Six Months and Home…and Six Months at Home

On January 4, during our 18-hour layover in the Dubai airport, on our way home to Austin from the Okavango Delta in Botswana, I was deep into mourning the end of our trip.  While John was sound asleep in the Dubai airport hotel (conveniently located within the terminal, inside of security), I spent hours restlessly walking up and down the terminal, catching glimpses of camel racing on TV, eating Pinkberry frozen yogurt, and drinking coffee.  Back in the room, with John still sleeping, I watched whatever movies were on TV and stared listlessly at my computer screen.  I think my mourning period had started at some point during our two weeks in New Zealand and then deepened while we were on safari.  Yes, I cried during a stop at the Johannesburg airport.

John, meanwhile, carried on with enthusiasm to the very last moment of our trip.  Unlike me, and very much like normal people, he experiences his emotions as they happen.  I’m such an extreme planner that I anticipate and experience my emotions ahead of time.  As you might expect, I’m not very good with surprises and spontaneity.

Upon arriving home, having already mourned, I settled back into our routine with gusto.  I was thrilled to be back in the kitchen, shopping at Whole Foods and then cooking all of the things I’d missed eating while we were gone.  While I was bustling around, John’s depression hit hard.  Now it was his turn to be withdrawn and listless.

Of course, we both eventually settled back into the swing of things (with John even back working where he was before we left).  We’ve settled back in to such an extent that sometimes, sadly, it almost feels like we never left, and that the whole trip was just some kind of dream.  But then something will trigger a memory of an experience we had somewhere along the way, and we’ll laugh and reminisce about it.  Like that time we almost got stuck at the Datong airport for two days.  Ah, mem’ries.  As John’s brother would say, tragedy + time = comedy.

Now that we’ve had six months back at home to reflect on the experience, I know we’d both go again in a heartbeat.  There are probably a lot of things we’d do differently if we could do it all over again.  There are certainly some places we’d cross off the list and others we’d add.  But still, we recognize that the places we didn’t like all that much and the regular ups and downs we experienced added color and perspective to the trip.  They say that the first year of marriage is the hardest, so I guess by throwing in six months of constant togetherness and unfamiliar environments, we really put ourselves to the test.  I think so much of what we learned along the way about ourselves and each other has just become standard operating procedure for us now.  We’ve incorporated those lessons into our day to day lives, and we’re the better for it.  And now we say for our 20-year anniversary we’re going to repeat the trip…so I guess I’d better start planning that now!

This is the end of Shelley and John’s Big Adventure 2012.  Join us in 2032 for the next installment.


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The Best of Botswana

Rather than words, I think the best way to communicate our Botswana safari is through some of my favorite pictures that we took there.  I’ve tried to narrow it down to just the highlights, but there were a lot of highlights!  It’s a really beautiful country, where you really feel like you can have a “back to nature, middle-of-nowhere” experience, and our guides were exceptionally kind people.  I can’t wait to go back.

For the best viewing, click on the first picture, and it’ll take you to a captioned gallery that you can scroll through:

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Red Rocks, Black Rhino

At our second camp in Namibia, we were told that we could see black rhinos.  This really piqued our interest because rhinos are a critically endangered species and very difficult to spot in the wild.  Seeing one is a very special experience.

To attempt it would make for a very long day – 3:30am wake up, on the road by 4am, 2 hour drive to where they live, and then get lucky enough to see one.  Quite a tall order!  But, Shelley and I decided to give it a shot.

The early morning drive was long and cold, but ultimately we were rewarded.  Shelley spotted a rhino!  We couldn’t get too close because of their shy nature – they typically run away from the safari vehicles.  But Shelley was able to snap several pictures of our rhino at a distance.


Mission accomplished.

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Red Dunes


Before we knew it morning had come and we found ourselves trying to wake up in a Land Cruiser rumbling toward Namib-Naukluft National Park.  It was about an hour’s drive from our camp.  As we drove, we watched the sunlight come up over the park’s enormous red sand dunes, creating squiggle lines across the horizon.  It was some of the most spectacular scenery we had ever seen.

The Land Cruiser eventually came to a stop at the base of Dune 45 – each of the dunes in the park is numbered for easier identification.  This dune was right off the road, and was climbable.  Quite an adventure!


Climbing a monster sand dune isn’t as easy as I thought it would be.  You learn very quickly that the easiest way up is by walking right on the ridge, directly inside the footprints of the person in front of you.  The folks in front pack the sand for you and make each step a little bit easier.  We didn’t hike all the way to the top of Dune 45, but we did make it a good distance up – high enough to feel like we were on top of the world.

  Click to Watch Video

After making our way down and getting at least some of the sand out of our shoes, we drove on toward Sossusvlei and Deadvlei.  These two areas, salt and clay pans around which some of the largest sand dunes in the world have formed, are the main attractions of the park.  As we approached, our guide stopped the car and pointed out the tallest sand dune in the park, affectionately called “Big Daddy”.

Big Daddy averages 350 meters in height.  Although a bit intimidated after climbing the now seemingly easy Dune 45, we decided that climbing Big Daddy was something that we just had to do.  We’re only here once, right?



Luckily for us, two other women in our group also decided to climb and were in a little better shape.  We walked behind them most of the way, using their footprints as we had learned.  But, it still was not easy.  The climb took us almost 2 hours and our legs were burning.  But, we got an incredible sense of accomplishment when we reached the top.

The way down was much easier – just pick a side and start running.  We chose to run down the side of Big Daddy adjacent to Deadvlei.  You can see Deadvlei above, the white area on the left side of the picture.  Deadvlei means “dead marsh”, an appropriate name due to the dead trees that still stand there.  It’s kind of eerie.  You can see the trees below, and if you look closely, you can see the path we took down the side of Big Daddy.  The video below shows what the descent was like.

  Click to Watch Video

What wasn’t captured on the video was when started running uncontrollably fast and almost ate it headfirst down the hill.  Luckily, I was able to fall in a semi-controlled fashion and stop myself.  But, being as sweaty as I was I became covered in sand literally from head to toe.  It was a gritty experience.

I still have Namibia sand in my shoes to this day.

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We made it to Namibia

Our journey from New Zealand to Namibia – 4 flights, one flight cancellation, 14 hours of layovers, about 40 hours total travel time – left us completely exhausted.  But, the excitement of finally being in Africa really helped us deal with the jetlag and our just-off-the-plane-after-40-hours-of-travel grossness.  When we arrived at our first safari camp in the Namib desert, we resisted the temptation of showers and an early bedtime and hopped into a land cruiser for our first evening game drive.


The desert adapted animals of the Namib desert aren’t what you typically associate with a big game safari.  There weren’t any lions or elephants in this part of Namibia.  That being said, we still saw many different kinds of animals as we drove through the desert to our evening sundown spot.  The scenery was breathtaking, and reminded me of the backpacking trips I’d taken to Big Bend National Park with my buddies back home.

After getting back to the camp, we didn’t last very long.  We grabbed showers, ate dinner as quickly as we could, and collapsed into bed.  Tomorrow we would start all over with a 5am wakeup call, and the scenery would get even better.


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Whale Watching and Swimming with Seals

After driving through the central and southern parts of New Zealand’s South Island, through lots of varied mountain and glacial landscapes, and then up the west coast to see the pancake rocks, we headed northeast to Kaikoura to round out our tour of the South Island.

We were excited to try some new water-based adventures in Kaikoura, which is one of New Zealand’s main places for viewing marine mammals in their native habitats.  So on a beautiful, sunny morning, we set out to buy tickets for a whale watching expedition.  I think we both expected the goal of the trip would be to see lots and lots of whales and to watch as they breached and dove and did all kinds of fun things.  Well, we learned that the whale watching off Kaikoura is a little different.  Because of the sudden drop off to cold, deep water, Kaikoura is a prime spot for male sperm whales, which live solitary lives and don’t jump or show off much.  Sperm whales are a good sight, though, as they’re the largest whale with teeth (as opposed to baleen), and they also have the largest brains of any mammal on earth.  They’re also the deepest diving mammal–they can reach depths of almost 10,000 feet–which can make them difficult to spot, since they spend so much time deep under water.  As the boat got underway, we were cautioned that we might not see a whale at all.

Lucky for us, the crew was able to find a whale that had been sighted earlier in the day, but we were surprised to find that he was just floating there, sleeping.  I’d never once thought before about whales sleeping.  I mean, it makes sense that they need to, just like all mammals, but it had never occurred to me that they might just be floating along in the ocean taking a nap.  Our boat didn’t disturb the sleeping whale in the slightest.  We hung out for a while, taking some pictures (below on the left), hoping he might wake up, but he was out cold.  So we headed off in search of another male and this time we really got lucky–the whale was hanging out on the surface preparing for a deep dive.  The crew got us in position quickly and we managed to catch pictures of him (below on the right) just as he plunged.  You might notice a lovely brown puddle around his tail–yes, that is what you think it is.  Apparently sperm whales are known to empty their bowels just before they dive.


I think the whale watching turned out a little differently than we’d expected, but it was still really interesting, and it was wonderful to be out on such a beautiful day.  As we returned to shore, I took some pictures of the rock pools on the coast and also of the stunning snow-capped Kaikoura Mountains that meet the Pacific Ocean.


The next day we set out for another marine mammal experience–swimming with seals.  We had the option of swimming with dolphins or swimming with seals, but it seems like there are more opportunities to see dolphins around the world, so we opted for the seals.  I think secretly I hoped it would be like hanging out with a group of lovable, playful puppies, but I found out that seals are a lot more timid around humans than I’d expected. The water was COLD, so we got suited up in full, thick wetsuits topped off with caps and gloves.  Our captain led the five of us on the trip on a snorkeling expedition along the coastline, where we watched seals flop into the water and cautiously check us out below the surface.  We swam through a narrow channel with sunny rocks on each side while the seals hung out on the rocks and slept.  Just at the end of our swim, John and I hung behind the others in our group and floated motionlessly in the shallow water to spend a little more time watching the seals.  Since we were so still, the seals seemed to get a little more comfortable and flopped into the water right next to us.  It was really fun to have the chance to get so close to them in their native habitat and see, outside of an aquarium, how they really play and sleep and live.



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If Your Husband Jumped off a Bridge, Would You?

Long before we started planning our honeymoon, before we ever started talking about visiting New Zealand, I knew that if I ever made it there, I wanted to go bungy jumping.  I guess I just took it for granted that I would want to try it in the place where it originated.  So once we added New Zealand to the itinerary, I never mentioned our visit there without also saying that we had to make sure to include bungy jumping.

John was less convinced.  He didn’t say no to the idea, but he was not so enthusiastic about it.  I guess while I was excited, he was nervous.  But he agreed to go along.  So once we made it to Queenstown, the self-designated “Adventure Capital of the World,” and the home of bungy jumping, we booked our jumps at AJ Hackett Bungy, where the bungy pioneers AJ Hackett and Henry van Asch made their first bungy jump in November 1988.  They jumped off the Kawarau River Bridge, which sits about 43 meters, or 141 feet, or 13 stories, above the river.

The Kawarau River is a beautiful attraction in and of itself.  For years I’ve thought that the scene towards the end of the first Lord of the Rings movie, where the members of the fellowship of the ring are rowing down the River Anduin through Argonath, the twin pillars of the kings, is one of the most beautiful scenes in the movie trilogy.  Little did I know that that particular scene was filmed on the Kawarau River, just around a bend from where the AJ Hackett Bungy site is.


We scheduled our big jump for late morning, and we arrived a little ahead of time so we’d have a chance to watch a couple of other folks jump before it was our turn.  I think that probably only added to the nerves.  By that point, I had joined John in feeling incredibly anxious about the jump.  Before we walked up to the bridge, we both made nervous trips to the bathroom and found the signs indicating the women’s and men’s bathrooms to be amusing.


Then it was time to walk the plank.  As we stepped onto the bridge, John all of a sudden got really excited and his nerves completely melted away.  Meanwhile, I was shaking.  With his newfound enthusiasm, John volunteered to jump first.  You can see the excitement in John’s face and the trepidation in mine.


After getting all strapped in, John stepped up to the edge and actually dove off of the bridge.  When my turn came, my knees buckled and I just pitched forward.  During the initial fall, before the bungy cord snapped me back, I really thought that that might be it for me, that I would plunge headfirst into the glacial-fed river, and the honeymoon would be over.  But then the cord snapped me back, and all of sudden it was really fun.  During the next several bounces, I regained my form a little bit.





Then the crew on the bridge lowered the cord and the “rescue crew” waiting in the raft below reeled me in.  They were asking me questions about my education and where I was from, I think to bring me back around and make sure I was alright.  I had so much adrenaline pumping through my veins, and such an extreme sense of relief and excitement, that I almost couldn’t talk.  When I met up with John on the stairs back up to the main building, we both shouted, “Let’s go do it again!”  But fortunately sense won out and we just headed off to check out the pictures of our jumps.




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Hiking New Zealand

New Zealand is such a beautiful place, you can’t help but want to be outside.  And that’s pretty much how we spent our time in New Zealand – outdoors enjoying the view.

Visitors wanting to get outdoors in New Zealand often focus on the longer, well known hikes like the Milford and Routeburn tracks.  But, these hikes require backpacking experience, a lot of planning, and several days to accomplish.  And that, unfortunately, wasn’t going to fit into our busy New Zealand schedule.  Instead, we opted for day hikes, which turned out to be a great option for us.  We would go for a hike in the morning, get back to the campervan by about one, have some lunch, and then drive to our next destination where we would camp for the night.  The perfect schedule!  Even on longer driving days, when we would spend most of our time in the campervan driving from place to place, we would still get out and stretch our legs for a little bit.  Trailheads practically line the roads in New Zealand, and with so much of the south island being national parkland, you really can’t go wrong.  But, if we had to choose the best of the best, three day hikes that we took probably stand out – Lake Tekapo / Mt. John, Mt. Cook’s Hooker Valley Track, and the Rob Roy Glacier Track.

We arrived at Lake Tekapo Village on our second full day in NZ.  It was a bit overcast when we got there.  But, as the day progressed, the sun came out to reveal the true color of Lake Tekapo (Tee-kah-poe), an incredible turquoise blue created by the “rock flour” deposited in the lake by glacier melt.  Practically every bit of water we saw in New Zealand, from the lakes to the rushing rivers, was this beautiful shade of blue.

There isn’t much to do around Lake Tekapo except relax and gaze at the lake, but the view and our morning hike kept us occupied for hours.  There’s a nice hiking trail that takes you to the top of Mount John, where you can take in a 360 degree view of the area at a small cafe.  It was a steep climb, so the lunch we packed in the campervan never tasted so good.  Especially the chewy caramel TimTams, which we’ve since decided are the best packaged cookies on the planet.




After our Lake Tekapo hike, we headed toward Mt. Cook.  The drive was spectacular – especially the part of the road that took us alongside Lake Pukaki – another beautiful blue glacier fed lake – toward Mt. Cook National Park.  Every road we took gave us a different, more breathtaking view.

We arrived at Mt. Cook Village with enough time to get in a short hike to Tasman Glacier.  This view was a short walk from the car park, not thirty minutes from Mt. Cook Village.

Mt. Cooks’ Hooker Valley track was my favorite hike.  The sunny weather combined with the soaring mountains and rushing streams just sealed it for me.  I’ve never been in a more beautiful place.  The scenery was so unbelievable, some of our pictures look like we’ve been photoshopped into them.


This track ends in a spectacular view – Mt. Cook. standing behind the snout of the Hooker Glacier.  It was the perfect spot for a rest and a snack.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see any pieces of the glacier calve into the lake while we were there.  We did see several iceburgs in the lake, though.  And we definitely heard the glacier creaking and rumbling.   It took us off guard when we first heard it because it sounded like little earthquakes or avalanches.


The Rob Roy Glacier Track was one of the tougher day hikes we accomplished.  It was 6K one way with 500 meters of elevation change from the car park to the glacier lookout point.  The weather on the day didn’t cooperate much, either.  It was rainy and chilly.  But, we put on our rain gear and soldiered on up the mountain anyway.


This nicely kept trail begins along the ice blue Matukituki river and follows the water all the way up the mountain.  So, there was a constant roar of whitewater while we walked.

I wasn’t prepared for the view we would get at the end of this trail.  Towering peaks, blue glaciers, and more than 25 waterfalls, including one of the tallest free falling waterfalls on the south island (1000 feet!).  If the weather had been clear, this view may have trumped Hooker Valley.  Our pictures just don’t do it justice.


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The Camper Van Experience

From Sydney, Australia, we flew to Christchurch, New Zealand, where we picked up our home for the next two weeks–a Wilderness camper van.  Although it did smell a little bit like wet dog, the camper van was pretty nice and had everything we could hope for–a double bed, a kitchen complete with a sink, refrigerator, and four burner range, and a full (yet compact) bathroom with a sink, toilet, and shower.  Best of all, because the camper van was fully self-contained (meaning it had mechanisms to store all of our waste until we could empty the tanks at a dump station), we were able to “freedom camp,” so we could pull off the road anywhere we liked and park ourselves for the night.  Since New Zealand’s South Island has almost no people–just lots of cows and sheep–in a setting like one giant national park, it was really great to just find a beautiful spot and set up camp for the night.  Our first night we camped close to where this picture was taken.

New Zealand is truly a stunning country.  Each day we would say, “There’s no way it can be better than yesterday,” but day after day we encountered beautiful springtime landscapes and spectacular views.  On our second day, while en route to Mount Cook, John pulled off the road so we could take some pictures of one of the beautiful views along the way.

I took on the role of documenting life in the camper van while John handled the hardcore duties, like emptying all of our waste (yuck).  First he’d dump the gray water and then the toilet cassette.  He’d rinse out the cassette and refill it with some kind of blue liquid that helped to break down the waste.  Then he’d refill the water tank with fresh, potable water.  And finally he’d celebrate when it was all done.

      Afterwards, the first thing he’d do each time he climbed back into the driver’s seat was thoroughly scrub his hands with an antibacterial wipe.  John was a real trooper.  In addition to the waste-emptying, he also handled all of our driving, since (a) I don’t know how to drive a manual shift (much less in a huge van), (b) I’ve never driven on the left side of the road, and (c) I’m a nervous driver.  In the passenger seat, I’d keep John entertained by attempting to navigate (the GPS was much better at it), pointing out the Lord of the Rings filming sites we’d just happen to be passing (they’re everywhere!), and reading articles to him from the NY Times.  I’ll admit it–I would generally also take a nap each afternoon.

Here’s John demonstrating how we’d sleep in the camper van (plus actually sleeping):


It sounds a little funny to say it, since by the time we got to New Zealand we’d been traveling together for five months, but one of the things we enjoyed most about our two weeks in the camper van was all of the quality time that we had together.  Up until that point, we’d had internet access almost everywhere we were, and failing that we’d have TV, or other people around.  In New Zealand, we were truly off the grid, and just with each other.  Most of the time we couldn’t even listen to the radio because New Zealand’s South Island isn’t populated enough to have radio everywhere.  (We did make it through one round of the Bruno Mars CD that someone before us left in the camper van’s CD player.  Once was more than enough.)  Spending hours together in the van and on various hikes and other outings, we enjoyed just being together and talking.  We realized that it reminded us of the very earliest stages of our relationship, when I was still living in New York, and we’d spend hours and hours on the phone together each night.  I think we were both surprised and happy that after traveling together for so long, we still had so much to say to each other.  Those two weeks were really special.

Many people have asked us what our favorite place was that we visited, and where we’d most like to go back.  To both of those questions, we always answer New Zealand.  It really is the most beautiful place that either of us has ever been.

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The Money Trail – Australia

On our way to the Sydney airport, Shelley remembered that I hadn’t yet gotten a picture of Australian money.  So, here’s a quick, taxi cab edition of The Money Trail.

1 USD ~= .97 Australian Dollars

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