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