Pucks, Poutine and Peanut Butter: Exploring Vancouver

After a breathless five weeks in New Zealand, we headed for British Columbia in Canada, where we finish our 18-month trip.
Having been greeted at the airport by Lauren’s aunty and uncle, we headed back to their beautiful home in Surrey, an hour south of the district’s largest city, Vancouver. This will be our base on my first visit to the country. My first impression of the area is the sheer size of everything: the trucks everyone owns, the shopping malls and the grand properties which line the leafy streets. Otherwise, there’s a bite in the air, unaccustomed as we are to anything lower than 15C.

It’s straight into it as we visit Mud Bay Park on our first morning for a breezy 10km-jog along Boundary Bay towards Tsawwassen. It’s a beautiful, open area which is brimming with wildlife such as Bald Eagles -more common here than anywhere else in the world – and the locals are blessed with a stunning backdrop of the majestic Mount Baker on the horizon over in the US, which makes for an impressive day and an even more impressive evening when there’s a stunning red sunset. This beautiful park becomes a favourite of ours over our month stay, for walking, cycling and jogging.

A snowy and beautiful evening at Mud Bay Park
A snowy and beautiful evening at Mud Bay Park

On our second full day, we rise early to pay homage to the 100,000+ men and women of the Canadian armed forces who were killed fighting to defend their values and lands during the two World Wars. The Cloverdale service was a poignant tribute although we were uneasy at the sight of several heavily armed policemen following the recent shooting in Ottawa. After this, we head back to Mud Bay Park for an often deceptively brutal cycle out past Boundary Bay Airport, competing with almost gale-force headwinds and a flat tyre on Bill’s bike on the way back. In the evening, we reward our endeavour with a trip to the local cinema to see The Equalizer, a dramatic and explicit thriller starring Denzel Washington as a low-key vigilante.

During our time around Surrey (when we’re not busy on excursions to Vancouver city, Vancouver Island and Whistler, which we detail below), we visited a couple of other different places worth a look. One of which was Fort Langley. This old salmon company fort consists now of a visitor attraction, with all of the original for buildings rebuilt. This includes the governor’s house, the blacksmith’s and barrel maker’s. It’s a fun experience, with staff on standby enhancing the visit by telling tales of how the different people worked when the fort was in operation. The town of Langley is also nice to go to. It has some beautiful shops and a lovely cafe, as well as the fort to fort trail.

Fort Langley - and the building where British Columbia was officially formed
Fort Langley – and the building where British Columbia was officially formed

Another excursion we did was to White Rock, a nice beach town with some impressive houses in the area. We wandered down into the town centre and walked along the coast by the railway track which runs through the town. The town is named, unsurprisingly, after a large white rock which has fallen down to the coast from further inland, and is a prominent part of the local aboriginal tales. There is a very small museum in town which we didn’t look in – instead we contented ourselves with walking and going for a coffee.

The Pier at White Rock
The Pier at White Rock

Vancouver Island

Our first overnight excursion out here is to Vancouver Island, a large island which extends northwest from Vancouver into the Gulf of Alaska and is home to the province’s capital city Victoria, to the warmest climate in Canada, and to 800,000 inhabitants, nearly a fifth of the total population of British Columbia – a district with 6,000 islands which is larger than the UK and France combined. After a three-hour BC Ferries journey from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo, home of the delicious Nanaimo Bar, a custard-and-chocolate dessert bar which needs no baking, we head 60km to Nanoose Bay and our accommodation for the night, Pacific Shores Resort. We drop off our bags and head to a local bay where we see blubberific seals flopping around on a pier, fluorescent blue jellyfish floating just below the surface on the water and some fishermen sorting the day’s catch of oysters and clams. Back at the resort, we head across to the jacuzzi and sauna and then nestle into our warm apartment, cook some lasagne and settle down to watch another film.

Oysters, seals, and perfectly smooth seas
Oysters, seals, and perfectly smooth seas

The following morning, we stroll along the icy beach and find our first sand dollars, which are extremely flattened sea urchins which often wash up on shore overnight. We check out and drive inland to MacMillan Provincial Park, where we are amazed by the Douglas Firs, which are around 800 years old and grow to 9m in circumference and 80m in height. We stop off during a long but scenic drive across to the other side of the island at Cynamoka House in Ucluelet for a hearty and reasonably priced hot lunch. From there, we walk an hour in the celebrated Pacific Rim National Park. I mischievously carry a large rock in case of an attack by a brown or grizzly bear or a cougar. In reality, cougars are very rare and most bears will already be in hibernation before November. Our accommodation in Tofino is Pacific Sands Beach Resort, a large complex of beautiful beach villas just past Cox Bay. Again, it is a real treat to have wood-burning fires, a bathtub and such a wonderful view.

Hoping for Otters instead of Cougars
Hoping for Otters instead of Cougars

In the morning, we walk north along Chestermann Bay towards the luxurious Wickaninnish Inn. We stop for lunch and some shopping in Tofino, where we bump into two older couples from Vancouver, who eventually offer us tickets to the much-vaunted annual Clayoquot Oyster Festival in the evening for a cut-price $40 each. After three Gin & Tonics, we go the event, where we feast on locally caught oysters and Canada’s various wines. Among others, we try raw Wickaninnish oysters with jalapeno peppers and lime, oyster tacos and oysters cooked in duck fat and with sweet pulled pork. We score each of the dozen competitors out of ten, fill up on wine and head back for a board game as the live music is a heavy jazz, not the lively soul or Motown music we were hoping for. Nevertheless, we enjoy mixing with the locals and feel it’s money well spent.

Chesterman Beach
Chestermann Beach

On our third day, we check out again and drive four hours south east to the island’s capital Victoria, where we’ll spend our final night at Helm’s Inn bang in the centre of the city. En route, we catch the end of a salmon run at Goldstream Provincial Park. These happen all over Canada, home of the largest fresh water supply in the world, and attract a lot of spectators and even more gulls and other hungry wildlife. This time, it was male and female chuck salmon whose carcasses lined the Goldstream River which flows out to the Haro Strait. We also take a quick tour of sleepy Chemainus, whose walls are adorned by idyllic murals depicting the town’s 19th and 20th-century industries and history. In the evening, we arrive in Victoria, where we quench our thirst with a pint at lavish Bard and Banker, marvel at the chocolate train display at Roger’s and buy some souvenirs from a street seller.

Mural at Chemainus
Mural at Chemainus

On our final morning, Lauren wakes us early with a military plan to walk along the coast and along the Ogden Point Breakwater, through Beacon Hill Park and back in time to see the interesting exhibitions, including one on First Nation Languages, and a detailed Natural History room at the Royal BC Museum. We take an afternoon ferry back from Schwartz Bay to Tsawwassen to end a memorable four days on the island.

Beacon Hill Park, Victoria
Beacon Hill Park, Victoria

Downtown Vancouver

During our stay in the Vancouver – vicinity, we decided to spend 3 nights downtown and see some of the key city highlights. We arrived at lunchtime on the first day and decided to head straight to the infamous gastown. It’s a quirky part of town, with lots of little native art shops and places to pick up souvenirs. I have never ventured there at night but it seemed to be fine in the day – we almost didn’t notice anything leaning toward its dodgy reputation. We wandered along Water St up to the Gassy Jack statue, and then back down Cordova St. Sadly, the steam clock was having repairs done at the time we visited, so we were unable to see it.

Gassy Jack
Gassy Jack

From there we headed along the waterfront and down onto the walkway by Canada Place, where we went on the Fly Over Canada simulator ride. At $20 each, we thought it was fantastic value and a brilliant experience. We got to go on a mini version of Fly Over USA and then Canada. It actually feels like you’re flying and could possibly be one of the best ways to ‘visit’ a place if you don’t have the luxury of getting there. We continued on from there, walking along the seawall, past the boats in the harbour and up to the edge of Stanley Park, before turning back into town via Robson St and passing through the main shops around there and Burrard St.Luckily for us, the Vancouver Art Gallery was open late that evening (Tuesday) and admission was by donation only, as opposed to the usual $20 fee. So, we headed there and visited the current exhibition: The Forbidden City: Inside the Court of China’s Emperors. The exhibition was well worth a look and explained Chinese court life, along with a display of a large amount of artefacts from crockery, to tapestries, to clothes. The rest of the gallery housed mainly modern art; most of it wasn’t really my style but it’s a lovely gallery none the less. Finally, we headed back to our hotel . We stayed at The Comfort Inn on Nelson St, which was in a fantastic location and perfectly adequate for a few days in the city, although it was noisy being on the main road. It’s connected to Doolin’s Irish pub, so we had dinner there that evening as we got 20% off, staying in the hotel.

On our second day, we took advantage of the fine weather and walked to and around Stanley Park, along the seawall all around the park, and then along a couple of paths in the park itself. We enjoyed looking at the famous totem poles and various statues along the seawall. Then, we continued walking all along English Bay beach, which was pleasant but I wouldn’t head there especially. We walked onto Granville Island and had lunch at the Keg pub there, where the food was great, On Granville, we had fun exploring the market and shops, and managed to get a lot of Christmas presents sorted. After all the walking, we were pretty tired so we caught the sea bus back across to downtown and headed back to our hotel. We just grabbed a Tim Hortons for dinner and then watched a movie.

Totem Poles in Stanley Park
Totem Poles in Stanley Park

Day 3, we caught two buses out of town to end up at Grouse Mountain. We climbed the Grouse Grind, which is effectively steps / rocks through dense forest to the top. It’s a beautiful walk – I love being in the forest – although we were a little nervous about cougar / bear. I even think I may have seen a cougar at one point! People walk up this all the time though and I don’t think they’ve had any problems. It took us an hour and ten minutes to reach the top, and we then had lunch in the cafe there – traditional Canadian Poutine: chips covered in cheese chunks and gravy, plus ours had pulled pork. We were really keen to see the two grizzlies they keep, however unfortunately they were sleeping. It was a pretty misty day on the top and the snow had already covered the mountain enough so that skiers and snowboarders were up and about.

Poutine! Takes better than it looks...
Poutine! Tastes better than it looks…

We headed down and went back to our hotel for a bit, before going to one of the highlights of our trip – a Canucks game! We were lucky enough to have seats right behind the goal in the second row, in the game against the Anaheim ducks. We both really enjoyed it, with the pucks and players smashing into the fiber glass that separated us from the players. The mascot, Fin, fired out prizes during breaks, and we had shouting contests and cheering contests… they certainly know how to keep the crowd entertained. Sadly, the Canucks lost on penalties, but it was a good game with a 4-3 outcome.
Our fourth day was the day we were heading back to Surrey, and it rained all day. We felt we’d already seen a good deal of what the city had to offer so we spent the time shopping and had a look in the Pacific Centre, a large shopping centre. We also had lunch at Steamworks in Gastown, which was really good. It’s a brewery so there are lots of different beers to try, and the food we had was great, as was the service. It was all decorated beautifully for Christmas, too.

Whistler

On the last weekend of our 17-month work-and-play trip around Southeast Asia and Australasia, we drove three hours northeast from Surrey to the world-famous Whistler Blackcomb (WB) ski resort.

On our way out, we stopped just before Squamish to marvel at the powerful Shannon Falls, at 335 metres the third-tallest waterfalls in British Columbia. A bit further down the Sea-to-Sky Highway, we went in search of breeding bald eagles at Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park. Unfortunately, the heavy rain the previous night and the relatively high winds meant the eagles had retreated to a clump of forest just out of sight of even the powerful 60x telescopes set up by local volunteers. We arrived at Whistler in the middle of the afternoon to check into our hotel, Delta Whistler Village Suites. The hotel porters and valet swiftly whisked the car to the underground car park and our bags to our spacious, two-bedroom third-floor apartment . Resisting the urge to snuggle up to the fire in the corner of the room or a bottle of wine and some cards, we braved -10C to wander around the resort as the light faded, stopping in at art galleries, shops and, finally, buying some eggnog for the evening on my request.In the evening, Auntie Doreen cooked up a big lasagne and garlic bread which was followed by the last chocolate pizza remaining from her business venture which she’d recently sold. We watched Sin City 2 as artistic and gory as expected.

Shannon Falls
Shannon Falls

The following morning, we awoke early to queue for tickets for the Peak2Peak gondola pass. However, its opening for this season had to be delayed due to high winds and extremely cold weather so we instead collected Bill and Doreen and tiptoed our way around the semi-frozen Lost Lake Trail, calling in en route to the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Central gift shop, where I was disappointed to find similar products to those in most tacky tourist shops in Vancouver. We had a greasy and very enjoyable burger opposite our room at Boom Burger then visited the Bizarre Bazaar, a Christmas market focussing on craft and featuring an amazing balloon artist and some interesting stalls manned by local kids. Doreen bought gifts including some funky soap. To warm our muscles after a cold day traipsing around Whistler, we had a 30-minute workout in the hotel’s gym and then collapsed into the hotel’s spa jacuzzis and cool outdoor swimming pool, where we gazed up at the stars. In the evening, we played some Trivial Pursuit, which Bill and Doreen had brought from home, and also a game of Queenie, an enjoyable and simple card game where the aim is get through your hand of cards first, play the trump queen or play the largest run of numbers.

Having checked at the hotel reception desk that the Peak2Peak was open, Lauren and I paid 53 CAD each and climbed aboard the gondola which took us up to the slopes. On the way, we had a chat with a private ski instructor who was just embarking on another season at the resort. Although our hotel had said skiing conditions were poor, there were plenty of skiers and snowboarders whizzing down several pistes while snow machines were furiously spraying other slopes throughout the morning We immediately boarded the Peak2Peak gondola and headed across to the Blackcomb slopes, took some photos and then returned to Whistler’s slopes to throw snowballs at each other – always fun – and have a photo by the large Inukshuk sculpture behind the canteen. We found it interesting that these are not traditionally art, but instead crucial Inuit signposts for hunting and navigational purposes and to warn fellow tribesmen of any dangers on the horizon. Returning at 11am, we checked out and headed back in search of the bald eagles at Brackendale. This time, we were in luck and spent half-an-hour strolling along Squamish River and watching a seal frolic in the icy waters and adult eagles hunt for fish and look after their offspring.

Discovering New Zealand: A Five Week Trip

Our time in New Zealand consisted of 5 epic weeks of adventure. We started and finished the trip in Auckland, and spent 24 days of it on a tour of both the North and South islands, with Haka Tours. Wanting to fit as much in as possible whilst relaxing and enjoying what would be one of our final legs of travelling before we return to the UK, we felt a tour was the best way to go. It has to be one of the best trips I have ever done, if not the best in terms of pure enjoyment.

I kept a day-by-day diary of everything we did on the Haka tour, and this is the account. The final part of our time in New Zealand was spent in and around Auckland, with Chris’ family. Day 1 to 10 covers our trip around the North island, day 10  – 24 covers our South island adventure, and then the activities we did in Auckland are covered in the final section, day 26-35.

Day 1 – Auckland

Arrived in Auckland from Melbourne after a super short flight, taken up by watching the predicable but funny Blended, a silly romcom with Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler. Just over an hour after landing and one bus journey later, we arrived at our home for the night, YHA Auckland International, a large youth hostel on Turner St.

Checked into our dorm and went for a walk down Queen St and around that part of town. Struggled to sort out our phones to use here as Vodafone has kindly locked them to only be used in Australia,  but we swiftly forgot our phone woes when we stumbled across Mrs Higgins’ Cookies.  The best cookies in the world (according to one of Chris’ Auckland-bred Sydney colleagues)! Shared an almond & white choc one as well as a double choc.  Indeed pretty good cookies – yummy!! And counteracted by my super healthy chia seed pudding breakfast, so all good. Hmmm… Not sure where the pizza we then had at QF Tavern fits in, but hey, gotta eat!

Back at the hostel we got chatting to our tour and room mates briefly, Paul and Al, before getting an early night to make up for the 4 hours sleep we had the night before.

Auckland sky at night
Auckland sky at night

Day 2 – Auckland to Bay of Islands

Got up at 7.20 in time for a quick shower before meeting our tour guides, Burto and Tom, and other 2 tour members, Katherine and Alessandro. Had breakfast and then set off on our journey to Paihia in Bay of Islands,  up North.  Bumped into a car that pulled right up behind us as we set off from hostel – good start! Still,  no scratches and no harm done. Drove through some beautiful countryside to Paihia – similar to England but with parrots as well  as the expected cows and sheep. Oh,  and a few palm trees.

Stopped off at Mangawhei (pronounced mungafai) to climb a hill and have a look at the bar,  a beautiful straight of sand through the sea. Had a brief history lesson on the origins of different groups coming to NZ, followed by Polenesians, Dutch (Abel Tasman) and then Cpt Cook. Then did a bit of rock climbing on the pancake rocks at Deng Bay on Langs Beach (saw some large Takapu, or Ganet birds), before heading to lunch at Waipu (why poo!).

Mangawhei
Mangawhei

From there we headed onto Paihia, driving in on a lovely sunny afternoon. We had a quick visit to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds,  where the Maori and British treaty was signed.  We then headed back to Saltwater Hostel, our home for the next 2 nights and where Chris and I have been lucky enough to get our own room as that’s what they had available 🙂

We are off for dinner on Russel across the bay shortly, so looking forward to that and to exploring Paihia more tomorrow – the whole group has signed up for a fishing trip in the morning – something Paihia is supposed to be very good for. Hopefully we’ll catch some dinner!

Russel by night
Russel by night

Day 3 – Paihia

Went to Russell for dinner last night. It’s a nice ferry ride across.  The town is small and very quiet although it apparently used to be famous for its debauchery. Tried 3 places for dinner that were all closed or not serving food as it’s still not quite peak tourist season. On our 4th attempt we got lucky and ended up eating at The Wharf restaurant opposite the ferry pier.

This morning we went on our fishing trip with Blue Sea Charters. We paid $100 each and were out from about 9 until 12.30. It was great fun – a sunny morning with calm seas. I caught 5 red snapper, although none of them passed the minimum size test which allowed us to keep what we caught. Alessandro also caught a baby kingfish that we threw back, as well as Burto’s bastard cod that got the bends! Overall we ended up with a good amount of fish to keep, which the boatmen skillfully filleted for us and that we’ll be enjoying for dinner shortly. After fishing we headed to Jimmy Jack’s Rib Shack for lunch where I sampled the yummy ribs, before some of the others and I  took a drive to the local Hanuka waterfall, and Chris explored the town a bit further.

Catch of the day!
Catch of the day!

Day 4 – Paihia to Auckland

Our fish dinner didn’t disappoint last night. We followed it up by heading to the pub next door to our hostel wherea couple of the guys entered a pool competition and the rest of us played Around the World darts.

After breakfast this morning we left Paihia to start our journey back to Auckland,  stopping at a few places our way down the West Coast (we drove up the East Coast). First off,  we visited the small town of Kawakawa, home of the Hunderwasser toilets, voted the best public  toilets in the country, as well as an interesting brickabrack/antique shop where we all signed the proud owner’s guest book.

From there we headed to Arai te Uru South Head lookout,  where we had a great view of the sand dunes across the Tasman sea.  We then went on to look at Tane Mahuta (Lord of the Forest), the largest tree in New Zealand,  standing at 51.5 metres high . It’s around 2000 yeasts old and has a girth of 13.8 metres. We also had a wander around a few other kauris including Te Matua Ngahere (Father of the Forest), which with a girth of 16.41 metres,  is the widest tree.

We’ve just stopped for a late lunch at Dargaville,another small town that had a tiny local produce market on. Now on our final leg back to Auckland. It’s 4.30pm and we should be back around 7 to check back in at YHA Auckland International before we get some more food. The weather has been pretty drizzly today but the landscape is still beautiful and a lush green,  with lots of baby lambs, calves and interesting birds about.

Arai te Uru South Head lookout
Arai te Uru South Head lookout

Day 5 – Auckland to Whitianga

Got back to Auckland last night and just went to a local food court for some cheap dinner before getting an early night. This morning we met with extra people joining our tour group – a couple and another girl from Melbourne,  a girl from Adelaide, and a guy from Ireland. After an induction we headed South in our new group of 11.

First stop was Tairua, a small town where we had a half hour break and bought some tasty pies and muffins from a nice bakery. From there, we headed to the first highlight of the day: hot water beach, on the Coromandel peninsula. This beach has a tiny section where lava is close to the Earth’s surface,  creating hot water. So hot in places, that we could actually see it boiling. We hired some spades between us and with the expert guidance of Burto, we dug ourselves a giant hot pool. We created one trench wall blocking the hot water off from the sea, and then created another closer to the sea, which the cold sea water was in. When complete, we created a few gaps in the first wall so that the hot water could run into our cold water and make a lovely pool. We then made another trench closer to the area again and repeated. It seemed like hard work at the time but it was definitely worth,  when we got to soak in the lovely hot water. Before heading off, a few of us also waded out to a nearby rock and collected a few delicious green mussels to eat.

From there , a few of the guys went kayaking and the rest of us did a fantastic impromptu stop at Purangi Estate Winery,  where we got to listen to the merchant Danny’s  never ending quick quips and jokes as he served up his delicious produce. We tried a good selection including port, chardonnay, lemon gin, limoncello, and various flavoured liquors such as plum, boysenberry (half raspberry,  half blackberry), tamarillo, and the deliciously sweet feijoa.

Feeling a little merry, we set off again and made our way to Cathedral Cove. We did a lovely half hour walk to the cove itself,  through the shrubbery and forest. Once at the beach we had a wander through the large rock tunnel, met up with our kayakers and a couple of the braver lads did a jump off a rock in the ocean – the first of 5 tour jump challenges. We then went back the way we came, feeling a bit nippy in shorts and ‘jandles’ as it started to drizzle. It’s been a fun filled day and we’ll shortly be arriving at our accommodation for the night,  Turtle Cove, at Whitianga (pronounced ‘fitianga’). Currently 6.35 pm. Think we’ll all be pleased to get some dinner!

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Cathedral Cove

Day 6 – Whitianga to Waitomo

6 of us in the dorm last night and the beds were very comfy. We managed to work with the 1 bathroom we shared,  too. Pre-dinner we cooked up the mussels from Hot Water Beach. They were very good.  We headed to a local pub for dinner for $10 burgers, which were good but Chris and I headed back for an early night as Chris’ back was playing up and it was difficult to hear anything on the end of our big table. Got a great night’s sleep though.

This morning I really enjoyed making our own carved bone pendants,  at Bay Carving in Whitianga. Roland,  the German owner,  took us through how to shape,  polish and shine the different pendant shapes and it was very relaxing – reminded me of making pottery. I made a fish hook and Chris made a fern, both out of cow’s shin bone.  As is tradition, you can’t put on a necklace that you own the first time round, so we put them on each other.

From there we explored a couple of places down the coast. Otama beach was fantastic and rose my suspicions that New Zealand could be better than Australia.  It is a mix of black and white sand that is completely smooth,  with  an estuary running through it and rolling hills dotted with sheep surrounding it. We also visited Opito beach,  just along from there, and then Matapaua Bay,  before heading back to Kuaotuna for a delicious lunch at Luke’s Kitchen. From here, it’s about a 4 hour drive to our next overnight stop, Waitomo, so time for some music and a snooze.

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Otama Beach

Day 7 – Waitomo to Rotorua

Waitomo is a very quiet place. We stayed at Kiwi Paka and unfortunately missed out on the local Curly’s Bar as it was booked out by a Kiwi Experience group.  Still,  we were fine eating at the bar of our accommodation and getting quite an early night again.

This morning we went to Waitomo’s main attraction, the caves via Black Water Rafting Co. Chris’ back isn’t good so he did a dry tour and I went on Labyrinth.  We donned wetsuits,  boots and helmets and went tubing through ‘2 dog’ cave.  The whole thing took about 3 hours but seemed much shorter. It involved a small waterfall jump,  a mini race at the end which my team won (extra chocolate fish for us!) and a bit of walking through the water, which was the trickiest part as you couldn’t see where you were putting your feet on the rocky ground.  The guides explained that glow worms are actually maggots and they glow when their food is fermenting. Glowing poo! We had one section where we linked onto each other’s tubes and floated along with our torches turned off, with all the glow worms on the roof above us. It was like being on a magical Disney ride,  but of course all real and much better!

We’re now on our way to Rotorua, the Maori capital of New Zealand and a geothermal hot spot with lots of thermal pools and apparently the accompanying sulphur smell. We have zorbing and luge options this afternoon but not sure I’ll be doing either. This evening we have a Maori cultural experience and dinner.

On our way from Waitomo so far we’ve stopped at The Big Apple Café on the highway. Doesn’t look like much but does yummy ice cream and they’re the biggest / cheapest portions ever.  We had ‘kiddie’ cones and these were still 2 scoops,  for $2.50! We then stopped at Arapuni swing bridge which is a pretty nice bridge over the river, maybe 30 metres high. We’ve also been given our tour challenges, which we each have to do before the tour ends. Chris is hijacking phone conversations and at some point I have to find a sheep and have a photo taken bumming it…

Shouldn’t be too long to Rotorua now. It’s only a couple of hours from Waitomo. Sunny day today, which is lucky or the caving would have been pretty cold!

Waitomo Caves
Waitomo Caves

Day 8 – Rotorua to Taupo

Yesterday we arrived into Rotorua and had a drive around town. It’s  surprisingly big after Waitomo, with quite a few restaurants and bars, although apparently it can get a bit rough around the edges at night. The centre is pretty, with a museum, local baths and different hot springs.

In the evening we went to the Mitai Maori cultural ground for a cultural show and ‘hangi’: traditional Maori food.  It was excellent. We watched a traditional war canoe being paddled by warriors,  near the sacred,  cold  thermal pool. Then we watched a greeting by the tribe leader, who welcomed the leader of our 17 nations (an audience volunteer, accompanied by Canadian girls singing). This involved a ‘hungi’ greeting where they touched noses twice. The show involved various song and dance performances by the tribesmen and women, some details about weaponry and examples of training and fights, and finally a haka dance. The particular group we went to see performed their haka for the rugby world cup last time it was held in New Zealand,  so they must be pretty good at what they do!

After all this we enjoyed our hangi feast,  washed down with a couple of bottles of white wine. The food included local sweet potatoes,  roast potatoes, chicken,  lamb,  stuffing and other goodies, followed by chocolate log, toffee pudding and of course, pavlova.  After eating as much as we could we made our way back down to the stream and thermal pool to have a look at some more glow worms,  before heading back to YHA where we spent the night. 3 bed dorm this time: Chris,  Alex and I. Pretty basic but fine.

Mitai Maori cultural show
Mitai Maori cultural show

This morning it was quite  an early start for Hobbiton – time to visit Lord of the Rings!! We got the bus there and on both legs of the journey our driver managed to keep up his weird and wonderful ramblings. Apparently he has a degree in imaginationology, knows that everything is the opposite to what we believe, and insisted that geologists are lying to us and that any movement of the ground is caused by dragons hiding beneath us. On the way back Chris and I kept ourselves entertained with an ipod music guessing game,  interesting as he was.  Hobbiton itself was good. It’s situated on a sheep farm (but no chance for the challenge just yet) and the countryside is lovely again. We walked around the village, taking lots of photos of hobbit houses and having a look inside some of them. None of them are made up as proper houses inside,  however the green dragon pub is real and we each had a complimentary drink there. The cider went down nicely.

We then all met back in Rotorua and had lunch at the Fat Dog – huge menu and some $10 lunch deals with average food.  From there we’ve been exploring more of the local thermal activity along the 2 hour drive to Taupo. First off we had a quick look at Pohutu Geyser from the road; the largest geyser in NZ. We then went for a look at Waiotapu pools before having a wander around Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland,  which has the largest surface area of thermal activity  of any hydrothermal system in the Taupo Volcanic Zone. It has some pretty amazing pools including a bottomless lake covered in steaming, stinky sulphur, a champagne pool with a multitude of colours across the water, and another that is a bright sickly lime green. The water is 100°c so visitors must strictly stick to the provided walkways.

The sun was heating up by this point and it’s not a massively pleasant combination with the wafts of sulphur fumes,  so our next stop at a thermal spring was very welcome. We made an all important stop at a liquor store on the way and enjoyed ginger beer as we bathed in the murky waters by the she of the road,  all the while keeping our heads above the surface so as not to catch meningitis. Certain parts of the current were cold and others super hot, but there was a gorgeous balance in between. We’ve also just made a quick stop at Huka Falls. Only around 3 metres high but with an impressive amount of water pouring over it and it’s a stunning blue colour. People do kayak over it but it can be dangerous.

We’ll be arriving at Taupo (pronounced Toe-paw) shortly for a quick tour of town and lovely showers in our accommodation.  We have 2 nights at  Blackcurrant Backpackers and will all be heading out for dinner together again, before going to a local pub quiz that’s supposed to be pretty good. Tomorrow, Chris and I are doing the Tongariro Crossing walk with Anthony,  a liverpudlian turned high wickhamer who’s on our tour. The rest are skiing, sky diving,  playing golf, or enjoying the local boats and bike rides.

Hobbit house!
Hobbit house!

Day 10 – Taupo and Tongariro Crossing, Wellington

Yesterday we completed the Tongariro Crossing.  It was an early start. We got picked up at 5.35 am and Anthony’s friend who’s currently living here came with us, so there were 4 of us in the end. In total it took us 6 1/2 hours including a couple of short stops. The first part was pretty easy and then there were some steep steps up, however that part all had wooden boardwalks and steps. The final ascent to our highest point, the red crater at around 1800 metres,  was walking up paths and rocks rather than a man-made walkway. We weren’t too lucky with the weather for that part and it was very windy, drizzly and cold.  I was glad to have a beanie and ski gloves! Both the Tongariro and Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom) summits were closed but we wouldn’t have fancied it anyway in the weather conditions we had.

The descent started with sandy powder and rocks, past the Emerald Lakes,  across a flat expanse covered in snow, and then round to thin paths winding down the other side. By this point the cloud had cleared a lot and we had some beautiful views. In front of us, the mountain sides were covered in shrubbery of reds, orange and gold, and beyond that the vast expanses of lakes spilled out as far as we could see. The sun reflected off the snow at our feet, turning it a glistening white, and smoke from the various sulphur holes in the hills rose out to meet the rolling clouds. Finally,  we had about an hour walking through a green,  shaded forest,  which made for a serene finish as the birds and stream moved around us.

I was especially glad to have forked out the $15 to hire boots.  It was wet, snowy and gravelly in parts and I saw others with very wet shoes. One girl went up in black canvas pumps and was limping at the end. The bus ride there and back was a bit over an hour.  I failed to stay awake on the way back! The walk was definitely worth it and I was surprised more people didn’t do it. We were lucky that the track wasn’t too busy but apparently in summer it gets very crowded.  Other people in our group took up options to go skiing,  play golf,  sail on the lake and bungy and skydive.

We got back into Taupo around 4.30pm which gave us a couple of hours to chill out and do some washing before everyone had a barbecue together in the evening.  We then went to Mulligan’s in town for a pub quiz and a good boogie to some classic 90s tunes.

The Tongariro Crossing was worth the effort for these views
The Tongariro Crossing was worth the effort for these views

This morning we left Taupo for our long drive to Wellington.  It has taken us all day to get there – nearly 12 hours,  but I think probably 5/6 of those are driving time.  Shortly after leaving we pulled up at the side of the road for a jump off a rock into the lake,  which Chris and a few others did. From there we drove along Desert Road,  where we got some great views of the Tongariro crossing and both summits.  The weather has been lovely and sunny all day today. We then had a quick toilet and coffee break at the National Army Museum at Te Mata Toa, near a large army base.

For lunch, we headed to Taihape (‘Thai-happy’), which is the gum boot, or welly, capital of New Zealand.  We got into  the local spirit with our very own gum boot throwing challenge on the local throwing field. I somehow managed to come first out of the girls,  and Chris beat all the lads except Burto, our guide.  We had lunch at a cafe in the town called Soul.  The brie, pumpkin and bacon salad I had was great.

Next stop was Mokai Gravity Canyon where there was the option to do a flying fox or canyon swing.  Chris did  the latter with Katherine. They walked out onto a bridge above the canyon, got strapped into  a suspended chair and were dangled in the air through a gate that opened on the bridge, before free falling just over 50 metres and then swinging through the canyon. Four different groups went on it from our tour and the look on everyone’s faces when they first dropped was one of pure terror and helplessness.  Still,  everyone really enjoyed it and the footage taken was great.  Tom, our trainee guide, even dared to go upside down (well he wasn’t really given much choice). Burto, who has done it many times, floated down on his back, cool as a cucumber. We were at the canyon around 3 hours so it was a while given I wasn’t doing anything. It was fun to watch though and the sun stayed out for us.

Just passed through the town of Bulls where the whole town uses little puns on the word bull. The bank has a ‘bank-a-bull’ plaque, ‘consta-bull’ is on the police station,  and Subway has ‘submerge-a-bull’. Then went through Levin where we jumped out for 15 minutes to have a play in thekids’ playground. It’s really big and pretty awesome! We should get into Wellington by around 8 tonight and have a full day there tomorrow where we’re free to explore the city.

Gravity Canyon
Gravity Canyon

Day 12 – Wellington to Kaikoura

On our first night in Wellington we headed to Chow for dinner, which served a good range of Asian food. We also had cocktails before in The Library,  an adjoining bar that was very cool. Both were on Courtenay Place, a go to for lots of bars and restaurants.  We stayed in the YHA in Wellington such is my favourite hostel out of the ones we’ve stayed in – very central and lovely things like plug sockets in lockers and a free hairdryer in the bathroom 🙂

On our full day in the city yesterday,  I started off with most people in the Te Papa national museum,  whilst Chris went to a chiropractor to double check his back, which is now a lot better. The museum is well known and rated.  It had a good mix of displays and lots of interactive exhibits. There was a section on NZ animals,  earthquakes (Wellington sits right on a fault line) and lots on Polynesian culture and history/present day in NZ. I had a couple of hours there but could have spent longer. Before meeting everyone for lunch I had a quick look at the harbour around the back of the museum.

We headed out of the city to Chocolate Fish Café for lunch,  after dropping Sabrina at the airport. The food was very good and although there was a bit of wind (apparently nothing for Wellington) it was nice and sunny so we ate outside by the seafront.

In the afternoon Chris,  Tom,  Paul and I went to the Weta Cave (wetas are large,  native NZ crickets) whilst the others went to the botanical gardens.  Weta have produced costumes and effects for loads of different films including Lord of the Rings,  The Hobbit, District 9, Iron Man,  The Avengers,  Elysium, Avatar, The Chronicles of Narnia etc. We got to watch a 20min film on the company’s background before having a tour of the workshop. We were really lucky to get a quiet day and it was just the four of us on the tour. We saw how props are made and got to hold one of the guns featured in District 9. We also saw artists and work and saw loads of other props such as helmets, swords and costumes from films. There were also models used in films including Gandalf, Gollum, Trolls and the life size girl from Avatar. It’s all very top secret so strictly no photos allowed on the tour of the workshop area.

Scarily realistic ... Weta Studios
Scarily realistic … Weta Studios

To finish off the afternoon we drove to the top of Victoria Hill for a look over the city and all the houses perched on the thin mountain strips between the sea. We then had a couple of hours to wander around town. We headed to Raglan Roast for their amazing coffee and then wandered down the quirky Cuba St and the other more high street-style shopping area. Wellington seems quite a bit more exciting than Auckland,  but is still a small city. In the evening we headed to Monsoon Poon, another yummy Asian restaurant around the corner from YHA, before playing a few games of jenga at Black Dog Brew Co (both on Blair St). We were them heading to Mish Mosh but  unfortunately the bouncer wouldn’t let Chris in flip flops,  even though he wasn’t the only one wearing them.  We headed back to the hostel but others were out until 1.30.

Today,  it was  an early start as we left the hostel at 7 to get the 3 1/2 hour ferry to the South Island. We spent most of the journey playing cards and took in some of the views of Marlborough Sound. From the ferry we had a brief stop in Picton to grab some lunch at the yummy Picton Village Bakkerij, a Dutch bakery. The weather was pretty rainy coming off the ferry but it started to clear as we moved through the vineyards of the Marlborough wine region.

It was lovely and sunny again as we pulled into Yealands winery. They fully offset their carbon footprint using a specially designed building and won the award for the best Sauvignon Blanc in the world last year. They have exports all over the world.  We watched a short film on the history of the estate before tasting a few of their wines and then driving up to a hill on the estate overlooking the vast expanse of vineyards running right to the sea and white cliffs across the bay.

The wine knocked us all out briefly as we got back in the bus. We were quickly awakened when we stopped at The Store at Kekerengu. This is a beautiful roadside cafe with a large open field at the back that spills out onto a rocky beach and the sea beyond. From there we continued our drive through the rolling hills and into Clarence Valley and over our 3rd fault line of the South Island, with snowy mountains rising on the horizon. We then reached Sandy Bay,  with its grey, sandy streaks running across the bluey-green sea. Fur seals basked on the rocks and we walked up Phau Stream to get a really good look at some pups floating in small pools. Burto tapped on a rock with a stone and one came right up and hopped on the rock to look at us. We’re just at the end of seal season now so once again excellent timing for the trip. They start to appear from May and apparently in the peak winter months you can see hundreds on the rocks.

Yealands Winery... pet chickens
Yealands Winery… pet chickens

Day 13 – Kaikoura to Christchurch

Last night we stayed at Dusky Lodge in Kaikoura. The hostel had a pool, jacuzzi and sauna so I enjoyed some time having a soak before we had a barbecue of sausages,  steak and prawns.  It was really good and nice to have a chilled night.

This morning we’ve been swimming with dolphins through Dolphin Encounter.  We got all dressed up in wetsuits including boots and hoods as the water was pretty chilly.  We saw quite a few of the dusky dolphins that they have on the boat out. The first place we stopped off at, the dolphins swam off as soon as we jumped in the water,  so we didn’t see any then.  However we stopped off in two other spots that were excellent. There were loads of dolphins,  maybe up to 10 that I saw at once, swimming all around us as we squealed and made other noises to try and keep them interested.  They can be found at Kaikoura all year round and are known to be a particularly playful and inquisitive species. They grow to between 165-195cm and have a lovely grey and white colour. I hired a GoPro underwater camera there and filmed some good footage of the dolphins,  for $59. We were in pretty deep water and didn’t see any other creatures other than a couple of tiny jellyfish, but they also have a variety of other marine animals in the area,  including blue whales and sperm whales, orcas, hectors (the smallest species of dolphin), basking sharks and great whites. Fiona and Anthony who are also on our trip went whale watching instead and saw a large sperm whale. On the water’s surface when we were in our boat, we saw a couple of the largest albatross floating around (they have the largest recorded wingspan of any bird in the world at 3.6 metres), as well as grey petrels. Kaikoura is a hotspot for wildlife as it is a meeting point for a warm and cold current, which churns up crustaceans.  It’s a massive feeding ground!

After we warmed back up we had lunch in town at Tiki Takeaway,  which was voted as having the best fish and chips in the South Island and the second best in NZ this year. I had grilled blue cod which was nice. We didn’t end up trying any crayfish (Kaikoura is Maori for food-crayfish) as it was  expensive at around $60 for half of one. We’re now on our way to Christchurch where we get to stay in the original Haka-owned lodge. The drive there is about 2.5-3 hours but we’ve just had a halfway stop at Cheviot bakery, where most people had an ice cream. It’s pretty cold, I had a ginger slice 🙂

Beautiful Kaikoura
Beautiful Kaikoura

Day 14 – Christchurch to Lake Tekapo

The Haka Lodge in Christchurch didn’t disappoint. Chris and I luckily bagged a double room again and it even had a tv. We got some ginger beers in on the way to the lodge and had a relaxed evening watching the All Blacks vs Wallabies before Chris stayed up to watch Spurs lose to City. This morning we had a tour of Christchurch including some of the spots damaged by the 2011  earthquake. There are whole areas around the city that have had to be abandoned as houses were built either on sand or swampland, which was only realised after the new faultline appeared.  Even going through the centre of the city, there were not many people around and it is very strange, being in a bit of a ghost town. Most of the city centre was closed off for 2 years following the quake so a lot of buildings are still empty, being rebuilt or simply gone.

We visited the CCTV building site, where 115 people were killed when it collapsed. Directly opposite is a memorial of white chairs of all different kinds,  representing the people who died. It was a sobering experience.  There is a new triangular church that has been built in the same area, made out of cardboard.  We happened to arrive as the Sunday morning service was about to start and got to see the choir boys practicing. Unfortunately a man used the timing as an opportunity to go in and steel a lady’s handbag,  right after which a car crashed when we walked back outside and its front bumper came off entirely in the middle of the road.

We also had a look at the cathedral and library sites, both of which have big holes and walls torn off. By the cathedral, the square has been filled with different artworks,  which is a common theme throughout the city to show that people are carrying on and supporting the community. The old-style trams were also running. We finally headed to the container mall area,  where shops have started up again in shipping containers. It’s pretty funky and we used it as an opportunity to start buying gifts and have some yummy pizza at Base. Heading out of Christchurch,  we stopped at the Cookie Time outlet, to try some of the nationally-renowned cookies.  The company originated in Christchurch in 1983. A couple of hours later we made a quick stop in the town of Geraldine, where most places were closed as it’s Sunday.  Chris and I shared a veggie frittata from a local bakery. It was pretty rubbish!

We’re now on the final leg of our drive to Lake Tekapo, our stop for the night. We should be there within the hour, around 3pm. Apparently the accommodation, Tekapo Scenic Motels,  has shoebox dorms but is very picturesque, perched right on the side of the lake. There is a local hot pool spa nearby which we might be able to visit, and then this evening I’m booked on a star gazing tour.  Lake Tekapo is a sky reserve,  where only a certain number of lights can be used so as not to ruin the clear view of the stars. We’ve just stopped off at a couple of photo stops on the way. The scenery is pretty amazing as we now have the Southern Alps rising up in front of us with snow covering the peaks, and then wide fields and rolling hills around us in a mix of greens, browns and yellows.

Memorials at Christchurch
Memorials at Christchurch

Day 15 – Lake Tekapo to Queenstown

We arrived into Lake Tekapo yesterday and stopped at a couple of different places to take photos.  It is an alpine village, which sits on the edge of its 20km long glacial namesake and is surrounding by the Southern Alps. The lake is actually man made,  and it has a wonderfully bright turquoise colour from ‘mountain flour’ falling off the surrounding Ice Age glaciers. We stopped by the church of St John, a tiny chapel right on the edge of the lake, before heading up to the Mount John University Observatory, for more great views.

After checking into our hotel,  we headed to Tekapo Springs, the local spa pools, for a nice hot soak. From there we went to the local pub, the Lake Tekapo Tavern,  for a nice hearty dinner.  Those of us star gazing then headed up the road for our tour with Earth & Sky tours, who took us back up to the Mt John Observatory. It was a good night for it and we had clear skies with tons of stars out. We were given red torches to avoid any white light disturbing the scientists who were doing their research – even the lights in town use special low-level bulbs – and we were also given Arctic-approved jackets to wear.  I’m not sure how cold it was but it was cold, even with the t-shirt,  thermal top, fleece and two jackets I had on. Once again I was pleased to have my beanie and ski gloves to help shield me from the wind.

Our guide,  Anna,  was very knowledgeable and informative. All of the guides had super strong lasers to point out different things in the sky for us. We learnt about the Southern Cross and how to use it and its two pointer stars to find the area of the South star, whilst avoiding the fake Southern Cross to its left. Next,  we looked at the large and small clouds of Magellan, two dwarf galaxies the closest to the Milky Way,  which we could also see really clearly. We spotted Scorpio, Mars just to the right of it and Sagittarius to the top right,  as well as the square of Pegasus and Aquarius just above that, and the dolphin constellation and a beautiful ring of stars.

We also were able to look at a few things through their telescopes including Mars itself,  Alpha Centauri, the brightest of the Southern Cross two pointers which you can actually see is two starrs through the telescope, a star cluster,  another galaxy, the butterfly constellation and the tarantula, an area of gas emissions. The tour was quite expensive at around $170 but it was really good and we were out there for a bit over an hour. There was no moon out and I saw about 6 shooting stars.  Chris didn’t come; he stayed at the pub with a few others. We got back just before midnight.

Photos can't justify the brilliance of Lake Tekapo
Photos can’t justify the brilliance of Lake Tekapo

This morning we say off at 8am and have stopped a few times on our way to Queenstown. We had a photo stop at Lake Pukaki, another beautiful turquoise lake, before heading to the High Country Salmon Farm. We got to feed the salmon for free and you can also purchase different kinds. Next up was my challenge! We drove past a group of Merinho sheep that had been herded into a small pen by dogs,  ready for shearing. Burto checked with the farmers who said we were all good, so the challenge was on. We went over to the field and I jumped into the paddock to try and find myself a sheep.  The first couple got away but then I managed to get hold of one and get a photo.

Keeping on with the sheep theme,  we then drove through a load crossing the road. From there we carried on the sheep theme by visiting the Shrek sheep museum at Tarras. Shrek was a sheep that got lost and was found again having grown a huge wool coat. As a publicity stunt,  they shaved him off on a giant iceberg that was going through at the time. Shrek is now stuffed in the museum, on display along with his wooly coat that is laid out. I had a quick photo with him to carry on the sheep love.

We had lunch at Cromwell. A few of us went to Thai Crom restaurant which had good specials for $12. We then stopped at a large fruit shop before visiting Waitiri Creek winery at Arrowtown, where we paid $8 for some tastings. The wine was good and Jason,  our host,  was probably the most informative wine merchant of all the places we’ve visited. We didn’t buy any, however they were also making Christmas Cake which had been steeped in Pinot Noir that smelt delicious, and I don’t even it Christmas Cake! We bought one for Jackie who we’ll be staying with in Auckland.

From there we headed to AJ Hackett bungy, the first commercial bungy jump in the world. The Kawarau bungy is 43m off a bridge over a river. And I did it!!! I was slightly annoyed at myself for not doing the canyon swing the other day so I decided to go for it. I was shaking and my heart was racing just thinking about it, however Sara and I danced around on the bridge whilst we waiting. This helped my nerves as well as keeping us warm, as it was cold and raining. When it came to my turn I sat on the platform as a guy from Manchester tied a towel around my legs to keep them together and strapped me up with a cord.  I then had to stand up and shuffle to the edge of a platform jutting out from the middle of the bridge.

AJ Hackett Kawarau Bungy!!
AJ Hackett Kawarau Bungy!!

At this point I last my nerve a bit and didn’t jump on the first count of 3. Still,  there is no refund of the $189 after you’ve signed up, so there was no turning back. On the second count of 3 I kind of fell off the edge. I thought I’d jumped forward but I ended up going down feet first. I didn’t feel any whiplash/strain on my back though. Did I enjoy it? Well I definitely found it pretty terrifying standing on the edge. The fall also stops higher than I expected so I was hanging upside down pretty high for a while until I was lowered into the boat. Still,  there was a moment when I was swinging that I managed to enjoy it a bit! I felt a bit sick afterwards,  but am very pleased to have done it! We also got a few tshirt and I bought photos and a video.

We’ve just arrived in Queenstown and done a quick drive around town.  It looks pretty lively. Lots of activities, bars and restaurants. We have a full day here tomorrow and the following morning, so it should be great fun. Chris and I are horse riding tomorrow morning. A bit of a more tame activity to look forward to!

Day 17 – Queenstown to Wanaka

The first night in Queenstown we had pizza at Winnies. We ordered loads of different ones and just shared them all. There was tons to go around. From there we went to The Find bar which did cool cocktails out of teapots.

Yesterday morning Chris and I went horse riding with Dart Stables in Glenorchy, a 45 min drive from Queenstown. We started our ride 15 mins from there in Paradise,  and rode for 1 1/2 hours around there and through different filming locations including Lothlorien from Lord of the Rings as well as other LOTR and Hobbit locations,  and Wolverine and Willow sets. For the most part it was a very tame ride.  There was one point going uphill where my horse went a little strange but they were all very well trained. The landscape was beautiful and we saw both a hare and a wild deer with a bushy white tail. Although the drive there was windy, that was also stunning as we drove along the lake.

Horse riding in Paradise (yes, that is actually the name of the town... and it's not hard to see why)
Horse riding in Paradise (yes, that is actually the name of the town… and it’s not hard to see why)

In the afternoon we went for a wander around town and had a look at the lovely waterfront and botanical gardens. We grabbed a takeaway coffee at Bobs Weigh, which was very yummy. In the evening, we got burgers from the famous Fergburger and ate them back at the haka lodge before watching Anchorman 2 in the lounge.

This morning I went on the shotover jetboat with a few others. I was keen to do this as it’s down a river and you get very close to rocks and spin round.  However in reality it was surprisingly tame and I didn’t enjoy it as much as going on a jetboat on the sea at Sydney Harbour. Everyone else seemed to be a bit disillusioned,  too. Chris missed this activity and chilled out in town. For lunch I went to Brazz pub with Katherine,  Paul and Alex. All the food was good. From there we bought fancy dress costumes for a night out we’ll be having in Franz Josef. I’m going as a sheep,  of course.

After checking out of the lodge, we went up the gondola in town which offers some beautiful views. We also each had 2 go’s on the luge, a mini go cart that you steer and brake using the handlebar.  That was fun and good value at around $13 for two rides. We’re now on our way to Wanaka for the night, staying in the YHA Purple Cow. We’ll be stopping off for a skydive before getting to our accommodation… Enough said.

Day 18 – Wanaka to Franz Josef

So I didn’t want to write anymore about skydiving yesterday as I was pretty worried about it. However as we got closer to Wanaka and drove between the yellow-green hills my fear dissipated as I enjoyed the view. Preparing for the skydive I wasn’t even that nervous, as we watched the safety video and donned our jumpsuits. My guide came out, pretending to be blind as he searched for me in the group. For a second I actually doubted whether he could see which made me a bit nervous again! However it turned out that he and the other skydiving team members were all big jokers.

We got into a tiny orange plane at the rear end and slid backwards along a soft beam. When I realised we were squished in like sardines,  flying backwards and we are told the flight up to our dive of 15,000ft would take 20 minutes,  I could feel my stomach starting to flip again. However the jokes continued in the plane, with Katherine being cellotaped to her guy and me giving my guy fake $10 to find out what altitude we were at. They also pointed out Lake Wanaka, the 4th biggest lake in NZ, Lake Hawea, and the long winding river. As we were going up to 15,000ft, we had to be given oxygen masks for the last part of the ride. Katherine’s guide asked if I had paid my oxygen fee and on me confirming that I hadn’t,  he said ‘oh well’ with a blasé shrug and ‘bye bye’ wave.

Suddenly that was all over and the plane door opened. There were 8 of us that dove in total, 4 on each plane run. We were in the first plane thankfully and Chris went out first. I didn’t see him or Paul, who went second. I just heard Katherine saying how fast they’d gone, and I tried to put up a bit of a fight as my guy pushed my to the back of the plane and I had to get in the banana position with my head on his shoulder and give my cameraman a wave.  Then suddenly we were out! I had a split second of terror as we dropped out and spun around, before I felt the tap on my shoulders letting me know I could let go of the straps and move my arms. I spent the rest of the 200k/hr freefall in amazement as I made gestures at the cameraman, waving,  making heart shapes,  showing my hands with writing on and pretending to swim. The freefall was a minute long but I couldn’t believe how quickly it was over, it felt like maybe 20 seconds.  There was a bit of a jolt when the parachute opened and from there I could talk to the guy as we looked down at the beautiful landscape. As he steered the parachute left and right I felt a bit sick but for the most part it was all wonderful.

As I came in to land,  a sheet was laid out on the ground saying ‘Will you be mine’ and before I knew it Chris was on his knee proposing!! Everyone else was in on it and taking photos and cheering. It was amazing and I got a beautiful diamond and topaz ring as a pre-engagement ring gift,  before we popped open a couple of bottles of sparkling wine to share with the group by the air field. Needless to say I significantly preferred skydiving to bungy jumping and would have done it again. With everything going on and with the wine, I was on a bit of a high!

We had a brief half hour to check into the YHA before we all headed to Amigos,  a Mexican restaurant, for some food and tequila., and cool Mexican hats. We all felt a bit wiped out after the high wore off,  so headed back to the hostel for a reasonably early night.

Skydive proposal!! :) :)
Skydive proposal!! 🙂 🙂

This morning I went to Puzzling World in Wanaka with a few others. It’s pretty awesome. There are various different illusions including a tilted room where your sense of gravity is lost and everything feels weird. There is also a huge maze that we had fun getting lost in. Chris hung around by the lake and had a more restful morning. We’re now on our drive to Franz Josef, which takes about 5 hours but we’ve had a few stops along the way.

We stopped shortly after leaving at an 8 metre bridge over the river, where a few of the guys jumped off including Tom who did it naked! We left the fields full of cows,  sheep and deer and went through forest territory,  where we could see rocks that had fallen on the roads and small waterfall lines caused by faults. We then had to stop for a while by another fall where a helicopter was placing metal being over rocks to stop them falling. Luckily for us, it’s whitebait season at the moment, which only lasts about 6 weeks a year when hundreds of people come down to fish. We stopped at Curly Tree Whitebait Company just outside the town of Haast, to sample a piece of whitebait toast for the bargain price of $9 – it sells around $100 per kg and is considered a delicacy.  We tried one raw then had the fried patty on the toast with mint sauce, salt,  pepper and lemon. It was pretty tasty, plus we got to play with the 2 dogs.

We went on to stop briefly at Bruce Bay, a nice stretch of beach with lots of smooth pebbles that people have written their names on. There was an Asian tour bus there also, so we had another challenge completed as Tom jumped on with them and sung YMCA using the driver’s microphone.

Whitebait Fritters
Whitebait Fritters

Day 20 – Franz Josef to Punakaiki 

Franz Josef is a small town with just two main streets. We stayed there for 2 nights in Chateau Frans and on the first evening we went to the local pub, Monsoon. They were doing $12 backpacker dinners which made for a cheap eat. They  certainly all looked and tasted that way.

Yesterday morning we went on our Ice Explorer tour of the Frans Josef glacier.  This involved getting a helicopter ride up onto the glacier and then walking around for a couple of hours. The helicopter ride was fun and I luckily was in the front both times,  right next to the pilot on the way back. We were given jackets,  boots and crampons to wear on the glacier itself. It took a bit of getting used to but before long we were able to stomp our feet into the ice as we climbed up and down ice hills,  through holes and over a crevice on a bridge.

The glacier is currently in a receding stage and we could see the lines on the rock where the ice used to go up to, however it goes in cycles so it could grow again. At the moment the ice is between 15 and 80 metres thick in different parts. It moves more than any other commercially climbable glacier in the world, with ice moving forward at around 1 metre per day. It was good to walk around. There were some areas with gorgeous blue colours and little streams running through. Above us, the thickest part towered with blue peaks jutting up all over.  We were a bit rushed at the end though as the wind started to pick up so we had to move quicker to get down in the helicopter. It was a bit bumpy on the way back, but still fun!

Franz Josef Glacier Hike... it's hard work being a tour guide on this!
Franz Josef Glacier Hike… it’s hard work being a tour guide on this!

We headed to Eighty Eight in town for Asian food for lunch, which was nicer than the pub the night before. In the afternoon, we headed to the Glacier Hot Pools for a nice hot soak, which was included in the price of our Ice Explorer tour. For dinner we had pizza at the Ice Bar, where we then spent the night having a few drinks, playing pool, playing on the wii and murdering the karaoke. We got a free shot at the start which I got to pour from a gun-shaped bottle, and Chris won the pool. It was the last night for half of our group,  so we also handed out jug fines for various misdemeanours on the trip. Most importantly,  we went out in fancy dress and everyone looked fab. With the help of some white face paint,  a hat and a t-shirt that I sewed cotton wool onto, I went as a sheep in keeping with my sheep theme.

Needless to say there were a few sore heads this morning. First off we drove a couple of hours to drop people at the station to get the trans alpine train back to Christchurch.  On the way we stopped at Mapawika Lake, which had a full mirror reflection of the snowy mountain tops on it. A few of the guys went for a quick dip to wake them up and Jason, the cameraman who’s joined us for the last leg, did some GoPro filming using his flying drone. From there we went on a bridge over Whataroa River where we stopped for a quick view. Unfortunately since Burto was last there they’ve put a  maintenance building up so it’s not quite as good, but still picturesque.

We had a quick bathroom break at Hari Hari, where they had some nice artistic sculptures, before heading to Mountain Jade in Hokitika, a jade factory and shop. It’s attached to a cafe that did amazing pies including a delicious venison one. We also drove through the town of Ross, an old gold mining town where the largest golden nugget in NZ was found in the early 1900s. After being used as a door stop at the local pub it was eventually gifted to the Queen and melted down to be used in the crown jewels.

It was after that when we had to say goodbye to Fiona, Anthony,  Sara, Neil, Julie, Darren and Timberley. We dropped them in Greymouth where they got the train back to Christchurch. The train had some open carriages where you can stand and look out. We then stocked up on supplies for the next couple of days before continuing our journey to Punakaiki. The journey was on a really scenic road along the coast.  We stopped at 9 mile beach and another spot to take photos of the rocks jutting or of the sea, much in the same way as the Twelve Apostles and other formations do on the Great Ocean Road in Australia.  We now have 2 nights in Te Nikai retreat in the middle of nowhere, in our own house. Time for some relaxation!

Perfect reflection at Mapawika Lake
Perfect reflection at Mapawika Lake

Day 22 – Punakaiki to Abel Tasman

Our time in Punakaiki was very relaxed. We had a look at the jutting pancake rocks in town. They’re very impressive. On the first night Alex cooked us tomato penne, which was delicious and authentically Italian. We had fun playing cranium in the house and then all slept in the top level on mattresses on the floor, other than Tom and Burto who were in their own rooms.

Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki. Spot the rabbit...
Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki. Spot the rabbit…

Yesterday I didn’t get up until 10am. It’s the one day when we’ve had a lie in. We had bacon and maple syrup pancakes in our house for brunch and then Alex, Paul,  Chris and I went for a 2 hour loop walk into the village. It went along the river and through the rainforest which is thick and very green.  It rained all day so we got pretty wet. We then had a nice warm drink in the cafe where we met Katherine,  Burto and Al and then drove back to the lodge. On the way we stopped at a small cave. It was dark and I  unfortunately slipped and landed in a puddle of mud. My shoes and trousers got covered. Our lodge was a short walk to a beach so we had a wander down there and I washed my shoes off.  The beach was covered in dark grit but had lots of rocks surrounding it and a small cave also. In the evening Tom cooked us a roast and I had an early night.

Is this the Amazon or Punakaiki?
Is this the Amazon or Punakaiki?

This morning we set off at 8.30 am as we’re driving to Abel Tasman National Park. We stopped at Irimahuwhero Lookout just outside Punakaiki,  where there is a good 360° view of the sea and forest behind it. The thick foliage was covered in fog, giving it a mystical feel. It was still grey and drizzly.  There were a few Weka birds at the lookout that we got to see. They look a bit like kiwis with thick pink feet and shorter beaks. They came up really close in search of food and weren’t very shy, so we managed to get a few photos.

We nipped into Charlestown’s Adventure World for a coffee and then went on to Cape Foulwind where we did a great walk along the coastal cliffs for nearly an hour. The weather picked up and we had some sunshine.  We feed some horses in a field and then made our way to the fur seal colony near the end of the walk. There were lots of little babies out that were very cute. From there we drove on to Hawks Crag where we had a walk along the bridge. This is usually a jumping point but the washer want clear enough to make it safe today,  with all the tanins in it.

We stopped for lunch at a beautiful clear lake and a picnic of last night’s leftovers. There were lots of sandflies but luckily I don’t think I got bitten. We then stopped at another lookout before heading to the town of Motueka where we got some supplies for lunch tomorrow.  We’ll shortly be arriving at our accommodation for tonight, The Barn in Marahau, right at the entrance to the Abel Tasman national park. Apparently the forecast isn’t looking too good for tomorrow so depending on that we may be kayaking,  or we might just do a walk.

Weka
Weka

Day 24 – Abel Tasman to Wellington

The accommodation at The Barn turned out to be pretty nice. We were together in a 6 bed dorm with no bunks. We went for burgers at The Fat Tui which were very good. As it was outside and it was pretty cold we headed back after we’d eaten and played a round of estimation before going to bed.

Yesterday morning the weather was luckily ok so we got the go ahead for kayaking. We had sea kayaks with room for our bags. We also wore wetsuit skirts that hooked over the front of our seats to stop our legs getting wet. The kayaking was a good way to explore the national park for a bit, but it was hard work on our arms! We had a break after an hour at Coquille Bay beach and then continued on for whole longer. We saw a seal swimming around which was great and the sea was an emerald green colour.  For the last bit which was choppiest, Chris and I got out and walked the rest of the way. A few of the others went on and were soaked afterwards.

We ended up at Anchorage and had a couple of hours to chill and try and get warm on the beach there before being picked up in a small boat and taken to Aquapackers, our home for the night just off the beach. It’s an ex-Navy marine boat turned hostel and holds 22 people.  We chatted, played cards, worked out riddles and drank wine. Dinner was a  surprisingly good barbecue.  There were 3 English girls together on board and I was awoken early this morning to the sound of one of them unfortunately being ill due to a medical condition. They ended up leaving early by water taxi to get medical help, but later on we saw her and she was ok.

We left the boat at 8am to make our way back out of the park, this time on foot. The trail was an easy walk of 12k that took us 2hr45 to get back to The Barn in Maharau. The walk is all through forest with lots of silver fems and bushland, with a few glimpses of the beaches, sea and small forested islands just off the shore.  We had some nice sun this morning but it soon misted over and then started to pour down.  Chris and I made it back before then and had showers before our journey continued.

Kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park
Kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park

Day 25 – Wellington to Auckland

Last day of the 24 day tour today! 😦

Yesterday on the drive to Wellington we stopped briefly in Nelson,  which is a nice town. I had a look at the neo-gothic Christ Church cathedral before grabbing a yummy potato from the Spuddy Good Food van.  After Nelson we drove up to Havelock, famous for its green lipped mussels. Unfortunately the mussel place wasn’t open so we settled for fudge at Dellie’s café.  We continued our journey up to the ferry, where the public toilets may not be voted the best in New Zealand,  but they certainly could be! A voice announces that the door is locked and you have 10 minutes to use the loo, before music starts to play. To top it off, the toilet flushes automatically when you wash your hands! The ferry ride back to Wellington was taken up by card games.

We stayed again in the YHA in Wellington,  which is the best hostel we’ve stayed in on the whole trip. This morning, Chris and I went to meet his cousin, who lives here, for coffee at Florendita, before we set off on the drive back to Auckland.  On the way we continued to take turns DJing and stopped first at Levin again,  for a quick toilet break. For lunch it was back to Taihape, the gumboot throwing town. The Soul Café was closed so we went to the Tea Rooms,  a cheaper and more basic option. We happened to see the 16 day tour Haka bus. It’s not as good as Murray!

We drove through Taupo, where Tom dropped his bag at his girlfriend’s,  and then continued driving. I don’t think we’ll get back to Auckland until about 9pm. Chris’ aunt Jackie is then picking us up from the YHA and we have 10 nights with her to complete our New Zealand trip.

Nelson cathedral
Nelson cathedral

Day 26 to 35  – Auckland

Back in Auckland we’ve had a little more of a relaxed time, whilst still seeing lots and having a lovely time getting to know Chris’ aunt Jackie better. On our first day with her, we went for a lovely lunch at a garden centre, followed by a drive around Mission Bay, Helier Bay and Cornwall Park. Cornwall Park is a working farm with sheep roaming through it, and features One Tree Hill at the top, which as the name suggests, is a large hill, with views all around the city.

Cornwall Park
Cornwall Park

We got to explore of a few other things around Auckland like this that you probably wouldn’t see if you stopped by the centre for a couple of days. We visited the beautiful Castor Bay, with its sheltered cove and a fantastic view of Rangitoto Island, jutting out in the distance. Another day, we went a bit further out to Muriwai, which we found to be particularly spectacular, with the views off the cliff down to the beach and all of the gannets hovering off the rocks. The sand on the beach there also appears black, but when you look closely it’s actually a purple colour that glistens in the sunlight. Although the weather was a bit too cool for sunbathing still, we went for a lovely soak in the Waiwera hot pools one day, which had a huge variety of types of pools and temperatures.

Muriwai
Muriwai

Auckland didn’t fall short good places to eat, either. We had an amazing value Indian at Xotic, and went to some gorgeous cafes including Carriages at Huapai, where seating is inside an old train carriage, Brighton Road Cafe, and Go Dutch at Orewa. We also visited the market at Takapuna where we got some delicious breads and cheeses, and even managed to go to the local Epsom strawberry fair at St Andrew’s Church.

Closer to Auckland centre, we visited the museum, which was very good. Although not as interactive as the national museum in Wellington, it had some other exhibitions on the holocaust, New Zealand artifacts and Greek sculpture, which can’t be found in Wellington. The museum is right next to the beautiful winter garden, with its greenhouses and tropical plants, that is worth a look in. We also made it to the zoo, where we managed to see the only kiwis of our trip, as well as other native birds such as the green kea. Finally, another highlight of our visit was attending the Show Me Shorts film festival opening night at The Civic theatre on Queen St (after a cheap dinner at The Shakespeare pub). The theatre is really well done, with a gorgeous stage curtain and a roof covered in stars to mimic the night sky; it’s well worth a visit if there is a show available. The festival we went to is a key part of New Zealand’s small film culture, too, so it was great to be part of something local.

The Winter Garden, Auckland
The Winter Garden, Auckland

New Zealand: 6th October – 9th November 2014

Two days in Melbourne

…Ok, we actually had 4 nights in Melbourne however we spent our first two full days visiting the Great Ocean Road and Phillip Island, leaving us 2 full days for the city.

We were lucky enough to couchsurf again in Melbourne and stayed with a lovely Dutch couple in Richmond. This meant that on our first night, before heading to the Great Ocean Road, we were able to sample some of the Asian food which is on offer everywhere on Victoria St, Richmond, and the Chinese we ended up going to was pretty tasty indeed.

Getting back from our tour on our 4th day, we were very tired, particularly after having immediately visited Uluru before. So on day 5 we spent the morning enjoying the wonderful sunshine with our new Dutch friends on their balcony, before heading out to explore the city. We made a beeline for the Queen Vic market, which was far larger than we expected. After much wandering we managed to find the recommended Market Lane coffee shop to sample the obligatory Melbourne coffee, and we quickly grabbed a lamington from the Fergusson Plarre stall opposite. This was our first and only Lamington in Australia. And it was amazing – possibly the lightest, fluffiest cake I’ve ever tasted. We didn’t quite stop there though. We still had the obligatory hot jam doughnuts to try, so we made our way to the doughnut van for those. Again, pretty tasty stuff.

Lamington time!
Lamington time!

After stuffing our faces we headed back through town, stopping first to explore the state library with its impressive La Trobe reading room, and exhibitions on books and also Ned Kelly’s armour. From here, we just enjoyed walking around the city, highlights of which included China Town, Parliament House, South Bank, Federation Square (where we sampled a delicious gozleme), shops on Bourke St and in the Royal and Block Arcades, as well as the cool Brighton-esque lanes. And of course, the wonderfully quirky Hosier St where we enjoyed watching graffiti artists at work. We made our way home early for a relaxing evening, with some delicious Haigh freckles in hand.

La Trobe reading room,  state library
La Trobe reading room, state library

On our second day, we headed to Prahran Market for breakfast. It’s a lot smaller than the Queen Vic but was more pleasant to walk around. We continued our sweet-themed city tour by sampling a hedgehog cake with the mandatory coffee. Then, we moved further South to visit St Kilda and bought a florentine from one of the bakeries from the famed Ackland St (yep, more sweet things). We enjoyed the even more laid back vibe here as we explored the shops, Sunday market stalls, Luna Park and beach front. We also took a walk down the pier and spotted a couple of penguins hiding between the rocks.

St Kilda beach front
St Kilda beach front

In the afternoon we made our way back to our Dutch friends in Richmond, and their other friends who were visiting for the afternoon. What better way to spend our last afternoon in Australia than to enjoy an outside barbecue at the communal area… To top it off, we were introduced to a new boardgame – Ticket to Ride – and also took a walk to a nearby bridge above the Yarra River, where we had an excellent view of the city at nighttime.

Melbourne at night
Melbourne at night

And that’s the end of nearly 6 months spent in Australia. We leave with fond memories of the places we visited and people we met.

Melbourne: 1st-6th October

Great Ocean Road and Phillip Island: Wildlife Tours

We decided to squeeze in a two day tour with Wildlife Tours during our time in Melbourne, as we didn’t want to pass up the chance to visit the famous Great Ocean Road. It was a cool morning when we were picked up from St Paul’s Cathedral. As the day progressed, the wind and showers were a bit of a shock after our heat exposure in Uluru, but this didn’t ruin the amazing views along the coast.

We spent the first day driving along the world-renowned road, stopping off to soak up the atmosphere of the Twelve Apostles, Loch Ard beach, Cape Patton etc.

The famous Twelve Apostles
The famous Twelve Apostles

We also headed to Maits Rest rainforest walk, where we spotted one of the local carnivorous snails.

Even the snails will eat you in Oz
Even the snails will eat you in Oz

A highlight was searching for koalas near the roadside. We were able to view a few quite close up. We also fed local parrots that enjoyed using us as perches. I even got an extra little present from one of them – lucky me!

Not so cute when you get pooed on!
Not so cute when you get pooed on!

We spent the night in Torquay and enjoyed a delicious barbecue with our group, including a taste of a scrumptious kangaroo steak. In the morning we had a quick look at the famous Bells Beach and the different shopping outlets of the famous surf brands that are from there.

We then caught a scenic ferry across to Cape Woolamai and made our way to the wonderful Maru Wildlife Centre. For $2 per tub of feed, we had a great couple of hours hand-feeding kangaroos, wallabies, lamas, horses, donkeys and birds.

After a quick stop at Panny’s chocolate shop we them made our way to the beach. It was rugged and beautiful. Between the seaweed we ended up playing spot the washed up animal: in total we stumbled across a seal, an albatross, two puffer fish and a penguin.

Beautiful beach but a few not so beautiful surprises hiding amongst the seaweed
Beautiful beach but a few not so beautiful surprises hiding amongst the seaweed

Finally, we got to see some live penguins at the Phillip Island parade. After searching for them in the scenic rocks above the crashing waves, we made our way to the show stands and were lucky enough to get the best seats on the house, with penguins just a metre or so in front of us as theywaddled up onto the beach and off into the shrub to find their burrows. They were indeed worth going to see, and made a great trip even better.

The stand from where we watched the penguins... No photos allowed of the penguins themselves
The stand from where we watched the penguins… No photos allowed of the penguins themselves

Definitely one to do!

Tour: 2-3rd October’14

It’s a long road to Uluru

After much deliberation we decided to go ahead and book The Rock Tour from Alice Springs to Uluru. It was with mixed feelings that I left Sydney, having come to really enjoy my job and meet some wonderful people, but at the same time we were both excited to move onto the next adventure. Plus, I was looking forward to seeing an old work friend who came with us on tour. So after 4 months in the same place we packed our bags again for the road and said goodbye to our beloved Delilah, our landlady’s cat, before boarding a plane to Alice Springs.

The first thing that hit us when we arrived was the heat…literally. Alice Springs was hot – at least 35 degrees. We used this as an excuse to head into town and sample the local ice cream (which was delicious) before climbing to the top of a hill overlooking the town. Other than that there’s not much to see in the town itself, and come the end of the tour we felt we’d made a lucky escape in opting to fly back from Ayers Rock Airport.

View of Alice Springs from the hill
View of Alice Springs from the hill

After a wander around, we headed back to Toddy’s, our hostel, for a quick dip in the pool and then in the evening we headed next door to the local bowling alley/ karaoke bar / pizza / Indian joint. The bowling complex turned out to be the best thing in Alice Springs and we had a great evening on the all-you-can-bowl deal whilst listening to kids’ poor attempts to cover pop tunes on the kareoke.

We woke early on day 2 to meet our tour and took the day to drive down to our bush camping spot. On the way we stopped at Kings Canyon and had a walk around it. Although it was too hot to take the menacingly steep main stairway, we still walked for a couple of hours and climbed above the canyon. It was an impressive sight but not compared to the other attractions to come, and the heat and constant buzzing flies took their toll. The flies turned out to be a constant theme of the trip and the repellant we bought in Alice Springs seemed to make no difference. I wasn’t too bothered by them but the fly nets you can buy looked good.

Kings Canyon
Kings Canyon

The journeys of the day all seemed to take double what our guide said, too, despite no other cars being on the road. Later on, we stopped to hunt for witchety grubs (think ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here’), the first of which was gulped down in two seconds flat by one girl in our group. We managed to get a better look at the second, and even gave it a little prod before another brave soul took a bite.

Finally, we stopped to get firewood that we then used to cook dinner, before crawling into our swags – canvas sleeping bag-style mattress holders that we curled up in, with our sleeping bags inside them. Despite my fears nothing crawled on me in the night and they weren’t too uncomfortable to sleep in. The best bit was gazing at the brilliant star-covered sky in the middle of the night.

Our camp for the night
Our camp for the night

On day 3, we got up early to continue our drive and visited Kata Tjuta, a formation of large boulder-like rocks near Uluru of special significance to the local Aboriginal groups. Following this and a bite to eat, we visited the Uluru cultural centre which was well set up to give an insight into the Aboriginal beliefs and why Uluru is so meaningful.

Climbing Kata Tjuta makes for a nice view
Climbing Kata Tjuta makes for a nice view

In the evening, we got our first good look at Uluru itself as we watched the sun set over it from a distance – a perfect opportunity to enjoy a few ciders and take a few photos as the rock colour changed in the fading light. That night, we went to a local campsite and enjoyed a small spot of star gazing and ate toasted marshmallows before taking up our positions in our swags around the fire again.

Capturing ever-changing colours of the Uluru sunset
Capturing ever-changing colours of the Uluru sunset

It was on our final day that we managed to get up close to Uluru, when we completed the base walk. It took just over 2 hours and allowed us to see some of the original Aboriginal drawings on the rock, some of the formations matching Aboriginal stories, and other sites of significance such as the watering hole. You don’t appreciate how big it is until you’re up close. We did see some people climbing it however the local cultural centre clearly explains why locals prefer you don’t do this. It is not the safest of climbs, in any case.

Basewalk! Uluru has many nooks and crannies to explore
Basewalk! Uluru has many crooks and crannies to explore

Our Verdict

We debated with our tour group whether we’d recommend visiting Uluru and came to the conclusion that it is worth seeing if you have the time and money. It can be an expensive trip but the colours of the rocks in the changing light were beautiful and it’s incredible to think you’re still in the same country as East Coast Australia. It’s definitely a different experience.

It would be better to visit in the winter months, as even on our visit at the end of September we had temperatures in the high 30s and the trip involves a lot of walking/climbing without shade. One girl on our trip became very ill with sunstroke on our 3rd day, so it’s wise to drink lots of water.

We are also a bit dubious about going on our tour but the group was fine and the guide was good, so we enjoyed everything. The driving times were long so if possible it would probably be best to just fly in and out of Uluru rather than bother with Alice Springs, perhaps on a self-drive tour.

Tour: 28/9-1/10’14

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