Sunday, 27 February 2011

The Cook Islands

The final week of our trip is already over: a week of desert island paradise before the long journey home to the UK - and back to the real world. Our exotic location however makes our imminent return feel a long way off.

Flying into the Cooks we crossed over the international date line, meaning we landed in Rarotonga about 28 hours before we took off from Auckland! - and consequently we're in the last country in the world to see the sunrise, technically speaking. It's odd to think we were behind even the UK, despite having been ahead the entire durtion of our trip.

Landing at 1.30am we experienced a particularly friendly welcome from customs and immigration, which is not something we've had much in all the flights we've been on! When we flew into New Zealand we had to declare everything from muddy shoes to wooden items and they even took Kev's trainers away from him, cleaned off the mud and disinfected them before he was allowed across the border. Now, when we landed in Rarotonga I declared my muddy shoes only to be told, "just hide them away" by the biosecurity official!
The friendly welcome seems to extend to all the locals here, from the man serenading with a ukulele at baggage reclaim, to our hostel owner who picked us up from the airport in the small hours.

Our accommodation was right on the beach, right infront of Muri Lagoon, a gorgeous stretch of calm, sheltered, turquoise water protected from the crashing waves of the South Pacific by the reef just off shore. About 200 metres out into the lagoon were a couple of small islands (called motu), accessible by swimming or by kayak, affording impressive views of the mountainous jungle interior of Rarotonga.

On walking to the local shop to buy some provisions we noticed signs showing the tsunami evacuation route (to higher ground) - it's easy to forget quite how remote we are here, having flown for 4 hours over nothing but ocean to get here, and the next biggest populated island of Aitutaki being over 263 km away. We were certainly grateful to make it back to Auckland without the threat of tsunami!

You really notice how far away you are when you see how limited the supplies are in grocery shops. Items are limited to one of each on store shelves and goods are well spaced out. Since everything has to be imported from New Zealand the price is also pretty high - in some cases four times the price of the same item in New Zealand - though that said, you can eat out in a restaurant for about the same price as in NZ so it's not all bad and there's an excellent supply of local tropical fruit and fresh fish.

Staying in a backpackers' establishment, especially one on an expensive island means it's not uncommon for other travellers to pinch your food and drink from the fridge. We were annoyed but unsurprised to find half a bottle of our lemonade stolen from the communal fridge one night - so we decided to exact our revenge! Half filling the lemonade bottle with sea water we replaced it back in the fridge. Much to our delight when we awoke the following morning, we discovered our "lemonade" standing next to an empty bottle of tequila on the table in the morning and suffice to say our bottle of mixer had hardly been touched! Revenge is sweet!

Our first few days on Rarotonga we did very little apart from swim, read and sit around in the sun. Next we hired kayaks and ventured across the lagoon to the nearby 'motu' and did some snorkelling. Most of the coral in the lagoon is now dead, but we did see a red octopus hiding in amongst the rocks - and hundreds of sea cucumbers. Apparently squeezing the guts out of the sea cucumbers is a local delicacy (called 'spaghetti'), but not one that we could be persuaded to try!

Feeling a little bit more energetic and like we ought to see a bit more of the island we hired 'e-bikes', which are push bikes with an added battery for when you're feeling lazy. We completed the 30km lap of Rarotonga with relative ease, even if Kev's battery did die about 8km before we made it back to the hostel. Navigation on 'Raro' is certainly easy: there's only one road which follows the coast, around the circumference of the island, and there are two buses per hour: one that goes clockwise and the other anti-clockwise.
From our tour round the island we realised we're definitely staying in the best bit, with the best beach and swimming, by far, so we didn't venture far from our accommodation for the rest of the week.

Having had glorious sunshine every day since we arrived, the rain arrived on the Wednesday - and we're talking torrential tropical rain storms. We had booked in to do diving that day (well, we couldn't exactly get any wetter!) so the rain didn't stop us. It was great to do another couple of dives - I think it does feel more natural and more enjoyable every time - and we were lucky enough to spot turtles, groupers and Spanish dancers. The 28 degree water felt an awful lot warmer than the cool, rainy air temperature. Amusingly, of the eight of us on the dive boat, three of us were from the Westcountry - what a small world!

One evening we went to an 'Island night': a showcase of Cook Islands music, drumming and dancing, which was truely spectacular. Also included was an enormous buffet of delicious local delicacies. Hopefully the recordings that Kev made of the music and drumming came out well: if so I'll put some of the audio files up on the blog at some point.
At the end of the evening the dancers came out into the audience for a spot of audience participation, and embarrassingly I was picked to join in with the dancing. I'm hoping that particular video didn't come out well! It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening though and a 'must do' for anyone considering a trip to the Cooks.

On our final day we did a tour around Muri lagoon in a glass bottomed boat, which stopped for us to do some snorkelling in a marine reserve. I think we saw even more marine life whilst snorkelling than we did scuba diving - we swam amongst hundreds of butterfly and parrot fish, giant trevally and other coloured fish - not forgetting a big moray eel! On the sea bed were giant clams, including a pearl farm, home to the famous Cook Islands black pearls.
The tour then called at the nearby motu for a barbeque fish lunch and a couple of hilarious demonstrations by the crew including how to husk a coconut and sarong tying (where I was picked on again to be a model!) The crew also put on an impressive drumming show and serenaded us with ukuleles whilst we snorkelled.

As we arrived at the airport for our flight back to Auckland the heavens opened and before long a lone lightening strike had taken out the runway lights! This meant that our plane (which was on its way from Auckland) was unable to land and continued on to the nearest airport, which was Tahiti! Meanwhile we had nothing to do but wait. Unfortunately as we were supposed to depart at 1:30am, our delay continued long into the night whilst we waited for the plane landing in Tahiti to turn around and come back to Rarotonga! Eventually at 6am we were bound for Auckland after a night spent trying to sleep on the floor of the departure lounge.

So now we're back in Auckland, repacking our bags and preparing for the long flight back to the UK tomorrow. It's been great being away but after seven months we're glad to be on our way home.

See you all soon!

Love Sarah and Kev xx

Friday, 18 February 2011

New Zealand Part 5: On The Way Back Up

Well summer has finally arrived! After weeks of pleasant - not cold, but not exactly beach weather - we awoke to blazing hot sunshine whilst camping at a little beachside campsite next to the Moeuraki Boulders. Not since we've been in Australia has it been a race to get out of the camper van in the morning because it's been so hot - quite the opposite, in fact, its been freezing in some parts! And how nice to be able to head straight for the beach when the fine weather finally hits.
When we felt we'd had enough sun we hit the road and travelled further up the east coast before stopping 100km on in Timaru, a town that's largely unspectacular, but does have a nice swimming beach and a free place to camp so we decided to stop for the night and go for a swim. I realised it's actually our first swim in the sea since we've been in New Zealand, despite it being summer. It seems we became quite acclimatised to Asia's climate so anything less than 30 degrees is too cold to consider swimming! The sea here is more like Cornish temperatures, but when the mercury hits a scorching 40 degrees, as it did, it was lovely and refreshing.

Our next stop, further up the east coast was in Christchurch - a city with a very English feel to it (so, long queues, rain and lots of complaining - only joking! The weather was beautiful and with the cathedral in the centre and the river meandering through the city and its botanical gardens, it felt a bit like Cambridge - or somewhere like that.

We simply couldn't leave the South Island without doing a wine tour in our favourite wine region: Marlborough, so it was back on the minibus to visit a handful of wineries, including some boutique wineries and some of the big players you might have heard of, such as Cloudy Bay and Villa Maria. We sampled a wide variety of wines, including the world renowned sauvignon blancs and pinot noirs, as well as some lovely chardonnays, gew├╝rztraminers and various others. It was a thoroughly pleasant day in the sunshine and we couldn't resist investing in a few bottles to drink on the way back up to Auckland.

Our ferry crossing back over to Wellington the following day was another smooth one, with pretty views out over the Marlborough Sounds. On arrival we again caught up with Jojo and Stu, who are now living and working in Wellington, and enjoyed a lovely meal with them in their new flat (and playing with a gorgeous black kitten called Jordie).

I insisted to Kev that we stop for just one more night in Taupo so I could fit in a final bungy jump (and because I had a voucher to do one half price). This time I went for the full dunk into the water and ended up with my clothes soaking wet and a big mouthful of river water! Third time round it was definitely less terrifying, but also as thrilling as the first time. I think bungy will be what I miss most on leaving New Zealand!

Our last port of call before returning the camper van to the depot in Auckland was to a little surf town on the west coast, called Raglan, where Kev's friend Simon (from Devon), his wife Beth and a very soppy collie named Molly now reside. So our last two nights with the camper van were in fact spent on a very comfy sofa, which was a real treat as we'd had just about enough of living in that van!
It was a great relief to return the camper - no more arguing over directions for us! After a 50 day rental, however, packing all our things into bags was not an easy task - we're sure everything has expanded and multiplied in the meantime! It was a good job we had a couple of nights in Auckland before our flight to the Cook Islands, if only to pack and re-pack!

So we're off to our final destination on our agenda: the Cook Islands - for one last week of sun, sea, sand and that island lifestyle - we can't wait!

I'll blog again once we're back in Auckland.
Love Sarah & Kev xx

Saturday, 5 February 2011

New Zealand Part 4: Otago, Fiordland and Southland

Queenstown is somewhere we've heard a lot of good things about and upon arrival we immediately fell in love with it. Not only is it an incredibly picturesque town set by a lake with the incredible backdrop of 'The Remarkables' mountain range, it has a vibrant culture and is the adventure capital of New Zealand - a claim that a lot of towns aspire too, with their offer of skydiving, paragliding, white-water rafting and so on - but nowhere does it quite like Queenstown. The downside is that any such activities seems to be twice the price of those offered elsewhere in the country but on the plus side, there's something for everyone (if you're prepared to blow your budget!)

I, of course, couldn't resist the temptation to do another bungy jump - and had a choice of three to decide between, including the world's first ever jump, the world's highest and a freestyle, where you can do somersaults off instead of the standard swan dive. I picked the world's highest, which at 134 metres was three times the height of the jump I did in Taupo! It's also 8.5 seconds freefall before the bungy cord 'catches' you.
Set high above a gorge, I had to get a cable car out to the platform. I then got to watch 4 or 5 others jump before it was my turn - all the while feeling more and more nervous. I felt very precarious stood with my toes over the edge of the ledge - and to add to the fear, it's not enough to just fall forward as I did in my last jump, you have to do a big dive out! Of course I loved every second of it though and if it hadn't been quite so expensive I would have lined straight back up to do it again!
There's no video of this one but I did get some impressive photos, which I think show the scale of it, so I'll scan those on to the blog once I'm back.

That afternoon we took a cable car up to the top of a mountain, where we raced each other on a luge track (5-0 to me, due mostly to my being high on adrenaline and having been rendered fearless after doing the bungy jump) and whiled away an hour watching the paragliders float down to earth over the pretty Queenstown backdrop.

In the evenings we enjoyed a sundowner in one of Queenstown's many bars before heading back up to the campsite to cook dinner.

Our next journey was up to Milford Sound - rated the number one attraction in New Zealand. In an area that receives 7-9 metres of rain per year we were very lucky to have glorious sunshine when we did our cruise around the sound. From the water we had views of forested mountains, glaciers, waterfalls and seal colonies. The drive up to Milford from Te Anau was also stunning, with lakes, mountain lookouts and winding mountain roads.
The day after our cruise the rain returned, though fortunately for us we took refuge in a holiday park, complete with roaring log fire that Kev tended to all day.

We continued down the west coast and on to the south coast - now keen to go where there are no sandflies! Passing through Tuatapere, the supposed 'sausage capital' of New Zealand (!) and on through the Catlins National Park, home to some rugged coastline, sealions and penguins.
We stopped at Curio Bay, home to a 170 million year old petrified (fossilied) forest where, at low tide, you can see tree stumps and large logs all turned to stone. We could even make out the age rings and see the grain of the wood. Up in the rocks behind the bay we saw a couple of rare yellow-eyed penguins, sunning themselves. It's funny to think we're far enough south to see penguins living in the wild!

So by now we've made our way on to the east coast of the South Island and we spent a couple of days in student town Dunedin (pronounced Dun-ee-den). The students (affectionately called 'scarfies') haven't started back yet this term so it was relatively quiet in the town, but we still found it a lively, vibrant little town with a nice cafe scene and good nightlife. We found a nice Cambodian restaurant and reminisced over the familar flavours that were a staple part of our diet when we were in Asia.

We ended up watching the rugby sevens on the television one evening too - despite having no previous interest in rugby, but I don't suppose it's possible to leave New Zealand without seeing a rugby game - the sport is practically religion over here!

From here we continue our way up the east coast, back towards the ferry. It's not long to go now until we're coming home so we're making the most of our last couple of weeks.

Love Sarah and Kev xx

Sunday, 30 January 2011

New Zealand Part 3: The West Coast of the South Island

We awoke to a clear blue sky and glorious sunshine: perfect weather for catching the ferry to the South Island, which on a bad day has quite a reputation for being a particularly bumpy crossing. Luckily for us the Cook Strait was flat calm and the journey through the Marlborough Sounds was more like a scenic cruise than a simple ferry crossing. Well, it is supposed to be one of the most beautiful in the world.

Once off the ferry we noticed how different the landscape is from the North Island - and it's exactly how we'd imagined New Zealand to be: very pretty, mountainous and with clear rivers and turquiose seas. Our first stop was a little campsite by a rocky beach in a little inlet called Robin Hood Bay. Access was via a twisty, single track gravel road, steep enough in places to make us wonder whether we made the right decision taking the van that way, but still, we made it and were rewarded with a pretty and quiet little campsite where we could fall asleep listening to the waves on the shore.

We decided on an anti-clockwise loop of the South Island as our itinerary, so our next stop was Nelson, driving through the Marlborough wine region on the way. We'll save the wine tour for the way back up though as we're still well stocked with wines purchased during our Hawkes Bay wine tour.

Nelson is quite a nice little town with a big cafe culture. We found a lovely church that had been converted into a nice pub and then treated ourselves to a tasty curry in a charming Indian restaurant across the road, whilst sampling some of the local pinot noir.

From Nelson we made our way over to the west coast, traversing mountains and scenic forests en route. We spent a night camping in the Buller Gorge, an old gold fossicking area with views of forested mountains and a fast-running river below.

Since arriving in the South Island we've had to step up our game in the war against flying, biting insects. One night we opened the van to go and brush our teeth and accidentally let in a swarm of twenty or so mosquitoes. We've also encountered the dreaded little black sandflies, which although we had been warned about them, are far worse than we imagined them to be! At one point I resorted to tucking my trousers into my socks and zipping my fleece up to my chin - and even then they went for my hands, face and hair! They're a total menace - much how I imagine the midges to be in Scotland, though I've never been.

Up until we hit the west coast proper we had been blessed with perfect summery weather. Now, the west coast of New Zealand is just across the Tasman Sea, off the east coast of Australia, so when the weather suddenly changed to torrential rain and high winds it should have been no surprise. Fortunately it was just a front passing through though and the fine weather returned the next day.

The conditions were pretty dire when we arrived at Punakaiki (reminiscent of driving through Rockhampton in Australia) so we found a nice campsite just off the beach and parked up for the night. However with the Pancake Rocks just up the road and with new, as yet unworn waterproof trousers in our bags we decided to take a stroll. Despite our best efforts to stay dry, however, our waterproofs just weren't up to the job in this rain, but still we persevered as there's only so wet you can get!
The stacks of Pancake Rocks did look especially impressive amongst the stormy, high seas but the horizontal rain meant we could only look downwind - the wind and rain combo was painful, stinging us on the face and hands if we tried to look north! Sadly this also meant we couldn't take any photos for fear of the camera being drenched! Lucky for us the the storm passed overnight so the following morning we were able to see the Pancake Rocks and blowholes in glorious sunshine with a backdrop of stormy, high seas so you can look out for the photos on the blog later!

With the weather renewed to its former, summery self we continued down the west coast to Franz Josef Glacier and did a couple of walks to take in the sights. Our first walk was to the foot of the glacier, then on the following morning we set off on a 12km walk to a vantage point looking out on the glacier about half way up.

A thirty minute drive away is Fox Glacier (not sure if this has anything to do with Fox's Glacier Mints?!) The pathway out to the glacier had been washed away in recent flooding so I stead we did a walk around a nearby lake, affording us stunning views of the glacier.
We camped by a pretty pebble beach that was covered with so much driftwood I can only imagine the kind of storms they must get here on a rough day. Huge weathered tree trunks had washed ashore, making the wide beach look a bit like a graveyard for dead, sea eroded trees. In the background were the snow-capped peaks of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman and the Fox glacier in between.

From Fox Glacier township we travelled down to Haast and visited the picturesque sleepy fishing cove, Jackson Bay, before continuing across the mountains down into adventure and adrenalin capital Queenstown! I'll let you know what we got up to there in my next post.

Love, Sarah and Kev xx

Monday, 17 January 2011

New Zealand Part 2

Taupo is just a short drive down from Rotorua and like Rotorua, boasts a wealth of geothermal thrills, adrenalin-fuelled activities and natural beauty. We camped next to the fast-flowing Waikato river, which feeds into the impressive and powerful Huka Falls a bit further downstream. The water is so clear and blue, making it a really beautiful setting for a campsite, and even better that it was free to camp here.

We spent a couple of days taking in the sights of the mountains (Mount Doom for 'Lord of the Rings' film fans) behind the enormous Lake Taupo (which is the same size as Singapore in terms of surface area). Before leaving town I decided I just had to do a bungy jump, falling 47 metres over the Waikato river in what is New Zealand's highest 'water-touch' bungy jump - and couldn't wait any longer. You will already have seen the video on the blog, no doubt.
Despite a few initial nerves, I absolutely loved it! I had asked for my fingertips to touch the water at the bottom of the jump, what I got however was a full head and shoulders dunk into the river, but I loved it all the more for it! I now can't wait until I get an opportunity to do another one - and I hear Queenstown in the South Island has some great jumps, including the world's highest, so watch this space and cross your fingers that my budget will stretch to it!

Next up we headed to the Hawkes Bay region on the east coast, in what forms the beginning of the wine-trail that continues down to Marlborough and Otago in the South Island. We arrived first in Napier, in which all the buildings are decorated in an art-deco style having been rebuilt following a devastating earthquake in the 1930s and when art-deco was in fashion. We really felt it resembled a British seaside town too, so not a massive amount to be impressed by!

With not a lot to do in Napier itself we booked on to do a wine tour of the Hawkes Bay region - with NZ wines being some of our favourites - and especially after thoroughly enjoying our afternoon of wine tourism in the Hunter Valley in Australia. Famous local wineries that you might have heard of include the Mission Estate and Church Road, amongst others, but the best ones were the boutique wineries - including one which claimed their wines don't give you a hangover! We'll get back to you on the truth in their claims!

Leaving Napier behind we headed down the highway to Wellington where we spent an evening catching up with some friends. There was quite a crowd of us in the pub that evening: Kev's friend Sacha who's originally from Devon but now lives just outside Wellington; Jojo who I did my massage training with and who I last saw when our paths crossed in Vietnam; and Anita who I know from my tumbling class back in London and who has recently moved back home to New Zealand. It's nice to be able to go to the other side of the world and still be able to get a group of friends together in the pub!

Next on our itinerary is the South Island - I'll try and blog again soon.

Love, Sarah and Kev xx

Friday, 7 January 2011

New Zealand: Back on the Road

So, on to country number eight, the penultimate of our grand tour, and one of the ones we've been looking forward to most.The flight to Auckland from Sydney was less than three hours but after getting up at three am to get to the airport we felt pretty jet lagged by the time we arrived. Our camper van wasn't due for pick up for a couple of days so we checked into a hostel (which suddenly felt very basic after our lovely, four star hotel in Sydney) and spent a couple of days hanging out in Auckland, shopping in the Christmas sales and seeing the sights in the city centre.

We booked our camper van with a different company to the one we used in Australia and since we wanted a fifty-day hire we just went with the cheapest one - except that the cheapest is a company called Wicked Campers and they garishly spray paint all their vans with embarrassing pictures and slogans - so we're not exactly inconspicuous when on the road (or trying to find a quiet spot to camp). It's amazing how much people are pre-judging us based on the van design and brand, and we're experiencing a lot more hands on horns and dirty looks from other road users, even when we're driving considerately and safely! That said, we do seem to get a lot of respect from the younger, backpacker types! On the plus side we did get a complimentary upgrade to a bigger van, so it's not all bad.

From Auckland we headed north, arriving in the Bay of Islands on New Year's Eve. Finding a campsite was really challenging as it's the Christmas holidays and all the Kiwis are on holiday too. We ended up parking on someone's front lawn for a small fee - cheaper than any campsite and right in the centre of town so we were brilliantly located for the fireworks at midnight and only a few minutes from the cafes and restaurants of the town centre.

We had a bit of an unconventional New Year's Eve celebration this year: instead of taking to the streets and joining the revellers in their mission to get drunk, we had an early night - or, rather, a pre-fireworks nap! Kev was suffering from a bit of a cold and I was just recovering from one so none of us was feeling great. Upon hearing the fireworks start at midnight we woke up, ran down to the beach and watched the spectacle over the water, then back to bed again!

Sticking with the unconventional theme, on New Year's Day I booked in to do a a tandem skydive over the Bay of Islands, which included a 30 minute scenic flight, then 70 seconds freefall before the parachute opened. We awoke to glorious sunshine and not a cloud was in the sky by the afternoon, making it perfect skydiving weather. Although I was a little bit nervous in the plane going up (and ultimately sitting in the door of the plane, about to jump), I absolutely loved it! I don't think seventy seconds has ever passed so quickly!
Kev, on the other hand, wasn't quite so keen to throw himself out of a plane and was quite content (albeit nervously) on the ground taking photos of me. Post jump, however, having seen me survive a skydive he's not quite so averse to the idea so watch this space!

Before heading back down south (of the North Island) we did a loop around northern New Zealand to take in some more of the scenery. We passed the pretty Hokianga Harbour and then drove down through the Kauri forests, including the enormous Tane Mahuta - a kauri tree that's thousands of years old and features in Maori legend. The roads are so twisty here it takes ages to get anywhere, but it certainly keeps you alert (if not car sick!) and there is some stunning scenery along the way.

Our final campsite north of Auckland was amidst a big kauri forest. As darkness fell we did a walk through the forest with red torches to try and spot kiwis (we're talking the flightless birds here, not the local residents). They certainly make a lot of noise, snuffling and scuffing about in the undergrowth, but despite hearing them I didn't get a glimpse of one. Kev however did see one, but only as it was moving away into the bushes.

Our next stop was Rotorua after a day's drive south. Home to Maori villages set amidst extensive geothermal activity: boiling, bubbling mud pools, flowing, steaming mineral pools and errupting geysers.The village we visited cooks all its food in geothermal pools and in 'steam ovens' a pit dug in the ground and covered with a wooden lid, so the vapour from the hot springs cooks the food by steaming it. We tried some corn on the cob that had been cooked in a muslin bag lowered into a hot geothermal pool - delicious!

The whole town smells strongly of sulphur, especially on a cloudy day - and it's a smell that you can never quite get used to, but worth persevering with in order to take in all Rotorua's sights and activities. The campsite we stayed on had four thermal pools, with water straight from the ground at a consistent temperature of 38 - 41 degrees Celsius, lovely for an early morning or evening soak before bed!

There's also an abundance of things to do in Rotorua and surrounds. I managed to resist the temptation to do bungy jumping (I'll save that for later on in the trip) and skydiving (to be done again if funds permit) but we did have a go at luge and white water rafting, plus I did 'Skyswing': a bungy style swing which swings you off the side of a mountain at a speed of 150 kilometres per hour!

Our rafting experience was good fun, but rather nerve-racking as we went over the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world! It wasn't so much the 7 metre drop that was scary, more the risk that the raft capsises and we might all fall out! Fortunately it passed without incident!

Next up we continue our journey southbound: onwards down the 'geothermal highway' and through wine country.

Sarah & Kev xx