Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The next chapter

After a three week trip to the uk we've just landed in California; this arrival marks the beginning of a new chapter for two and a half travellers. We're not so much hanging up our travelling boots as shifting into a more cruisy travel gear - we've opted for a return to corporate life for Mr Traveller, an opportunity for me to get my photography business off the ground, and a whole new beautiful land and seascape, which had always been high on our list of places to explore, to enjoy as our back garden, and weekend playground.

We've no regrets of the year(ish) we took to see some more of the world; we gave our daughter the gift of two parents undivided attention during an extremely formative year of her life, moments with dear old friends and family who would otherwise have been at best mere faces on a webcam, and at worst complete strangers, and a flexible attitude where she just rolls with whatever our current situation is. People always ask whether she'll have any memory of the past year - I'm fairly sure that without our prompts she wouldn't remember a thing, but she will never lose the knowledge that she's gained en route, and to her the world will always be a small place.

We've been on an emotional journey, losing my gran shook the very core of our little unit, but without our year of travel, I wouldn't have been there to hold her hand. We've had time to examine ourselves and our relationships, becoming more self aware. I've chilled out and relaxed a bit, and although he'd probably hate to admit it, Mr T has become somewhat more routine!

I can honestly say that we loved everywhere we visited, we didn't find anywhere we disliked. From the unique culture of Spain's San Sebastian, to the quaint fishing villages of Cornwall, from Korean spas and hospitality, to Ireland's rolling emerald patchwork quilt to each and every tiny nook of New Zealand which we explored in intimate detail. Above all my expectations, over a painfully humid summer in DC we made the sort of friendships that usually take years to build, and huge wet tears rolled down both the littlest hobos and my own cheeks when we said goodbye - this was a valuable lesson in life for me, which will put me in good stead for building future friendships as well as reminding me just how much a three year old understands.

But we grew weary of bed hopping, and of packing and unpacking our cases (my unpack limit always used to be four days, now it's a week), and cramming our cases into small cars in an intricate and finely tuned arrangement. The littlest hobo is craving time with longer term friends, and we think she'd benefit from an environment where we have a little more guaranteed control - bring on the broccoli! As much as I will miss the perpetual summer, we're exhausted from visiting, bored of eating out, and found ourselves craving the plane ride for some down-time, so it's time to shift the pace of our exploration of this wonderful world.

We headed off with a set of challenges which perplexed us; the biggest of all being a sickly daughter, as well as a lot of dreams, and not a clue where our next pennies would come from. We've finished our trip with a thriving, healthy three year old, a new set of challenges, a renewed vigor for the life ahead of us, and a whole heap of wonderful memories.

I feel so lucky to have had the opportunities we had, and excited (and maybe a little nervous, but that's a good thing) at the prospect of what lies ahead. I'm looking forward to sharing some of our coming adventures, but this real housewife in Orange County is signing off for now.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Reliving a few NZ highlights in Rotorua

After three months in the country, we leave New Zealand in a couple of days. We're spending the last ten days with our dear friends in Auckland, but they need to carry on with their every day lives during the week, and as we all know, visitors, like fish, have usually gone off by the four day mark, so we decided that a little side trip was in order to avoid the risk of that being the case.

We had a think over some of our favourite places and activities in New Zealand. One of the highlights for us all, which I have still to write much about, was Queenstown - we had the most amazing time there with so many great things to do and so many stunning and beautiful places around it, I could easily have stayed for a month, if not longer. We looked into flights, but the cost was extortionate, so we had another think and decided to head back down to Rotorua. It's approximately a three hour drive from Auckland and has some of our favourite activities on offer, not to mention the geothermal heating being most welcome now that the first sight of winter is sweeping it's way across the country. It's a big tourist destination so there are a plethora of hotels, which means some great offers at this time of year too.

We kicked off our 48 hours with a return trip to Polynesian Spa - we didn't even pause to check in at our hotel before heading there. New Zealand is a veritable playground of hot bubbly pools and Polynesian is undoubtedly the top of the crop (more on that another day...). After we'd soaked ourselves sufficiently we headed to our hotel, which, like many in Rotorua also has it's own spa and geothermally heated swimming pool. With the huge playground a mere hop, skip and a jump away it would have been rude not to partake in a little swinging and climbing while we watched the sun set over the lake. The shivering temperatures that the dark brought made the final decision (and of course the most healthy decision too) not to schlep all the way across town for a third dip (ever, not in one day!) at the most delicious Holiday Inn buffet an easy one.

On Thursday morning I awoke to discover that the sore throat I had been trying to beat off the last few days had taken hold, so instead of the action packed day we had planned, I rested in the room while Mr T took the Littlest Hobo for a swim and a play in the park then I wandered into town and replaced her lost coat so that we could brave the icy temperatures and experience the other good reason for being in this particular spot this evening: The Rotorua Night Market.

Every Thursday evening a section of the street in the centre of town is closed off to traffic and a selection of stalls take over the area. I'd heard about it a couple of times and was disappointed that we'd managed to miss it by one day when we were here last time. We rugged up and headed down there just after the sun dipped beyond the horizon and enjoyed the vibrant atmosphere and live music while we feasted on a variety of yummy offerings. There's something I love about being out in the dark, with the lights twinkling, rugged up against the cold air and being warmed from the inside with tasty treats accompanied by the soundtrack of live music and general hustle and bustle. I can't help but smile.

Friday morning brought a healthier day, so before heading back up to Auckland we headed for a final dip in the Polynesian Spa then off to the Skyline Gondola and Luge. Queenstown boasts the same attraction, and when we were there, after riding the Gondola up a remarkably steep mountain and admiring the breathtaking views we'd spent about 15 minutes or so debating whether or not it was a good idea to take a two year old on the luge. In the end the inner child in each of us won, and we bit the bullet and went for it - we were not to be disappointed. The luge is the ultimate adrenalin fix for wimps like me as you can control the speed at which you travel. Mr T took the Littlest Hobo on his cart and I flew solo, surprising myself by whipping ahead, yelling with delight around each corner and emerging at the end with a grin on my face surpassed only marginally by the one that adorned my daughters face when she followed me a few seconds later. So you see, we needed to do it again! While the view from the top of the Skyline is less impressive in Rotorua (it's still lovely though), the luge is far superior, lasting much longer and the track seemed more hair raising too. My poor daughter had me squealing in her ear all the way from the top to the bottom!

Although we still have a few days left, Rotorua was the perfect choice to occupy a portion of our last week in New Zealand. There's plenty to do, while at the same time being relaxing, Rotorua offers a little bit of luxury, while at the same time being child friendly, and there's plenty of natures wonders to marvel at, from the bubbling mud and the huge geysers to serene lake against a backdrop of mountains.

Lake Rotorua, just before sunset

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Beautiful souls

It’s so easy to take friends for granted when they’re just around the corner and you can see them whenever you want. Moving countries for the first time, when we moved to Washington DC a few years ago, really brought home how important my friends were. I also learnt the value of putting the effort in to make new friends in our new home. Then we repeated the exercise when we moved to Sydney, only this time I had two sets of long distance buddies to keep up with, while at the same time finding a new set of friends.
When we left Sydney for the UK last year, we were going back to old friends, slipping back into a comfortable familiarity with a warming ease. I love the way with old friends, we are always there for each other when we need to be, no matter how much time has passed since we last saw each other, or even spoke.

But then we hit the road, and it was suddenly just us. I’m so grateful for the opportunity that we have at the moment to spend so much time as a family, and all the benefits that that brings, but I miss my friends. Some days I have a hankering to go for a coffee, to roll my eyes and dramatically sigh ’Men!’ or to compare with my mummy friends the Littlest Hobos latest habit and feel reassured that it’s completely normal at that age and won’t automatically be qualifying her as a teen delinquent or something worse.

When we left the UK in January, the same friends who had left us in charge of their home while they were away on holiday six months previously, offered to sell our car for us, giving us the opportunity to use it right up until the last day. It was such a kind gesture and I was touched that they gave up their valuable weekends to do it.

A couple of weeks ago a close friend in Sydney, whose daughter is the same age as the Littlest Hobo gave birth to her second daughter. I was delighted to hear the news, but I know I would have felt the pain of distance if it hadn’t been for a constant flow of texts and emails in the couple of days following, I’m still sad that I’m missing out on those newborn snuggles, but I’m sure that being able to ‘chat’ was the next best thing to actually being there.

Over Easter, some friends came down from Auckland to meet us for a week, bringing with them a collection of thoughtfully put together toys as a refreshing change for the Littlest Hobo from the small selection that we are carrying with us. A couple of weeks later we spent two days at their house in Auckland, where we’ve stayed several times on previous visits to New Zealand, and I relished in the ‘coming home’ feeling that flooded the car as we drove up their driveway. We’re heading back there at the weekend, and I’m really looking forward to it.

It was great to catch up with old friends a few weeks ago

I got an email today from a friend who was reminded of me when she walked into somewhere we used to go together… it made me a bit misty eyed, and it also made my day. I’ve got a few friends, spread over the three continents we’ve lived on, who make sure we stay in email contact, no matter how long it goes before they get a response, and two friends in particular who, like our families, have stuck with us through the not quite as advertised internet connections that we keep coming up against to check in on skype regularly - I love these chats, there’s something about the beauty of actually being able to see each other, seeing them in familiar surroundings, that is incredibly comforting. I love the normality of pauses to stop the baby eating the computer cable, or to grab a glass of wine, and the chatter of every day life.

What’s the point of this post? I’ve asked myself that several times… I suppose I just wanted to say thank you - to so many gorgeous souls whose everyday gestures, great and small, make our lives a bit easier, or remind us that they’re all still there, and in their own way make this trip a little bit more possible. I always say travel is about the people you meet along the way, but for me, it wouldn't be possible without the people who aren't right there right then too.

I’m so glad that we‘re doing this trip now, and not several years previously; I’m not sure that I would have managed to travel for so long without the tiny modern day wonders which have become part of our every day lives and ultimately, keep us in touch.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The sun always shines on Hobbiton

Nestled amongst the rolling hills of Waikato, near the small town of Matamata, sits the pristine setting that Peter Jackson made famous when he used it as the setting for Hobbiton in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. As we were heading there last Friday, through the heaviest rain that we have experienced since arriving in New Zealand, we questioned our sanity, and had we not already made arrangements to be there, we may well have turned the car around and headed for somewhere indoors and dry. But having spent the last two and a half months coming around corners to announce ‘that is so Lord of the Rings’ and constantly humming the theme tune, we were compelled to achieve a real LOTR experience, so we pressed on, and as we came over the hill and Hobbit Movie Set and Farm Tours base camp came into view, the stair rods parted and the rumbling grey sky looked somehow less threatening.

We booked in for our tour and then headed upstairs to the Shires Rest café for a lamb burger to sate our appetite. The Shires Rest serves tasty food in a somewhat bland environment, so discovering that they are currently developing the Green Dragon Inn from an on-set façade into an all singing, all dancing pub and venue was music to my ears.

Hobbiton is set on a working farm with approximately 14000 sheep and a few hundred black angus cattle; as we waited for the bus to arrive to take us on the short journey over the hills into Hobbiton valley, we watched cows being herded and petted the four tiny lambs who were doing a good job of commanding visitors attention just by looking cute, and scoring top marks from our little hobbit.

All together now 'ahhhhhhhh'

The bus appeared, and Danny, our tour guide, started his spiel as we headed through a couple of gates and into the picture perfect valley. Looking around, it was immediately evident why Peter Jackson had chosen this site as he scoured the countryside from the air. Not only was it hidden from any sign of modern day life, but it held a magical, timeless quality which screamed of everything you would expect of ’The Shire’ of  Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Over the hill and far away - it's hard to believe that Hobbiton is just over the hill

Jumping down the steps of the bus, I noticed that each and every hobbit hole in view was bathed in a sunny glow, and only one or two fluffy white clouds adorned the bright blue above us - a far stretch from the sky that had frowned down menacingly just an hour earlier. As we walked around the set, marvelling at every tiny detail from the miniature tools to the pint sized washing lines, Danny explained the reasoning behind the wide variety of hobbit hole sizes - those which would feature in a shot with Gandalf were smaller, to make him appear bigger, whereas others were bigger, to make the Hobbits appear smaller. I was astounded by each minute detail - the lichen on the fences was man made, as was the tree that sits above Bilbo Baggins house at the top of the hill - the Littlest Hobo took great pleasure in the souvenir fake leaf that Danny handed to her as we headed back down the hill. I suspect that her miniature stature and, curly haired-ness gave her extra kudos in Hobbiton, even without furry flippers.

Mummy, is this our new holiday house?
We worked our away around the set, posing in the miniature doorways for photographs as Danny told stories from filming and explained how everything worked. We were asked not to touch the props, and most of the hobbit hole doors stayed firmly shut, but there were one or two which we were allowed to open - although there wasn’t much to see on the other side (as the inside filming took place down in Wellington), it was good fun to pose as if you were just emerging from your hobbit mansion.

Bilbo Baggins hobbit hole - a veritable mansion at the top of the hill, looking down over the rest of Hobbiton


The coming year has to be the time to visit the Hobbiton movie set - not only has it been permanently rebuilt for the recent filming of The Hobbit trilogy (they were partially deconstructed after the initial trilogy was filmed, save seventeen hobbit holes which were rescued by a big storm which came through and halted deconstruction - this time they’re here for good), but the embargo has also been lifted, so you are free to take photographs too. I’m sure the completion of the Green Dragon will just be the icing on the cake. For now, we just settled for feeding the baby lambs with bottles as we basked in the bright sunshine when we returned to base camp, which wasn’t a half bad ending to our trip to Hobbiton at all.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Feeding wild stingray on the Eastern Cape

I can’t take any credit for this one - I usually do my research and work out what there is to see and do in an area, but ultimately we were in Gisborne to meet up with friends and have a few days of bach time - relaxing and enjoying good food and wine while taking advantage of the ocean on our back door step. I gave the guide book a quick once over and didn’t even google what there was to see and do in the area, so when our friends asked us if we would like to feed stingray, it sounded like an excellent idea!

We headed over to Dive Tatapouri, which is located on the edge of a shallow reef which sits immediately off the shore, on the beautiful Eastern Cape coastline. It was only a few minutes from our bach and approximately fifteen minutes from the centre of Gisborne. When we arrived, the adults and older child (age six) were kitted out with some rather fetching waders and long bamboo sticks, before being given instructions and a safety briefing. They told us about the rays we would likely see - the resident short-tail stingray and the much larger eagle rays who live further out at sea, but come in for feeding, given it is a regular occurrence. They showed us how to use our bamboo poles to create a fence to protect ourselves, should we need too (eek!). They also warned us about the kingfish, who it seemed were also rather partial to the bait we would be feeding to the rays, and rather quicker in the water.

Don't you wish your family was hot like us!

Then the kids were set astride a giant banana boat, which our guide hauled behind him on a rope while the rest of us (probably about 12 people in our group, excluding our three little ones) followed across the reef in single file. Having never worn waders before, walking through the water in them was a novel experience, with a constant sense of foreboding every time you stepped into a patch of water any deeper than the top of the welly boot bit, although I needn’t have worried as my feet stayed perfectly dry for the duration. The bamboo sticks proved an absolute necessity within seconds of being in the water- for testing the depth of the water ahead  (mainly as our supposedly single file line suddenly resembled more of a web, almost as soon as we hit the wet stuff) and secondly for keeping us upright as we waded over the slippery rocks.

Walking across the reef in a single file line, ahem....

Kids on the banana boat - they were all from our group - there were some older kids on our tour too who walked across

We stopped at the far side of the reef and stood on a rock in a couple of inches of water, while the guide stood in front of us and shook his bait pot in the water. It didn’t take long for the short-tail stingrays to appear, along with the enthusiastic kingfish. Our  children were still bobbing on their banana boat a few metres in front of us, and watching their little faces light up as they spotted and recognised the marine life appear around them was a magical moment.

Our guide handed out bait and we took it in turns to bend down and feed it to the stingrays. It was a tricky manoeuvre, bending forward while balancing on the rock, holding the bait so that the stingrays could sweep over your hand to reach the bait with their mouths below, all while avoiding a nip from the eager jaws of the waiting kingfish. I was cautious at first, especially after the boy standing next to me wasn’t so lucky and the kingfish managed to swoop in over the stingray and give him a nasty nip as it whipped the bait from his hand. The speed that kingfish moved will most likely ensure he never ends up as sashimi.

The eagle ray weren't shy with our guide!

Touching and feeding the wild stingray was a unique tactile experience - they had a slightly slimy, vaguely bumpy cartilage feel to them, and as the bait is sucked up out of your hand it could only really be likened to a run in with a low powered Dyson.

The ray's mouth is really far back - look how far it went up his arm! 

When the little kids tired of being on the boat (it took a surprisingly long time) they were brought onto the rock with us and touched the rays too. We’d been out on the water for around 90 minutes, but all too soon we were making our way back to shore and it felt like we’d been out there for just minutes.

The guide placed bait in the end of his bamboo pole to encourage the rays to come to where we could feed them

I’ve seen and touched rays in aquariums a few times, but feeding them in the wild was different - this is one of my favourite things about New Zealand - we have been presented with so many opportunities to see wildlife which we may be able to see in zoos or aquariums elsewhere, but here we can see them in their natural environment; no bars or glass between us and them, little or no stress on the creatures involved, and often we can get much closer than we would be able to in captivity.

The beautiful coastline where the reef is situated

What did we think of our stingray experience? Let the Littlest Hobo tell you….

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Whakarewarewa; Rotorua's living thermal village

When we last visited Rotorua, several years ago, we spent an evening at a cultural show and hangi, which I really enjoyed. In spite of a few Kiwi’s telling me that it’s ‘just for tourists’ and ‘once you’ve been to one, there’s no point going to another‘, I was keen to experience it again, and in particular to let the Littlest Hobo see the singing and dancing, which I knew she would love. We were a bit wary, however, about taking her to an evening performance, where she would be up late at night and potentially unwilling to sit still and behave well if she got overtired . When we booked the Rotorua mystery hotel deal on and it turned out to be the Holiday Inn, I was excited to discover that it was right in front of Whakarewarewa Village, which Lonely Planet tout as one of the main draw cards to Rotorua.

Whakarewarewa Village, or to give it it’s full name Tewhakarewarewatangaoteopetauaawahiao, is a living thermal village; living in the sense that a Maori tribe still live there today. The wharepuni - homes, sit amongst the thermal pools, swirling steam and geysers that are synonymous to Rotorua, and it’s essentially a tourist attraction by day and a Maori village once the gates shut to their paying visitors at 5pm every day.

Out visit started with a guided tour, where we were welcomed by our guide Ropetahonekihimitataupopoki iharaira piripi; Robert to you and I. He talked us through a short history of the village, explained that the tribe is all one family, and inside the complex should be thought of as their home, so once we stepped through the gates we became guests in their home. Although he now lives on a farm beyond the village boundaries, Robert grew up in the complex and his face lit up as he told us stories of a happy childhood playing amongst the hot water and mud pools, finding ways to make pocket money and running around plastered in mud, scaring tourists. He explained that many of the houses these days house the older members of their community, who had lived there all their lives, and were accustomed to living with the steam, so wouldn’t adapt well to a life with everyday mod cons like ovens and showers.

Immediately after passing through the gates, we crossed a bridge with a river and a cool water pool beneath it. Looking down from the bridge, in and around the pool were Maori children of varying ages. Robert explained that they were penny diving; many years ago, when the first tourists visited Whakarewarewa before the bridge was built, they would pay a penny to be piggybacked across the river. When the bridge was built and piggybacking no longer required, the tourists began to toss coins into the river for luck, and the villagers, not understanding why the money was being thrown in their river, would go down and fetch the money from the river and keep it. It became custom for the children to do this, and the activity has continued to this day.

Diving for pennies

Immediately upon entering the village, you can feel the warmth emanating from beneath your feet, and bending down to touch the ground, a few seconds is long enough, before your fingers start to feel the wrong side of warm.

We continued through the village and Robert showed us the oil baths - the outdoor bathing area where villagers go to wash, made up of several concrete baths which are filled via small channels running from the hot geothermal pools and derive their name from the oily texture and mineral deposits within the water that is used to fill them. The mineral rich water in Rotorua is said to have healing properties, and can be used to treat arthritis and eczema amongst other things - it's certainly very believable; Mr T suffers with eczema and found that it improved dramatically after a couple of dips in the Rotorua water.

One of the baths, with the water channel filling it from the hot pools

We were shown a couple of steam box hangi - wooden boxes built into the ground to trap steam so that it can be used to cook food. Again, these are still used today; villagers often put their dinner in the hangi at the start of the day and return to collect it, cooked, at the end of the day. In the pool next to the hangi, some corn cobs were cooking using traditional methods - wrapped in a linen cloth, tied with a long rope with a brick at the end of it, and lowered into the pool, which is just below boiling point at the surface. Robert explained that meat couldn't cook in this way as the fat would react with the water with explosive consequences!

Robert showing us the corn cobbs

One of the highlights of the tour is the view of the Pohutu and Prince of Wales Feathers geysers. The Pohutu (meaning big splash) is the largest geyser in New Zealand, rising at times to 40 metres, and the Prince of Wales feathers is the most active geyser. It is left completely to nature when they will erupt (some places add washing powder to make their geysers erupt at set times, as washing powder contains animal fat) and generally the longer they lie dormant the higher they will rise. On average, these two geysers erupt at least once an hour and you can get a feeling of how frequently they are to erupt by the weather - on a hot clear day they will erupt less frequently but shoot higher into the sky, whereas on an overcast or rainy day, they will erupt more frequently but to a lesser extent. For the duration of our visit they erupted constantly, and the sky was overcast. The bright blue pools directly in front of the geysers make good barometers for the villagers.

The geysers were erupting throughout our visit

After our tour, we headed to the cultural performance area for a thoroughly enjoyable 30 minute show that included dancing, singing, the haka, stick games and even a little bit of audience participation. I really love the melodious music and the short performance was just the right length to keep the Littlest Hobo’s attention so that we all had a fantastic time. Whakarewarewa had a really laid back, friendly and approachable attitude which made me feel very comfortable, particularly with a young child in tow. Although they requested that everyone remain seated, I think this was purely so that those seated at the back could still see, and they smiled down from the stage when our youngest family member got up on the grassy area to the side of the seating to copy their dancing.

I can’t recommend Whakarewarewa village highly enough if you are visiting Rotorua, and especially if you have young children with you - being in a living village made for a unique cultural experience, and the tour was incredibly interesting and educational. Robert was an excellent tour guide, peppering our visit with little tidbits of information which added to the overall experience and really left us feeling like we’d had an insight into life in the thermal village. With the show included in general entry, the visit was excellent value at $30 each for the adults and two year olds go free. Most of the other cultural performances that I looked into were topping the $100 per person mark (including dinner) and would probably have been a bit too long and late to suit our needs with a toddler in tow.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Easter in Napier - what's travel without the people you meet?

Traditionally, we’ve spent Easter with friends or family, and this year was to be no exception with plans to meet our good friends from back in the UK who now live in Auckland. We planned to hire a bach together in Gisborne and spend a week or so there, but it obviously wasn’t meant to be - we left it too late and were unable to find anywhere to accommodate us all. Instead we opted to take one that was available from Easter Monday, so Two and a half Travellers stayed in art deco Napier a bit longer than initially planned.

Looking for something a bit more than just our own company, we booked ourselves into Riverbend Family Lodge - with three holiday chalets sharing the grounds surrounding the owners house, as well as a pool, hot tub and trampoline we thought this would be a good option for meeting some other people.

When we arrived we were greeted by the friendly owners, Greg and Kendall, who showed us to our accommodation and made sure that we felt comfortable to give them a yell should we need anything. The rain was pouring down with a forecast for much of the same in the days to come, and we were the only people staying there - in spite of this we still felt that we’d made a good choice, with cosy, functional accommodation and friendly hosts.

We spent the remainder of that day and the following dashing between the lodge, the car, and various indoor venues, feeling soggy and damp. But on the afternoon of the second day, the rain stopped and the Littlest Hobo made a bee line for the trampoline. Kendall asked us whether we’d like to join an Easter egg hunt on Easter Sunday (weather permitting) along with the other two families who would be there.

The Napier beaches were pretty special

The other chalets filled, and as the weather dried up, the children made friends and played on the trampoline, in the garden and the swimming pool. The Littlest Hobo loved picking vegetables, playing with the rabbits, cat, dog and riding horses - she had a ball. The Easter Egg hunt was a hit with all the kids, in spite of a wide range of ages, and the adults drank coffee and ate hot cross buns. The Littlest Hobo’s first horse ride was another highlight.

Hunting in the vegetable patch
Checking out the stash in her home made basket
Hot cross buns and hot coffee made the perfect start to Easter Sunday
They had more hop than the Easter Bunny on that trampoline

Easter weekend had the potential to be a bit of a wash out, not only with the terrible weather, but after a couple of weeks where we hadn’t met many people and without being able to see our friends until Easter Monday, we thought we might feel a bit lonely. Thanks to the wonderful environment at Riverbend Family Lodge, this wasn’t the case, and we ended up feeling that this was probably the best place we had stayed in during our entire time in New Zealand. To coin a cliché, we felt that we’d arrived as strangers and left as friends. This was largely due to our fantastic hosts but also our fellow guests, whose company we really enjoyed too. The Littlest Hobo particularly took a shine to the teenaged girl who was staying next door, and her and her step mum babysat while Mr T and I went into Napier for some lunch - an unexpected and much appreciated treat for this travelling family.

First horse ride ever - Emma (Greg and Kendall's daughter) was kind enough to  let the Littlest Hobo  have a ride on  Chloe

Hanging out in the hot tub with her new buddies Mabel and Charlie! 

For me, one of the most important aspects of travelling, and the element that can change a good trip into a great one is the people that you meet along the way. Interesting stories, little quirks, spontaneous fun and random acts of kindness are what make the average travel blanket into a veritable patchwork quilt.

How have the people who you have met added to your travel experience?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Kaikoura - in search of the whale's song

When I was young, my grandparents were models for Gary Blythe when he illustrated the childrens book The Whale's Song. I loved reading it, and although I was a teenager when it was published, seeing my Nana and Grandad in print added a touch of extra realism to the story, make believing that I could have been Lilly - the little girl who listened to the whale's song. This book was the start of a fascination for the graceful giants that roam our oceans, and since I first read it I have always been keen to see a whale for myself.

From living in Sydney, my understanding of whale watching was that it is a seasonal activity, taking place as the whales complete their migration from May to September, so when I realised that Whale Watch Kaikoura offer year-round opportunities, I was delighted. Inspite of having heard that Kaikoura was a veritable haven for aquatic wildlife, I was a little skeptical. On further investigation, I discovered that the Kaikoura Canyon, just 1km from the coast, offers a unique geographical situation, encouraging an abundance of marine life, including a never ending stream of passing whales, along with several resident sperm whales - one of the only places in the world where this opportunity is available throughout the calendar year.

My alarm went off and I jumped straight out of bed, in spite of the early hour, then proceeded to bash around the unfamiliar house in the dark, trying to dress without waking anyone. First light was just breaking as I arrived at the whale way station (ha ha - like all good New Zealand railway stations, Kaikoura’s has a dual purpose - in this case it houses Whale Watch Kaikoura’s base camp). There was only one car in the car park, so I walked slowly, looking out into the murky depths and wondering about the height of the monstrous waves that crashed on the shore nearby.

As more people arrived, I headed inside to check in. When you book your experience, you are warned that the trip is dependant on weather conditions. Out trip carried a sea sickness warning, and the rest of the trips that day were still marked as unconfirmed so far. After checking in, I joined many of my fellow whale watchers in purchasing a sea sickness tablet. I’d intended to keep it in my camera bag until needed, but in the end, mainly out of fear of not being able to find it at the right time, I downed it with a much needed caffeine fix from the on site café.

After a quick introduction and safety briefing, we headed to our boat; as we piled on we were advised to sit at the back for a less bumpy ride. In spite of my usual wimpishness, I felt strangely compelled to sit in the second row from the front. We headed out to sea, being briefed that we must stay inside the boat and seated due to the high speed we were moving. You’re not kidding me - we flew across the water, jumping over each massive wave as we hit it. As we sped along, our host kept our attention, with a constant flow of interesting information about the canyon, the marine life it attracted, and the whales.

Before I'd arranged the trip, I had done some research into the whale watching options and had discovered that you could go by helicopter or by boat. The helicopter trip is often touted as the superior option, as from above you will see the whole whale, whereas on the boat you will most often only see the spray from their blowholes and a portion of their back, their dorsal fin and tail. In spite of this I was keen to go by boat, not only because the trip was much longer (approx two and a half hours as opposed to half an hour), but also because I felt that I would get a closer look and have the opportunity to see that all important flick of the tail as they swam back down from a better angle. Seeing the images that our hosts showed us on the boat really confirmed that for me that I'd made the right choice, as well as highlighting just how enormous these mammals are! I was also impressed with their ethical standpoint, using only their eyes and ears to track and respecting the whale's desires by staying well back and following their lead.

Being the first trip of the day meant that we didn’t have the knowledge of the previous boats to guide us straight to the whales. Our only option was to head out to one of the spots where the whales often hang out and listen for them. When we reached the canyon, the boat came to a halt and we headed outside, bobbing on the ocean, surrounded by an endless variety of bird life, gliding on the wind then diving down to the surface. Meanwhile, the Captain took out a long conical device with a pair of headphones attached, an underwater directional hydrophone, and stuck the end of it in the water. He was listening for the whale's click - the means by which they communicate and navigate while they are deep under the water. He heard a whale and we all piled back inside to race of to the place where he had pinpointed it.

When we arrived in the right area, we all rushed back outside and those of us who weren't too green (I was grateful at this point for the seasickness tablet...) climbed the stairs to the upper viewing platform, and started scanning the waters. An announcement came from our host to say that they could see the whale, but I could only see water and birds. Then one of the crew members pointed the whale out to me, logging; a small portion of him visible as he hovered near the surface gathering oxygen for his next dive to the depths of the canyon to feast on giant squid. I raised my camera to my eye and snapped as many pictures as I could as his tail shot into the air then he dove down and was gone.

Tiaki disappearing below the surface 

The whale, recognisable to the crew by his markings, was one of the resident males; Tiaki. As we headed back inside they explained that on average, a whale stays on the surface for approximately ten minutes before diving for around 45 minutes. As we couldn't hear Tiaki after we saw him, there was a chance that he was in the shallows and might reappear, but while the captain was listening he had heard another whale, so we headed in that direction. As we sped across the water, one of the crew members spotted the whale, and then saw it dive before we had had a chance to get to it... rather than a 45 minute wait we listened again, and headed off in hot pursuit of another round of clicks. Although there were clearly a few people suffering with the motion of the ocean, I found the thrill of the chase exhilarating, and bouncing over the waves in the hope of another sighting really added to the experience for me.

This time, we were rewarded for our efforts and as we headed out to the viewing deck we could see a spray of water rising five metres into the air every ten seconds or so. We could see Mati Mati, another resident male, on the surface of the water, where he remained for approximately four minutes. He looked huge, and I had to remind myself that I could only see a small part of him - adult male sperm whales can grow to up to 20.5 metres - truly as big as a whale! Suddenly, he started to curve up out of the water and the crew told us that he was about to dive.  He looked so graceful as the curved section rippled along to his tail and he lifted it high into the air before disappearing tail-tip last.

Logging, with a spray coming from the blowhole

About to dive down again - cameras at the ready everybody!

With a splash of his tail he was gone

Although we had only been there watching him for a few minutes, and we had only seen a small portion of the entire whale, it was a magical, breathtaking, awe-inspiring experience. I felt a real sense of camaraderie with my fellow camera touting whale watchers, as we all talked about what we had just seen and compared photographs.

At this point, as the whales weren't staying on the surface for long, the crew decided to call it a day on the whale chase and take us to an area which is popular with Dusky Dolphins for the remainder of our time. As soon as we arrived we were greeted by around 20 energetic dolphins swimming around the hull of the boat and performing for our cameras. Dusky dolphins are one of the most acrobatic species of dolphins, and they certainly didn't disappointing - leaping out of the water, flipping and synchronised swimming - there was so much going on that it was hard to know where to look! I found a new respect for wildlife photographers as I struggled to keep up with the speed of these playful creatures, who swam so close that I struggled with my telephoto lens - they coaxed out another set of smiles as well as squeals of delight from us all though.

I had a spellbinding morning with Whale Watch Kaikoura - when we returned to the shore I was ready to turn around and do it all again. My photos are hardly going to make National Geographic, but I'd had such a fantastic time, and I floated around on a high for the rest of the day. If you're ever in the area, it's worth making a detour to Kaikoura for the marine life alone, although the town itself, and the picturesque coastline with mountains right to the waters edge, is well worth a visit too.

Beautiful Kaikoura waking up for the day

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Matariki - it was written in the stars

We’d been on the road for over a month when we all got a bit sick of staying somewhere new every second night, so we decided that a one week stop was on the cards. Mr T found a farm stay in the Nelson area. The family who own the farm were away on holiday themselves, but said that as long as we were willing to look after ourselves the place was ours, and we got a great rate too.
The littlest hobo loved the garden at the farm

We were wowed by the remoteness as soon as we arrived, based on lush farmland, with sheep roaming in the foreground and mountains looming in the distance. The garden was phenomenal - huge, completely fenced in with a swing a little bike and toy tractor which left the Littlest Hobo desperate to get out and play all day. There were adult bikes too and a basketball hoop, and a vegetable and herb garden and fruit trees to help ourselves from. I mustn’t forget the longest washing line ever - perfect timing given the huge bag of dirty washing we were carting around, and better yet I could satisfy my inner cavewoman watching our smalls flapping in the wind as the sheep grazed nearby.

Our cottage was in keeping with the ‘grandma’s house’ charm that we have come to expect from many of the older bach’s we stay in, along with plenty of kids toys, and a welcome basket with all manner of goodies along with information about the local area. My only disappointment was discovering that the internet access that had been advertised was actually only available in the farmhouse, and as they were away we couldn’t access it. On top of that, but much more anticipated, we had no phone reception, so we were completely cut off from the outside world. Although this wasn’t in our original plan, it ended up being quite refreshing, very relaxing, and in honesty probably about as close as we will really get to that technology free month that Mr T was hankering after when we first planned our trip!

There were sheep everywhere!

The Nelson region is renowned for it’s good weather, and our week here was no exception; although we made a few trips (Golden Bay/Farewell Spit and Nelson on market day) we also had plenty of time to just kick back and relax. We had freedom to roam around the farm, so we explored the hills and rivers, walked through the stream, chatted with the cows (much to their disgust) and watched the sun, and the rainbows, come and go. The old Matariki school house sits in the grounds; it’s been disused since 1942, but the door was open so we went in to explore, with plenty of it’s history recorded and preserved inside, and we took pleasure in finding our hosts family listed amongst the students.

Matariki school house

I read some of the entries in the cottage guest book, and it made me feel sad that we hadn’t visited when the owners were home, everyone who signed the book sounded like they’d had an amazing time really experiencing the farm and really being welcomed like family. I was keen to see the dogs working to move the sheep and  Mr T was absolutely itching for a turn on the quad bike. I’m hoping we’ll be able to find an opportunity to do these things on the North Island before we leave New Zealand.

What're you looking at?!

Stepping outside after dark was the biggest treat of all; a veritable cornucopia of astrological delight enveloped me and captured my immediate and unwavering attention. Had it not been for the incessant attack of viscous sandflies I could have stayed there all night, every night, gazing up in awestruck wonder. As it was, it became a nightly ritual, after putting the littlest hobo to bed we would head out into the inky darkness and stand in front of the house looking up for a few minutes, the void of silence echoing on the mountains that surrounded us. I have never seen so many stars filling the sky - if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes I would have struggled to believe it.

The farm was called Matariki. I didn’t know what it meant, so when we were in the children’s section of the Wellington library the following week, and I spotted a book by the same name I snapped it up and started to read. I discovered that Matariki is the name for the Maori New Year. The word has two literal translations - Tiny Eyes (stars) and Eyes of God. The celebration takes place in June, based around a cluster of seven stars, and focuses on the unique place in which we live and giving respect to the land we live on. With this new understanding I couldn’t think of a more fitting name for the cottage in the stars.

Staying on the farm was the antithesis of our life in Sydney  - from living on a busy road with a shop opposite, a pub five doors down and a constant flow of passers by, with every form of public transport known to man on our doorstep and one of the most iconic views in the world from our lounge window, to a little farm nestled amongst the mountains on a dirt track that sees only a few vehicles pass by every day, a fifteen minute drive to the nearest shop, and almost an hours drive to the nearest sizeable town, and all of nature’s bounty right outside your front door. While this life isn’t what I’d chose personally for the long run, I thoroughly enjoyed my immersion into it.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Travelling NZ with a toddler: the South Island round up

We’ve come to the end of our five week trip of New Zealand’s South Island, so it’s no surprise that we’ve been hit with a bit of reflection.

We’ve travelled over 6000km starting in Dunedin and finishing in Picton. We’ve argued over directions eight times, even with sat nav! We’ve visited 46 different places. We’ve seen the extreme South of the mainland (Slope Point) and the far North (Farewell Spit). We’ve watched the sun rise over the Eastern shores and set over Western waters. The map below shows our route.

View Larger Map

We’ve each slept in 13 different beds. We’ve had our first experience of staying in a youth hostel as a family - much to the surprise of some of us, it was pretty good, albeit a bit nerve wracking every time we saw a jar of peanut butter. We may even do it again sometime. Mr T has got his bach booking skills down pat and become quite a master at getting excellent rates, so that’s been our main accommodation while we’ve been moving around. We’ve also stayed in a couple of motels and one hotel, but it was no Ritz, believe me! We made one accommodation stuff up, but one's not so bad, in the grand scheme of things, and it meant that we added Akaroa to our list of places visited, which was definitely a good thing. I’m still hankering after a campervan experience and trying to work out how to achieve that.

The littlest hobo has coped with the changes in our lifestyle well, and for the most part seems to be enjoying it. We've managed well with her allergies and intollerences, as long as we made sure we stocked up on oat milk in bigger towns we didn't have any problems. Her asthma and cough seemed better when we were in rural areas, and I am glad to say that the epipens remain snuggled in their packaging. When I asked her what her favourite things in New Zealand were she said 'playing and cafés', but I know from the look on her face that Penguin Place, the Queenstown luge, Hamner Springs thermal spa and staying on the farm in Tasman all ticked the boxes for her. We were all very fond of Queenstown, with so much to see and do in and around there (and the blog posts about that are still to come... we were too busy experiencing it all to write about it at the time) plus we had warm, comfortable, well equipped accommodation with amazing views, which is always a bonus.

The view from our Queenstown apartment made staying in quite appealing

We’ve encountered yellow eyed and blue penguins, sealions and seals, two gigantic sperm whales, a pot bellied pig, chooks, goats, horses, cows and approximately three million two hundred and eighty nine thousand and seventeen sheep. We’ve been bitten by more sandflies than I care to remember, and have the war wounds to prove it.

Cows and sandfly in the middle of a long white cloud

We’ve munched our way through seventy two inches of Subway seven dollar sandwiches, and at least one of us thinks that that is quite enough for now, thank you. We’ve also enjoyed our fair share of eggs, veges, fruit and milk fresh from farms we’ve stayed on and roadside stalls, and this is something that I love.

I've made over 1600 photographs, and so far the netbook is still standing under the weight of it all. That's a hefty slideshow that somebody will have to sit through at some point.

We’ve spent roughly NZ$8000 which is only $1,500 over our original (and possibly slightly unrealistic) budget.

On more than one occasion we’ve been convinced that ‘the land of the long white cloud’ is a truly apt name for this enchanting landscape. Our best view was over Lake Wakatipu on the drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy - actually, that was my favourite view ever, not just in New Zealand.

Never have I experienced such diversity in such a small area - from the towering wonder of fjordland to the terrifying beauty of the glaciers and the sobering tragedy of Christchurch, all within a few short hours drive of each other. The glorious isolation and tranquillity that encapsulates you in the soft rolling hills of Tasman is an equally necessary part of the South Island experience alongside watching dusky dolphins dance along the Eastern shores and getting an adrenalin fix in Queenstown (on the luge, of course!).

I didn’t really appreciate mountains until I came to the South Island - the place is covered in them, but they are all so different, and that realisation has been a bit of an awakening. Seeing the mountains swathed in cloud which slowly burns away with the warmth of the sun is a fantastic way to start your day, as is dipping your feet into an icy cold glacial mountain stream.

You could drop a destination or two from our itinerary, but it wouldn’t be the same experience. You could do it in half the time, but then you wouldn’t really feel everywhere, just see it through a glass window. You could double the time we spent, and you wouldn’t be bored; we left most places wanting more, which is a good feeling to carry around with you.

New Zealand’s South Island was everything we expected and more. If it isn’t on your bucket list, it might be time to start reconsidering.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Being humbled in Christchurch

After our accommodation debacle we headed off to find a motel for the night - we pointed ourselves in the direction of the airport, figuring there’s always last minute accommodation around airports, but on the way stumbled upon a great little motel so we stopped there for the night. As I was checking in, the owner started to show me a few places on the map. I noticed that we were staying on the edge of the red zone, which he had kindly marked on the map - a sizeable chunk of the CBD which is currently shut off to the public while dangerous buildings are removed and the area is made safe again. When we’d first talked about going to Christchurch, some friends and family had asked us if we should really go there now, but everything I saw when I researched it suggested that Christchurch was encouraging tourists to start coming back, and we felt compelled to support that notion and include it in our great tour of New Zealand in the same way as we would have done pre-earthquake. We’d searched carefully for accommodation that said it was away from the earthquake hit areas, but here we were, right in the city, a block from some of the worst devastation.

We dumped our bags, then headed out to have a look around and get some food for dinner. We had only been walking for a minute or two when we saw fencing along the pavement - looking through we saw a church, closed since February 2011, the walls cracked and damaged, with Mary standing facing it, as if assessing the damage, made quite a statement. On the opposite side of the road was a motel, open for business with it’s vacancy sign burning bright, while the four houses standing right next to it were surrounded by more fencing, massive cracks visible right through the middle of each roof, the blackened evidence of a fire that had burned inside stood out stark against the white wall, while a recovery worker was busy at the front of the building.

The motel next door was open for business - it amazed me how often we saw buildings standing shoulder to shoulder, one apparently unscathed while the other was a crumbling wreck

It was confronting. A few weeks ago, on the first anniversary of Christchurch’s big earthquake, we watched When a City Falls by Gerard Smyth, which was an excellent documentary showing the devastation through the eyes of a Christchurch local, and of course I had seen the news reports when the earthquakes happened, but nothing could have prepared me for the city that we were starting to see. When I was chatting to our motel owner later, he pointed out that the media shows images of the same buildings over and over again, leading us to assume that the worst of the damage is limited to those few buildings.

Some of the games machines were still inside

The area behind High Street - previously a major shopping area in Christchurch

We continued on, soon coming up against more fencing; this time it shut off entire streets, cordoning the red zone. In front of us was the Crown Plaza hotel, and although it was Friday evening, there was still a team working away, meticulously pulling the unsafe building apart one small step after another. There were a couple of people standing by watching; locals, I assumed, looks of awe on their faces, maybe they were visiting memories of happier times, maybe they were recalling the chaos of that fateful day, or maybe, like us, they were trying to wrap their heads around what they were seeing.

Smashed windows, wooden boards and fencing were a feature around most of the streets of the CBD
We walked on, skirting the perimeter of the red zone, walking carefully over cracked, raised pavements, all around us evidence of the day that Christchurch fell; broken windows, abandoned offices and the tell tale spray paint of the rescue teams who painstakingly combed the city looking for survivors in the days after.

It was Friday evening, a time when you would expect bars around a city centre to be heaving with office workers, keen to shrug off the working week and loosen their ties in preparation for the weekend ahead. The place was like a ghost town. Apart from the constant clunk and whir of machinery, the odd small group of tourists doing roughly the same as we were, and one or two people scurrying home at the end of their day, there was no other evidence of life. Our idea of getting dinner was fast becoming a ridiculous notion - we walked for almost two hours, admittedly with stops to gaze with wonder, before we found a Subway which was open and sold us what would become dinner.

The sun going down in the red zone - the sparkle on the pavement is broken glass, still lying there since the quake

One thing that I found particularly striking was the feeling that all this had just happened yesterday - peering through one section of fence would reveal smashed glass and crumbled concrete, look up and you would see smashed windows, curtains or blinds gently fluttering in the breeze, and everywhere was evidence of time stopping; posters advertising 2011 events, a set of flowerpots on a balcony which had clearly fallen over with the earthquake and their owner never been back inside to pick them up, and desks, stacked high with papers, chairs flung back as their occupants fled, thirteen months ago.

Many of the abandoned houses have ladders hanging from the upper floors 

All of this adds to the feeling of being in a ghost town, but much more than that, it gives a glimpse of the panic of the moment, and acts as a poignant reminder of just how much the earthquake devastated the city - we saw people working every moment we were there, and yet a whole year plus hadn’t been enough time for them to reach these areas, to fix these things. Being so soon after the one year anniversary, we saw dedications attached to fences and lamposts of those who had died near that spot. I was moved to tears several times.

Looking at the flower tributes on the perimeter fence

I found these flowers particularly moving - for the  lives lost on a bus - one of the tributes was for a young boy

We walked the entire perimeter of the red zone, and returned to our motel weary. Only one of us fell asleep easily, and slept soundly.

Pop up shops - made from shipping containers - ingenious!
The next morning, we packed up and left our motel and then drove to the other side of the city centre, to an area known as the pop up mall. We’d walked through it the previous evening and were so impressed - it’s a street of shops, banks and food outlets made entirely from shipping containers which has sprung up since the earthquake. It’s ingenious and I love it. We were looking for a farmers market that was rumoured to have started up near there. I’m so glad that we did return there - the area was buzzing, alive with people of all ages, going about there Saturday mornings and blowing life into Christchurch.

The pop up mall was alive with people on Saturday morning. We joined the queue of people to the left.

We didn’t find the market, but we did find a massive queue of people snaking through the mall, and moving forward at a reasonable speed. Remembering what another tourist had said to me the night before - that the red zone was being opened up for public access this weekend - we joined the throngs, and before we knew it, we were working our way through the usually out of bounds streets to the infamous Christchurch Cathedral.

Christchurch Cathedral

Turning the corner and seeing what is left of  the Cathedral for the first time was a humbling moment, seeing the people of Christchurch going through this same passage much more so. The pathway to Cathedral Square was hushed and thoughtful, in spite of the huge number of people walking along. But the atmosphere in the Square was different; uplifting, and a definite positive vibe. It was an amazing thing to be standing in the middle of, to be a part of. I’m so glad that we returned in the morning, that we were able to feel the positive vibe that the people of Christchurch were living by and feel the life and soul of the city.

The Christchurch wizard had plenty to say, and people were gathered around him listening

Yellow ribbons inscribed with messages of hope 

Visiting Christchurch was an overwhelmingly sobering experience, a stark blast of reality that shook us right to our roots and made us shed tears, sit up and pay attention. After 24 hours, we were ready to leave, the weight of sadness bore heavy on our hearts. I have so much admiration for the people of Christchurch; they show such strength and durability as a community. Shining through the dust covered rubble, I could see glimmers of the city that was, and signs of a city that will rebuild itself. I saw a city that I would have loved to visit, and from everyone I spoke to I sensed a determination that one day Christchurch will be that same place again. And I look forward to returning some day soon.