Friday, 9 February 2018

No Filter Required

Before we lived on the road I had never seen most of the picture postcard places NZ is so famous for; the Lord of the Rings country and all that.  To be honest, I'd never even seen the Lord of the Rings movies until Gareth insisted I had to and by then we were already in the van!  Once I saw them, I could understand instantly why visitors flock here in their tens of thousands every year.  Who wouldn't want to? But until I saw them in person with my own eyes, I honestly believed that the stunning images in all the tourist guides and social media weren't quite real.  I mean, nowhere could possibly be THAT perfect; they had to have been doctored or Photoshopped in some way, surely?  After all, I'd never seen any places like that in 25 years of living here!  Like many people though, before embarking on our journey I had never really travelled far from my own backyard. It's easy to get stuck in a rut and so much more convenient just to not go anywhere!  But boy, do you miss out on a lot.

The Homer Tunnel is 1.2km of hand carved access through the mountain

As it turns out however, I wasn't alone in thinking all those flashy images were too good to be true.  Fortunately, Liam was to learn the truth far sooner than I did.  We left our little cabins at Manapouri early to beat the traffic and were soon on our way.  'This is the end of civilisation as we know it', I smiled to Liam as we headed out of Te Anau and onto the only road which leads to Milford Sound.  Fiordland National Park is the largest of NZ's 14 national parks and until 1953 Milford Sound was inaccessible by road.  Fortunately a couple of enterprising and rather helpful chaps, one of whom was named William H. Homer, thought it would be rather a good idea to build a tunnel through the saddle they had recently discovered.  This commenced literally with five men using picks and wheelbarrows and thanks to avalanches and other disasters, the project took 18 years to finish.  You only have to drive through the Homer Tunnel today to see what a monumental achievement it was, and as a result well over half a million people now visit Milford Sound every year.  

Milford Sound on a typically broody day

You don't get waterfalls like these on a fine day!

There was just one thing which put a dampener on our day - literally - and that was the rain, which whilst it wasn't torrential, was pretty much incessant.  Despite people telling us that the rain was actually a GOOD thing, we found it hard to believe.  Last time Gareth and I had visited, it had been clear and sunny and we couldn't have hoped for better.  Still, seeing as it rains in Milford Sound around 250 days of the year we couldn't be picky and besides, we had a boat to jump both on and in, with wet weather gear assured.  Two hours later, we arrived at Milford Sound and I could see Liam was impressed as Mitre Peak loomed massively in front of us, all dark and brooding and shrouded in mist.   Rain or shine, it's impossible not to be blown away and for what was going to be many times that day, I was very grateful to that nice man Mr Homer for his tunnel.

The dainty looking but drenching Fairy Falls!

The rain kindly stopped as we boarded our Southern Discoveries vessel, the Lady Bowen for our Encounter Nature cruise and as we sailed out of the dock I was immediately impressed both with the ship and our friendly and informative skipper.  Our vessel was busy but not overly crowded and Gareth, Liam and I were able to secure a prime spot at the front of the ship.  As soon as we hit the water I had to eat my words about 'touristy things being overhyped and not worth it'.  Already this was better than anything we had managed to see in our last visit!  Seriously, you just can't compare standing on the shore admiring from a distance to literally being close enough to touch it.  There is so much more to Milford Sound than we realised, so much more depth and sheer size that you simply won't see any other way.  We passed colonies of fur seals, lounging on the rocks, who waved lazily at us with their flippers and got very wet at Fairy Falls, which is one of the few permanent waterfalls at Milford Sound which actually has a name.  The reason that so few of them have names is because whilst there are literally thousands of waterfalls streaming down the mountains on a wet day, they quite literally disappear half an hour after the rain stops.  This means that you will never see Milford Sound looking the same two days in a row as most of these waterfalls are completely unique.  Cool, huh?  It also meant that once again I had to eat my words, as the whole place takes on a completely new dimension when it rains that you don't get treated to on a sunny day.  It's true what people say, Milford Sound really IS better on a wet day!

Looking glamorous after stopping at Fairy Falls!

Which is just as well because we were getting incredibly wet on our cruise, even with our raincoats.  You didn't have to - the boat was incredibly comfortable and well equipped if you wanted to sit inside but we didn't want to miss a thing!  The Fairy Falls was one of my favourite stops, not only for its beauty but also for the story behind its name.  It got its name from a group of sailors who had been away at sea for a very long time.  Upon seeing land for the first time in months, they were so delighted they hit the whiskey big time and went on a bender for three days, by the end of which the captain was convinced he could see fairies dancing at the foot of the waterfall!  Our own skipper also delighted here in being able to guide the front of the boat actually into the waterfall, drenching unsuspecting passengers as they prepared to take the obligatory selfies! 

Where the fiord meets the Tasman Sea 

It's not surprising Captain Cook sailed past here twice!

On we cruised, marvelling at our surroundings with each second that passed.  Liam isn't a fella who says much as a rule, he's not one to gush or enthuse about things but you know he likes something when he starts taking photos and he took a LOT of photos!  'So this is where the cool stuff is', he grinned, looking around.  'Honestly, you see all these videos on TV and the likes of Unilad and I always thought "Where the hell are these places?  Are they even really in NZ, 'cos I've sure as hell never seen them?!" but now I know they're real.  Now I know where they are'.  'Yep, this is where the cool stuff is hiding!'  I laughed.  Eventually the water started to get a little more choppy and we reached the watery gateway to the Tasman Sea, where it was time for us to turn around and head back.  From this direction it is actually very hard to see the entrance to Milford Sound and Captain James Cook, when exploring the area in his ship the Resolution and compiling his map of NZ actually sailed past it twice, completely missing it!  The man responsible for first discovering the Sound by sea was actually a Welsh chap by the name of Captain John Grono.  He named Milford Sound after Milford Haven in Wales, although it should technically be called Milford Fiord, as it's not actually a Sound at all!  Sound or not, Grono's arrival was very bad news for the native fur seals.  Over the 20 or so years which followed, seal numbers in the area went from two million to less than 50,000; until the government discovered what was going on and seal hunting was banned nationwide, along with Grono and his men.

You just don't see any of this from the shore!

As we passed Seal Rock, where seal numbers today thankfully flourish, the view was quite possibly even more spectacular heading in the other direction.  The rain may have eased but our drenchings were still not finished, as we sailed into the final two permanent waterfalls - the 146 metre-high Stirling Falls and the landmark one which can be seen from the shore, the 160 metre Lady Bowen Falls.  This was first named after one of NZ's first governors, Sir George Bowen, who declared it to be one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen upon laying eyes on it for the first time and decided to earn some serious brownie points with his wife (who was standing on the deck next to him at the time) by naming it after her. 

The spectacular Lady Bowen Falls

So how did our taste of commercial tourism compare with doing Milford Sound under our own steam, as we had done the previous year?  Quite simply, you cannot compare the two, the cruise wins hands down.  The experience and value we got from Southern Discoveries far outweighs anything we were able to see previously and we learned so much along the way, none of which any of us knew before.  Seriously, I could keep talking all day about the things we learned - and our adventure wasn't even over yet, we still had to go kayaking!  Our advice to anyone thinking of seeing Milford Sound by boat? Just do it, you won't be disappointed; in our opinion it is some of the best money you can spend on a tourist activity and is worth every cent.  Huge thanks must go to the team and crew at Southern Discoveries for taking us out and showing us such an incredible time!  These guys are super professional, their gear and facilities are great and we would recommend them to anyone.  But don't stop there - wait until we tell you about the kayaking!

Thanks for an awesome cruise Southern Discoveries!

Thursday, 8 February 2018

A Spontaneous Adventure

My goodness, what an amazing week of adventuring it's been.  In four days alone we drove 18 hours and almost 1500km!  Was totally pooped by the end of it but it was so worth it.  And the best thing of all was that I was able to share every bit of the awesomeness with my eldest, Liam.  The timing couldn't have been better as I had been feeling a bit blue up until then. It's been over a year now since Gareth and I have seen either of our mums, or Ali my youngest and I had been struggling with both the guilt of not seeing them, as well as missing them dreadfully.  Liam's spontaneous visit and the change of scenery was just what the travel doctor ordered!

Liam at Devil's Staircase lookout

Last time Liam came to visit was back in September and seeing as it was still pretty chilly we stayed in a motel in Dunedin.  This time I was looking forward to finally being able to give him an insight to life on the road and why his crazy mother loved living in a van!  The adventure started the moment I picked him up from Queenstown airport.  The drive from Gore to Queenstown is one of my favourites, as it winds past one of our most memorable freedom camps at Kingston and the mighty Lake Wakatipu.  As soon as the lake comes into view it makes me smile and I couldn't have wished for a better day to share it with Liam as the sun shone on the crystal clear water.  I could tell instantly that he was just as impressed as he took in the view from Devil's Staircase.  We stopped at Kingston and ate sandwiches at the little beach.  Liam is a champion at skimming stones and he paddled in the water for ages, sending stones skipping across the water.  Eventually we made our way back to Gore, where Liam was in for a very colourful welcome!  Unbeknown to him, he had arrived on the busiest day of the year at our campground, the A & P Show.  Far from the peaceful, pastoral scene I had described, he was greeted by hordes of people, fairground rides and enormous inflatables; not to mention goats, donkeys and even a few Clydesdales!

Skimming stones in Lake Wakatipu

So happy to share this special place with my boy!

Being Liam, he took it all in his stride and once everyone had packed up and gone, sat happily in his camping chair with a beer as we cooked dinner outside.  Several other campers stopped for a chat before we went for a walk around the grounds and to see Casper, our foster lamb who is now very much a sheep rather than human and hangs out with his flock but still knows who his mum and dad are!  Minnie loved having Liam around again and was most upset the next morning when she got taken to boarding kennels but no dogs are permitted in Fiordland National Park and that was where we were headed.  Milford Sound is a place which should be on EVERYONE'S bucket list and I had been watching the weather forecast incessantly leading up to Liam's arrival.  It wasn't looking the flashest but we decided we would bite the bullet and go.  Besides, everyone assured me that the rain didn't matter up there, in fact quite the contrary.  I failed to see how it could possibly be any more spectacular than it had been a year ago, when the sun had shone and we could see for miles, but one thing I knew for sure, you don't miss ANY opportunity to go to the Sound!

Walking the Kepler Track

Walking out of the bush into a rainbow

We arrived a couple of hours later in Te Anau, which was bustling with people as always.  The weather as predicted was drizzly and none too warm but we still had time to fit in a walk so parked at the Control Gates by the lake.  There are heaps of good walks of varying distances in the Te Anau area - in fact you can walk for days if you want to do the whole 60km long Kepler Track!  I would certainly love to do that one day but for today we contented ourselves with just a short walk to Dock Bay.  After our obstacle course hike at Piano Flat a few weeks earlier, this track was a dream!  So enjoyable and well maintained.  The many trees provided shelter from much of the rain and grey as it was, the lake still was broodingly beautiful.  As we emerged out of the bush on our way back, the sun came out and a gorgeous rainbow stretched out in front of us.  As the saying goes, you can't have a rainbow without a little rain!

Our cute little cabin

Whilst Te Anau is a nice little town, I really like Manapouri just down the road as it is quieter and in my opinion even more beautiful.  I knew just where I wanted to stay too!  The Manapouri Motels & Holiday Park looks out right opposite the lake and although we had two vans I decided to book us cabins, so that we could all travel together and Liam could just relax and enjoy the views.  As it turned out, this was definitely a smart option, as the prices were so reasonable it worked out cheaper for us to stay this way than it would have cost to fill the other van with petrol!  This quaint wee place is rather like going back in time but that is all part of its charm.  The cabins are very basic (the lady on the phone wanted to make sure I was very clear of that when I booked as many people think they are getting a motel) but are adorable and very cosy.  I slept better that first night in our cabin that I have in a long time!  'If this is what a tiny house is like, we could definitely live in one of these!' we smiled.

One thing I would definitely recommend however when visiting Te Anau is to bring your own food.  Whilst we brought enough with us for breakfasts and lunches, we had forgotten how expensive it is to eat there, not just to dine out but also in the town's only supermarket.  We managed to get through a couple of hundred dollars in restaurants on what was frankly some seriously mediocre food.  Next time we won't forget to bring the camping fridge with us!  Much better to spend a little time making decent food to take with us beforehand, even if it seems like a hassle at the time.  Despite the age and quirkiness of the campground at Manapouri, we all agreed that both the communal kitchen and the bathroom and shower facilities were some of the best we had come across.  It was funny for us being back at a regular campground after all this time, especially during peak season.  Our campground in Gore is so relaxed and spacious, there is plenty of room for everyone and you never have to worry about not being able to get in the showers or toilets.  Here however there was a queue!  In fact there was a queue for everything from the kettle to the toaster and I remembered gratefully that this was why we had decided to stay put in our peaceful Southland paradise for the summer, rather than join the merry throng of overseas tourists.

Still, it was good for Liam, who aspires to do some travelling of his own to see what it was all about and to realise the sheer extent of people touring the South Island under their own steam.  I say 'the South Island' rather than NZ as a whole because despite being from the Coromandel Peninsula, which is in itself a tourist hotspot, the number of travellers and people living the van life is nothing in the North Island compared to the South, where it's really next level.  This became even more apparent the next day when we set off for Milford Sound and every single vehicle we encountered was either a camper van, tourist bus or rental car.  The road to Milford Sound is notorious and has a reputation for being dangerous but it really isn't.  I'm the biggest wuss on the planet when it comes to challenging roads and I find it a pleasure to drive, it's easier than driving from Thames to Whangamata!  It's not the road which is the problem; it's the drivers.  We saw two accidents on the road and in both cases there were no other vehicles involved, both were Asian tourists and occurred on straight roads.  It seemed as though they were simply distracted by the scenery and veered off the road, quite spectacularly.  I guess it is pretty easy to do when the scenery is that incredible!  But in case you have also heard horror stories about the road, don't stress about it.  The main thing to remember is to use your lower gears, even in an automatic because it is very easy to 'cook' your brakes, particularly on the last 30km or so and trust me, you don't want to be out on that road needing a mechanic with no cellphone reception for 140km!

Last year's trip to Milford Sound was spectacular.  Could we possibly top it this time?

Last time Gareth and I visited Milford Sound we had no idea what to expect, just like Liam didn't now.  But this time was going to be just as different for us as the first time, and not just because of the weather.  On our previous visit we scoffed at all the touristy things, preferring to 'do' the Sound for free.  Us, pay for a swanky cruise or a helicopter flight?  No thank you very much!  We'd rather do things under our own steam.  Besides, there was so much to see along the way, the journey itself was just as good as the destination!  That's what we believed anyway; after all, we had already seen some incredible sights just from the roadside.  This time however we were going the whole hog.  Thanks to the team at Southern Discoveries, the three of us were going on a cruise through the Sound, and not only that, we would be kayaking too!  It goes without saying we were excited to say the least.  But how different was it going to be?  How much better was the touristy experience really going to be, compared to our previous el cheapo one?  All will be revealed in the next blog!

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Bad Apples, Sneaky Silverbeet & Good Eggs

It's taken me a couple of weeks to write today's post, because I don't like writing about negative things as a rule, not unless there's a positive to go with it anyway. But I've decided that I will for several reasons. The main one is that, one of the things people tell me when they read accounts of life on the road is that you never hear about the bad stuff, only the perfect and idyllic. I agree and think it's important to keep it real. The other reasons are that 1) I believe that SOMEBODY needs to speak out about this issue because it happens to too many people far too often and 2) I was actually really deeply affected by these experiences, surprisingly so. Which is pretty ironic because in my last blog I was only just saying how I felt I had grown in confidence and was a lot more comfortable in my own skin. Still, I guess none of us are bullet proof.

You don't need a big flash motorhome to be happy!

As I have previously said, no doubt to the point of boring you all silly, the majority of people we meet on the road are absolutely lovely. We have made so many dear friends, of all ages and from all countries. On the whole, the people you meet in motorhomes are a lot like us - friendly, relaxed and will do anything for anyone. But like most things in life, you only need a few bad apples to spoil the barrel - or at least make it taste a bit sour for a while - and I had the misfortune recently to encounter some two days in a row. Why? For one reason only. I choose to live in a smaller vehicle than they do. In their eyes this naturally makes me poor, quite probably European and most definitely a lesser mortal. It's not the first time we have encountered this treatment and I'm sure it won't be the last, but I need to get this written down and out of my head so that I can hold it up again and move on.

The first instance was when a jaunty lady came marching up to Gareth and I as we pottered outside our van. 'My goodness, you have wings!' she said, referring to the NZMCA sticker which identifies us as being members of the national Motorhoming association. 'Yes, yes we do', we replied. 'We've been living on the road permanently for the past 15 months'. 'In this thing?' she said, 'You know, where we come from, people call them sliders', she nodded wryly towards the van. 'Yes, we know', we said, having heard the term many a time before, due to our vehicle having sliding doors. 'Normally we try to stay as far away as possible from people like you!' she smirked. 'Well we've been here a while now and we help out around the place', we said, smiling through gritted teeth. At this, she burst into peals of hysterical laughter. 'REALLY? You? Oh that's hilarious!' she said, barely able to contain herself, before carrying on her merry way. Gareth and I looked at each other and raised our eyebrows. We had no idea what was so funny, but it seemed we had encountered our first real snob. Still, at least she was a friendly snob.

I'm proud of my little garden!

The next day however I looked out of the window to see a large caravan had pulled up next to the water tap and a couple had got out. I had seen them a few minutes earlier and said hello but they didn't reply. The woman appeared to be very interested in my flourishing vegetable garden and walked around it repeatedly before helping herself to some parsley and returning to her car. I chuckled to myself at the sight of it but didn't really mind. Since taking over care of the vegie patch I've taken a real pride in looking after it and it does get a lot of comments. I'm happy to share our abundance of vegies with anyone if they're going to be here for a few days. However a few minutes later she got out of her vehicle again and started thumbing through my carrots, before then grabbing hold of my silverbeet and was about to pull some out. Bloody cheek of it! I hopped out of the van and strode over to the woman. 'Excuse me, do you want something?' I said, heart pounding. It's not like me to be assertive you see. 'No!' she replied glaring at me, dropping the silverbeet as if it burned her. 'It's OK, you can have some if you like. It's just mine after all', I shrugged. 'This is yours?' she replied, gesturing to the garden. 'How did you get this?' she asked, looking at me as if I was something nasty she'd just found under her shoe.

'I live here', I said. 'I'm an assistant caretaker. I help to look after the place'. 'That's a lie', she immediately jumped down my throat. 'The caretaker died a few days ago!' 'I assure you he's very much alive and well!' I replied. 'You are thinking of the caretaker at Mosgiel who did indeed recently pass away'. Who knows, maybe she thought the garden had been the deceased caretaker's and that it was perfectly acceptable to steal the poor man's vegetables!

At this point, the woman's husband joined in the conversation and thankfully he was friendly enough. 'What's all the writing on your van?' he asked. I explained that I was a writer for Motorhomes, Caravans & Destinations magazine and that often campers know who we are and go out of their way to introduce themselves. He shook my hand, introduced himself and his wife and she also grudgingly shook my hand before asking me, 'So how long have you had your wings?' From here I then had to explain that yes, these WERE my wings, they WERE the real thing, not pinched from anyone else, and I had been an NZMCA member the entire time I had owned this van and lived on the road. To end with, I asked if they had been to stay here before and on hearing they hadn't, told them where they could park and where to find everything, just as I do with all the other campers. The man thanked me and as they left I said to the woman, 'Honestly, feel free to take some lettuces or silverbeet before you go, there really is only so much we can eat ourselves!' 'No. No thank you', she replied loftily, before driving off to the other side of the ground. There she stayed and I never saw her again. She sure as heck didn't go anywhere near the garden after that either!

Now it may sound like a petty gripe to you but this nasty attitude regarding both young people and people who do not have $200,000 motor homes and CHOOSE to live in smaller vehicles quite happily, needs to stop. My case is a classic example of why you should never judge a book by its cover. In both cases Gareth and I were treated like dirt, yet we were the ones responsible for helping them to enjoy their stay. They were just lucky I was too embarrassed and shaken to ask them to leave. They were also extremely lucky in the second scenario that Gareth was not there to witness their treatment of me! Even so, it has affected me to the point that, even a couple of weeks later, I am still very wary of meeting and greeting people who display that same sticker. Fortunately everybody since has been lovely and have gone out of their way to introduce themselves first.

Us with John and Lynette.  Hooray for good people!

As I said at the start of my post, I don't like writing about anything negative unless I have a positive to follow on with. And as luck would have it, around the same time we bumped into John and Lynette. When I say bumped into I mean quite literally! We were out for a walk and got talking, as happens a lot. Most people always want to know your story; where you come from, how long you've been on the road and what you do and I mentioned I was a writer for Motorhomes, Caravans & Destinations magazine. 'I got an message the other day from someone called Jackie about an article she's writing', the woman said. 'That's me!' I said in disbelief. 'No way! I'm Lynette!' we both burst out laughing. I had no idea where she was when I contacted her, she could have been anywhere and she didn't know where I was either! We chatted for a while and then they said 'We're going across the road to the Town & Country Club a bit later, feel free to join us!' So we did, and the warmth of these lovely people, not to mention Lynette's infectious laugh really restored my faith in humanity.

A few days later I received a message from her. We're moving on today. Will be pop in for a coffee after lunch before we go'. 'Lynette and John are coming over soon', I smiled to Gareth. 'Oh heck, hang on!' I quickly messaged back. 'Be great to see you - but we don't have any mugs or milk as we don't drink coffee!' 'No problem, we'll bring our house to yours!' came the reply. And sure enough, their 9 metre bus rolled alongside us shortly after. They've got that same sticker too; as do many of our favourite people who we've met on the road. And as they say, just because you find one bad apple doesn't mean you should give up the whole tree. I just appreciate the good ones I meet even more now!

Friday, 19 January 2018

The Myths & Reality of Freedom Camping

Tourist season is in full swing and with it comes the inevitable media coverage of hordes of freedom campers descending on some of our nation's prized beauty spots and turning them into a giant rubbish dump and public toilet.  It's a frustrating time because, as with most things in life, the reality is it is usually just a small few disrespecting our country and the privilege of being able to see and experience it at minimum cost.  Unfortunately we all unavoidably get tarred with the same brush, which we hate.  Retired Kiwi couples in $250,000 motor homes are looked upon with the same disdain and negativity by those who read the stories as a group of European teenagers in a tent.  To their mind, we're all the same.  Which technically we are.  Everybody loves something for nothing after all, and some of the most incredible camping spots in the country are free.  We've stayed at them, they remain some of my favourites - often no paid campsite could possibly compare for the views and location - and I never feel luckier than when we get to stay in a place for free.

People picture freedom camping in NZ like this...

When the reality is more like this...

Even so, you wouldn't catch us dead in most of them at this time of year.  We don't need to limit our 'Kiwi experience' to the summer months, we get to enjoy it all the time! We're happy to wait until the rest of the world has gone home and we can take advantage of these beautiful free spots in relative peace and quiet.  And beautiful or not, in summer at least many freedom camps ARE eyesores.  Imagine between 80 and 140 vehicles packed like sardines into the one space every single day and night; everyone hanging out washing, airing bedding, washing dishes, clothes and bodies in rivers and lakes or in buckets.  They're all just doing what they need to do, getting back to basics, like in the good old camping days.  But unlike the 'good old camping days' these places aren't in picturesque fields, tucked away from the rest of the world.  They're in public cark parks and prominent surf and dog walking spots, on waterfronts, in front of people's houses.  They look like shanty towns or a giant hippy gathering and many people find them intimidating.  It doesn't matter how lovely the people are on the inside; from the outside it looks bad and that's why freedom camping is so often in the news.

I'm not sure whether other countries use the term 'freedom camping' as much as we do here.  But when it comes to this country at least, I'm not alone in feeling that the term 'freedom camping' gives off the wrong connotations.  What sounds very idyllic in theory is misinterpreted widely, giving overseas visitors and Kiwis alike the impression that here in jolly old Lord of the Rings land you can STAY for free, LIVE for free and all in all BE free.  Even Gareth and I thought this was the case when we first talked about living on the road and thought we would never have to pay a cent to stay anywhere again!  Lovely as that sounds, it simply isn't true.  A couple of years ago it was, but not any more. You can indeed stay for free at a lot of places if you have the right set-up - in other words a certified self-contained vehicle, with a toilet on board which can be used at all times, as well as adequate water and waste disposal facilities.  However most overseas visitors do not have the money to afford a self contained vehicle.  It's cheap enough to buy a vehicle big enough to sleep and cook in - but if you don't have that all important self-contained status, your options for getting around New Zealand cheaply and easily become a lot more limited.

If you don't have one of these, your freedom camping spots are a lot fewer and farther between!

This is where the problem starts.  Our excited young tourists arrive in the country, hop off the plane and buy or rent a non-self contained vehicle, only to find to their horror that they cannot park in a lot of places after all, at least not without risking a $200 fine for not being self-contained.  Ironically a lot of freedom camps DO have public toilets, but still do not permit non-self contained vehicles to stay there, so they still get fined, as happened to a friend of ours who was woken at three o'clock in the morning by a warden issuing her with a sticker.  This leaves them with two options - the first of which is to stay at a paid campground or holiday park, which at this time of year will cost them between $20 and $60 per night.  In all honesty, this is the way it should be - but as we found in our first few weeks of living on the road, nobody can keep that up.  Most freedom campers have very little money.  Spending even $20 a night to stay anywhere is not an option for them because they simply don't have it.  Which sounds crazy, why would you purposely travel to a country on the other side of the world for a holiday with no money?  Simple - they have been led to believe they can stay anywhere they like for free, so they arrive here without enough funds to be able to afford anything else.  So their only other option is to park up wherever the hell they can, often en masse, as long as they can get away with it.  This of course pisses off the locals no end and they kick up a stink.  The tourist industry likes to argue that they spend a lot of money in our country, but this isn't true.  Most of them have bugger all money, and the money they do have they will save for once-in-a-lifetime experiences such as bungy jumping in Queenstown, even if it means they have to live on two-minute noodles and thin air for weeks at a time to do so.

Forgive me here if that paints these poor young people in a negative light.  I'm trying to explain the situation, not the people.  We have made a lot of wonderful friends from all over the world, who rely almost totally on freedom camping to be able to fulfil their dreams.  They live on a miniscule amount of money and struggle every day to a) make ends meet and b) find the next place they can stay safely and legally.  One couple we met had managed to survive for six months with just $1200.  That's just $6.60 per day.  Most of them work to supplement their travels, picking fruit or whatever they can find, working long hours for minimum wage.  I admire the heck out of them, they are all lovely people who are not scared to work hard; they learn very fast that they have to.  It is wrong and inaccurate to call them bludgers for being 'too stingy' or 'lazy' to pay for accommodation; in the majority of cases they are simply trying to survive.  The hardest hit places are the popular tourist centres such as Wanaka, Golden Bay and New Plymouth - places with amazing lake or ocean views.  And what tourist wouldn't want to stay in a place like that for free if they could?

Still, as any New Zealander living on the road will tell you, Kiwis are just as bad as overseas visitors when it comes to flouting the rules.  In fact they're probably worse as for some reason they seem to feel that the rules and laws don't apply to locals.  Which is very poor because we have no excuse.  We have the time, the money and the facilities to all be able to achieve certified self-contained vehicles.  In addition, we also have a nationwide motorhoming association, the NZMCA which makes it super cheap and easy to stay all over the country for next to nothing in their 'member only' camping grounds.  These grounds are increasing in number all the time and cost as little as $3 a night for a safe and pleasant place to stay at anywhere from Kerikeri to Whitianga, Waihi Beach, Fiordland and everywhere else in between.  It costs around $90 a year for our membership and you get a heap of awesome discounts to boot, from the Bluebridge and Interislander ferries, to insurance, Department of Conservation camps - even Specsavers!  If you're planning to travel between the North and South Islands even once a year the discount more than covers the cost of the membership.  We Kiwis are incredibly lucky and well provided for.  For overseas campers in search of freedom however, unfortunately it is only going to get harder, as more and more councils and communities are cracking down and putting new laws and boundaries in place; going as far as to literally lock campers out.  It's a huge shame, but to my mind, it seems our country has become a victim of its own misleading marketing and reputation.

Watch out!  Gareth is on the warpath :-D

No matter what though, you always get a few dishonest people who no matter what, try and pull the wool over your eyes.  We've learned that well and truly these past couple of weeks helping to look after the campground.  Our campground is a public domain, with several entrances, meaning that anyone can come in and use the showers or stay for one night or more if they want - for a small fee.  It seems however that for some people even $3 for a shower or $5 for a campsite is more than they are willing to pay and will go to extreme and often amusing lengths to get out of doing so.  Unfortunately for them, they haven't banked on a big hairy Welshman!  The other day Gareth saw a family of Asian motorhomers acting strangely and being deliberately elusive.  Sure enough, his instincts were correct, and despite having brand new signs up, specifically telling campers that washing clothes and dishes in the showers is not permitted, Bevin went and confronted them and discovered that they had paid just $3 (the price of one shower) for four people, and washed around five bags of clothes in the shower!  For starters we have laundry facilities available, as well as water sources all around the campground for washing clothes and dishes, but the biggest problem is the cost of using all the hot water meant for showering.

We ALL need to look after places like this

We've also had to get wise to several people in rental vehicles who like to try and sneak out without paying.  They typically like to slip in late at night, try and park as snugly alongside a fenceline or close to an exit as possible, then leave early in the morning before everyone else is up, so that nobody realises they have even been there.  What they don't realise is that Gareth already has their number plate and we simply ring the rental companies!  If people don't even have $5 to spend, or want to spend at a beautiful campground, surrounded by mountains and some of the most spectacular countryside they can ever hope to see, well then they shouldn't be travelling.  Places like ours are truly unique and precious; we should treasure and respect them, no matter where in the world we come from.  Or as Bevin so rightly sums up.  'If you want to have a great time travelling in New Zealand, don't take the piss!'

Sunday, 14 January 2018

BBQ's, Beers & Bloody Good Mates

The past few days have been without a doubt, the hottest I have ever experienced in my whole life.  To some of you living in other countries, 32 degrees celsius may not sound anything too extreme, but the Southland heat is like no other heat we have ever known.  The sun is so incredibly intense down here, you just cannot be out in it.  Which makes things rather interesting when you live in a tiny van.  But on the positive side, we can open up our entire vehicle to let the air through, which is more than a lot of people in the bigger motorhomes are able to do.  This leads to another positive in that everyone has to sit outside in the shade and simply relax.  There is simply nothing else you can do, and this makes for a very social time I can tell you!

Even grown ups love running through a water sprinkler!

Despite the sweltering heat, I am so content right now it's ridiculous.  How can anyone not be happy in this balmy weather, surrounded by lovely people? I think most people would consider me to be an outgoing person, and would probably be surprised to hear that I consider myself to be an introvert.  I love my own space, peace and quiet and am fiercely protective of it but since living on the road I have learned to share that space.  My van is still my haven and if you want to hide away from the world you can simply shut the door, or in the worst case scenario move to another location - but in 15 months we haven't had to do that yet.  I have felt a definite shift in myself lately, and I've noticed it in Gareth too.  He's always been a lovely, friendly bloke but it makes me smile so much to see how well he interacts with all the campers and looks out for everyone.  I feel a lot more confident and relaxed when talking to people and I think it boils down to the fact that I'm just so much happier in my own skin these days.  When you live this way, everyone is equal.  It doesn't matter if you're in a $200,000 motor home or a $2,000 station wagon, we are all out there doing it the same.  Sure, you get the odd sniffy person who doesn't speak or acknowledge anyone else but these are incredibly few and far between.  It's like anything in life; you get what you give, the more you put in, the more you get out.

Wayne, Leanne and their dog Milo, some of the lovely friends we have met recently

Bevin the caretaker and his wife Amy are supposed to be on holiday right now, but had to come back early as the ground was getting too dry and urgently needed irrigation.  Fortunately they knew the perfect place to spend the rest of their break.  You know it must be a good campground when even the caretaker goes on holiday here!  So last night we and some of the other campers got together for a pot luck BBQ and a few beers.  Half of us had never met before, but as tends to happen with other road dwellers, everyone just falls into easy conversation and has plenty of stories to tell.  It made for a very enjoyable and relaxing evening and I thought to myself as I often do, what an amazing life we lead, to make the acquaintance of so many people and so quickly be able to count them as good friends.  Someone said to me recently that one of the biggest fears which stops them from doing what we do is no longer being part of a community.  I could understand that; I had the same fear too, particularly after being part of a very busy and active community in Whangamata.  But that's the thing, we ARE part of a community.  Everyone who lives on the road immediately part of the same special community.  It may sound corny to liken it to being part of a huge family, but that's how it is. There really is nothing like it.

Bevin's wife and all-round amazing lady Amy, in their motor home 

No shortage of beer and banter when you live on the road!

Am struggling to even write in this heat today but heaven knows there are people faring a lot worse than me.  This morning I stopped to chat to a friendly young Asian man who had just packed up his tent.  He was carrying an enormous pack on his back and another on his front, as well as his sleeping mat.  'Are you leaving now?'  I asked in disbelief, referring to the heat.  'Where are you going?'  'Invercargill!' he smiled.  He was about to walk/hitchhike 65km along a smoking hot highway.  I hope like hell that a) somebody picked him up quickly and b) he hasn't collapsed from heat exhaustion!  But nothing touched me more than the Otago Rescue Helicopter pilot we all witnessed this morning.  Our campground is the place it always lands whenever there is an accident and emergency and we see it far too often.  There were four heat-related fires in Gore yesterday alone and this morning the siren went off early and the chopper was quickly brought in to meet the ambulance and receive the patient.  Normally this all happens fairly swiftly but for whatever reason today it didn't and the pilot had no choice but to stay with his helicopter until everyone else arrived.  There he waited, in the middle of the searing hot rugby field, with no shade whatsoever, for more than three hours.  After a while in desperation he took shelter under the actual helicopter, in an effort to get into the shade somehow.  It made quite a picture and I would have loved to photograph it but it didn't seem quite right under the circumstances.  So instead I went out to him to see if he would like a cold drink.  'I'm OK, I don't know what the hold up is, but thank you!' he grinned.  Mercifully it wasn't too much longer before the ambulance arrived and everyone was on their way but as I pottered around outside, doing my handwashing and cooking brunch I felt actually guilty that my life is so simple and my whole house and everything I need is with me at all times.  One thing is for sure though, I never take any of it for granted!

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Swing Bridges and Roundabouts!

Now that 2018 is well underway it's high time we caught up on some of our recent adventures!  A few weeks ago it was my birthday.  Initially we planned to go to Dunedin for a long weekend but it seemed that everything was stacked against us, as every single thing we wanted to do was either closed or booked out.  On the positive side, it was going to save us a heck of a lot of money, and so we put our thinking caps on to see what other, cheaper activities we could come up with instead.  When you're on the road for a while, particularly if you are a member of Facebook groups along with other nomads, there are some places and names which you see crop up a LOT and one of them is Piano Flat.  I never really knew what it was but thought it had a cool name and seeing as it seemed to be such a popular destination we were keen to check it out.

Still plenty of gold to be found here in the form of buttercups!

Piano Flat is a riverside campground, surrounded by forest, farmland and mountains in the far north of Southland.  It got its quirky name from a colourful character called Harry Selig, who was known back in the 1800's as Piano Harry, seeing as he played piano in the local orchestra, entertaining the early settlers and miners in the area.  Harry was the first person to discover gold there, and it was originally named 'Piano Harry's Flat' in his honour, before being shortened to the name we know it as today.  Technically it's in the middle of nowhere, but you're not so far away from civilisation as to feel horribly isolated, with the little town of Waikaia just a short drive away.  As soon as we arrived it wasn't hard to see why so many people love to come here - this place is HUGE. Despite its popularity it's the perfect place for those seeking peace and quiet, there's just so much room!  There is plenty to do here, from swimming and kayaking to cycling, hiking, horse riding, trout fishing and even 4-wheel driving.  Being a Dept of Conservation campground it is a low-cost place to stay and is one of the few DOC grounds which also accept dogs.  Today however we had a Minnie-free day as we were planning on a long hike.  We thought we had done our research fully prior to leaving; however we had no idea how long our leisurely hike was going to turn out to be!

We jumped out of the van and immediately realised the one, most important thing we had forgotten - insect repellent.  Unfortunately Piano Flat is also notorious for its sandflies!  As they immediately began attacking our arms and legs we thanked our lucky stars we weren't staying the night.  There was only one thing we could do to try and keep them somewhat at bay and that was to keep moving.  There are several walks available, from half-hour rambles through the 10,500 hectares of beech forest, to a four-hour, 12 km loop and a seven-hour 15km hike to the Titan Rocks.  We decided we would take the middle of the road option and opted for the four-hour loop along the Waikaia River.  Tramping is one of my very favourite pastimes and I was really looking forward to a good, long birthday hike.  There was just one major challenge I had to get out of the way first and it came at the very start of our walk.

The Swing Bridge of Doom.  At least, if you're me...

As some of you may recall, I have a phobia of heights - a HUGE phobia.  I literally freeze and am unable to move, which usually leaves me with no choice but to turn back.  Swing bridges come very much under that phobia and from the photos I had seen this one was a big one.  However, this particular route had been my choice.  I had steeled myself prior to the trip and told myself that no way was I going to miss out on doing this walk!  All I had to do was get that bridge over with, waddle calmly across the boardwalk and then I could relax for the rest of the trip.  It would be just fine.  And then we saw the bridge, stretching across the entire width of the river.  I had known from the photos that it was long - what I didn't realise was how NARROW and rickety it was.  My visions of a gently wobbling boardwalk were dashed as I surveyed what was basically a glorified tightrope made of chainlink.  There was room only to put one foot in front of the other, baby step style and I knew before I even ascended the equally rickety steps that there was no way in hell I was going to be able to set foot on that bridge.

Even Gareth wasn't keen to cross the creaking, rickety bridge!

Fortunately, for once, Gareth felt the same.  Normally he likes nothing better than scaling, balancing and leaping over things but having tentatively tested the bridge he had to admit he didn't like it either.  My lip started to tremble in defeat.  I could not let this bloody bridge get the better of me!  It would put the cobblers on the whole day.  There was only one thing for it.  We were going to have to cross the river.  And so we took off our shoes, waded into the current and wobbled and slid our way across on the slippery rocks, with the sandflies mercilessly munching on us all the while.  At last we reached the other side.  Success!  I looked around in total happiness as we found ourselves standing in an enormous field of golden buttercups, surrounded by mountains on one side and the river on the other.  It took us another good ten minutes to scramble over to where the bridge officially ended and then we were finally on track.  

We did it!  

After our unexpected detour, the track itself was a breeze!  Despite searching the Internet for more information, we couldn't really find too many details about it, but four hours sounded like a good walk to us so we just followed the trail merrily and to start with we were making good time.  After a couple of hours we stopped for a spot of lunch down at the river and were amazed to see a large antler, shed by a red deer at the water's edge.  We were just about to leave when we saw a figure crossing the river, apparently coming towards us.  What were they doing, alone all the way out here in the middle of nowhere?  Unlike most walking tracks, we hadn't seen another soul on the path all day.  'It's Valentin!' Gareth suddenly said in recognition, and indeed it was!  We hadn't seen him or his girlfriend Sandra since our wedding almost three weeks before, having left the campground after the reception.  It was a lovely surprise as we weren't expecting to see them again, yet here he was, a couple of hours' drive away, out in the middle of the bush!  'I saw a huge trout, swimming down this way!' he grinned, fishing rod in hand as always.  'If I'm lucky, maybe I can catch it.  Sandra is walking the track somewhere, you'll probably see her!'

A riverside picnic in the middle of nowhere.  
This was the last place we expected to bump into our old friend!

We had a brief chat before leaving Valentin to his fishing and continued on our way.  But we didn't see Sandra.  As before, we didn't see another soul and the further we went, the harder the track was becoming to find.  In fact it wasn't so much of a track as an obstacle course.  It became almost impossible to even put one foot in front of the other without having to move something, climb over something or edge our way gingerly along cliff edges and over worryingly large chasms.  It really was quite hazardous in places and made me very conscious that, should an accident have befallen either Gareth or I, it would have been a very long, solitary and nervewracking walk back to get help.  Still, we did our best to keep smiling and for the most part we enjoyed the challenge.  As the four-hour mark drew up however, we couldn't believe it.  'Four hours already?  But the sign still says 6km to go!  We're barely halfway!' we said in disbelief.  Thanks to the quality of the track - or lack of it, the going was incredibly slow.  The one thing we did know, was that we were supposed to follow the river's edge for the first part of the trip, then return back the way we came but on the opposite side of the river, along the road.

The 'track' becomes a tad more challenging!

 And that was when the track came abruptly to an end and we saw the second swing bridge.  What second swing bridge?  Exactly - none of the literature we had read anywhere had mentioned anything about a second bridge.  We had thought the first bridge was rickety enough, but it wasn't a patch on this one!  Again it stretched across the river, but this one was attached by a steel wire wound worryingly loosely around a tree - and not even a very large tree at that.  The bridge itself was in a far worse state of repair, being covered in rust and to top it off, the HAZARD sign warning only one person to cross at a time had obviously been broken long ago and nobody had been or thought to replace it.  Piano Flat may have been a popular campground but it was very obvious that very few people ever used this track.

Another dodgy swing bridge?  Oh hell no!

Crossing the river on foot was not an option this time!

I didn't even have to voice my concerns this time.  'No way am I getting on that - no way', said Gareth, and set about finding us an alternative route across the river.  This time however it was far less straightforward.  The water was a lot deeper, the rocks were a lot bigger (as were the gaps between them) and the current was a lot stronger.  We must have spent a good half hour trying to find a safe place to cross but to no avail.  'It's no good', Gareth sighed.  'We're just going to have to go all the way back to where we saw Valentin and cross there.  We saw him do it, so we must be able to'.  So back we went, feeling thoroughly disheartened and dishevelled as we hauled ourselves once again through branches and over and under tree trunks and limbs.  Despite sounding less than idyllic, it wasn't all bad though.  A delightful South Island robin had made our acquaintance and stopped for a while to say hello, before following us happily through the bush, feasting on all the insects we were disturbing and sending up from the ground for him.  Gareth also had the most enormous and beautiful dragonfly come and settle on his hand whilst taking photos!  And complaining aside, it felt wonderful to be out in the bush just doing something; filthy dirty, drenched in sweat but thoroughly exhilerated.

This dear little South Island Robin was super friendly!

An hour and a half later, we finally arrived back where we had left Valentin fishing.  He had gone, and instead some fresh deer tracks were at the place he had crossed.  Darn, we missed the deer again!  Getting across the river was quite time consuming, but at least here it wasn't dangerous and at last we were able to climb up the steep bank and follow our noses to the track which would lead us home.  Already it had taken us a good two hours longer than planned and we were exhausted, but in a good way.  After what seemed like an age, we emerged from the bush and out onto the road, where Sandra was sitting in her van, waiting for Valentin who had gone to retrieve a fishing lure he had left behind down at the river.  We chatted briefly before saying our goodbyes and heading wearily along the road back towards the campground.  There was only 3km to go but to us it felt endless as we trudged along. 'God I stink!' Gareth remarked, sniffing the air in disdain as we wandered along.  'You stink?  I stink!' I replied, wiping my sweaty brow for the 100th time.

Testing the water.  We did get VERY wet...

At last!  The road back home

It was around then we heard a vehicle approaching behind us.  It was Valentin and Sandra!  'Would you like a ride back?' they smiled.  Gareth and I looked at each other.  I could see Gareth was keen but - 'We smell!' I said pitifully, not wanting to cram our sweaty, stinky bodies into the confines of their van.  'It's OK, we smell too!' laughed Sandra.  'We haven't been able to get to a shower for a week.  We wash in the river but - you know, it's not the same', she shrugged her shoulders, smiling.  And so we gratefully climbed in and trundled our way back down the last 3km of gravel road.  As we passed through the tiny settlement of Riversdale on the way home, Gareth almost shot into the back of the van as I braked suddenly at the sight of a bottle store!  But it was my birthday, and boy had we earned it.  It wasn't quite the leisurely ramble either of us had anticipated.  But it was a brilliant day and despite everything we had an absolute blast.

A very happy Southern Man with a box of well-earned beers!

Incidentally, just a few days ago I happened to come across a brochure on Southland walks.  It describes the four-hour Waikaia River loop as being 'Challenging, for advanced trampers only.  Track is of poor quality in places'. Really?  No sh*t.  They also mentioned the second swing bridge at the end of the track, which is the only way you can get across the river.  If only the Department of Conservation had thought to put such information on THEIR website too!  But one thing is for sure; we will go back to Piano Flat again in the near future and this time we will stay.  As long as we remember the insect repellent!  

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Our Place in the World

Rata trees in flower on the Hokonui Hills, photo credit Wild Frontier.  
We may not be by the beach this year, but the scenery is still stunning!

Ahh, it's all a bit idyllic here at the moment.  While the rest of the world seemingly is caught up in traffic jams and fighting their way through crowds, we're sitting outside in the sunshine enjoying nothing but peace and tranquility.  There's maybe another ten vehicles here, but our campground is so big everyone has plenty of room to themselves to spread out and relax.  I can't think of anywhere else I would rather be right now!  It's a little strange not being by the sea for summer but a change is as good as a break, as they say and this holiday season is certainly proving to be that!

A little corner of our camping 'village', as seen from our back door!

Most of our little Christmas village is still here, although a few have moved on now.  I have to say, I have never experienced so many consecutive hangovers in my entire life as I have this festive season!  Not that we're complaining mind; it just goes to show how much wonderful company we have been treated to lately, from old friends and new.  Christmas Day itself was somewhat quieter than we planned, thanks to the heavy rain which kept everyone from mingling as planned and cooped up in their motor homes instead.  Even so, the weather did nothing to dampen our spirits and we curled up inside listening to corny Christmas music, watching festive movies and playing card games badly until the rain subsided.  Later that evening we went to Bevin and Amy's house for a BBQ and it was so lovely and relaxing chatting to everyone on the veranda and strolling around their beautiful garden.

Us with Annelieke

The days between Christmas and New Year were a bit of a blur!  Or should that be a social whirl?  Our fellow campers were all keen to get outside and chat after the previous wet day and there was an influx of new arrivals, many from overseas.  When it comes to travellers, everyone is different.  Some people keep very much to themselves and don't interact at all except for a wave when they leave; others are extremely friendly and keen to chat.  Such as Annelieke, a bubbly Dutch lady with a great sense of humour.  From the start she was wonderfully outgoing and had only been at the campground ten minutes before she was riding a horse around the arena, thanks to a local who happened to be there practising polo.  Shortly after her arrival we were joined by another Dutch couple, Axel and Astrid, who after making smalltalk asked if they could camp next to us for the night and continue the conversation.  Annelieke returned to join us after her horse ride and the five of us were a merry group, sharing dinner and talking into the night before it got too cold and we all had to give in and retire!  Spontaneous evenings such as these are always so memorable and enjoyable and it's lovely to learn so much about different people, their cultures and their countries.  We all exchanged details in the morning before they left and promised to keep in touch.  Hopefully we will see them again one day!  It's such a special place here, often people do come back; such as the South African family of five we have camping next to us this week.  It's always so nice to see people who love it here as much as we do.

The best thing about having a BBQ is that it's always the blokes who cook it!

We have also enjoyed some fun evenings with our young French friends, which have also resulted in some spectacular headaches the next morning!  When we first hit the road, I imagined that we would naturally meet a lot of people; however I never envisaged what good friends they would also become.  With not too much going on in the way of New Year entertainment in Gore, we agreed we would spend New Year's Eve with Valentin and Sandra and the four of us settled comfortably out in the sunshine for a relaxing evening of dinner, drinks and conversation.  Here in Southland, it doesn't get dark until around 10.30 - 11pm at the moment and as the countdown to midnight drew closer a vehicle pulled up alongside us, blaring music.  It was Paul and his wife Chrissy from the other end of the campground, and they had also brought along Debra, to see the New Year in all together.  I can't remember the last time I laughed so much - or sang!  There was our merry group, all from different countries, all different ages, talking and joking up a storm.  We hugged and sang Auld Lang Syne, watched the neighbours' fireworks and carried on the celebrations until once again it got too cold.  And as I sat there in my camping chair, with Paul and Chrissy's little dog Fergus asleep on my lap, I thought to myself how far Gareth and I had come and what a brilliant year it had been.  I couldn't have possibly asked for any more from my life right then.

The next day was blazing hot and Paul and Chrissy invited us for New Year's lunch.  It had been years since I had sat round a table for New Year's Day; not since I lived in England, and tired as we all were (and hungover as some of us also were!) it was so lovely to be able to do that again.  For the millionth time I felt truly blessed to have met so many wonderful people.  It's particularly touching for Gareth and I, because being vegan we are used to doing our own thing and not wishing to be an inconvenience to others when eating out; yet both Bevin and Amy and Paul and Chrissy all insisted we join them and went out of their way to make sure there was plenty of food for us to eat.  It really was so much appreciated!

Working on one of our many projects in my outdoor office!

Who knows what this year will bring for us?  There are all sorts of things we WANT to do; it's just a question of whether we will have the time, already the year is filling up fast for us!  For now we are happy right where we are and have plenty to do, as well as some big projects we are working on.  Once those are done, then we will treat ourselves to some more adventuring!  Saying that, we had a very busy December, visiting all sorts of new places, which I will tell you about next time.  If I had one wish for 2018, it would be that my family could see and experience life the way I do.  I saw this quote recently on my gorgeous friend Lin's motivational website Inspire Beyond Belief and it really struck a chord with me:

As far as I'm concerned there are no truer words!  I may not have known where the heck I was going this time last year, and I still don't know now.  But we both agree it was the best year ever.  We've found our place in the world  - and it's the WHOLE world!