Bicycles, Beers and Bedbugs

A lot has happened since my last blog. We finished riding the North Island, visited our niece, who lives in New Zealand, spent an amazing 3 days kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park, survived a West Coast epic storm and experienced bedbugs… Yep, that happened! I know you’re dying to hear about bedbugs but let me back track a little to where the last blog left off.

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I think we had just ridden the Timber Trail and continuing down the center of the North Island. Following the Timber Trail we decided to treat ourselves to a room and found the perfect “splurge” at the Inn at the Convent in Tamaranui. Once a nunnery, our hosts June and Jeff turned this historic building into a lovely bed and breakfast. After spending most nights camping, we really enjoyed the luxurious bed and cosy room with our own bathroom! The next day we did some bike maintenance and enjoyed a great home cooked meal and great conversation. June entertained us with stories of her former life as a women’s high fashion shoe designer and Jeff kept us in stitches with his frank and unfiltered comments. After a rest, it looked like the weather would cooperate and we headed off to ride to Whakahoro station and a remote Kaiwhakauka and Mangapurua tracks to the Bridge to Nowhere along the Whanganui river. Camping in the Department of Conservation sites at both Whakahoro and Hellawells, we split the ride into 2 days, ending with a jet boat ride down the river to Pipiriki. A bit of hike and bike on some sketchy sections but a great ride where we saw only a few folks over our two days in the forest and had the campgrounds pretty much to ourselves (oh and the wasps)!

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Mangapurua track
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Bridge to nowhere
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Loading bikes on jet boat – Whanganui river

From Pipiriki the next day we had a fun ride through rolling countryside with one big climb before riding Whanganui to meet our niece Roseanne who lives in New Plymouth.

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Big climb from river valley but an amazing view and zippy downhill as our reward

Had a great time catching up with her and exploring Whanganui. After leaving Whanganui we were on the homestretch, headed to Wellington. Highlights included arriving at Apiti soaked and cold from the rain to find a warm fire blazing in the Apiti Tavern as well as free camping on the lawn behind the Tavern, nice cycle trails into North Palmerston, arriving early and chilling on the pub patio in lovely Martinborough while waiting for our Warm Showers host and finally the epic ride over the Rimutaka Pass into Wellington.

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Start of the Remutaka trail
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More tunnels

We spent two days in Wellington enjoying the Te Papa museum, cable car and botanical gardens as well as 2 days of great food and craft beer. On our way back from dinner we passed through City Park and walked by a small flying fox (zip line) in the children’s playground. I convinced Rob to join me for a zip and after climbing the wooden ramp, I sat down, pushed off and hooked my foot on the ramp, wrenching my right knee badly. Safe for 5 year olds but not 50 year olds apparently! I managed the morning ride to the ferry and we crossed Cook Straight to Picton, officially ending our time on the North Island.

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We decided to bus to Nelson give my knee a rest and book a kayak trip into Abel Tasman National Park. Our 3 day trip with Abel Tasman Kayaks was truly special. Group tours are always a gamble but occasionally you get a winner. We had a blast with the other guests, Megan and Lee (a vet from Colorado – go figure), Alessandra from Italy, Pete and Amy from Toronto and Christine from Atlanta. Our guides were fun and relaxed and we were sad to say goodbye after 2 fun days.

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Beautiful Abel Tasman Park

Nelson is a great little city to hang out and we decided to treat ourselves to some craft beer (who am I kidding, we’ve been drinking beer since stepping off the plane, no wait, since getting on the plane!) and a real bed.

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Enjoying the finer things in life in Nelson NZ

Leaving Nelson we headed south towards Tapawera and Murchison. It was about this time… 24 hours later, that we started to itch. Que the creepy music.. our one night at the hostel left us covered in bites! I reacted dramatically with easily 100 bites covering upper back arms, belly and legs. Given we had not stayed anywhere except our tent we were pretty sure where we got them, the appropriately named Bug backpackers! A day out from riding ensued to run everything we owned including tent, panniers and dry bags through the dryer! Big creepy YUCK!

Not everyday is a good day but everyday is an adventure. More to come on wet West Coast weather disasters and our new EA route (thanks two kiwi cyclists, Eileen and Andy, who gave us a new “blue line” to follow in Pocket Earth). Til then drink beer and peddle on!

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I like to Ride my Bicycle

Considering my training for the Tour Aotearoa involved floating in the Caribbean Sea drinking considerable amounts of rum, followed by baking all the favourite Christmas cookies with my daughter Hannah (and eating all said cookies) and then enjoying 3 weeks of delicious Mexican food washed down with large volumes of beer, at 800km into my journey I am doing okay. As we peddle, Rob wishes for bigger legs to carry him up New Zealand’s significant hills while I wish for a smaller ass to carry up those hills!

I guess I have always loved bicycles but my love affair with the bicycle was not the typical “love at first site” kind of romance. It started slowly, kind of like that guy who was just a friend. You know the one. The guy who your friends would ask you about and with a laugh, you’d say, “What, Bob? No, no we’re just pals.” A get a beer after work and have a few laughs kinda guy.  A solid friend who was there when you needed him until suddenly you realized, he’d become something more. Bicycles for me were kinda like that guy. A way to release some teenage angst and sadness, a break from my studies in university, an escape to forget about the stress at work and then suddenly in my middle age the realization hit that being on my bicycle was one of my happy places.

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Hauraki Rail Trail

 

Through the fog of time, I recall my first bicycle. A two wheeled beauty with a banana seat, high bars and (I think) tassels coming off the handle bars that fluttered in the wind. I recall my older sister and I using cardboard and clothespins on the spokes to make a our bicycles sound like a motorcycle. The faster you rode, the more impressive the sound. Growing up on the farm I also had a horse. A beautiful pinto quarter horse creatively named Patches. For a period I forgot my bicycle as my mother created elaborate matching outfits complete with embellished saddle pads for my sister and I to ride in the local summer parades. It was great fun, but I do recall being a little jealous of my cousins who decorated their bicycles and donned costumes to ride with the other town kids during those same parades.

Eventually I graduated to a big kid bike. A old school 10 speed, yellowish beige in colour with classic drop bars and skinny tires. I likely bought it with money saved from babysitting or raising pail hunters (dairy calves I would buy and feed until they were old enough to go on pasture). In my teenage years I rode it regularly, around the block, a 6 mile trip on the grid like gravel roads in rural Alberta. It was an escape, a place where no one could find me and where I had a good 30 minutes to work through all the “stuff” my teenage brain was dealing with. Occasionally I would make the 10 mile trek to town enjoying 4 miles of paved roads and a soft serve at the local creamery as a reward.

After my acceptance into veterinary school in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan I decided it was time for a new bike.  This would be daily transportation to campus (until winter arrived) and needed to be a solid bike which could also transport me on regular escapes along the Saskatchewan river trails running through the city.  The Trek Antelope 520 was my first steel frame, old school mountain bike. With state of the art Shimano shifters and high end caliber brakes, in 1987, it was a sweet ride and one that set me back $550. A huge purchase for a broke student but in the end supplied me with a cycle that travelled with me for 25 years!

As I cover the miles through New Zealand I daydream my days away. Passing the time thinking about a great number of meaningless things. It is a great way to travel. On a bicycle you slow down and are forced to not just see the country you travel through but to also experience it. You take the good with the bad. The first warm sun that hits your face as it rises over the hills on those early morning starts along with the brutal headwinds that slow your progress and cause you to curse. The delicious smells coming from the local bakery as you pass through a small town along with the nasty road kill odor that lingers long after you pass by. People talk to you when you are on a bicycle and are quick to offer help or to join you for a coffee. But perhaps best of all is the satisfaction that comes from propelling yourself by your own determination and with the strength of your legs.

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Suspension Bridges along Timber Trail

Since my last blog Kiwis are Cool: Bikepacking New Zealand, we reached Dargaville and have made our way south passing back through Auckland, east through Hunua towards the Bay of Plenty, South along the Hauraki Rail trail, through Matamata, the Waikato River Trails and have just finished riding the Timber Trail arriving in Taumaruni last night.  I think we have travelled about 800 Km of the Tour Aotearoa route as well as several hundred km of extra riding on the way to Cape Regina. Tomorrow we continue on to a challenging ride on some paved roads and gravel but mostly single track in a remote area that ends at the Whanganui River and involves an hour journey by boat to reach Pipiriki.  Sounds challenging but super fun. Here is a map of our journey so far.

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So far the Tour Aotearoa has been a great adventure and I am so grateful to be able to experience New Zealand by bicycle.  Highlights (for me) from this portion of the journey include:

-sleeping in Dave’s old caravan (trailer) outside Auckland

-finding a handlebar riser to bring my bars up and back a little.  I now look like I should carry a bottle of wine and baguette in a cute little basket on the front of my bike.  Come to think of it that is a GREAT idea!

-Staying at the Bike Bunker in Hunua. A real bed, an ensuite shower and great conversation.

-Arriving at Miranda Hot Springs Holiday Park with no food and no groceries and having the park manager offer to drive us to town, over 20km away to pick up supplies.

-Morning coffee at the Bugger Cafe. So tasty after several days of instant coffee!

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-Almost free camping at Brock’s Place (aka some farmers field).

-Hobbiton. Okay, call me a nerd but it was super cool.

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-Arriving at Arapuni and finding an amazing backpackers with a warm, dry room to sit out the rain that night. Steve the host at Arapuni backpackers is a gem.

-The ride from Arapuni to Taumaruni.  Waikato River Trails, Ride to Timber trail and Timber Trail. Good to be back on mountain biking trails, even with overloaded bikes.

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-Scoring free camping at Piropiro DOC site but enjoying a delicious hot meal at the Timber Lodge.

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-Sending 10 kg of crap we don’t need to our new friend Rod, (who we met on the street one day while looking lost). Rod lives in Auckland and we will pick it up when we exit New Zealand. Oh and Rod and his lovely wife Lynn (who we’ve never met) have offered us a bed the night before we leave New Zealand. These Kiwis are the BEST!

And finally what makes an adventure truly memorable is the people who join you on the journey. Hanging out with my partner in life and best friend has been pretty great too. He would probably travel faster and lighter if he ditched the wife, but thankfully it hasn’t come to that…yet.

And you are very old!

News flash, and this should not come as a surprise, but maybe once you hit your 50’s the bottom bunk in a dorm of 20 something backpackers may not be the wisest choice. It is after midnight on a Wednesday and the young guests talk in whispers and quiet giggles as they get to know each other and make a new, and temporary family while they are far from home. It is clean and modern and is not a “party” hostel, at least not tonight but still I cannot sleep. Rob and I have taken the bottom bunks in our 4 person dorm as we are the most likely ones to need a middle of the night trip to the bathroom. Of course we were the first ones to head off for sleep and despite my ear plugs, the snores coming from the bunk above, the oppressive heat and the smell of 4 pairs of sweaty, backpacker shoes (my own included) has kept the sandman away. So here I sit writing. 

I suspect these youngsters do not know what to make of us. “Mom and Dad” ruining the vibe.  We ate lunch at a cafe today and the young waitress who served me noticed we were riding bicycles. She struck up a conversation, as these New Zealanders are likely to do, and the topic of my children came up. She asked how old they were and at my reply said, “No that is crazy, they are my age. That means you are the about the age of my mom… and she is very old”. Touché, my dear, touché. At times like tonight, sleeping in a dorm bed at a backpackers hostel, I feel very old and just a little out of place. I wonder what the hell we are doing, living like gypsies, sleeping with strangers? Tomorrow we will be back in the Hubba Hubba, our cosy tent as we continue our journey down the length of New Zealand and one thing is sure, these crazy Kiwi’s will keep surprising us with their hospitality.

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We have been here about three weeks and have a growing list of contacts in our phones to use “in case you run into trouble, dear”. Random people see the bikes and strike up a conversation which usually ends something like this. “If you happen to find yourself in Gisborne, be sure to come by and stay with me”.  And here’s the crazy thing, they really mean it. If two tired and stinky cyclists happen to turn up on Ruth from Gisborne’s door step, I am sure she would be pleased as punch and pick up the conversation where we last left off! 

A few days ago we took a 6 hour boat charter in order to cross the Hokianga Harbour, part of the Tour Aotearoa route.  We arrived rested and decided to ride into Auckland that night.  A 5:30 start meant we would likely run out of daylight but we hoped to hit the cycle way into the city before dark, allowing us to avoid the morning rush hour traffic which is not a fun experience on New Zealand’s busy highways. The ride took longer than expected and before we knew it we were riding in the pitch black along a secondary highway. About 25 km outside the city limits, a car passed us, slowed down and then pulled over to wait for us to ride by. Despite our lights, we expected to get a good scolding for being out in the dark. The older man who greeted us, asked where we were going at this time of night and then questioned if we had a place to stay lined up in Auckland. After our non-committal response he suggested we follow him home and, if it was up to our “standards”, he had an old caravan in his yard that we were welcome to stay in for the night. Then tonight at dinner, the cafe owner came over and sat down with us and started chatting. The next thing we knew, we were invited to camp in his yard tomorrow night, “no worries mate, I have lots of space, a salt water pool and you can enjoy a beautiful sunset there”. I am not kidding, hasn’t anyone told these people about stranger danger? Why are they so doggone nice?

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It makes me think of a time, not so long ago, in our own country where we were more likely to pick up a stranger by the side of the road, or open our door to a person in need. To take the time to sit and talk with someone and actually listen to them. What has happened to us? Are we too busy, too self involved or just too afraid?  Afraid of them, the mass of humanity out there? Or are we afraid of ourselves and what that mass of humanity may think of us if we step outside our comfort zone and put ourselves out there ripe for rejection?

Food for thought. 

Ear plugs in and now its off to try and find some good dreams. Good night.

Kiwis are cool: Bikepacking New Zealand

I believe it is better not knowing what lies ahead. For one thing, knowing takes away the fun and makes the journey a long, predictable slog to the finish line. For another, if we knew how hard something was going to be our instinct for preservation would likely kick in, causing us to steer clear of anything to difficult or painful. Marriage, parenthood, building a small business are all examples from my own life of things I thought I understood until reality stepped up and slapped me in the face. Life is hard, let’s be honest. Life is effort and work but once you accept this, quit complaining about it and just get on with it, it suddenly becomes a little less hard.

So, while I am feeling philosophical about the struggle called living, let me just say this. What the flying f@#k was I thinking when I decided to it would be “fun” to bicycle the length of New Zealand. 3000km from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South Island plus additional side trips along the way. This land is not flat people! After grunting my way up one hill, I find another waiting to be scaled. I’ve been eating my way through the Caribbean, Christmas holidays and Mexico (oh Mexico, how I love all your delicious foods, especially your churros) for the last 3 months and am woefully out of shape. This is gonna be hard. But here I am, about 400km in and too stubborn to turn back. When I question whether I can do this, my patient husband reminds me to focus on today and then reassures me, we will get stronger. It is fun to have an adventure, it is rewarding to propel myself forward by my own power and it feels good to know I will survive and be (hopefully) more fit by the end. Come to think of it, that pretty much sums up my philosophy on life. Don’t be afraid to try something new (have an adventure), how you choose to live and the life you build is up to you (you have to be the one to propel yourself forward) and  we need struggle to develop resiliency (you will survive and be stronger for it).

Back to the bicycle journey. We have always wanted to visit New Zealand but the long distance from Canada and limited holiday times in years past, made it a trip we kept putting off. Having enjoyed cycle touring in Cuba and Montenegro we started researching cycling in New Zealand. A trip into the google-o-sphere led us to so many great websites on bikepacking (essentially a combination of mountain biking, cycle touring and camping) in general and in New Zealand in particular. Check out bikepacking.com and bikepackingnewzealand.com. During this research we also came across the Tour Aotearoa (TA), one of the worlds great bikepacking trips stretching the entire length of both islands and linking together cycle trails, paths and lanes connected by the most enjoyable back roads availabe/ Jonathan Kennett, a cycle guidebook writer in New Zealand, originally organized the ride as a Brevet event in 2016. As the popularity of bikepacking grows within the cycle community, so does the popularity of this ride which continues to run as an organized event every 2 years in February/March. 2019 is an “off” year however like us, many people are riding the TA simply to experience New Zealand from the seat of a bicycle.

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Auckland, Bay of Islands, Twin Coast Trail and Start of the TA

Arriving in Auckland January 27, 2019, we spent the first few days with a wonderful Warm Showers host building our bicycles, replacing a damaged rear derailleur and warming up our legs with a 40km ride around the city.

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Taking the passenger ferry into Auckland Harbour
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Our transport and home for the next 4 months

Having discovered the joys of mooching off complete strangers, we then hopped an Intercity bus north to Whangerei to stay with Mac and Jennifer Lawrence, the sister and brother-in-law of our good friends Mick and Michelle Skuce. After 2 days exploring the area with our wonderful hosts we remembered that “guests, like fish, start to smell after 3 days” and decided to start our journey North. Jennifer and Marc were kind enough to transport us to our starting point so we could avoid the busy SH1 and ride towards the Bay of Islands on quiet back roads. We wound our way along the East coast to arrive in Russel 2 days later.

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Hiking Trail near Whangerei with Jennifer and Marc

 

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Beautiful beach near Whangerei

Warm rain followed us from Russel, across the passenger ferry and most of the way to Kaikohe as we started our 3 day loop to Horeke and back to Kerikeri on the Twin Coast Cycle Trail, one of the so called “Great Rides” of New Zealand.

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Bridge on Twin Coast Trail

 

 

After an amazing meal at the Mint, a restaurant in an old Bank in Kaikohe we set up camp first for our first night at the Cow Shed Campground. Pretty much an old Dairy farm outside Kaikohe which has converted a cow shed into a basic kitchen, toilet and makeshift lounge area. It was a peaceful spot with a level grassy field to pitch a tent.

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Camping at the Cow Shed

Day two found us enjoying our first of many New Zealand pies for breakfast at Len’s Pies and cycling on towards Horeke. A little research over our breakfast pie suggested there were few camping options near Horeke so we called the Rail Stay, a B&B outside Okaihau to see if they might have a tent spot available that night. We were in luck and despite the owner being away in Auckland, she said she would return that afternoon.  We were welcome to drop our bags and continue out to Horeke and back without our gear, lightening our bikes significantly and increasing our enjoyment of this more hilly portion of the trail ten-fold! 

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Twin Coast Trail on the way to Horeke

Following our return ride to the east coast we stayed in Waipapa just outside Kerikeri with another wonderful Warm Showers host before heading North to Kaitaia and finally on to start our ride from Cape Reinga. We were feeling anxious to get started on the TA route but were forced to determine our start date based on when we could get a transfer across Kaipara Harbour as well as the tide table for our ride down 90 mile beach.  On February 8 we took a shuttle to Cape Reinga and after walking to the lighthouse decided to head to 90 mile beach and start that afternoon.

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View at Cape Reinga looking West
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Cape Reinga lighthouse
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The starting point for the Tour Aotearoa

There is approximately a 6 hour window starting 3 hours before until 3 hours after low tide, where the sand is hard enough for easy cycling.  Easy, however, is a relative term. Yes the beach is flat but…it is flat! No challenging climbs but no zippy downhills to rest our tired legs or butts. I am now intimately acquainted with Butt Butter (and in case you are wondering slathering your bottom in a greasy lube to prevent chaffing of your tender bits, isn’t as sexy as it might sound). Last year, on our ride around Cuba’s Orient, we would set off each morning into a headwind and so it felt like deja vu when we hit 90 mile beach beach and were buffeted by strong winds from the south east at 30 to 50km/hour. The wind slowed our already slow pace to a crawl, taking 2.5 days to ride the 103 km instead of our anticipated 1.5 days.

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The never ending beach – hard to appreciate the winds in a photo

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After our second night camping along the beach and fighting the wind, it was a relief to spot Aihapara in the distance.

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Early morning ride towards Ahipara and the end of 90 mile beach

After a big breakfast we headed off towards Broadwood and a camping area on our map.  Beautiful rolling countryside, big climbs with long fun downhill rewards was a welcome change from the beach. 

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Beautiful ride between Broadwood and Kohukohu

We arrived at our destination mid afternoon to discover everything in town closed due to it being Sunday. We decided to push on to Rawene and look for a camp spot there. Big hills, bigger hills and amazing landscapes kept us entertained as we worked our way deeper into Hokianga district, arriving at an amazing little hostel, The Treehouse.

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The Treehouse Hostel and Campground
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We stayed in this funky old bus instead of setting up our tent.  Super cosy inside and full use of kitchen, showers etc inside at the hostel.  Wonderful hosts! Highly recommended!

Tomorrow it is off to the Waipou Forest and then Dargaville… to be continued. 

Just read through this and realized it is quite a boring read. Apologies! To liven it up a bit, here are a few things I’ve learned about New Zealand:

-A cooler is a chilly bag.

-Your swim suit and towel is your togs.

-Sweet as means, ok good, cool.

-A Bach is a holiday house.

-A gravel road is a metal road.

-When I get bored riding the metal, I entertain myself counting the number of dead possums and hedgehogs I cycle by.

-A Dave is a dick.

-Kumara is a sweet potato and they make them into yummy fries.

-Motorists call cyclists Hoha’s (which I discovered pretty much means pain in the ass).

-Tramping is hiking.

-Kiwis (the birds) are little weirdos but pretty cool birds (no I have not seen one yet)! Kiwis lay one (or occasionally two) huge eggs compared to the size of the bird. When they hatch baby kiwis come out fully feathered and by 5 days are venturing out of the burrow and in some varieties leaving home by 6 weeks of age. This makes them very susceptible to predators. The Department of conservation (DOC) is working to reduce predators and will collect young kiwi and relocate them to predator free islands until they reach maturity at 4 or 5 years after which they are returned to the mainland. 

-Kiwis (the humans) are generally fun loving, humble and kind. One host compared Canadians and Kiwis as being similar. Saying that having a big, brash brother living next door (Australia and America) has made us try harder to be friendly, polite and kind to make up for our brother’s behaviour.  No offence to all my amazing American or Australian friends. I didn’t say it, just repeated it here …. but I will admit it made me smile and kinda made sense. 

Cheers mates, more to come!

Adventure awaits – Reflections on Hobbits, Home, and Veterinary Volunteerism

It’s a dangerous business Frodo, going out of your door… You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. – Bilbo Baggins

This morning as I sip a foul cup that passes for coffee, I realize it has been just over a year since we stepped off the hamster wheel and made some big changes in our lives. We have just finished a 5-week volunteer gig in the Caribbean and in a few days will swap our swimsuits for ski gear as we head home to Rossland, BC the most perfect place to spend Christmas. While I would like to think my gypsy heart would be happy to wander indefinitely, it knows that home is there, waiting quietly for my return. A little town, nestled in the mountains of BC and where my mind goes when I hear the word home. How lucky I am to have a home and to have it waiting patiently for me at the end of each journey.

Each time I return I am greeted by friends and acquaintances that make me feel like a minor celebrity and I realize the decision to step off the hamster wheel early is often misunderstood.  I try not to cringe as I hear the question “how are you enjoying your retirement?” I really need to stop explaining that we are not retired, just making a change in our career and lifestyle goals because, why does it matter?  To walk away from financial success in order to do more of the things I love, to give back in some small way and to explore new career options has been one of the best decisions of my life but it is not easy for everyone to understand. To be honest, learning how to live more simply and on less is a challenge and one I am still figuring out. We all think we need just a little more and we all spend to the limit (or beyond) our income. It isn’t an easy pattern to “unlearn”.

While home calls, waiting to wrap me in the warmth of its familiar embrace, the road continues to beckon, luring me with the thrill of the unknown. Since 2017 I have had the good fortune to spend approximately 20 weeks working as a volunteer vet on projects in 5 different countries and new opportunities await in 2019. I would be lying to say there have not been challenges. Challenging conditions, bureaucratic red tape, exhausting flights, and difficult people. Once hooked, working as a volunteer vet becomes like an addiction. Despite the dirt, the poverty, the overwhelmingly sad cases, I am a junkie waiting for my next fix, my next project.

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This year, I am looking at veterinary volunteering with new eyes and with the hope of making international volunteer work more accessible to other veterinarians and veterinary technicians. Despite the personal rewards and experience gained, the cost of travel and finding time to volunteer is a huge deterrent for many veterinarians and veterinary technicians. Previous blogs have described the benefits of volunteer work (I am Published, Cool beans! and For the Love of Dog) as well as what makes for a great volunteer experience (Try the Goat) but what about the project itself? How do potential veterinarians and veterinary technicians choose from among the many projects in need of their expertise? How can you be sure you are making a difference and also have a fun, positive experience? The answer to this question is complex but can be broken down into two parts. First, taking an honest look at the reasons you want to go on a volunteer trip and second considering the project, its leadership, and goals.

If you have never dipped your toe in the world of veterinary volunteerism, it is difficult to know what to expect and how you will react to challenging conditions. Picture yourself working in a hot, dirty, smell environment with cockroaches in the dog food bin. Consider your ability to practice veterinary medicine with limited tools and supplies. Will you laugh with delight to find drugs and suture only 2 years out of date instead of 6? How do you feel making a treatment decision using only a stethoscope and thermometer as your diagnostic tools? Are you adaptable to using unfamiliar drugs (what has been donated), unfamiliar anesthesia (what is available) and unfamiliar suture (always check its strength before using)? Finally, how will you react to the overwhelming need and neglect (by our Western standards) of so many of the animals in these countries? Can you work within the local cultural context and leave your judgment at home? My blog “Try the Goat” is an attempt to give volunteers some tips on having a great experience but as also a reminder that you need to be honest with yourself and decide if international work is right for you. If you need life’s little luxuries to be happy or if what you really need is a holiday, you may end up disappointed. If you see the world in black and white and cannot practice medicine without structure, familiarity and the organizational hierarchy of modern veterinary hospital, you may find this type of work stressful and anxiety-inducing. Finally, if seeing emaciated, neglected animals, and experiencing different cultural values associated with pet ownership is going to leave you either deeply enraged or deeply depressed, you may want to rethink your participation in an international veterinary project.

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Rob, a small animal vet, stepping outside his comfort zone and performing a Cesarean on a sheep. Large animal medicine, just like riding a bike…

If after reading this you are still excited about offering your skills to a volunteer project, the next step is choosing a great project to join. Do a google search of “veterinary volunteer projects” and you will be overwhelmed with options. Start by narrowing the search to a certain region or part of the world, talk to colleagues who have volunteered and finally consider these key considerations when evaluating your participation in a specific project.

1. Does the project has a clear mission and clearly defined goals (ideally in writing) that guide the decisions of both the project leaders and the volunteers. Read these goals and make sure your ethics align with those of the project leaders. For example, on some projects, sick animals will not be treated unless the owner agrees to sterilization. Are there clear medical protocols and are expectations for volunteers clearly communicated? Clearly defined goals provide a uniform and consistent message to the local community and provide the most efficient and productive use of volunteers energy, resources and time.

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Elaine is pretty happy to effectively sterilize 9 animals with just one surgery.  Meeting project goals and preventing 8 more puppies to hit the street.

2. Is there evidence of accountability? Nonprofit organizations, just like small businesses, need to be accountable to their volunteers and donors. Can the project document how donations are used? Do the organizers make efforts to track and evaluate the impact of the project on the local community and whether it is meeting its goals? Is the board willing to critically evaluate its’ impact and implement changes when it starts to veer off track? This can be a difficult thing for volunteers to evaluate but it worth your consideration. Full disclosure, when I began volunteering, I did not consider accountability. I wanted to escape, travel and experience veterinary medicine in a foreign country. These projects can be costly, you are likely using up your holiday time and you may also be giving up income or time with family in order to participate. With so many organizations looking for volunteers, consider your options and choose wisely.

3. Does the volunteer project respect the local culture and look for ways to become sustainable without outside support? This my friends is a lofty goal and I realize I am naive to expect long-term sustainability without foreign support, but it excites me when I see local community members supporting the project, being employed or trained by project leaders and ultimately becoming advocates for the project within their community.  Consider if there is an education component to the project (is there a school program), are there local supporters who help with the logistics and organization of the project and do they work alongside the foreign volunteers and project leaders to deliver education, sterilization, and medical care? Is there a spirit of collaboration with the local animal care community or are local organizations displaced and disrespected?

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4. Finally, is the project a fun, collaborative and positive experience for volunteers? Do volunteers feel respected, comfortable to ask questions and voice concerns without fear of being judged or shut down? Does leadership support a collaborative approach and foster an environment of improvement and learning? Do volunteers feel appreciated and supported? Are all volunteers, regardless of their experience, age or role on the project treated consistently with equal respect and perks? After leading a team for 20 years, I can confidently say, it is lonely at the top. Your team doesn’t care about your needs or how hard you work and nor should they. You took on this role and while it isn’t easy to stay positive and not let your personal biases influence your behavior and actions, at the end of the day, it is your responsibility. Before signing on to a project, talk to past volunteers about their experience, and be sure the time and money you spend in order to offer your skills we are rewarded with appreciation and respect.

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After 5 months of working as a veterinary volunteer I am fully aware that I have the easiest job, just show up and work hard. I appreciate the countless hours of work that goes into organizing these projects. From bringing together leaders and volunteers with different backgrounds and personalities, to engaging the support of the local community. From fundraising and bringing the required drugs and supplies across international borders to staying focused and positive in the face of daily roadblocks that can be overwhelming. It requires a phenomenal work ethic, passion, and perseverance that often goes unrecognized and sometimes unappreciated.  I tip my hat to all of you, the leaders with whom I have had the privilege of volunteering over the past 2 years.

So after all this thoughtful advice, my final comment is simple. Know yourself, do your homework and then stop overthinking it. Put on your pack, tuck in some lembas bread and open the door of your safe little hobbit hole. Step outside by placing one foot in front of the other as you walk through the Shire and into the great beyond. Adventure awaits, not for the strong or the brave, but for those with an open mind and a curious heart.

Home is behind, the world ahead, And there are many paths to tread through shadows to the edge of night, Until the stars are all alight. Then world behind and home ahead, We’ll wander back and home to bed. Mist and twilight, cloud and shade, Away shall fade! Away shall fade! – J.R. Tolkien

On the road again: Random ramblings of a volunteer veterinarian.

So here’s the thing; it is really flipping hot here. Hot and humid. Rivers of sweat sliding off my face and traveling down my body on a journey to some unknown ocean, hot. Why isn’t there a call for volunteer vets in Iceland?

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Time for a tasty smoothy in Hillsborough Carriacou

So here’s the other thing; apparently there are about 3000 different species of mosquitos worldwide and scientific studies (the number of bites counted in one square inch of my exposed ankles) prove that all 3000 species are to be found in Carriacou.

So here’s the final thing; despite the heat and the mosquitos, it is good to be back volunteering. We arrived in Carriacou, a small island off the coast of Grenada about a week ago. Rob and I spent about 7 weeks here in April and May of 2018 (see Where the Heck is Carriacou) and are back for another 6 weeks working with this special project.  When we were here in the spring, it was very dry and water on the island was scarce. Livestock, plants, and people were feeling the effects of low rainfall and water shortage. Now we are catching the end of the hurricane (rainy) season and the island is lush, green and cisterns are full.

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Eye enucleation surgery
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Puppy recovering from surgery

We have been very busy since our arrival on the island, treating the usual array of skin diseases and parasites. Performing sterilization surgeries and health checks as well as 3 eye enucleations. We have had a number of poisoning cases (a common occurrence on the island), tick fever cases and the frustrating but ever-present cases of neglect or abuse. So many of the problems we see arise from lack of education and pet overpopulation. We are working to improve the condition of the animals and in turn the health of both the wildlife and humans who are impacted by diseases in our domestic pets. Some days are difficult and it can be too easy to judge the actions of others based on our own cultural mores.  The goal of traveling and working with an open mind can be easily forgotten and my personal rule of “seeking first to understand” tossed aside.

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Dog suffering from anemia most likely due to tick fever and malnutrition

Cultural relativism is the idea that a person’s beliefs, values, and practices should be understood based on that person’s own culture, rather than be judged against the criteria of another cultures’ mores, values. Right and wrong are culture-specific and the ability to understand a culture on its own terms rather than using the standards of your own culture can be very beneficial when doing this kind of work. Sorta like what your mom always said, “don’t judge others until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes”.

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Severely emaciated dog, this photo does not really show how thin this dog was. She was tied up for “punishment” without food or water

This is a very simplified explanation of cultural relativism, a concept which is actually a very complex. Working and living in Carriacou however, brings this concept to mind daily as I interact with the friendly kayaks (what people from Carriacou call themselves), the expat population who now call Carriacou home, the tourists visiting the island and the other volunteers. I am hardly the person to get into a philosophical debate about this topic but I will say it can be hard to reconcile my own personal beliefs on animal welfare and sustainable veterinary volunteerism with that of the expat and tourist population. I feel it is important that foreign volunteers remember this is not their home and not their culture. Respect for the local people and their way of life is imperative to the success of the project. We are here to support the veterinary needs of the island dogs and cats based on what is culturally relevant for Carriacou.  This may look quite different than how we care for our own dogs and cats at home but without sensitivity and respect for cultural differences, the project will be doomed from the start. How do you react when someone treats you in either a patronizing way or simply tells you your ideas have no merit and are wrong? For most of us, this attitude ends the conversation and becomes a huge roadblock to progress and change. 

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Community outreach to provide free flea, tick and deworming treatments to local dogs

Let me give you an example. You live in Canada, or the USA or the UK or perhaps France (you get the idea, you are from a culture of privilege). You travel to a little island in the Caribbean (or Malaysia, or Malawi) for a much needed holiday and a chance to see a new part of the world. You get off the plane, it is hot, muggy and you are immediately hit with new sounds, smells and find yourself in a world remarkably different than where you came from. There is a period of adjustment and some culture shock, which you may or may not have anticipated. As you walk to dinner at a fine restaurant the guidebook recommended, you pass several “street” dogs who are in various states of poor health. Thin to the point of emaciated, perhaps limping, perhaps they look mangy. But the dogs seem so sweet and so friendly and as you eat your expensive meal (by local standards) you think about those hungry dogs. You want to help but how? You give one a pet as you leave the restaurant and the poor thing follows you back to your hotel. He is waiting outside the next morning and greets you with hopeful eyes. You save a little of your breakfast and bring it home for him and by the end of your holiday, you’ve fallen in love and want to take him back to Canada, or the USA, or the UK or perhaps France.

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Yachts anchored off Carriacou

So what’s the big deal and is there anything wrong with this scenario? On one hand, it happens all the time and for that individual dog, should you manage to work out the paperwork and red tape to adopt the sweet creature and give it a life of luxury, where is the harm? I am not saying this is wrong, I am just suggesting that people need to look at the bigger picture. That dog most likely had an owner and it is quite possible the owner does love their dog but does not have the financial resources or knowledge to provide better care. Most likely in this culture dogs are not kept in fenced yards and wander and find food where they can. If you had not fed him, he probably would have gone home. When you “rescue” one dog you need to realize it will be quickly replaced by another who will soon be leading the same life as the animal you rescued. While you can feel good about what you did and you can take comfort knowing that you made a difference for one animal, don’t fool yourself into thinking this is really making a difference to the local dog population. In fact, you may have damaged the relationship between the “locals” and the veterinary volunteers working in that country. Your skin is the same color as theirs, you came and basically stole a dog. How will this action be perceived? Perhaps the local population will doubt the intentions of the veterinary project working in that community? Your actions may contribute to a feeling of distrust between the local people and the volunteers. “They say they are here to help us and our animals but how can we trust them if they allow our dogs to be stolen?” Obviously, I am making a point here and trying to give an example of how our actions, however well-intentioned, may actually create more harm than good. Making a difference is hard work. It is complicated. It means being culturally sensitive, carefully considering the consequences of your actions and ideally, being in it for the long haul. Perhaps, most importantly, it means leaving your judgment and moral superiority at home.

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I wonder if I am becoming jaded because I now cringe whenever I hear or see this quote “Saving one animal will not change the world, but the world will change for that one animal”. I understand the sentiment and agree that it is better to do something than to stand by and do nothing but I also think we need to explore the ramifications of our actions and be sure we are basing them on not only what is best for ONE animal, but also what is best for the entire POPULATION. Remaining idealistic is hard when faced with so much suffering. If I can be honest with you, I struggle to know if our volunteerism over the last few years is just a self-centered quest for meaning or if it actually makes a difference. But then, on a good day, I remind myself and truly believe that it is the small acts of kindness that accumulate and end up making the world a better place. Perhaps I just have too much time for self-reflection?

When in doubt default to kindness.

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L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.

As I write tonight there is a welcome chill in the air after the hot days of July. I flip the calendar page to August and realize it is time to start thinking about the year ahead and making plans.  I have been talking about going back to school and using my experience as a veterinarian along with my business experience and people skills to help other veterinarians build amazing careers and lead balanced lives outside veterinary medicine. Something that is finally on the collective minds of our profession and is sorely needed. I truly love being a vet and the thought of building a new career to help other vets find the joy and satisfaction I have experienced in my profession excites me BUT… There is always a “but” isn’t there? Getting my executive coaching certification, while not impossible to do while vagabonding around the world, will be more difficult. Staying put in Canada and working towards this goal would definitely make things easier.

Over our favorite craft beer (at the Rossland Beer Company), we talked it out and tried to come up with a “plan” for the year ahead.  As I looked into the red/gold liquid of my Helter Smelter Amber Ale, the words from a song by Noah and the Whale started playing in my head.

“On my last night on Earth, I won’t look to the sky

Just breathe in the air and blink in the light

On my last night on Earth, I’ll pay a high price

to have no regrets and be done with my life.”

“L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.

You’ve got more than money and sense, my friend

You’ve got heart and you’re going your own way”

I thought back to April 2016, Rob and I were bouncing across a flat plain in Botswana on our first trip to Africa. We were on a budget camping safari and loving every minute of it. With a hot wind in our faces, we had the tunes blaring as we shared a set of earbuds and watched the surreal scenery unfold around us.

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We still owned our veterinary practice and the management pressure and workload was weighing heavily. I needed to make a change, hire a practice manager or commit more time to management and less to being a vet. I was struggling with how to move forward and honestly struggling to figure out what I wanted from life. L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N was playing and as I listened to the lyrics I realized it was time for us to stop putting off the things we want to do. What an amazing journey to build a small practice from nothing into a business and vision we could be proud of. To be part of a great community and to be able to provide a livelihood for several families in that community. But what did Elaine really want, on her last night on earth? That’s the kicker? What are my regrets and what can I do to reduce any regrets going forward?

My biggest priority has always been my family. If I am honest, it wasn’t always easy being a wife, mother and a veterinarian. The pressures of running a business, managing staff and client demands, being on call and also being present for my husband and children left me feeling like I was running on empty some days. Which seems crazy because I also had a supportive business and life partner, who I know felt the same way most days! Being in it together and having each other’s back, helped us survive those crazy times. Perhaps it is one of life’s great ironies that once you finally have more time and are able to enjoy each moment, your children suddenly don’t need you as intensely. They’ve grown and moved on to their own lives, which is as it should be.

What I do know moving forward is that my family is still my biggest priority and I want to be their biggest fan. I want to be there for the big moments. I want to have the time and make the effort to be a part of their lives while giving them the space they need to become their own people as they figure out this next phase. I also know I want to keep pushing my fear aside, trying new things, meeting new people and not let my fear of looking or sounding foolish hold me back. So if I don’t pursue a coaching career will I have regrets? Probably. When I am at end of days, looking back on my life will I regret not taking another year to bugger off, travel, volunteer and see more of this big beautiful world? Definitely. Decision made. Now I just need to stick with it and quit the second guessing.

Pretty great life, to be sure. If you are feeling envious, don’t be, instead be inspired. Ask yourself what you want, what’s holding you back and make a plan. Face your fears and do what you need to do, in order to find the joy you deserve. No regrets.

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