Category Archives: Rain!

Port Elizabeth to Durban- The Eastern Cape and Transkei


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.


The Garden Route- Mossel Bay to Storms River


“On the road again”, but this time with the Baz Bus…

12.03.12, and we woke up with the strange realisation that 1 month today we fly home. But today was also the start of our hop on hop off tour of South Africa’s coast line using the Baz Bas as the mode of transport. So there is just one backpacker bus in SA and its called the Baz Bus. As we were to discover it is an incredibly cheap way to travel (our 21 day ticket cost £164 and would take us 2,300 kms) and convenient and safe taking you door to door from/to your hostel. However it isn’t the quickest or most efficient (picking up and dropping off from multiple hostels in each town passed) and it isn’t the most comfortable either! But hey we were game and we got picked up at 8.45am from our Cape Town hostel and our first destination was Mossel Bay- the start of The Garden Route. The Garden Route stretches from Mossel Bay to the Tsitsikamma River Mouth is like a “necklace of bays, beaches, cliffs and rocky capes strung together along a line of pounding white surf”…well that’s what the free Coast to Coast backpacker guide said about it! We were just looking forward to having some beach time!

We were meant to arrive in Mossel Bay at 2pm but after 2 sets of roadworks which saw people get out of their cars for a stretch and a walk as we were waiting so long, we arrived after 3pm. Now Mossel Bay is not the prettiest town to say the least and our hostel (Mossel Bay Backpackers) left a lot to be desired. But this was the best place to come to for Shark Cage Diving which Hedd really wanted to do so here we were. As we wandered into the town centre to explore our feelings of disappointed about our first stop weren’t alleviated and to top it all we went to talk to the Shark Africa Diving Company and they said they hadn’t seen sharks all week as they are migrating around some island some where! The activity cost 1,300RAN and they told us if Hedd didn’t see sharks he could get a gift voucher which he could use anytime in the next year! Umm, thanks but no thanks! Hedd was really disappointed and our spirits took another knock as we got back to the hostel and got online. Zambezi Airways who we were flying with from Lusaka to Livingstone had gone bust meaning we had to buy new flights! Could this day get any worse! It was a laugh or cry moment and we shakily laughed it off, reflecting that so far we’d been pretty lucky with all our other flights and buses etc, something was bound to happen before the end of our trip. Now that Hedd wasn’t doing his shark cage dive, the next day we headed for Santos beach- said to be one of the best swimming beaches along the Garden Route. The sun was up, the beach was clean and sandy and the water inviting. Our spirits perked up. We sunbathed and swam and generally had a chilled out day. We had some food at the Santos Express Cafe which was an old train carriage by the beach which was fun and only decided to head back to the hostel at 5pm when the sun started to hide behind the clouds. Lovely day. Due to the Baz Bus route schedule we had to spend 3 nights in total at Mossel Bay which was far too long to lavish on such a place, but we were determined to make the most of it. So today we decided to hike part of the St Blaize Trail which starts at Mossel Bay and ends at Dana Bay. The whole thing is 13.5km long but we were only planning to do 4 km of it. So we made our way to the start point at Cape St Blaize Cave in the crazy heat and was already a sweaty mess before we even made it to the coastal path! But the trail was pretty cool. The coastline was rugged with jaggedy rocks protruding into the sea with great blue lagoons in between. The trail wasn’t too strenuous gently undulating up and down, but the heat made it more of an effort. Plus there was a load of these crazy little creatures all the way along the trail which looked a cross between a ferret and a guinea pig with big teeth which properly freaked me out. But we survived, if a little dehydrated!

The 15th marked our last day in Mossel Bay (hooray!) and we were due to be picked up by the Baz Bus at 2pm so we just chilled at the hostel for the morning and sorted out flights out for Zambia, booking with Proflight Zambia and costing £275 each- ouch! Our destination today was just a short way up the coast and inland to a place called Oudtshoorn. We got dropped off at George by the Baz bus, then Gavin picked us up in the hostel van to take us to Oudtshoorn and our hostel Paradise Backpackers. I really liked Gavin; an old black man with silver hair who bopped away to the tunes on the radio when he didn’t think we were looking! Cool guy! The drive from the coast to Oudtshoorn was stunning. We drove the Outenuqua Pass; mountains all around, beautiful clouds in the sky with sun beams cracking through, hop farms growing the fruit for the local brew. Yes, this was more our kind of place! The hostel was great too and they were so helpful with organising activities for us. We were sad to only be staying for 1 night. We went for tea at the restaurant across the road called Bella Cibo which Gavin recommended. We shared a Game Plate and got to taste Ostrich, Springbok, Kudu and Crocodile steaks. It was really fun and we both agreed Ostrich was our favourite- very lean and tender meat which melted in our mouths. Crocodile, however, was not very nice- a fattier version of pork/chicken! The next day we had a jam packed morning of activities. Starting at 8am our first stop was to Cango Caves- Africa’s largest show caves. We opted for the Adventure Tour (80 RAN) of the caves which would see us venture into the deepest sections of the Cango One route, through passages and narrow chimneys. Our guide was a local girl who was really comical and called us by our home countries. So for the duration of the tour I was Miss England and Hedd, Mr Wales! So a bit about the caves…their caverns began to form 20 million years ago when acidic ground water chemically eroded the 100 million year old limestone rock; although today’s dramatic stalactites and stalagmites only began growing 3 million years ago when water which once filled the caves drained away. Although SA’s earliest people found shelter here thousands of years ago, the caves were only ‘discovered’ in 1780 by Dutch colonialists. So there were 15 people in our group and as we descended the stairs from the caves entrance to the first cavern both Hedd and I were super excited. The first cavern was called Van Zyl’s Hall, named after the Dutch guy who discovered it, and had loads of stalagmites and stalactites in it which were called the Organ Pipes as that was what they looked like. Next up was Botha’s Hall where we saw a complete column, where a stalagmite and stalactite had joined together. This formation was called the Leaning Tower of Pieza! After the 2 chambers it was time for the adventurous stuff. After ducking and diving our way through ‘The Avenue’ and the ‘Lumbago Walk’, we got to ‘King Solomon’s Mine’. We climbed a metal ladder and squeezed our way through ‘The Tunnel of Love’ and crawl into the ‘Devils Workshop’. Next was our most challenging part- clambering up the ‘Devils Chimney’ and then cheetah crawling along a very low passage and then delivering ourselves through ‘The Letter Box’ head first! Incredible fun and such good value at 80 RAN. Oh if you were wondering how they found this route through the caves- it was discovered by a 6 year old boy for lived at the farm next door! Not great parenting their, but he did find an amazing route around the caves! Next up we were whisked to Cango Ostrich Farm by Gavin in the van, getting there at 11.45 in time for our tour. Our guide first took us through the history of Ostrich Farming- firstly for their feathers in the 1800’s and early 1900’s and then for their meat, as feather fell out of fashion. Their skins are also now used for shoes, handbags etc. Their leather is the second toughest in the world after the Kangaroo- we’ve ate that animal as a steak too! He then took us through to the incubator room and told us about their development. And then it was to the main event- meeting the Ostrich’s. They are truly funny looking creatures. The smallest head but with the biggest eyes. Their brain apparently can fit on a teaspoon and their eyes are heavier than their brains…not the cleverest animals then! We then got the opportunity to ride the Ostrich’s. 2 farm workers held the Ostrich, who had their behinds covered with fabric, and they helped you on to it. We were told to sit right forward, hold onto its wings and then lean right back. The farm workers then let go and the bird ran hell for leather around the large pen and I just hung on for dear life! I fell off into the arms of the farm workers after 10 seconds but Hedd lasted a bit longer (but not by much!). We were then ‘treated’ to an ostrich neck massage, where 6 Ostrich’s fight to get to the bucket of feed that you are holding to your chest. It was a little scary and gross with Ostrich slobber thrown in for good measure! We arrived back to the hostel after our morning of activity at 12.55pm, just in time to pick up our shuttle back to George at 1pm. 1 hr 15 mins later we were back in George and awaiting the Baz Bus to take us to our next destination along the Garden Route- Plettenberg Bay.

It was just a 1 1/2 hour drive to Plett’, stopping off at Wilderness, Sedgefield and Knysna on the way. We were staying at Northando Backpackers in Plett’- a 5 star hostel- as a treat for Hedd’s birthday on the 17th, and indeed our room was lovely. We had a little planning session on what activities Hedd wanted to do for his birthday the next day but we didn’t have a car which was turning out to be a big issue with all the things he wanted to do being out of town! Not a good start but we kept up beat and grabbed a pizza for tea. Next morning, the 17th, and Happy Birthday Hedd! I made him breakfast in bed which consisted of a coffee and a big chocolate birthday cake complete with 6 ‘none blow out’ candles. I sang him Happy Birthday in my best Welsh and English as Hedd attempted to not catch fire from the novelty candles which were now acting like sparklers! They did burn out in the end but we did have visions of starting his birthday with a call to the fire brigade! He opened his card and pressie and was upbeat until he looked outside and saw it was tipping it down with rain…oh dear. I was remaining as positive as I could for the both of us and we walked into town in the rain to organise some calls/skypes from home to wish him happy birthday. He felt a lot happier after speaking to his mum on the phone and having the traditional Burkhalter out of tune Happy Birthday song shouted/sang at him through skype’s videophone! It was the first time I’d seen/spoken to my brother, Marc, and sister in law, Sarah, since I’d come travelling and it was really lovely to see and hear them. Deciding it wasn’t worth forking out on activities in this rain, we went for brunch at a local cafe and as the rain started to ease, had a wander around the shops and then down to the beach for a drink at the Lookout Deck Restaurant. Hedd had his favourite cocktail- a Mojito! We walked a little up the coastal path and then as the sky threatened to rain again, made a quick dash back up to the hostel. The hostel had a resident masseuse so Hedd got a 40 minute neck and back massage complete with a Happy Birthday sang to him in her native language- Xhosa. She was urging me to join in with her but I had no idea what I was doing with all the clicks that they use in the language and ended up huming along! But that was pretty cool for his birthday. It was Wales v France in the Rugby 6 Nations and we had found a bar that was playing it so it was a quick change and fast walk to catch the start. As we settled down with drink at Flashpackers Sports Bar we soon got chatting to the only other Welsh supporters there- a man called David and his South African friend called Lorna. David was from Denbigh- a town under 10 miles away from Gellifor where Hedd grew up! Another crazy small world moment for the trip, and soon us 2 couple were joking around like old friends. It was a good game, and I enjoyed supporting Wales especially as they won 16-9 and therefore won the entire 6 Nations competition! Always back the winners! We had a lovely meal at a restaurant close by called Nguni’s and Hedd got to try another bit of game- a big Springbok steak. And then it was back to Flashpackers in time to see the second half of the England v Ireland game and yet more drinks! It was St Paddy’s Day and a group of FNB Bank workers were on a team bonding fancy dress night out and had various challenges to complete. This involved Lorna getting her face licked and Hedd putting on one of the girls dress! Very funny. I managed to get a stumbling Hedd back to the hostel. He had a really good Birthday night out and that’s all that mattered. So the next day and another ‘morning after the night before’ for Hedd! He didn’t move from the room all day apart from when I made him a bacon butty and only allowed him to have it if he ate it with me at the table outside! Good night then! As Hedd spent the day recovering, I headed for the beach as it was now sunny (hoorah!) and there bumped into Lorna and David again from last night. She was just at the beach picking up her 2 girls from Lifesaving and Surf School which most of the towns kids go to on Saturday and Sunday mornings. It made me think that Plett’ must be a great place for children to grow up in, being in the sea every weekend. After getting my fill of vitamin D I headed back to the hostel after buying hangover food for Hedd and there we stayed, watching Spider Man 3 on the telly in the evening. The 19th and our last day in Plett’, and guess what Hedd’s back in the land of the living! It was sunny still and Hedd decided he wanted to see the beach I’d been to the day before so off we went. As we walked through town we past an all black protest against a local MP and his policies. It was the nicest sounding protest I’d ever seen- whistles and shouting still but also the unique, rhythmic and soul touching sound of African ladies singing. It was fantastic, and we watched the protest (at a safe distance mind!) before continuing down to the beach. We walked up and down both Central Beach and Robberg Beach, with the massive Beacon Island Hotel separating the 2. Robberg Beach was pretty much deserted and we messed around playing our own version of French Bowles using our flip flops and a water bottle as the marker. The lifeguard down the beach must have thought we were mad! Grabbing a cold drink at a bar on Central beach we bumped into Lorna and David again and Hedd got the necessary ribbing on getting so tipsy on his birthday…all good fun! Making our way back to the hostel we chilled we cups of tea and waited for our Baz Bus pick up at 6pm. Next stop…Storms River.

So it was only an hour ride to Storms River Village and our hostel, Tsitsikamma Backpackers. It was super dark by the time we got there though and the village had no street lamps. Proper rural! The hostels receptionist, Mitchel, was super welcoming and we had our Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour booked for the next morning before we knew it. We went for dinner with a guy called Christophe- a Belguim guy travelling on his own who we met on the Baz Bus. As we ventured out to find the village main street in the pitch dark we began to regret not remembering our head torches! But we found the street okay without any trips or falls and decided that this place was more of a Hamlet not a Village! We had dinner at Tsitsikamma Village Inn- a lovely pub type restaurant where the food and service was great, before strolling back to our hostel. We met an English couple in the kitchen who were from Wiltshire called Mary and Andy, and I made us all a cuppa as we chatted before heading to bed. We were all doing the Canopy Tour the next morning together and arranged to meet the next morning to walk down together. And that’s what we did at 9am the next day, meeting Stein our other friend from the Baz Bus at the Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour Office. We got a better view of actually where we were on the way to now it was light; surrounded by the Tsitsikamma Forest and Mountains. It was gorgeous and so green. We could see why the locals called it the garden of the Garden Route. After a quick safety briefing and the usual signing of the indemnity form, we all got harnessed up and furnished with gloves, helmet and our individual pulleys. Then it was all aboard a big 4×4 truck and we bumped our way to the start of the canopy tour 10 mins away. The tour involved a course of 10 ziplines and 1 rope bridge, which we were to go along, 30 meters above the Tsitsikamma Forest. The platforms in the sky were built around the giant yellow wood trees that made up the forest and the longest zipline was 91 meters long. Hedd and I were both game and threw ourselves into it after the lady guide showed us the technique; your strong hand behind acting as a brake, the other holding onto the ropes, legs up on landing. Pretty easy and a lot of fun, especially being amongst the friends we’d made the day previously! After 2 1/2 hours we had completed the course and we all got given lunch of ham and cheese toasties back at the office. We discovered that the canopy tour company was a part of a wider company called Storms River Adventures who run all sorts of sub companies and social projects, including the restaurant we were eating in and our backpackers. Their goal- Community Upliftment, with the profits of each venture going into social responsibility projects, school feeding projects, HIV/Aids awareness and environmental conservation. Really worthwhile and I was pleased our money was going into such a cause. That evening we were being picked up by the Baz Bus again to take us on our next leg, but we used the afternoon the best we could heading off on ‘The Big Tree’ walk in the Garden Route National Park. So this tree is a Yellow wood, 1000 years old, 36.6 meters tall and 8.5 meters wide and was raved about in the village. So we went and saw it, paying 10RAN for the privilege. And indeed it was big, towering over the other trees in the canopy. We walked the Ratel Trail around the forest which was nice enough, but forest walks aren’t Hedd and I’s favourite. But Hedd was constantly on the look out for snakes and bugs which apparently covered the whole of Africa in his mind, which I found highly amusing! We made it back to the hostel at 5pm and after freshening up went and found Stein, our Dutch friend, sitting at Marilyn’s Diner where we all had dinner together. He was catching the Baz Bus that evening too. Now Marilyn’s Diner was a bright and boisterous Elvis themed diner and inside had 3 really old but beautifully restored Chevrolet’s and was covered with Elvis pictures. Now this would have been perfectly normal in a town in America maybe, but we were in a tiny hamlet in South Africa within a National Park! It all felt very random! But there you go, always expect the unexpected. We all enjoyed American style burgers and caught the Baz Bus together at 7pm. Goodbye Garden Route, hello Port Elizabeth…

The Garden Route in a snapshot:

  • Weather= A mix of warm sun and showers
  • Food=Game, Ostrich and Springbok our particular favourites!
  • Drink= Hedd doesn’t want to see Savannah Dry for a while, lets put it that way!
  • Don’t bother with= Mossel Bay
  • Instead go to= Sedgefield (looked beautiful)
  • A term I want to introduce to the UK= ‘Community Upliftment’

Hedd’s words of wisdom:

There comes a time in every traveler’s journey when you realise you don’t have enough money to finish the trip and you’ve already used up the “backup” credit card on activities you didn’t know about, but didn’t want to miss out on. For us, this realisation dawned on us in Mossel Bay, at the same time that we found out that Zambezi Airlines who we were flying with in Zambia had gone bust months ago, but hadn’t told us! An absolute nightmare, it was looking like we might have to cut our trip short!! However, we were saved by the generosity of our parents who agreed to bail us out and would do so again in Port Elizabeth when we realised we had gotten our sums wrong! So a massive thank you to Paul & Diane and to my mum and dad, Ian & Bethan, for loaning us the money we needed. And as Helen keeps telling the whole world about my hangover days, I will point out that I’ve only had 3 (1 in Peru, 1 in Australia and 1 in South Africa) during the whole duration of this trip and in my mind that’s pretty good going and a whole lot better than if I’d been at home for the same time period!

Sydney- The Wedding and Other Adventures


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!!


Melbourne to Sydney on Highway 1 and The Blue Mountains


Rain rain go away, come again another day…

It was February 26th but in this camper the day was only referred to as the Carling Cup Final Day! The morning was spent with Hedd driving us to Sale along Highway 1, after leaving a very hot Melbourne, anxious to book us into any type of accommodation with Foxtel Sports so he could watch his team, Liverpool, play Cardiff in the Final. We ended up in the Best Western Motor Lodge, the one and only establishment with the aforementioned TV channel. After checking into our room and double checking once more that it indeed had Foxtel Sports, Hedd relaxed enough to enjoy a bit of exploring. We made our way to the coastal village of Seaspray and then drove the Ninety Mile Beach to Golden Beach. The ninety mile sweeping beach in the shape of a shallow smile was really cool to see and had sand dunes all along it with golden fine sand. And it was sunny so we could actually see, walk along and enjoy this Ninety Mile Beach not like when we were in North Island New Zealand battling against the rain and mist to see Northland’s own Ninety Mile Beach! After paddling in the sea and having a chill out on the beach we made our way back to Sale. Touch and go whether we would make it as the fuel gauge was on empty for a considerable length of time, we were relieved to reach the edge of the town and dive into the nearest petrol station. Take out pizza for tea whilst watching a movie and ticking down the time to the match. As the alarm sounded at 2.15am for Hedd to take his position in front of the telly to watch Liverpool v Cardiff football game. My original intentions of joining him on the sofa was soon forgotten and I stayed in bed and dozed in and out of sleep with Hedd’s cries of delight and sorrow as Liverpool struggled through full-time, extra time and penalties to eventually win at 6 o’clock in the morning! Oh dear, got to love time difference!

Waking up just a couple of hours later, we woke up to rain. We drove through showers, chasing the sun, up the coast to a place called Lakes Entrance where it was still dry. Reliably informed by the tourist information ladies that “the storm was a’ coming”  we whipped around all the lookout points around the town before the rain caught up with us. The best lookout was funnily enough down Lookout Road, where we were afforded a view over Rigby Island, the entrance to the Gippsland Lakes, Reeves Channel, part of the Gippsland Lake Coastal Park and the Bass Straight. It was pretty with turquoise seas, white sandy coves and foliage covered small islands. Like a miniature Fiji! But alas the rain had caught up with us and as we ate our lunch in the shelter of our camper our spirits got lower as the rain got heavier. We set off north up the coast once more, turning off at Orbost to take the scenic coastal drive to Cape Conran. I was driving and it was really nasty driving conditions, 90 km/hr max, with the wipers tirelessly sweeping streams of water off the windscreen. My anxiety wasn’t helped by the fact that a massive lizard dashed

out into the road which I had no choice but to run over. I screamed a lot; this lizard was easily 1 meter long and felt like I was going over a speed bump! We arrived at Cape Conran in a break in the rain and I must say I was pleased to get out of the car. The camper wasn’t damaged but Hedd said he could see lizard guts as he looked under the vehicle; squeamish and irrationally thinking all lizards were now out to get me, I ran away from the camper and onto the sheltered, white sand beach of Cape Conran. It was very pretty and we paddled our feet until we began to feel the rain again. Back in the camper and driving north again to our overnight stop at a town called Eden. However it wasn’t the paradise the name suggests as we creeped into town in the torrential rain and mist which made the 5pm look more like night-time! We found a holiday park next to Eden Beach, parked up, cooked soup for dinner and rooted ourselves on a covered picnic bench with a pack of cards and a bottle of wine to see the rainy evening in the best we could. We fell asleep that night to the sound of rain on the camper roof. Oh Australia, where did your infamous sunshine go?!

Tuesday 28th Feb and a bout of bad luck struck Hedd. He started the day gently rolling into the car behind him as we left Eden (the gentleman was not bothered at all and was more annoyed that Hedd made him wind his window down whilst it was tipping it down to see if he was okay!); next up was a big rock flying up and hitting the windscreen creating a big chip; and finally as we stopped for lunch at Batesmans Bay for lunch the crockery box fell out of the camper as he opened the side door smashing our 2 glass cups! Needless to say Hedd was not a happy chappy! Still raining we got back on the road and headed towards Jervis Bay and the Booderee National Park- our stop for the night. We stayed in the National Park campsite called Green Patch- pretty basic but fine for just 1 night. We reluctantly left the camper and legged it over to the covered BBQ’s to make dinner- Chorizo sausage salad. Then legged it back to the camper where we hid from the heavy rain until, again reluctantly, we had to get out to brush our teeth before bed.

Happy Leap Year Day! Guess what, it was still raining! We worked out it hadn’t stopped since lunchtime on the 27th and by now our rain coats were drenched and we were both fed up of being constantly damp and not being able to do or see anything. These feelings were heightened especially in Booderee National Park as in the sunshine we could see that the place would be stunning, fantastic white sandy beaches, fun forest walks and cool historic sites to visit. We were determined to see/do something here. So we drove down to Green Patch Beach, where indeed the sand was white and the waters clear. Then we drove to the Cape St George Lighthouse ruins. Putting our soggy coats on, we braved the weather and walked up to it reading the info boards and visiting all the different lookouts. The weather now was truly atrocious- cold as well as wet instead of just being wet. But the lighthouse ruins and its history were quite interesting. The lighthouse had never served its purpose well, being designed all wrong and being in the wrong location; it became a showpiece. However each of the families that lived in it had tragic accidents so it was thought to be a highly unlucky (some may say cursed) place. People drowning in fishing nets, falling off cliffs, catching diseases, getting shot…all sorts of horrendous endings! Reading all about that plus the inclement weather soon saw us leave the place sharpish and driving out of the National Park and up the coast to Wollongong- our last stop on Highway 1 before heading west into the Blue Mountains. Having lunch and stocking up on maps and information on the Blue Mountains from Wollongong information centre, we set off for Katoomba- Blue Mountains main town. Passing familiar place names on our way, we drove through Penrith and Liverpool, before arriving in Katoomba at 5pm in the thick mist and rain. My goodness, the place really did look miserable! As we drove into Katoomba Falls Caravan Park- the only one in town and within a 1 hour radius- we couldn’t believe our eyes when we read the sign saying ‘No Vacancies’! Hedd went into the office anyway and looking so depressed the lady took pity on us and moved a load of bookings around so she could give us a pitch for the 2 nights we needed. Phew, thank goodness for that! We had pitch 13- unlucky for some but at that point in time, for us, our saviour! Nothing else to do but to make dinner, we headed over to the camp kitchen only to be greeted by a big group of 50-year-old + couples who slightly drunk offered us cheese, biscuits and dip. They were all from Newcastle, north of Sydney, here for a golfing holiday. But on account of the rain had done little golfing and a lot of drinking instead! As we proceeded in making our beans on toast the group took great interest in us and were given the title “the young people”. “Give the young people more dip and biscuits”, “give the young people some chairs”. And after our beans on toast one of the wives came over with 2 Aussie Patties (burgers) full with salad, cheese and sauce for us saying “she couldn’t see us going to bed with only beans on toast in our bellies” . Although pleasantly full after our beans on toast we weren’t ones to pass up on free food and enjoyed our burgers tremendously whilst chatting away with the group. Before they could feed us with more food, we retired to the van. For a while I refused to get out of the van on account of the foul weather, cleaning my teeth my putting my head out of the window. But eventually nature called and I legged it to the loo and back. Even though the amenities block was less than 20 meters away, I still managing to get absolutely drenched. I went to sleep hoping, wishing and praying that tomorrow we wouldn’t wake up to rain drops.

Naturally waking up at 7am, the first thing I notice was the silence…halleluiah it wasn’t raining! We both looked at each other and without speaking raced to get dressed to head out and actually do some sightseeing. We were walking out of our campsite and towards Katoomba Falls by 7.30am, picking up the Prince Henry Cliff Trail which wraps itself along the mountain side with views of the Blue Mountains and the valley below culminating at the 3 Sisters rock formation at Echo Point. We were so excited to be outside doing something we almost skipped along the trail. But we soon came to an obstacle- “Path closed due to recent bush fire activity”. We weighed up our options- turn back and go along the boring road with no views or push back the very flimsy gate, think blow it and proceed. We went with the later option and continued to enjoyed the spectacular view as we made our way to Echo Point. We were going along quite happily when we turned a corner and faced our “ah, this is what they were talking about” moment. A whole staircase of wood obliterated into charcoal! We clambered along and quickened up the pace in the fear of getting caught! Eventually we came to Queen Elizabeth Lookout and bent around the sister “closed path sign” and we were back on the path of legitimate walking! As we approached Echo Point we got our first sight of the rock formation called the 3 Sisters. Hedd was so chuft if was seeing them as he had convinced himself he would be confined to the camper until we got to Sydney. I had again some deja vu moments as I stood taking very similar photographs to the ones I took back in 2004 but I still took them! So the legend of the 3 Sisters goes that 3 beautiful sisters from the Gundungurra people were in love with 3 brothers from the neighbouring nation of Dhuarruk people, but marriage was forbidden by tribal law. The brothers were warriors and decided to take the maidens by force. Tribal war forced the Kuradjuri (clever man) of the Gundungurra people to turn the sisters into stone. He intended to restore them after the danger had passed but he was unfortunately killed in the battle and to this day nobody has been able to break the spell and turn the 3 sisters back to their natural form. Hmmm not such a clever plan after all! We then walked further along the track and down part of the Giant Staircase until we hit another ‘danger do not pass’ sign. We decided not to push our luck and turned back towards our camp site really pleased we’d had the break in weather to see the key sights in the Blue Mountains. After a well deserved breakfast and showers we headed out again but this time in our camper to drive Cliff Drive, culminating at Sublime Point, and stopping off at all the various lookouts on the way. As we checked out Honeymoon lookout, Kiah lookout, Leura Falls, Gordon Falls lookout and eventually getting to Sublime Point lookout we had seen the Blue Mountains in the now clear, cloud free weather from many different perspectives and, as the sun started to shine, saw why they were called ‘Blue’ Mountains. A blue haze appeared before our eyes in the valley as the sun hit the oily atmosphere created by the eucalyptus trees, gets scattered with only the blue being absorbed by the canopy giving its blue appearance. An optical phenomenon called ‘Rayleigh Scattering’. As we made the walk back to our camper from Sublime Point Lookout the spits of rain began once again and we smiled at our timing. Arriving back at the campsite we resume our hermit lifestyle as the rain lashed down on us once more. We were just pleased we had got our morning of sightseeing and whiled away the afternoon playing cards and listening to music. As it was St Davids Day we celebrated with a dinner of Lamb Burgers!

So the 2nd March marked our last day with the camper and we reflected upon what a vastly different 2 weeks we had had in terms of weather since picking it up in Melbourne, as we made our way past Penrith and Liverpool again and onto Sydney. Navigating ourselves into the big city wasn’t as bad as we had originally feared and we arrived at the Hippie Camper drop off by the airport our stress levels surprisingly low. We now just had to see that we got our bond refunded and hope they didn’t charge us anything for the chip in the windscreen. Hoorah everything was fine! As we waited for our taxi to take us to our first cheeky freebie place to stay, we wondered what mayhem would proceed that weekend when Royal Chester Rowing Club members regrouped and descended on the unaware Sydney suburb of Narrabean…

Highway 1 to Sydney and The Blue Mountains in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Cold, wet and miserable!
  • Food= Anything quick to cook in the rain (soup, salad, beans on toast)
  • Drink= Wine and plenty of it!
  • The area flooded in New South Wales= The size of France
  • Items thrown out due to saturation= Both our trekking sandals
  • Shouldn’t have done it but pleased we did moment= Walking along the closed, due to forest fire, Prince Henry Cliff Walk in Katoomba!

Hedd’s words of wisdom:

Rain, rain, rain…the heaviest rain in that region in 12 years! Great, well we could at least be grateful for two things. Firstly we were mainly traveling via the coast and were not in the areas effected worst by the flooding. Secondly, we were traveling in a camper van, and camper vans are so much better than a tent in the rain! Despite the rain, we still managed to have a great time and saw some cool things. Sometime you just have to make the most of a bad situation, which we certainly did. We went to all the places we were going to and although I’m sure that Jervis Bay and the Blue Mountains would have been so much more spectacular in the sun, we got to see them. We were even lucky enough to get 4 hours of no rain and no fog in the Blue Mountains, so glad we got up straight away and just went out to see what we could do. So there’s the lesson, when the weather is good make the most of it, and when it’s not make the most of that too!!


Our Last Leg in NZ- Mt Cook, Rangitata and Christchurch


Good bye New Zealand, you have done us well.

So time for our last stretch on the Stray Bus and our final driver called Salty. He greeted us in the early morning pick up with a lot of swearing and exclamations…we liked him instantly! We were heading to Mt Cook for the night (12th Feb), but we had the journey first… Our first coffee break was at a place called Cromwell- well-known for fruit-growing and wine making. We then drove along Lake Dunston- a man-made lake created to generate hydro-power and flooding the old Cromwell in the process. Then through the Lindis Pass to Omarama for a toilet stop. We then made our way through McKinsey Country known who its sheep farming – not for meat but for Mareno wool used for warm wooly sock, jumpers, scarves etc. Fetches quite a price out here. We then drove along side Lake Pukaki and stopped at Peters Lookout for a picture. The lake was a bright light powder blue colour due to being fed by the Tasman Glacier; all the rock flour refracting the light making it show as a gorgeous blue. Just a little more driving and then we had arrived at Mt Cook on a stunning clear blue sky afternoon. The ice capped mountains of the national park looked spectacular. We were so lucky with the weather! We arrived at 2pm, checked into our hostel- Mt Cook Backpackers- and got our walking shoes on, heading straight out to walk the Hooker Valley trail to the base of Hooker Glacier (4 hour return). We walked up to the Hermitage Hotel, post the DOC campsite, passed an Alpine Memorial, crossed 2 swing bridges, tracked a lively pebbly river and eventually arrived at our final destination- Terminal Lake at the bottom of the Hooker Glacier. The lake had icebergs floating in it which was a bit mad and the weather stayed glorious so we had a fantastic view of Mt Cook the whole way. It was a fantastic walk but definitely further than we expected and as we made our way back the promise of food (even if it was just pasta and sauce) kept us going back to the hostel at pace and straight to the kitchen to cook dinner!

The next day (13th), and after such a great afternoon in Mt Cook, we were thinking maybe we should have stayed one more night here, but as we got outside and saw the weather we pleased we kept with plan a. The weather was horrendous. Thick fog everywhere and no mountains to be seen. So it was back on the Stray bus to our final nights stop with the tour at Rangitata. The journey was pretty rain filled, but the weather did let up for our picture stop at Lake Tekapo- the highest lake above sea level in NZ according to Salty. We then traveled back through McKinsey Country with its rolling green hills and entered the western front of the Canterbury Plains. We stopped at a place called Fairlie to visit one of the top 3 bakeries in NZ and try their famous bacon and salmon pie- it was indeed prize worthy! We made a last stop at a town called Geraldine and then arrived at Rangitata Rafting Lodge in the middle of nowhere in the heavy rain mid afternoon! On account of the weather going for a walk was out of the question, so instead we got cosy in the common room in front of the wood burner and watched The Bucket List film with copious amounts of tea! The group whiled away the afternoon and early evening with a mini film marathon until it was time to cook our last group meal with Stray- T-Bone Steak, Salad and Roasties. The T-Bones were as big as our plate and the feta salad was divine and the crispy potatoes tasty…all for $10! I think Salty might have taken a bit of a hit on our behalf there me thinks, bless him. We celebrated our last night on the bus with some wine and plenty of games of Jenga, hitting the hay at 11pm in prep for our 6.30am start the next day.

Valentines Day 2012 and our last journey with Stray across the Canterbury Plains to Christchurch. It was a dark and rainy journey and felt very much like what I imagine the weather in the UK is like at this time of the year! Our coffee stop was at a place called Rakaia, after which we crossed a bridge which is the longest 2 lane bridge in NZ and that was the extent of the excitement of that journey! We arrived into Christchurch’s Antarctic Centre car park, by the airport, around 10am and hopped into a group super shuttle taxi which would take us into town. After the February 2011 earthquakes Stray don’t stop or even do into Christchurch City Centre. All the big backpackers were taken out by the earthquake as they were all in the old High street that is now condemned and the roads are still pretty bad so it would take too long for the bus to navigate itself around the place. So that was the first sign that we had that something major had happened in Christchurch’s recent history that the city was still contending with. We were staying with my Mum’s old work colleague and friend called Helen in Christchurch and needed to meet her at work, so we got dropped off at the Women’s hospital and found the Oral Health Clinic by walking through the hospital and down the escalater…all with our rucksacks and luggage! Bizarre experience! We found Helen in the dentists and was greeted by a bubbly warm lady who treated us like old friends and not 2 people who she’d just met and were squatting in her house for a couple of days! Her generosity showed no limits either when she produced her car keys and tom-tom and showed us to the vehicle which we could use for our time in Christchurch to see the city. Amazing amazing lady. Although when we let slip that we had never actually driven an automatic before or used a tom-tom, she spent a bit more time with us to make sure we knew the ropes thoroughly before letting us run free with her assets! We survived the journey back to The Thurlow family home in a suburb called Horby without too much trouble and called Helen at work to say us and the car were still in one piece! It was so lovely to have all the comforts of home and we took the opportunity to have a good sort out of our stuff after 3 weeks on the Stray Bus, getting some clothes washing done and figuring out what we could send home to lighten the load. We met Neil and Ben, Helen’s husband and son, who were just as lovely as Helen was. That evening we enjoyed a gorgeous home cooked hot-pot with mash and peas and enjoyed watching some telly on Neil’s MASSIVE telly….bliss!

The next day (15th) and time to sort out the matt of fibre on top of my head which should be my hair! AKA I got a haircut! Wash, cut, blow dry and she straightened it too…the most action by hair had seen in 3 months by far! Courtney the hair dresser did a fab job and it was nice to have a bit of day-to-day life pampering. Afterwards Hedd surprised me with a pedicure at a nearby salon as a Valentines present (lovely boyfriend), after which I almost looked like a resident and not a backpacker…the accent gave me away of course! We then headed to the flicks at Riccerton Westfield just outside Christchurch CBD to use the film vouchers Neil and Helen had kindly donated to us the evening before. We picked the film ‘A Few Best Men’ and went up to purchase the tickets thinking we would have to pay something, but no completely free! We couldn’t believe our luck and tip-toed away with our tickets like naughty children. The extent of Neil and Helen’s generosity has no end! It was an hour before our showing so we wandered around the shops to try to find outfits for the wedding we were going to in Sydney in March. And hark I found a beautiful powder blue dress in the sale at a shop called ‘Forever New’. I really couldn’t believe my luck that day- hair cut, feet pampering and a new dress! Needless to say I had a big beaming smile over my face for the entire day! That evening Helen and Neil invited some of their friends over to meet us and we had dinner and drinks and chatted away the evening in the garden. All expats- a family from Leeds and a lady from Texas- and all as lovely as the Thurlows. Chat soon got around to the 2011 Earthquakes with talk about families still living in condemned accommodation and those that have moved out having to secure their homes from squatters and prostitutes who have lost their usual haunts in the CBD and now heading out into the suburbs. Also the how way of claiming insurance from the state as well as privately sounds horrendous. And the city is still getting aftershocks so the dilemma continues. But there is still a great feeling of resilience amongst the city too which is good to see, the recovery just sounds like its taking a while. But the Christchurch earthquake was the 2nd biggest humanitarian loss in NZ’s history so it was a big deal and easy to see why it’s still forefront in residents consciousness. I felt pretty lucky to have grown up in the UK where we don’t have such natural disasters.

Early start today (16th) as I had a ‘skype date’ with Mum and Dad and then it was up and out to spend some time exploring Christchurch city. We headed to the Avon River and to Cambridge Terrace (the opposite side was Oxford Terrace- a hark back to the opposing rowing towns perhaps?!) where we enjoyed a punt down the river which took us along the cities Botanical Gardens. It was all very quant and romantic, although not terribly Kiwi authentic as the guys were all English and dressed up in the Victorian British get up with straw hats and strippy trousers. But ah well it was good fun anyway! We then headed into where the High street used to be but that is all cornered off now. But in its place the city have created a mall called ‘Re-Start’ which is all made out of shipping containers. Either single story or stacked, each container holds a shop with one side cut out and replaced with glass. It was fantastic! We had a wander around and sat outside and had lunch before heading back out-of-town and into the suburbs to complete some errands. We posted some stuff home to lighten our bags for our flight to Oz the next day and we found Hedd some trousers and shirt for the wedding at a Discount Outlet called Dress Smart. Then we picked up the food supplies to needed to cook the Thurlow’s and Thank you and Farewell meal that evening. The Baked Spanish Risotto we made went down very well, as did the chocolates we bought for dessert. There was only time left to check out their massive TV once again to watch Monsters vs Aliens animated film in 3D. It was a bizarre experience sitting on the sofa with 3D glasses on watching a 3D film. But very cool that technology had advanced so much that it now allows such things. I had to remind Hedd though that it would be quite some time before we could afford such things. Men and gadgets eh!

17th February and time to say goodbye to New Zealand and head onto Australia. Really great country and one that I think we will probably visit again in the future. Thanks again Helen, Neil and Ben for making our last couple of days in the country so fabulous.

Mt Cook, Rangitata and Christchurch:

  • Weather= A real mix of sun and rain, but unfortunately more of the latter
  • Food= Steak and yummy home cooking by the Thurlow’s
  • Drink= Speights Apple Cider courtesy of Neil
  • Best day= Being pampered in Christchurch
  • Would have like to seen= The Tasman Glacier at Mt Cook (top tip- hire a bike to cycle from the village if you have time)
  • Community Resilience in action= Christchurch residents after being battered, and continuing to be, by Mother Nature


Hedd’s words of wisdom:

There’s nothing like a bit of friendly Christchurch hospitality, albeit from some ex-pats. We had a really great time with Helen, Neil and Ben and are so grateful to them for their hospitality and for making us feel so at home. They went above and beyond to make our stay in Christchurch as easy as possible – lending us their car was such a nice gesture. We didn’t see too much of the damage that the city had suffered, although the pop-up mall was interesting and it was good to see the city ‘adopting a life must go on’ attitude. However we did hear a number of stories from Helen, Neil and some of their friends of how people had suffered and are still suffering as a result of the earthquake, which was quite moving. We didn’t experience any aftershocks while there and I hope the city gets plenty of time to recover, rebuilt and future-proof before they experience anything else near the events of the past 12 months.


The Southern Loop- Stewart Island and Milford Sound


 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


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!