Beachside jade collecting

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Stoytcho searches for jade on the beach.

Japan is crazy about collecting things, but we haven’t collected much here in Japan beyond a handful gacha toys and fountain pen ink so it’s time to fix that. For our last stop in Japan, we head to a beach in Itoigawa, Niigata Prefecture in search of jade (ヒスイ). While the beach in this whole region is known for jade, Itoigawa is the closest stop to us via the Shinkansen, so using our JR pass we set out one last time.

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The highway just outside of Itoigawa.

Itoigawa itself is quiet when we arrive, the streets devoid of people and cars during a work day. We pick up a map and some advice from the mini-museum/visitor’s center behind the train station, then walk toward the beach. There’s a highway between us and the shoreline, so we have to go about half a mile north before we find an underpass with beach access. Nearby, we find a 7-11 and grab lunch.

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The underpass entrance, leading to the beach on the other side of the highway.

The beach is a pebbly stretch dotted here and there with piles of concrete tetrapods to prevent erosion. It doesn’t look like much until you’re standing on the pebbles and look down to find the stones glisten with a rainbow of colors. There are green, purple, red, white, brown, and black stones of all shapes and sizes. To find jade, we know we should be looking for stones that feel heavy for their weight and are smooth and cool to the touch, but the color can range from white to green to purple to black. Time to start collecting.

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The stones on the shoreline; perhaps there’s jade in here?

Though it’s a work day, we’re not the only ones on the beach. Other folks on holiday are here too, combing the beach for jade and other treasures and dodging the surf that occasionally rushes past the bowl-shape of the water’s edge.

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A larger than usual wave breaches the bowl-shaped edge of the beach.
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The aftermath of being a second too slow to escape the wave.

At the end of two hours, we’ve collected more than a kilo of stones and it’s time to decide what we want to keep. We try to be picky, because everything we take we either have to carry in our packs or have to send through the mail. We pick out the pieces most likely to be jade, then add in pieces we like for their color or shape. Our favorites are a tan colored stone etched with red and brown impurities, forming the patterns of hills or lakes or planets. We’ve found only five of them in our hours of collecting, so we keep them all.

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Our stone collection, with our favorites in the upper right corner.

After we finish up, we walk the beach and watch the other collectors with their bags slung over their shoulders, crouched down with hands sifting through the pebbles. The sound is unique, more treble than the ocean’s movement of stones, and reminds me of the sound candy-coated almonds make when you shake a box. The clinking of dozens of stones continues, as does the craze of collecting things.

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Holiday-makers and visitors collecting on the beach.

Taipei Natural Parks

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A translucent white mushroom grows from a mossy branch, surrounded by small black earth tongues (Geoglossaceae).

One unexpected part of Taiwan has been its natural beauty, for beyond Taipei lie vast parks that make up around ten percent of the island’s landmass. From thick jungles to sweeping shorelines, Taiwan’s natural beauty is both unexpected and unexpectedly easy to reach, thanks to the extensive public transit system. Though we did not stray far beyond Taipei, we managed to visit two different parks in our time there. Here’s our experience at each:

Yehliu Geopark

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People crowd the paved walkways in Yehliu Geopark.

People. So many people. This park is easy to get to by bus from Taipei and gets incredibly packed, so show up early or on a day most people have work. There isn’t much hiking to do around here, but the guided walk out to the peninsula takes you past fantastical stone formations in the shape of candles, mushrooms, and human heads. The top of the hill has a lovely view of the park and the surrounding sea, but take care in the path you choose: some paths down lead to barricaded areas, and the less trod are incredibly slippery and overgrown.

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“The Octopus” stone formation, besides some “candle” stone formations. All of the formations are formed naturally by erosion, without the touch of human hands.
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A life ring at the park. This area is prone to rogue waves during monsoon season.
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People wandering among the rock formations.
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DON’T BE THIS GUY: human touch speeds the eroding process and does damage.
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Smalls succulent plants grow in a dirt-filled hole on one of the rock formations.
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Waves breaky on the rocky shoreline at the end of the peninsula.
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A poorly-kept, slippery path to nowhere.
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A dew-dropped ladybug.
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People stand on a bridge over rock formations in the park.

Mt. Qixing

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The slippery, stair-filled path up to the peak of Mt. Qixing.

Also accessible by bus from Taipei, this is where you go for a real hike. Mt. Qixing Park has dozens of trails that would take days to hike, and the tropical weather of Taiwan nurtures thick forests full of insects, lizards, and small rodents. Most hiking trails here are stone and involve an insane amount of stairs, so bring walking sticks and watch your step in the slippery rain. The Lengshuikeng Hot Spring Bath is open to the public and is a great place to soak after a hike, but has limited hours (see below) and is closed on the last Monday of each month. The foot bath in front of it is always open, though, so you can always soak your feet alongside a dozen other weary hikers.

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A mysterious round structure hides in the foliage.
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A tree lizard, possibly from the genus Japalura.
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A dew-jeweled caterpillar (probably of Lemyra) makes its away across the edge of a bench.
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A stream flows between an ocean of grasses and shrubs.
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A small, decorated land snail (I’m guessing Aegista mackensii) inches by.
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The Lengshuikeng Hot Spring working hours. Guess what day we were here! (It was the last Monday of the month. Sad times).
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We soak our feet with other hikers.
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A waterfall at the end of our hike.
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An ant-mimic jumping spider (Salticidae, probably a female of Myrmarachne sp.).

Ha Long Bay and the Tourism High Life

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A lone karst formation and a boat in Ha Long Bay.

The appeal of Vietnam for many tourists is the luxury-level vacations at middle-class prices. You can get an all-inclusive trip here for only a few hundred dollars here thanks to economic disparity, and one tourist’s bargain price is a Vietnamese citizen’s income boon. The result is a vast network of tour agencies, guides and drivers and middlemen, all pushing to cash in on the tourism boom. And nowhere is that more apparent than Ha Long Bay, a bay of thousands of karst islands off the northern coast of Vietnam that now serves as one of the country’s main tourist attractions.

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The Vietnamese flag waves from a sunken beam on the way to Ha Long Bay.
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Visitors arrive at an island resort in Ha Long Bay.

Though there are backpacker guides to the area, we booked two nights at an island resort through our hotel to save time. This included transport to and from the islands, so we were picked up from our hotel, driven in a bus to the port, and took a boat to another boat that finally landed us on a small beach nestled in one of the karsts off the coasts of Cat Ba. With raised bungalows, soft sand, and palm frond parasols, it looked like quintessential island getaway.

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Beachside bungalows at our resort.
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A praying mantis explores my computer.
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Moonlight over the bay

The primary draw of Ha Long Bay is its jagged beauty, with knife-sharp, rain-weathered limestone karsts jutting from the ocean, crowned with lush greenery that clings to life among the rocky crags and flourishes in places where weathering has formed dirt. Scattered everywhere, the karsts form a maze navigated by the locals in junks, motorboats, and rowboats, all moving people or goods or livelihoods. While many people seem to have switched to servicing domestic and foreign tourists looking to get around the islands, others get by fishing squid and farming shellfish as they have for hundreds of years. From wooden houses built on moored docks, they catch fish, tend to baskets full of shellfish submerged underwater, or wade through the shallows collecting snails and augers for market. They sometimes stare at tourists as the float by in boats or kayaks, but they don’t like the stares they receive in return.

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Coming home: two men disembark from a boat at a floating home. The wires above it are strung between the karsts and carry electricity.
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A man gathers snails during low tide.
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A man paddles a boat with his feet.

The most stunning thing to me at our island resort is the tide. The afternoon we arrived, we swam to another nearby karst with sandy beach and back. The next morning we woke early to find the channel we swam the previous day had become a mud flat, the tide out so far that we could walk to the same beach. We picked our way across the mix of mud and sharp limestone rocks, curious of what we’d find: buried plastic bottles here, bike tires once tied to boats to act as padding against the docks there. But there was surprisingly few signs of life. Besides some scattered anemones that turned inward to stay moist at the low tide and small scattered augers burying themselves in the mud, there was nothing. No coral, no sponges, no algae. If there was anything that once lived here, it might have died out with the coming of the resorts. Their construction brings silt, and silt blocks out the light and chokes out life. It’s the price paid for tourism, for the beautiful waterfront bungalows and (artificial) soft sandy beaches.

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Low tide from the beach in front of our resort. We swam to the middle karst yesterday afternoon. Now, we can walk.
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Augers scattered in sediment at low tide.
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Bike tires, lost from a boat and colonized by shellfish and sponges, now exposed at low tide.

In the afternoon of our last day, we borrow a kayak from the resort and head out onto the water, camera precariously wrapped in a plastic bag. We paddle around the karst islands, looking for something interesting, and stumble onto sites where local tour agencies run rock climbing excursions. Then we make a wrong turn and we find ourselves at the edge of a deep, wide channel. This is the shipping lane in these parts, and we’re not allowed further. We return to our island and circle it to discover an inlet between two limestone towers on the other side. Our island is actually a crescent shape, with a secluded lagoon in the middle, where the more stagnant water forms pond-scum like bubbles we paddle through to reach a rocky, pebbly shore. It’s silent here except for the occasional cry of a raptor circling overhead. This is the draw of Ha Long Bay for us: to feel like you’ve found a secret that even if it’s been discovered before, you alone have for the moment.

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Setting out in the kayak.
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Looking up at the erosion on the karst walls.
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A hidden lagoon on the other side of our island.
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A small, pebbly beach in the lagoon where we made landing.

We board a large junk the next morning, bound ultimately back for Hanoi. Surrounded by chattering tourists, we occupy ourselves in watching the karsts and other boats slip by, a tapestry of blue dotted with white clouds, beneath which the green and gray angles of karsts jut upward and slip downward into the jade-colored water.

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Our junk’s mast.
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Karsts make many areas of the bay impassable for large ships.

As time passes, the islands become less frequent and the clouds thicken overhead to a uniform gray sheet. We hear the crew muttering, and the boat picks up speed to try and beat the storm. We arrive early, but they keep us on the boat for an extra hour—there aren’t any boats available to transfer us from the junk to the mainland. Meanwhile, the sky portends trouble, with whisps of cloud drifting over the mainland and peals of thunder. Just as we’re given the clear to disembark to the mainland, thick droplets begin to fall onto us and the waters of the bay. We scramble into the transfer boat, huddling under its awning to stay dry. Once on the mainland, we hear from a waiting attendant that we’re lucky; with the approaching storm, the government has temporarily halted all water travel to and from Ha Long Bay. Bound for a bus back home, it’s easy to worry about the details of what Ha Long Bay will look like after another decade of tourism. But given Nature’s power, it’s hard to imagine its beauty will disappear entirely.

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A crewmember stares out at the water as the weather turns dark.
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Lightning strikes in the mountains as the storm rolls in.

Bondi Beach

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Surfers catch a wave at Bondi Beach

Intro: We’re stuck in Australia for two extra weeks, waiting for Russian visas. Here’s one of the things we did in the meantime!

The kilometer-long sandy stretch at Bondi is probably Australia’s most famous beach. If you’re visiting Sydney, people will tell you it’s a must-see. And with changing rooms, coin lockers, and showers, why just see it? If you visit in the summer, slip on a bathing suit and lounge around in the sand or go for a swim. The ~$4-6 USD round-trip price for transit makes Bondi an awesomely cheap way to pass time if you’re stuck in Sydney with a tight budget.

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A woman casts her flip-flops into the sand.

Bondi has two main types of water recreation: surfing and swimming. Surfing is king here, and most of the beach is open to people with surf- or boogieboards. This is the perfect place to watch surfers of all skills hang ten, from the dude just starting out (you can rent a board at the beach), to the guy that makes every wave caught look effortless. They’ll cluster on the south side of the beach, where a strong rip current dominates.

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The beach’s warning signs and rules. The “open borders” graffiti is probably a reference to Australia’s immigration policies.

The swimmers are a little less lucky; the lifeguards have to herd all non-boarders into one tiny strip of beach about 100 meters across. Marked by two signs, it encompasses swimmers, bodysurfers, and anyone splish-splashing around in the waves. And it gets crowded: hundreds of people cram into this “swim-safe” zone on busy days, making it nearly impossible to move without smacking someone. Lifeguards patrol the edges, herding anyone that strays outside the signposts back into the little box. It’s a bizarre ritual that as a Californian seems hilariously unnecessary; we do none of obsessive management at our beaches and everyone gets by just fine.

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Two guys watch the lifeguards patrolling the waters via boat.

Waves at the beach vary. Some days the waves splash ineffectually on the shore, hardly enough to move you as you stand waist-deep in the clear blue water. Other days the waves are a force to reckon with, dragging at you with every step and knocking down anyone caught unaware. Those are the good days, when a wave caught has enough power to propel you all the way to shore. If there wasn’t a human obstacle course in your way, that is.  Sometimes you bail early to avoid hitting someone. Sometimes you get dragged under and jostled against sand and human legs. And sometimes you just crash into people. You make sure they’re okay, you’re okay, and swim back out for another round.

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The north side of Bondi Beach. See that cluster of people in the water? That’s the swimming area.

You end up ravenous after hours in the water, and the boardwalk next to Bondi doesn’t disappoint. It’s filled with fancy restaurants and bars, interspersed with swim shops in case you’ve forgotten anything. Most were out of our price range as backpackers, but two we fell in love with and are worth mentioning. The first love is a tiny, no-frills Chinese restaurant called “Handmade Noodle and Dumpling Kitchen” at the corner of Campbell and Hall. The food (especially dumplings) is cheap, delicious, and pretty legit—it tastes like my dad’s cooking.

The second love is the San Churro. Okay, it’s not cheap and it’s mostly dessert, but I’ve loved San Churro since my first visit to one back in 2010. They don’t exist anywhere in the Western Hemisphere either, so I’ve had to wait seven years to have their delicious fresh churros and thick Spanish hot chocolate again. We stopped by here every time we visited Bondi, and there’s nothing like huddling over a cup of hot chocolate while still damp from a swim, breathing in the vapors mixed with the salty ocean breeze.

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A cup of thick Spanish hot chocolate and churros after a day at the beach.

The Last Waterfall, and a Black Sand Beach

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We headed out of the Goblin Forest and drove down the the nearby Dawson Falls. This was our last waterfall for this section of the trip. A nice up and down stair-hike leads to the falls and the pools beneath them. Notice the orange mud layer to the right of the falls? People have left tons of orange handprints around the area, and we joined in the fun.

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The pools are big enough to skip stones in, coincidentally one of my favorite travel-hobbies. Finding the right stone is an art unto itself, and in this otherwise beautiful picture, there I am hunting.

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The throw takes place.

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We wrapped up and went on our last great drive, north and east. On the way we stopped at a seemingly regular beach.

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Except that something was very strange about the sand.

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Here in Mokao the sand is a wonderful coal black. I did a quick search for black sand beaches in New Zealand and this one isn’t listed. This was my first black sand beach, and I was amazed. If you’ve never seen one in person it’s the strangest thing. Alongside the color, the texture of the sand was of fine, wet silt, making it behave like very thick pudding. A strange and wonderful combination.

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Great natural beauty and, unfortunately, pollution. It looks like trash from the nearby town washes down and out towards the ocean. Luckily it’s limited in its spread.

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Walking away from the beach entrance leads to cliffs with small caves in them.

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In a break in the cliffs is a river feeding the ocean and cutting a tar-black line in the sand.

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We collected shells and continued our occasional tradition of post-beach combing art.

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Next up : return to civilization.

Hot Water Beach

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The sign is not kidding.

New Zealand has many, many natural wonders. For me, Hot Water Beach was one of the best. As soon as I read about it I decided it would be on our itinerary. Upon our arrival, we thought we’d spend an hour, maybe two. We were wrong.

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Hot Water Beach is exactly what it sounds like. How water, on the beach. Very, very hot water. At the center of the hotspot, which moves around slowly, the water is hot enough to scald the skin off your feet in an instant. The nifty sign above explains what’s going on – two springs of thermally heated water emerge on the beach. When the tide is high the frigid ocean water keeps things cool, but during low tide the area turns in to a spa.

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My South American tan, gone.

You can see us lying in a dug out pool of hot water, borrowed shovel to the left, pale white skin threatening to burn. The trick is, dig a hole such that you can control how much water is coming in and leaving – the water near the center is boiling, and the water further away is pretty cold. Mix the two just right and your pool will be perfect. I personally prefer it very hot, which often turns into jumping out of the way of a nearly-boiling stream of water.

Since this place is rightfully very popular and people leave all the time, it’s common to wait for a pool to free up and jump in. This is especially useful for those of us who didn’t bring a shovel and didn’t want to rent one. The trowel really doesn’t do much, a small shovel at least is needed to move the sand quickly enough. Switching pools is also really the only way to get hotter water if you’re out on the periphery.

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The beach is a great place to go with friends in groups big and small. It’s hard to make a huge pool, so everyone splits off into smaller groups in the sandy tubs. Despite the large crowd of people, there are plenty of free spots and you rarely have to wait longer than ten or fifteen minutes to grab one. Notice the people-free zone to the right in this photo – the water there is scalding hot.

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The day is not particularly cold, but everyone huddles in the pools of hotspring water like monkeys on a snowy day.

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I am unabashedly one of the huddling people, wanting to soak in the amazingly hot water as long as possible.

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Some people relaxed and lounged on the sand. How they resisted the siren call of hot water I do not know. In the far center back you can see someone repairing their pool. Digging sand out to keep the pool deep and heated is a constant source of amusement and activity at the beach.

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One of the best parts of this beach is the waves. They’re mighty strong, enough to send you flying shoreward if you ride one, or kick you into the water if you’re not paying attention. It’s great to ride the waves until you’re numb – the water is refreshingly cold – and then run over to a hot pool and soak until you’re sweating and ready to cool down again. Swim, soak, repeat.

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As the day wears on and the tide starts to come in, the pools are eaten away and flooded with cold water. At this point, you have to move further up, away from the waves, to keep a warm pool going, and it won’t be as hot as it would have been during the earlier parts of the day.

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Eventually, all the pools are wiped out and flooded. The day of soaking in hot water on the shore is over. Six hours after our arrival we were kicking sand off our feet and driving to the next camp spot.

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A wrinkly adios! My hand was like this for hours.

Valentine’s Day dinner

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On the road out of Auckland, headed to the eastern shores of the North Island, we encountered a very long and flat beach. We mostly stopped there because our app said there was a bathroom there. There was one, and there were also groups of people walking around with buckets on the beach. This is always of interest to us – people with buckets means something worth collecting is nearby.

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We asked a local with a full bucket and quickly found out the thing worth collecting was cockles. There’s a sign on the road that says you should only take fifty cockles per person, far more than a feast calls for. Our friend told us they and many other families gathered up bucketfuls for their gatherings. We’re not much into mollusks but we have a hard time passing up foraged food. There’s a satisfaction in cooking and eating something you found and gathered yourself, though for us it’s normally mushrooms and berries.

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We headed right down to the waterline, pokey spiral shells under our feet. When we got there, we realized we had no way to hold the cockles we found. Back to the car, then back to the waterline, this time with supplies in hand. A trowel to help with digging and a waterproof bag to hold the cockles. It turns out, as expected, that the waterproof bag holds water in almost equally as well as it keeps it out. It also, thankfully, doesn’t retain smells.

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It took us a while to find our first cockles. At first we only saw these spiral shells up and down the beach, making a life in the soft mud. Figuring that we had no idea what to look for, we found holes left by other cockle hunters. When we found our first tiny cockle we were ecstatic. In the bag it goes! Then came another, and another, and at the next hole came five more. Pretty soon we were bogged down in cockles, picking and choosing the largest and freshest looking.

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While foraging we found other sea life, this time sadly dead. I’d never seen the underside of a starfish so this was pretty interesting.

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About half an hour later, we were proficient cockle hunters. The best method we found was to abandon the trowel and sift through the mud with bare hands. Grab a cockle, fling it into a nearby pile. When the pile gets big enough, pick out the five or ten biggest ones. To call this hunting is a stretch. The cockles are more plentiful than a berries in the summer, have no thorns, don’t hide well like mushrooms, and can’t run away.

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We wound up with fifty medium to large sized cockles and some seawater in our bag. We decided to leave the smallest ones to keep growing, and not take too many for just the two of us. It turned out that fifty was a good number for two people. If we go hunting again we would probably take the same amount. Overharvesting is really the thing to avoid. The cockle population can support a fair amount of hunting, but too much will cause population collapse. In certain parts of New Zealand they are under threat, with various monitoring and closure measures being taken to protect them.

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Bag of cockles in hand, we hit the road. While wondering how to cook them, looking up recipes, and managing the slight flow of water out of the bag, we came on a very curious sight. A hoard-flock of birds were camped out on the shore. It was like something out of a migrating animals documentary. They are the Variable Oystercatcher, and they were previously hunted, now protected with numbers rising. I could not find information on why or how a single flock got so huge, but there they were. The best thing about roadtrips is finding the unexpected around the next bend.

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A night and a day passed. Adventures were had and Valentine’s Day evening came. Our recipe called for lemon, butter, and white wine. We’d luckily picked up a bottle of white on the outset of the trip, and the local minimart offered a lemon and a tub of garlic butter. Our cockles had been fed some crackers to help get the sand out, to a mild degree of success. Everything was ready for dinner, except us.

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While I’ve spent time on a farm and know where the bacon comes from, killing my own meat is still a relative rarity. Natalie similarly hadn’t hunted an animal since childhood, so we were both a bit hesitant. We took a moment, said thank you to the cockles for providing our meal, then put them in the simmering wine and butter. To cook cockles you essentially steam them for a few minutes until they open. Those that don’t open are not good to eat.

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This is what they look like when they’re done. The meat comes out with just a slight pull. The cockles were delicious and every bit worth the time to gather and cook. They tasted better than cockles from the supermarket or at a restaurant, fresher and less chewy, without the sometimes overwhelming ocean-water taste. If you’re in the area I would highly recommend stopping for a quick cook-out. Beaches all along the eastern shore have them, ours was near Coromandel.

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As good of a Valentine’s dinner as we could ask for. Candle courtesy of an early “in case of emergency” purchase on my part, which baffled Natalie at the time.

Sweet Northland Beaches

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New Zealand has some fantastic beaches. They’re plentiful, pristine, and varied. On the way north we saw calm, sheltered bays. On the way back south towards Auckland we visited two much more spectacular ones. The first was Rarawa Beach, a long strip of black and white sand with shallow water and small but powerful waves.

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Like many other beaches in New Zealand this one has a massive stretch of sand, 50 meters or more from the high water mark to the edge of the water, perfectly flat. The sand at these beaches tends to be constantly compacted and a little wet, no wispy yellow clouds dogging your steps.

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When we got there, no one was swimming. Of the half dozen or so people there, not a one seemed interested in touching the water. We’ve been to beaches that look great but have massive “no swimming” warnings, we hoped this wasn’t one of them.

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In we went, boogie board serving its purpose fantastically. The issue with the beach, as it turns out, is that the water is very cold. Not instantly numb cold, but uncomfortably cold. I always hesitate at the first submersion, Natalie jumped right in. After getting out the chill persisted. Even with the bright sun, the wind was just strong enough to keep us mildly shivering until we towelled off and got in the car. Which I guess explains why no one was swimming.

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A quick shower and a bit of driving later, we were presented with a view of forever. The landscape in New Zealand does this a lot. Not so far after that, we got to see how the country handles logging.

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At first it seemed like any other logging site, but bigger. Huge swathes of countryside laid bare, devoid of trees, grass growing in small patches. Any logging site looks a bit sad to me, a manmade scar on the land. With good practices though, the land heals, more trees grown, and the logging is sustainable.

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This site looked abandoned. There were none of the usual markings of a next harvest – neat rows of tiny trees. Weirdly, piles of sun-bleached logs lay all over the place. Natalie, who knows more than I do about trees, noted that the remaining logs must have been there a long time to get that bone white, even in this weather.

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We’re not sure what the context was here, but for a country as obsessed with its nature as New Zealand seems to be, something feels amiss. Our best guess was that the logging company finished up, and left the useless logs on site.

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We continued south and wound up at the southern end of Ninety-Mile Beach. Though the beach is only fifty five miles in actual length, it may as well be five hundred as viewed from any one point. It goes on forever in either direction.

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The thing to do on this beach is drive. It’s legally a road and any 4×4 can go down it. The drivers here tend to go pretty fast so it’s good to keep an eye and ear out. The other thing to do here is stare at the sky and surf. This is one of the best looking shorelines we’ve seen. The sky and the surf are enchanting, espectially near sunset.

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The sand here is a shiny brownish-black and much of the beach is covered in a thin film of water. It’s a lot of fun to walk on, but flip flops have a habit of getting suctioned down making it hard. The water has a tendency to bury lots of pretty shells under just a thin layer of sand. We spent a good hour beach combing and looking up at the ever-shifting cloudscape.

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Kawakawa

01-IMG_7524 North of Whangarei, at the crossroads of the 1 and 11 highways, sits a town of 1400 people.Passing through it looks to be like any other small town in New Zealand, its single main street littered with bakeries, coffee shops, and art galleries. In other, unfortunate ways, it shares an economic outlook with other small towns in New Zealand’s ongoing thread of “dying towns”. Kawakawa and other towns like it in the Northland and across the south of the north island are collectively suffering from declining populations, increased unemployment, and decreased income. An interesting article on the topic can be found here.

The visible symptoms of this are loitering, downcast people and clearly shuttered businesses with no sign of being replaced. One sushi shop we saw had been closed for years, yet the sign and posters for it were still up. Kawakawa is a one street example of the growing inequality in New Zealand and around the world. The coffeeshops on the street are filled with people purchasing Starbucks-priced drinks and snacks, while outside, near the social services building and the thriftshop, stand a group of people who have nothing to do and are clearly unhappy about it. As with many other countries, it is the minorities and indegenous people who are hit the hardest by this growing inequality. That they are not better positioned across New Zealand society speaks to a long-standing divide, one which is actually less prevalent in New Zealand than in other countries, but is still strikingly large.

For Kawakawa, one of the main causes of downturn was the close of the nearby coalmines. Original built as a service town, the mine closure led to high unemployment. Without the beaches and summer getaways that define the surrounding larger towns, KawaKawa has not had an easy time. Today the primary output is agricultural, with a high employment count in the social services and healthcare field.

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Kawakawa does have some interesting features for a traveller. Every town in New Zealand has a set of public toilets, or so it seemed, and Kawakawa’s was particularly striking, designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, an Austrian designer who lived in the town for twenty five years. Its vibrant colors and amorphous patterns lend it to feeling half colorful tavern, half art exhibit. While it is a commonly used and fully functioning toilet, it is also not uncommon for people to pop in just to take pictures.
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As we strolled up and down the main drive, we found an art gallery focusing on Maori artists. Much of the work involved carved wood, statues incorporating natural material, or paintings of human or natural scenes. The Maori tradition involves intricate and ornate carvings on objects as small as a dime to as ones as large as trees. I found the iron-and-wood statues particularly moving, but like many art galleries, this one was out of our price and carrying range.

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On the way out of town we stopped at a beach 30 or so minutes to the north to beachcomb, one of our favorite activities. Since we didn’t want to take our find out of the beach environment, we took a few pictures.

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Heroes around the World: Playa Inclusiva

Have we mentioned that Arica is in the desert, yet? Yeah, it gets pretty hot here, so we head to the beach, walking the half-mile south along the coast to what we’ve been told is the closest accessible shore. When we get there, it’s already packed with beachgoers, even though it’s only 10:00 am.

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We’ve brought a backpack and we’re worried about theft, so we look around for lockers and don’t find any. A group of neon-orange clad people notice our plight and one of them approaches us. “You can leave your stuff with us,” she says cheerfully, “we’ll watch it.” We follow her over to a canopy where the orange-clad people are standing and drop the bags off. Then we notice that they have some odd vehicles with them.

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We ask them what they’re here for, and they explain the amazingly cool work they do. Everybody loves playing in the ocean (especially in Arica’s heat), but it isn’t accessible to everyone. People who can’t swim because they are wheelchair-bound or differently-abled have a hard time swimming in the water. To ensure that these people also get a chance to enjoy the ocean, their organization Playa Inclusiva provides these giant bikes that can be pushed through the water. The differently-abled person sits on the seat with a life jacket and one of the volunteers pushes them through the surf, meaning they get to enjoy the cool ocean waters alongside everyone else.

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The issue of accessibility at the beach was one I had never thought about, so it was amazing to see that the people at Playa Inclusiva had not only thought about it, but also created a solution that relies only on a volunteer, a life jacket, and one of these bikes. Thanks to them, everyone at Arica can enjoy the beach. And that is badass.

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