Whitianga to Waingaro (Wiakato, New Zealand)

We pick up two hitch hikers as we leave Whitianga. They are an American and Canadian traveling New Zealand between outdoor guiding seasons in their home countries. They are good company and it’s interesting to learn about the best places to visit in Canada, a country we definitely want to make our way to at some point. We back track down roads we’ve traveled a few times the past few days until we cross the range into Thames where we part ways with our hitch hikers.

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Thames is a groovy town. At first it looks like a rural service town, providing support to local farmers requiring goods and services. But a shift of eyesight to look at the upper facades of the buildings quickly shows that this is a town with plenty of colour. The facades are bright and show the town’s century or more of history.

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At ground level the town is creative and fun. Op shops and eateries make up most of the storefronts. But the footpaths is where the action is at. There’s a massive teddy bear cafe complete with elderly bears sitting in wheelchairs. And someone has built a motorbike completely out of random spare parts, mostly from military weapons. We spend about two hours wandering town eating and browsing the shops.

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Leaving Thames we re-enter the Waikato basin with its rolling hills, green pastures and dairy cattle. This is the area we have liked best so far in New Zealand. While the mountains and coast are stunning, the rolling pastures feel homely. But then, despite being travelers, we do have an attachment to a homely sense of calm.

We visit my aunt in Te Aroha. I haven’t seen her in many years so it’s lovely to catch up. We missed her two weeks ago because she has a life (which is awesome 🙂 ). She has baked us a delicious apple tart and we sit chatting over the tart for about two hours. I learn more about her life than I ever knew before. It’s a blessing to spend this time with her.

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The sun is sinking low into the western sky as we leave Te Aroha for Waingaro. There’s quite a bit of traffic on the road for a rural area. Clearly lots of people work in towns and live on farms because the cars disappear down isolated driveways as we get farther from each town.

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Our Couch Surfing hosts aren’t yet home when we arrive. It’s cold and dark but we find their home easily. It’s in the middle of nowhere but there is a small town with just a camping ground, hot springs and pub about 10 minutes away. The pub is quiet but serves quite good steaks at a reasonable price and the kitchen is still open. Steak and chips are served with fried eggs and salad here in New Zealand. That’s what we buy. At home, steaks are often over cooked in pubs but here in New Zealand the chefs seem to err on the side of under cooking. I know which I prefer and it’s not the Australian way. Getting a medium-rare steak that is still on the rare side of pink inside is a real treat because at home medium-rare steaks are almost always on the well done side of medium.

We meet our hosts at their home and are still awake at almost 2am talking. We cover everything from criminal justice and social work (we all have experience in these fields) to international politics (a subject usually off limits to Australians) and our mutual favourite of travel. There’s something special about strangers opening their homes, lives and stories with us; especially when the sparks of friendship develop. Paul and I both hope we meet our hosts again somewhere in the future to continue the conversations.
 

Hamilton botanical gardens, Karangahake Gorge and shooting (Waikato, New Zealand)

Blue skies greet us as we wake to our second day in New Zealand. It’s a perfect day to check out th Hamilton botanical gardens about half an hour drive from my cousin’s home. We’d heard about the gardens from a workmate but hadn’t known quite what to expect.
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The botanical gardens at Hamilton are simply stunning. There are multiple rooms, each with its own theme. No room is an afterthought, with each being an exceptional example of the style it represents. There’s a Japanese garden of reflection, a Chinese garden of scholars, a colourful Indian garden complete with slightly off-white buildings, a structural Italian Renaissance garden, a controlled jungle tropical garden, vegetable gardens, a traditional Maori vegetable and kumera garden, and a rose garden that must smell amazing in spring. Entry is still free though a donation is appreciated for the upkeep and further development of the property.
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We drive over to Waihi to walk in the Karangahake Gorge. I appreciate my cousin for her tour guiding and for driving us to so many places. Karangahake Gorge is 100km (62 miles) from Hamilton so it’s quite a long way. But it is worth the effort. The Gorge used to be part of a gold mining operation and evidence still abounds, such as a rotting rusty machinery, a railway line and swing bridge (which have been rebuilt of course). It’s difficult to imagine that this shrub filled place of beauty was once alive with the sights and sounds of sluices, draft horses hauling trolleys and men digging tunnels. Dust must have flown through the air and rock falls must have been common. We spend our time walking along the paths and through the dark tunnels taking in the natural scenery.
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While we’re in the area we stop at the L&P bottle in Paeroa, the home of the L&P drinks so popular with Kiwis here and at home.
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We end the day at another cousin’s farm. His daughters are competitive shooters in a range of rifle disciplines such as trap and skeet. So he has a clay pigeon set up in his back yard and a rifle suitable for us total beginners. Neither Paul nor I have ever handled firearms before but my cousin is an excellent instructor. I manage to hit three of the tiny orange moving targets while Paul hits one. I n his defence, Paul only has one eye. He is right handed but it’s his left eye that still exists so, with a right handed rifle, he has to shoot from his non dominant side. He gets his distance correct often but shoots just to the left of all but one target. It’s fun and I wouldn’t mind trying again sometime at home.

We eat freshly shot venison steaks and sausages along with roast vegetables and salad for dinner. The venison is so tender and flavoursome. The salad is pretty with purple rosemary flowers and a delicious taste. Getting to eat home cooked meals is such a treat when traveling.

Rotterdam family day (The Netherlands)

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We arrived in Rotterdam last night and were immediately welcomed by my Mum’s cousin (P) and her family, including my great aunt and great uncle. This is the Indonesian side of my family and I am at once struck by the strength of the Indonesian culture of hospitality and good cooking. We visit Tante (Aunty) E for dinner and she has cooked up a serious storm. A storm that is enjoyed with lots of stories and laughter. It’s my second time meeting Ome (Uncle) C and Tante E but I can’t recall the first time – that was about 25 years ago at a party. It’s amazing to be surrounded by family including Mum’s cousins and their families who have also come for dinner.
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By the time we wake on our final day in The Netherlands we are refreshed and ready to explore Rotterdam local style. P and her husband (M) have kindly taken time off work to show us around their city. We came to Rotterdam for a day last year but didn’t make it past the Maritime Museum and Market Hall so we are excited to see something more of this famous Dutch place.
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The first thing that strikes me is just how important shipping is to this port city. P works at the port so she is a wealth of information. But even without that it’s obvious that the people of Rotterdam are closely tied to the sea. There’s all sorts of boats here from canal barges to luxury yachts. There’s even the obligatory sinking boats filled with water rotting away. And all of this right in the heart of the city, not tucked away out of sight in some industrial or seaside area.
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Rotterdam is also obviously a city with a sense of humour. The Buttplug Gnome is actually meant to be a tribute to Santa Clause holding a festive bell. It may have caused outrage with the far right of Dutch politics but it is still standing with no indication it is going to be pulled down anytime soon. M proudly shows it to us with a Cheshire cat grin on his face waiting to capture our reactions. Only in The Netherlands …
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We continue to explore the city on foot. P and M know all the prettiest places to walk. There’s some green space along a canal with older style mansions and churches on the opposite bank. I could walk here all day and can imagine it being lovely for picnics in the summer months. Make sure you picnic on the far side of the canal though because a tram track runs on the city side. I will miss the historic architecture of Europe when I return home.
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M points out the Pauluskerk (Paul’s Church). This famous building is a place where people who are homeless or addicted to drugs can come for help. It is located almost in the heart of Rotterdam and has an architectural design that is impossible to ignore. I like the juxtaposition of this loud building with the way Western societies like to hide the reality of homelessness and drug addiction. It cannot be ignored when a place so linked with these circumstances is so clearly identifiable.
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We walk past the casino. It looks like a modest building. I am struck by the lack of fanfare here at the entrance. And also by the museum pieces in the window. I rarely gamble putting maybe $30 a year through pokie (slot) machines a year and never buying myself a lottery or scratch-it ticket. My work colleagues jokingly tell me that this is because I am Dutch and don’t like to part with my money. P and M also joke that they do not really like to gamble either. The museum pieces are interesting though. Particularly for me as an Australian where pokie (slot) machines are a dangerous hobby that ruins many lives.
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We continue our wanderings into the city centre past the impressive and imposing Stadhuis (Town Hall). There’s a statue outside of Hugo De Groot who we first met at Loeverstein Castle where we heard the story of his escape from imprisonment in a book chest. It’s an interesting to tie our second and our final days of this trip together. The city centre is like many city centres of the world: dedicated to shopping. It highlights for me one of the concerns I have about the world and our lives in the West. I watched a video some time back about how we all believe we have jobs as lawyers, business people, teachers, bank tellers, shop assistants, cleaners, nurses and what-not. But actually, our jobs are to shop. We are merely encouraged to work so that we feel good about spending because we earn money. Because the wealthiest one percent get rich off us buying “stuff” we don’t want or need just to keep up with the Joneses or to feel happy despite our imprisonment in jobs we hate. The dedication of so much street space to retail therapy around the world is only serving to prove the truth of this to me. And I wonder how we can escape it.
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Like last year we browse again through the Market Hall with it’s gorgeously presented selection of foods. You can buy most things here from a massive assortment of cheese through to toffee apples. There’s food to take home and food to eat here. The choice is your’s. We’ve eaten lunch and know there is a repeat of last night’s massive dinner waiting for us at Tante E and Ome C’s house so just feast with our eyes.
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It’s late afternoon now and we are almost back at the car park. Our final stop is the famous cube house complex. We saw it on our way along the canal this morning but are now walking through the complex. For three Euros you can enter one of the houses. Inside the houses are larger than they look from the outside. And, yes, the floors are flat, not sloping. The design is almost a perfect use of every centimeter of available space. While it’s certainly in the style of tiny house living, it’s not cramped. It’s quite incredible really how we are so used to a certain design of house that our minds take a little while to adjust to the concept of these cubes. But I certainly think they would make fantastic living spaces, particularly with the convenience of being in the city centre.
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And so the sun sets on our adventures in The Netherlands and Belgium. We enjoy one final meal with P and M at Tante E and Ome C’s house. One final drive along the Dutch highway network to Schiphol to drop off the rental car. And a night at Citizen M Schiphol (word to the wise, check which location you have booked). Tomorrow we depart for home with a fifteen hour stop over in Guangzhou.

This trip has been brilliant. While we would have liked to stay longer, we do have some time restrictions due to us both working and wanting to earn enough to take two or three more trips this year. And we’d rather go somewhere new for two weeks than not go anywhere at all.

Christmas with Oma (Hilvarenbeek, Netherlands)

I walk immediately to the right side of the car to drive it. This awkward “wrong side of the road” faux pas never fails to amuse me. There’s nothing suave about that first dorky moment when you can’t work out how to change gear with the wrong hand, flick on the windscreen wipers instead of the indicators nor look the wrong way at the intersection. But we survive and hit the motorways of Holland to drive across the country for Christmas with my Oma (grandmother).
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We make good time on empty roads until I see the sign. It advertises a massive puntzak friet at the next service station. And that’s how we come to eat our first hot chips with mayonnaise and need croquettes of the trip. It’s just service station food but it’s presented so beautifully; not just slapped on a plate.
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We get a bit lost finding Oma’s house. A lap of tiny Hilvarenbeek ensues with its one way lanes and dead ends. But eventually we find the place and are entering the Christmas dinner preparation sanctum. Oma and my aunt from Portugal are cooking up a storm. As afternoon becomes evening more family arrive to fill Oma’s small home. It’s quite the gezelig feast with conversation, good food and laughter. There’s no gifts exchanged because that’s not part of the Dutch Christmas tradition: it’s all about connection and family.

After the long journey to be here we last until 7:30pm before we drive to my uncle and aunt’s home nearby and fall asleep almost instantly.

Tin Can Bay weekend (Queensland, Australia)

It’s school holidays and my sister’s kids love camping. So when Paul suggested we go camping at Tin Can Bay for a night, it seemed only natural to take my two oldest nephews along for the ride.

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Tin Can Bay is about 230km (140 miles) north of our home. If we were on a road trip, that would take a whole day to drive. But this was a destination-based camping trip so we just drove up there, stopping for lunch along the way. It was early afternoon when we arrived to set up camp at the Kingfisher Caravan Park. It’s a quiet, grassy and located right across the road from the beach.

The kids ride their bikes as we set up camp. A squall passes over just as we have the inner tent up so everything gets a bit wet but nothing that can’t be dried with a towel. The kids run back briefly before going back to play when the rain stops. It’s fun to see them whooping along on their bikes in the endless waterfront park across the road.

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We have every intention to take the kids kayaking but the water is too shallow and there are squalls coming in. It doesn’t stop the kids though. They spend more than an hour chasing each other in the shallow water, tackling, wrestling and kicking water at each other. We get soaked by another squall and it doesn’t matter because it’s fun watching the kids.

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We spend the evening walking around the small township buying some groceries, eating fish & chips for dinner, and checking out the boat ramp. It doesn’t take long for the kids to have their shoes off and walking in the water at the boat ramp to look for fish. They spot a massive crab, which causes all sorts of excitement. That’s what’s so lovely about camping with kids … they see everything.

The kids are tuckered out and we don’t hear a peep out of them until morning. Even the heavy rain squalls don’t bother them. Mind you, they are sleeping in the MSR Hubba Hubba NX, which is totally waterproof.

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The sun is gorgeous when it comes up at camp. I find that it doesn’t matter whether you are wild camping or in a caravan park. Camping is camping and sunrises are sunrises.

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We take the kids for a walk down to jetty again (well, they ride their bikes) . It’s only 1.2km (3/4 mile). Every morning at 7am a pod of dolphins come to visit. They’ve been coming since 1954. You can stand in the water near the dolphins but cannot reach out to touch them. It’s amazing to be so close to these beautiful creatures. At 8am you can purchase a fish to feed the dolphins so we buy one for each of the kids. “That was amazing” they said.

There’s some more bike riding by the kids while Paul and I pack camp. Then a long drive home followed by a trip to the cinema to watch Kung Fu Panda 3 and a few games at the amusement arcade to pass the time. Camping with kids is definitely a fun and worthwhile activity.

Bike riding and yoga (Noord Brabant, The Netherlands)

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The rain has finally eased off so my uncle and I can finally head out for the bike ride we had planned for yesterday. This is one of the things that’s been on my must do Holland list for years. I have always loved knowing that my uncle loves to cycle and enjoy listening to his cycling stories when we do have contact. So to have some time to ride with him is exactly how I want to spend the first half of the final full day of my two years as a digital nomad.

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My uncle has transitioned from racing bikes to ebikes over the past few years and is keen to introduce me to the joys of this specific form of cycling. So it’s on my aunt’s ebike I get and off we ride. We don’t get far before we pass the field their donkey lives in and we try to get it to come over for a pat. It decides the hay it is eating is far more interesting than two randomly dressed people wearing helmets (my uncle prefers to wear a helmet on his ebike because it can go quite fast).

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Nearby is a very cool pig farm where the pigs live in dirt mounds with chimneys poking out the tops. The pigs here have good lives, being free to roam in the mud. They live warmly in the huts too. Pigs are so cute. They always come running when people are near because their stomachs rule their minds.

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Random sights seen I follow my uncle along quiet country roads and cycle paths along the Dutch-Belgian border. It’s exactly how I imagined cycling with my uncle would be. We have a good laugh. He tells me things about the places we pass. We ride a little ways in comfortable silence. And then there is another reason to have a good belly laugh. What more could you want.

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Well, of course, the landscape is pretty sweet too. There is grass for miles, big woolly clouds that sporadically allow the sun to shine through. And structural items like trees, farm houses and church steeples to capture my attention. We even cycle along the road where Napoleon stood with his armies at the ready to invade the lands further north. It’s all pretty awesome really and I decide that I will return in the summer one year to make a 2-3 week cycle tour of this cycle mad country.

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I shower after the ride and head to my grandmother’s house for a visit before I borrow her car and drive to my aunt’s house (I should mention that my mother is one of seven and my father one of eleven so I have many aunts, uncles and cousins). I am visiting for dinner and she has invited me to participate in a Kondalilli Yoga class. She’s a registered teacher and runs Pop-Up Yoga Eindhoven. It’s been about 15 years since we last saw each other so I am excited not just to share a meal but also to be invited to something that is such a big part of her life.

I know nothing about Kondalilli Yoga. I’ve done some yoga at local gyms over the years and it’s never really spoken to me. Tai chi has always been more my style. But I am open minded and want to get to know my aunt better.

Well, let me just say that I loved the class. It was amazing. I was expecting the usual lycra-clad competitive stretching poses. But that’s not what Kondalilli is all about at all. My aunt wears a turban and white outfit. Her class wear comfortable clothing. It’s a spiritual atmosphere in the studio. It’s a simple but gentle space with positive atmosphere. I don’t have words to describe my experience of the breathing exercises, poses and meditation. All I can say is that it was exactly where I needed to be the night before I make the transition from digital nomad to entrepreneur.

It was midnight before I noticed the time after sitting on my aunt’s couch talking with her. I share some of my fears about my life after I return home. A life in which there are now no flights booked and no nomadic existence to cling to. I realise it would be easy for me to continue this lifestyle of movement and to resist the life that awaits me. But I’ve never been one to take the easy route. My life is calling me to do something more than simply travel the world doing what I please. I have found a calling that I need to follow. And knowing this takes the fear away. But for now … I needed to be here at my aunt’s house and yoga class tonight.

Family, climbing and a movie (Tilburg, The Netherlands)

It’s my first full day back in Holland and the weather has turned foul. I was going to cycle to my uncle’s house about an hour from where I am staying (with another uncle and aunt). Thankfully my aunt offers to drop me off. As a migrant child, my family in Holland have been an ever present distant reality. I love the ones I know and always love to see them and hang out. Coffee soon turns to lunch as my uncle, aunt and I catch up on the years (almost 20) since we last spent time together. It’s a wonderful way to spend the morning.

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I’ve made an arrangement to climb with my cousin and a mate of his at the climbing wall in Tilburg. I first saw it almost two months ago but didn’t get a chance to climb then. I’ve been dreaming about the 20m indoor walls since first seeing them and, now, here I am.

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We start on the easy 10m wall with a 3+. It’s fantastic for a warm up and the three of us all scamper up like we’re climbing a ladder. A 4- is next and then a 4. We’re still on the 10m wall warming up. The 4 has a slight overhang but nothing to stress about. It feels fantastic to hit it strongly and make it through the slight overhand and get some confidence.

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We tackle a 4+ and a 5+ down on the 20m wall. Now I’m starting to feel like I’m getting a work out. My arms pump out as I climb the 20m 5+. I get up but it’s not pretty. I definitely could do with some work on my technique. My cousin’s mate gives me some pointers. I try them out upstairs back on the 10m wall on another 5+ climb. Now we’re talking.

I keep my hips close to the wall. I think about my moves more. I turn side on, rather than hanging spreadeagled on the wall. I see how these slight shifts of my body give me more options, they stop me from feeling like I am holding on to prevent the fall. Suddenly my arms aren’t pumping as much. I am feeling smoother and less like someone clutching for anything to hold. It’s wonderful.

We climb for just over three hours. I shower and eat dinner with my uncle and aunt at their house. We talk about the evening and decide on catching a movie. That’s the perfect way to end the day. My uncle likes action films so we watch 13 Hours: Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. It’s action packed and a good watch.

Today was pretty much a perfect day of family, physical challenge and story telling.