Walking to the beach

The morning we left Wellington is the morning that Katie left Wellington for St. Lucia (with 3 kids in tow).  Under the age of 6.   By herself, solo-parenting.  4 flights.  36 hours.  Either stupidity or sainthood comes to mind…I’m leaning toward sainthood.  Only a mom would venture to tackle such a challenge.

This fact puts Katie’s willingness to let us bunk with her and her family into better light.  How can you not call her a saint.  Lord knows that if I was planning an “other-side-of-the-world” extravaganza with my kids, I wouldn’t allow a family to shack up with me for a few nights right before I leave.

But she did.  In the midst of her planning, packing and prepping for the upcoming 4-stage journey, we were exploring, prepping and planning ourselves.  My protestations fell on deaf ears.  Katie would hear nothing of us moving into a hotel.

And so it was.  Katie packing for herself and 3 children, while I packed for us and 2 children and Armon watched over 5 kids under the age of 6.  You do the math.  Full credit to him…he survived and so did the kids.  In fact, they had a blast.

We were in Wellington, headed for Abel Tasman on the South Island and Katie was headed for St. Lucia. To say her house was the epicenter of travel turbulence is an understatement. Katie remained calm with some uncanny ability to shrug it off despite the frenetic energy in the air.  And needless to say, she was more organized and prepared than I will ever in my wildest dreams be for a plane ride with kids.  The only thing she didn’t have was an antiquated, portable CD player which, believe it or not, she wanted (and I hear she found after asking multiple airport vendors).  Note to Apple, this is a needed intervention.

Anyway, in addition to coloring books, games and miscellaneous kids’ entertainment Katie had food.  And lots of it.  Chips, crackers, cookies…  You name it.  All the stuff that you don’t normally feed your child but that you rely on during travel. It helps make a journey tenable.

And of course she had leftovers.  No surprise.  What was a surprise was that our hostess with the mostest offered to share all her extra treats.  Jackpot!  We left Wellington with more stock piles than you can imagine.  Pringles.  Popcorn.  Crackers.  Chocolate.  You name it.  The kids’ booty was better than any they’d seen to date, or since for that matter.

Talia and Judah were digging in like ferocious scavengers before we even left the city.  By midway through the taxi ride, they were tossing back popcorn by the handfuls.  They ate like they had skipped breakfast or as though this was the best popcorn they’d ever tasted – neither of which was true.  I think it was just the sheer novelty of having popcorn in a taxi.  As a mom, I made a semi-futile attempt to clean up after my little vultures. But alas, we left the taxi with buttery-colored pieces of Styrofoam littered throughout and a little embarrassment on my behalf.

The taxi driver himself was full of chagrin as well, but for different reasons altogether.  This kind, older gentleman (who waited patiently while we said an extended goodbye in Wellington) was about to drop us and all of our luggage off in the middle of nowhere.  In the pouring rain.  Without shelter.

We had a seaplane picking us up dockside on the outskirts of Wellington. As luck would have it we were 30 minutes early, the pickup locale was sans an airport or any indoor space for that matter and it was pissing rain. The driver had another pick-up scheduled on the other side of town (or at least he claimed he did and I don’t think the popcorn mess was THAT bad).  Anyway, he was more embarrassed than I was and apologized profusely.  He then helped us get our worldly belongings into the only makeshift shelter we could find – a small entrance way to a warehouse near our dock.

This time, I was prepared. I carried with us a travel umbrella holiday gift we received and proudly popped it out of my small backpack.  After traveling all the way to the other side of the world, it was on the ready and saved the day…  The four of us huddled together under that 36 inch black disk and chuckled at our predicament.  It was a good thing we still had our senses of humor.  2 kids, 2 pieces of luggage, 4 back-packs and some miscellaneous carry-ons in a downpour isn’t really that funny until time-passing lends some perspective.  What’s more, we unknowingly had a long morning ahead of us.

A few minutes later Armon claimed he heard the plane and off he went to explore our rides’ arrival.  I assumed he just needed a break from the chaos and that getting wet with a walk seemed a better alternative than his current situation.  But sure enough Armon arrived back at our outpost a few minutes later, pilot in tow.  Much to my dismay, the pilot looked no more than a day passed 18 years of age.  As we bee-lined it down the drenched dock to the plane with all of our luggage I felt compelled to shout through sheets of rain, “So this isn’t your first flight is it”?  To which he quickly quipped, “Uh, well no.  I commandeered the craft earlier this morning so this will be my third flight.  I can proudly say I have one successful take-off and one successful landing under my belt.”  Clearly, he’d been queried on this topic before.

This was to be our second seaplane ride – a luxury that we rationalized because of the added convenience that it afforded us in getting to our destination.  Abel Tasman is a national park on the north end of the South Island of New Zealand.   It is not-so-creatively named after (you guessed it) Abel Tasman who was the first European explorer to sight NZ in 1642.  The nearest town is 20 km away (airport even further) which makes the park relatively remote and difficult to get to, especially with kids.  Our seaplane would cut down on travel time and simplify logistics.  We had done the math and by taking a full day’s trip and compressing it into 1.5 hours door to door the added expense seemed imminently worth it.  What we didn’t contemplate when we did our initial adding and subtracting was the weather, the pilot’s age or the age of the plane (at least 2x our pilot).

Next thing I knew we were all on-board, equipped with microphone enabled headsets and we were setting up for take-off.  The kids adored the headsets, “Talia, can you hear me” and “Judah, can you hear me now”? rang through our cabin and made us all laugh.  They sounded like a snazzy Verizon commercial.

Take-off wasn’t bad, but after being airborne for about 2 minutes we ran into some turbulence coming out of the bay and rounding the northern tip of Wellington.  Me and small plane turbulence are a toxic combination; heck, I’ve gotta admit that me and airplane turbulence are a toxic combo.  With the toxicity inversely related to the size of the plane.  And this one was the smallest plane we’d taken thus far.  Even Judah had noticed this fact as we walked down the dock in the pouring rain.

Once again, the idea of popcorn came to mind.  This time, we were the ones in the frying pan.  The plane was visibly bouncing through the skies and we were visibly bouncing along with it like little kernels about to be cooked.  Armon looked back at me (as he always does when there’s turbulence) and I gave him my best “I can’t believe you talked me into this, you schmuck” look.  I then dug my fingers into his left arm as though this would somehow protect me from falling out of the sky.

It worked.  We kept flying.

By this time the kids were blissfully asleep and I must have been a putrid shade of gray.  The pilot turned around to me in the back seat with Judah and he apologized for the bumps.  He then re-commenced his conversation with Armon who sat in the front seat next to him.  I could hear every fourth or fifth word which was fine because I wasn’t in the mood to converse anyway.  I just tried to breathe and remain calm as we made our way toward our destination.

Thoughts of sharks, drowning and plane crashes filled my head – but I let them wash over me as though I were a yogi with an unearthly ability to remain calm.

Things got better mid-flight.  We smoothed out, our pilot and Armon were exchanging stories and talking in a relaxed and easy manner.  The only thing that got my heart pulsing was when our lovely pilot started expressing with his hands and I could see all ten of his digits flying through mid-air.  That wasn’t natural, not natural at all…   I appreciated his animated conversation style, but he was supposed to be flying our plane after all.

Part II

Mid-flight calm

With the above prelude, this becomes a good story if I can convince you that I seriously feared for my life.  If you believe Armon actually saw his heartbeat skip a beat or two as well, that’d make it even better.  So here it goes.

After breathing through the worst of my fears and beginning to relax (“if the pilot can take his hands off the steering wheel then he’s feeling calm, all is okay” is the mantra I repeat again and again), we run nose first into a massive swirl of storm clouds.  And I realize we are screwed…

The plane starts tossing around the sky like it is popcorn.  Forget us people feeling that way, this time it is the plane – lurching to and fro and fully at the whim of Mother Nature.  I am afraid the kids will wake up.  Visions of sharks, crashes and pain race back to the forefront of my mind and I am already calculating how I’ll get the kids free of the plane and swim to a distant island.  Yes, this is how my mind works.

And I see our pilot, again both hands off the wheel.

This time he is texting.

I kid you not.  He is texting.  On his iPhone.  At this moment in time and only this moment in time do I wish Steve Jobs had never been born.  I cannot believe my eyes.  We are somewhere in between the North and South Islands of New Zealand in a mass of stormy rain clouds and he is playing with his iPhone.

Our pilot turns to Armon and says something largely inaudible.  All I hear is, “Texting….Boss…He says blue-skies, but…”   I look around and only see grey.  In fact, by this time all I see is white.  White all around us to the point where nothing is detectable or identifiable.  We are in a turbulent-heavy white out.  With water below and mountains all around.  With a pilot that looks 18.  In an airplane that lacks GPS.

I think to myself, well at least we have an iPhone.  And Google Maps…Lucky us.

By now, my fingers are fully digging into Armon’s flesh and even he looks a tad bit worried.  We can’t see a thing and we are however-many hundreds of feet in the air, flying at 100+ miles an hour with mountains jumping out of the ocean to our left and to our right.  And we are fully dependent upon our pilot, texting and Google’s brilliance.  I kid you not.



We hit a clearing.  I can now see below and see mountains that appear dangerously close to our left.  It’s as if one extraordinary gust of wind could blow us straight into the rocky mountain-side we are so close to the rising rocks.  Our pilot continues to text.  Even his demeanor is noticeably changed.  He’s laser sharp focused now.  He’s flying and pushing buttons and texting as fast as he can….He says something largely inaudible to Armon, but I do pick up on “more dodgey than expected; need to turn around”.

By now, my inner calm is pretty well spent.  Screw yoga.  I again look down and this time hear our pilot point out scallop farms to our right… And sure enough, I see them.  Rows and rows of farmed scallops just beneath water level in the ocean below.  I think to myself, “well, at least I’ll have food in the advent we crash.  If I can survive the plane going-down and swim to shore…I’ll be fine.  Scallop ceviche is quite tasty and I am sure I can whip something up.”

We turn, we keep flying.  Things get incrementally better.  And after what seems like an eternity we can finally see Abel Tasman through the breaking clouds.  I am incredibly relieved.  The pilot turns to me and carefully points out that “the waters are choppy, I will make a pass here, but I am not sure we can land.  If not, we will have to go to the next cove and try there.”  Of course, it is always something.

I brace for our “we are gonna try to land, but doubt it” descent.  And down he goes, neither me or Armon expect him to land given the rough waters.  There are lots of white-capped waves and lots of wind.  I am sure we’ll have to go around the corner.  But sure enough and within a heartbeat we hit the water with a thud.  We land without major issue.  I want to kiss our pilot, the water, the ground.

The rough landing woke the kids up and all I could muster was, “welcome, we’ve made it to our next home” while they looked about in a childhood nap-daze.

It was still partly cloudy here, but the beauty of this place was obvious from the get go.  We landed on a 1 km long beach that was fully deserted save 3 or 4 back-packers who were passing through.  Their eco-savvy looks reminded me that the seaplane’s convenience was not the most planet-friendly method of arrival we could have deployed.  I felt guilt pile on top of my frayed nerves and swore I’d never take a sea-plane again.  If not for safety of it all, for our planet.

We had arrived at Abel Tasman and Awaroa Lodge, an eco resort located in one of the top national parks in New Zealand.  This is a destination for folks from all over and one that mostly draws the granola eating, non-leather wearing planet-conscious folk that I hung out with while at University of Colorado roughly 25 years ago.  Not only had we arrived by seaplane, but I now had to disembark.  This just made matters worse.

As per usual, I had donned my in-flight travel gear for the day  One straw Panama hat, check.  One swanky top, check.  One pink cashmere sweater, check.  One pair of hip white trousers (too big to fit in my luggage), check.  I strode off the seaplane looking like a bad impersonation of Michael Jackson.  Glitz and glam. No environmental chic for me.

And then I had to walk a half-mile in the mud in order to reach the lodge.  I will forever wonder what each of the Teva-footed back-packers thought as I wandered by in my New York influenced travel wardrobe…  I am sure they laughed.  And I did too; here, I looked like a clown.  A fashionable clown, but a clown nonetheless.

And so it was; that we settled into life at Awaroa Lodge and Abel Tasman.  The NY Manhattanites with wheeled-luggage, kids and flip-flops.  We were ready to conquer the more rustic side of life.

We adapted, because that’s what we do.  But we must have caused a chuckle or two.

Putting vanity  aside.  Awaroa was amazing.  And the fact that I can say this given the fact that we were short hiking gear, long two children and the weather for-the-most-part sucked is a pretty amazing compliment.

Rain or shine, this place is magical   If you are traveling with kids it is immeasurably more magical if shiny.     

When the sun was shining, we walked along the beach frolicking away.  We collected scallop shells for Talia’s school-room back home as well as for our own personal collection.  We found crabs and starfish galore.   We swam.  We hiked.  One day, we took a boat out to Tonga Island and Armon swam with baby seals while the kids and I watched from a few feet away.  We then proudly hiked the 5 kilometers back, with two willing kids and our flip-flops.  The kids were great sports and had an impressive workout that afternoon.  I was a proud mama.

Ironically, one of the best diversions for the kids while we were there was a popcorn machine located on the back deck of the restaurant.  We, as a family, rarely eat popcorn.  But the kids found it that first afternoon, after having eaten popcorn that morning  and after I’d felt distinctly like popcorn during our flight.  With this machine, you put in a $2 Kiwi coin and the engine revs up, the corn gets popped  and then falls into a bag that you hold at the end of a funnel.  The delight on Judah’s face and in his voice was phenomenal.  He thought this was the most magical, fun, cool, yummy invention, ever.  And Talia agreed.  My only regret is not having captured it in video to share.

P.S., In case you are wondering, we found Awaroa Lodge because our good friend Melissa recommended we go there; and her praise of the place is well deserved.  I will caveat everything however with the thought that this is a place best enjoyed without children.  And while I could go so far as to propose that only a person without kids would recommend that you visit, Melissa has three of her own – so my proposal would lack good faith.

We pondered on this fact while there.  For a measurable part of our stay we had gale force winds, pouring rain and un-swimmable beaches.  During these moments, we resorted to Blues Clues re-runs, coloring books, workbooks and the odd eel feeding in the swamp behind the main lodge.    I say odd because feeding eels just feels odd to me.  Who wants to collect raw chicken skins and throw them into the water for fat, slimy black swimming phalli to come chomp?   Not me.

Anyway, pre-kids, Armon and I would have cherished these foul weather days.  We would have curled up with good books, a feisty game of Scrabble and a round of some sort of tonic.  Post-kids, these moments merely represent a parental challenge.  No TV, no Internet, no gym, no pool, no outdoors, no food, no games…  We had to be creative.  And were thankful for the eels, in all fairness.  Feeding them remains an odd diversion if you ask me, but five minutes of entertainment is a precious diversion during such times.  And after a few days we all settled in to the creativity that springs forth in such an environment.

We created our own fun and found the freedom that lies in no TV, no Internet, no gym, no pool, no outdoors, no food, no games.  These turned out to be wonderfully simple and family oriented days.  Nearly perfect days that I would not exchange.  But sure enough when we asked Melissa whether or not she visited the lodge with her kids her answer was a swift no.

Ahh… The devil is always in the details.  She and Lance had hiked in and enjoyed the place sans kids and after a hearty workout.  Now that would be perfection.

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