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Battye Family’s Travel Diary

Sunday, 29 Apr 2007

Location: Top o' the north, New Zealand

Once on the ferry back to the North Island, the girls quickly took off across the room to hang out with another family. At one time I might have taken this type of abandonment personally or worried about their safety. In New Zealand, fears that they were mixing with a family of ax murderers or slave traders never crossed my mind. The whole country gives the impression of purity and wholesomeness. As for feeling hurt that I’d been shunned, I knew they were probably desperate to hear something other than the sound of my voice. I watched, from across the room, as the girls taught these strangers how to speak Thai, shared their lunch with them, and told them stories. It was the best on-board movie I could imagine.

In Wellington, we got a room in Moana Lodge, a youth hostel with a view of the sea. It was lovely and peaceful and full of young people there by way of Asia and the Pacific Islands. As families with children are a bit of an anomaly at most youth hostels, most of the patrons kept the kind of distance you would when encountering a strange and potentially dangerous snake in the yard. The kids were oblivious and chattered away unabashedly (“Ooooh! Whatcha makin”?) while chopping vegetables for our salad and setting the table for dinner.

We’d been told that Wellington offered much in the way of culture and the next morning headed to Capital E! for a healthy dose of children’s theater. We proceeded to sign up for every performance offered and sat back to be entertained by comedians, circus performers, and Balinese puppet masters.

A theater review by Jennifer Battye

In this show the director is trying to say that God is not happy with us polluting and killing wildlife and animals. When they do this, people only think of themselves and not about the animals. That is not good.

The next day we visited the Karori Wildlife Preserve and were treated to the songs of an amazing array of native New Zealand birdlife. The entire perimeter of this massive park is surrounded by a predator-proof fence. This allows species to flourish that are otherwise eaten, promptly and efficiently, by possums and stoats.

In order to explore an old gold mine on the property, we had to squeeze into a tight mine shaft. I now know that old mines are the perfect habitat for a charming creature called the weta bug. I discovered this when Chris turned on a flashlight at the end of the tunnel and revealed that I was rubbing shoulders with a weta and several thousand of this friends and relations. I might have imagined it in my haste to find the exit, but they seemed to be looking at me the way one would gaze at a burger just before wolfing it down.

By unanimous vote, we decided to return to the Whanganui River Valley and Rivertime Lodge for a few days of communing with nature…and sheep. This decision was based on two things: we loved it there and we’d set a new goal for ourselves. Hiking in New Zealand had become more passion than pastime and like true addicts, we wanted more. Our goal was to do the Tongariro Crossing, reputedly the finest one day walk in the country. The only catch was that it spanned a full eighteen kilometers of volcanic mountain terrain. We knew we needed to do a long trek as our qualifier and chose the Atene Skyline Track in Whanganui.

We set off with specific directions and instructions on where to find the well sign-posted starting point of the track. Naturally, we missed it entirely. We started at the wrong end and wondered why it was nothing like the description. Reaching the halfway point seemed to take forever and, frankly, after four hours the ABC game starts to lose its luster. We stopped to lunch with (not on) the wild goats and then continued on rubbery knees into the bush. The kids commented on the number of other trampers on the trail (exactly none.) All in all, we managed to hike for a solid eight hours through native forest and along a ridgeline that ascended and descended with relentless elevation losses and gains. When we finally reached the bottom, we fell into a heap in the tall grass.

We realized someone needed to walk two kilometers down the road to pick up the car. I suddenly became very involved with some tricky knot-tying on my shoelace, giving John plenty of time to decide that indeed he did want a little more exercise. Once he left, Emily and Jennifer suggested we play a game of monster tag while we waited. Once I gleaned that monster tag involves significant amounts of running, I decided that I had given birth to aliens. It was a parenting quandary and I found myself wondering why they couldn’t just sit there and whine for a Twinkie like normal children. In the end I told them that I would be “it” first but that my monster was not a running monster…she was a crawling monster.

Because we weren’t at all where we thought, Chris and John walked off in exactly the wrong direction. They would still be out there now if not for a friendly Maori man who called out to them from the shade of his crumbling doorstep and offered them a lift. His name was Coert and he talked about building the Atene trail, hauling the supplies up by hand over the rugged terrain. He was as gentle and warm as he was rough looking and his generosity provided a wonderful end to a truly satisfying day.

In a small farming community such as this one, everyone knows everything about everyone. They knew who we were, where we were staying, that we were on the track and that we’d started at the wrong end. Whether this illustrated a charming slice of rural New Zealand life or a decided lack of local news, is anyone’s guess.

Once safely back at the lodge, we celebrated our accomplishment with an enormous dinner of roast lamb and Yorkshire pudding and a viewing of “The Sound of Music”…because frankly we felt in an alpine, tinkling cowbells, sing-from-the-mountaintops kind of mood. Now we knew we could do it…the Tongariro Crossing was soon to be ours!

For the crossing, we based ourselves in the tiny village of Whakapapa. There was no store in town so we outfitted ourselves with what was perhaps the largest purchase the small Indian gas station had ever had. Our backpacks were stocked with lunch supplies and water, dried fruit, granola and plenty of chocolate.

The Tongariro Crossing is a well-trodden track which traverses Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Tongariro with views of Mt. Ruapehu along the way. All three are active volcanoes with the most recent eruptions taking place in 1995. Since the crossing is not a loop, transportation is required to get weary trampers back to the start. We bought bus tickets which we promptly lost in the jumble of fairy tales, hiking boots, and spelling lists that litter the floor of our car.

The day of our trek dawned fine and clear. Boarding a bus filled exclusively with fit-looking adults was an indication of what we’d find on the trail-Jennifer and Emily were the youngest kids doing the crossing by at least five years. We smiled reassuringly in response to the curious (and concerned) stares of the other passengers. We’d been training for weeks for this day, working our way up to longer and steeper treks, enjoying the kids’ pride in their ability to do more than they thought possible.

The scenery as we started perfectly illustrated why these mountains were chosen to depict Mt. Doom in “The Lord of the Rings” films. Jagged chunks of lava covered in alpine lichen were strewn everywhere. There were no living creatures in sight except small black spiders scuttling across the dark soil. It took a full eight hours to cross, along the way navigating slippery slopes of scree and passing steaming vents. The smell of sulphur was in the air and when we bent and touched the ground, the soil was as hot as a potato fresh from the oven.

Jennifer was nothing short of inspiring. She did the whole trek with an attitude of determination and enthusiasm, often calling out to make sure I was O.K. as I walked gracefully (slid and tumbled) down the crater face. Emily rode in the pack on John’s back chirping encouraging words in his ear, “You’re almost to the top, Daddy. Ooops! No, you’re not. Only 150 more miles!” John kept Jennifer and Tim enthralled for hours with his retelling of The Hobbit. It was a brilliant distraction, not only for them, but for fellow hikers on the trail. His particular retelling of the riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum had other hikers slowing up to ask, “Well… what is the answer??? We’re waiting!”
As we neared the end of the 18km track, Emily whispered, “Thank you for carrying me all this way, Daddy.”

I woke the next morning, creaking and groaning, to hear John talking with the kids about the day ahead. “Yesterday was a big day. Today it’s your choice. What would you all like to do?” I yelled out helpful suggestions, “How about many hours of lounging?” Frankly, I thought managing the stairs into a hot tub sounded like a challenging enough agenda, but I was promptly outvoted. The kids all wanted to go hiking! I checked their foreheads for signs of fever, saw that they were as fit as fiddles, and plodded over to retrieve my hiking boots from the pile by the door.

We proceeded to do another 17 km across the plateau to the Tama Lakes that lie between Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe. Despite my fears of an embarrassing collapse at mile 5, my muscles did indeed loosen up. After consuming quite a bit more than my fair share of the GORP, I began to feel energized and really grateful to be watching the wind sweep across the grasses that lie in the shadow of those tremendous craters.

Heading back to Auckland via the massive expanse that is Lake Taupo, we traded in our beloved Lemon Squeeze for a campervan. Despite trepidation about spending a couple of weeks together in small enclosed spaces, the kids thought it would be a fabulous adventure. Freedom camping, in particular, was what they were after. They had visions of stopping at whatever roadside, field or beach struck their fancy and staying for the night.

Once our gear was crammed in the camper, John took the wheel. As navigator, I landed us on some kind of continuous loop that had us making no less than eight u-turns and never making it out of the city. By dinnertime, we gave up and settled down to eat take-away pizza in the parking lot of a strip mall. Timmy commented between bites, “I don’t think this is what freedom camping is supposed to be all about.”

The next day we visited the Otara Market, the largest Polynesian market in the world. I had visions of tapa cloth and wood carvers- the sights and smells of the islands. The reality was more like K-mart- tables laden with cheap electronics and fringe-cut t-shirts. A number of people walked throughout the market stalls holding cheery signs that read, “Repent! The end is near!” It was a bit of a disappointment, really.

We spent the night in Waiwera on the coast north of Auckland. The big draw was the thermal pools and a water park heated by the earth’s core. Emily decided those warm pools were the perfect place to become a swimmer. In typical Emily style, there was no slow progression. She went from clinging to John in one moment to doggy paddling across the pool and waving to us from the other side. The kids’ favorite slide was called, “Bob’s Mistake.” It was made of stainless steel and simply ended ten feet above water level, allowing you to free fall into the pool. In typical New Zealand style, there were no lifeguards monitoring the slides, telling kids how to stay ultra-safe. If you ran on the slippery concrete and fell, it was your own dumb fault.

The New Zealand kauri forests are among the most ancient in the world so we took a detour to Matakohe to learn about these ancient trees and why they had all but disappeared. The long, wide planks of kauri were a favorite among ship builders and were used in the construction of homes, bridges, and railroad cars. The wood is strong, durable, and very, very beautiful. Hence, there is almost none of it left.

While at the Kauri Museum, a volunteer saw us glancing at the collection of walking sticks and took that as the green light to tell the story of each one. I found myself riveted to his face. His mustache kept impeding his ability to talk, and he would occasionally spit it out of the way in order to finish his sentence. I stayed long after the others had moved on, listening with a faintly quizzical look on my face.

The other valuable resource in the kauri forests was New Zealand amber, or kauri gum. This resin bleeds from the tree, hardens into a lump, and then falls off onto the ground. For millions of years this happened before the Maori people happened on the scene and discovered uses for the gum as a source of light and fuel. Once Europeans arrived, they developed the gum’s use in paint, varnish, candles, and glue. As demand increased, a new vocation was born: the gumdigger. At first, the gumdiggers found amber all over the ground and collection was easy. As supplies decreased, they were forced to dig, deeper and deeper, to find the valuable lumps of gum. The museum featured the story of Tatty The Gumdigger, alongside relics from his life and a reconstruction of his bush hut. Tatty’s life essentially consisted of hunting and digging for gum all day, cooking his dinner over the fire and then spending his evening hand polishing any pieces he happened to find. His life was hard and did not vary. Tatty became a regular feature in our conversations after that.
“Mom, I’m bored. What can I do?”
“Bored? Talk to Tatty!”

After a visit to one of the few remaining kauri trees, this one called Te Matua Ngahere or Father of the Forest, we decided to camp in a farmer’s field. Much to our delight, the farmer took us on a tour of her property. We met Queen Elizabeth the cow, shared a meal with Missy the dog, and climbed the steep hills to see Stumpy the donkey. At the end, she sent us off into the grape arbor to eat our fill from the heavily laden vines. It was there, with warm juice dripping down my chin, that I decided I was ready to move in.

At Cape Reinga, on the northernmost shore of New Zealand, sits a single Pohutkawa tree. The Maori believe that when they die their spirits fly to this tree and slide down the roots to join the other ancestors in Hawaiki. Also at Cape Reinga, the Tasman Sea and the Pacific meet in a great churning mass of surf. During storms, they clash dramatically, producing thirty foot waves. We grabbed our picnic lunch and set off over the ridgeline toward the long white curve of Te Werahi Beach. At the crest of the ridge, we paused to peek over the cliff edge and watch the waves crashing below. There was not a building , not a telephone pole, not a soul in sight. With an uncanny sense of the best way to create connection in virtually any situation, John called everyone together in a circle. We gathered, with the sun on our backs, and discussed our remaining week overseas, where we’d come on our journey, what we’d each learned, and how we’d grown. As we stood there, I could feel Chris rubbing my back and Timmy leaning his head on my shoulder and I wanted that feeling and that moment to last forever.

From the cape, we decided to try our skills at sand surfing the Te Paki Reserves. Armed with boogie boards, we hiked up the gigantic mountains of sand that are common in this part of New Zealand. We raced and did 360s and wiped out and cheered each other on. We particularly felt the thrill of flying down a hill and landing, not in a pile of snow, but in a mound of soft, warm sand. Emily scoffed at the baby sled and preferred to ride on John’s back, turtle style, as he whipped down the hills. Her whoops of joy could be heard for miles.

On the way down the road, we made an impulsive stop at a local school. Located in the middle of nowhere, the Ngataki School educates eighteen children between the ages of five and twelve. They use two classrooms and all but one of their students is Maori. It was charming and beautiful, with painting and sculpture work by local artists adorning every available space.

On the way back down the road from the northernmost tip of New Zealand, we stopped at Rawera Beach on the eastern coast of the island. Intending to stay an hour or so, we emerged three days later, sunkissed and smiling. It was freedom camping at its best-a spot on the beach with nothing but the roar of the surf and the rustling dune grass to lull us to sleep at night. One the first day we met a young Maori man who shared avocados from his orchard and some of his catch-pippis freshly plucked from the sea.
By John

I was standing in the lightly graveled parking area beside the dunes when a young Maori man walked up from the beach with a white bucket and plastic bag. I had observed him in the surf, occasionally stooping into the water. What was he doing? He opened his trunk and put the bag in a plastic cooler. I decided to simply ask, “What have you got there?” “Pippis,” he said with a genuinely friendly smile. “Want to see them?” Inside were over 100 clams, glistening with seawater. I was impressed. He hadn’t been in the water that long.
“Would you like some?” he asked with a smile. I was pleasantly surprised, shrugged my shoulders and blurted out, “Sure!” He put about 40 in a bag and instructed me on what to do: “Since they filter sand, set them in a bowl of sea water until tomorrow. Then just drop them in boiling water and take them out when their shells pop open. Eat them dipped in vinegar or lemon. They’re delicious.”
The next night we did exactly as he said. I hesitated before cooking them. As I watched them in the water, they were so incredibly delicate and beautiful. I could see the process by which they gently filtered the water for survival. Chris and I looked at them, then at each other. “You drop them into the pot.” “No, you do it.” Just as we’d worked up our nerve, Susan piped in, “You know they’re screaming as you drop them into the pot, you just can’t hear them.” At that point we were ready to drop her in! Squeamishness aside, they were delicious, especially to Emily who loved them best of all!
The next day I was body surfing and happened to feel something with my foot. I reached down and pulled up my first pippi. The boys and I proceeded to gather enough for a hearty appetizer. The best part was the feeling of harvesting our dinner ourselves. Freedom camping there along the beach and gathering our own food was a truly soul-satisfying experience.
After this, the pippis were destined to become the subject of a Battye family documentary. During the New Zealand portion of our trip, we’d been giving the kids a chance to write, direct, and host their own videos on topics related to culture and natural history. Chris decided to film a segment on harvesting shellfish at the beach. When dawn came on our last day at Rarewa Beach, the film crew sprang into action. Chris, Tim, and I left before breakfast to capture our video.
On this particular morning the tide had turned early and was coming in like gangbusters with a strong on-shore wind and waves that were uncharacteristically rough. Chris created and hosted a really funny segment but now needed a fresh pippi to finish it off. No problem. From experience we knew all we had to do was go 20 yards off-shore, dive down, dig around with our fingers or our feet and pull one up. The bounty of the sea was all around us.
With high expectations, Chris and Tim waded into the chilly water while I acted as camera man. The boys walked and walked through the water as they searched for the pippis by diving between the waves and digging with their feet. Timmy appeared to search half-heartedly, hoping that Chris would scoop one up. I stopped the video every few minutes to toss out helpful tips… “Go on, go get one!” “There’s a pippi with your name on it!!” “You’re not gonna let a little pippi get the better of you!”
The fervor of these remarks decreased as I got increasingly wet myself. I had come into the water with my shorts on, pockets bulging with my wallet and digital camera. I had not planned to be there that long, after all. Mild expletives began to slip out of my mouth and I was thankful the boys couldn’t hear over the pounding surf. Their enthusiasm waning, the boys pleaded with me to let them off the hook. Seeing myself making a heroic entrance, I stripped off my clothes, set the cameras on the sand, and dashed into the surf, envisioning myself scooping up a pippi in ten seconds with a “Yeah, what’s so tough about that” smile on my face.
The boys looked pretty miserable, standing shivering in the surf. As we took a few dives together, I realized that the waves were so constant and strong that I couldn’t even dig down without being buffeted about. No pippis. Looking at this as an opportunity to model perseverance, I buckled down with renewed vigor and got nowhere. Timmy told me his hands were numb and moved into shallower waters.
Chris stuck with me as we took plunge after plunge, but the water got rougher and he said, “Dad, can we go in now?” I replied, “Go ahead if you want to, but I’m staying.” Chris stayed. After a little while he tried again to lure me out of the water. When I suggested that he was welcome to go back to shore, he responded, “Well, I want to, but I want us to go in together. I want us to talk about it and come to a decision together.” At that moment I became conscious of my maturing son who used both his diplomatic skills and his commitment to sticking it out and was aware that he had been in the water a good 45 minutes longer than me. I knew he was right, and as much as I wanted to persist until we landed a pippi, it seemed we weren’t going to get one that morning. Chris began to have a bluish tint to his skin. “O.K, Chris, how about ten more dives and then we’ll go.” He smiled, “Great, Dad.”
As I moved in, I noticed the waves in a new light. Some of these were riding waves! Body surfing seemed the perfect way to end our time on a high note and get back to shore.
Once on dry land we started brainstorming and thought of an easy alternative to using a freshly caught pippi in our video. We finished the video. As we walked back to the camper, I could feel my pride in both of them. One of the gifts of this trip has been the time and focus to see the greatness in each of the kids. On this morning, it was Chris and Tim’s turn to knock my socks off.


Rawera Beach sits on conservation land. It is a long curve of sugar white sand backed by dunes and bush. There is not a bit of civilization in sight and the only light comes from the stars and moon. We awoke early each morning to walk along the beach for miles and collect the shells that would later become works of art, game pieces, and toys. I was reminded of our friends The McClures and their similar experience in the Whitsunday Islands. Their eyes would get soft and dreamy just telling us about it. We cherished each moment as we bathed in the Pacific, cooked meals on our little gas burner, and washed our dishes in the sea.

Luckily, it was here that I officially turned forty. The beauty of the place kept me from ruminating for too long on my images of that age- fleshy faces and paunchy stomachs and obsessions with recipes involving mayonnaise and jello. It was here that I resolved it would be the best year yet- the year to put my energy into what really matters instead of a stream of unimportant tasks, the year to cultivate the warmth in the relationships and friendships that are truly my most valuable posessions, the year to smile more, laugh at myself, radiate joy, and feel good.

Like Christmas, John and the kids handled my birthday in a delightfully earnest and heartfelt way. I will always treasure the kiwi slippers and chocolate lips that they chose themselves, convinced it was “just what Mommy needs.” The cards they made were far from the hastily prepared notes of birthdays past. Jennifer clearly spent hours on hers, wanting every color to be right and every word to convey how deeply she wanted me to be happy on this special day. The whole affair helped keep me from wallowing in self-pity and starting to pay installments on my future nursing home placement.

Each morning at Rawera, we discussed where to go next, but as each day dawned fair and warm, no one could think of a good reason to leave. It seemed more important to spend four hours making things with shells and clay or to sit on the dunes and watch the clouds race across the sky the way I did as a little girl on the beaches of Cape Cod. Ultimately, the time ran out and we had to move on. We spent a couple of nights in the lovely Bay of Islands before surrendering the camper in Auckland and boarding the plane for home.

I didn’t want it to be over. I wanted to keep going, see new things, meet more people, and continue to feel connected to my family in a way that doesn’t seem possible with all the distractions of home. After our experiences, I knew how I would do it differently if I were starting the trip all over. I would pack smarter, make connections quicker, spend my time doing the things that become stories the kids tell and re-tell for years.

The kids, however, were ready to get back. Chris’ braces and wires had been slowly but steadily falling off. Baseball season was starting up and Timmy was determined to get back and join his team. Emily had begun to ask to go to her “far, far, far away home.” Jennifer was ready for a playmate other than her three year old sister.

When we landed in Los Angeles, the customs officer looked over our documents and said two simple words, “Welcome home.” I could see the joy, and the relief, in the kids’ faces just as I could feel the disappointment on mine. They patted me on the back, “It’s O.K. Mom, we’ll go somewhere again. This isn’t the end of the adventure.”