Category Archives: Buses

Port Elizabeth to Durban- The Eastern Cape and Transkei

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Hello rural South Africa!

21st March and the start of our 2 whole days in Port Elizabeth. We were staying in a backpackers called 99 Miles Beach Lodge who had mixed up our booking a little bit which resulted in us getting a free upgrade to a double en suite room for free- result! So our time here got off to a good start. Day 1 and we were booked onto a 1/2 day township tour called ‘The Real City Tour’ with a company called ‘Calabash Tours’. Nelson was our tour guide and had grown up, and still lived in, a township in New Brighton so he was super knowledgeable about everything, passionate but not in a cringe way. He first gave us a tour of PE CBD pointing out all the historic sites from pre-colonial, colonial and apartheid days. Whenever he mentioned Mandela, he shouted his whole title (Baba Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Nelson Mandela kaMphakanyiswa Gadla kaMadiba) and hit his fist on the ceiling of the car in celebration. He was 18 in 1994 when the first democratic election was held and he voted for Mandela. So to the townships…a corner stone of Apartheid was the segregation of people according to race, especially whites and blacks. The government uplifted Black people from the areas they had classified as white only area in Port Elizabeth and dumped them in areas outside of the CBD called townships. There families were given no compensation, only a piece of land with a brick-built outhouse toilet with a rubber bucket inside it. No drainage, no electricity and a single tap for water for a whole wave of families. With no building materials, these families built shelters out of whatever they could find, hence the metal/wood shacks that are now synonymous with our image our ‘townships’. In between the white and black areas were large bits of land which were left undeveloped- known as ‘Buffer Zones’. PE has 10 townships which are still home to 500,000 people. Apartheid policies are now abolished but choice and finance are the new barriers to integration. Black people are unlikely to afford a house in a previously white only area; and even if they did have the money many prefer living in the townships near friends and family. We visited the 7 oldest townships in PE including New Brighton, Kwazakhele and Zwide. They were all different. One which had now emerged as a middle class area where the township now looked like a UK housing estate. Some townships where the shack houses had been replaced with single storey brick buildings with drainage and electricity. But there were still plenty where families still lived in shacks without sanitation and electricity. The government have a housing programme target of replacing all the temporary shacks with brick homes by 2020. As Nelson took us to a view-point overlooking the sprawling townships, I couldn’t help feeling that achieving that target was optimistic. We drove through Embizweni Square which is an informal business hub in the township area, full of lots of little shipping containers from which locals run their business from. This was the place to come for a haircut as there were loads and loads of salons and barbers! It is here were you can also pick up a ‘smiley’- a sheeps head which the ladies on the street boil and then cut in half for their dinners to eat! The sheep once boiled looks like it is smiling at you whilst your eating it, hence the name. Needless to say it looked gross! Just off the square we stopped off at a ‘Shebeen’- what was an illegal drinking house during the Apartheid years. The Apartheid government banned black people from selling alcohol so people used to just go around to someones home and buy and drink socially there. Nelson bought us a drink at the former Shebeen, now called the Ship Inn, before we headed to our final stop at the township called Ramaphasa Village to visit a community arts and craft project. Hedd made a new friend with a little boy who lived next door who mocked him on his little arm muscles but still demanded Hedd pick him up and spin him around lots of times. It was a mix of cute and funny to watch! It was also here that I experienced first hand ‘Township Dust’. PE is so windy and the paths in the township are unsealed so as a big gust drove through the township a load of dust threw up and landed in my left eye. Man it was painful! So we ended the tour me half blind, but both agreeing it was well worth it.

After a chilled out morning on our second and final day in PE, we got picked up from our hostel for our ‘Tooth and Claw’ Game Drive at Schotia Private Reserve. It was a 40 minute journey to Schotia and my goodness what a 40 minutes. We had got picked up by the reserves owner called Peter and initiated by him we were treated to intense discussions about post apartheid South Africa and his stance against positive discrimination and then his views on how to solve Rhino poaching which involved the decriminalising ivory selling to rid the black market! I did my best to passively umm and nod and we both breathed a sigh of relief when we arrived and were able to get out of the 4×4! So Schotia Safaris- a privately owned and managed reserve, owned by the Bean family since 1833. The oldest private game viewing reserve in the Cape Province, it was also the first to have lions that can hunt for themselves. Its well stocked with over 2000 animals and over 40 species on the reserve. Our ranger was called Malcolm and as we drove off from base and through the gates of the reserve we both admitted to humming the Jurassic Park theme tune in our heads! We had 2x 2 hour game drives with a tea break in the middle and then a bush dinner afterward and we saw loads of animals. Lions, antelope, giraffe, vervet monkeys, zebra, rhino, hippo, warthog, kudu…. The park is split 1/3rd, 2/3rd’s to keep the rhino and lions separate so the lions don’t eat them and in the ‘no-lion’ part Hedd and I got to ride on the seat mounted outside of the 4×4 on the bonnet. When Malcolm first offered it to me I though he was pulling my leg but it was perfectly safe and I got to see the zebra really close up and Hedd the giraffe. It was amazing to be out of the 4×4 in the open air so close to the animals. Back in the 4×4 and I was busy ticking off all the animals we’d seen on the checklist Malcolm gave us, and having worrying exchanges with Hedd at the fact that we had eaten some of them (kudu, ostrich…)! Which was only reinforced come tea time at the open air lapa in the middle of the park, where we were served roast springbok! Ah well, we’re carnivores after all! After dinner we had another 30 minutes of night viewing to get a glimpse of nocturnal creatures. It’s also the best time to try to see a ‘kill’. Although we saw lions, they looked ready for bed rather than hunters at the ready so we settled for the sights of porcupines and hares as we drove back to the main gates. 4 1/2 hour game drive, a lovely dinner and a great guide in Malcolm; Hedd and I felt like we’d got great value for money and it definitely wet our appetite for our 4 day safari we were planning on doing in Chobe National Park, Botswana, a couple of weeks later.

6.30am pick up by the Baz Bus for our 7 hour journey to Port St Johns on South Africa’s wild coast. As we travelled further East we began to see a dramatic change in the landscape and feel of South Africa. Whereas the Garden Route was pretty westernised, the Eastern Cape was far from it and from Port Albert we were travelling the Transkei. 1.5-2.5 thousand meters above seas level, stray animals wandering the road and town after town where we saw no white faces apart from those travelling in the bus. This was one of the most scenic parts of South Africa but also the poorest. The Transkei was an independent country before 1994. Known as one of the ‘Homelands’, the Apartheid Government gave the corrupt government of these tribe based countries too little money to run the area. That plus their rurality resulted in the Homelands such as Transkei falling behind other parts of SA economically, leaving them the poorest part of SA after 1994 when Mandela abolished the homelands creating 1 nation 1 president. Mandela was born and brought up in Transkei and we drove past the villages where he was born and brought up. By the side of the road there is also the big house that the ANC gave Mandela at his retirement from government. It is within the grounds of this house that Mandela requested a replica to be built of the prison cottage Mandela was held in under house arrest after he was moved from Robben Island, and you can see it from the road. Mandela still to this day says that this cottage is the best house he has ever lived in! As we completed our drive through this rustic outcrop of SA with its sparse villages of thatch roofed huts, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, we reflected how unlikely yet magical it was that this area grew such a powerful leader as Nelson Mandela. We got dropped off at a random Shell garage in a place called Mthatha by the Baz Bus and then picked up by our shuttle to take us to Port St John on the coast. We soon realised however that this shuttle bus was not exclusive, and it took us 2 hours to make the journey to the coast as we picked up and dropped off lots of different people along the way! We stayed at Amampondo Backpackers on Second Beach at Port St John and it was much more rustic accommodation than we were used to in SA- mud floors and walkways, bamboo outdoor bathrooms…rough and ready but after a little getting used to, we were game! 24th March and we woke up to torrential rain. Our plan to go for a hike and then to the beach were de-funked so we had a lie in, a bamboo shower and lazed the day away at the covered (fortunately!) bar. We soon got invited to join in a board game called 30 Seconds- a South African version of Trival Pursuit vs Articulate. Needless to say Hedd and I struggled, on average only knowing what 3 out of the 5 things on the card were that we had to then try to describe to our team. Who knew there were so many different South African cricket/rugby captains! Our last morning in Port St John and hoorah no rain! We ventured down the muddy path to Second Beach and it definitely lived up to its name- ‘wild’. Rocky cliffs, noisy waves breaking and 2 massive cows with horns just sitting on the beach minding their own business. After mooching about on the beach and having beans on toast for brunch it was time to leave on our crazy shuttle bus back to Mthatha. It again took us 2 hours, picking and dropping off people seemingly from and to the middle of nowhere along the way! But we got to the Shell Garage pick up safe and sound and in good time to catch our Baz Bus connection to Durban. I had good intentions of catching up on my diary writing but I abandoned that and just watch the amazing landscape through the frame of my window. Transkei is truly beautiful; valleys and mountains like grass topped versions of Table Mountain everywhere plus the best pink and orange sunsets. We even got to a see a Transkei special of a horse all saddled up galloping down the middle of the road, parting the traffic like an emergency vehicle as it went. Goodness knows where its rider was! 7 hours later, leaving Transkei and entering Kwazulu-Natal province, we eventually arrived in Durban at 10.30pm. Good to no-one at 10.30pm, we crashed into bed at our hostel Hippo Hide looking forward to our tour into Zululand the next day.

Port Elizabeth to Durban in a snapshot:

    • Weather= Wet and windy, with a sunny day in PE
    • Food= A student diet of beans and tomato pasta!
    • Drink= Squash
    • Favourite animal of all time= The Giraffe
    • Not a place to come in the rain= The Wild Coast
    • But don’t miss it= for its amazing modern history

Hedd’s words of wisdom:

I really enjoyed this section of our trip. We’d had fun in Cape Town and fun along the Garden Route, but this part of the trip while also fun was more culturally rewarding. We learnt so much more about the real South Africa today. We saw how some white South African’s (namely the owner of the Game Reserve) were unhappy with the Black Economic Empowerment programme designed to increase the upward mobility of black South Africans in the country. The owner of the Game Reserve was adamant that it was impossible to say that everybody in South Africa is equal while this policy was in place. Personally, given the history of the country and the fact that segregation still exists in the form of economic segregation (the majority of white South Africans are wealthy and the majority of black South African’s are still poor) then the policy has merit. We got a glimpse of the real difference in Port Elizabeth as we left the predominantly middle class area where our hostel was built and went to visit some townships and informal settlements. The difference was staggering. Our guide was fantastic and gave us a real insight into these communities, he would almost explode with joy when shouting out Nelson Mandela’s name and praised the government for their programme of upgrading the townships. The task is massive, and will never be complete by the government’s deadline of 2020, but progress is being made and that is positive.

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Sydney- The Wedding and Other Adventures

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Always love a good wedding! 

Our first afternoon in Sydney started in the pub around the corner from Lucy’s flat in the area of Balmain (North West of the Harbour Bridge). Lucy is a Royals girl and has been living and working over in Sydney for 2 years and kindly was putting us up for 2 nights, so we were in the pub waiting for her to get back from work. 2 glasses of wine later and she was home and after a merry catch up over another couple of bottles of wine we all stumbled into our respective beds wondering where the evening had gone!

Oh my goodness did we feel delicate the next morning. I saw Lucy off at 7am as she had a rowing race to get to (needless to say she wasn’t feeling quite up for it!) and I eventually managed to coax Hedd out of bed to start getting ready for Ian and Teresa’s Wedding. Ian and Teresa are Royal Chester Rowing friends again. Ian was the Boat Club Captain when I first joined RCRC and Teresa his long-term Aussie partner. They both did the Caledonian Crossing Challenge last year, which saw us all row across Scotland through the canals and lochs, and thats where they met Hedd and we discovered that perhaps our paths could cross in Sydney over their special day. And so it came about- an invite to a wedding in Sydney for 2 backpackers! At 10am we began our mission to Narrabean (North of Sydney, up the coast) which saw us catch a bus to Circular Quay, then a ferry across to Manley and then another bus to Rowland Reserve, Narrabean. In all it took us 3 hours! We were one of the first to the large catamaran where the floating ceremony was to take place and, as it began to shower, was ushered onto the boat by the celebrant called Mary to get out of the rain. At 13.30 the coach with the guests staying in Narrabean arrived along with the Grooms Party. So a bit about the Grooms Party outfits- they were in beige deck shoes, blue Chino’s, beige/off white linen shirts and then a beige and thin blue stripped linen blazer. Very nice and wouldn’t have looked out-of-place in the Stewards enclosure at Henley Regatta! I soon spotted Laura, Andy and Steve- the other RCRC guests and rushed out to greet them. It was so lovely but equally so bizarre to see them , at a wedding, on the other side of the world, after 5 months of not seeing them every week! We managed to catch up on news before heading onto the boat for the arrival of the bridal party. The bridal party arrived in a blue and cream stretched VW camper van. Oh my goodness it was too cool for school! And Teresa looked absolutely stunning in an off white satin halterneck dress with fitted body and full chiffon skirt, with a delicate lace bolero. Her hair was big and pinned back with dramatic eye makeup and daring red lipstick. The flowers were devine- pastel blue pansies and cream roses. I would say the theme was 1950’s chic vintage drama, and the whole thing was gorgeous! With everyone on board we set sail to a pretty cove to moor up and start the wedding ceremony. There was a string quartet and they played as Teresa and her 2 grown up daughters, the bridesmaids, walked down the aisle. They both looked so happy and in love. They said beautiful vows- not the traditional religious one. There was a line about “my arms being your home”  and such like- lovely! Then Emma, Ian’s daughter, read a poem and then Ian read a tear jerking reading about Teresa being the best of him. Then it was the giving of rings, the kiss and the couple signed the register to the band playing ‘All you Need is Love’. All in all a great, down to earth, personal ceremony. There were nibbles and drinks at the free bar as the photographer organised us all into the various groups for the photos. We braved the top deck for those as the showers had died down. And then we set sail for the marina and during the journey we had the speeches- Erin, chief bridesmaid and Teresa’s oldest daughter; Steve, best man and my ‘Chester Dad’ from RCRC; and Ian, groom saying his thanks. We got back to the marina around 4pm and all had a group shot outside the boat before the whole wedding party got whisked off in the stretched VW camper for more official photos. All us guests got back on the bus and got dropped off at the bar just down the road from the evening reception which was to start at 6pm. After being so careful with my dress the whole day, the destruction of the dress began as the velcro from my rain jacket pulled and puckered the chiffon over-layer of my skirt on the bus- oh dear, at least it survived the ceremony! At 6pm we managed to blag ourselves a ride in the VW camper limo to the evening reception as it had started to pour down with rain. Plus it was too good an opportunity to miss- very very cool wedding transportation! Then we were at Narrabean Surf Club enjoying yet another free bar! Steve, bless him, had brought the Royals flag with him from Chester and had put it up in the venue, so when Lucy had arrived all us Royals had a picture underneath it with the bride and groom. And the night continued with many more glasses of champagne, more yummy finger food and dancing to the live band. Hedd made the mistake of switching to the red wine and soon got the nickname ‘Disaster Boy’ as he fell asleep in a chair as the night came to an end! Lucy very kindly saw that we all arrived back to her flat safe and sound at the end of a great day.

04.03.12 will only be known to us, Hedd especially, as the day after the night before! I joined Lucy on the sofa with copious cups of tea and movies from 10am. Hedd didn’t rise from the horizontal position until 3pm! We said our goodbyes to Lucy and ventured out once more to navigate ourselves to Narrabean where we were staying with the rest of the royals gang for the rest of our time in Australia. This time though we didn’t bother with the ferry and just 2 uncomfortable bus journeys later (in our hung over state) we arrived at Ian and Teresa’s apartment right on Narrabean Beach. It was an absolutely stunning spot and we couldn’t quite believe our luck as we dumped our rucksacks in our room stepping out on our personal balcony overlooking the ocean! BBQ for dinner and plenty of reminiscing over the events of yesterday and Royals banter about Hedd and his antics with the red wine! Being apart of the Royals extended family for nearly 2 years, he was used to such ribbing! We slumped into bed at 11.30pm still feeling delicate but looking forward to our day of sailing the next morning.

We woke up to the sound of the ocean, a mere 50 meters from us. Such a gorgeous way to wake up. After showering, breakfast and putting our sea legs on, we all drove to Church Point Marina for our day of sailing on Ian and Teresa’s yacht. Debbie- another Royals lady had just flown into Sydney that morning and met us straight from the airport at the marina too for the day sailing! Very impressive stamina! So our boat was called Wind Maiden- 40 ft, 3 cabin boat, worth $225,000, and Ian and Teresa were trusting us lot to sail it! We got loaded up with drinks, food and bodies and then pushed off from the marina. My first job was to collect in the buoys and then I was on the head sail port side windlass with Debbie, pulling in or letting out as we tacked and jibed our way out and around the estuary. The weather was stunning; clear blue skies, warm and sunny. Almost a shame that the weather didn’t come a day earlier for Ian and Teresa’s wedding but Teresa didn’t mind as she said she would have been too hot in her dress else. Where we were sailing was also beautiful- pretty little bays, high top hills and we even passed the beach and little town that is used to film Home & Away! Hedd got a go at steering and, after almost tipping us all in by over-steering on the jibs, got the hand of it and quite fancied himself as a skipper! By the time we had reached Refuge Bay- our lunch stop- my arms felt like they had had a good workout. We enjoyed a lovely meat and salad lunch, washed down of course with a beer. After a while relaxing on the boat we all got our swimmers on, jumped off the boat and swam to the beach at Refuge Bay. There was a waterfall at the beach and we all enjoyed a neck and back massage as the water thundered on top of us as we stood underneath it. It was then time to swim back to the boat and set sail back towards the marina. None of us had any concept of time and we were surprised that it was as late as 4.30pm when we got back to Church Point. We dropped Hedd and Debbie off at this point as Hedd’s back was feeling tender and Debbie was just exhausted from her flight, and took on board 3 other crew members who actually knew how to sail. Which was a really good thing as now we were going to take part in a race, Ian as skipper and Andy, Teresa and I crewing along with the 3 experts. I was on the port side head sail windlass again with Andy this time and Teresa was on the main sail. It was a handicapped race with different categories going off at different times with the intention that we would all finish together (mayhem!). There were 25 boats in our category but over 100 boats in total taking part, which made for a fab sight as we all set sail with the sun slowly setting. Our race began at 5.30pm and Ian did really well steering us into good wind giving us an ace start. At the start and around the 2 markers we had to go around were the most exciting parts as all the boats bunch together and jostle for the best position. It was funny how some sections of the race could be slow-paced and calm as the wind drops and then the very next minute be so rapid and frantic as we get a gust and try to go the most with it. Very exciting and definitely wet my appetite for getting into sailing much more when I get home. The whole event lasted about 2 hours which went by in a blink of an eye, and we got back to the flat after stowing the boat after 8pm. BBQ again for dinner and we all headed to bed happily tired after a full and jammed packed day of sailing.

I couldn’t quite believe it when my alarm went off at 5.15am the next day. But it was indeed time for me to get up and get ready for my early morning outing with Mosman Rowing Club. All rowing occurs super early in Sydney as that is when the weather is coolest and also so people can row before work. So that’s where I found myself, in a car with Ian, Debbie and Andy at 5.30am off to Spit Point for an outing on the flooded river bed there. We decided to go out in a quad and Ian put me at stroke with the responsibility of setting the rhythm and steering! Needless to say I had a furrowed brow come the end after all the concentration. We were on the water by 6.15am with lights on our boat to guide the way as it was still dark. We sculled to Sugarloaf Bay on the still lake like water watching the sun come up as we rowed, enjoyed the views of the limestone rock sides and mangrove forests, and then rowed back to the club. We were all finished, boated packed away and ready for a cuppa at the cafe across the road by 7.45am! By the time we were back at the flat at 8.15am, it felt like I’d already been up and active for half a day…a very efficient workout and a super experience! After a bit of Africa travel planning, Hedd and I ventured out into Sydney city on the bus to do some sightseeing. We wandered down to Circular Quay and along to the area called The Rocks where we were afforded with a great view of both the Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House. We sat on a bench admiring the view as we ate our homemade sandwiches. There was an absolutely ginormous cruise ship too in the harbour and we both reflected how terrifying it must have been on that Italian cruise liner that sunk last month. After lunch we strolled back around the harbour to the Opera House and booked ourselves onto the 1pm $35 Sydney Opera House Tour which was a 90 minute tour inside the building and around the theatres. Our guide was really knowledgable, explaining the architecture of the building and all about the acoustics. We saw inside the 2 drama theatres and also 1 of the 2 big Halls. Not the Opera Hall though, the Concert Hall; I think we would have had to have been on the $100 tour to see inside the Opera Theatre! As we were in the Concert Hall, Sydney Symphony Orchestra were rehearsing so we got to stand and listen to them which was a big bonus. They sounded wonderful. We also got to go out onto one of the Opera House’s Balconies which had a stunning view of the Harbour Bridge. The tour ended with a film all about the Opera House’s history and construction which was super interesting…. The Opera House design was selected in a global competition. Many of the designs were boring boxes but this one guy- Jørn Utzon- from Denmark submitted an extremely rough pencil stretch of a building of waves. His design was dismissed originally. But one member of the judging panel was late in arriving and insisted on reviewing all the previously dismissed designs. On seeing Utzon’s sketch he proclaimed him the winner. However that original build time of 3 years and 9 million budget was a complete under-estimate and many more years and millions later and a change of Australian government resulted in Utzon being squeezed out of the project before its completion. Utzon never actually visited the Opera House, his life’s work and crowing accomplishment, after it was finished. Very sad story. The Sydney Opera House is the 2nd most globally recognised image after the MacDonald’s Golden Arches, so Utzon achieved his original design brief of creating an iconic building for Australia. After the tour we grabbed a cold drink and sat on the Opera House promenade enjoying the sunshine and the view. We met up with Lucy and Steve late afternoon to have a goodbye drink and thank Lucy again for putting us up, and then Steve, Hedd and I took the 50 minute bus back to Narrabean together. We got back at 7pm just in time to freshen up and go for a ‘last supper’ as a gang of royals before we all flew off to our various different locations the next day. We were sharing an airport taxi with Laura and Sophie, who were going off to NZ, early the next morning so we said goodbye and a massive thank you to Ian and Teresa that evening. By the time we had packed and tidied up it was midnight and we crashed into bed trying not to think about the fact that we had to be up just 5 hours later!

6am pick up, 1 1/2 hour journey and $74 dollars lighter we all arrived at Sydney airport international departures. We said our goodbyes to Laura and Sophie and gave them some last-minute tips on NZ, before checking in for our flight to Cape Town and the start of our final leg of the trip. I couldn’t believe we were at our last continent already but any sadness was soon replaced by excitement at the prospect of visiting my favourite place, Africa, once again.

 Sydney in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Rain on the big day, but sunshine on the whole
  • Food= Yummy food in miniature at the wedding and a lot of BBQs!
  • Drink= Champagne Bellini’s and too much red wine for Hedd!
  • Damage caused by the Royals reunion= Surprisingly none
  • Favourite Day= Hard to pick, the wedding and the day of sailing were equally superb

Hedd’s (not so wise) words of wisdom!:

At every wedding there has to be someone who get’s a bit over excited, drinks too much and makes a bit of a fool of themselves. It’s almost a certainty. Unfortunately, at Ian and Theresa’s wedding that was me. A combination of drinking all day, a free bar (having been on such a strict budget for over 4 months) and some not so wise words when referring to the Shiraz provided at the free bar. I shall certainly never profess that I can “drink this stuff all night” ever again. That being said, before I got too drunk and fell asleep I had a wonderful time at what was the most laid back and fun wedding I have ever attended. The ceremony, on a boat was a first for me and was such a beautiful setting and very fitting for the happy couple. I want to say congratulations to Ian and Theresa, to wish them all the best for the future, to thank them for their hospitality and to promise that next time we meet, I shall stay away from the red wine!!

The Southern Loop- Stewart Island and Milford Sound

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 The South is not so fun in the rain!

It’s the 9th Feb and another classic Stray early morning start- 7am with our new driver called Digger- to do the southern loop (Stewart Island- Milford Sound- Te Anau- Queenstown). From Queenstown we weaved our way through a stretch of road called the Devils Staircase and then through the Southland Plains- the flattest bit of land in NZ according to Digger. And then it was onto Bluff. It was rainy and dark outside and made the place look pretty bleak. Bluff is one of the oldest towns in NZ; established in 1823 it had 14 years of being a lawless rum filled whaling post before the Waitanga Treaty was signed. Bluff is also the location of the start/end of Highway 1 with Cape Reinga being the start/end in the North Island. So its pretty cool that we’ve been to both tips of Highway 1 which runs right down the centre of NZ’s 2 islands. We got to Bluff at 10.30am, ready for our 1 hour ferry across to Stewart Island at 11am. The weather was foul and we began to doubt the idea of going to the island which everything to do is ‘outdoors-ie’, but we got on the boat all the same! Our skipper told us a surprising, and scary, fact as we crossed the sea to Stewart Island…the waters hold the 3rd largest colony of Great White Sharks in the world after Oz and South Africa. So  that’s an obscure achievement which we can cross off our list at the end of this trip- visiting all 3! So why go to Stewart Island…85% of it is covered by the Rakiura National Park and so its a top destination for nature, in particular penguins and dolphins so we were still pretty excited to check that out. We checked into our hostel (Stewart Island Backpackers), put on our walking shoes and our waterproofs and headed straight out on a 3 1/2 hour walk of the coastline. After reaching Ackers Point, getting completely drenched and seeing absolutely no wildlife, let alone a penguin, we decided to cut the walk short and get a curly whirly from the local shop to have with  warm cuppa back at the hostel! It was less than 10 degrees for sure and so we wrapped up warm and sat drinking hot drinks in the hostel for the rest of the day. I devoured  whole book, 300 pages in one afternoon and evening whilst an older french man played classical piano pieces so beautifully the whole evening. A lovely, comfy, relaxing time. But not what we paid to come to Stewart Island for. A bit of a waste of money on reflection!

Next morning and time to take the ferry back to the mainland. The rain had stopped but it was still overcast and cold. But our destination for today was Milford Sound and as we got closer, travelling through Fiordland National Park, the sky cleared and the sun came out- hoorah! As we got close we had to go through Homer Tunnel which goes straight through the mountain for 1219m at a gradient of 10 to 1. So you really felt as if you were traveling to the centre of the earth! As Digger got onto the last bit of road to Milford Harbour we got our first sight of the sounds and it was a proper WOW moment. Very very beautiful and the water glistened in the sunshine. The mountain sides seem to jut out of the water at 90 degrees to the surface and the waters wraps and weaves around them. We were on the 15.00 scenic cruise with a company called Real Journeys. It was  big boat, too big really, with coach loads of people on it but we got a good point on the top deck to take in the scenery so we were okay. So some facts about Milford Sound…the first European to discover it was a sealer named John Gruno who was a Welshman from Milford Haven and thus named the area after his home town around 1820. While known as Milford Sound, it is really a Fiord as it is a flooded ice carved valley, not a flooded river valley which is what a Sound is. Silly European!

So started from the harbour wrapping around Mitre Peak, passing Sinbad Gully and Copper Point. Wind funnels through the area and at this point we had gusts of over 20 knots, but apparently it can get up to 100 knots of wind! 20 knots was windy enough for us! We then sailed out into the Tasman Sea, turned and then came back into the Sound passing Dale Point- the most northern entrance to Milford Sound. We saw sea lions on a rock and then it was onto Stirling Falls- 155m falls where the boat literally went right up close and Hedd and I who had moved to the bottom front deck got absolutely soaked by the spray! It was great fun! We returned to the top deck to dry off as we traveled past Mt Kimberley- also known as Lion Rock as it looks like a sitting lion (if you squint a bit!). Then we beared left into Harrison Cove where we had a spectacular view of the snow-capped Mt Pembroke. A very beautiful end to a great 2 hour cruise.

Before we knew it we were back on the Stray Bus, making our way to our base for the night at a place called Gunn’s Camp. It was originally a camp for the families of the Milford road and Homer tunnel builder’s in the 1930’s, with many children being brought up here. It was a tough existence- the camps in the middle of nowhere- but the community was known to make the best of things. After the tunnel was finished the families left and the camp was bought by Davy Gunn to run horse back holidays from it. Gunn was famous in the area, knowing the mountains like no other. He even has a mountain named after him. He tragically dies on his horse travelling across a river on Christmas Day and his son Murray took over and its been called Gunn’s Camp ever since. The place looks pretty much as it had done back in the day- little wooden or tin huts dotted about a river. We stayed in a hut called ‘Wanderer’. It is now powered by a generator that switches off at 10pm. The hot water if delivered by a wood fueled boiler and there is no fridge. Rural to say the least! And A LOT of sand flies- they are officially on Hedd and I’s hate list! But it was a fun place to stay for 1 night.

Next day (11th) and back to Queenstown. We stopped at Te Anau for lunch and Hedd and I used the time to go to the little cinema in the town to watch the locally famous Ata Whenau- Shadowland film. It’s an award-winning film of Fiordland filmed across extremes of season, climate and terrain all from the perspective of a helicopter. I really enjoyed it- the musical composition plus the images gave we goosebumps! A great thing to watch if your thinking of coming out for a visit. Then it was back on the bus to complete the remaining 2 1/2 hour journey back to Queenstown. On reflection I don’t know if I’d do the Southern Loop with Stray again- too much time on the bus. Perhaps a better idea would be to use Queenstown as a base and take day trips or overnight trips to Milford Sounds and Doubtful Sounds. Hmmm, next time!

The Southern Loop in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Lousy, with 1 great day of sunshine for the Milford Cruise
  • Food= Pasta with tomato sauce (tightening our purse strings!)
  • Drink= L&P!
  • Top tip= If you want to go to Stewart Island, spend at least 2 nights there- better chance of having a good weather day
  • If I were to come back I would do…= …A trip to Doubtful Sound

Hedd’s words of wisdom:

I don’t have many regrets from this trip so far, however not spending more time in the Fiordland National Park is one. In hindsight I think we shouldn’t have bothered with the Stray Southern Loop and hired a car for a few days from Queenstown and explored the area on our own in much more detail. I would have loved to have gone on a less commercial cruise through Doubtful Sound. But saying that, Milford Sound was beautiful and we didn’t have the time or money to do anything else. I guess we’ll just have to come back to do the rest…

South Islands West Coast- Greymouth and Franz Josef

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If only I could fly by helicopter everywhere!

So another day, another Stray Bus and another driver. This one was called ‘Whales’ as he likes whales. His actual name is Adam but all Stray drivers go by their given company nickname. Either was he is a ‘ledge. Really good music, great driving, good facts and really ace sense of humour. There were still quite a few people on this bus that had been together since Auckland but not a clicky bus like the last one. So as Hedd and I settled in to the day drive to Greymouth we were quite pleased about the whole thing! So we were off to the West coast which according to Whales “s**ts on the Great Ocean Road in Australia on a good day”! Unfortunately we weren’t seeing it at its best; it was a bit wet and wild outside. But at worst it gave the coast a rugged edge to its beauty; it was still a spectacular drive. Our first stop of the day was at Cape Foulwind, named by Captain Cook in 1770 when his ship, ‘Endeavour’, was hammered by persistent wind and rain as it sailed through Tauranga Bay. It is also a place favoured by hundreds of Kekeno (NZ fur seals), which is what we were here to see. So just a 10 minute walk from the car park and we were at a viewing platform just above the rocks they were lazing on. There were little seal pups there which were just too cute for words as they scampered over the rocks- from a far they reminded me of black Labrador puppies with webbed feet! Whales played the first of his many tricks on us as we got back to the bus by gasping in disbelief at a bird standing by the picnic tables stating “wow, you hardly ever see kiwi’s out so near at this time of day”. As we all excitedly huddled around this bird taking pictures, slowly our eyes found an information board stating that this was in fact a wood-hen which is frequently mistaken to be a kiwi (a nocturnal bird) by tourists. In unison we whined: “Wha-les”! Even though we had only been on the bus 2 hours, we should have known better; Whales was always pulling our legs! Next stop was at Punakaiki to see a special limestone rock formation called Pancake Rocks. The rocks there are made up of layers of mudstone and limestone (due to ‘stylobedding’ hundreds of thousands of years ago) and as the mudstone layers have eroded more quickly than the limestone layers, the rocks turns out looking like pancakes stacked on top of each other. The sea was thunderous and the weather still a little wild which just added to the drama of the place. There were also little chimneys in some of the rocks which when the waves came in, sprays of water came in, up and over the chimneys causing blow holes, which were cool to watch. Then it was back on the bus completing our journey for the day at Greymouth. Well the place is certainly grey! Whales admitted that it’s a bit of a dump but a good place to break the journey from Abel Tasmin to Franz Josef and to pick people up from the railway station who had traveled the scenic rail journey over from Christchurch. So we looked around the town a little, bought some supplies from the supermarket then chilled back at the hostel (Dukes Backpackers) playing round robin pool and making the most of the happy hour at the bar!

Lunch time on the 29th Jan and back on the bus to continue onto Franz Josef. We had some new people so we welcomed them the Whales way, i.e. “Hey everyone we’ve got new people on the bus, say hey new people”; “Hello new people” we say in reply. Then he started the day on the bus the way he always does with his “Good morning, its gonna be a good day” song. No one liked to tell him it wasn’t morning anymore as we all secretly love the song! We split up the 3 hour drive with a stop at a place called Hokitika to check out a big shop and carving centre for ‘Pounamu’- jade/greenstone in Maori. We wandered around and learnt about the how the different shapes mean different things, e.g. that twists/crossovers represent the bonding of a special friendship or relation and a fish-hook wishes prosperity and good health for the wearer. Back on the bus and over a single lane bridge which is also shared with a train line (!), we continued forward traveling through a town called Ross which used to be a good mining town back in the day and the local pub was famous for having a 3 kg nugget of gold which they used to just prop the door open. The pub eventually sold this nugget to the English who bought it to give to the King for his Coronation. He then smelted it down to make gold cutlery which apparently the Royals still use to this day….Fact! 30 minutes outside of Franz Josef our final little stop for the day was at a beautifully blue river. It was a glacier stream and full of what they call ‘rock flour’ which when reacts with the water creates this gorgeous powdery blue flow. Very pretty. We arrived into Franz Josef at 5pm and got settled into our hostel called ‘Rainforest Retreat’. Not so much of a ‘retreat’ as it was rammed with 2 other bus loads of backpackers! But we fought our way through the kitchen, made dinner and then breathed a sigh of relief that the ordeal was over taking an evening stroll around Franz Josef village before bed.

Next morning (30th) and time to explore what Franz Josef is all about- the Franz Josef Glacier. We had booked onto a HeliHike with Franz Josef Glacier Guides and we met the rest of our HeliHike group (11 people) at their office at 11.45am.  We got handed our first bit of kit- waterproof over trousers and then headed over the road to pick up the rest; including a rain jacket (protection from the wind more than rain- it was a gorgeous sunny day), sturdy walking shoes and a rather fetching bright red bum bag to house our crampons (or as i like to call them- ‘ice claws’) for our shoes when we were on the ice. We felt ridiculous over dressed, heavy and boiling as we stomped through town to the heliport where we got taken through a super kit safety briefing before stepping onto the helicopter. They are loud! We put our seat belts on and our headphones so we could hear the captain and then we were off. It was a surprisingly smooth ride. I got a window seat and took loads of pics of the views. Our pilot took us on a 10 minute scenic flight up to the upper part of the glacier called the Neve which is the ice pool that ‘fed’s the glacier and back down over the drop in the glacier (an ice waterfall) to land around 100 meter below this- still very high up the glacier. We got out of the helicopter, took our first steps on the ice and took in not only the glacier but also the panoramic views of the mountains that surrounded us. Danny, our guide for the 2 1/2 hours, greeted us and directed us to tie our ice crampons onto our shoes before heading out on our guided walk amongst this awesome glacier scenery. The ice in a lot of parts was a crystal blue colour which he told us was due to the ice being so compacted that all the oxygen gets squeezed out of it leaving behind ice that can absorb all colours apart from blue hence giving it a blue appearance. Danny had been guiding here since 2008 and he told us that the glacier had changed a lot in that time. When he started Franz Josef was one of the few glaciers that was advancing but now it’s definitely in retreat with more rock poking through as the glacier melts.  We walked off to the right of the glacier over mounds of ice, through little streams, avoiding big holes and unstable ice on the way. Danny had a pick axe and made us little steps in the ice on the really steep bits. We crawled through 2 ice caves, saw an ice lake and walked to a big waterfall. In a word- WOW! We also witnessed a rock slide down an adjacent mountain. You heard it before you saw it. It was a thunderous, fearful noise as the big bits of rock tumbled down the steep sides. Just showed us in real-time how fragile these glacier landscapes are. The 2 1/2 hours went really quickly and soon it was time for us to get back on the helicopter again. Our pilot I think was keen to get home so it was a super quick flight. But he did some stunt moves sweeping from side to side, and going up and down fast making your stomach jump. It was fun! Then we were down on solid ground again, relieved to be out of all our layers but so happy to have experienced our first glacier and our first helicopter ride all in one afternoon!

With our HeliHike we got free entry into the Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools. The pools were luxurious surrounded by forest and ferns which gave it a really lovely atmosphere. There were 3 pools- 1 at 36 degrees, 1 at 38 and 1 at 40 degrees. We eased ourselves into it at 36 degrees which at first seemed boiling but then almost got chilly! Time for the 38 and the 40 degree pools now that we were hardened ice climbers! After 40 minutes of relaxation we headed back to our hostel for dinner (not so crowded this time) and a couple of drinks at the hostel bar with some Stray pals. The bar that evening were holding a ‘Killer Pool’ competition with a chance to win a bungy jump, rafting or luge’ing at Queenstown. Great prizes! So naturally both Hedd and I signed up and gave our $2 each for charity. There were 25 players, all with 3 lives. If you didn’t pot anything on your go, you lost a life. And on it went. First round and I potted the white! 1 life gone. Second round after spinning around 3 times and taking aim I potted nothing. 2nd life gone. Third round after a shot of vodka, spinning 6 times and taking aim I…yep you guessed it, I potted nothing! I was out. But Hedd and our Stray pal called Chirag were still in with all 3 lives in tacked.  And the rounds went on and on until Hedd was down to the last 5. That round loads of people fell and it was just Hedd vs a guy called Eric. Chirag and I were cheering Hedd on and Hedd was doing really well but then over shot one ball, potting both the ball and the white. So Eric won. But Hedd still won a rafting trip in Queenstown worth $149! Not bad for a $2 charity entry! In celebration Chirag, Hedd and I donned red snooker chalk noses and saluted Stray Backpackers Bus before crawling exhausted into bed past midnight. We tried not to dwell on the fact that we were due up in less than 6 hours time but the late night was worth it.

Greymouth and Franz Josef in a snapshot:

  • Weather= A mix of wet and wild with clear crisp sunny days
  • Food= Spag bol and fajita’s
  • Drink= Celebratory cider
  • Lesson learnt= A wood-hen is NOT a kiwi!
  • If I won the lottery…=…I would buy a helicopter

Hedd’s words of wisdom:

Going on a heli hike may have been the more expensive option available to us, but it was definitely worth it. The whole experience was amazing. I’ve never really thought of ice as beautiful before, but blue ice is just stunning. I felt at times that I was walking through an alien environment, it could easily have been the setting for a science fiction move. I just wanted to run off and play, although it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t as the one time I tried to be a smart ass on the ice, I fell flat on my face…

Oh, and by the way, did Helen mention that I played a kick ass game of “killer pool” and won a voucher for free rafting in Queenstown!! Ok, so I came second, but the other guy only won because I potted the white. But I got the prize I wanted and he bought me a shot of Yagermister as a consolation prize. Result!

South Islands North Coast- Picton and Abel Tasman

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Welcome to the Stray Bus!

So after cramming all of our stuff into our backpacks again (previously strewn all over a rental car!) we took the $2 shuttle bus to the InterIslander ferry terminal for our 08.25am crossing to Picton- the gateway to NZ’s  South Island. We got an ace seat in the ‘atrium’- floor to ceiling window seating area- at the back of the boat and sat back for 3 hours and enjoyed the ride. The Marlborough Sounds is a flooded sea valley so has lots of little islands which the boat cruised around. Very beautiful ride and it was sunny- yey! We got in at 11.30am and was greeted by a Sequoia Lodge shuttle bus which took us to our hostel for the night. The hostel was nice enough, but best of all they gave all guests free hot chocolate pudding and ice cream each night. It was yum! We just chilled out in Picton for the day and enjoyed the sunshine. Hedd got his hair cut and went from looking like part yeti to an army recruit with short back and sides! Oops!

Next morning it was time to meet up with the our transport for the next 3 1/2 weeks- The Stray Bus. So Stray is a backpacker bus which drives you around, you can hop on and off, it guarantees you hostel accommodation for your first night in places and stops off at some cool places along the way. There are lots of different passes you can buy. But we were on the Short Ron. The map opposite shows the route. And today (25th) we were traveling to Abel Tasman- NZ’s smallest national park but the second most visited after Tongariro National Park. There were 24 of us on the bus and our driver was called Ms P. Quite a few of the people had been on the bus together since Auckland so there was a bit of a click on the go but everyone was nice enough. It was Ms P’s first time driving such a big coach and she took the corners pretty sharp so the tummy muscles got a good work out trying to keep myself in my seat! It was weird not knowing where exactly we were going, or stopping or how long we were going to be driving for after being so independent in North Island. But equally it was nice not driving and just going with the flow. Plus there is not many roads in South Island so if we had rented a car we would have just ended up behind a Stray bus anyway; so might as well be on it! So the first drive towards Nelson was through the Marlborough wine region which was very pretty. Marlborough is the biggest wine exporting region in NZ and they have gravelly soil great for grape growing just like Hawkes Bay. We made our first stop at Bouldevines Wine Celler near Blenheim to do a wine tasting. We tasted 4 whites for $2 and bought a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc to have with our free BBQ that night that Stray was putting on for us. After tasting some fudge and different oils and chutneys it was back on the bus. We dropped some people off at Nelson and then continued forward through a place called Havelock which is a little town known for its green lipped mussels which they farm in the Sounds. Then it was onwards to Motueka- the last town before the National Park for a supermarket dash. Apparently Motueka is the one place Hippies and Farmers get on. The town used to be known for tobacco production but now they just grow hops for beer (and marijuana for the hippies!) It was just another 20 minutes to get to Marahau- the village just by the entrance of Abel Tasman National Park and where we would be staying for the next 3 nights. We were booked into The Barn in a little 2 person cabin which was very lovely and enjoyed a great BBQ that evening with the gang from the bus.

Next morning we decided to rent Freedom Sea Kayaks for the day ($55). We went with Independent Guides based at the hostel next door called Old McDonald Farm and Mitch, the owner, kitted us up, ran through a safety briefing and a quick lesson in kayaking before taking us and our kayaks down to the beach. We had to show we were semi-competent in the water (tick box exercise because Hedd and I passed and we were complete crap!) and then Mitch let us roam free!  Oh my goodness it was awful! We tried to paddle out and around Fisherman Island- absolutely over ambitious at our ability- and gave up half way as Hedd’s back was hurting, my shoulder was hurting and plainly it was exhausting! Hedd was setting the rhythm, although he would be the first to admit he has little, and I was attempting to steer with a rudder attached to foot loops that I had to almost dislocate my ankles to operate. All in all a frustrating time! But we made it around the first headland and beached at Appletree Bay, relieved to be out of the plastic prison that was our Kayak! Okay okay that was melodramatic, and after a sandwich, cereal bar and a sunbathe we ‘manned up’ and got back in the kayak. The going was still tough but we actually began to enjoy it as we kept close to the coastline looking at all the different bays. We made it to the end point for a 1 day freedom kayak called Watering Bay; surprising ourselves that we made it; and then headed back stopping at Observation Bay for our last sandwich and apple. The beach rivalled any beach we saw in Fiji- white sands and the water clear aquamarine. Although the water unfortunately was about 10 degrees cooler than the bath waters of Fiji. From Observation Beach we then made the long paddle home to Marahau beach. The favourable wind Mitch had promised us had not materialised and the trip home was long, hard and frustrating. We eventually dragged our kayak onto shore at 4pm, supporting the various bits of our body that ached. Semi pleased we did it as we got to see some of the bays in the National Park that are only accessible from the sea, but not for me sea kayaking I don’t think!

So the 27th January saw us exploring the rest of the park via water taxi and by foot. We got picked up from The Barn at 9am and taken to Aqua Taxi HQ to board our boat there which was on a trailer on the back of a tractor! This then tugged us to the beach for launch. You can imagine the chinese photo snappers loved that sight as we drive along the road to the beach! We had gone for a 1 day trip called the ‘Slice of Paradise’ where we would travel the length of the park to Mutton Cove and then back to Barks Bay where we would get dropped off and walk the 4 hours to Anchorage to be picked up again and taken back to Marahau. Our skipper whisked us off in our speed boat to see our first sight- the Split Apple Rock. Legend has it that it was broken clean in half by Captain Cook as he sailed past and shot at it with a cannon ball. Reality is a that it is young granite and full of iron which caused it to split in half after the impact of years of wind, rain and waves. We then zoomed off again passing Fisherman Island and settling by Adele Island to view Observation Beach. The whole area and the names of things have a lot to do with an explorer called Dumont d’Urville. He was the first European to spend much time in Abel Tasman back in the 1800’s and sort to complete Cooks charting of New Zealand. Story is that he got a bit friendly with a Maori lady whilst here and out of guilt for his wife back in France, named an island after her- Adele Island. Observation Beach is called such, as it is the beach from which Dumont d’Urville used the stars and super clever maths to locate NZ on the globe for the first time. His longitude and latitude positions were so good that they were used up until the 1960’s when they were then replaced with the coordinates from the satellites up in space. Worked out that Dumont d’Urville’s was only 2 km out! Fair flipping play! We then zoomed off again up the coast, stopping at Tonga Island to see the seal colony there. The seals were pretty lazy and our skipper told us they actually wait for the tide to rise to them instead of moving themselves to bath! We then continued to Totoranui and then right up to Mutton Cove at the top tip of the National Park. We saw Separation Point which is a headland with a little lighthouse on it and marks the point where the park ends and Golden Sandy Bay begins. We saw seals again and a wild boar. Then we turned back towards Barks Bay. On the way we saw Dusky Dolphins! Very unusual to see them as they are quite shy and smaller than the bottle nose dolphin. But they have lovely markings on them and 2 of them same up close. Our skipper was even chuft that he got to see them. Our last detour before Barks Bay was to a place called Shag Harbour. Its only accessible by boat at high tide and we had to go through this tiny entrance and then we found ourselves in a blue lagoon. The water was so clear we saw a sting ray swimming at the bottom on the shallow waters. Very beautiful place.

We finally got dropped off at Barks Bay at 12 noon, 50 minutes later than planned after the pleasantly eventful water taxi trip up the National Parks coastline. We had some lunch on the beach and then headed off on the Abel Tasman Coastal Path. The DOC guideline walking times said 4 hours to Anchorage. We had 3 1/2 hours before our water taxi ride back to Marahau so we went set a storming pace as we walked through forested headlines and coast line hugging track. It really was a lovely track to walk. Our first stop was at South Head to check out the view-point 10 minutes off the track. Abel Tasman certainly is stunning- challenging Coromandel Peninsular as my favourite place in NZ for sure! Then we headed inland, up and over various headlands and the Falls River. The glimpses you got of the coast along the way were just beautiful. Especially Frenchman Bay which, as it was high-tide, was covered creating a turquoise/aquamarine lagoon (see the pic opposite). Gorgeous! And some lucky bugger had a house on it! Then we made our way to Torrent Bay and had a rest and a snack on the beach there. Torrent Bay is one of the few places in the park with holiday homes on it. It was private land which DOC allowed the people to keep after turning it into a National Park. Its only accessible by boat now as the December floods washed the access roads through the park away and DOC aren’t rebuilding them. Although I hear a lot of the owners have their own helicopters too so I can’t say they are too fussed! As it was high tide we had to take the long 1 hour route to Anchorage instead of the mere 20 minute beach stroll you can do at low tide! Nightmare! So we stormed it again around Torrent Bay and up and over the headland. We stopped off at Cleopatra’s Pool which is a clear pebbly stream which gushes over a rock making a slide. We had our swimmers on with the intention of trying out the natural slide. But alas no time so we settled for dipping our toes in the icy water. To get to the pool you had to cross the river using non submerged stones. Needless to say there was plenty of screams on my front. But no injury, accidents or falling in so all was good! We walked the last little bit and arrived at Anchorage at 3.50pm for our 4pm pick up. Perfect timing! Our skipper this time around didn’t hang about and we were back at Marahau being towed by tractor out of the sea before we knew it. The tractor took us back to HQ and then we caught a lift to The Barn with a Kayaking instructor (ironic!). All in all a great day in the National Park.

The sun had gone in and it was much colder than yesterday, so we showered, wrapped up warm, had tea and retired to bed with a book with our jumpers still on! Tomorrow was departure day on a new Stray Bus with new people again. But this time we were heading for the West coast…..

Picton and Abel Tasman in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Sunny woop woop! Top temperature 28 degrees but cold cold nights
  • Food= Spag bol (classic) and free chocolate pudding
  • Drink= Sav’ Blanc and L&P (NZ lemon drink)
  • Watch out for= Sandflies (the bites itch for days!)
  • Top activity to do if you’re looking for an argument= Sea Kayaking!
  • Proof that you only get what you pay for= Hedd’s short back and sides Picton haircut!

Hedd’s words of wisdom:

Whenever I’ve seen people kayaking on rivers or on the sea, they’ve always looked so peaceful and I thought that looks like a nice leisurely way to spend a day. So when we were in Abel Tasman it seemed like a perfect opportunity to try it – the place is famed for kayaking. So here are my words of wisdom for anyone out there who thinks that taking their significant other for a day of kayaking would be a lovely way to spend the day together – DONT!! It is bloody hard work, can lead to bickering and can result in lots of swearing!! Ok, we may have enjoyed the bit in the middle, the gentle paddling between coves, but the paddling out there and most definitely the long stretch back to the shore was exhausting. So if your thinking about a romantic day on the water, kayaking might not be what you’re looking for!!

Our Last Days in South America- Vina del Mar and Santiago

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The last pisco sours have been had; good-bye South America…

So the bus from San Pedro to Vina del Mar was our longest yet- 23 hours! We got on at San Pedro at 1pm and got off 12.30pm the next day. We went ‘cama’ (wider, more comfy seats) so it wasn’t as brutal as it sounds. Plus I got my second Christmas build up surprise from Hedd- the ‘Love Actually’ film on the iPod. So I got to watch that on the way which made me feel very Christmasy! However I had a nasty surprise when I collected my bag from the storage part of the bus. It was slightly damp and smelt like urine! Absolutely disgusting and definitely an example of the darker underside backpacking. Luckily the backpack cover bag that my backpack was in got the worst of it. Needless to say, the first thing I did when I got to our hostel was to wash the cover bag and empty my backpack and wash down the outside, then bleach dry it in the sun! Yuk yuk yuk! The hostel we stayed in was called ‘Little Castle’ and was in the Cerro Castillo area of the seaside city, up on the headland so we had a good view over the city centre. The hostel reminded me of university hall crossed with a rickety old London flat! Felt really comfortable and the owner Patricio was lovely. So Vina del Mar is where the city folk from Santiago come on holiday. The city wraps itself between 2 headlands and has a lovely beach and promenade. So the first afternoon we were there we of course headed to the beach. We strolled along the promenade lined with little stalls selling bits and bobs and settled ourselves on the very clean sandy beach to watch the waves. Now these waves were huge and broke and swelled really close into shore. Surfers actually stood on the sand and when they wanted to ride the wave, ran into the sea and jumped on their boards on the way; the waves were that close. We watched the sun go down whilst eating delicious ice cream on the sea front terrace of ‘Enjoy del Mar’ restaurant….very nice.

Tuesday was our first and only full day in Vina del Mar and we started off early walking along the main drag called Valpariso Street, to the main place- Plaza Jose Francisco Vergara, which had lots of native plants and trees planted within it. We then headed to Museo de Arqueologia e Historia Francisco Fonck which for 2000 pesos we got to browse exhibitions on Chilean early history and about Easter Island. And it was in English and Spanish so we could read all the information boards and know what we were looking at! The Easter Island exhibition was the best, and it was interesting to read that it is still a mystery how the Rapa Nui people got to the island. There has been no remains found of early man on the island so that means man must have sailed there later on. Chileans dismiss that Rapa Nui people sailed over from Indonesians and instead advocate that it was people from Northern Chile that sailed the un-navigational seas to the Island. However the Indonesians is the most likely! I also didn’t know that the infamous Easter Island stone men- Moari’s- started off really small but grew in size t0 22 meters tall as the Rapa Nui elders tried to hold on to their spiritual traditions in the face of greater dilution with more visitors coming to the island from Europe and the South American continent, carving the Moari’s larger and larger (as you can see in the pic). After the museum we checked out the local market which is in the now dried up river bed which ‘flows’ through the city. We picked up some über inexpensive beach towels in prep for our 10 days on the beach in Fiji…mine is extremely grown up with multiple colourful cartoon zoo animals on it, hmmm! After a siesta, we made vegetable fajitas for dinner and then headed to the beach again for sun set. Our bus to Santiago on Wednesday didn’t go until 1pm, so in the morning we took a last stroll along the promenade going from headland to headland. And on the way we found a free outdoor gym, with a rowing machine! So I got a bit of training in whilst admiring the seaside view…Duncan (my coach in Chester) will be proud!

So we made it to Santiago okay after only a 1hr 1/2 bus ride, which made a very welcome change from our 23 hour bus ride only a few days previous! We caught a taxi (5,000 pesos, but could get one for around 3,000 if you walked a bit away from the bus terminal) to our Hostel called Princess Insolenta in the Brazil district of the city. Brazil is a bohemian, studenty area of the city and has lots of colonial type buildings. Quite pretty in fact. Our hostel is super funky and very music centred with travellers strumming their guitars in the shared courtyard…gave the place a really nice atmosphere. We (well me mainly!) had collected a few presents and souvenirs on our 2 months around South America which were making our backpacks bulge, so we headed to the post office to send a few parcels home. The post office was packed! Everyone doing their last-minute Christmas card sending and there was a band outside playing Christmas tunes, which eased the long wait in the que. Luckily we were eventually served by a very efficient yet patient women who kindly guided us through the various custom forms and coped with our sheer lack of Spanish! Fingers crossed the parcels will make their way to their recipients in one piece sometime in 2012! We picked up some ingredients on the 40 minute walk back to our hostel and I rustled us up a good old spag bol for tea, with a glass or 2 of vino blanco to help with the cooking! Yesterday was our only full day in Santiago, but my gosh did we make the most of it! It was an early-ish start to get to the centre of Santiago (30 minute walk) on time for the start of a free walking tour with the ‘Spicy Chile’ company at 10am. The tour started at the Palacio de la Moneda which is Chile’s equivalent to the White House as it is where the President lives/works. We got there in time for the changing of the guards. This is a very elaborate affair which happens every other day. A whole heap of soldiers in their event uniform march across Avenue Libertador towards the Palace and there are soldiers on horseback in front and then a full army brass band behind. When they stopped at the back yard of the Palace (this was all open-no high gates or anything) the band then played Jingle Bells! So so Christmasy, it was lovely! Our tour guide was called Dani, and she was in her final term of studying Acting at uni. She knew her stuff and could answer all our questions. So a bit about Chile’s (scarily) recent history. In the 70’s a well-loved Communist President called Salvador Allende Crossens was overthrown by the leader of the army called General Augusto Pinochet who ran the country as a Dictatorship. For around 18 years the country was under this dictator and during this time human rights were squashed, there were frequent tortures and lots of people ‘disappeared’. The authorities are still finding the mass graves now- not nice. In 1989 the people revolted and the dictator killed himself. The people of Chile are politically passionate as a result and as Dani explained the history to us in front of the army display in the Palace’s back yard 2 local men pointed at the army and shouted at us “killers of the people”. In the 1990’s Thursdays were when the weekly protests took place. This isn’t so much the case now, but when we did see a protest on our walking tour when we stopped for a cuppa. It was a workers protest of factory staff of big multinationals such as Adidas and Loreal, protesting against the low minimum wage (200,000 pesos a month) and the big gap between those on the lowest and those on the highest wages in the company. Fair play I say, I wouldn’t be able to live on £250 a month!

From La Moneda Palace we walked towards Plaza de Armas and popped into the big catholic cathedral there. It was very ornate inside without being Gordy, and they had a fab nativity scene on display too which the photo opposite shows. Then it was onto the Parque Forestal area which is like Santiago’s equivalent of Central Park in New York. Within Parque Forestal we passed the Museo Bellas Artes which is a modern art gallery set up to help up and coming artists. The state do not subsidise art education at all in Chile. Actually the current President of Chile, Sebastian Pinera, sounds a bit of an arse as well. Dani told us that he isn’t well liked as he pledged in his election campaign that he would make public education free (even Chilean public primary/secondary schools, locals need to pay to send their children to), but instead he increased the price of schooling, out pricing many local families. He is a billionaire business man and apparently runs the country like an enterprise; i.e. just for profit.  That’s not what Government is all about. Hopefully the Chilean people will have better luck when it comes to Presidents next time round! We then made our way further east to Plaza Italia where there is a high-rise building which looks like an old mobile phone with an antennae and a big battery pack. It used to be the headquarters to Telefonics, the equivalent of BT in the UK…that’s taking corporate branding to the extreme! Then it was onto the bohemian (and posh) neighbourhoods of the city called Lastarria and Bellavista, which had lots of restaurants and cafes which spread out onto the streets- very nice. We passed Pablo Neruda’s house along the way who was a famous poet who lived in Santiago and won a Nobel Prize for literature. He loved the sea and all his homes he built to look like boats- La Chascona (his house in Santiago) is no exception.

We ended our tour at the bottom of Cerro San Cristobel which is a big hill which has a massive white Virgin Mary statue on top of it, “to protect over the city”. We took the funicular up to the top, (cost 1,800 pesos for a round ticket), to take in the view. The pic opposite is us at the top. As you can see the city is sprawling, only stopping when it hits the mountains to the South West. The virgin mary is beautiful up close, and the adjacent Chapel equally so. Plus Christmas hymns were being played out at the top which continued the Christmas theme of the day! After the funicular ride down the hill again, we had a quick-lunch, and then headed to the Santa Lucia area to visit the big artisan market there. It was also the place of choice to do a Christmas present buying dash for each other! Hedd started one end of the market, and me the other, and we met in the middle once we were done. It was really good fun hunting for pressies, at the same time as making sure we didn’t bump into each other! 30,000 pesos was the budget and I think I did pretty well with Hedd’s gifts…time will tell, hope he likes them when he opens them in 2 days time! After leaving the hostel at 9.20am we finally got back at 5.30pm. Needless to say our feet were aching and we crashed on the sofa with a cold drink! We were home just in time for my scheduled 6pm skype call home to my parents and Nan. It was my first time skyping and although I got the video call to work, I couldn’t get the headset to. So I had a visual but no sound! We ended up speaking on a mobile phone and watching each other on skype! Not quite how skype creators intended, but it was great all the same to see them all and see their lovely decorated Christmas trees. Ahh the wonders of technology…I just need to brush up on my technical ability for next time! For our last evening meal in South America we headed to a local restaurant, called Restaurant 69 on Ricardo Cumming Street, as recommended to us by our hostel owner from Vina del Mar. We had a traditional Chilean dish called Parrillada, which is essentially a simmering pot of different types of meat and sausage, served over a dish of hot coals. We got so much food for the price and as you can see Hedd struggled to finish his half of it! We had our last pisco sour too, to toast the end of the South American leg of our 5 1/2 month adventure.

So today we fly to Auckland, New Zealand. We have just chilled today, strolling around Brazil and sitting in the sun in Brazil square with an ice cream or two. I think we are good to go. We have scrubbed our hiking boots that we will be wearing on the plane. Apparently the immigration officers in New Zealand are really strict about foreign flora/fauna being brought into their country on shoes! Better to be safe than sorry! Just 1 hour until our taxi to Santiago airport arrives…can’t wait! Plus 2 days until Christmas Day, woop! Merry Christmas Eve Eve everyone!

Vina del Mar in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Warm with a lovely sea breeze
  • Food= Empanada’s and Ice cream
  • Drink= A glass of vino or two
  • Best fun had for free= Playing ‘chicken’ with the waves on the seaside (they only got me once!)

 

Santiago in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Scorchio! 30 degrees plus, but the buildings reflect the heat down so it feels like you are walking through a wall of heat
  • Food= Meat in the form of a Parrillada
  • Drink= Anything cold!
  • A ‘must do’ on your first day in the city= Spicy Chile’s free walking tour- you see so much of the city in one day and know all the best places to go back to.

Hedd’s words of wisdom:

So here we are, two months in South America completed. It´s been amazing, we have seen natural wonders, the remnants of ancient civilisations, incredible wildlife and met some wonderful people along the way. We have managed to do almost everything we set out to do (with the exception of the cancelled star tour) and although there is more we could have done here, I feel it´s the right time to move on and I{m looking forward to the next leg of our adventure. I am so pleased that we decided to do this, we have seen and experienced so much already and are not even half way through our trip. So as we sign off from South America and head to Auckland for our Christmas Day at the Airport, let me wish you all a “Nadolig Llawen”, “Feliz Navidad” or a “Merry Christmas”. See you in 2012…