Tag Archives: Wine

Durban to Jo’burg- Kwazulu-Natal and Lesotho

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Getting to see Lesotho, what a treat!

26th March: So today we went on our ‘Face to Face Zulu Village Tour’ with Tekwenie Eco Tours. The only ones to book that day, we got a personal tour which was a bonus. We headed off East away from Durban and into Zululand, stopping off at a supermarket on the way to pick up some treats for the children of the family we were visiting. Although I think the football we bought them Hedd secretly was plotting to keep, he didn’t succeed- they were gifts after all! On the way to our first stop at a view-point overlooking the Valley of 1000 Hills, I taught Alfred, our guide, a new word- Torrential- after explaining our damp time in Port St John. He like it a lot and stopped the car to write the word down and its meaning and proceeded to practice saying it, slotting it into various sentences. It was funny and certainly passed the time, seeing us getting to the Valley of 1000 Hills in no time. It was a ‘wow’ view- a green expanse of little hills (although I think 1000 is a bit of an exaggeration!) peppered with little clusters of circular buildings, home to the Zulu people, and the big Inanda Dam filling the valley like a natural lake. We then headed to Emaphephetheni village in the Nanda area of Zululand and to a cluster of houses belonging to the Ncibilika family who would be our hosts for the day. Arriving at their home, first thing we noticed was their million dollar view of the dam. When we explained this to our guide Jason, the 19-year-old son, that in the UK you would pay hundreds of thousands for a house with such a water view he very seriously exclaimed that this was too much money to be charging. Quite right Jason, we agreed! All the families circular houses were painted light blue with grey tin roofs- the colour Jason told us was picked by his Mum without input from the men of the household. They just had to do the painting! This was not a staged village, the family weren’t in traditional clothes etc; we were seeing how the Zulu people lived today and how, and what, Zulu traditions still influenced the course of life here. So first up- Zulu engagement. Jason took us down to the dam and picked us reeds to plait our own engagement bands. Around 26 years old Zulu people marry and its the girl who initiates the engagement by plaiting a reed bracelet and tying it on the boys right wrist as an indication of her intentions. The boy then presents his wrist to his parents for permission to marry and to agree the ‘terms’ of the partnership to present to the girl’s family (e.g. the requirement of 2 cows, land etc) and then the deal is done. Jason tied our bands so I guess we’re all going to marry Jason! I said neither Hedd or I owned any land or cows so I don’t think it will work out! We then walked to Jason’s grandmother- the villages natural healer. We found her in her round house with mud floor- it cannot be concreted so she can connect sufficiently with the earth- with little holes in the tin roof which projected little circles of light like a disco ball around the space. It was quite atmospheric. The natural healer is chosen from birth and knows how cure all ailments. So it was worth a shot…Hedd explained his back problem and with Jason translating, the lady suggested ‘Umuttli’- a natural remedy made of water, plants and bark- 3 teaspoons 3 times a day. It came in a Smirnoff vodka bottle, looked like mud and cost 50RAN! Armed with Hedd’s miracle solution we thanked the natural healer and went on our way through the long grass. Lunch was a novelty; spinach, butternut squash, salsa with Uphuthu- crushed corn- a little like cuscous. All very lovely but alas no provision of cutlery so we ate it Zulu style with our hands! Both me and Hedd struggled to get the food from the plate and into our mouths, but apparently food is meant to taste better using your hand. It was indeed nice food but I think I’ll stick to my metal cutlery for the future! Just enough time to join in with the younger girls dancing to music provided by the elder sister banging coca cola bottle onto a plastic barrel. Surprisingly tuneful, we kicked our legs following the moves of the little ones. On account of his back, Hedd instead jogged on the spot kind of to the music which I can’t emphasise enough how hilarious it looked! On the way back to Durban Alfred our driver took us through Inanda township where Gandhi lived for years from 1893 and the place where he first voiced his notion of non-violent resistance in response to colonial racial inequality. Gandhi! I couldn’t believe it. Inanda has remained a symbol of political activism and social justice ever since, including during Apartheid, and is where Mandela cast his vote at the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994. Pretty cool. In celebration of Gandhi and in recognition of our new-found awareness of Durban as the home for the largest population of Indians outside India, we went for tea at an Indian that night!

27th March and another morning on the Baz Bus, taking us to our next destination- Amphitheatre Backpackers in the Northern Drakensberg. My goodness what a lovely part of the world, mountains and meadows everywhere! Our backpackers was great apart from the massive deposit regime they ran for everything. So after leaving a hefty deposit to borrow a laminated piece of paper with a printed map on it, we set off for a beautiful walk through the acres of maize fields dotted with gorgeous pink and white cosmos flowers and along the Mpande River. It was a gorgeous walk with light beams cutting through the clouds and shining down on the Drakensberg mountains and the valley below- wonderful! This hostel was in the middle of nowhere so they laid on dinner so we tucked into that, enjoyed the sun set and headed to bed semi-early in prep for our early start to Lesotho the next morning.

The 28th March and time for us to visit our 9th country- Lesotho. We were so excited waking up; a feeling only slightly dampened by the freezing cold shower- no hot water, nightmare! Off by 7.30am in the minibus for the 2 hour drive to the border, through the Monantsapas Pass (2,800 m). We got our exit stamp from South African Immigration and I was looking forward to getting my Lesotho entry stamp but as we descended through the pass and into Lesotho our guide informed us that the caravan which housed the Lesotho board control office had broken 2 months ago and the authorities hasn’t replaced is. So there we are, no official immigration into Lesotho! But my goodness, isn’t the country beautiful. Stunning mountains everywhere, valleys of maize fields with the pink and white cosmos flowers, sporadic clusters of circular houses with thatched roofs, roaming goats and cattle and beautiful light. With over 80% of the country lying above 1,800 metres, it is the highest country in the world and understandably its quite chilly. In response the local population wrap themselves with woolen blankets, as we do with coats and scarves, as they go about their business. Originally the Lesotho people were nomads but nowadays they keep in villages and we drove as far as Mafika-Lisiu village (that is also where the road ran out!) to visit the primary school. Sitting in the classroom our guide talk us through a bit of background about Lesotho; Sesotho is their language, Lesotho people are called Basetho… We also got to see the new extension which was funded by Amphitheatre Backpackers through some of the money we pay for the tour. That made us feel good and after hanging out with the kids for a while in the grassy playground, we set off on foot to explore more of the area. We bumped into the school principal along the way and she explained that the school is the lifeblood of the village. The children who attend are given lunch so at least they are definitely getting one meal each day and more and more they are supporting children to go to secondary school and college (it isn’t free in Lesotho). Health is still an issue with the doctor only coming once a month to this area; TB, aids, HIV, diabetes and high blood pressure still claim the lives of Lesotho people more than it should. We walked up and around one of the many hills in Lesotho for 1 1/2 hours and then stopped for our packed lunch at a great viewpoint overlooking the valley of rondavel hut villages and meadows and the back of what is known as the ‘Amphitheatre’ within the Drakensberg mountains. Gorgeous! Our guide explained more about the way of life here, namely farming is the order of the day. In the summer the shepherds take all the animals (goats, sheep, cows) up onto the mountain which have flat tops like Table Mountain in Cape Town, and the meadows in the valley are planted with crops. In the winter the animals are brought down into the valley again and they use the many natural caves at the bottom of the mountains to keep them in when it snows. And we walked past many of these caves with the dry stone walls built by the farmers across the entrances to act as pens as we descended the big hill. We also got to see some Bushman paintings on one of the cave sides depicting the eland (a type of antelope) which the Bushman thought to be sacred. We then continued down into the village again to find some home-brew beer to try. The Basetho operate a flag system for the selling of food, drink and services. White flag means beer, red= meat, green= vegetables and blue= medicine. If a family has any surplus of any of these to sell they raise the appropriate flag on a tall post outside their home so people far away can see it and walk to it to buy or trade. It’s a hark back to their nomad days really but still really clever as the Basetho still live really spread out. We spotted a white flag and walked to the hut to try some local brew. The corn beer came out in a large plastic canister and looked disgusting! It didn’t taste much better either- like fermented yeasty porridge with a sour and smokey aftertaste. Needless to say, even after my tiny sip I cringed at the taste of it! Back to the minibus and a quick ride to meet the Natural Healer- 1 of 3 for the area. We all crowded into his little rondavel round house and he explained that he didn’t choose to be a natural healer, the ancestors did by giving him the gift to see and communicate with them in order to heal people. He first knew he had the gift when he was at secondary school and got really ill and foresaw the death of 2 people in his village before it happened. He then got taken out of school and sent for training as a natural healer. He wears read as that was the colour he had on when he realised he had been given the gift. I asked if he liked being a natural healer, and he said he didn’t to begin with but now it is okay. Unbelievably this man is in his 40’s- I told him he doesn’t look over 30! There was just enough time then for us to drive to another Basotho family to try a traditional meal (ate with our fingers again!) and to the little local shop to buy some bottles of Maluti beer (only produced and sold in Lesotho) as gifts, before we made a dash for the border which closed at 4pm. Our guide shouted to the 4×4 accompanying us to race ahead and tell the border staff that we were on our way and we arrived at 4pm on the dot and was through it by 4.05pm….phew that was close! As we drove home, the most fabulous day was topped off with viewing a gorgeous sun set over the Sterkfontein Dam.

29th March and our last journey on the Baz Bus- hoorahhh! We lazed away the morning lying on the hostels large lawn in the sunshine with the hostels ancient scruffy looking dog until the Baz Bus came to pick us up at 1pm to take us to Johannesburg. It was a classic Baz Bus journey; the 3 hour journey took us 7 hours. We got into the city at 6.15pm but then had a whistle-stop tour of the cities hostels before eventually getting to the northern suburb that we were being dropped off at 8pm! Nightmare! Our first impressions of Jo’burg? A city of gates and armed response signs; this city had seen a lot of modern-day history! Our lovely hosts for our 2 nights in Jo’burg were my parents friends from Zambia- Pete and Lesie Hey, and they picked us up from outside the ‘Ritz Backpackers’ and whisked us off to their home in the northern suburb of Bryanton. The further north you go in Jo’burg the richer it gets and communities tend to be ‘boomed off’ with guards controlling who goes in and out of the estate and individual houses behind big gates. Bryanton was no different and the Hey’s house was lovely. Set in a 1 acre plot, you forgot you were in a city. Leslie had made us a traditional SA dish of Bobotie- a dish of mince, bread, egg, spices with rice; it was delicious. All washed down with a selection of SA wine from Pete’s under the stairs wine cellar called ‘The Cave’. It was fabulous! Conversation was beautifully easy as we retired to the lounge with yet more wine, before retiring to bed. We felt so lucky to be yet again looked after by such generous hosts. The next day, and Leslie very kindly had taken some time out of work to act as tour guide. So 9am we were out the door and embarking ‘Leslie’s Tours’ around Jo’burg. We were indebted to her as Jo’burg is enormous and difficult to navigate around without a car. First stop- the Apartheid Museum (R55 entry), and straight away you were given the experience of segregation; issued with a ‘white’ or ‘non white ticket’ you had to enter the museum in the appropriate door. Straight away you got the feeling of lack of choice and that somehow, on whatever side you were on, you were missing out on something. Great way to start and the museum continued in that quality of engagement, with tons of photos and videos which made the whole thing quite interactive. What I loved also was that it was Leslie’s first time visiting the museum too, so we all enjoyed browsing the exhibits together and interesting hearing Leslie’s reaction to it all as she had lived through it as a South African. It was the first time since arriving in SA that I understood the ‘why’s’ of apartheid. It roots start in the colonial years where the whole notion of ‘otherness’ and oppression of the natives within South Africa began. After the British retreated, the Afrikans took over the baton of oppression, believing ‘one race for one homeland’ and the Afrikaan leader and cabinet truly believed that the ‘one race’ for SA was white. And hence came the years of race classification and the 150 acts of Apartheid where the segregation of races was the cornerstone. The years of detention of people just because of their political beliefs, such as Mandela. The years of militant nationalism where many people were killed, battered and hung. The years of uprising from non whites, as well as whites, disgusted with Apartheid, who’s aim was to make the country unmanageable for the Apartheid government so the government would have to concede to regain order. All culminating in Mandela’s release after 27 years, peace negotiations, and the 1994 democratic elections and the appointment of Mandela as president. So there we are, a horribly simplified, but useful chronology (I think) of events. It will be heartbreaking to watch South Africa’s reaction when Mandela dies, he’s in his 90’s, and he is so entwined in all of South African’s consciousness; they will be so sad. All in all it took us 3 hours to walk around the museum. I think you could have been there longer but it was a bit overwhelming so 3 hours was about our limit! We then headed across town towards Rosebank to wander around Rosebank African Arts and Crafts market for a spot of souvenir shopping and our stop for lunch. It was then back in the car to try to get to the Cradle of Humankind in North Gauteng, 40 minutes out of the city. But alas traffic got in our way and realising we wouldn’t make it for last entry we headed back home, patting Leslie on the back for such a great day. Tonight was our last night with Pete and Leslie and they put on a traditional South African ‘Braai’ (BBQ) for us. We all sat on the ‘stoep’ (covered patio) chatting, eating and drinking Pete’s lovely wine for the whole evening. The evening was topped off with watching an electric lightning storm in the distance before we all retired to bed. A great evening!

The last day of March and also our last few hours in South Africa before flying to our last port of call for this amazing round the world trip, Zambia. All feeling slighting fragile from last nights exploits, we said goodbye and thank you to Leslie and Pete drove us heroically with a hangover to the airport. Apparently we had sunk 5 bottles last night and I’m sure I was responsible for 2 of them! Saying goodbye to Pete, we rushed around the airport exchanging money, checking in (which in itself took 45 mins) and only just made it to our gate on time. Stressful enough as it is, without having to comprehend such things with a hangover! Needless to say we were relieved to eventually be settled on the plane. And I was so excited and content to be heading off to Zambia- a country I called home for the first year of my life and a country so close to my family’s heart.

Durban to Jo’burg in a snapshot:

    • Weather= A baking 36 degrees in Durban, chilly in high up Lesotho, overcast in urban Job’burg
    • Food= Anything traditional- from Uphuthu (crushed corn) ate with our fingers in Zululand to a South African ‘Braai’ at the Heys
    • Drink= Hedd’s special Zulu juice (yuk!)
    • Real life moment= spending the day in Zululand with Jason and the Ncibilika family
    • Good to see before its infrastructure is improved and hefty tourism changes it= Lesotho
    • Number of embarrassing stories gleaned from Pete Hey about my Dad= None that, scarily, I didn’t already know!

Hedd’s words of wisdom:

In Durban we got a taste of modern Zulu life, away from the costumes and all the fanfare that other tours offer. We saw how they lived today, we ate with them and I even purchased some traditional medicine for my back! It was horrible, looked like mud and it didn’t work. But it didn’t do me any harm, probably gave me a thorough detox!! Finally in Jo’burg we got to visit the Apartheid museum which is a must for anyone visiting South Africa. You will know from our Cape Town blog that I hated the whole Robben Island experience as it was rushed, touristy and not very informative. Visiting the Apartheid museum was the opposite, so much information, presented in so many different ways, we spend 2.5 hours walking around, but you would have needed double that time to read and watch everything. For us it was the perfect way to end our trip in South Africa as we finally got to know the whole story of apartheid, how it impacted on everyday life and how it came to an end.

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Queenstown- Routeburn and the Rest

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A toast to Queenstown’s magnetism and Routeburn’s Beauty…cheers!

After an early 6am start on the bus and stops along the way, including the mirrored Lake Matheson, Thunder Creek waterfall and the Blue Pools, we arrived in Queenstown late afternoon on the 31st January. It was our last day with Whales so we planned a big night out with him to say thanks, meeting at the famous Ferg Burger for dinner and then onto the bars. Now a bit about Ferg Burger- it was started by a local back in the day as a bakery to begin with as he felt you could never get good bread. Then he went onto gourmet burgers and its reputation is now global. Open 22 hours a day, 7 days a week and almost always packed with locals and travellers alike. And these burgers were big! As you can see from the pic and just as lovely as the reviews say they are. Then it was the big night out (haven’t had one of those in a while!) and we both enjoyed the 2 for 1 wristbands Stray got us. Plus there was a dance floor which I pretty much stayed on for most of the night!

Next day we just chilled and explored Queenstown. So a bit about Queenstown…it’s titled the adventure capital of NZ; hot in summer, freezing in winter- 2 ski fields really close by; it has a resident population of 20,000 people but a huge transient traveller population which doubles that figure and then some; its by a lake and surrounded by mountains. Hedd and I fell in love with it! So the 1st Feb was Hedd and I’s 18 months anniversary (awww) so we went out for lunch as a treat, walked the lakeside, and booked some crazy adventure stuff for us to do over our time here. Next day was bungy day and the day after was Hedd’s skydive- check out the blog post ‘Queenstown- the Adventurous Stuff’ for more about that. And after Hedd’s skydive it was time to get ready for our 2 night, 3 day tramp along the Routeburn Track the next day.

The Routeburn Tramp- 4th – 6th February

Day One

  • Distance= 8.8 km
  • Time= 4 1/2 hours
  • Scenery= Forest and Plains

We got picked up by the Tracknet bus at 8am to take us to the start point of the Routeburn track at the Routeburn Shelter in Mt Aspiring National Park. At 10am, from 600 m above sea level, we started making our way up through beech forest where we saw NZ’s smallest bird (like a tiny fat robin) called the Rifleman; along the Sugarloaf and Bridel Veil streams of gorgeous powder blue colour; and over lots of cool swing bridges. Walking with full packs was a a bit of a shock but we figured they could only get lighter as we ate more of our food supplies as the days went on (we forgot we still had to carry all our rubbish with us though!). We stopped for lunch at the first hut along the track called the Routeburn Flats Hut, where the warden called Liz was just finishing up cleaning after the overnight trampers. Oh a bit of context needed…The Routeburn is  one of the Department of Conservation’s ‘Great Walks’, which means that the track enjoys a higher standard of track maintenance and hut facilities. Each hut along the Great Walks tracks has a warden who works 8 days on, 6 days off (they walk in) and is responsible for maintaining the hut and the track that surrounds it. The huts along the Routeburn have gas, running water, flushing toilets and bunk beds. Luxury! So after the Flats hut, we walked over more swing bridges through more beech forest and got some ace views of the valley where a recent land slip had taken the trees down at the side of the path. We arrived at Routeburn Falls Hut at 2.30pm, claimed two beds and then boiled some water for a nice cup of tea with powdered milk (yuk!). The hut was in a fab location and had a big veranda overlooking the valley and a small waterfall behind it. We cooked up filled pasta and sauce for tea and ate from the pan. We met our warden called Keith at ‘Hut Talk’ at 7.30pm and he talked us through hut safety, etiquette etc; which all seemed pretty pointless as we’d been here since 2.30pm and had used all the facilities and were just about to go to bed! And that’s just what we did.

Day Two

  • Distance= 11.3 km
  • Time= 6 1/2 hours
  • Scenery= Stunning snow-capped mountains and alpine lakes

After a surprisingly good nights sleep, considering we were sharing the room with 26 other people, a cuppa and a cereal bar, we were ready for day 2- our longest day and steepest incline for walking. We set off at 8am for the steady climb up the Harris Saddle. It was tough going but we hardly felt our packs or the ache in our legs because our minds were captivated by the landscape and views that surrounded us. Behind us as we climbed was the Routeburn Valley, Lake Harris came into view on our right and the snow topped Darran Mountains were to the front of us. It really was spectacular and bathed in the morning light too- magnificent! We did the climb at good pace too, getting to the top and the highest point of the Routeburn track (1255 m) within 1 1/5 hours. However as we got to the Harris Saddle Shelter the fog set in, with the wind blowing moments of clarity and disguise with the fog in equal measure. We could see the top of the mountain behind the shelter so we dumped our bags in the shelter and decided to do the side trip up Conical Hill, hoping the fog would clear some more by the time we got to the top. It was a tough old climb/ scramble up a very steep side for 45 minutes, the majority of which we were walking through fog and thought ourselves bonkers! But then we reached the top and the sky was blue, sun was out and the views were spectacular. From the top we had a superb view of the Hollyford Valley through to Martins Bay at the coast and the Tasman Sea. It was fantastic. After 30 mins or so we made the scrabble/slide back down to the Shelter again, had some lunch, retrieved our bags and continues the walk towards Lake MacKenzie Hut where we were staying that night. We were now in Fiordland National Park and the track seemed to go on forever now and after the excitement of the Harris Saddle and Conical Hill, a rocky path slowly going downhill was a bt boring! But we kept on spying the view along Hollyford Valley to the Sea which was lovely and eventually we got our first sight of Lake MacKenzie. It looked so close but we soon realised we had a way to go as we zigzagged back and forth down the slope to get to it. The last bit of the walk was through bush land- moss-covered trees and leafy paths. Looked all very mystical and Hedd and I had a few Lord of the Rings moments! Eventually we caught sight of our hut, arriving again at 2.30pm. Lake MacKenzie was pretty but not as spectacular as Lake Harris but we got to paddle in this one which was fun but freezing! After a relax we went off to explore more of the lake and went to a place called Split Rock which was exactly that a Split Rock. And then came back to the hut and chatted to our group of tramp buddies who we had shared the bus with by the lake. We sat and had dinner with them too (filled pasta and sauce again!), and waited for our Hut Talk with our warden. This one was called Clive and this was his 17th season as Lake MacKenzie Hut Warden and he was a complete nutter! He went on for 1 1/2 hours telling stories that didn’t really make sense. He finally let us go to bed at 9.15pm with a cryptic warning about possums. But I was too tired to work it out so just went to sleep and hoped not to need to go to the loo in the night!

Day Three

  •  Distance= 12 km
  • Time= 5 1/2 hours
  • Scenery= Forest and alpine wetland

Our last day of the tramp and we were up and out on the track by 8am again. We crossed a small flat before climbing steeply to the bush line over steps of tree roots and rock. And I thought it was all downhill today! Where the trees parted a little we were afforded with a view of the Hollyford Valley out to the Tasman sea with a mystical hanging of mist that gave it a very different character to the same view we saw yesterday. It was quite beautiful. We passed an area called the Orchard which is a natural clearing enclosing Ribbonwoods resembling fruit trees, and then we hit Earland Falls. Wow that’s a big waterfall! 174 m and the path took you right up close to it. You soon felt wet from the spray but it did a perfect job of cooling us down. We then made the gradual descent to Lake Howden Hut- our lunch stop. I took of my shoes and padded about in my socks enjoying the sunshine at the hut. Although th sandflies were out and causing their usual annoyance! As we were there 2 boys walked past with the hind legs of a deer around their necks. They had obviously gone hunting and this was some sort of hunting trophy display- they certainly looked pleased with themselves but I thought it just looked grotesque. After being put off having anymore food, we set off again up hill towards the Key Summit Track turn off. We dumped our bags by the sign and took our remaining lunch to have at the top. A steep zig zag path up through the bush-line took us to the alpine wetland where you get a view of 3 major river systems. There was a 30 minute nature walk around the top, so we took the information card and wandered around finding the various pegs to read about. We had our sandwiches at the view-point overlooking Lake Marian. We had great views of the Darran Mts and Hollyford Valley. But really nothing that we hadn’t seen before on Day 2 so we completed the nature trail and headed back down to the main track. Last little bit now- down hill through Silver Beech forest. The sound of the Milford Highway was getting louder and we arrived at the Divide Shelter- the end point of the track and the lowest crossing point of the Southern Alps- at 1.42pm. I know the precise time as Craig one of our friends from the bus was clocking everyone in in his diary! We bantered with the group (5 from California and 2 from Stockport) until the bus came at 3.15pm to pick us up. It was a 3 1/2 hour haul back to Queenstown (I slept most of the way!) and we arrived at 7.45pm, just enough time to get a shower and a celebratory Ferg Burger and cider before crashing into bed. Phew we had done it!

So back in the adventure capital of NZ and on the 7th Hedd did some white water rafting and the next day we both did Mad Dog River Boarding (check out the blog post titled ‘Queenstown- the adventurous stuff for more on that). For our last afternoon in Queenstown we found 1/2 price wine tasting on a website bookme.co.nz. The place was called Wine Tastes and you can taste over 80 NZ wines. You get a card which is loaded with money and you can pick any of the wine to have a taste, 1/2 glass or full glass of. It’s really quite clever. So we got there at 3pm and left at 4pm after trying 8 different wines and enjoying a 1/2 glass of our favourites. We found they had a free tasting session of 6 wines at 5pm so we hopped home for a piece of toast and then was back to try them! Cheapest drinking session we’ve had in NZ and a good way to say bye to our extended stay in the captivating township of Queenstown.

Queenstown and Routeburn in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Queenstown on the whole sunny; Routeburn a mix of sun and cloud
  • Food= the mighty Ferg Burger!
  • Drink= Milo on the Routeburn and Wine in Queenstown
  • Definitely check out= http://www.bookme.co.nz to save some money on Queenstown’s (expensive) activities
  • Definitely on the Routeburn you should= walk Conical Hill and slap on ‘Goodbye Sandfly’ lotion whenever you stop!

Hedd’s words of wisdom:

At the end of Day 1, the ranger told us there would be no point going up Conical Hill if it was foggy and not to bother if we couldn’t see the top. Now you should probably listen to the rangers 99% of the time, but I’m glad we didn’t. When we started our side trip up Conical Hill, the fog didn’t look that bad, but we couldn’t see the top , however I was convinced it would clear by the time we got to the top. I was still convinced half way up when we could only see a few yards in front of us and one old lady turned around complaining that it wasn’t worth it as she couldn’t see anything. But we perservered and got our reward. When we got near the top, the fog started to clear and we could start to see the mountains and sky again, but nothing prepared us for the sight ahead. Over the last few rocks, we emerged on the top of the hill and stared in amazement at the snow-capped mountains right in front of us, the valleys to the left and the Tasman sea far off to the right. This was the highlight of the three-day tramp for me, it was stunning and it we would have never seen it had we listened to the ranger…

New Zealand North Island Road Trip- Hawkes Bay and Lake Taupo

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“The journey is the destination”

So the next day (14th) it was onto Route 5 from Rotorua all the way down to Napier on the Hawkes Bay coastline. The approach to Napier is all through industrial estates which doesn’t do the place justice. It has a nice promenade and the main high street is all art deco buildings. It felt too big for us to camp in so we drove onto Hastings, after having lunch by the sea. Hastings was deserted! We popped into the i-site to enquire about accommodation and wine tours and she told us everyone was at an annual ‘Blues, Brews and BBQs’ festival just out of town. So that explained it, but it still felt eery and empty town centre on a Saturday. The festival also meant everywhere was booked up. But we managed to get a pitch at a lovely campsite in Havelock North called Arataki Holiday Park. It was amongst farmland, was quiet, really sunny with a pool and crazy golf! After pitching our tent we headed straight for the pool…was nice to be swimming again after doing it everyday in Fiji.

The next day was wine tour time. We got picked up by Janine from A1Tours at 10.30 in her air con people carrier, which was a relief as it was a scorcher of a day, and took us to our first winery called the Mission in Taradale. It was a lovely spot- tree-lined drive way to a grand manor house overlooking fields of vines. The house we discovered used to be by the river in the valley, but it kept on getting flooded. So back in the day, the owners cut the house in half and transported it using a steam-powered vehicle up the hill, fixing it back together and here it still stands. The house was made of wood, not brick, obviously! They also have an open air concert at the Mission every year in February which attracts people like Rob Stewart and Lulu to perform. It sounds awesome, so if you’re in Hawkes Bay in February go see it! So to the wines! We tried 3 whites and 3 reds and 1 champagne. The champagne was my favourite…naturally! After taking a sneaky peak at the old chapel which was all laid out for a wedding reception (it looked lovely!) and walking the grounds, it was back in the car to our next winery called Church Road, still in Taradale. This was a smaller winery and as soon as we got in we were ushered over to the receptionist computer to read about the crashed cruise liner in Italy. After gorping at the crazy pictures and muttering how stupid the captain was, we tried some more wine! We tried 3 Chardonnay’s and 3 reds. Wow the Chardonnay’s were good- none of the overly oaky, yellow stuff that you get at home. These were smooth and creamy and yum! Why do importers stock such crap Chardonnay’s in the UK?!? We purchased one bottle from there, but this paled into insignificance compared to another couple who were buying boxes of wine plus a couple of Champagne Magnums thrown in for good measure! That got me and Janine gossiping about the circumstance and reason all the way to her parents B&B (who own the wine tour business) for lunch. We had made sandwiches which we ate in their garden, but the mum brought out cold drinks and various cakes for us too, which were lovely and made us felt looked after!

After lunch we were joined by 2 others- a mature Scottish couple who raced yachts and had plenty of funny stories to tell! We all laughed our way to the next winery called Moana Park. It was a vegetarian winery, so no meat or fish products go into the making of the wine. I was amazed what wineries put in their wine to ‘bulk’ up the grapes- yuk! Better not to know the ins and outs I say! Here I got to taste a rose. But they don’t call it Rose, they called it ‘Vin Gris’…it was Rose and nice all the same! We then headed to the Salvare Estate which is one of the wineries in the Ngatarawa Triangle. Now this winery was really lovely, surrounded by vines. We tried whites that just slid effortlessly down your throat, fruity reds and another Rose (yey!) and to end an iced wine that they called a Frappe Vino which was to die for! After a refueling (stomach lining) cheese board we were off again to another winery in the Gimblett Gravell area of Hawkes Bay. Oh a bit of explanation on Gimblett Gravell…it was waste land essentially, the old river basin with soil which was mostly gravel. But a guy chanced it and started growing vines on the land. Turned out it was ace grape growing soil as the stones in the soil warm up in the day and stay warm over night so the growing continues for longer each day, producing bigger and juicier grapes! And we ended the day with an ace winery called Vidal back near Hastings. The manager earlier in the day had been hosting some GB importers so there were loads of ‘yet to be released’ wines on the tasting table as well as the usual ones. We must have tried 12 wines there and the server Sam was really good fun too. Hedd bought 2 bottles of Riesling- one to keep and one to give to Ceri and Pork who we were staying with at Whangamomona. So the day ended at 5.30pm and we got dropped back at our campsite. We managed to heat up some tea and play a round of crazy golf (I lost terribly) before falling into our tent ready for bed!

Next morning (16th) we were up and out of the campsite by 10am. Stopped off in Hastings to buy Hedd his 3rd pair of sunglasses of the trip (this time we bought him a strap for around his head so fingers crossed it will be harder for him to lose!) Then headed back up route 5 into central north island  to Taupo. After trying a few places which were full, we ended up at All Seasons Holiday Park where we went about pitching our tent. But alas both our main poles snapped at a crucial join in the centre of the tent. We were kind of expecting this as the join was showing stress fractures early on in the trip but we hoped they wouldn’t actually snap! We taped them up the best we could and erected the tent anyway. It didn’t look too bad…just instead of a curve at the top, there was point! Hedd got pretty angry, but I rang the company up straight away to explain what happened and that it wasn’t because of us being rough and ready with it. So we will see what the owner called Jackie says…

That afternoon we went exploring the Taupo area. Taupo is famous for its massive lake, good weather and views of the Tongariro volcano and we went to a really good viewpoint off Huka Falls Road which has info boards telling you the Maori story of the mountain range which forms the backdrop to the lake. It goes something like this….Mt Pihanga was a woman and the surrounding mountains all fought for the love of this woman. There were many wars, but in the end Mt Tongariro won. And that is why the mountains are all placed where they are…all posturing towards Mt Pihanga! We then headed to a place called Craters of the Moon which was a 45 minute Geothermal Walk ($6). The walk took us through geothermal land of seething earth, hissing fumaroles and steaming craters. It was a nice walk in the sun but we weren’t over-owed by it. But its history is quite interesting. Craters of the Moon isn’t an old geological landscape, in fact the thermal area sprang up in the 1950’s when near by power station withdrew hot water from deep within the field, causing the water level in the deep reservoir to drop and the remaining water to boil more violently, producing more steam. Large quantities of this steam were able to escape at the Craters of the Moon….so just another classic way human’s have impacted on the environment in pursuit for energy! The craters still erupt from time to time…the last one being in 2002, so this potential danger contributed to the experience…and perhaps made us walk a bit faster around!

We then ended the day with a visit to Huka Falls which is a super blue waterfall. The falls are a 100 meter basalt crevice channeling the Waikato River into a frothing aquamarine frenzy before spilling the torrent over a 15 m ledge into a bubbling pool. It is a really cool sight- the water looks thunderous but as you look at the water dropping you can see sun beams in the spray coming off the crashing water which is really pretty. Plus this sight was free- yey! The next morning we packed up the tent and headed to Taupo Bungy to try out their Cliffhanger bungy swing. But alas Hedd wasn’t allowed to do it because of his back. Determined still to do something adventurous, Hedd has found a thing called the ‘Flying Fox’ down near Tongariro so will check that out instead. Onwards and upwards….

Hawkes Bay and Lake Taupo in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Hot and sunny- yey!
  • Food= Soup/ beans on toast etc and Hokey Pokey ice cream (vanilla ice cream with honeycombed pieces)- another Kiwi cuisine speciality ticked off…yum!
  • Drink= Rose Wine from Salvare Winery
  • Number of swear words used when the tent broke= Lost count!

Hedd’s words of wisdom:

To rent or to buy, that was our dilemma in Auckland. We decided to rent, so that we would get high quality camping equipment. This was the sensible option as the weather forecast was bad. Well it was definitely the wrong option as our tent poles, which had been showing stress fractures and cracks early on decided to snap. Add to that the fact that we didn’t even use the stove we rented as all the places we stayed had kitchen facilities, then it would have been so much easier and cheaper to buy what we needed. If the broke we could have thrown them away at the end, instead we are now trying to get some compensation back from the rental company…i’ll let you know how that goes!!!

We did however have a great time in Hawkes Bay on a fairly private wine tour, just the two of us in the morning and then just us and a Scottish couple in the afternoon!! Four brits drinking wine in the southern hemisphere heat, recipe for disaster, but we managed to behave ourselves. Mind you my head was a bit fuzzy after 6 wineries and multiple tastings!! I even managed to buy a bottle of Dry Riesling at the last winery. The best wine I ever tried was a Dry Riesling from New Zealand at a wine tasting in London, I don’t remember what it was called and am on a mission to find it here, or find something better. This wasn’t quite as good but was close. The search goes on….

Travelling North- Bariloche and Mendoza

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Mountains, lakes and wineries…not a bad combination!

So there were two choices 1: to cross into Chile from Esquel and then travel north through Chile or 2: to stay in Argentina and travel north through the lake district and onwards. We chose option 2 for a multitude of reasons but main ones being the road networks are better in Argentina, Chile is the 2nd most expensive country in S. America after Mexico so best not to arrive too early, and, perhaps most influential, we would pass through Mendoza which has great wineries and opportunities for numerous tastings!

So just 5 hours on the bus and we arrived in Bariloche on Monday at lunch time. For bus entertainment, it was a film with Ashton Kutcher in it this time called ‘Killers’- a mix between Mr and Mrs Smith and Hot Fuzz! It passed the time none the less! The bus terminal in Bariloche is right on the edge of town, around 15 minute bus journey from the centre. So if you know when you are gonna leave and to where, it’s a good idea to buy your onward bus ticket whilst your there. To get into central Bariloche it’s really simple, bus numbers 10, 20, 21 or 22 all go into Centro Civico and cost 6 pesos.

Well what to say about Bariloche. It´s known as the capital of the Argentinean Lake District as it’s the biggest city in the area and is situated right on the banks of a MASSIVE lake called Lago Nahuel Huapi. You can see the Andes surrounding the lake and there is a really chilled out feel to the place. We stayed at a hostel called Achalay, just 2 blocks from Centro Civico. We were really impressed with it, and the owners Pabilo and Flora couldn’t do enough for you (including supplying homemade empanadas and pizza when we arrived-yum!).  The city has had a bit of a rough time recently and only just recovering from being covered in ash after Volcano Puyehue blew over in Chile in June. By the sounds Chile got off scot-free and the pacific wind blew all the ash clouds over into Argentina oops! After Bariloche got covered in thick ash, it rained for 5 days solid and turned all the ash in the street, roofs, drains, pipes into concrete. One of the roofs at our hostel collapsed with the weight! But the city looks great now and they only very occasionally just a light shower of ash when the wind is blowing right. Mother nature eh!

On Tuesday we walked up Cerro Otto and had an amazing view 1405 meter up of the lake and mountains. It’s the shortest walk you can do from Bariloche (2 hours there, 1 1/2 hours back). Hedd’s leg wasn’t great from the sciatica so we took it easy, but all these small treks are good prep for our 4 day Inca trek in Peru at the beginning of December. The views on the way up were brilliant. Lago Nahuel Huapi is so so big and has little islands within it. The pic above was taken from the panaramic point at the top- gorgeous! There was a refuge at the top too called Refuge Berghof which sold drinks and snacks and we chilled there, having lunch, reading our books and taking in the view. The refuge had loads of old expedition memorabilia inside- photos, journals and walking equipment. Looking at the maps I think there are a series of old refuges across this part of the Andes, together called ‘Club Andes’. The area is renowned for its climbing and you can walk or climb to all of them. The most famous being Refuge Frey- but that was a 6 hour hard trek up hill so we decided to give that a miss this time!

Whereas Trevelin and Gaiman had a heavy Welsh influence. Bariloche had a Swiss feel. There is a Swiss colony 30 mins East of the city on Lago P. Merono Este and you can see the influence quite heavily in the town of Bariloche- there are lots of restaurants selling Fondue and loads of chocolate shops with St Bernard dogs in the window! The scenery is quite Swiss looking so I can see why some of the Swiss immigrated over here back in the day. On Wednesday, our last day in Bariloche, we took a stroll around the town again and visited the Cathedral called San Carlos de Bariloche. Built in 1946, it had some impressive stone arches inside and great stained glass. Well worth a visit. After a bit more lazing about and a healthy lunch of ice cream (!) we boarded our next bus north- the 15.30 departure overnight bus to Mendoza.

So after 17 1/2 hours on the bus with no sound for the first 8 hours (its amazing how much you can get into films with no sound and just spanish subtitles!), we were quite relived to arrive at Mendoza bus terminal on Thursday morning. Although the last hour of the bus journey we were travelling through all the vine yards with the snowy Andes in the background which was quite spectacular. So Mendoza is a city- the biggest place we´ve visited since Buenos Aires- and like Bariloche, if you know when and where you are heading next, its worth getting your onward bus ticket whilst you’re at the terminal so you don´t have to trek back there during your stay (30 min walk from the central plaza). We got a taxi from the terminal to our hostel (17 pesos) but there are frequent buses too. We stayed at Hostel Empedrado who´s tag line is ´hostel and wine´and they didn´t let us down! You got a big free glass of red wine every night and the first night we were there they ran a free wine tasting which 1 red, 1 white and 1 dessert wine which went down very nicely. The receptionist Ana is fantastic, knows everything and speaks perfect english. The bathrooms are a bit tired and water temperature is temperamental but the positives about the place outweighed those negatives.

Thursday during the day we just explored the city and went to a little wine tasting at a vinerie (wine shop) called Sastre Burgos. Its 2 blocks up from the main plaza on Avenida Mitre. It cost 20 pesos and we tried around 10 different wines. Really good value for money, although it was a lot more red wine drinking than I´m used to! I got a bit home sick that afternoon as shops in Argentina are just starting to put out their Christmas displays in the windows and it got me to thinking about the lead up to Christmas which I absolutely love! But it’s not everyday that you´re travelling around the world so I have kept reminding myself of that. But at home you better be dusting off that tinsel for me and drinking my share of Mulled Wine! GB is a Christmas fairy short this year!

Yesterday we had the most fantastic day biking around the Maipu wine region and stopping off in the numerous wineries for tours and tastings. The weather was stunning and after 45 minutes on the local bus (line 10, number 173; cost 1.80 pesos), we arrived at Mr Hugo´s bike hire on Urquiza street in Maipu. This wife and husband run bike hire is great fun. They don´t speak a word of english but kept calling us chico´s (kids) and giving us cups of red wine! We eventually got 2 bikes  (30 pesos each for the day) and a map of the area and headed off, rather gingerly, to our first winery. Our first stop was Trapiche winery. It’s a big one but one with history and exports quite a lot to North America and all the countries in South America. We got there just in time for an english speaking tour with 2 other couples from Minnesota. Our guide was really knowledgeable but with a good sense of humour too and we got shown all the various stages of wine making, the grounds and then the tasting at the end. It cost 30 pesos and we got to taste 4 different high-class reds. We soon realised that the whole day will just be red wine and for non red wine drinkers this was quite daunting but we soon got over that and got stuck into the red. The Maipu region is renowned for their red wine called Malbec- a very powerful, smokey red- and we tried many Malbec´s throughout the day. The story goes that the Malbec grape originally came from France and the French called it ´Bad Mouth´as they thought it wasn´t very nice. An agricultural disease then spread across France, almost wiping out the Malbec grape. But some vines were exported to Argentina where the climate was perceived to be more favourable and so the grape wouldn´t be lost. And the Argentinians have loved it ever since. It goes very well with red meat, which Argentinians also eat a lot of, so I can see why they love it so much.

We then cycled 10 k south to a winery called Familia Di Tommas which was a complete contrast to Trapiche as it was small, family run and more artisan. It had a really homely feel and we got 20% off with our Mr Hugo bikes so only 16 pesos for this tour and tasting. This time we tried 3 reds and 1 dessert wine. The dessert wine was extremely sweet but a nice change after the reds! We had our picnic lunch within the vines and bought a bottle of white to take back with us. Next stop was Mevi winery which was different again as it is only 9 years old. We tried the young wines option which included a chardonnay (25 pesos) and relaxed on their sun terrace overlooking the vine yards and the Andes in the background. We were quite ´squiffy´by this point but surprisingly the cycling got easier the more you drank (!) which is a good thing as we then had the 10k cycle back to the start of the wineries to visit a chocolatiers, liquor and olive oil making place. I must have devoured half a basket of bread dipped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar before the guide could finish telling us about the produce! Plus the chocolate…it really hit the spot after a day on the wine! The liquors though, jee whizz, they were strong! I had an irish cream one which I couldn´t finish and then a pineapple one which wasn´t too bad.

The day ended back at Mr Hugo´s bike hire, with another complementary cup of wine! I can´t stress enough what a ´ledge´ (´legend´) Mr Hugo was. All the travellers who had hired his bikes that day head back to his place at 6pm when the wineries shut and then he holds a bit of a party with more wine and music. It was really good fun, and we met even more people from Minnesota! Then it was the number 173 bus back to Mendoza, 15 min walk to the hostel, more free wine, food and then major crash into bed! Great day!

So today is Saturday and we have to say bye to Mendoza. We headed to the cities big park called Parque Gral. San Martin and walked around the lake there. They have a water sports club on the lake and I saw a man single sculling in the lake- the first rowing I´ve seen this trip. He was in a really wide and old wooden single with wooden oars….maybe our kit at Royal Chester (my rowing club in the UK) isn´t so bad! We´re not only saying bye to Mendoza but also Argentina, our first country of 13 on this 5 1/2 month trip. Argentina is really a beautiful country and has treated us well.  But onwards we go into Chile on a 12  hour night bus to a seaside town called La Serena. Fingers crossed the border crossing won´t be too awkward!

Bariloche in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Hot, 24 degrees and clear blue sky’s
  • Food= Ice cream! A must is to go to Rapa Nui for ice cream, they sell it by weight and have amazing flavours (16 pesos for 1/4 kilo- enough for 2!)
  • Drink= Cocktails (happy hours 19.00-21.00 for those on a budget)
  • Watch out for= Stray dogs (they are harmless but like to sit really close to you!)

Mendoza in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Hot 24- 29 degrees but with a massive thunder-storm on Friday night
  • Food= Sweet things- jam pastries and dulce leche with everything (dulce leche has the consistency of chocolate spread but tastes what I imagine curly whirly chocolate bars would taste melted down!)
  • Drink= Malbec Vino Tinto ( Malbec red wine) of course!
  • An idiosyncrasy= The local buses don´t take  notes, only coins (very inconvenient), try to get a bus card which you can load with money at the bus station when you arrive. You can also top these up at most kiosks around the city too. This idiosyncrasy is common throughout Argentina, we managed to swap our bus card for Gaiman for one for Mendoza with a South African couple travelling South whilst in Bariloche. Worth an ask!

 Hedd’s Words of Wisdom:

Not exactly words of wisdom this time, but more of a reflection on wine. For those of you who know me well, there are two alcoholic drinks that I never drink – Beer and Red Wine…well after the last two days, i might have to amend that list. I still won´t be ordering a pint in the pub, but I might enjoy a glass of red wine with a meal from now one. This might come as a shock to my Dad in particular since I´ve always described his red wines as ´tasting like vinegar´but maybe that´s just his taste in wine. I thoroughly enjoyed the wine tours and enjoyed quite a few red wines…my favourite being a 50/50 blend of Malbec and Merlot, which we got at the Trapiche vineyard. Helen says I have expensive tastes as that one cost 240 pesos per bottle, the most expensive one we tried, but who cares, it was the nicest.