Ashley. Engine starts. Stall. Engine starts. Stall. “Are they watching?” she asked. That’s as far as Ash made it behind the wheel of the high performance Chevrolet Swing hatchback. All seven inches in neutral, but it was a sporty coupe to be fair. Too much power in the four valve engine for this gal from Kansas, so I took the helm and righted the ship… out of the rental car harbor and into the mountains surrounding Pucon, Chile.

Volcano Villarrica - View from Pucon - v9Tourist buses bound for Location X, Destination Y, and Lookout Z were left in our wake as we enjoyed the freedom of our own transportation for a change ($60 for rental car, insurance, and petrol). Armed with a map that lacked any semblance of scale or direction, we headed into the Andes Mountains with majestic views of Volcano Villarrica (Chile’s tallest). Forty minutes and a long gravel road later we pulled into the quaint parking lot of China Falls ($4 entry). The 300 foot waterfall kept us in awe for quite some time as it poured over the edge from a lush jungle above.

Mountains Waterfall China Rapids

LizardNext stop was meant to be a short drive to view some spectacular rapids, but fate had a different objective. We made a wrong, perhaps correct, turn and met a kind old man named Refugio who instructed us how to put the Chevy Swing in reverse. Quite helpful considering we had been pushing the light vehicle out of tight corners up until this point. Refugio also happened to be the developer of a gorgeous assemblage of land and suggested we drive around and select our slice of heaven for $22,000 per acre. Rather than splurge on a piece of dirt, we imbibed on a glass of Chilean white wine and soaked in the views from the choicest plot. But we heard the rapids calling us, so it was onto our intended destination. The river was powerful and surrounded by dense forest housing insects, birds, and reptiles.

Lake VillarricaBy then our hunger was guiding us more than the dismal map, so we aimed for Lake Tinquilco but found Lake Caburgua. A bit lost but craving a late lunch of mozzarella cheese, salami, crackers, and bananas, the Chevy Swing was stowed away on a safe stretch of road as Ash and I made ourselves at home on the rocky shoreline. Not wanting to miss out on a chance to lose feeling in my hands/feet, I took a brisk, albeit short, swim in the crystal fresh water. Not only can Lake Caburgua pass as a suitable shower, it can also chill Chilean white wine quite effectively as we learned by submerging the bottle beneath large rocks. Having a working brain, Ash sat this activity out.

Lake Villarrica - v10 Lake Villarrica - v5 Lake Villarrica - v19

Suitably cold, the natural thermal baths outside Pucon seemed be the perfect antidote. Argh! Termas Las Pozones ($8) did not open until night fall. No worries. We drove one mile and found a hilltop upon which we could enjoy the sunset. The ball of fire descended behind the tree lined slopes as we traded fleeces for bikinis (I wore trunks). At first the volcano heated pools felt tremendous. Little by little though, the heat became unbearable and Ash clamored onto the surrounding rocks of the natural pool. Being a tough guy of course, I stayed in the warming bath… for thirty seconds more. Needing to cool down, Ash led me to the adjacent stream via light from the digital camera. Feeling the cold mountain water on my ankles, I gingerly submerged myself into the depths until the temperature proved unbearable. Thankfully, Termas Las Pozones has four pools of varying temperature and we found the second to be accommodating. As I tried to relax in the soothing pool, Ashley kept pestering me about her being the first female President of the USA (okay, I just wanted to include this hilarious photo). After gazing at the starry night, we dried off and drove back to Pucon thoroughly worn out.

Pre Thermaling Neighboring River Worth $100

Err, I drove back.

- Greg

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Hostels and Adventure Groups offer various tours of the surrounding area of Pucon. DIY (do it yourself) can be the way to see more for less. When sharing with at least one person, you can rent a car for the entire day and see four days of tours in one day. Not too mention, tour groups hit you hard for transportation. For example, hostels charge $15 per person to hit the thermal baths at night (basically $7 for transport). Simply splitting a rental car with like minded people will save you cash and allow you see more on your own terms.

  2. Pucon offers an incredible amount of things to do: white water rafting, skydiving, volcano treks, mountain biking, thermals, etc. Purchasing two or three activities through one provider provides you with leverage. But even if you prefer just one adventure, check around for prices and negotiate.

We Give Thanks for Ramen, Wreck Dives, and No More Kava

Dark or white meat? Green bean casserole or yams? Garlic mashed potatoes with gravy or stuffing? Pumpkin pie or vanilla ice cream? One helping of each please; to start. We wish. Such a plethora of options were not sitting on our table. Rather, it was ramen noodles or… ramen noodles. “Ash, would you like some baked beans?” I inquired. “It is either that or tasteless BBQ chips,” I told her gently. Ah, Thanksgiving in the South Pacific. We were really missing home.

BVIs - RandomWe started our day by awaking to the numerous animals at the Motel Blue Pango on Vanuatu’s Efate Island. I put the kettle on the stove, prepared coffee, and we read novels as the surf crashed in the background. Finally, 1:00pm rolled around and we headed for Nautilus Dive Shop. After the required four pages of release forms, we were headed out to sea. While diving the Konanda wreck, we were afforded the rare opportunity to witness Plymouth colonists and Wanpanoag Indians share a feast together. Maybe it was the depth of 80 feet that blurred our vision. We did have an underwater tea party complete with barnacles and seaweed.

The divemaster, Paul, was nice enough to invite us along for an excursion into a small Vanuatu village to taste kava. Kava is a popular drink throughout the Pacific including Hawaii and comes from the root of the namesake plant. The beverage is always consumed in the evening prior to dinner then followed by rest as the main effect is a relaxed feeling. We were to meet at the Port Vila Casino at 6:00pm, but of course we arrived at 6:15pm and they were long gone. I was quite bummed, but decided that the Cincinnati Bengals never give up so I shouldn’t either. Thus, we flagged down a minibus ($1.00 each way) and headed for Pango Village, a town of 2,400 souls including squatters living in the forest. The friendly driver directed us to a shack with a faint red light on top, indicating they had kava prepared.

Kava Down the Hatch Kava Bar

We meandered into the sand floor “bar” and surveyed the situation. Four men were shooting pool as we made our way to the corner where a young gentleman sat with a red bucket and several small bowls. “Two 50 vatu bowls,” I said. And with that, he handed us two cups of the dark green substance. We sipped the peculiar drink like hot cocoa until a friendly local named Samuel befriended the two clueless gringos. SamuelAfter both complaining of numb tongues, he instructed us on the proper way of drinking the local beverage: you chug it down then spit the remnants in the sand. The pungent drink could not be described as delicious. Maybe awful is a better adjective.  Not wanting to offend our hosts, we marched along. Samuel went on to tell us about Vanuatu’s rich culture then guided us to another kava bar, this one serving a more potent elixir. Outside the establishment, sixty men (local women are not allowed to drink kava) sat in the shadows, smoked cigarettes, and spit. We patronized two additional kava bars before saying goodnight to Samuel. I wanted to send him our photo together, but he didn’t have an email address. So he came by the Motel Blue Pango the next morning and dropped off his mailing address. If just one half of the globe’s population were one half as beautiful as the average Vanuatu citizen, the world would be in great shape.

By now the kava had Ashley and I relaxed and wanting to rest. But it was Thanksgiving! So I whipped up the traditional meal. Traditional meal of backpackers that is: ramen noodles and baked beans. Did I mention we were missing home? We did our best to stay busy and not imagine the smells of freshly baked turkey. But this won’t be a Thanksgiving we will soon forget. Both of us are thankful for everything in our lives. Principally our friends and family. And thankful kava won’t be on the menu next year.

If the above story has bored you to death, let’s hope this major motion picture will raise your heartbeat. After reviewing the short film below, Ashley exclaimed, “this is so Greg.” You be the judge.

Gobble Gobble Gobble.

- Greg

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. View taxis on Vanuatu’s Efate Island like the plague. Opt for the minibuses with a red “B” on the license plates instead. They cost about 10% of a taxi and will get you to the same destination in a similar amount of time. Plus, they are everywhere and easy to flag down.

  2. Prepare to pay island prices for everything (see expensive). The only cheap item in Vanuatu is beef, its main export.

Mendoza & Malbecs

“The discovery of a wine is of greater moment than the discovery of the constellation. The universe is too full of stars.”  – Benjamin Franklin

Malbec Anyone?As the snow fell in Patagonia, Ash was pining for the warmth of Argentina’s wine country. After all, she put Mendoza in the corner of her brain long ago. We flew back to Buenos Aires, boarded the subway bound for the Retiro depot, and bought an overnight bus ticket. Thirteen hours and one game of Spanish Bingo later, we were in the land of malbecs. A French grape by origin, imitated in California, perfected in Argentina.

Eager to get on with it, we canvassed the downtown area of Mendoza for a tasting room as the bodegas (Argentina’s term for vineyards) lie in the foothills of the Andes away from the city. Sadly, the few we found were prohibitively expensive for our budget. Perhaps the greeter at The Vines mistook for us as well-to-do travelers with silk cocktail dresses and dinner coats because she revealed a deal at the Park Hyatt of all places. Not wanting to miss a chance to show off my zip-off pants at a ritzy hotel, we cleaned up for a rare date. To say Ashley was pumped would be an understatement.

Park Hyatt Wine NightAs we stepped through the entrance of the 19th Century Spanish colonial facade, it was clear Ashley looked liked a million bucks and I should be toting her luggage. Regardless, we made ourselves at home on the comfy outdoor couch as the hor’dourves arrived along with our first glass of delicious Argentine wine. Monica, a friendly woman born and raised in Mendoza, chatted with us about the business climate in Argentina, the pitfalls of smoking, and her favorite bodegas. On such a beautiful night, the Park Hyatt was filling up with the beautiful people of Mendoza and Ash wasn’t ready to bolt. Instead, she feigned having any knowledge of the three glass bargain and delivered a fourth glass. That ‘a girl!

The Park Hyatt was fantastic, but it was time to stretch our legs… on bicycles. The next day we walked West to catch an autobus headed for Maipu, yep, pronounced just as it looks (it makes for great jokes, no matter your age). Along the way to the bus stop, we did our best to imitate stalkers as we spied two recognizable figures. Once convinced it was Ray and Annie from the Inca Trail in Peru, I took the bearded man by surprise. With that, we hit Mr. Hugo’s and were outfitted with four road bikes and a map indicating the “approximate” location of the surrounding vineyards.

Rich in Talent! Mr.Hugo Biker Gang

We reckoned going to the furthest bodega first and working our way back was a suitable plan. However, the distance proved too much in comparison to our desire to whet our whistles on the ruby malbec goodness. We sat above the vines of Tempus Alba ($4) sipping numerous varieties among us then continued on our way to Carinae ($4). Here we received a quick tour of this small producer who exports its wines to only three countries. It was then onto Familia Di Tomaso ($4) for lunch and another tour of this fascinating bodega dating back to 1869. Far and away, this was everyone’s favorite vineyard: friendly staff, interesting grounds, and the malbecs of varying ages and processes were incalculably delightful. Next on the list was Trapiche ($7), but the security guard informed us we were 30 minutes late and they were closed for the day. Having rode bikes all day while cars whipped by without incident, we recognized our good fortune and headed back to the bike shop. It was rumored that Mr. Hugo himself would pour endless cups of his amigo’s red wine. Rumor, hah. Tis the truth! As closing time of this bike rental shop turned tasting room approached, Mr. Hugo provided us with four bus fares to Mendoza and even ensured we were situated before bidding adieu. Ash and I had a ball sharing this experience with Ray (Irish) and Annie (German). This chance encounter has evolved into other possible global adventures… bungee jumping in New Zealand or riding marsupials in Australia?

Argentine Oil RigThe bikes were an adventure, but we wanted to get into the Andean foothills and see fields of grapes as they gave way to snow capped peaks. The Uco Valley was further away than Maipu and required a longer distance bus. So the following day we leisurely took an hour bus to Tunuyan passing oil rigs and arid plains before being directed to a particular street corner where we would find cars for hire. After ten minutes of negotiation in broken Spanish, Mario agreed to be our chauffeur for four hours. In hindsight, we should have asked to see his car before agreeing: no seat belts, we had to push it forward to turn over the engine, and the interior had suffered some sort of fire.

Malbec Out of the BarrelBut happy to have a reasonably priced ride ($35), we embarked on our trip to Salentein ($6) and La Azul. The former could have been a movie set from James Bond. Right down to the contemporary statues in the parking lot, everything was done without regard to cost. Forget the wine, we reenacted “Thunderball” as I played Sean Connery (007) complete with a terrible accent and Ash reprised Claudine Auger’s role (Domino). La Azul ($11) couldn’t have been more different: a concrete box complete with bomb shelter door. The highlight here was tasting the malbec straight from the French oak barrel. Not too shabby. With that, Mario whisked us back to Tunuyan but not before picking up a couple hitchhikers that were quite fierce… a woman and her 8 month old boy. We were scared to death.

 Uco Valley Tasting Room

There are countless stars to be seen and wines to be drank in Mendoza. But as the great Ben Franklin suggested, the discovery of a delightful wine can be more fulfilling than locating a previously uncharted white dwarf. I’m not so sure about this, but will report upon identifying a new formation of stars. And in the words of a soon to be famous stateswoman/inventor, Ashley Miller, “Argentine malbec is the most heavenly taste.”

- Greg

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. The Park Hyatt wasn’t even remotely on our list of possibilities. As most deals discovered in life, you just have to keep flipping over stones. Three glasses of wine and bottomless appetizers for $10. Jackpot.

  2. Take the bus to Maipu for less than $1 each way. The bus drivers know the usual bike rental shops. Thus, skip the packaged tours offered by hostels that include transportation. Opt for Mr. Hugo’s ($8 includes newer bike, bottle of water and free wine upon return) instead of Bikes and Wines (more expensive and old bicycles).

  3. Most wine districts in the world are characterized by numerous vineyards spread across vast distances. Mendoza is no different. Except for the single stretch of wineries in Maipu accessible by bicycle, the area requires a car or driver. Prepare to spend some money to do it right.

  4. Cruise the streets and look for “Lunch Promotions” in Mendoza. We had a healthy portion of steak, potatoes, salad, pop, coffee, and three scoops of ice cream for $6 each. I was elated all afternoon and spread the word to fellow travelers.

  5. We thought we learned this lesson two months earlier: ask the price before you agree on anything. The last tasting was $11… over $5 more than every other vineyard.

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