Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Australia - Part I: Sydney 02-16/02/2011

After an event-free flight on possibly one of the nicest planes on which I've ever flown (certainly one of the newest) we arrived in Sydney, Australia after some amazing farewell views of NZ. Yet another landmark moment: as far as we were going to get from home both physically and emotionally.

We were very lucky to be staying with a long-time friend of Katy's family, Justine and her family in a suburb to the North of Sydney. So, exit airport and enter Sydney's rail system. A fairly easy navigation and a single train change saw us on a double-decker carriage to Thornleigh. Around fifty minutes later, we disembarked in a quiet neighbourhood and waited for a short while before being greeted by Justine and her three daughters: Keighlee, Magalie and Ellesha. Tim's not good with names anyway, so the fact that Keighlee and Magalie are identical twins only added to the confusion.

A few minutes drive and we were home. A lovely house in a beautiful location, right on the edge of bushland full of trees, shrubs and very noisy animals! Literally on the edge; their garden drifted into bushland with no visible barrier between the two.

When husband, David, returned from work we had a mini party on the rear deck with bubbly both to welcome us and to celebrate Katys birthday. Being right by the bush, we were hearing all kinds of alien animal sounds like kukaburras and cockatoos. The evening was very hot and humid even by Sydney standards and we were wilting badly. Add to that the meanest mosquitoes we've ever encountered... even with thick socks they managed to pierce our feet all over. So we went back inside with the obligatory fly-screen closed.

We all had a fairly early night (the Nobles having work/school in the morning and us being shattered) but sleeping was dificult in the heat of the night. I eventually dosed off but awoke with a start as I could feel something crawling up my leg.  A quick look to my left confirmed that it was nothing to do with Katy, who was zonked out and by now it had crawled into my boxer shorts. You have to understand, by this stage we've been fed so many stories about insects that can kill you as soon as look at you with their compound eyes that I was genuinely scared... the thing felt huge (and that is not just typical male over exaggeration in the underpant department). It started crawling again so - with the speed of a cobra - I pounced, grabbing hold of sheet, boxers and hopefully the killer insect. The kerfuffle was enough to wake Katy I think she must've thought i was delerious until I turned on the light and slowly looked at the evidence. Fair dinkum (!) there was a squashed something with long spiny legs. Its fair to say I didn't get much more sleep that night, panicking that the spiders family was going to come seeking revenge. Justine assured me it was a harmless one but I'm pretty sure she was just trying to make me feel better about things!

The morning wake-up call is pretty early here, being so close said wildlife. Kookaburrahs (still not sure how to spell that) start making their cackling racket at day break if not before.  Not long after, three young children start to find excuses for coming into our room, just to make sure we haven't fallen back to sleep (are you kidding? with those spiders?!).

With the children at school and Justine and David working full time, we usually had the place to ourselves during the day. It was really nice just to have a solid base for a while without the constant moving on. It was too comfortable really and we had to force ourselves to move on as the Noble were being very generous and letting us stay longer than probably any of us had planned!

The girls were just lovely. Very pretty and very bubbly, always dancing and jumping around the room. I'm sure the twins - Keileigh and Magalie could be maths genii if they wished and Ellesha is such a performer. A delight to be with (even if they do wake you up at daybreak).

It didn't take long for katy to go for a run in the bush, but first time out got a bit lost and was sent home by Danny, a nice man with gps and mountain bike.  But after that she was right and loving it.

At home with the Nobles is a full on business. David and Justine work very hard and the girls are always involved in one activity or another. One evening, Tim was volunteered for a pizza evening. This involved making the dough with the girls who became really quite competitive about the whole thing! Katy made ginger biscuits with them another time (a first for Katy) which tasted great.

Thankfully there were no further night insect attacks (other than omnipresent mosquitoes) and we eventually became used to (if not entirely comfortable with) the insect life of the area. One friend in particualr was Hannah the huntsman who would appear in various places in the house, but mainly in bathroom. She was our first huntsman spider and to us appeared huge. She is good (apparently) because she catches the nasty ones (which, thankfully, we never encountered).

The girls are real water babies, so Katy would often be dragged into their lovely pool and at the weekend, we all headed off to Shelly Beach for 'little nippers' which saw the shore line packed with hundreds of shouting and laughing young ones... and Katy. Another great beach and such warm water.

Slightly less fearful, having been their a few days we decided to hike through the bush by the house. It was more like a tropical rain forest with many new sights, sounds and smells. I was still convinced every time a leaf brushed my arm that we were about to attacked by a nest of killer ants, but we were lucky. This time. It was a lovely walk despite the ever present humidity.

Eventually the humidity was broken by torrential rain... they don't do anything by halves here! Unfortunately we were walking to the train station at the time and had to take shelter under a tree.  But it was a small price to pay for what was otherwsie gloriously hot weather.

We popped back into Sydney a few times to do the obligatory touristy things, but there's nothing wrong with that, it is a great city. The harbour bridge is majestic and its size is fully appreciated when enormous cruise liners pass below. The opera house is similarly very impressive but smaller than you might expect (apparently everyonre says this). There are some lovely walks around the waterfront.

We endured a walk around the art gallery showing aboriginal art... sorry, not impressed! So we cut it short and had a much nicer time having a picnic lunch at the harbour front.

On a couple of occasions we did the famous beaches. Bondi was clearly a beautiful setting and a great beach but was full of back packers and way too many Brits. Actually, it was way too many people full stop, but it was nice to see it in the flesh. In contrast, Manly beach had a much nicer feel, with less people and a chilled atmosphere. In any case, its easy to see why this part of Australia is so (too) popular; the lifestyle is so laid back and just makes you feel happy.

The Nobles were kind enough to take us out to see the sites a few times. We went to the Blue Mountains, which I'm told are beautiful. When we got there they were shrouded in mist and visibility was just a few metres... still, its nice to get out! Undeterred, Katy wanted to go for a hike, so she and David descended to the valley floor, whilst Tim and the lady Nobles strolled into town and found a chocolate shop with quite possibly the nicest hot chocolate.  Ever.

We wandered back to the car in the drizzle at the agreed meet up time and waited for the explorers' return... and waited... and waited. We were genuinely concerned that they might have walked off a cliff before they came squelching around the corner.

Katy had friends from home that had emigrated to Sydney and it was great to meet up with them, so they could talk about the good old M and S days. We met Carly who had only been in Sydeny for a week and was anxiously trying to sort out some work interviews.

We were also invited to stay with Janine and family in a town adjacent to the Nobles. We had a lovely time there with her Husband David and children Christian and Rachel (who loved their toys). Great food, great conversation and yet another beautiful house. I think Katy was Rachel's temporary bff*.

And with that our Sydney adventure was almost over. In the last few days, we had made arrangements to do some more HelpXing in Cairns, Queensland and to that end had a flight booked to our new adventure.

So, back with the Nobles, we were treated to a farewell barbeque, where we had our first taste of kangaroo and decided it was like red chicken. After dinner we were treated to a pop performance by the girls to rival anything that Lady GaGa could manage. We had such a wonderful time with the Nobles and can't thank them enough for their hospitatlity.

[* Best Friend Forever]

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

NZ pt III – South Island by Bus

02/01/11 – 02/02/11

It was all too brief. We left Cara and family after just a couple of nights (and had a lovely time, thank you very much) and headed back to the Big Green Bus in Wellington town centre. As we'd stayed an extra night, we now had a new bus and new driver:

Rich, but still a very smiley chap.

All aboard, we travelled around the corner and promptly got off again to take the ferry over to the South Island. With a pain-free three hour crossing completed, we were back on the bus, with the first chance to meet our new coach-load full of new young people (starting to feel my age now). Most had been together from the north island and had formed quite a clan. As we took our seats, the reception was somewhat frosty, so it was Katy's job to make new friends (Tim didn’t really mind not making friends!) and hope that they liked us. Thankfully our wit and charm shone through, the frost melted and we met lots of really lovely people.

So, the South Island. Many people prefer the south island and it was noticeably a prettier place to be (nothing against the North Island of course)...

First stop, Nelson. The town was nice enough but nothing special. However, a short walk from our (rather nice) hostel was a very significant place... the official Centre of New Zealand! It was conveniently located at the top of a hill and provided a great view across the bay.

From here we got lost walking back down the hill and ended up on the wrong side but conveniently close to a chinese garden which we had a nice walk through, stopping briefly to watch local youth standing on a delicate and ornate bridge, spitting into the meandering stream.

Back on the bus the following day, we stop off at yet another beautiful lake. Here was another stop along the trip where most of the bus would shuffle off to do the various activities they'd signed up for so we had alot of time to take in the scenery (which was thankfully stunning). Onwards to Westport where we had a nice late afternoon fire by the beach and watched some of our more foolhardy passengers take a dip in the ocean.

Day eleven of our tour saw us heading toward Lake Mahinapua. Another beautifully sunny day, we stopped off at the Punakaiki (pancake rocks)... heavily stratisfied limestone stacks which did look remarkably like stacks of stone pancakes.

A final stop off for the day was at Greymouth, a place with a metaphorical dark cloud hanging over it as a couple of months before our arrival, several locals were killed in a mining disaster (one which occurred shortly after a well publicised one in Chile in which everyone was rescued). Although day to day life was continuing, the place felt quite downbeat.

Anyway, our destination for the day was the Lake Mahinapua Hotel (a hotel? Hopes raised), aka the 'poo pub' (hopes firmly dashed). Accommodation was in prefab cabins, behind a pub, next to a lake and a few minutes from the sea. A beautiful place.

The pub is owned by an old fellow called Les and it is a bit of a KE institution* to stop there for a fancy dress party. The walls of the pub were covered with group photos taken at the end of said fancy-dress nights past, but as the walls got filled he now also has album after album stretching back over many years... and now we're in there too somehwere. Our theme was "come as something that your name begins with" Katy went as a Kiwi (“sweet as bro”) and Tim went as a Tea bag (obviously)! A very fun night was had by all (but especially by the kooky canadian woman and the lucky german guy we caught having sex on the way back to our room).

Next, Franz Joseph to the Fox Glacier (no polar bears or mints) Katy had a lovely hike up above the glacier (Tim sufferring from recurring achilles-heal pain at the mention of excercise). An amazing view; to be able to look down on this majestic icy creation, quite breath-taking. It was a nice little town so we were happy to spend a couple of days here.

At this point, I have to give thanks to Rory, a podiatrist (right?) travelling with us on the bus. He was a lovely guy (everyone on the bus was great) who had a gadget for treating Tims achilles pain. The treatment itself was not pain-free it has to be said, but it was very much appreciated.

Then onto Lake Wanaka and a truely beautiful setting. The lake is enormous and viewed from one of the surrounding hilltops you can see more lakes connecting for miles around.

Next stop Queenstown. Just at the outskirts, we stopped so that a few of our bus buddies could throw themselves off of a bridge at one of AJ Hackett’s most famous bungee-points, (something we would've loved to have done if $’s weren’t an issue). Unfortunately Queenstown is somewhere you want to have a lot of $$$’s to enjoy all the crazy things that are on offer here.

Instead we just chilled out. Katy hiked up to the top of the gondola, up through the forest, to be rewarded with a beautiful, if wet; view of the surrounding area.

The most we splurged was to have one of the infamous Furg Burgers. They were recommended to us and now we recommend them to you... if you ever get to Queenstown, you have to have one of the best burgers ever.

And OK, we managed to get out for drinks for the first time in a year (probably) in a Queenstown bar where we drank and kareokied(?) the night away. But having not drunk any real amounts of alcohol for so long took its toll and we had to retire early while the others carried on for many more hours... a good night i think.

Another small splurge was the day trip to the Milford Sound, which was a beautiful boat trip, if a little wet and windy, through the Sound and the waterfalls. And if I'm honest, it wasn't all that. I think we have reached 'spectacular view saturation point' on our travels and - as beautiful as it was - we found ourselves comparing it to other places like those we'd seen in Canada. But as complaints go, this is not a bad one to have!

From Queenstown we left our new found friends to head for Christchurch, which as a city was beautiful if a little shaken by the earth quake that had hit in October (some streets fenced off for fear of falling debris), Katy went for a great run around the city and it was lovely. The following morning we were woken by an aftershock, feeling like someone was rocking you out of your bed at 5am. Thankfully it was nothing to worry about for us. A month later (to the day) another massive quake devastated the whole of Christchurch.

From Christchurch we got back on board but never made it to the next scheduled stop. Instead we were left at the side of a very quiet road in a place called Dommett. But its OK, we weren't kicked-off; we were here for a spot of ‘HelpX-ing’ (something we had last done in Ecuador). With a vague idea of where we were headed, we plodded along the road in the drizzle and not for the first time wondered ‘what the hell are we doing?’ We reached a fork in the road; to the right was our destination but to the left was a cafe selling some of the best carrot cake ever. After refuelling on cake and tea (the place felt just like being in Devon), we continued on to our new home: Stroma - home to Jane & Bryan.

Surrounded by rolling hills, we walked down the long, tree-lined driveway to find that neither Jane or Bryan were home. Instead, we were greeted by two lovely very friendly dogs; Milly (the hairy one) and Bella (the curly one).

We had our own room off the main house, and a proper bed (this means alot to us!). Our work here was split between the house (general tidying), the garden (mowing, de-poohing, chain-sawing a tree), the animals (stroking, throwing balls!). We had a great time. Katy got to do another mosaic, this time a table depicting the kittens, Ray and Undy (it’s an American wrestling thing)... with some artistic licence, there’s only so much she could do with the selection of broken tiles available.

And then there was the farm. Here we would help Ross, the farm manager and all-round nice guy. We got to experience our first sheep-shearing, packing the wool-bales by stomping them down, (great for the legs!) and sweeping up the wool. Also, Katy had the job of de-nutting the sheep, apologising to every one of them as she did it, Ross thought this very funny, the sheep didn't. Tim became a dab hand at catching and holding them for me to do the deed. My greatest compliment from Ross was," you're as handy as a piece of string". High praise indeed, I thank you. We had a great time in Cheviot. Tim went to work most days on his little red quad-bike in the sun shine, helping to install a new irrigation system in a field. Katy ran up and down big grassy meadows and hills. We walked the dogs by the river. Katy also got to go out riding with Jane which was super fun.

Jane is a great cook so we we're spoilt with amazing meals every night and a lot of MEAT. Bryan owns and operates Cheviot Meats, an abattoir next door to the property, so everything is fresh and only the best cuts for us. We weren’t complaining, especially Tim - he does like his meat. Bryan took Tim for a tour of the abattoir which was very interesting and a reminder of the work he’d left behind.

Evenings were spent watching the TVs many channels as Bryan was an obsessive channel hopper!

As with everywhere else we've visited, our time was running out in NZ and we had to get our last flight before our ticket ran out, so on her birthday Katy got up early went for a final long run up and down the beautiful hills of Cheviot, NZ. Jane very kindly took us to the airport (stopping off for a bit of birthday cake along the way) and with a fond farewell it was time for us to take our flight which would see Katy have her birthday in both NZ and OZ.

(* By institution, I mean of course that they have engineered a profitable business entrapping tourists in a pub in the middle of nowhere... well done them!)

Thursday, 14 July 2011

NZ pt II : The Kiwi Experience – North Island by Bus02/01/11 – 02/02/11

So, we made it to 2011.  Happy New Year.  With the new year came a new adventure; we were ready (but sad) to leave Nicole and have our Kiwi Experience.

This is a big green bus which whisks you around the relatively tiny North & South Islands of New Zealand with a bunch of likeminded (if somewhat younger) people from all over the world.  However, when we arrived at the bus we realised with slight dread that almost everybody else on the bus was British, or worse... Dutch.  OK – there were a few other nationalities there as well and though i’m sure we were the oldest, it wasn’t so bad.  In to our seats and out with the travel pillows... we’re ready to go!

Our driver/tour guide - Steve - was a very cheery kiwi indeed; everything was ‘cool, cool’.  Actually he was great.  He obviously had good knowledge of all the places we visited but he also had a wickedly sarcastic sense of humour and loved making fun of Aussies (its a national pastime on both sides of the water).

It became quite clear soon into the trip that he must be getting freebies / backhanders all around the islands.  Everywhere we stopped, he would point out ‘the best pie shop in NZ’ for example and everyone on the bus would pour in after him the only difference being that they had to pay for their pies.  But hey, its no problem.  In some cases, I think the constant flow of business from the KE bus is the only thing that keeps them going.

Anyway, the pies were invariably good and looking at the amount of money flowing around the bus, the tourists can afford it.  During every journey, a clip-board of various activities would be passed around the bus (with Steve giving his ‘personal recommendations’), each one costing $100-200 a pop.  This tourist thing is a goldmine!!  If it doesn’t already exist, I cordially invite you to the inaugural voyage of the Brit Experience which I’ll be starting in a Comma mini-van when we get home.

We had a whirl-wind tour of the North Island ticking off some amazing places along the way. Our route took us from:-

Auckland: not long after boarding the bus, we were off it again to take a last look at the sprawling city, which actually didn't look too bad in the lovely sunshine from the great view point at Mount Eden.

Mercury Bay: we stopped off here but didn't take any photos, so i don't think it was all that memorable.

Rotorua (aka Roto-Vegas):
On the way we stopped off at Matamata, the filming location for Hobbiton (LOTR country). In reality, most of the shops were normal sized and I'm not sure any of the locals actually live in tree-trunks.

We continued on to Rotorua which was a much bigger town and stayed in the well appointed but rather expensive Base Hostel.  The place itself is surrounded by sulphurous lakes and is consequently pretty stinky which is a shame as it is otherwise wuite nice.

That night we splurged on one of the many activities, a mauri night.  We took yet another bus to a reconstructed mauri village where we watched and participated in 'traditional mauri activites' (apparently) before enjoying a 'hangi' (meal preapred in a covered pit full of hot rocks).  Anyway, I'm not sure how authentic it was, but it was a great night.

Day three takes us to Waitomo, farm shows and Zorbing (rolling down a hill in a big plastic ball) and a dozen other money sapping activities.  we stuck to free things like walking through the forests and caves where - once you turned on your torch - you could see creepy crawlies called  whettas with very long feelers.

Taupo: nice little town situated by a river and home to the biggest lake in Australasia (it says here, the lake is bigger than Singapore).  We maintained our plan of not paying for anything we didn't have to and so chose a much cheaper hostel than the official choice, ending up somewhere much nicer, met some great people and it even had a gym to keep Katy quiet.

Went for a big walk through woodland and along the river paths which had some fantastic waterfalls and chutes.  on the return we stopped off so that Katy could take a dip in a natural pool below a geothermal channel (channel too hot to touch, pool just right).

With a few hours to kill whilst we waited for others to finish their acivities (floating through glow-worm caves on rubber rings), the rest of us had a marathon volleyball session.

River Valley:  We splurged again and went white water rafting here.  Katy got bounced overboard in a big stopper-wave and sucked under the water(!), thankfully she was dragged out and thrown into another passing boat, a little shaken but still smiling.  Otherwise, there's mnot much going on in the valley, but its a nice enough place and they can play the music as loud as they like 'cos there's noone else for miles around.

Finally we reach Wellington and the south of the North Island.  Here we got to catch up with my friend Cara from back home in Welsh Wales but who subsequently broke free, found a Kiwi called Mike and settled in NZ, the proud mother of Caius and Maxus (and a new one on the way).  It was so nice to be with ‘family’ however temporary (and be off the bus!). We were welcomed to a beautiful home, a delicious meal, a cold beer and a comfy bed.

The following morning Katy got up early and went for a run up to the top of a hill through the woods with Mike, which gave a beautiful view of Wellington. We later had a tour with Cara and the boys then headed off alone to the Museum and the Botanical Gardens for a picnic and a wander. Wellington is a lovely place, somewhere we’ll have to come back to one day.