Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Domestic Bliss in Timaru

Watching the sunset from our free
and legal camping spot  in Timaru
We rolled up to the sunny town of Timaru (pop 27,000) over 19 days ago.  We were unaware that we would be spending so much time here.  Soon after arriving, an "Australia sized storm" hit New Zealand and grounded us for more than 2 weeks.  The NZ Herald called it the "biggest storm on the planet".  The gale force winds (80 mph) and snow in the mountains lasted 2 weeks.  They say that they have lost half a million lambs due to the cold weather and storms.  Yes, lambing season is at the end of winter -- poor little lambs.  During the storm's fury, we just happened to pick the only place in the country that was sunny and dry! In fact, today, Timaru had the highest temperature in the entire country (23.3 C = 74 F).  I forgot to mention that we are in the southern part of the South Island, usually not the warmest place.  We are stupidly still holding out for some snowboarding.

Sun Conures in the free aviary in Timaru.
They never left each others side.
If you're going to be grounded due to weather, Timaru seems to be the place to be.  It has large parks where we can run and/or bike everyday.  One of the parks has an aviary that we visit almost everyday (you know you're getting old when the highlight of your day is the aviary).  We got to be pretty good friends with the big white cockatoo...after we started bringing our old bread (shhhh).  When he wanted more bread, he would say "hellllooo". They also have a pretty beachside location with FREE and LEGAL campervan parking. They request that stays are limited to no more than 3 nights. I guess we broke that rule, but they don't seem too motivated to enforce it at this time of the year. Lately we have been venturing out of town to some clifftop sleeping spots.  During the harvest moon, we watched the moon rise over the ocean for a few nights -- I almost needed my sunglasses!

Watching the full moon rise
The library has free wireless where we spent the past few days repairing a massive computer crash on our 13-month old HP laptop.  Why do we still own stock in HP?  I'm writing this post while reinstalling all of our software and backed-up files.  During the frenzy of realizing we lost all of our photos, documents, etc. from the past 6 months, I learned that our Visa credit card gives you an added year to the manufacturer's warranty on items that you purchase with the card.  If I hadn't been able to fix the computer, this would have been a great option for us.  Who knew?!  I write this hoping to encourage other people to take advantage of this little perk if your card offers it.  Some credit card companies may require you to register the product with them when you purchase it, but that's not a bad thing, as it is probably easier than tracking down your original receipt.

No pharmacy visit needed

Timaru's retailers have received more money from us than any other place in New Zealand (van repairs do not count as retail).  Scott bought a spiffy new wetsuit, and we also bought another portable hard drive.  You can probably guess why we purchased the portable hard drive.  We also bought our replacement propane tank here and "donated" our old one to the local gas-supply shop.

When we first arrived in Timaru, Scott was having pain in the tooth that was root canaled in OZ last year.  The pain had slowly built over the past month (something he never told me).  Turns out, he had to get it extracted. The whole dental experience was fast, friendly, and inexpensive.  Scott had 3 appointments, including a tricky extraction, two x-rays, narcotics, and an emergency follow-up where he got antibiotics.  The dentist counted out the penicillin capsules, put them in a small brown bag, and wrote the instructions on the bag.  The whole thing (including meds) cost $193 USD.

Timaru has been good to us, but I think it's time to move on.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Backcountry Snowboarding in The Two Thumbs Range

After the earthquake in Christchurch, we stuck around for a few days because the weather was sunny.  Eventually though, we got a fed up with the constant aftershocks waking us up at night and the lack of safe tap water. We headed a few hours south to the Two Thumbs Range.  Because the snow level was high, we drove to Mt. Dobson, home of the highest carpark in New Zealand. Our backcountry ski book didn't mention Dobson as a potential spot, but Scott had a sneaking suspicion.

Hiking back up after our first run down the backside
The expedition didn't start well. The snow in the muddy parking lot was slushy, and the mountain was a complete whiteout.  We decided to climb up just for the workout, but when we made it to the top, the clouds parted and the sun broke through ... cue the singing angels.  We really couldn't believe our eyes. It was absolutely breathtaking.  Massive mountains all around us!  As heavy clouds approached, we found a run down the backside of the ridge that was softened by the sun -- my first time riding on pure corn snow.  I'm hooked on the corn.  For the uninitiated, corn snow is snow that has gone through repeated melt-freeze cycles and is usually found in the spring.  In the morning, corn snow is an unforgiving hard crust, but with sun exposure, the frozen corn kernels separate to provide excellent boarding. If you can't have powder, corn is the next best thing!!

Great sleeping in the Mt. Dobson lot

To avoid having to drive back up in the morning, we asked the Dobson manager if we could spend the night in the parking lot.  He agreed, and we ended up staying for 3 nights.  The second day was a bust.
Hanging out in the snowpit
We climbed to the ridge just in time for the clouds to create a complete whiteout. Given the surprise clearing on the first day, we dug a snow pit and waited for 2 hours, hoping for a repeat.  No such luck. The clouds never cleared, and we got cold, so we headed back to the van.  Bummer.  Our final day made up for it, as we had some quality corn with sunshine all day. Scott said it was the most beautiful day he's ever spent in the mountains. The pictures don't do it justice.

Scott's "two thumbs" pose
A downturn in the weather forced us back to sea-level, where we headed to a small coastal town called Timaru.  Timaru deserves it's own blog post.  After a few days waiting for the weather to settle, we went back up to the Two Thumbs Range.  This time, we decided to access the range via Fox Peak skifield.  In the valley, as we started to climb towards Fox Peak, we encountered a small bridge. It was labeled "cars only", with directions for other vehicles to ford the river.  Um, not possible for our van.  The river was deep and the rocks were massive.  WTH?  The sign said the bridge had a load limit of 2500 kg with a maximum width of 1.9 meters.  Our van weighs more than 2500 kg and the wheels are 1.8 meters apart.
Loaded up, with a frown on my face
 Since we didn't know any better, we made the decision not to cross the bridge.  In all honesty, I would have done it in a heartbeat, but Scott is the one that keeps us safe, risk-free, and alive.  I willingly, but unhappily, went along with Scott's next idea, to put our snowboard, boots, clothing, and poles in our backpacks and bike up the mountain. This feat would be hard even without 60 lbs on our back.  We lasted about 10 minutes before we turned around.  We realized we couldn't keep our front tires on the ground, and I could barely balance with so much weight on my back.  That was our last-chance snowboarding opportunity before "the largest storm of the century" hit New Zealand. Blizzard conditions have been raging for over a week. Thank goodness for sunny Timaru!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Propane In The Ass

This morning, just as I slapped a drippy piece of egg-covered bread onto the skillet, I noticed that the flame on our two-burner stove was unusually low.  Luckily, the water for our coffee reached a reasonably hot temperature just before the flame completely disappeared.  We had tried to refill our propane tank last week, but learned that the 10-year safety check had just expired.  The town we are in doesn't have any testing stations, so we figured we would wait and get it tested when we finally made it to a "big" city (do those exist on the south island?).

It was Saturday, and the most obvious option was to wait until Monday to get the tank re-tested somewhere (at least 120 miles away).  I didn't even have to say it because Scott said it first, "We can't wait until Monday, with no hot shower, no coffee, and no cooked meals!".

Lucky for us, we just happened to have 3 hours to spend trying to figure out how to get propane for an "expired" tank.  The first idea was to drive to the various gas stations, hoping to find one that would not notice the expired date stamp.  Strike one.  It turns out that it's a $5000 fine for filling an expired tank, so all of the operators were very diligent.

Next, Scott came up with a potentially brilliant (albiet also illegal) idea.  We bought a metal letter/number stamping set so that we could stamp the tank ourselves.  This didn't work, as the stamp actually chipped the paint off for every strike of the hammer without leaving a legible number. It definitely didn't look professional or realistic.  Strike two, but we were able to return the stamping set for a refund.

We drove and walked back and forth between a few stores to discover that we could buy a new propane tank for $65. Unfortunately, the new tanks have a different connector, which requires a different regulator, and another $25. By this time, it really was our only option.  We were happy when it rang up for $5 less too.  These are the kinds of things you spend hours on when you are retired.

The worst part is that we have a perfectly functioning, expired tank (and regulator) sitting in our van that we have to get rid of.  It would be nice if someone could use it, and it would be even nicer if someone could use it AND we could get a little bit of money for it.  At the very least, we need to find a responsible method for getting it out of our small living quarters.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Really, You're Retired?

Are we planning on ever working again?  No.  How is that possible?  We've been asked this question in many different ways.  The answer is that we were fortunate to start our careers without any college debt, we were reasonably well-paid in the high-tech sector for over a decade, we do not have kids, and we are happy with a lifestyle that most people would find intolerable.

The seed of early retirement was planted during our year-long roadtrip during 2003.  After our year off, we went back to our engineering jobs, bought our first (and only) house, and bought lots of stuff to fill it.  After returning to work as a software engineer, I had a gnawing sense that I was trading my happiness for a life of meetings and sitting behind a computer for 10 hours a day.  While Scott was still finding some satisfaction from his mechanical engineer job, I was determined to find a way to use my brain to help others.  Nursing sounded like a reasonable option.  Also, I felt that a nursing career could offer us a way to travel (my ultimate goal) with the easy option of working intermittently. During the two summers I had off while I was in nursing school, I read every book I could get my hands on related to early retirement and financial planning. I spent time organizing our money and analyzing our spending.  We had been so busy making money that we never took a look at what we had, and what we actually needed.

My favorite book and our guide for early retirement is "Work Less, Live More" by Bob Clyatt. His premise is simple: if your investments grow more than you spend, you'll never run out of money. Specifically, he advocates a highly diversified portfolio of mutual funds and bond funds (mostly index) that assumes a long-term average appreciation of 4%, adjusted for inflation.  Obviously, a target return of 4% is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It is a conservative approach to capital preservation. The best part, is that it is based on statistical analyses performed over data from the past 100 years (engineers will appreciate Clyatt's approach).

There are obvious risks associated with our plan.  What if the past doesn't predict the future, and our money does not appreciate by anything close to 4% adjusted for inflation? What if one of us gets very ill or hurt?Well, one thing we are trying to do is to spend even less than our 4% budget allows. This is especially important in the early years of our retirement (analogous to saving early when working), as this will provide a buffer for the later years. If one of us gets ill or hurt, the other one can always go back to work, either temporarily or long-term. This is not ideal, but it is hardly the end of the world.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Earthquake in Christchurch

The quake hit at 4:30am on Sept. 4th. We were jolted awake when the van started rocking violently.  We had insulation press-fit into our windows, so we couldn't easily peek out the window to figure out what was going on.  With our hearts pounding out of our chests, we both started yelling (to who or what, we're not sure).  I managed to pop out some insulation, while Scott bolted towards the cab to look out the front window.  Scott, who assumed it was punk-ass kids cow-tipping the van, was yelling in his tough-guy voice, ready to kick some ass in his underwear. I was pounding on the walls, convinced that we were somehow hooked up to a tow truck.  I was freaked when I looked out in the parking lot to see nothing.  No cars, no people, no tow truck, no wind.   The quake lasted long enough to solidly imprint the experience in our memory.  We didn't really figure out what was going on until we heard the alarms from the shops all around us.  At a magnitude of 7.1, the earthquake was the largest in NZ in 70 years.

After listening to the radio for an hour, we managed to get back to sleep around 5:30.  We woke up talking about what kind of damage might be sustained around the city.  I still laugh when I think about Scott's main concern, the guitar shops.  "What about all of the guitars that they hang by their headstocks swinging around and banging like wind chimes?"

It's been interesting listening to the media coverage of the quake.  As you would expect, everything is sensationalized.  At first, we thought it was a gross exaggeration to characterize the earthquake as a catastrophe.  After all, no one was killed, and there were only two serious injuries. However, over the past couple of days, we've seen pictures of destroyed buildings in downtown Christchurch, and while biking around the Port Hills and the small port town of Lyttleton, we were very surprised to see lots of collapsed brick chimneys and massive cracks through rock, brick, and concrete.

The aftershocks have been non-stop. We heard there have been over 70 of magnitude 5.0 or greater in the last 48 hours. The Auckland-based radio station talks about a city of half a million people who panic with every aftershock. That's funny. We saw a lot of fellow bikers on the road just hours after the main quake. They didn't seem to be in a state of panic. Neither did the joggers and walkers. Nor the shoppers at the market. Or the rock climbers without helmets!

The biggest issue so far seems to be damage to the water and sewer systems.  There are many people who don't have water, power, or sewer. Lucky for us, the van has the trifecta.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

August Adventures in NZ

Watching baby seals playing in the Ohau Creek waterfall was our most notable and unique experience this past month.  The Department of Conservation estimates that up to 200 baby seals "hike" up Ohau Creek to relax and play in the waterfall, while the adult fur seals hang out on the ocean shoreline.  We found the seals during a rainy, cold day, so it was hard to get decent pictures.  We watched them for nearly 2 hours -- I could have stayed longer.  I smiled and laughed the entire time.  They were so unafraid of humans that we found a couple of them scooching up our hiking path as we were heading back to the van.

The month of August also marked our first backcountry skiing adventure in 2.5 years.  We were anxious to dust the cobwebs off the backcountry gear.  It turned out to be a bluebird day for our climb up Mt. Ruapehu on the North Island.  Unfortunately, since it's a massive, exposed volcano, the snow was very windblown and icy. Snowboarding down was downright treacherous.  On the first day, we got a late start, due to a flat tire, and then had some route-finding issues. Therefore, we had to wait until our second day (another bluebird!) to make it to the top, where we peered down into the crater lake (pictured).

We were in a bit of a hurry to travel south in search of better snow.  With bad memories of our puke-inducing ferry crossing in June, we started watching sea and weather forecasts weeks before booking our tickets.  Our patience was rewarded with an almost-windless, sunny, FLAT-water ferry crossing!  To be on the safe side, Scott bought a box of ground ginger. He read that it's a natural remedy for sea-sickness, although when I tried his very strong ginger tea, it came close to inducing flat-water sea-sickness.

On the South Island, we had some great hikes and some mediocre mountain biking before our first real backcountry snowboarding in the Craigieburn Range.  We had been keeping an eye on the forecast so that we could be on the mountain during a clear day.  When we got to the mountain carpark, I noticed at least a dozen endangered keas.  These alpine parrots are rare (only 5000 in NZ) and are quite cute.  Within minutes of parking, they had destroyed our bike seats.  Apparently they are veracious with anything rubbery on cars and bikes.  It was a little too late when a couple of people warned us that keas would go after our bikes.  We put the muddy bikes inside the van while we snowboarded.

The mountain weather changes so rapidly here that you can't even count on a 24-hour forecast.  We didn't expect to get 2 days on the mountain, so we hadn't provisioned appropriately.  Our second day found us eating PB & X sandwiches because we ran out of J.  The PB & maple syrup came out the winner. The PB & strawberry yogurt was kind of like washing down a PB & J with milk gone bad.

The snowboarding itself exceeded our expectations. It put smiles on our faces for days.  Since then, we've been itching to go back, but the weather hasn't been cooperative.  While waiting, we had over a week to explore the area around Christchurch, including the gorgeous Lytelton Harbour and the nearby beaches. When dry, the Port Hills are probably great for mountain biking, but since it was wet, we had to settle for road biking on our full suspension mountain bikes.