Kiwi Education

I’ve had children at Halswell School for 5 years now, but I’ve only recently attended an all-school assembly.  Yet another silver lining to unemployment. 

Naomi had specifically invited me to this assembly because her block, Otawhito, was hosting.  I arrived a couple minutes early and watched as the kids streamed through the doors and were arranged by their teachers sitting in orderly lines on the gym floor, marvelling again at the teachers’ command of their students….if I was in charge there’d be chaos and I’d be hoarse. 

A handful of seven-year-old students were arranged on a bench at the front with yellow cue-cards and a microphone, ready to orchestrate the assembly in front of hundreds of their peers and a collection of parents.  The first child asked for quiet and proclaimed the welcome in stilted words, reading from her note card.  The year 2/3 class sang a song for the group, which they had been practicing over the preceding few weeks.  The theme was kindness.  “Kindness, kindness, oh whenever you try this, you will make the world a better place…” 

The main even of the assembly is the giving of performance certificates for selected students in each grade level.  Each child was called out by their teacher, along with one sentence describing the behavior that merited the special recognition.

“Andrew, for being such a good friend, welcoming and including the new students into our studio”

“Zoe, for persisting in Maths even when its challenging”

“Naomi for being an excellent communicator in her reading group” 

The skills the teachers were rewarding weren’t academic achievements.  Instead, they were the personal qualities that will see kids through life—kindness, persistence, teamwork and communication.  The students with their cue cards were also practicing an important life skill—public speaking and the self-assurance it takes to present in front of a group.

It’s interesting to think about.  As an adult in the jobs market, these are the same skills that I need to demonstrate in an interview (along with technical experience related to my field, of course). Baring kindness….I suppose I haven’t run across any “behavioral competency” questions that ask about kindness yet.  As an educator in the university system recently told me, we don’t actually know heaps about what information will be important for kids to know in their future jobs, let alone what knowledge will be generated after they leave the classroom.  We’re mainly preparing them with skills to keep learning. 

At any rate, I’m grateful that the kids’ school emphasizes, practices, and rewards qualities like persistence, communication, and teamwork, along with kindness. 

Autumn/Spring delight

We’ve just passed the equinox, that egalitarian day where everyone on earth enjoys 12 hours of sunlight and 12 hours of night. For us in the southern hemisphere, that means we’re heading into Autumn, while most of the world’s population is thinking about spring. Still, we have one corner of our garden that looks “springy” with our fall crocuses. I’m delighted by their brilliant yellow cheerfulness, as well as their resilience to grow through the fading osteospermums.

Rejection Specialist

I’m working on becoming “Rejection Proof,” taking inspiration from the book by Jia Jiang which I read over a year ago.  Twice. 

It’s such a foreign concept for me to make the experience of being rejected into a science project, and a humorous one at that.  Especially when the “skin thickening process” is like gaining tolerance to cold water or dirty diapers—tolerance comes only after multiple unpleasant exposures. 

The job search process ebbs and flows, and my optimism changes with it.  This week, after a couple negative conversations, I’m at a low point. 

This afternoon I sighed, closed the laptop lid, and moved outdoors to soak up the rejuvenating effect of the sunshine while tidying up the garden.  I reflected that Rejection comes in a few different flavours. 

  1. The Passive Rejection.  This is the job application I submit and never hear a thing about.  The unanswered emails.  I’d also put into this category the polite rejection of “I’m just a bit busy right now, how about I get back to you when I have more time.”  That time, of course, never comes. 

Objectively, I’ve experienced Passive Rejection 33% of the time with initiating email conversations, and 42% of the time with job applications.  Individual Passive rejections aren’t too bad, probably because they’re gradual.  By the time you’ve given up hope of hearing a response, 2-4 weeks might have passed. But reflecting on them as a whole can be discouraging.

2. The Polite Rejection.  HR managers are especially adept at this, in the form of automated emails.  “Thank you for your application, but after careful consideration we regret to inform you that your application has not progressed to the next stage of our process.  Although you were not selected for this particular position, you may be a fit for other roles within our organisation. We encourage you to register your interest for future opportunities on our career site.” In my albeit limited experience, those resume-submission portals are Black Holes that consume CVs and never release them.

25% of job applications have ended in a Polite Rejection. For anyone counting percentages, the remaining 33% of applications I haven’t heard a response from, but they could still fall into either category.

3. The [rare] Rude Rejection:  I happened upon a couple doozies yesterday. 

Here’s one for the books, responding to a polite email I sent briefly explaining who I was and why I was trying to better understand the Canterbury horticulture industry by having conversations with horticulture business owners like himself: “It’s a bit sensitive having someone who has contact with [your former company] coming in here.  Why have you recently finished working for them?  What would I gain from giving you my time?”  My politely crafted response got the Passive Rejection (no answer).

In a similar vein, I phoned an organisation whose website is advertising an app for crop growers, and I asked if they had a video-tour or brief example of the software in use so I could understand how it worked.  “Who are you?” I was so taken aback by the tone that I answered quite bluntly.  “I’m Molly…”  “But where are you from?” the interrogator continued.  She was means-testing me, and though I wasn’t sure of the currency, I was aware that I was broke.  “Christchurch,” I answered, realizing as I said it that I sounded like a city slicker, and my accent gives me away as a foreigner just as hers gave her away as a POM.  It was dawning on me that not being employed by a farming company was going to be a problem, as it turned out to be.  “Ok, well thanks anyway,” I chirped, and hung up quickly before I had a chance to say something I’d regret. The most ironic part? When I looked up the software name on you-tube, there was a freely available series of tutorials….

4. The [very rare] Enthusiastically Positive Rejection:  These are regrettably scarce, unfortunately, and I count them in the rejection category because they don’t lead to a job offer.  Still, I find them quite buoying, whether or not they are sincere.  “Be assured there is a need for workers in the seed industry, particularly people like yourself with your skills and qualifications.”  Or “I’d hire you, but we’re fully staffed right now.”  Or, my favourite: “Many companies NEED you – you possess skills that are rare and highly sought after, sometimes the people don’t realise it.” 

The danger comes when I start to believe the discouraging messages, the basic flavour of which is “You’re not good enough,” “You’re not valuable,”  “We don’t want you.”  If I believe that, it’ll become a self-fulfilling prophesy.  The negative messages are so much more sticky than the positive ones.

So here are some objective numbers to calibrate the last six week’s job hunting experience, as there have been many more helpful responses than negatives.

  • Of the 49 people I emailed to ask questions, 30 gave helpful responses.  16 gave no response, and three were negative. 
  • Of the 20 conversations I’ve had by phone and in person, I can only remember three that were negative. That means 85% were helpful and positive.

Am I Rejection Proof?  Not yet.  Am I gaining Rejection Tolerance?  Getting there. 

Gillespie Pass

I took a hike a couple weekends ago to Gillespie Pass. Though I mentioned the trip already, the epic scenery and ideal weather of the trip really merits its own trip report.

Gillespie Pass is at the top end of Lake Wanaka, a good six hour drive southwest from Christchurch (see red arrow). It’s a three day hike which we made into a four day-er by spending a day on a side trip to Lake Crucible, putting the tramp solidly outside the realm of a simple weekend trip.

We had originally planned this one for February 2020, when my sister Susanna was visiting. But foul weather to the south dictated that we change our destination last year, leaving Gillespie still on our to-explore list. Our original group had been winnowed down by a broken ankle and a pregnancy, so it was just Carrie and me on this adventure.

Most people do the hike from the Young valley over Gillespie and out the Wilkin, but we did it the opposite way (map days go red, orange, yellow, green).
We took a jet boat to start, replacing 4-6 hours of river valley trudging with a 45 minute whiz up the Wilkin River, and essentially allowing time in that same day to drive to the trail head. We had stayed the previous night in Tekapo, so made it to our 1:00 p.m. jet boat with ease.

Yes, we totally felt like softies stepping out onto that river bank after taking the jet boat with a crowd of seniors…but, hey, NZ domestic tourism needs our support after all. Only doing our part. Thanks Wilkin River Jets!

We continued to feel like softies strolling up this well-groomed and graded trail. There’s nothing like a west coast “trail” to make you appreciate a popular DOC track, and our last hike to Lake Morgan had been one of those. We fairly skipped along, admiring the gutters dug on the side of the path to deal with the frequent downpours, and singing “We love trails!” Carrie’s husband feels tracks are boring, compared to the raw wilderness experience of bush bashing and route finding, but…..we simply don’t agree.
Siberia Hut is very popular and requires bookings, but you can see why. Only two hours after our jet boat dropped us off we meandered into this alpine meadow with the hut deck and windows perfectly situated to take in the magnificent setting.
Not too shabby an outlook! Seems we hardly deserve it after only 2 hours of walking.
My tramping buddy has a greater affinity for cleanliness (and maybe less aversion to cold water) than I do, but I caved to peer pressure and washed in the river. The afternoon was warm and as we dried in the sun on the hut deck, we could see plumes of grass pollen being released and wafted over the meadow. Soon poor Carrie was sneezing and had to take refuge inside with an antihistamine.

By then it was only about 4:30, and it was still a warm basking sort of afternoon, too hot even for sandflies to be very pesky. I decided to sit in the long grass and see if I could discover which type was pollenating so copiously. It’s amazing what you see if you sit still. Besides discovering that it was the purple foamy grass that was shedding pollen and reacquainting myself with grass flower morphology, there was a lot of other business to admire. There was an assassin bug hugging its sandfly prey, various solitary and bumble bees hectically visiting the yellow asters, and lots of orange and black butterflies with green fuzzy thoraxes and spiral tongues chasing each other in loops. I tugged at the grass leaves and examined where they grip to the stem–the structure of that sheath and the hairs on the leaf base would tell me which species I was holding, if I could have remembered the grass key. The light purple harebells had white downy stigmas, and they didn’t seem to mind their resident thrips. Down near the river miniscule coprosma plants were heavy with orange berries, and their neighbour plants held their bare black seeds cupped in a white fleshy receptacle. Turn over a river rock and creepy crawlies scuttered away, gills quivering (maybe mayfly larvae?). The undersides of the rocks shelter perfect pebble pupa cases too, glued on strongly to make safe homes for…? Occasionally I heard a kea, but never caught glimpse of it. The cicadas were loud, and I brought an empty moult in to Carrie to show her the thread-like trachea linings, and tell her about the rest of the gorgeous miniscule world. “You’re frothing!” she commented. Yep, I was. I spent an hour and a half exploring the petite, and next time I’ll carry my 10x lens.

The next day we shouldered just a light daypack and walked down the valley and across the river to the steep trail leading up into the forest and out to Lake Crucible. There are many wonderful things about the woods, and the feature we’re enjoying here is the lack of sandflies for morning tea break.
We came out of the beech forest into an alpine meadow with blooming mountain lacebark. I don’t remember seeing these before, but unless they were blooming one might not take note of them. They’re showy in blossom! Lake Crucible is up behind the scree wall at the bottom of the cirque (bowl shaped cliffs at the head of the valley).
Carrie, always keen, dove in for a breath-snatching swim. Perfect timing–soon after she climbed out the wind came up and made it decidedly less inviting. Just afterwards a passel of 5 cheerful young kiwi girls arrived for their dip. “Tata’s out, girls?” The answer was yes, “tatas” were released but undies kept on, and they dove shrieking in. They had carried up a plunger coffee carafe and a burner, but had forgotten the coffee, disappointingly.
We found a bewitchingly still spot on the ridge and settled down for lunch and a bask in the sun. We must have lingered for more than an hour before walking back down to Siberia Hut for our second night there.
The hut was busy that night, and the table was like a meeting of the European Union. Italy, Spain, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, France….I’m sure I’m forgetting someone. They had been in NZ when Covid19 shut the border last year, and were still here. They asked if I had ever been to Europe. “No….well, only England…and that’s not really part of European Union anymore” I admitted. “Bah, England,” they grinned. They clearly didn’t mind that the UK has divorced herself from the rest of Europe.
Next morning we set off up the valley once again, this time peeling off on the Gillespie Pass track.
We again enjoyed a very well formed track, and soon gained a view of the valley below us. The grassy bit there by the stream would be very nice for tenting, and seemed to boast fewer sandflies than the river valley below.
The low point of the pass itself is a bit lower than the track, which sidles along the right, above the cliffy bits. At the top we stopped for lunch and saw an older fit couple labouring up the last bit of their climb from the other side. Their packs were big as they were at the beginning of a 10 day journey. “I wonder what they’ve got in their packs for food for 10 days,” I pondered, as I enjoyed my own heavy hard boiled eggs. “I’m going to be nosy and find out!” That started an enjoyable conversation, and I realized that another silver lining of the job hunt is my growing ease with starting inquisitive conversations with strangers.
Here we are looking back up at the head of the Young River. You’d wonder how in the world the track would reach up there! It goes up a steep tussock and rock spur that’s out of view around the corner to the left. The bridge seems overkill on a nice day, but Carrie recounted the tragic fate of one tramper who tried to beat the weather front over the pass and got swept off the trail by a swollen side stream crossing, eventually drowning in this river. Her clothes were later found inside out and her pack straps still clipped….the river had pulled them off. The force of a river in flood is sobering.
We spent the night at Young Hut, and left by torchlight the following morning as the walk down the valley to Makarora was 5-6 hours. Some people get tired of looking at trees, but I find it quite restful and I enjoyed this bit of the hike.
And again, the trail was impeccable. Look at this fantastic bridge!
I have a somewhat ridiculous affinity to dry boots, so even though the last river crossing (Makarora, unbridged) was only a few kilometers before the hike end, I opted to wear my hut shoes and carry the boots. They may seem prissy, but they’re a great little pair of Crocs, and hefting the leather boots over my shoulder made me realize how heavy they are, even dry! Long distance hikers often go for light weight running shoes….I might have to try that next time, provided the weather is warm.
We had about 2.5 kilometers along the road to get back to Makarora village, but just when we were really getting tired of it, a kind farmer gave us a lift on his hay cart.
The cafe at Makarora does a nice coffee on their scenic veranda, just the pick-me-up we needed before driving back to Christchurch.

Delight of the Day

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Peach pie! with BUTTER crust. Isn’t it gorgeous?

I stopped into a local produce stand, and there was a box of soft stone fruit seconds (awaft with fruit flies) for five bucks. I snagged it. The pie has peaches, but also apricots, nectarines, three varieties of plums.

New Zealand grocery stores don’t stock Crisco, and I’ve been disheartened with oil crusts as well as my last attempt (4 years ago!) at a butter crust. This time I followed a recipe, including the recommendation to use ice water and refrigerate the crust before rolling it out. Voila! It tasted as good as it looked.

And yes, we’ve been eating it for breakfast.

Opportunity Costs

“What do you do for work?”

“Oh, well, I quit my job just before Christmas….”

“Good on you!” 

I’ve had half a dozen iterations of this surprising conversation with Kiwis, and it has really puzzled me.  It was the same whether they were a friend who knew me well or a complete stranger I’d just met.  In fact, looking back, I’ve yet to encounter a single negative reaction. 

Why would anyone be offering their congratulations for doing what I cringe to admit I’ve done—voluntarily quitting gainful employment without securing another job first.  Why does what seems like reckless irresponsibility to me sound so praiseworthy to them? 

I finally started asking, and got responses like this: 

“You didn’t like the situation you were in, so you’re making a change.”

Or….

“Rather than just putting up with a job that had become a grind, you’re working toward something better.” 

It reminds me of the Freakonomics podcast from 2011, “The Upside of Quitting,” which turned on its head that old mantra that preaches “A winner never quits, and a quitter never wins.”   https://freakonomics.com/podcast/new-freakonomics-radio-podcast-the-upside-of-quitting/

Here’s the podcast synopsis:  “To help us understand quitting, we look at a couple of key economic concepts in this episode: sunk cost and opportunity cost. Sunk cost is about the past – it’s the time or money or sweat equity you’ve put into a job or relationship or a project, and which makes quitting hard. Opportunity cost is about the future. It means that for every hour or dollar you spend on one thing, you’re giving up the opportunity to spend that hour or dollar on something else – something that might make your life better. If only you weren’t so worried about the sunk cost. If only you could …. quit.”

To my mind, I have a “sunk cost” of nearly 8 years of prime career-building years in ornamentals, when I came to the sad realization that here in NZ, within the company I worked for, there was no growth potential in that field.  I can’t go back and remake the decision to spend 8 years there; that time is gone…..sunk in the ocean of time.

And each evening when I would wearily pull out the computer at 8:00 p.m. to try and search for other job options, I felt the “opportunity cost” of staying with my old job.  I simply had very little time and energy to work on making a change. 

So, while I don’t yet have new employment, let me celebrate the time reclaimed during January and February.

This was the first January where I wasn’t juggling childcare and work, and it was amazing.  The kids and I had three golden weeks after we got back from our north island holiday when we slept in, cooked waffles for breakfast, went to the skate park/pool/beach, saw friends….and generally enjoyed one another’s casual company. 

Now the kids have been back at school for almost three weeks, and I have been doing a deep dive into career networking, while also enjoying the best of summer.

I can’t for the life of me get a genuine smile when I ask for a nice photo, but when I request silliness…..
We took a family trip to kayak and camp at Murchison (that’s Naomi rocking the rope swing)
I spent five days tramping at Gillespies Pass with my friend Carrie
I’ve enjoyed several Friday bike rides through the adventure park with the ladies…apparently Friday is a popular day for moms to take off from work, there were about a dozen of us congregated at the top of Kennedy’s Bush last Friday.
And most recently we had an overnight camping trip at Godley Heads in Christchurch

Plus (and this bit isn’t as photogenic) I’ve been spending several hours each day on the job search front.

These experiences, in a nutshell, are the opportunity cost of working at my last job. 

Now, I know that doesn’t count the whole cost. Some of those things I might have squeezed in while working, like the Murchison kayak trip. I’m also currently not earning any income, which isn’t sustainable….and now that the kids are back at school, I’m not even saving the cost of holiday programs. Jeremiah is being wonderfully patient with this leisurely phase of life (thanks, hun).

Still, I’ve noticed another big advantage of reclaiming the energy I used to spend at work. I’ve got a lot more patience to deal with the kids. I don’t actually have that many more hours to spend with them now that they’re in school, but when we do have time together, I’ve felt more playful, which averts a lot of conflict. And I’ve felt more creative and compassionate at resolving conflict when it does happen. I’ve discovered that there’s an opportunity cost (in the form of mental energy) to employment that I never appreciated.

So while I hope to soon be working in a challenging new field, I will still take a moment to appreciate the silver lining of this career pause.

On Aging…

I’ve finally left age 38 behind, good riddance.  2020 was hardly in the running to be anyone’s favorite year.  Now I’m 39.  A much more pleasing number, but we all know what looms next. 

As I’ve been pondering aging, there have been a few incidences that pull my self-image one way or the other….aside from the obvious mirror, which shows my first grey hair and the deepening furrows between my brows (stop frowning, Molly!). 

Old #1: Milo turned 10 last week. 

In his typical ultra-confidence stance, he’s calling himself a “pre-adult.”  Whatever.  We all know he’s only half way to adulthood, at the most.  But still, he’s a decade old, and no one would term me a “young mother” anymore.

Young #1:  We went to Jellie Park, a Christchurch Council swimming pool, one recent hot day before school started.  So did half the moms and kids in Christchurch. 

I’ve never seen a public swimming place in NZ this busy before.

We all wore our swim suits to the pool to avoid the changing rooms, me in my new pink-lined speedo which recently replaced my old sagging togs.  I staked out a section of grass by spreading out our towels, and went to swim a couple laps while the kids did the hydroslides.  Milo gets cold easily, and I found him back on the towels warming in the sun.  He glanced up at me in surprise as I plunked myself down next to him. “Oh, I thought you were some teenager,” he exclaimed.  Having spent the morning in close observation of body types of all ages, I’ll take that as a compliment. 

Old#2: I recently hiked to Lake Morgan on the west coast, and my quads were sore for a week afterwards.  Either I’m less fit than I used to be, or my body’s recovery time is increasing with old age….or both. 

I went with two friends, Carrie and Julia, who are both experienced trampers.
Mt O’Shanessy is marked on the map at 1462; not that high, objectively, even when considering that we were starting from only 200m above sea level. Carrie looked at trip reports from Remote Huts and DOC, and we estimated that the route would take us 6ish hours on the first day (pink line) and maybe a bit longer on the second day (yellow line).
We forgot that our experience is mostly with relatively “well-formed” tracks, not a luxury that the west coast enjoys much of. In typical rugged west coast style, the rough track went straight up the hill, and we were careful to always be on the lookout for the elusive markers.
Once above the tree line the markers disappeared, but visibility was excellent across the grassy alpine zone. The tops travel wasn’t as effortless as it sometimes is, and we were relieved to catch a glimpse of the hut on our way up Mt O’Shanessy.
We quickly scuttled the plan of getting all the way to Cone Creek the first day, and enjoyed the warm late evening light at Lake Morgan hut while we ate dinner.
Next day we set out at 7:00, made our way up and over into the next catchment (this view is looking backwards to Mt O’Shanessy).
I took a few opportunities to rest my legs while trying to get an up close picture of the sundews. I don’t seem them catching many insects.
This view is looking back up towards the ridge we just crossed. The cairn is marking the start of a cut trail through the bush; Lake Morgan is on the other side of the ridge under the cloud.
Then down, down, DOWN a long steep unstable scree shoot to Cone Creek Hut. I had been looking forward to a friendly loose slide, but instead we got a quad-burning skittery descent through angular schist. 

Fun fact: “greywackle” is the grey sedimentary sandstone I’m familiar with from much of the southern alps.  When it is deeply buried and heated, greywacke is converted to a flaky rock called schist. The western side of the alps has been uplifted more than the east, so the deeper layers that contain schist are revealed there.

We spent the rest of the afternoon trudging out through spectacular forest whose floor was made up of large boulders (up, down, up, down!), along with some kilometers of river travel, finishing around 5:30.

“My legs aren’t too bad,” I stated, optimistically massaging my quads.  “It’s the down that gets me.”  Even as I said it, I remember my grandparents saying the same thing, a fact that as I child I found frankly implausible. 

Young#2:  One day recently I was rounding the corner to meet the kids on their way home from school. 

I reached out to give Naomi a hug and she punched her head into my stomach with some force.

“Hey, careful with your old mazzer!” I protested.  “You’re not old!” Naomi rejoined, exercising her appreciation for precision and love of contradiction at the same time.  

“Thanks, hun.”

Old#3:  Milo was reading his library book when he picked his head up and fired out what seemed like a random question:

“What’s a phonebook?” I paused, speechless for a moment, visions of the ubiquitous sagging yellow and white volumes that used to live in every home next to the….landline….which, come to think of it, have gone extinct in most homes nowadays.

“Back when I was a kid—in the days before the internet, and before we all had cell phones—we used to have a book that you could use to look up people’s phone numbers by their last name.”  Describing it that way, the phone book days seemed very very long ago.

“Could you tear on in half?” he asked, and suddenly I understood the context of the question in relation to the comic book.  “No, not me, they were massive.” 

Young #3:  Actually, I can’t think of one.  I suppose that puts me squarely in the middle of old and young.  Embrace middle-age, baby!

North Island Tiki Tour

“Wow, New Zealand really is mostly rural, isn’t it?” We were driving through small towns in the central North Island somewhere between Wellington and Taupo. More accurately, we were passing through acres and acres of green rolling hills with pastures and trees, where here and there a small concentration of houses and shops congretated to form a village. The downtowns of these little villages seemed bustling and healthy, colorful and full of clothing stores, restaurants and banks, like I imagine the small towns of New England were before strip malls and Walmarts drew commerce away from mainstreet.

I’m not sure what I was expecting of the North Island. Maybe because most of the NZ population lives in the north, I thought it’d be more urban. Maybe because the new David Attenborough documentary is on my mind, with the ballooning trajectory of the global human population, I thought there’d be wall-to-wall humanity out there. But I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t crowded.

We took 3 weeks off at Christmas/New Year, and planned a “tiki tour” of the central part of the North Island. Normally we take two weeks then get back to work, but I remember that when we booked the trip in mid-winter, I was feeling rather dreary about my job, so threw in an extra week of holiday for good measure. This map shows our North Island route, starting in Wellington.
Jeremiah drove the car with all the gear up through the South Island to Picton and across on the ferry to Wellington. The kids and I flew up two days after he left. What a luxury!
We spent an afternoon in Wellington, visiting Te Papa museum and tooling along the waterfront. Lamp posts are decorated with these fantastic crocheted creations, like sea monsters.
We walked through the Capital Building grounds. The “beehive,” as it’s affectionately termed, is in the background. Designed in the 1960s, it would be called “classical” in the sense that it’s so easily recognizable that the term “beehive” has become synonymous with NZ central government…..no Greek pillars here.
Judging from the polished back of the lion, we guessed it was acceptable to ride it.

The next day we drove from Wellington to Taumarunui where we launched on the Whanganui River Journey, a story told in a former post.

I keep thinking Naomi is going to grow out of her carsickness, as Milo has, but it hasn’t happened yet. We were leaving from Taumarunui on our way to New Plymouth after canoeing the Whanganui, when the telltale wretching sound started. She’s quite reliable about getting it neatly into the bucket, and half way through she paused. A perky little voice announced “Hey, there’s a blueberry!” then returned to barfing. She threw up 5 times on that three hour drive, and after that we gave her a sea legs pill before we started out.

We spent 5 nights camping under red pohutikawa trees in a holiday park at Waitara, which is just north of New Plymouth. To my delight, when we moved the tent the outline showed in red needle-like flower petals, fallen from the trees above. It was a wonderful stretch of weather, and the formula was successful. Jeremiah got up early and took his kayak out fishing while mom and the kids slept in, read our books in bed, and generally had a lazy morning breakfasting and beaching. At midday Jeremiah returned, and we spent the afternoon doing something all together.

Tenting in a holiday park is not a wilderness experience, but it has its advantages. This one had fantastic hot showers, and was situated right on the beach, next to a domain with a playground.
I still like building sand sculptures, like this octopus. Milo is into building fortresses in front of the incoming tide to see how long they last before succumbing to the waves. Naomi is into playing in the waves themselves.
One afternoon we went into New Plymouth at low tide to check out the tide pools. They were fantastic, the kind of clear colorful pools where the longer you sit still, the more creatures you see.
Another time the kids and I went to a rocky beach with mountains of driftwood and built a fort. Some sail jellyfish had been pushed up by the waves and dried sticking to rocks. Later we took Jeremiah back to the spot and toasted some marshmallows over a small driftwood fire.
One afternoon we did a short hike on the side of Mt Taranaki, the dormant volcano that presides over New Plymouth (last eruption 1775). Fascinating geology involving several vents and eruptions over thousands of years, wish I could remember it all. We wheedled and commanded the kids to give us a decent smile for just one family photo….this is the closest we got. That’s a marshmallow mustache Milo has.
Mt Taranaki presides over the peninsula.
New Years Eve we went into New Plymouth central park, which is beautiful, brought our lunch and had a play.
That evening was the festival of lights. It is lovely temperature-wise that it’s in the summer, but the catch is that it doesn’t really get dark until 9:30. Naomi wanted glow-in-the-dark face paint, and we told her we’d either pay for the face paint (which, given that it was 8 p.m. already, would get washed off before bed in just a couple hours) or dessert. Our food-loving daughter chose the face paint, without hesitation! The allure of beauty….
Jeremiah has set up a sit-on-top kayak for sea fishing, and he was really looking forward to getting into the water. Unfortunately, the night before he left Christchurch, our garage was burgled, and the thief took his new fish finder, and his dive bag that held his wetsuit, fins, snorkel and other important fishing equipment. So while he did get out on the water, and even got a fish, he didn’t get the full experience he was planning to have…i.e. no kingfish.
Jeremiah managed to slip through the waves at the surf beach, amazingly enough. Milo, Naomi and I spent several satisfying hours redirecting the course of the little creek that entered the ocean at this beach. Fluid dynamics, I think I missed my calling.
Nice colours, huh? No crowds on this beach.
On January 1st we packed up the tent and drove to Palmerston North. This campervan was Plan B, and bigger than we had originally booked. The owners of Plan A one sold it (to my disgust!) before we got to our planned rental period. But this one wasn’t too shabby! Since the forecast for Taupo/Rotorua was rain, we went east first to Napier/Hastings in the Bay of Plenty.
Jeremiah enjoyed grilling most nights that we had the campervan.
Milo’s choice of activities in Napier was the national aquarium, and he was not disappointed. I’ve been spoiled by Boston aquarium though, so wasn’t as impressed.
Ta dah! Napier beachfront is rocky and not ideal for swimming, but the city has some nice playgrounds. Napier was nearly leveled in an earthquake in the 1930s, and was rebuilt in the “art deco” style of the time. I don’t get excited over architecture, but even I appreciated the vintage look on the evening Jeremiah and I left the kids reading in the campervan and walked downtown for a pint (shhh!). It was raining though, so I didn’t snap any photos.
Next stop Lake Taupo. Te Papa museum in Wellington has a fantastic time lapse of the geological catastrophes that have shaped Lake Taupo, and I watched in fascination as the time lapse started 25,000 years ago with lava and ash erupting in episodes with varying degrees of violence. Lake Taupo itself is a sunken crater filled with water, sunken because so much molten material from underground spewed out of the volcanoes that the shallow lava reservoir holding up the earth’s crust sunk, and eventually filled in with water. I guess Yellowstone is an even bigger disaster waiting to happen, but I was impressed with the hot water and steam that still comes to the surface in the Taupo/Rotorua region.
The central park has a lovely walk along Lake Taupo’s outlet river to Huka Falls. Right at the city side of the park is a stream with geothermally hot water, complete with a cafe and changing rooms.
When we first moved to NZ I was on a quest to experience natural hot pools. They sound so magical. In reality, my South Island experience has been of thick mud and sandflies. This stream far exceeded that low bar–no biting insects or muck! We lived it up with our cafe drinks on a showery afternoon.
We had promised the kids a movie at a theater if we ran into a rainy day, and at Taupo, we ran into a genuinely rainy afternoon. We again left the kids reading in the comfort of the campervan and scouted for the local theatre. I happened to pass a rack of shoes outside a store on the way to the theatre, and these red beauties caught my eye. Lucky for me, my feet are the sample shoe size–I slipped one on and it hugged my foot like a slipper. They are the last impulse purchase I’ll make until I get a job, I promise.
The next day the rain cleared and we paid our tourist fees to walk through the Craters of the Moon. It was well worth it. They had built a wooden walkway over a geothermal hot spot with boiling mud and many steam vents, and they did a great job with the interpretive signs talking about the various plants that could grow with hot roots, and the heavy metals that make the soil turn rainbow colours.
Back in the campervan, we drove north.
I was on a mission to do some you-pick berries with the kids. In Hastings, we had hit the area right at New Years, and the establishments were taking some days off. In Whakatane, we found one.
Jeremiah was hoping to get into the ocean for a dive somewhere on the east side, but the water near the shore was cloudy, and we had left the kayak with the car in Palmerston North because the campervan wasn’t set up to carry it. The kids didn’t mind, sand and water is all they need to be happy. Here they were playing some silly game of turning the wet sand into jelly by bouncing into it with their bums.
We stopped in Rotorua on our way back south, and Jeremiah took the kids to the luge. It wasn’t cheap, but they remember it fondly.
Apparently, Jeremiah was so fast he got air over the top of a rise. Milo was cautious to start but soon sped up. Naomi followed the signs that cautioned “slow” carefully, and never lost control of her vehicle. That’s why girls’ car insurance is cheaper than boys’. I took the time to go biking at the Whakarewarewa forest park. It’s massive, and I biked until I was tired out.
We passed Tongariro in the cloud on our way back south, left the campervan back at Palmerston North, and spent another night in Wellington before taking the Interislander ferry back to Picton.
Through Kaikoura, homeward bound.

Incest Explained

“Don’t touch her butt!” Jeremiah rebuked Milo.  Milo and Naomi were romping in the living room in that silly hour that happens when bedtime has been delayed, and there were some shenanigans going on.

“Why not?” he asked, challenging as always.

“You shouldn’t touch anyone else’s butt,” Jeremiah insisted, vehemently but vaguely.

“But Daddy touches your butt,” Milo argued to me, demonstrating the sensual caresses remarkably accurately on his own body. 

“Yes, but Daddy’s my husband,” I said, “and the way he touches my butt has a sexual connotation, so you shouldn’t do it to Naomi, because you’re not supposed to have sex with your sister.” 

Milo was grinning in delight now.  He’d gotten mommy at a matter-of-fact moment and was getting some juicy morsels of gossip on a rarely-mentioned topic.  “Why can’t I have sex with Naomi?”  He cocked his head and the buck-tooth grin challenged me to drop some more pearls of wisdom.  The year 4 students started sex ed last year and he has an anatomical idea of what sex is (“You had to do that TWICE to get me and Naomi, didn’t you?” he has asked me recently. “Yes, Milo, twice…..”).

In lieu of a cheeky grin photo (which I haven’t got), here’s a proud grin photo. Milo’s posing here with his first family dinner creation….and the newly arrived national geographic, though I don’t remember why that featured in the same photo. He’s nearly 10, and along with tough conversation topics, I figured it’s about time to get him on the dinner-making roster.

“If you have sex with your sister it’s called incest, and it’s considered taboo by society, and your children could have weird genetic problems.” 

“What’s Taboo?”  he asked, dancing around like a joker, considering, I’m sure, how scintillating a conversation topic this would make with his next door buddy.  Naomi was also listening in delight, rubbing her bum and waving it around.

He looks rather like a clown in this photo, though the seriousness of consuming his own banana bread has taken over the photo moment.

“It means you’d be an outcast of society and no one would talk to you or play with you!  Now, GO TO BED!” I insisted, pointing to the bedroom. 

They retreated, and I moved back into the kitchen where Jeremiah was making pasta salad.  “I just explained incest to our kids, did you hear?”  I said, fishing for a congratulations on doing some hard-yards parenting. 

“Yeah, thanks, good job,” he grinned. Milo turns 10 next week. Explaining Incest is easy compared to the years we surely have ahead.

Whanganui River Journey

The last two Christmases we did bike trips.  They were good, but I felt it was time for an easier (less kid whinge) activity.  I have good memories of canoe trips with my grandparents on Adirondack lakes, and I don’t remember putting out much effort as a youngster….my infinitely patient grandfather taught me to paddle, but I was doing well if my whirlpools reached to the stern of the boat.  And we spent significant time just watching the water trails we made as we dipped our fingers over the side of the laden canoe.    

The Whanganui River Journey is classed as a “Great walk.”  It’s a 5 day, 145 km route down part of the Whanganui River, one of 9 iconic journeys promoted and maintained by the NZ Department of Conservation.  We figured a silver lining to Covid is a summer with limited tourists, a good time to visit the relatively “crowded” north island.

We rented a canoe and Jeremiah paddled his sea kayak.  After a rudimentary kiwi-style safety briefing we shoved our gear into six barrels, two dry bags and a cooler, and launched from Taumarunui. 

I was at the helm of the canoe with the two kids in front, while Jeremiah had command of his sea kayak. Thank goodness for the little seat inserted into the middle of the canoe, allowing each child their separate domain….there was enough bickering about whose turn it was to paddle on the left and whose paddling was encroaching into the other one’s territory without sharing a seat!

“If you don’t tip within the first hour, you won’t tip until the last day,” was the reassuring outlook from the canoe hire guy.  The Whanganui has a couple rapids approaching grade 2 white water, mostly on the first and 5th days.  While I’m happy to paddle that in a kayak, I’ve never paddled a canoe in any rapids.  Odds are that one in three canoes takes to the drink during the trip, and my aim was to be squarely in the dry 2/3rds of that statistic.  I was comforted by the fact that the NZ Greatwalks are suitable for novices; with a reasonable level of fitness I didn’t expect anything untoward.   

The first couple rapids had me nervous, but they were straight-forward and I was able to direct the canoe where I wanted to go (basically a straight point and shoot, no fancy manoeuvres required).  We splashed through with only a few gallons of water sloshing inside from waves, and my confidence increased. Unfortunately no photos, cameras and rapid navigation don’t mesh!

First day lunch stop. Milo thinks it’s not cool to smile in photos, he actually enjoyed the trip but you wouldn’t know it from the photographic record.

We pulled into our first tent site by mid afternoon, and managed to set up camp before the rain started.  It rained all afternoon and all night, a steady gentle rain. 

I discovered that our 15 year old Marmot isn’t as waterproof as she used to be, and we were very thankful for the cooking shelter.
We’d already opened the christmas presents at home before we left, and we decided to open stockings a couple days early too…I think we were all in need of some CANDY to weather the rain.

Next morning we dressed the kids in their wetsuits, wrung out the tents, and anxiously checked the river level.  It had only gone up about six inches from the night before, and maybe another inch while we packed, but the water had gone from tannin-tea brown to milky capucchino.  Milo surveyed the turbulent flow.  “No logs or dead animals floating along, so it’s ok to paddle,” he stated, quoting our safety briefing.  He’s a funny combination of worry-wort and bravado, that boy; he likes precision in the rules, and as long as they aren’t his parents’ rules, he follows them.  We launched and sped along amid rain squalls and gorge sides cloaked with fern trees and waterfalls.  Some time after noon the sun peaked out and the outlook improved. 

We whizzed past this totally impressive side gusher pouring into the river, and Jeremiah paused to watch two bewildered ducklings ride the waterfall down to the main river.

“Whakahoro campsite, 400 meters upstream.”  The sign pointed up a chocolatey brown torrent lined with treacherous willows.  I raised my eyebrows at Jeremiah.  “I can’t get up that with just the kids in front.  There must be a trail up from the main river somewhere.”  We scoured the bank—thick bush and no trail.  We tied up the kayak and paddle all together in the canoe.  Zigzagging up the current with willow branches clawing at the edges felt mighty precarious, and despite our best efforts we had to pause in a boily eddy.  “I certainly didn’t expect anything this sketchy in a Great Walk,” I panted.  Quite possibly our sense of river hazards has been heightened by our whitewater kayaking experience, especially my own recent encounter with a side-stream willow.  A Danish couple had clawed their way to the submerged landing just ahead of us, and they generously came back to offer help with their bow rope towing from land, so we made it eventually.  Hauling our barrels up the slippery bank, we saw a sign pointing another 300 meters uphill to the campsite.  “Whakahoro” sounds like a swear word (it’s pronounced “faka-whore-o), and I’d certainly suggest giving it a miss in favour of a friendlier riverside site.  On the plus side, we met Becs from Taupo at this campsite, and she very generously carried a pair of our barrels up to the camp each night for the remainder of the trip. 

The side creek had gone down about 30 cm overnight but the landing is still submerged. With that drop went the majority of the water’s energy. I wish I had gotten a photo the previous afternoon!
There were a few showers that night, but the real rain held off. We emerged Christmas morning reasonably dry.
He’s been rocking his blue sleeping bag suit.
Paddling Christmas morning was the best—sunny weather, with the high river speeding us along with little effort.  We counted 176 waterfalls and sang old camps songs, and cruised into John Gould hut in good time to have a swim before cooking dinner.
John Gould Hut is very welcoming with the sunny deck and picnic tables.
Not as cold as south island rivers!
Couscous and ham for Christmas dinner

Next day we were staying in the hut at Te Keiki, where there’s a marae.  Reading the informational panel at John Gould hut, we learned that we’d need to be prepared for a traditional maori greeting—the man of the group would need to say what mountain and river we’re from, along with the necessary family introductions and thank you’s.  The woman of the group would need to sing a song, preferably a folk song from your country of origin.  I spent the paddling day practicing Yankee Doodle, which seemed a bit irreverent but was a favorite with the kids.  Alison Krauss’ “When I went down to the river to pray” seemed fitting, this being a river journey and all, but I doubted I could pull that off tunefully.  I settled on the Amish song “Tis a gift to be simple.”  In the end I was spared.  Marilynn, the hostess/caretaker of the marae, suggested that the whole group sing one song together.  The one kiwi family among the group was more familiar with the requirements of the occasion, and chose a maori song that the kids learn in school. 

Marilynn’s husband is the DOC officer in charge of the hut, and Marilynn is the person in her iwi (tribe) who has taken on caretaker job for the marae, which includes welcoming visitors each day.  Her dad did this role before her. 

The land on which the DOC hut sits is a contested bit of ground; DOC built it without the permission of the maori group who historically controlled the land around the Whanganui River, so the iwi staged a live-in protest where they occupied the hut until a suitable arrangement was reached. Thankfully the arrangement allows for regular people to use the hut. I didn’t realize upon booking that the maori consider that to be their land which they graciously share.

Naomi asked Marilynn about the “taniwhas” on the pole (a taniwha is a monster), and Marilynn patiently explained that the carvings are of ancestors, not monsters. The kids appreciated the anatomically correct male figures.
Marilynn also generously spent some time showing the kids the craft of flax weaving.

In this delicate balancing act for control, Marilynn was most gracious, explaining our roles in the ceremonial greeting and making many allowances for us being from a different culture.  Apparently there is no other marae that allows their visitors to speak, she told us proudly.  Though they still hold the tradition that a woman must not speak and must enter behind the men.  “That’s not very 21st century,” whispered the Danish woman.  I heartily agreed; of all the traditions to bend, treating woman as second class citizens seems to be a logical starting point. 

We started our last day’s paddle expecting the river gradient to increase; this last day had four named rapids to negotiate, as well as a few numbered ones between.  We put the kids in wetsuits and tied every loose bit of gear to the boat.  But the first long stretch was flat, with a wicked headwind, and I worked hard for every meter travelled, aware that our shuttle was booked for 1:30.  We passed the first described rapid in puzzlement—where was the rock mid-stream that we were meant to go left of?  We slowly realized that the water must still be high enough that the challenging waves were “washed out,” the term whitewater paddlers use to mean the features are so far under water that they aren’t tough to negotiate.  The real challenge was the headwind. 

We made our shuttle time, but another family were waiting for didn’t turn up on time.  The canoe hire guy checked his clipboard.  “Powell, that’s the group with two kids in front and the mom in back who’s a really good paddler, right?”  I hesitated; we were waiting for a family with three kids and two adults; they had two canoes, but I wasn’t sure how their kids were arranged.  Jeremiah chimed in; “No, you’re thinking about us.  The family we’re waiting for has three kids.”  Realization dawned sweetly.  That “really good paddler” he was referring to was me.  I let the accolade go to my head; I figured my battered self esteem needs all the help it can get these days. 

Eventually the canoe hire guy organized a local jet boat to launch in search of the other family, but much to our relief they rounded the bend just before the boat hit the water. 

The Danish couple are in the third row (the tall ones!), Becs is in purple and Andrew is peeking out in back. Hurray, we all made it through that last day of headwind!

Looking back on the trip, one of the major enjoyments was the little cohort of people who we spent the evenings with at the huts.  Since Christmas morning the personalities had been the same, and the comradery grew day by day.  There was the Christchurch family Milo called The Freckles, who kept strictly to themselves the first day but by day three had thawed sufficiently to be cordial.  There was a friendly hippie German couple living in Golden Bay, as well as generous Becs and her paddling friend Andrew (not partners, she carefully clarified), who had spent two years teaching English in Armenia, and had interesting things to say about a wide range of topics.  Then there was the nice aforementioned Danish couple, who had interesting things to share about Scandinavia. I find this with all the Great Walks that I’ve done, oddly enough.  We plan the trip to get out into the wilderness, but the most memorable part is the people we meet along the way. 

Back in Taumarunui we treated ourselves to a hotel room, soapy showers, and a nice Indian restaurant.  Stage one of the family trip had been a success.