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Traveling New Zealand In A Camper Van

Finding the best mode of transport for each place you go to is one of the keys to travel. Not everywhere should be traveled using the same strategy. Some countries have incredible, efficient, and cheap public transport networks, while others don’t really have public transport at all — like New Zealand.

Maybe NZ has buses and trains that go between the major towns, but I haven’t seen them yet. If they do exist they’re probably expensive. This is a vast, mostly rural or wild country were people drive. If you want to travel here, it’s probably a good idea to ‘live like the locals’ and get a car.

In travel, it is usually better to go with the grain than against it. The game here is indentifying which way the grain is going. 

In New Zealand, we determined that the grain was running towards renting a campervan — it’s how the ‘backpackers’ and the geezers travel here. For $20 per day+ gas we get transportation and a place to sleep — and the freedom to go wherever we want. 

There is kind of a campervan travel movement here. The roads are full of them, and there is also this incredible network of free and low cost places to park for the night that include facilities like toilets, sinks, and, sometimes, showers. It really seems to be The Way to travel here. 

New Zealand doesn’t seem to be a place that’s very evenly distributed as far as population is concerned. There seems to be a couple of cities and the proverbial ‘out there,’ with very little in between.

There seems to be little reason to go to New Zealand if you’re not going out there. From my brief foray into Auckland it was clear that the charms of this country are elsewhere — in the mountains, on the beaches, and in the forests.

Traveling as a family of four has changed the dynamics of my travels considerably. We’re not just talking about one ticket to ride on public transport here, but three or four each time. Add this up over the course of a journey and it often makes renting cars or, as the case may be, campervans the budget option.


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Arrival In New Zealand

AUCKLAND, New Zealand- I went to Australia so I figured I may as well go to New Zealand too. It’s a cheap flight, and getting out of here is roughly the same price as exiting the region from Sydney.

I also used to have this odd habit of not visiting all the neighboring countries of a particular region, which kind of left these voids in the map of my travels that I would have to go back and fill. Why didn’t I yet go to Austria, Bulgaria, Bolivia when I’ve been around their borderlands multiple times? Why didn’t I step over their frontiers and take a look around? I have no idea. I guess I just couldn’t be bothered, which sounds silly to me now, as I’ve learned the value of even taking quick looks at new countries.

The customs inspection here was the most thorough and time consuming that I’ve ever experienced. Nit picky, nit picky. We weren’t given any problems after we convinced the agent that we really were not smuggling sandwiches from the airplane into their country, but it ate up a good forty-five minutes of standing in line for something that is usually streamlined and quick in just about every other country.

This excessive check was about preserving New Zealand’s biodiversity, or something like that — as though NZ is the only country on the planet with nature. 

Although it should probably be stated that people have only lived here for like 700 years and it seems as if they haven’t had enough time yet to fuck everything up like we have almost everywhere else in the world. So maybe I’m being a touch ignorant. Or maybe I’m just irritated that I had to stand in line for an excessive amount of time, snagged up on the final approaches to a new country.

One of the signs in Chinese driving home what people from China really cannot bring into the country.

What I did find interesting about the customs inspection was how geared towards Chinese visitors it was. There were all kinds of special signs in Chinese explaining in explicit detail and photos many of the things that they could not bring into the country — more specifically, what “no food” really meant. There were no English or other language equivalents for these signs, and it was clear that they were geared towards remedying a very real inter-cultural issue.

For some reason, many people from China seem to have difficulty understanding customs regulations — and I don’t believe that this is due to a language barrier. First off, they tend to have this cultural tendency of carrying large amounts of food with them when they travel (sometimes resort towns that cater to them complain loudly about this) and they don’t seem to get — or care — that it’s generally prohibited to carry food items from one country to another. Or perhaps it’s just the tendencies of a culture that has a very healthy propensity for not following what it views as petty rules.

Eventually, we made it through customs. The gates opened and we walked into New Zealand. So I’m not in New Zealand, country number 82.

We got picked up from the airport by the shuttle for the company that we rented a campervan from. We picked it up, had a whole bunch of things about operating the vehicle explained to us that neither my wife nor I understood (I thought she was paying attention), and then we headed into Auckland.

We decided to only spend a single night in Auckland. After walking around there for a little while at night — eating a disgusting $3.50 roll of supermarket sushi for dinner to save money — I did not really find much that was going on. It seemed like a place that if I were to spend a few months I would find a few intriguing haunts and some friends, but for the traveler it seemed to be just a comfortable, hilly city that had the usual array of the usual city stuff.

But the plan here isn’t to sit around in cities. We are going to take the campervan that we rented and head out on the road, get into the wilds — I don’t believe there is any other way to travel in this country.

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It’s the anal moralism of Australia’s legal system that I find absolutely frightening. This is pretty much a country without real problems — it’s probably one of the best places in the world — so the government inveigles itself into the minute aspects of daily life with a plethora of petty laws which regulate behavior as if to prove its legitimacy. 

From what I’ve seen, this is a society that has no pressing need for laws in the first place. The people here tend to be good to each other, they say please and thank you, and follow the golden rule perhaps better than any society I’ve seen in my 18 years of travel. 

But maybe this gives the government an insecurity complex. 

The Australian government is like those old people in the USA who sit around watching TV all day, getting a blown out of proportion impression about how dangerous the world is outside. What’s a big deal in Australia would be nothing in a country with real problems. 

Right now a major “problem” in Australia is that someone in government dug up this obscure law about how elected officials can’t be duel citizens, so now all of the political parties are investigating their opponents’ backgrounds, getting then kicked out of office one after the other. We’re talking about things like the discovery that some politician was actually born in New Zealand or another’s mother got him Italian citizenship when he was two that he apparently never knew about. 

Meanwhile, fucking Donald Trump is president of the USA, the UK voted to leave the EU, and Venezuela … does Venezuela even have a government anymore?

We have the Bloods and the Crypts in the USA and Australia has hooligans cutting the branches off of trees

The rest of the world has people blowing shit up and running crowds over with cars and people in Australia are calling the cops on tourists for taking photos of convenient stores

There are stretches of the US, Europe, and Latin America that have virtual parades of drug addicts walking down streets like zombies and Australia is doing saliva swabs and arresting people for smoking dope up to four or five days in the past. 

And the alcohol laws… well, we already covered that

Australia does not seem to realize how good it is — maybe they need to force their elected officials to take a mandatory sabbatical to see how fucked up the rest of the world is every once in a while. 

Countries with real problems tend to focus their resources on solving them — or they’re too fucked up to care — leaving everybody else alone. When I land in places like South America, Central Asia, or Southest Asia, I suddenly feel relaxed and free. Everything can be burning down around me but I can walk around without a care. I know they’re not after me. 

But when I come to Australia I live with a touch of apprehension that I’m going to break some petty little law and have to deal with some problem that wouldn’t exist pretty much anywhere else. 

We normally attribute the authoritarian label to countries with dictatorships, functioning monarchies, or unelected political leaders — i.e. fucked up places — not advanced liberal democracies. But it’s in the later group of countries that the ever-pervasive tendrils of the law often wrap up and restrain ordinary people the most. 

I’m getting out of here. 

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Australia Is A Zoo Without Cages

I don’t know why anyone would go to a zoo in Australia. The entire country seems to be one giant zoo … albeit one without cages. 

Many of the wild, exotic, etc animals of this country — that you would normally attribute to being the stuff of exotic pet shops — are incredibly easy to spot. You just have to show up and look around. Many seem to have very little fear of humans — some even walk or fly right up to you. Perhaps they know that they live in a country of muesili eaters.  

This was probably the thing about Australia that surprised me the most. Yeah, I know that the entire gamut of wild, colorful looking animals live on this continent but I didn’t know how close they got to human settlements. People and wildlife live together here. 

This surprise exhibited itself from the start. Day one on Sydney’s Bondi Beach, a brazenly colored parrot took a seat next to me at a picnic table as I was eating my lunch. 

I did the tourist thing, jumped up, cocked my camera, and let the photos fly. I then sheepishly looked around to see if anyone was watching me. Perhaps to my relief I saw some locals responding in the same way. I guess everybody appreciates parrots here. 

There are also these huge monitor lizards that get remarkably close to the places where people live. In my scant few days here I’ve already seen two. They were around four and a half feet long a piece and are easy to spot: you just have to look for the birds freaking out. Monitors eat eggs; birds attack monitors. 

There was also a cockatoo flying around Milton, beautifully colorful birds in the parking lot of Pebbly Beach, and mobs of kangaroos roving wherever they wish, hopping right into the centers of villages. 

This is the reason why you travel to Australia. No, this is the reason why you travel anywhere: to experience places, situations, and things that you’ve never experienced before. 

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Bicycle Luke Reunion

SYDNEY, Australia- “It’s been ten years since the last time we met,” Luke said as we met at the door of the Vietnamese restaurant in Bankstown. 

I couldn’t believe that it had been that long. But I did the math: the last time I met Luke was before I started making people — Petra is eight years old; he was right. 

When I arrived in Australia I made it a priority to find out what Luke was up to. He just happened to be in Sydney for an annual meet event for his work on one of the scant few nights I was there. Our paths coincidentally intersected again. 

The first time I me Luke was on the side of the road in the remote countryside of Hungary. I was riding this beat up old ten speed across Europe and the guy unexpectedly popped out of some bushes at my side riding some nice, slick touring bike. Two long distance bicycle travelers were suddenly riding side by side in the middle of nowhere. It would have been too awkward not to become friends. 

Vagabond Journey readers know this guy well. He was our bicycle travel correspondent for a couple of years. 

But now I must report that Bicycle Luke’s bicycle is now sitting in his garage with two flat tires. After extended bike journeys across Europe and Southeast Asia, he got what he needed out of it. 

There is nothing like bicycle travel to make you want to do something else with your life. You just sit out there say after day, peddling and thinking, peddling and thinking. Thinking about what? Your life. 

The interesting thing about Luke is that he has this special ability to focus on big goals for the long-term. 

Everybody is a dreamer, a few of us are doers, but it’s incredible rare for someone to be able to be both for an extended duration of time to achieve a goal. 

Years and years ago Luke told me about this financial scheme where you save money in a certain type of account for X amount of years, building up a pot of X amount of dollars, and then you could live and travel off the interest indefinitely without ever really needing to make money again. He told me that and I said, “Wow, cool.” But he a actually did it. 

While Luke’s original plan was to save this money so he could travel around the world on the proceeds, he changed course and instead bought a farm in this beautiful valley north of Sydney. 

He transformed the place into a venerable compound, building all kinds of houses, starting an aquaponics operation, fields of conventionally farmed vegetables, and all kinds of animals. He also has a couple of French guys out there for some reason.  

The intent here is to not only be self-sufficient but also to be profitable enough to expand, do whatever he wants, and, above all else, live well. 

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WANDANDIAN, Australia- I saw the words “Wandandian,” written on a convenient store and I snapped a photo of it. The name sounded like that of a Chinese quicky mart, and I write about such things. This was just a gas station on the side of the highway that I stopped at to get a cup of coffee, and I didn’t know yet that the village that I was in was called Wandandian, not the shop.

However, that has little to do with this story.

After I snapped the photo the convenient store worker — a young Indian guy — came storming out asking why I took a photo. I figured he was just bored or curious. So I told him what I do.

But then he became a little aggressive.

“You have to ask permission to take a photo first. You can’t just take a picture of something without asking permission. This is very bad. This is very bad,” he began, acting more like I robbed the place than merely snapping a photo of its exterior.

Was this guy serious?

I asked him. He was.

“You should know that you can’t just take a picture of something. That is illegal,” he kept going.

I disputed his claims that taking a photo of a building from the side of the road was a legal offense.

But he kept going on and on about my “crime,” distracting me from pouring my much needed cup of coffee.

He then demanded to see my credentials. I informed him that he was a clerk at a quicky mart in the middle of nowhere and that I would do no such thing.

“Then we have a very big problem,” he responded. “This is a very, very big problem.”

He wouldn’t shut up. I decided to end the irritating exchange.

“If it’s illegal to take a photo then call the fucking police.”

He really did.

I told clerk to go fuck himself and left before the police could arrive … if they would even respond to such a call. I’m sure that even the cops out in Wandandian have better things to do than give spiteful/frightened/underachieving/bored/douchbaggy immigrants a momentary big man fix.

No, I didn’t get my cup of coffee.

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What Australians Think Of Their Kangaroos

KIOLOA, Australia- Positioning the kangaroo as some kind of mascot for Australia is like using the giant sewer rat as something to represent New York City.

In Australia, kangaroos are giant hopping varmint that shit all over the place, transport ticks, eat all the grass, and get hit by cars.

National symbol be damned. From what I can tell, the people here can’t stand these animals — at least those who live where they regularly roam.

“I hate em,” one guy told me who ran a convenient store in Kioloa told me.

“We just wish we could get rid of them,” another lady there said.

Before coming to Australia, I wasn’t aware of how closely Kangaroos live to people here. Entire herds of them storm through towns, going where they want and doing what they please. Few animals can claim more dominance over human settlements than kangaroos.

They come in and take over.

And there is nothing that anybody can do about it other than just wait for them to finish up whatever they’re doing and hop away.

“Sometimes a bunch of them block me in my house and I have to go out and throw my shoes at them,” a local lady told me. “But it doesn’t do any good,” she admitted. “They don’t move.”

“Does anyone around here eat or make leather out if them?” I asked.

“They do in the central parts of the country but we here haven’t gotten us used to how they taste yet. I just wish we could get rid of them all.”

But for me and my family, these kangaroos have been one of the main highlights of this Australia jaunt so far. We are not yet used to seeing them free in the wild, and we are pretty intrigued by the fact that we can walk real close up to them and watch what they do. My wife especially likes the joeys in the pouches. This is a new experience for us, and such new experiences are one of the driving forces behind moving over the world … and we are sure to leave before we get sick of them. Ah, travel.

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Rather than traveling far and wide, sometimes I go for near and narrow. My Australian travels were contained to New South Wales. However, New South Wales is a massive place that’s significantly larger than Texas.

During these travels I stuck mostly to the beaches. The South Coast is basically forests meeting the sea. Perfect.

The beaches themselves are as though designed by some beach connoisseur. Wide open, ringed by forest, soft sand that goes out deep into the surf, some crags and rocks on the sides for style, translucent blue water, a lack of people [winter], “undiscovered” by any sort of developer.

Here are some photos of Pretty Beach and Pebbly Beach. Click on the thumbnails for larger versions.

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The Australian Shame On You Tree

ULLADULLA, Australia- I went to a look out over a bay. Someone told me that I could see whale parts sticking out from the water from here. It was beautiful … and all that. But I didn’t see any whale parts. What I did see though was a permanently placed metal sign notifying the public that at some prior date, an extended amount of time ago, someone had vandalized a tree at that spot.

It took no imagination to conjure up what the crime looked like, as the assaulted tree was left in place right next to the sign.

It was a mid-size tree that someone sawed some of the branches off of.

If I had to guess at a motive, I would say that they more than likely wanted a better view to see whale parts sticking up out of the bay so they removed a few branches from the tree — which was kind of planted right in the way.

As I looked back and forth from the sign to the tree I was absolutely astonished. The weathering on the metal sign and the aging of the wounded tree led me to believe that this had happened a long time ago — like, five to ten years ago.

This wasn’t a notification to alert the public of a recent crime, but a permanent public shaming campaign. It was so everybody who ever visited this spot could share in the good people of Australia’s antagonism for whoever it was that would commit such a heinous act.

It seems to me — an American — that the problem could have been better solved just by planting a new fucking tree. Or by removing trees from that spot completely because it was made obvious that at least a portion of the population doesn’t want them there.

By putting up permanently affixed sign and leaving a hacked up tree in-situ they essentially created more of a public eyesore than the original act of vandalism ever could. It’s the equivalent of someone scrawling into an ancient monument or natural rock face the words, “Asshole was here,” and then the government erecting a giant blinking sign pointing to it.

Who wants to see that?

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To Kioloa: I Almost Ran Over A Kangaroo

KIOLOA, Australia- I almost ran over a kangaroo. A group of the bastards hopped out in front of me as I was driving down the South Coast of New South Wales.

I guess that’s how you know you’re in Australia.

We rented a car for eight days for like $170 and headed south from Sydney. We ended up in a $40 per night cabin in a place called Kioloa. It’s basically a trailer park flung out on a beautiful beach for people retreating from the world.

Herds of kangaroos flow through the place. They get so close that I’m told that you can walk up and pat them. There was a giant monitor lizard sunning himself out in the open when we arrived — “We know where he is because wherever he goes the birds go crazy,” the lady at reception told me. There is a tree by the pool that has an opossum living in it. There are birds that look as if they escaped from a zoo or exotic pet shop. There are people who are just hanging out, fishing, enjoying the beach — although it’s winter here and is not warm enough to really swim.

I don’t really have internet access in Kioloa. No WIFi, no mobile data. Two days with no internet. I have no idea when the last time I experienced this was. I feel like I’m floating on a raft out at sea. It feels oddly good. There are no emails to weed through, no chatting app messages to respond to, nothing to upload, nothing to check. There is nothing to do but hang out with my family and write.

My wife really likes this place. This means something, as she hardly likes anywhere. While I’ve grown used to seeing her look out on places with grimaces of scorn and disgust, here it’s something completely different: she’s all smiles and shrieks of joy. She likes the kangaroos; she likes the wide open, sparkling, primitive beaches; she likes the people, who smile and laugh when they talk with her. She walks around here confident, not insecure or on guard to defend her self-respect as she often is in Asia. She’s relaxed. Australia has not let her down.

I unexpectedly found myself having a vacation.

We have two modes of family travel:

A) Lifestyle travel, where we stay in a place for a month+ and basically live a normal life. I travel around and do my work, and my wife and the kids do their daily routine.

B) Vacation travel, where we travel for fun — like on a vacation.

My wife and kids put up with a lot of shit that results from my work travels. Either I’m gone all the time or they’re being Shanghaied into going to these remote, often unappealing nowheres. So once a year we take a real vacation.

I’m not sure how it happened. The plan was to spend a month each in an array of countries across Asia where I could do my work. It was supposed to be a bout of strict lifestyle travel. But then I did a couple of stories about AirAsia and inadvertently saw on their homepage a promotional fare from Taipei to Sydney for $170 …

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