The scenic route through France

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Stoytcho and I have been invited to go visit my uncle and his wife in the countryside outside of Eymoutiers, a town in the province of Limousin. My cousin has apparently purchased a house there, where we’re welcome to spend a couple of days. But of course, trains (and buses) lead to Paris, making direct public transit nonexistent between Grenoble (in the south-east) to Limoges (the nearest city, in the south-west of France). So we rented a car and got this:

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Yeah, I know, I wasn’t sure Stoytcho would be able to drive the tiny thing. But it turns out he fits fine.

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When we picked up the car, we asked the rental agency what roads to take and they emphasized that most highways in France are toll roads. And French toll fees make U.S. tolls look like spare change–the rental agency staff estimated our trip might cost 30+ euros! We opted for the scenic route instead.

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Our route took us ~6 hours and through two national parks (Livradois-Forez and Volcans d’Auvergne), past dozens of adorable towns scattered on plains and nestled in the hills, across forests clothed in warm autumn colors. (P.S. if you do the same drive, stop in Livradois-Forez National Park at the signs advertising fresh local cheese and tell me how it is! We did not stop and I forever regret it.)

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The castles made me wonder if we had fallen into some sort of fairy tale…

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We spent the night sleeping in the car somewhere in Livradois-Forez and woke pre-dawn to keep driving.

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Dawn was slow over the misty landscape, and it wasn’t until we stopped for a break that we realized that the thin veil of white across the fields was more than mist. It was our first frost in nearly two years:

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Summer is over. But the coming winter doesn’t look so bad.

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P.S. Here’s the route for those interested. It’s basically the Google Maps directions if you select “Avoid Tolls”:

Roadtripping in Australia

What is roadtripping in Australia like, you might ask. Great news! We did it and we can tell you.

IMG_9932 This wasn’t outback roatripping, which is a whole ‘nother bag of rocks. This was Queensland coast roadtripping. First, there are sometimes farmer’s markets, and if you get lucky they take place at the right time and place to grab some delicious food for later. We went to a market on the Sunshine Coast, a very relaxed and family friendly place. We were not expecting a large variety of bananas, but bananas we got. Very tasty ones too.

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We definitely were not expecting to try some of the nicest cheeses we’ve had in a while. Australia is not especially well known for cheese, and White Gold Creamery has set out to correct this issue. They homebrew their cheese varieties, experimenting for months at a time until something good comes up. Their stated goal is not to compete with the super-market cheese aisle, but to offer different varieties and pleasant twists on famous styles. Natalie went straight to the mushroom-ripening brie, which gets a stronger and stronger mushroom taste as it ages. They also offered cultured butter – butter that has been to the opera – and we took a block to go with us.

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After shopping around we went behind the market to a local park full of man-made lakes. A mid-morning swim was in order. No pictures of the lakes were taken, suffice to say every park would do well to have a couple. Next, there are sometimes very big things along the way. Australia is kind of famous for this in fact, having about one hundred and fifty big things in the country. Our big thing visit was the Big Banana. We brought out some of the regular-sized bananas for scale.

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If you’re lucky you’ll meet your hair spirit animal. I met mine at a farm/restaurant along the coast. The restaurant was pretty expensive, but they have a free-pick macadamia nut orchard, so that was cool. We grabbed a handful and Natalie got these pictures of me and this yak.

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On any good Australian roadtrip, there will be meat pies. We searched high and low and googled for the best place to get some. Off the highway a bit sits an old house that is actually a restaurant inside, Fredo’s Pies. There the very kind cashier gave us a pile of meat pies and best wishes for the road. These were amazing, flaky and chewy with the meat cooked for hours till it was tender and delicious. The kangaroo pie is the specialty to try.

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R stands for ‘Roo.
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H stands for I don’t remember but it was delicious.

The last thing to see along the road is the sunset. These tend to be, almost universally, amazing in Australia. The open skies lend themselves to great cloudscapes and the sunset paints them in fantastic colors. Our night was rainy and we took the sunset photos from the car, so the amazing doesn’t translate so well, but we were treated to a 20 minute red and orange light show on the road.

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Impromptu Northland Hike

01-IMG_7900 We’ve been driving for a few hours and I’m crazy to get out of the car. I am not a sit-in-the-seat, stare out, do nothing for hours kind of person, and thus am ill-suited for road trips, though I’ve somehow been coaxed into a car for days at a time to drive across the U.S. Twice. Stoytcho finally agrees to a rest break, and we pull into a turnout somewhere in the Northland next to a grassy slope.

We poke around for a few minutes and discover a narrow trail leading down past the grass into the trees. We don’t see any fences or signs, so we follow it into the shade of the underbrush. Though the heat of the day is sweltering, here it’s blessedly cooler. And downhill the going is easy, though the trail narrows to hardly a footpath.

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At the bottom of the hill we break out into the sun again and find ourselves on a grassy strip between the trees. This is probably a transient stream, filling with water when it rains. But for now, it’s ours to explore.

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We wander through the grass exploring, stretching our legs and poking our noses around just for the heck of it. There are little surprises, like the husk of a cicada left after molting…

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And then there are the larger surprises, like these bizarrely-shaped boulders that dot the landscape. Sculpted by water and adorned with plants, they greet us every few meters, each with a unique shape and personality.

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There are some live surprises, like this cicada who buzzes by to say hello…

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…or this mysterious bird that tempts us deeper into the woods. He lands on a branch near us, singing loudly and waggling his tail. As I approach to photograph him, he flits off to another branch deeper in the underbrush. When I don’t follow, he returns to the first branch, calling to us again. We follow him this time and he leads us a few meters before we find the brush too thick to pass. Yet even as we turn back, he chirps to us, calling us forth to an unknown destination. Maybe next time, little friend.

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After nearly an hour of exploring, we decide it’s time to head back. As we return to the trail we came in on, the wind begins to blow we notice the forest around our little clearing for the first time. The trees around us sway, and a chorus of whispers and creaks issues from the branches above. They appear to be leaning toward us, examining the intruders into their land, and though it’s daylight I feel the hairs on my neck rise. I silently ask them to pardon our intrusion, thank them for their hospitality, and bid them farewell. Then it’s up the narrow dirt path, back to the road, the car, and our world.

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Stranded Gasless in the Northland

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The automated G.A.S. kiosk, a harbinger of our crisis.

It’s anyone’s worst nightmare on a road trip: getting stranded with an empty gas tank far from help because oops, it turns out that there wasn’t another gas station for a hundred miles. This is the sort of thing we futureproofed back home with a gas canister in the car trunk and a wary eye on the gas gauge during our two road trips across the States. So how did it happen to us in New Zealand?

We were prepared, but not in the right ways

Running out of gas was one of our worries when we first set out into New Zealand’s Northland, which is more sparsely populated than the rest of the North Island. To figure out how likely that was, we used both Google Maps and CamperMate (which was indispensible during our trip) to plot the number of gas stations on our route. To our relief, there were several, so running out of gas because of a lack of stations wasn’t an issue. Because we weren’t sure how extensive ATMs and credit card coverage was in the Northland, we also pulled out $200 NZD and stashed it for emergency. We double checked that our credit card worked here through some grocery purchases, and it looked like we were all ready to go.

The sparsely-populated Northland West Coast was where we hit trouble

The first half of our drive, which took us up the Northland East Coast through large settlements like Whangarei, Kawakawa, and Kerikeri were no problem. All of them had gas stations where we got gas without a hitch and continued on our way–some even had friendly attendants to pump the gas for us and pass the time with small talk. We grew used to this system, and so the first sign of trouble after our visit to Te Paki Sand Dunes didn’t raise alarm bells. We noticed the gas gauge was at a quarter-tank, so we found a G.A.S. station (it’s a brand in NZ) and pulled off. There was no sign of attendant, but we were happy to pump our own gas at the self-service kiosks, which seemed to only take credit cards. I popped my card in and the machine prompted me for a PIN.

For those in the audience wondering whether there’s a typo above, there isn’t. In Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, credit cards work on a chip-and-PIN system, meaning that you insert your card into the machine and then enter a series of numbers like you would at an ATM. In contrast, the U.S. credit card work on chip-and-signature, meaning we stick the card in the machine and it spits out a receipt for us to sign. Unsurprisingly, the two systems don’t always play nicely together. Since we in the States don’t have PINs for our credit cards, they don’t always work for purchases abroad.

I’d read beforehand about possible workarounds for the PIN problem, including hitting “Enter” without entering a number or simply typing “0000” and hitting “Enter”. I tried both of these combinations on the machine and both times it rejected my transaction and returned the card. “Huh, how annoying,” I thought to myself. We climbed back into the car and drove to the next station, only a few kilometers away. To our delight, this one had a convenience store attached to it, so when our credit card failed to work again we went in to ask what to do. The convenience store employee stared at us. “I have no idea what to do. I just work for the convenience store, and it’s not related to the gas station…” she told us. Oh dear.

Solving the problem and getting gas

We kept on driving for a couple hours, nervously watching the gas gauge edge down and stopping at every gas station to check if it was manned–none were, and every automated system rejected our credit card. Over debate, we settled on two possibilities: there was a small town coming up that might have a manned station. And if it didn’t, we were going to stop there and wait for someone else to come by and use the station, when we could ask to use their card in return for a cash payment.

The next town, unsurprisingly, also had an automated gas station. Station is a stretch of the word; it was really a single pump next to the town’s tiny harbour. I tried the usual actions with the credit card, it still rejected the payments. No cash accepted, either, so this was it. We settled in for a wait, gazing across the harbor at a few bobbing boats in the black-blue bay. We cleaned up our stuff scattered around the car a bit and made ourselves look as un-disheveled as possible (which is hard when you’ve been camping for four days). And we waited.

Twenty minutes passed before another car rolled up to refuel. As the woman wrapped up her transaction, we approached her and asked if we could pay her cash in return for buying gas on her card. She seemed baffled, but said sure and set the pump up for another transaction. We filled the gas tank to full, then handed her the receipt and cash. SAVED!

Preventing the problem in the first place

We didn’t encounter this problem for the rest of our New Zealand road trip because we rerouted ourselves to pass through a major city every other day and filled up whenever we encountered an attended gas station. But the feeling that we might run out of gas in a rental car hours from any help, coupled with the fear that help would break our travel budget, was pretty stressful. Here are three things you can do to prevent this problem in the first place and take a lot of stress off your shoulders:

  1. Call your credit card company and get a PIN – This one wouldn’t have worked for us, but some U.S. credit card companies will give you a PIN if you explain where you’re travelling and ask for it. It doesn’t hurt to try.
  2. Carry a full gas canister with you – This is what we normally do on road trips, but we didn’t see this as an option with our rental car. Ask about a spare gas canister and rent one if you can, since it’s worth the peace of mind during your road trip.
  3. Plan your route to hit a major city every X kilometers – Since you can estimate mpg and can look up the size of the gas tank, you can easily figure out how far the car will go before it needs a refill. Plan your route so that you’re near a city when you’re running low, since cities will have a plethora of gas options and at least some are manned.

In an ideal world, your credit card works around the world without a hitch because the financial systems all play nicely together. And barring that, in a secondary ideal world, whether a location requires credit cards with PINs or whether it’s manned with an attendant who can help would be neatly spelled out under each establishment’s description. But neither of these things has come to pass (yet), so save yourself the worry and make sure you’re road tripping prepared.