Our first few days in Perth were a little rainy (we were told that isn’t normal, although our experiences have proved otherwise), but that didn’t dampen our spirits! We had some delicious brunches with my brother Dan and his wife Liis, and in the brighter moments spent some time doing many of the excellent out door activities Perth has to offer.  This included hanging out on several of Perth’s beaches  watching the kite surfers and sunsets, and Paul even went for a paddle a couple of times. 

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Paul doing his baywatch impression

We visited Kings Park, which was lovely, and the smattering of rain meant that we were treated to an awesome rainbow (this became a bit of a theme for the first part of our trip). 

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Dan tasting the rainbow

Paul and Dan decided to have a round at Dan’s local golf course on one of the brighter days.  I knew they would be a while when I received a text from Paul declaring a state of spaghetti-o’s at the first hole due to a rather large lake they had to get across.  I am told they both managed it like pros though, and although Dan won the day overall, a good game was put up by both.

We also spent a day in Fremantle, which is a big area at the North of Perth.  We started our day with a visit to the old prison, which was very sobering indeed.  The conditions were awful, and it was hard to believe the prison was active right up until the early 90s.  We met Dan for lunch in the Fremantle Arts Centre, which was a little more light hearted, and then Paul and I went for a wander around, finishing in Little Creatures Brewery, where we sampled some of their very tasty beers.

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Sand sculpture at Little Creatures… as you do!

Dan had a few days free about a week into our stay, so the three of us headed down to Margaret River for a little mini-break.  We did several walks round the area, which were all very beautiful…

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And encountered a number of additional rainbows…

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While we could easily have spent several days on all the different local walks, we were very keen to try something a bit different and were delighted when we found a bushtucker canoe and caving tour.  Off we set nice and early, to where the Margaret River meets the sea.  Dan, Paul and I were put in one canoe, with the other couple and our tour guide in the second.  We were told to nominate one person to steer and the others to be the powerhouses doing the more serious paddling at the front.  That didn’t take much thinking about really, and I took my spot at the back ready to steer.  It took me a little while to get the hang of more subtle steering (so we didn’t zig zag our way through the entire river), and soon we had a good rhythm going (although it wasn’t as effortless as the other canoe made it seem – but then they did have a professional!). 

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We stopped after a while and went for a little hike up to the top of a hill to look out over the sea on one side and the river on the other.  Our guide gave us lots of information about different plants and berries you could eat if stranded in the bush (although I wouldn’t trust any of us to be able to point them out for you), and then we took shelter at the mouth of the cave as it started raining a little – perfect time for lunch! The guide had brought with her different meats (including emu and kangaroo) as well as a number of other weird and wonderful nuts and berries to go with them.  The highlight of the lunch was when she brought out a tub with a witchetty grub, cut it up and started offering it around. 

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Witchetty grubs… mmm tasty?!

The boys totally chickened out, which meant it was up to me to step up and give it a go.  I reckon the worst part is the idea of eating it, because the grub itself doesn’t taste of too much!

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Not as bad as it looks… honest!

Next we were given torches and taken into the caves, which had once housed the survivors of a ship wreck in 1876.  Then our guide asked if anyone fancied crawling through one of the smaller cave passages. “You will get dirty,” she said, “but it is good fun”!  Feeling adventurous after my witchetty grub experience I quickly volunteered, only to then discover the others were all bowing out. Too late to back down now, I crawled in after her.  As we dragged ourselves on our bellies through the tunnel she said – “ah, dirty and wet… there is a big puddle here”.  As there was no room to turn around (it really was pretty tight), and given my clothes were already covered in mud, I carried on regardless, and all too soon we had made it through and were back in our original cave with the others, who were all waiting with cameras.  Again, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself afterwards, even more so when the guide said I had won a bottle of wine for being so adventurous… hurrah!

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Emerging from the cave, muddier and soggier than when I went in, but also pretty pleased with myself

Dan had to head back the next day for some of that pesky work stuff, so Paul and I were forced to soldier on with a wine tour without him.  It’s a tough life.  We were taken to 5 boutique family run vineyards and a microbrewery, as well as a cheese factory (which Paul sat out), an olive oil factory and a chocolate shop.  It was a smashing day, and we even discovered a couple of truly exceptional wines (including a lovely red wine that was served at a royal banquet for Princess Mary of Denmark).  The hardest part about wine tours when you are travelling is that you can’t buy all the wines you like because there isn’t always enough time to drink them all before your next flight.  We did try to encourage a couple of the wineries to send some wines to the UK, but it didn’t sound like it was likely any time soon, so decided we would just have to come back another time!

All too soon it was time to move on from Margaret River and head to our next stop   Albany. The drive was pretty long (about 5 hours –not that long by Aussie standards) so we broke it up with a few stops on the way.  Our favourite was getting to do a tree-top walk in the valley of the giants in Denmark .  The boardwalk takes you through a forest of red tingle trees, the highest point is 40m above ground, and even then the trees are taller…

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Another incredible sight in Denmark were the elephant rocks… we were sceptical when we first heard about them, but as we turned the corner were amazed to find that they did actually look like a herd of elephants (unlike dog rock in Albany which we found harder to see, despite the locals painting a collar on him)!

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The elephant rocks – you see it right?

Once in Albany, the incredible views continued.  We took a trip to Frenchman Bay, where we saw more beaches and cliffs. During one of these walks, Paul got a bit of a shock when he got too close to a blow hole just as it went off.

As before, we were keen to find different ways to see the local sites, so we also went horse riding. Neither of us had really done much horse riding before – apart from once earlier on our year away. Our guide was Justin, possibly the most chilled out man we had met.  He introduced us to our horses (Belle – mine, and Yarra – Paul’s).  We spent the first 15 mins getting to know them on the ground, walking them round a paddock learning how to lead them.  Sounds easy enough, but these horses were no fools and they knew we were amateurs! In the end we came to a compromise with the horses, whereby they would mostly listen to us and we respected that they were doing us a favour by not throwing us off!

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Paul training Yarra

This worked pretty well and we got on and went for a gorgeous (and gentle) ride around a beautiful bay. Two hours later, and with only minor hiccups (like Belle stopping, turning around and walking off in wrong direction – I managed to convince her to get back on track eventually), we were back at the start.  It was a great way to see some of the area, even if we were walking like John Wayne for a couple of days afterwards!

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Just one of the gorgeous views from our horse ride

And suddenly it was time to head back to Perth in order to start the second part of our Western Australia adventure – going North – but I will let Paul tell you about that next time!

 

If you start at the top of New Zealand and work your way down, you really do save some of the best until last.  For our last week in the country we went to Mount Cook, Queenstown, and up a glacier.

Mount Cook

First stop was Mount Cook – New Zealand’s highest peak.  It’s a fair old drive to Mount Cook, and then because it’s at the end of the Southern Alps you cannot actually drive all the way up to the base of the Mountain.  We were told that if we wanted some really great views of Mount Cook then we should do a walk through the Hooker Valley.

So we parked up and walked along rocky paths, across bridges, and between snowy peaks, waiting for Mount Cook to become apparent.  I know it sounds stupid, but for the most part we weren’t entirely sure which one of the mountains was Mount Cook – it may be the biggest but it seems like a close run thing to us!  Anyway, after a good hour’s walking, we were still going along this seemingly never-ending path.  We thought we had a good idea which one was Mount Cook but we hadn’t had a great view of it at any stage, and Maya asked when we should think about turning around.  I wasn’t sure when we might get to the best point to turn around, but I wanted to keep going for a bit, so I decided to tell a small white lie and say that the walk came to an end when we reached the big lake under the mountain.  Of course I had made this lake up as an excuse to keep going, and actually had no idea where the walk was supposed to end.

So nobody was more surprised to me when we did actually reach the end point of the walk, with Mount Cook in the background and a huge icy lake just in front of us.  I think Maya had a mix of emotions – on the one hand she was delighted to reach such a fantastic lookout point, and on the other hand she was cross that I could make something up and then it turn out to be true.  I on the other hand was jumping for joy.

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I’m flying

We stayed overnight at Lake Tekapo, which has an observatory that is renowned for being one of the best spots for stargazing in the world.  Coming from London, we were pretty sure there are at least four or five stars in the night sky on a clear night.  But we had never seen what is possible when you have an observatory on a mountain in the middle of nowhere.  Even without using their high-powered telescopes, the Milky Way looks just incredible.  With the telescopes it was really impressive to see things like the rings of Saturn, and further afield we could see what stars looked like 500 years ago!

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Yes, that sky is real.

Queenstown and craziness

Our next stop was Queenstown, which is probably the biggest centre for tourism in the country.  And renowned for its adventure sports – it is basically the home of bungy jumping.  For the entire year that we have been away, Maya and I had been half-heartedly discussing the idea of trying out some sort of extreme sport all year, so when we got to Queenstown it was time to put up or shut up.  I had always said that if I was to do anything it would be a bungy jump, and Maya said she would do a skydive.  We decided that we wouldn’t give ourselves the chance to back out of this, so we immediately went to the booking office and signed Maya up for a skydive in the morning, and me for a bungy swing in the afternoon.  So we were committed!

The next morning we were up bright and early to catch the coach to the lake where the skydiving took place.  Maya was doing her skydive with four other people – none of whom had done it before.  And I went along to watch.  It was quite a small plane and they took people up in pairs.  Maya drew the short straw, and was scheduled to go last, which meant she had the longest wait.  But she kept positive, and when the time came for her to go up in the plane she was literally dancing with excitement and nervous energy – I think the instructor who took her up knew he was in for a handful.  The plane did loops of the airfield until it was at 12,000ft above the earth, and then I saw a little speck leave the plane as Maya and her instructor jumped.  They fell for 45 seconds and then the parachute deployed, and floating back down to earth.  Maya seemed to absolutely love the skydive, she had a big smile on her face for the entire time during the dive and for about 2 hours afterwards!  And while I think she is completely mad for jumping out of a plane attached to a complete stranger I am hugely proud of her for getting up the courage to do it!

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How can you smile at a time like this?

After everyone had done their skydives, the coach took us all back to the town centre.  I was starting to think about my fast-approaching bungy adventure, so I was not very talkative.  But Maya and the others who had all done the skydive were absolutely euphoric and were high-fiving and congratulating each other on conquering their fears.  Which is great, but from a personal perspective it’s VERY ANNOYING when you are about to face your own terrifying ordeal.

With no time to lose, we made our way to the cable car which would take us to the site of my bungy swing.  Which was located 1500ft above the town centre.  I’m sure the views on the cable car ride were just great but all I could think about was how steep the climb was, and how high we were going.  We got to the top, and went straight to the site of the bungy swing.  I’ll assume that most people won’t know exactly what a bungy swing is, and quickly explain.  It’s like a bungy jump, but instead of jumping from the platform that your bungy rope is attached to, you go from another platform and after the initial drop you then swing at ridiculous speeds for a while.

So I headed over to the platform from which I would do the swing, attached to my bungy rope.  Before you go, you are harnessed and roped up by one of the members of staff.  I got a British guy with a ponytail who kept asking where I was from.  “I’m from London,” I replied.

“But what about before then,” he asked.  “Where were you from before you went to London?”

“I’m from Derby,” I said.

“Really?” he said smiling.  “I’m from Nottingham – I’m a Forest fan.”

“That’s just my luck!” I tactfully declared.  “I can’t believe I’m putting my life in the hands of a Nottingham Forest fan!”  Which after a second I followed up with, “I can’t believe I’m insulting the man who is responsible for my safety.  No offence,” I added with a sheepish grin.

He didn’t really respond to this, as he led me to the edge of the platform.  The other key difference between a bungy jump and a bungy swing is that you don’t jump for a bungy swing.  Instead you are attached to a second rope (in addition to your bungy rope) and lowered out beyond the platform.  Then when you are ready to go you reach up to your harness and pull a long metal pin out of it, which releases the rope you are attached to sending you plummeting on your bungy nightmare.

As I was lowered out over the edge of the platform I was absolutely terrified.  I mean truly bone-chilling, clammy-handed, gibbering nonsense, scared. I genuinely don’t remember the few seconds before I pulled the pin too well, but Maya reliably assures me that I sat there, hanging out over the cliff edge talking to myself.  And all I kept saying was “Okay, right, let’s do this.  Okay, right, let’s do this.”  This went on for about 30 seconds until I let loose a shout and then pulled the pin.  My shout then turned into a (very manly) scream of terror as I fell faster than I thought possible, and was swung at huge speed out over the 1500 ft fall to the town. I didn’t stop shouting as I swung out, and I certainly didn’t stop as I hurtled back towards the cliff face.  In fact I didn’t stop until I had stopped swinging and come to a halt.  Luckily I wasn’t the only one making a lot of noise – on the video that they took of it, Maya screamed even louder than me at the moment when I fell!

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What was I thinking?!

Reflecting on our foray into extreme sports, Maya has made it clear that she absolutely loved her skydive, and would do it again at a heartbeat.  I on the other hand, wouldn’t necessarily be queuing up for another bungy jump.  But we are both happy that we did something that absolutely scared the hell out of us.

The Fox Glacier

We ended our month in New Zealand by climbing the Fox Glacier.  As we packed for our year abroad almost one year ago, Maya had justified loads of jumpers and coats on the basis that for one day of our year away, we would be on a glacier in New Zealand.  So it was obviously very exciting to actually get to this much-anticipated glacier.  I, however, hadn’t really packed any cold-weather clothes so I had to buy a hat so I didn’t look silly by being on the glacier without the appropriate headgear.

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What a lovely hat!

We were on a guided tour, as the Fox Glacier has a number of dangerous crevasses that you could fall into if you didn’t know where you were going.  Also, by going on a tour we had access to all the proper equipment, including special boots and crampons that make it hard to fall over when climbing the ice.  I probably shouldn’t have been surprised but spending six hours walking on and climbing up and down a glacier was very tiring.  I think the fact that every footstep is a big stamp to make sure that your boots dig into the ice was probably the reason why my legs were so stiff the next day.  Totally worth it though, particularly the ice caves and tunnels!

And of course I couldn’t get through the day without asking one of our tour guides whether Fox’s Glacier Mints were actually invented at the Fox Glacier.  Our kiwi guide called Scott rolled his eyes at this, and said that every British person asks that very same question.  And the answer apparently is no – they were not invented at the Fox Glacier.

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In an ice cave

As we move from New Zealand, back to Australia, we have absolutely loved our month there, and would say it is totally worth the journey around the world.  It’s been great being able to spend time with family, try new things, and get to meet lots of bonkers and brilliant people along the way!

Our next stop was Christchurch, where we were going to hang out with Paul’s uncle, aunt and cousins (Jeremy, Lesley, Matthew, Alice and Hamish).  We hadn’t seen them for a few years so were really excited about catching up.

We spent the first couple of days hanging out at their home, which involved many exciting activities including:

  • A trip with Jeremy into Christchurch city centre.  It was quite shocking seeing that after over two years there are very few buildings that have been rebuilt, and actually still a lot of buildings deemed unsafe that haven’t been taken down and are just sitting there empty.  It seems that there are a number of problems to do with insurance companies, government (local and national), and general disagreement about what should happen (a case was recently taken to the appeals court on whether the cathedral could be pulled down or if it should be repaired).  As a result, the city is quite hard to walk around, it feels a bit like a cross between a ghost town and images of war torn cities you see on the news.  Having said that, it isn’t all doom and gloom.  There are loads of great and inspiring projects that people have pulled together, like shops in shipping crates, mini drinks fridges filled with books that act as a kind of library, a café with walls made of wooden pallets rather than bricks, and fencing decorated with bright colours or plants.
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the fencing outside the Christchurch cathedral

  • Getting to meet their sheep and giant pigs, who got particularly excited when we went out to feed them.  One of the pigs (Dexter) was foaming at the mouth with excitement (not that I am judging, I am just the same when faced with a delicious chocolate brownie).
  • Playing singstar, rock band and Mariokart.  Paul was particularly excited about this given it had been around a year since he last saw his games consoles!
  • A family trip to Akaroa, an old French port just east of Christchurch.  As we drove over some more gorgeous hills, we were greeted by the sight of rolling green hills and fields, ridiculously blue water, and the quaint little port, flying a French flag and with shops and cafes with French names.  We were super-lucky with the weather, which was perfect for strolling along the pier, visiting the lighthouse, and eating ice cream. We also went for a walk through a nice park, and we were just being introduced to the New Zealand definition of dags (which are apparently the bits of poo which get stuck to a sheeps behind), when I slipped and skidded down a muddy hill.  I was fine, although Paul thought it was hilarious to point at my muddy bum and loudly shout about dags as some locals walked past.  Needless to say, everyone had a good laugh!
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hanging out at the end of the pier

We had arranged to be around during the school holidays, and both Jeremy and Lesley had taken a week off work, which meant we could also all go away together.  After a planning session (involving coloured pens and a glass or two of vino – as all good planning sessions should), we worked out that it would make most sense for Paul and I to go south towards Queenstown on our own, as it is a bit of a party town, and that we should instead do our family holiday in the north of south island.  It was a truly fantastic and very silly week, and I am not sure we stopped laughing for more than about 5 minutes at a time!

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There were far too many things to cover them all in one blog, but some of the highlights included:

  • Arthurs pass. As we were driving over the mountain pass, we stopped at a number of places including one of the locations used in a battle scene in the film of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – it was full of giant rocks scattered amongst huge hills.  Paul, Matthew, Hamish and Alice all had fun climbing all over them, and I am pretty certain that if we had stayed much longer there would have been a re-enactment of the battle!
  • The pancake rocks. These are so named because they are made up of hundreds of thin layers of rock layered on top of each other – quite incredible! There is also a giant blow hole where (when the weather is right) you can see massive sprays of waves.  Fortunately/unfortunately the weather was too calm while we were there and we didn’t see it go off, but the whole thing was beautiful.
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cheeky monkey

  • Kaiteriteri beach. Given it is the middle of winter, we really have lucked out with the weather on this part of the trip – including enough sun for a day at the beach.  OK, we were still wearing jumpers, but it was bright and crisp and of course the views were gorgeous!

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  • Numerous wineries. We have also discovered that New Zealand has some fantastic wines, especially white wines (as opposed to Australia where Paul and I were both loving the red wines).  The kids very patiently put up with our frequent stops to a number of (excellent) wineries, and as a reward Paul and I have promised to take them wine tasting on their first trip to our side of the world (after they are 18 of course)!
  • Malborough Sounds. Although the boat from Wellington did go through the Malborough Sounds, I was feeling so sea sick due to the storms that we didn’t dare go outside.  Luckily, we drove around some of it on this trip and it was… yes you guessed it… beautiful! We must have stopped every 5 minutes spotting ever more amazing views!
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see what I mean? Gorgeous!

  • Seal colony at Kaikoura.  Although Paul and I had been to Kaikoura to see the whales, we had completely managed to miss the massive seal colony that resides there.  We saw one cheeky seal on our whale watching tour, but as we were travelling back down towards Christchurch we stopped to see this incredible colony.  I have never seen so many seals, and certainly not so closely – one was sun bathing right next to the road! There were even loads of baby seals frollicking in some rock pools a little way off shore!
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just having a little siesta on a rock

Maya was very keen that we stopped in the historic town of Napier – apparently famous for the entire town being built in the style of something called “art deco”. The whole town was destroyed in an earthquake in 1931, so it was all built at the same time, and in the same style.  As a rule, I couldn’t care less about architectural styles, so I had no idea what to expect from an art deco town.  But when I got there and saw some of the buildings I began to understand that art deco basically means everything looks like it did in the classic crime movie – The Sting.  So I walked around humming the theme music from the movie while Maya took some photos of buildings. And it’s not just the buildings that have a 1930s feel to it – the town specialised in all kinds of memorabilia celebrating the period prior to the second World War.  Which for some of the shops was just an excuse to host vast collections of gollywogs

Then it was off to New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington – home of the wellington boot and beef wellington.  While in Wellington, my aunt’s sister Sue (and her daughter Nicola), were kind enough to give us a tour around the city.   They pointed out all of the famous landmarks – including the new Wellington sign (like the Hollywood sign, given they are the key city for filmmakers, but reflecting the city’s windy reputation) and all three of the Parliament buildings (although 2 are not in use anymore).

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The Wellington sign

But Wellington definitely wasn’t all easy-going.  We were supposed to be catching the ferry from Wellington to New Zealand’s south island on Sunday morning, but for the entire time we were in town the entire city was buffeted by gale-force winds and constant rain.  So our ferry got cancelled at the last minute meaning that we had to spend an extra day there.  Being stuck in Wellington without accommodation or any idea when we would be able to get across to the south island could have been a bit of a disaster.  But these things have a way of working themselves out. Sue and Nicola were kind enough to put us up for the night, and we got on a ferry early the next day.  Maya tells me it was a pretty rough journey across the Cook straight, although I can’t say I really noticed it too much.

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Maya, Nicola and Sue looking out across Wellington

We were glad to finally arrive on the south island.  We thought that the scenery from the north couldn’t be beaten, but it just seems to keep getting better and better.  Driving around the south island we go from views of the ocean to snow-capped mountains, to perfect blue lakes, to rolling hills.  And all these can be in the space of about 5 minutes!  Maya is generally too busy driving to be able to fully concentrate on the view, so I have to appreciate it for both of us.   And nowhere had better views than Kaikoura, which was our next stop.

Like so many towns in New Zealand, Kaikoura is a tiny town built around one business.  And in Kaikoura’s case – it’s whale watching.  I’ve always wanted to see whales at sea, and Kaikoura is the home of a colony of sperm whales.  So we booked with a tour company that took you out to sea whale watching, and if you didn’t get to see a whale then they would refund 80% of your money.  Which was reassuring because I know a number of people who have been on whale watching trips and not seen a whale at all.  And being a natural pessimist I was half expecting that we wouldn’t see a whale all afternoon, but that someone from the whale-watching company would randomly shout “there’s one!” at the last minute then claim that we had only missed it because we were too slow.

But finding whales turned out to be surprisingly easy (when you have a speedy boat and experienced whale-watching crew at your disposal).  Five minutes after setting off from the harbour we had the first shout from a member of the crew that they had seen a whale.  So our boat pulled up alongside and Maya started snapping like crazy.  It was incredible how close we could get to the whale without seeming to startle it.  The whale was about the same size as the length of the boat that we were on.

I won’t pretend that whales do a wide range of tricks to entertain visiting boats of tourists – noisy breathing and diving down to the bottom of the ocean pretty much sums up their repertoire.  But it is just incredible to see these huge, powerful marine mammals up close and personal.  And while they seem gentle enough at a glance, sperm whales are killers – they hunt and feed on normal, giant and colossal squid (amongst other things).  Our boat captain said that while we were safe enough alongside or behind a sperm whale, you should never get in front of one as they can only swim forwards, and that wouldn’t be too great for either the boat or the whale.

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My favourite of the 500 odd whale photos Maya took

Having seen a whale within the first five minutes made us feel pretty lucky.  But ten minutes later we had seen two more. Then the crew took us off looking for dolphins, and we were followed by a group of Hector’s Dolphins playing around in the water . These are apparently the smallest dolphins in the world and very rare.  Surprisingly Maya actually managed to get a photo of them – anyone who has ever tried to take a photo of a dolphin will know that you need a lot of chances to actually capture one as they zoom around like mini torpedoes.  And intermittently circling the boat were various examples of the world’s largest type of albatross, with a four-metre wingspan.   Finally, we bumped into two more sperm whales on the way back to the shore.

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Two Hector’s dolphins

Even though I laughed at Maya for taking over 500 photos, it is great to capture the images of whales swishing their tails in the sea, in front of Kaikoura’s snow-capped mountains.  And it should guarantee that the post-holiday slide show is nice and comprehensive, so there’s something for our friends and family to look forward to!

After leaving Hobbiton we continued on our journey southwards, to discover some of the natural wonders of New Zealand.  As most people who know me will be aware, I am a city girl – most comfortable in the urban rather than actual jungle. To be fair, this is most often to do with creatures – especially, but not limited to, poisonous ones.  In that respect Australia seemed like a bit of a random choice for our year out (given the high volume of poisonous things). New Zealand on the other hand has no slithery or creepy crawly creatures that will kill you with a bite.  However, it is built on the ring of fire, which means that it is highly susceptible to tectonic activity – i.e. the earth beneath your feet is the thing you have to watch out for here.  The flip side is that it is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places either of us has ever been to so you can see why, despite this danger, people still want to live here!  Anyway, our next few stops (described below) involved us exploring a bit of this natural beauty… that’s right people, this is me embracing nature, and most surprisingly for me, loving it!  

Unlike Auckland, Rotorua doesn’t have volcanoes popping up all over the city.  Instead, the magma heats up water around the area, which then escapes into natural hot pools (at boiling temperature) and natural steam vents.  Some of these steam vents are fairly small – as you walk or drive around you just see steam coming out through the ground and rocks and pavements (a little disconcerting for us travellers – especially townies like me, although the locals seemed relaxed about it).  The largest vent could be found in Te Puia – a Maori cultural centre and park. We decided the park was a good place to start our day in Rotorua.

Te Puia is owned and run by the local Maori people, who offer a tour of the ground as part of the entry fee. Firstly, they took us to their two National schools that were set up to preserve and teach traditional Maori skills.  One is a weaving school where they teach the art of Maori weaving to anyone (of any age, gender and descent).  The second is a carving school where they take in around 10 apprentices (all men, of Maori decent, between 16 and 35). The apprenticeships last about 3 years and during that time they learn the art of Maori carving, many of the apprentices then go back to their villages and teach the craft to their people. While I had mixed feelings about the restrictions on who can enter the school, there was no denying that the carvings are amazing – supremely intricate and beautiful. Each carving has signs about where the carver is from and their history.  For example, carvers from the Rotorua region often depict men holding a flute, as there is a famous story about a Maori man who guided his love across the waters by playing a flute.

Then we were taken to see their kiwi birds.  We all saw one huddled in the corner, but after Paul and most of the others left, myself and a Kiwi couple (human New Zealanders, not birds) actually saw it moving around, munching on who knows what.  The couple told me that they hadn’t ever seen a Kiwi bird moving around like that, and that they had been searching for 25 years… I was super excited about that obviously, although Paul was less pleased when he realised what he missed!

Our next stop was the bubbling mud pools, which looked like something out of Dr Who or like something the witches from Macbeth would have cooked up.

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And then we hit the main event – the incredible Pohutu Geyser (pronounced Guy-sir… “The geezer is the one in behind the camera and the Guy-ser is the one in front of it,” says our tour guide).  This Geyser is apparently the largest in the Southern Hemisphere – reaching up to 30 metres on a clear day – and it was incredible, really high despite the strong winds. 

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The largest Geyser in the Southern Hemisphere

After the tour we followed the path around the park for a little while longer, looking at the boiling lakes – literally at boiling point we were warned, just in time as I am sure Paul was cooking up plans to go for another of his swims.  To make up for not being able to dive into the super hot water we spent the evening at the Polynesian Spa – where they add cold water to the boiling water to make them a more sensible temperature (like 42 degrees… mmmmm) while you look out over the lake and watch the sun set over the hills on the other side of the lake through the steam coming off the pool you lie in. Absolutely perfect!

While in Rotorua, and in the spirit of embracing nature, we also went on a hike through the their redwood forest.   While the trees were not as big as the famous giant redwoods found in America, it was still an incredible sight, and the views from the top of the hill (when I finally caught Paul up) were also spectacular!

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the awesome redwoods

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the view from the top… not too shabby!

We also did a day trip to two of the Waitomo Caves.  The first was the Aranui Cave – a small limestone cave that is apparently the most “well decorated” in the area – which is all about the number of stalactites and stalagmites within the caves.  And we could easily see why it had earned that name.  It was pretty awesome walking through, and our guide had a great sense of humour pointing out what she saw in all the decoration.  My favourite was definitely the giant penguin!

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very clearly a penguin… right?!

However, it was the glow worm cave that really took our breath away.  Neither of us had ever seen glow worms before.  Apparently these are very different to the ones in Europe (although as neither Paul nor I had seen these it was hard for us to say for sure!).  In order to catch food, the worms drop long lines along which they seem to shine their light (reminded me of fibre optic cables).  Their prey is drawn to the light, but then they get caught in the lines, which work in a similar way to spider webs, trapping the insects so that the glow work can devour them at a later date.  As part of the tour through the cave they take you on a boat ride through the glow worm grotto which is AMAZING! It is pitch black, and all you can see are thousands of tiny lights on the ceiling, all at different heights that just seem to hang there.  It feels like you are staring at a whole load of different galaxies floating in space.  Unfortunately they don’t let you take photos, even with the flash off, but I found this photo online, which I think gives an idea of what it looks like.  I would definitely recommend a trip to this cave if you find yourself anywhere near it!

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On a totally different, and slightly random note (my favourite kind!), we also found out that the town nearest the Waitomo Caves has their own version of the running of the bulls…

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The final stop on this instalment is Lake Taupo.  We were only there for a day, but decided that it would be remiss of us not to go out onto the lake.  Lake Taupo is the largest freshwater lake in Australasia, and was formed by… you guessed it… a massive volcanic eruption thousands of years ago (apparently the eruption was so big that it appears in historical records in China and Europe)! The lake is so big that you could (apparently) fit everything inside the M25 inside it.  Like the rest of New Zealand, it is a stunning site (but then every time we seem to turn a corner here we are faced with even more breathtaking views).  We were particularly taken with the Maori carvings on one edge of the lake. The carvings are over 10 metres high, and they were added at the end of the 20th Century by Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell – a famous Maori carver.  The carvers apparently didn’t accept any money for their work, other than donations to cover the cost of the scaffolding, seeing it as a gift to future generations. 

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We decided that spending a whole year in Australia wouldn’t be right without visiting its local rival, and so we booked flights to New Zealand.  We gave ourselves a month to cover the whole of New Zealand, which neither Maya nor I have visited before.  So before departing, we got some advice from the experts – my Aunt Lesley and Uncle Jeremy, who are both Christchurch residents.  They had lots of positive titbits of advice for us, such as “watch out for New Zealand drivers, they aren’t any good”, “the roads are completely covered in snow and ice at this time of year”, and “there’s not really any public transport – you’ll need to drive”.  Given Maya is the only one of us with a driving license (I have never even had a lesson), this gave her something to look forward to.  I mentally prepared myself to reprise my role as the designated drinker, although as Maya pointed out it is merely optional, not compulsory, for the passenger to be drunk.

So the first job when the plane landed was to sort out a rental car that we could use for the month.  The car-hire companies in the airport were giving us some absolutely outrageous quotes ($100 per day!!) so I went online in the airport and found the cheapest and dodgiest car-rental company in Auckland.  At a mere $18 per day, I wondered how they could possibly afford to be so cheap.  And then I saw the car that we had agreed to hire.  That said, it’s nice to have a car that’s a similar age to us.  We decided that we would need to give our vehicle a name, so here’s introducing our new car – “Grandma”.  She comes complete with chipped windscreen, scratched paintwork, and a tape cassette player (which when we went to the trouble of buying a tape for it, turned out not to work).

On our first night in Auckland we were pretty wiped out after our flight, so we decided to head out for dinner at one of the local restaurants.  But my attempts to order a beer with dinner were foiled by the waitress, who asked to see my ID!  Now I’m all for a risk-averse approach when it comes to service of alcohol, but with my healthy covering of stubble and receding hairline I can only assume that in New Zealand they ask you for ID if you look like you might be under the age of 40.  After much guffawing (mostly from Maya) I admitted to the waitress that I didn’t have any ID to prove that I was over 18, and so had to settle for a diet coke. 

Heights

Auckland is a very picturesque city, and also boasts what they claim is the highest man-made tower in the southern hemisphere – the Sky Tower.  They actually offer tourists the opportunity to take a lift up to the top of the 600 foot tower, and take a guided walk around the outside on a narrow walkway.   Being the thrill-seekers that we are, we gave it a go.  So they dressed us up in orange jumpsuits, and we ascended 55 floors in a glass-bottomed lift.  Staring down the vast lift-shaft was an unnerving experience, particularly when all I could think of was the opening sequences of the film Speed!

We were taken around the top of the tower by a Kiwi tour guide called Sam, who had several tricks to try and make the whole experience as unnerving as possible. These included encouraging us to hang over the edge of the platform, with only a thin rope or two to support ourselves, and also challenging us to walk backwards around the platform while looking up at the sky.  Everyone else in the group was pretty good at staying safely in the middle of the walkway while going backwards, but for some reason I wasn’t so great and almost managed to step off the side!  I’m sure the rope would have worked fine though …

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Hanging around the top of sky tower

Our guide explained that Auckland is situated on top of an active volcano, and there are around 40 volcanic craters dotted around the city.  What with the horrific earthquakes that shook Christchurch a couple of years ago, it seems that no New Zealand city is complete without the impending threat of a natural disaster.

“Doesn’t it worry you, that there are volcanoes that might erupt at any time, underneath the city” we asked our guide.  “Oh no,” he explained, “it’s absolutely fine.  I don’t own a house”.  So that’s okay then!

At Sam’s suggestion, we decided to check out the volcanic cones in the city the next day.  We were assured that none of the volcanoes would erupt in exactly the same spot, so in many ways these are the safest place to be.

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A real life volcanic crater

Hobbitses

After leaving Auckland, we headed to one of the absolute highlights of our year overseas.  We both love the Lord of the Rings movies, so we drove into the New Zealand countryside to visit the Hobbiton set, where many of the movie’s opening scenes were filmed.  It’s all set on a farm near Hamilton.  They built the Hobbiton set in 1998 (at a cost of c. $20m), pulled much of it down after the Lord of the Rings films were finished, then rebuilt it all for the filming of the Hobbit.  But second time around they kept the set so it could be used as a tourist destination. 

Part of me was worried about visiting the set, as I thought it might be a bit of a let-down after the magic of the films.  But it’s just as good in reality.  It is set in absolutely perfect rolling green hills, with not a single hint of civilisation in sight.  New Line Cinema built about 40 hobbit holes over quite a large stretch of countryside and walking round it does feel like you are walking around a real village. 

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It was particularly interesting to see that Bag End (Bilbo and Frodo’s house) is situated in prime position on top of the biggest hill, and is far larger than the other hobbit’s homes.  No doubt Bilbo’s obvious wealth would have caused a great deal of resentment in the hobbit community – particularly when he flaunted it by throwing a lavish party for his eleventy-first birthday.  It turns out Bilbo was the Great Gatsby of Middle Earth!

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And talking of lavish expenditure, New Line Cinema certainly didn’t stint when it came to spending money to make the set more realistic.  For example, they needed Bag End to be situated under an oak tree, but because there weren’t any suitable oak trees in the local area they had an artificial oak tree made in the studio and shipped it out to Hobbiton.  But Peter Jackson decided that he wasn’t completely happy with the colour of the leaves on the artificial oak tree, so he paid students from a local university to individually paint the leaves on the tree.

And I’m sure everyone remembers the sheep walking around in the background in one of the scenes in the Lord of the Rings?  No?  To be honest, neither do I.  But Peter Jackson considered them such important cast members that when he wasn’t entirely happy with the look of the sheep which were already available on the farm (the farm only had 13,000 for him to choose from) he insisted that they had to import a particular type of sheep from the UK.  Apparently the UK has the best sheep in the world.

And because none of the New Zealand breweries would provide him with low alcohol beer to use on set, Peter Jackson bought a brewery and brewed his own beer for all the scenes in taverns during the film!

But the most extravagant expense was in order to film one shot, where Frodo dreams that Hobbiton burns down.  So how did they film this shot?  Well of course they burned down a full-size inn.  Luckily, the inn was rebuilt for the Hobbit, and it is now a real-life fully functioning pub.  So Maya and I enjoyed a hobbit-sized[1] beer in the Green Dragon Inn!  This was my favourite bit of the day, although it was a bit disappointing that the Green Dragon Inn didn’t have a quiz machine.  We even had a go behind the bar!

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“and what would you like today sir?”

And finally, this blog wouldn’t be complete without marking just what an incredible few days of sport it has been.  I’m not normally a big rugby fan, but watching the Lions thrash Australia on Saturday night was particularly sweet!  And a fantastic effort by Andy Murray to beat Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon final.  It’s all looking good for the Ashes …


[1] They didn’t sell it in pints – if they did, I would have had one.

After 5 months of working in Sydney, we were finally on the road again, and our first stop was Melbourne, or Batmania as it was going to be called originally (after John Batman, one of the founders of the city, not the caped crusader… although either way I seriously think they should consider changing the name back!!). I was instantly excited about Melbourne as I had heard about their reputation for incredible coffee – and I wasn’t disappointed!

Our first stop was a wander round the Melbourne Cricket Ground (known as the MCG – just in case any of you, like me, were unfamiliar with it). Actually, although you wouldn’t have guessed it from the name, it is also hosts Australian Football League games too. It was one of the sites for the 1956 Olympic Games, and has an amazing engraved wall showing all of the gold medal winners from those games. As well as being interesting to see the winners (mainly USA and USSR), it was weird seeing some of the sports which we no longer have – like running deer shooting! We also had fun playing “guess the sporting icon statue” as we walked around – well, when I say we, Paul did all the guessing really!! We also had a wonderful stroll through some of Melbourne’s parks, and discovered (amongst other things) a very cute model Tudor village donated by the council of Lambeth to say thank you to the people of Melbourne for the food they sent during the second world war. And of course a fairy tree… no I didn’t make it up!!

just one part of the fairy tree

just one part of the fairy tree

In that totally random and wonderful way that these things happen, my lovely friend Jill Coyne happens to be working in Melbourne for three months. So we also had the pleasure of meeting up with her for a couple of evenings. She showed us some great pubs (where Paul was able to get pints of beer for the first time in ages – in Sydney the largest beer size tends to be a schooner!), and sampled some awesome food, including dumplings in China Town and the delights of Big Boy BBQ… delicious! She also showed us some of awesome street art in Melbourne, like a giant purse sculpture!

Jill and me trying to steal the giant purse statue

Jill and me trying to steal the giant purse statue

On one of our days, we decided to see more of Melbourne by bike – a little out of character I guess, but Paul loves sporty type activities and I was feeling inspired by my friend Jen (who has been trying every Olympic sport and is raving about the cycling).Melbourne has a bike hire system like the Boris bikes in London – it cost $2.70 for the day and then journeys under half an hour were free of charge (the costs start ramping up after that). They have hundreds of bike racks round the city, so we mostly managed to get them back within the half hour, although some were a close call! Melbourne is definitely a great city to cycle round. It is mostly flat (which works well for me) and there are loads of dedicated cycle paths (great for relative newbies like Paul and myself). All in all we cycled about 26km and saw some amazing sites including – the botanic gardens, Federation Square, the Rod Laver Arena where they hold the Australian Open (OK, so this was more amazing for Paul than me), fountains, statues, several beaches, including the famous St Kildas beach, and weird and wonderful buildings and sculptures.

cycling past the botanic gardens

cycling past the botanic gardens

Paul tried many different methods of cycling - this was my personal favourite!

Paul tried many different methods of cycling – this was my personal favourite!

taking a break by the beach

taking a break by the beach

We also did an amazing day tour to Phillip Island (on a different day – obviously), which was also fantastic. Our first stop was a winery (it was midday by this point so totally acceptable to have a few glasses of wine right?!). While the winery was closed generally (it being winter and not peak tourist season), they had allowed our tour company to come in, and the company had bottles of wine from that venue, as well as a giant cheese platter with local produce (great for me, if not for Paul). In many ways, it was even better as it meant we were under absolutely no pressure to purchase any wine! 🙂

don't worry - it was gone midday, perfectly reasonable time to be on the vino!

don’t worry – it was gone midday, perfectly reasonable time to be on the vino!

Next stop… A CHOCOLATE FACTORY!!! Yaaaaaay! There was info on the chocolate making process, great displays made of chocolate – including a chocolate Dame Edna, and delicious free samples… mmmmm!

Chocolate Dame Edna!!

Chocolate Dame Edna!!

Just to prove it - a close up of the chocolate Dame Edna! Some might say it was a slight waste of delicious chocolate, but it was very impressive!

Just to prove it – a close up of the chocolate Dame Edna! Some might say it was a slight waste of delicious chocolate, but it was very impressive!

We then went to an amazing surfing beach (we didn’t go surfing as it was a bit cold), before we had an hour to wander round Cowes – the main town on Phillip Island – and the Nobbies.

The gorgeous surfer beach

The gorgeous surfer beach

Cowes

Cowes

Finally it was time for the highlight of the day (which is saying something given all the wine and chocolate earlier ;)) the little penguin parade! Little penguins (which used to be called Fairy Penguins… a much better name in my book) are the smallest type of penguin in the world, and this is the biggest little penguin colony in the world. Just after sunset the penguins who have finished their fishing (which can take 1 – 10 days!), make their way back to their homes. They form “rafts” just off the beach, which I understand is just a group of several penguins (from 6 to 100). They then ride the waves into the beach, gather back in their rafts and when they have enough of them to feel safe from any predators that may be waiting for them (like eagles and large seagulls) they run across the sand and then start the walk back to their burrows (which can be as far as 1.5 km away – particularly impressive given their size). We got to watch about 6 rafts pop up on the beach, before we headed to the boardwalk which goes along beside the paths the penguins use to walk to their burrows. So we got to see them waddling along, cleaning themselves, and chatting to their friends! It was an amazing evening! Sadly we weren’t allowed to take photos, but if you find yourself anywhere near the area, I highly recommend you take a trip!